District prepares H Street/Benning Road for arrival of streetcar service

Robert Thomson
Columnist April 27, 2013

The D.C. region’s transportation planners often say they want to give travelers more choices. In transit, those options include rapid bus service in dedicated lanes, light-rail lines and streetcars. All the major jurisdictions have such transit projects in various stages of development, but the one likely to appear first is the D.C. streetcar along H Street and Benning Road NE, north of Capitol Hill.

The District Department of Transportation’s schedule calls for putting cars on the tracks for testing in the fall. Here’s what to expect as the program works through its last phases of construction and testing.

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 corridor

Parts of the H Street corridor look like an urban movie set where the production crew has set up props so it can shoot exterior scenes. There’s a nice-looking framework for something the neighbors know isn’t there: streetcars. The roadway was rebuilt and the tracks were laid in 2011, but now, nothing runs over them but the rubber tires of cars, buses and trucks.

The city did this on purpose, putting in the tracks when it got the money to rebuild the roadway under its Great Streets program, so crews wouldn’t have to tear things up again when the streetcar program was ready to roll.

The District’s first active streetcar line in the 21st century will run two miles, from H Street NE just outside Union Station through the busy Atlas District to Benning Road at Oklahoma Avenue. A car driver could cover the ground in about 10 minutes in light traffic.

Road work

The roadway construction completed in 2011 amounted to about 80 percent of what was necessary to prepare for the streetcars, DDOT says.

This month and continuing into June, work will focus on what the project calls the Western Turnaround, at the top of the Hopscotch Bridge over the train tracks north of Union Station. Crews will create a streetcar platform for loading and unloading passengers. In the area, the streetcar will be able to reserve direction for its eastbound trip.

I (Eye) Street has been converted from one-way to two-way traffic between Third and Fifth streets. That pattern will continue till October. Other changes were made in the area’s traffic patterns, and parking restrictions were imposed.

A similar track installation must be created at the east end of the corridor.

Residents and commuters also will notice utility relocations at Third Street, 12th Street and the 23rd to 26th streets zone at the east end.

New signals will need to be installed to control the flow of traffic and streetcars. There will be a new traffic signal at 23rd Street. The streetcar signals will be on separate poles at intersections where the streetcars change lanes: Oklahoma Avenue; 23rd to 26th streets; the Starburst intersection where Benning Road and H Street meet Florida and Maryland avenues and Bladensburg Road; and Third Street.

Later this spring, an electrical substation to power the streetcars will be installed on the southwest corner of H and 12th streets NE.

In one of the final phases of the preparatory work, electrical wires will be hung from new poles along the route. These overhead wires will supply the power to the streetcars.

While most of the roadway reconstruction was done during the Great Streets project, some final work will need to be done on the streets and adjacent sidewalks where the new tracks are being installed. Each of these mini-projects will require occasional lane closings along this important east-west route.

Testing phase

Even if the construction phase remains on schedule, there will be a lot to test and certify before passenger service begins. As the last phases of construction wrap up in early fall, the red, white and yellow streetcars are scheduled to make their appearance along the corridor. The District has three streetcars in storage and three more on order.

The streetcar tests will check out the equipment, but they also will help the operators get familiar with the traffic patterns. Other travelers — car drivers, delivery truck drivers, pedestrians and cyclists — also will have a chance to get familiar with the presence of the streetcars.

Adding a fixed-rail route to city streets is very different from adding a bus line. When a streetcar encounters an obstacle — human or otherwise — it can’t just go around it.

More than a century ago, when the streets of Brooklyn were crisscrossed with such tracks, its pedestrians went through a similar learning phase. Brooklyn’s National League baseball team adopted its nickname to honor the life-sustaining skills of these “trolley dodgers.”

DDOT, perhaps hoping the nickname “Nationals” will need no updating, is promising a “robust public information and safety-awareness campaign” before, during and after the launch of streetcar service, which could come late this year.

Merchants may need to revise delivery times or use alleys. The city plans to step up enforcement of parking rules.

Double-parked cars would be among the obstacles to the streetcar’s progress.

Yellow-and-black signs warn cyclists to use caution near the tracks. DDOT suggests they avoid using H Street as a primary cycling route and instead travel along nearby G or I (Eye) streets.

The service

Two sets of tracks are embedded in concrete strips, one on the north side of the asphalt roadway and one to the south, so streetcars can beheading east or west at the same time. The railways are part of the regular lanes. (And you thought the new L Street bike lane created a travel challenge.)

There will be eight stops: Union Station, H and Third streets NE, H and Fifth streets NE, H and Eighth streets NE, H and 13th streets NE, Benning Road and 15th Street NE, Benning Road and 19th Street NE, Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue NE.

The streetcars, built to carry 156 passengers, are eight feet wide, or a bit narrower than local buses. They are six feet longer than an articulated bus, the big, bendy kind that Metrobus operates.

Decisions about some key aspects of the service have not been announced. Those include the fares and the hours of operation.

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