Streetcar education underway in D.C.


D.C. streetcar comes to a halt on the test track along South Capitol Street in Anacostia. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

It will be months before passengers board the District’s first modern streetcar line, but travelers along the H Street/Benning Road NE corridor are beginning to get an education in accommodating these new vehicles.

The District Department of Transportation is using a Hi-Rail vehicle along the streetcar tracks as part of its testing program for the system. The name isn’t a reference to the height of the test vehicle, but refers instead to its ability to travel on highways or rails, using either rubber tires or steel wheels. Metro and CSX operate such vehicles on their tracks in the D.C. region.

DDOT said its tester will be simulating the movements of a streetcar, checking clearances, halting at the streetcar stops along the route and triggering the streetcar-only traffic signals. Transportation officials hope to get the first real streetcars on the line for testing in December. There are three now at the test yard in Anacostia.

This new phase is good for more than checking the equipment. It also will give drivers, bikers and pedestrians an idea of what it will be like to share the roadway with the streetcars.

The last streetcars in D.C. were taken out of service a half century ago, so for most travelers there’s going to be a steep learning curve. The streetcars will share a lane with other traffic.

So DDOT and the Department of Public Works also are engaged in an education campaign designed to remind drivers to obey the parking rules. You can’t double park, or be sloppy about parking in a designated space when one of these big vehicles is rolling down the lane. We saw during testing at Anacostia that the streetcar brakes work just fine, but they can’t go around a car. The cars will have to go around them.

Traffic enforcement officers are issuing warning tickets to vehicles violating the parking rules, DDOT said. In December, they could become real tickets, and the vehicles may be towed.

Car drivers aren’t the only ones who must get used to the streetcars. This will be an issue for delivery trucks as well.

If the streetcar program is to deliver on its promise, the education — and enforcement — programs will be lengthy ones.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.

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Robert Thomson · November 21, 2013