At work in the busy kitchen of Impala Cantina y Taqueria, Troy Hickman warily agrees to spare another minute or two of his life to talk about the streetcar.
Forgive him, though, if he doesn’t bother to turn off the mixer churning the chili-chocolate doughnut dough to do it.
“I’d love to see a streetcar,” Hickman says flatly over the loud whir. But when he opened the H Street Northeast restaurant last year, it wasn’t even a factor. “You sink $200 million into something, you’d hope that they can make it work. But at the same time, you know. . . .”
For months, the D.C. streetcar has rolled along its 2.2-mile track through his neighborhood, clipping cars, enduring minor bumps and near-misses. Cyclists have slid into its tracks.
But then, after six months of testing, with empty streetcars lumbering across the thoroughfare on busy weekend nights, the cars vanished altogether. After a February flash fire and news of cracked rails, the city finally hit pause on that irritating experiment.
Hickman sympathizes with the H Street business owners and residents rallying to get the streetcar back on track, literally and metaphorically. He’s not against it, per se. “I just couldn’t care less at this point,” he shrugs.
For much of its 10-year non-history, the D.C. streetcar has wooed supporters with its promise of Metro-free passage and riled up opponents with its mounting price tag. But now, a growing faction of the city is aligning with a third camp: the totally-over-it one.
Launch the streetcar, kill the streetcar — it doesn’t matter. After a decade, it all sounds like crazy talk. We’re as banged up emotionally as the string of dinged cars left in the darned thing’s wake. Can we talk about something else now?
“I totally understand the fatigue,” sighs Gabe Klein, who led the District Department of Transportation under former mayor Adrian Fenty before moving in 2011 to join Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. Now back in Washington, he counts himself and other streetcar advocates among those feeling the burnout.
“The sad thing is that it isn’t actually that complicated,” says Klein, who now consults with businesses and other cities on transportation, including streetcar systems. Cracked rails aren’t unusual, he says. But “we’re in a place now where there’s this hysteria about every little thing.”
The over-it sentiment seemed to crystallize this month, when Transportation Director Leif A. Dormsjo suggested that the project might not launch at all. Then, late last week, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) seemed to signal that it would.
“Unfortunately,” Klein says, “H Street has been a little bit of a comedy of errors” — a Shakespearean farce that began unfolding when streetcar construction overlapped with a hugely annoying and years-long (but ultimately successful) project to improve the neighborhood’s streets and sidewalks. Then there were those painful public tests that never helped the thing inch closer to a start date.
Says Klein: “I vacillate between thinking all this is funny and thinking this is sad.”
Meanwhile, Seattle has a streetcar. Portland, Ore., has a streetcar. Even Atlanta has a streetcar. Oh, and until 1962, Washington had a streetcar.
But continue building this new network, argue the streetcar haters, and we’re on the hook for who knows how many millions more. Pull the plug, supporters say, and Washington would be a national laughingstock, the city that blew nearly $200 million on a 2.2-mile train to nowhere.
It’s one big, rolling quagmire.
Marc Scribner, a Washington-based transportation policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is squarely against streetcars, here and elsewhere — particularly, he says, when buses would do. Pulling up the tracks, he argues, “would be cutting your losses.”
But what about the infrastructure, the cars and the steel tracks that took forever to install? Maybe we could hoodwink some more provincial city into taking it off our hands. “Pawn it off on someone else,” Scribner half-jokes.
But even if the H Street line begins operating, it could qualify as a failure, say some neighborhood residents. They want the city to commit to connecting it to other parts of town — which would mean 20 to 35 miles of additional track. (If you think there’s fatigue now. . . . )
“We’re first and goal. You don’t punt right now,” says Phil Toomajian, who has owned a home in the H Street neighborhood since 2009. “I think it’s really a silly suggestion to say we should walk away from this.”
Lots of folks on H Street commute to jobs in Northwest, he says, so to work, the line has to at least climb the H Street bridge. Even better if it goes all the way to Georgetown.
A member of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Toomajian acknowledges that there has been a fair amount of jerking around. (Though he’d prefer to call it “delays.”)
Still, he says, “I don’t know anyone in the neighborhood who isn’t excited about the streetcar, who isn’t looking forward to riding it, who doesn’t appreciate that it’s already provided our neighborhood with a lot of positive new developments.”
Perhaps he’s never sat in Ditmar Becton’s chair at Smokey’s Barber Shop.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Becton mutters as he finishes the last cut of the day at the H Street shop, where he’s a barber-stylist. “I don’t really know the specifics of where it’s gonna go.” Right, now, though, “it doesn’t go anywhere.”
He doesn’t pause to look up as he trims the hairline of the customer in his chair. “I’m pretty sure they’re planning on expanding it, but it’s just a lot of work.” Besides, he almost stepped in front of it one night during testing. And what about cyclists and drivers? And neighborhood kids? Gotta think about their safety.
Klein, who launched Capital Bikeshare in Washington and rallied for the city’s vast network of bike lanes, hasn’t given up on streetcars. He’s seen his fair share of haters.
“You always have people who almost want to see you fail,” Klein says. “Honestly, I think the sooner they just open it, the better.”
If not, can we at least find something else to talk about?