Another delay for H Street/Benning Road streetcar line

October 9, 2012

It will be more than a year now before these streetcars come out of storage. (DDOT)

At this rate, it’s hard to see a streetcar rolling down any D.C. street before 2014.

That’s the only conclusion to draw after city transportation director Terry Bellamy told a D.C. Council panel Tuesday that a Northeast neighborhood’s move to block plans for a car barn could add up to 90 days — or a lot more — to the current official estimated opening date of “late 2013.”

The proximate reason for the latest delay is an application to city historic preservation authorities seeking landmark status for Spingarn Senior High School and its grounds, which is where city officials are planning to locate the car barn that is a prerequisite for the line’s opening. Should the Historic Preservation Review Board grant the Kingman Park Civic Association’s request later this year, the process of reworking the plans could add many months to the opening date. Should it decline the application, the delay would be less dramatic. 

“It all depends on how we get through that whole process,” Bellamy said.

The less-proximate reason for the delay is the largely seat-of-their-pants process by which D.C. officials, both elected and not elected, over the course of several administrations, went about bringing the streetcar to fruition. The plans have been sweeping, but the planning has not been so sweeping — a distinction drawn Tuesday by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

“We’re sort of doing this on the fly,” Cheh said, responding to Bellamy’s testimony on the streetcar system’s status. “This is soft and amorphous and unsatisfying.”

Bellamy acknowledged things may have been pushed hastily, driven more by political machinations than by the realities of planning and engineering the system: “What we’re doing now is taking a step back and doing it the right way — doing the hard planning, doing the environmental work and doing the community outreach.”

That’s the right thing to say at this juncture, but it also does little to address the frustrations of those who consider the 2.2 miles of shiny track along H Street and Benning Road and the three unused streetcars in storage and wonder, how did we get into this?

There’s hope, however, that the process might improve as the city moves forward with plans to build a 37-mile streetcar network. Bellamy and aides said work continues to progress on new lines, including an extension of the Benning Road line to Minnesota Avenue and perhaps beyond, as well as an Anacostia line to serve Ward 8.

Read more about the latest developments from the smart folks at Greater Greater Washington and DCist.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · October 9, 2012