D.C. streetcar opening still months away, but plans develop for next phase in Anacostia

Robert Thomson
Columnist May 7

Streetcars are running along D.C. roadways this spring, but you won’t be able to ride until at least this summer.

District Department of Transportation officials have set no timetable for the end of streetcar testing and the start of passenger service along H Street and Benning Road NE, but several things still need to happen before service starts: Another streetcar must arrive from the West Coast manufacturer, the line must pass various levels of testing and certification and the car barn must be complete.

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. View Archive

The barn, at Benning Road and 26th Street NE, will serve as an operations center and maintenance facility for the first two miles of what the District government hopes will become a 22-mile streetcar network over the next several decades.

DDOT Associate Director Carl Jackson said the sixth streetcar should be in the District by early next month. Testing continues along the line. Crews recently checked the coordination between the streetcars and the traffic signals they will have to pass.

The department hopes the car barn can be complete by August, Jackson said.


Riders at Reagan National Airport, above, will no longer see parked train cars forming a bridge to the opposite platform — they’ve acquired a real walkway. Removing the cars lets Metro finish track crossover work with the Blue and Yellow lines. Meanwhile, the H Street streetcars might open this summer. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Meanwhile, the District has reapplied to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a $20 million grant that would cover about a third of the cost of streetcar line through Anacostia. There are hundreds of applicants for such grants nationwide, and this is the third time the DDOT has sought one.

Jackson said he was hopeful that revisions in the application, including details on how the streetcar line might stimulate economic development in Anacostia, would make the third time the charm. DDOT also is working with the feds on an environmental assessment of the Anacostia project.

The line would connect Firth Sterling Avenue and Howard Road, near the Anacostia Metrorail station, with the foot of the 11th Street Bridge. There are several possible ways of doing that. A streetcar route could follow an old railroad track bed or go through the streets of historic Anacostia.

The idea of a streetcar line through Anacostia, which goes back to the mayoral administration of Anthony A. Williams, has gained both supporters and opponents over the years. Jackson said DDOT officials have been part of many community meetings on the latest proposal.

Thomas Perry, DDOT’s program manager for streetcar engineering and construction, said designing and building the new line would require at least three years.

Getting through Anacostia is just one issue facing this line. Another step still in the planning stages is getting it across the local span of the new 11th Street Bridge over the Anacostia River to the Navy Yard/Capitol Hill side, where it could link up with other parts of the future network.

‘Train bridge’ departs

The “train bridge” that for several months allowed Metro riders to walk through its open doors to pass from platform to platform has been removed from the Reagan National Airport station.

The parked rail cars were replaced recently by an actual bridge over the tracks between the platforms. Getting the cars out of there allows Metro to proceed with the rebuilding of track switches at the station.

The goal of the switch project is to allow northbound or southbound trains on the Blue and Yellow lines to cross over the tracks in either direction. Today, those movements are limited.

Riders can spot the problem if they stand at the ends of the airport station platforms and view where the middle tracks go — or don’t go. A northbound train heading for the District can’t be shifted via the middle track to what is normally the southbound side, and a southbound train can’t transfer to what is normally the northbound side.

Metro managers want more flexibility to handle disruptions. “The current configuration means that if, for example, we have a disabled inbound train at Crystal City, the single-tracking around it would run all the way from Braddock Road to Pentagon City (with delays exceeding 30 minutes),” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said in an e-mail. “With a double crossover at National Airport, the single tracking zone would be much shorter — National to Pentagon City — and more like 15-20 minute delays.”

Having access to the middle, or “pocket,” track from both of the main travel tracks also will make it easier to turn back trains from the airport station if the need arises. Track configurations at Mount Vernon Square, Silver Spring, Grosvenor-Strathmore, West Falls Church and Stadium-Armory allow for similar turn-back operations.

The switch project is scheduled to be done by early summer, Stessel said.

The train bridge and the metal walkway that has replaced it were installed as temporary measures during an elevator rebuilding project.

While the train bridge was in place, several riders asked me why Metro had chosen to park a couple of the newest cars in the fleet, rather than sidelining a couple of the oldest.

I thought Metro might have preferred that arriving travelers see the new cars, rather than the crummy old ones. But Stessel said the reasons were more practical than aesthetic.

The new cars were available for the temporary mission and could have been moved back into service if needed. The oldest cars, the 1000 series, are considered the weakest design to sustain crash damage. So they can be used in only the middle of a train set. (They are scheduled to be replaced by the 7000 series rail cars, which begin arriving this year.)

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