The District is in a final dash to open its long-delayed and much-maligned streetcar project to passengers by year’s end, the city’s top transportation official said.
But Leif A. Dormsjo, seeking to avoid the “arbitrary deadlines” he railed against after taking over as the transportation director in January, said the “facts on the ground” will remain the final arbiter and more delays are possible.
“I think we are on track to be wrapped up here by the end of the year,” Dormsjo said. “There’s been a lot of improvement. . . . But at the end of the day, the only thing that counts is getting the system open safely and responsibly, and that’s really our guiding mission right now.”
Dormsjo, a former top Maryland Department of Transportation official, was hired by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in part for his much needed transit expertise after years in which the city’s effort to build and run a rail line was hampered by a shortage of people with such experience.
In a mix of emotions perhaps unavoidable in a project that has seen four mayors but no passengers, Dormsjo expressed a sense of real optimism and deep discontent that the process, even since his arrival, has taken as long as it has to get as close as he now says it is.
“I’m not involved with transportation to tell people, ‘Coming soon!’ ” Dormsjo said. “I really want to get this thing open, and to not have it open is frustrating. I’m feeling people’s sentiment on this one.”
After years of missed deadlines, design and construction problems, and an inefficient hurry-up-and-slow-down development pattern on the 2.2-mile line running east of Union Station on H Street NE and Benning Road NE, communicating the source of optimism to a skeptical public is itself a challenge.
“It’s hard to translate that we’re in that home stretch. To the naked eye, we’re running the trains in a test mode, as we have been for quite some time,” Dormsjo said.
But what’s different, he said, is that the intricate and voluminous final safety testing and documentation process has hit a new level of productivity.
In that process, the streetcars’ safety certifications, other system checks and numerous operating procedures are reviewed and must be approved by the State Safety Oversight Office, which was formed under the guidance of the Federal Transit Administration. Only after a final dry run known as “pre-revenue operations,” in which the system runs for three weeks as it would with passengers, and final approvals are given can real service begin.
Immediately after becoming director, Dormsjo said he asked a top safety official whether the streetcar was ready for a final walk-through of safety documentation, a “page turn” in which problems are identified and solutions are agreed upon. Dormsjo said streetcar officials thought they were ready, but the safety official made it clear that they weren’t.
Dormsjo called in an outside industry group to identify the system’s flaws, including pedestrian safety concerns and streetcar doors that scraped against the platforms. Over months, a number of fixes and workarounds have been developed. Now, Dormsjo said, safety officials are going through that “page turn.”
“The fact that we’re punching though this documentation with the fire department is really the important new feature,” Dormsjo said. “I’ve had to prove to them that I value their independence and we’re not skipping any steps, and the request I’ve made of them is just to be ready to handle the workload, because a rail activation is a very labor-intensive process.”
Dormsjo added that his team must “maintain a high degree of productivity over the course of several more weeks to get these things buttoned up.”
As that process has continued, other policy questions are being clarified. Dormsjo said the streetcar will have a temporary free-ride period. How long that will last has not yet been set, but some systems have remained free for year, he said.
As for cost, “most likely we’re going to peg it to the Circulator fare, which is a dollar,” Dormsjo said.
And enforcement will be on a “proof of payment” model, Dormsjo said, in which passengers have their ticket on a smartphone or printed out from a kiosk to show an inspector. This is different from the Metrorail, for example, where there are gates a passenger cannot enter without paying.
“It’s an open fare-payment system, as opposed to a closed fare system, like WMATA’s,” Dormsjo said, referring to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “There’s not enough space to build a gating system right out on H Street.”
That’s also part of the philosophy of such systems, Dormsjo said.
“Part of the appeal of streetcar and light rail is to have systems and services in place that allow for a lot of street activity and neighborhood connection, so not having big stations, big fare gate systems, that’s what comes with light rail,” he said. “It’s supposed to be more flexible.”
The plan is for streetcars to run every 15 minutes, with the goal of getting down to about 12 minutes apart, he said.
Dormsjo said he wants to see results and is looking ahead.
“In the balance between excitement and frustration, I’m more on the frustration side. It’s pretty clear what the goal is: to get this thing open for passenger service. Until we’re there, I’m not really in excited mode,” he said. “I can’t really account for all the false starts from before. I’m just concentrating on getting the job done here.”