Outgoing Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and his transportation officials acknowledged early Wednesday what had become increasingly obvious in recent days: that they would not be able to launch streetcar service by year’s end.
Gray said that they were “exceedingly close” but needed to address a series of “final recommendations” from the District’s State Safety Oversight Office and that the streetcar would open sometime “early in the new year.”
By Wednesday evening, “early in the new year” had an official date: the week of Jan. 19.
“Safety continues to be our top priority. And while we know that the first day of service is going to be a great day for District residents, we don’t want to rush for the sake of rushing,” Gray said in a statement. He added that the city was looking at the third week of January as “the target for getting H Street up to full speed.”
As recently as the weekend, Gray administration officials insisted they were still pushing to meet their latest self-imposed deadline to open the long-delayed 2.2-mile line on H Street and Benning Road NE.
Opening under Gray’s watch would have meant truncating the District’s pre-revenue operations plan, a dry run meant to catch any safety issues before people board. District Department of Transportation director Matt Brown said there was an agreement to shorten that effort to 14 days, just enough time — if all went smoothly — to open before Muriel E. Bowser (D) is sworn in as Gray’s successor Friday.
But Gray and his transportation officials have repeatedly sparred with safety oversight officials in recent months over the start of the streetcar. And the Federal Transit Administration, in a set of safety recommendations last month, noted deep concern about the swift timetable.
“The schedule should be updated to allow for the entire 30-day [pre-revenue operations] prior to start,” the FTA safety team wrote.
The H/Benning line was not an FTA-funded project, so the District can disregard its recommendations. But city officials hope to receive future federal funding, which gives the FTA some leverage. The District needs the approval of the city’s safety oversight office, which is housed in the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services and was set up with FTA oversight.
Asked whether the federal safety officials were pleased with the District’s delay, an FTA spokesman said: “FTA continues to be in communication with DDOT and DC FEMS, and to review their submissions as we receive them in response to our Dec. 11 letter. . . . The final decision on when the streetcar will open is between DC FEMS and DDOT.”
Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy and DDOT spokesman Reggie Sanders would not discuss any outstanding issues.
A spokesman for Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul A. Quander Jr. said that he had “no comment on the streetcar issue” and that the state safety office “is not positioned to deal with the media.”
Gray had hoped to oversee the public opening. “Launching the DC Streetcar system has been a top priority of my administration and of the District Department of Transportation,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to see that goal through to completion as we wind down.”
Officials had high hopes when they unveiled ambitious plans to bring streetcars back to the District after a more than 50-year absence.
Plans called for a 37-mile system crisscrossing the city. But in May, the D.C. Council dramatically scaled back planned future funding for the system. In October, Gray offered a scaled-down version of the program, saying his administration would push to spend about $1 billion dollars for a much smaller transit network.
The project was pushed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. It continued under Adrian M. Fenty. Gray officials made it one of their priorities. And now Gray is handing the reins to Bowser.