District’s streetcar line finally has its first car

After all the planning and jackhammering and track-laying, what the District’s new streetcar line needed was a streetcar. And there it was.

“It’s coming. It’s coming,” said Dawn Verdugo, 38, who grew up in San Francisco and imagined being on hand to see that city’s first cable car in 1873. “That’s a big deal.”

Contrails from jet planes passing overhead intersect the National Museum of Art in Washington, Thursday morning, April 17, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Many doubted the moment would arrive. But Friday night, workers fit together a massive green steel ramp, loosened the winch on a flatbed truck and slowly lowered a 66-foot-long Czech-made streetcar toward H Street NE. As the first wheels touched the steel track at 9:45 p.m., a half-century after the city’s last streetcar stopped running, spectators cheered — and Verdugo, a chemist who works in the serious Washington world of national security, was giddy. “There’s a train! We get to take a train!”

Anwar Saleem, standing near a new apartment building just down from a newly opened Giant in a stretch of the District that has been transformed by an influx of people and money and marketing, looked at the newly arrived beacon of progress in a place few believed in just a decade ago.

“This is a good holiday gift. It’s dressed up in red and white, just like Santa,” said Saleem, who worked with three mayors to help bring the streetcar to a 2.4-mile stretch of Washington running east on H Street from behind Union Station, then along Benning Road to Oklahoma Avenue.

Kenneth Williams, who grew up in the District and spent the past six months working on drainage pipes and other construction along the line, recorded it all on his cellphone. “I’m part of history,” he said. “This is a rough neighborhood. It’s good they’re putting something good over here.”

City officials are planning to extend the H Street/Benning Road line west to Georgetown and east to the Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road Metro stations. Doing so would tie one of the nation’s most iconic and wealthy neighborhoods to a more mixed swath of the capital where a rush of development coexists with poorer neighborhoods and double-digit unemployment.

Unlike so many grand plans in transportation — often dependent on federal funding that doesn’t materialize — District officials said they’re setting aside enough of the city’s own money to make it happen. Officials say they are committing about $400 million for the initial line to reach Georgetown.

They are also planning for a broader 22-mile network of streetcar lines that could expand to a total of 37 miles and crisscross the city. They are going through the federal environmental-approval process to be ready to use federal money if it comes.

“People who may be skeptical, when they see them running they’ll realize this is for real,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said in an interview next to the gleaming car. The mayor has struggled to launch his reelection bid amid an investigation into his previous campaign. But the streetcar was a more cheerful topic, and he engaged in easy banter with the beaming engineers and workers who put it onto its track. “Who’s got the key? Crank it up!” he said.

The skeptics weren’t convinced.

“Lots of people are excited; I’m just not one of them,” said Karin Rutledge, who has lived for two decades in an 1890 townhouse near the rails at 3rd and H streets. “I don’t see why something that’s old technology, like a streetcar, we need to cheer about.”

Rutledge commutes by bus to her federal job, and for years the streetcar project made her morning ride unreliable, she said. Her home is “becoming enveloped” by new apartments and the rail line. Now, she fears, side streets will be packed with delivery vehicles pushed off H Street and traffic will become further snarled when the streetcars and traffic get in each other’s way.

“The bus system needed to be beefed up before this was ever considered,” Rutledge said. “The amount of construction, and destruction, that has gone on for years certainly doesn’t seem worth it.”

Now that years of talk about the streetcar have actually brought one, said Phil Toomajian, another neighbor, it’s time to deal with some of the problems that inevitably come up when big things happen.

“There are going to be some growing pains. But now that it’s here we can have them, and that’s a tremendous place to be,” he said.

Terry Bellamy, who heads the District’s Department of Transportation, said the growing city has no place to put new roads. He said it needs new ways to get people around, and city residents have proven to be enthusiastic adapters, as with Capital Bikeshare.

“Three years ago, when we brought out the bicycles, people said, ‘Will they ride the bicycles?’ ” Bellamy said. And they have, millions of times, he said. “The community wants to have options.”

As the streetcar made its day-long journey from an Anacostia test facility to H Street, Bellamy and his crew relied on carefully calibrated engineering plans — and a dash of superstition — to ward off any Friday the 13th surprises.

“We’ve been throwing salt over our shoulders. And garlic in our pockets — we’ve been doing that all day,” Bellamy said.

The new car made a last-minute detour from its planned route to avoid a slowdown and ended up scraping a piece of electrical equipment against the 11th Street Bridge. The piece of carbon known as the horn, which slides along electrical wires to make the streetcar move, was swapped for a new one. Crew members said the bridge was fine.

When the streetcar arrived at H Street, Verdugo jumped up to pose for a photograph with one of the reasons she decided to move to H Street. Her husband, Jack Stejskal, 32, peered at the streetcar — the source of so much hope or hype, depending on who’s talking — and couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm.

“It looks like the Circulator,” Stejskal said — the gussied-up red buses that convey tourists and commuters around the city. He likes the idea of darting up and down H Street to new restaurants.

But he’s withholding his embrace until the streetcar actually starts letting riders come aboard.

“It’s not really good,” Stejskal said, “until it runs.”

Officials said they have safety testing ahead of them, and they’re still trying to figure out fares, how best to coordinate with Metro buses along the route and how to outfit the streetcars for SmarTrip cards. They estimate the cars will be carrying passengers by the first quarter of 2014.

 
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