D.C. streetcars now on track to be in use by 2013

June 29, 2011

The noise and dust of road construction along H Street NE are finally fading away as the District finishes installing streetcar tracks near Union Station, but it may be 2013 before residents get a chance to ride.

Construction on the project began in 2008, part of the city’s $1.5 billion plan to resurrect its streetcar network, encourage redevelopment and connect communities east of the Anacostia River with Union Station. City officials had hoped to have some streetcars operational by 2012, but they revealed Wednesday that they need more time.

“I think it’s just really a matter of . . . the construction time frame needed to complete all of the work,” said John Lisle, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation. “2012 was the ambition . . . But, given what’s left to be done, that’s not going to be realistic.”

The news of the change was first reported by WTOP.

The H Street tracks are part of the first leg of a streetcar system officials hope will eventually stretch 37 miles across the city.

The construction has meant months of disruption. Following his election, Mayor Vincent C. Gray met with busi­ness­ owners from the H Street corridor to discuss their complaints. He later set the end of June as a deadline to finish installing track foundations, new sidewalks and light poles, Lisle said.

Nate Mines, owner of Dynamic Wellness, a natural medicine shop in the 400 block of H Street, said the construction blocked parking spots and the entrance to his building, driving away many loyal customers.

“They kept stopping and starting,” he said. “Once you start something, you need to complete it. The breaks in between were very, very time consuming.”

The block between 13th and 14th streets was noisy Friday, with bulldozers, trucks and workers laying the final pieces of steel track and gray cobblestone sidewalks.

This last segment has been moving along quickly, said Justine Choe, a cook at Tony’s Carry-Out at H and 14th. Workers dressed in neon green vests partially fenced off the store’s entrance during lunchtime to lay down new sidewalks. Only six people waited in line for food that day, although Choe said lines normally snake out the door.

The same work along Benning Road to Oklahoma Avenue was completed last year.

DDOT is seeking a contractor to install the rest of the infrastructure: overhead wires, power substations and maintenance facilities needed to keep the cars running, Lisle said.

The department has put out requests to contractors this summer, he said, and the work is expected to start next year.

“We don’t anticipate it will be anything close to the work that was done for the current project,” he said.

If all goes smoothly, six 66-foot-long cars will be operating down H and Benning by 2013, Lisle said. The city bought three streetcars several years ago — now being stored at Metro’s Greenbelt rail yard — and hopes to buy three more this summer, he said.

For Mines, the arrival of the streetcars will bring new opportunities for the business he has been operating for seven years. He runs health fairs at his medicine shop, which he hopes to advertise to streetcar riders.

“I’m always for innovation and cutting-edge things.” he said. “When I got here seven years ago, this place was empty. I’ve seen a lot of change over time. With the streetcars, I really want to upgrade.”

Meanwhile, in Anacostia, the city has run tracks along Firth Sterling Avenue Southeast from Suitland Parkway to South Capitol Street. The community is discussing possible ways for the tracks to be extended to the 11th Street Bridge.

This year, DDOT has held three public meetings in Anacostia — the most recent one Wednesday night — where residents helped identify 10 potential routes. They discussed the possible effects the routes could have on the historic neighborhood and surrounding environment, said Circe Torruellas, the project manager of D.C.’s streetcar planning, who headed the meetings.

DDOT plans to make a final decision on the best route and prepare a request for construction bids in the fall, she said. No date for that construction has been set.

More than 200 miles of streetcar tracks once covered the District, but the last of them were abandoned in 1962 as the city turned to buses. The city is committed to seeing their return, Lisle said.

“There is going to be real progress over the next two years,” he said. “We are getting very close.”

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