D.C.'s Plan for Anacostia Trolley Runs Into Delays

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

The District's much-anticipated streetcar project is running behind schedule, pushing plans to run a red-and-gray trolley in Anacostia from late this year to sometime in 2012, officials said.

The demonstration project is part of an ambitious plan to create a billion-dollar network of streetcars and rapid buses in the District in the next two decades. The city bought three streetcars more than two years ago for $10 million. But the cars have been in storage in the Czech Republic as construction of the line has been delayed while officials have debated where the Anacostia segment should run.

The warranty on the cars expires in July and will have to be renewed. And the cost for the additional storage of the streetcars and related equipment is estimated to be $860,000, which would come from interest the city accrued on $16 million it set aside for the project.

The project is among several streetcar and light-rail systems planned for the Washington region. Streetcars and light rail are growing in popularity across the country because they are seen as an environmentally friendly catalyst for urban development. Streetcars have been successful in several cities, including Portland, Ore., where the system is credited with revitalizing a section of the city, and Seattle. Last month, Arlington County approved $3 million for planning and preliminary design of a 4.7-mile streetcar line to run along Columbia Pike into Fairfax County. Maryland is considering a light-rail Purple Line to connect Bethesda and New Carrollton.

But the District's project, which had its groundbreaking under then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), is the furthest along. The initial Anacostia segment was chosen because it was an easy route to work out inevitable bugs in the system and because Anacostia was among the last communities to get Metrorail, officials said. Streetcars, a form of light rail, share lanes with automobiles and ride on rails built in existing streets. Power comes from overhead electric wires. Officials had hoped to have cars running by the end of the year.

But in a recent letter, District Department of Transportation officials asked Metro to pay the Czech streetcar manufacturer, Skoda-Inekon, to warehouse the cars until January 2010. (Metro routinely acts as the procurement agent for local transportation agencies.) The letter, from former interim director Frank Seales Jr. to Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., said "the delays in the construction of the streetcar line have necessitated that WMATA delay the delivery of the streetcars and long lead items."

Transit groups said they were disappointed to hear of the latest delays.

"We want to see the streetcars brought to the District as quickly and cheaply as possible," said Jason Broehm, who works on transportation issues for the Sierra Club. "Overall, the communication with the public has not been great on this project."

The most recent delay is the result of a route change. District officials had planned a 1.3-mile segment between Bolling Air Force Base and the Anacostia Metro station. But D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and several community representatives argued that it made little sense to run a city-funded line on a route flanked by a freeway on one side and a military installation on the other. In November, officials announced they were dropping the southern portion to Bolling and extending the route north through downtown Anacostia, along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE to Good Hope Road. The new route would begin at a maintenance facility to be built at Firth Sterling Avenue SE and South Capitol Street.

But laying track on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue will require the city to coordinate streetcar work with other streetscape improvements there, and that could complicate the project. Eventually, city officials hope to extend streetcar tracks across the 11th Street Bridge and connect to the H Street and Benning Road corridor in Northeast, where streetcar tracks are also being installed.

DDOT's chief engineer, Kathleen Penney, said planners thought the Anacostia project would go more quickly. "It's been more complex than anybody could possibly have envisioned," she said. DDOT spokeswoman Karyn LeBlanc said the city anticipates having the line "running in 2012."

"It's never good news to hear that something is still light-years away," said Charles Wilson, president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. At the same time, he said, residents can "continue to voice their concerns." They worry about additional development in downtown Anacostia and how streetcars will fit into increased traffic, he said.

The city awarded a $25 million contract in December to Fort Myer Construction Corp. to build the operations and maintenance facility for the cars and to install tracks for the first phase, from Firth Sterling and South Capitol Street to Suitland Parkway. Construction was supposed to begin in mid-February and take up to 18 months, according to construction project officials. While that work was underway, the city planned to award a contract for a second phase, installing tracks through Anacostia to Good Hope Road.

But the District and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority have been squabbling about permits, resulting in delays, construction project officials said.

DDOT spokeswoman LeBlanc disputed that characterization, saying there is "nothing unusual" about the city and utilities working out the permit process. "There's a long process before getting shovels in the ground," she said.

Meanwhile, the Czech manufacturer is conducting monthly maintenance on the streetcars. They are powered up and operated for about 200 yards on tracks in Ostrava, then put back in storage.

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