How many streetcars will H Street get?


Three D.C. streetcars are already built and in storage. (District Department of Transportation)

There is quite a bit of difference as far as D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is concerned. Wells, who represents the area containing most of the trackage of the city’s first streetcar line in 50 years, thinks two cars could mean the difference between success and failure for the trolley endeavor.

His concerns were aired toward the end of a D.C. Council hearing Thursday on the financing and governance of the planned 37-mile streetcar system, after a District Department of Transportation contracting official suggested that the H Street/Benning Road line might open in 2013 with three cars instead of five.

That would be because the city decided in January to cancel an $8.7 million contract award to build two new streetcars after the award was protested. The solicitation is now being restarted. (The city has three complete streetcars in storage.)

Why do those two streetcars matter so much? Headways.

That’s the amount of time passengers will have to wait between trains. With five cars, the line will be able to manage approximately 10 minute headways, which Wells and other experts consider to be often enough to offer a level of convenience sufficient to attract riders who might otherwise drive, take the bus or not travel at all. With only three street cars, headways would become, well, like riding Metro on the weekend, which we all know is not at all convenient.

With long headways, explains Wells aide Charles Allen, “It’s not a transportation connection. It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.”

The good news is that, after a series of delays, DDOT director Terry Bellamy recommitted at the hearing to having the streetcar running next year. His spokesman, John Lisle, later said that while the department is now “in a very tight window” for ordering the cars, it hasn’t given up on having the full complement of five cars ready for the launch.

“We’re still moving forward under the assumption that we’re going to have five cars when we launch,” he said. “If we find out they’re not going to be ready, then we’ll adjust.” In any case, he made clear, funds are sufficient to order the fourth and fifth streetcars.

As for the rest of the hearing, which was focused on questions about how the full streetcar system will be funded and who will run it, let’s just say many questions remain. The delays in the H Street line’s debut and the trolley ordering slipup seem not to have given streetcar backers much reason to support letting DDOT continue to run the program indefinitely. Rich Bradley, the influential executive director of the Downtown BID, testified among others that a separate board or authority ought to run the streetcar system.

He has a sympathetic ear in council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chair of the transportation committee, who says she will move legislation posthaste establishing a task force charged with coming up with a administration and funding structure in a matter of months.

“I think we have to act right away to put into a place a governance scheme and financing scheme,” Cheh said Thursday evening. “We can’t just keep ad-hoc-ing our way through it.”

While Cheh said she’s focused on the bigger streetcar questions, she said she sympathized with Wells’s more parochial concerns about the H Street line.

“It’s vital we make the first installment of this very excellent,” she said. “If we have one lame, little car running every 45 minutes, it’s not going to be impressive.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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