The District’s safety oversight office has told city transportation officials that they provided inaccurate, incomplete and deliberately misleading safety documentation on the city’s streetcar system as it pushed toward its promised year-end opening, according to internal e-mails.
In one October e-mail, for example, the State Safety Oversight Office accused the District Department of Transportation of “fabricating” a key safety document. In November, a safety official told DDOT Director Matt Brown that “misrepresentations of the facts are not helping move the process forward.”
DDOT officials denied the accusations and noted that they have since submitted a trove of requested materials, including additional safety certifications on the city’s streetcar fleet that addressed one of the central sources of friction between the agencies.
“I’m not aware of any fabrication or anything like that,” Brown said. “They are independent from us for a reason. There’s going to be natural tension between the groups. I think we’re both working toward the same goal. We want to get the thing operating safely. They want to get the thing operating safely. And we’re going to push through that.”
The dispute is important because the city’s first streetcar line in more than 50 years can open only after transportation officials meet the requirements of the safety oversight office, which is housed within the city’s Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services and was set up with the oversight of the Federal Transit Administration.
The e-mails, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that even in the weeks and months before the streetcar system is set to open, there remain tensions and questions about safety.
Questions have been raised in recent months about the design and operation of the 2.2-mile streetcar line on H Street and Benning Road NE. Streetcars run close to parked cars along one stretch, and, by design, often will have to stop for more than 40 seconds in the middle of H Street traffic in order to change lanes before heading up a bridge behind Union Station.
The FTA also recently cited a host of additional safety concerns.
In a Dec. 11 letter to the District, the FTA outlined a dozen new safety recommendations and pointed out potential dangers, including a crosswalk across tracks on Benning Road that has no signal, “potentially resulting in a streetcar and pedestrian collision.” The FTA also noted that dates listed as “complete” in the District’s streetcar system testing schedule “may be delayed and inaccurate.”
District transportation officials said they launched a final safety run, dubbed “pre-revenue operations,” on the fledgling streetcar system on Dec. 17. Transportation officials however, had made the same announcement in September only to be overruled by safety oversight officials, who said DDOT had barreled ahead without first completing needed tests on the city’s six streetcars. After months of acrimony and additional safety work, both sides now agree that the dry run can proceed.
There is also agreement, Brown says, that a 14-day test period is sufficient, given earlier trials. That means, he said, if a final safety walk-through by the oversight office goes smoothly and that office submits the necessary certifications to the FTA, the line could open to the public by the promised year-end deadline.
But DDOT has already lost a day, because it had only three cars running on the line when it needs a minimum of four in order for a day to count toward the 14 total, according to an official who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly about the project. The official said there are numerous standard operating procedures referred to in DDOT’s safety documents that have not been created and submitted to the safety oversight office as required before the line can open. And DDOT has also been facing FTA concerns.
“Of greatest concern to the FTA team was the discussion of the revenue service start date. While the FTA can appreciate the desire to begin carrying passengers, we want to ensure that all safety and security requirements have been certified and verified as per DDOT’s own project documentation,” federal safety officials wrote on Dec. 11. “The schedule should be updated to allow for the entire 30-day [pre-revenue operations] prior to start.”
The H Street/Benning Road line was not an FTA-funded project, so the city is not required to follow FTA recommendations. But the District hopes to secure significant federal transit funds in the future, giving the FTA some leverage.
Starting the long-delayed streetcar service has been a top priority of outgoing Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who said in an interview this month that he believes it can still happen on his watch.
“I’ve been working pretty hard with our folks to try to get that done,” Gray said. “I know it’s possible,” Gray said. “But obviously anything we don’t feel comfortable around safety clearances, we’ll obviously defer to that. But I think we can get those clearances done by the first of the year.”
Outgoing city administrator Allen Lew said he’s still pushing toward that goal.
“Obviously, we’re running it down to the wire,” Lew said. “I operate oftentimes at a ninth-inning, last-out kind of approach. I think it’s easy for people to say it’s not going to happen.”
Back in February, an FTA team visited and “observed the interaction of pedestrians along the H-Benning open alignment and considers this activity a serious operating hazard,” according to a May report that was provided under a public-records request.
To address that, the District has erected small signs in the median on Benning Road.
“WARNING: NO CLEARANCE ALONG PLANTER,” they read, somewhat cryptically, with a red line through a stick-figure pedestrian, meant to signify that people should not walk on what appears to be a walkway between concrete planter boxes and the streetcar tracks embedded in the road.
“It’s actually not an official sidewalk,” said Thomas Perry, a streetcar manager who took the role of DDOT’s interim chief safety officer after the departure of the previous safety chief in the fall. “By DDOT standards, it’s not a sidewalk.”
That has left some residents befuddled.
“That looks like a sidewalk to me,” said Reginald Black, 29, who on a recent chilly afternoon walked along the raised pathway in the middle of the crowded thoroughfare. “They’d have to explain to me how it isn’t. . . . I see some people getting hurt right there without some sort of clarification.”
In addition to the “NO CLEARANCE” median signs, the District painted red lines in the road warning of the streetcar’s potential path.
The city has also sent safety advocates to a corner identified as a potential problem, at Third and H streets NE, telling people not to cross on a four-way red light because the streetcar has its own white go-signal at that time and it could hit them. The city also has undertaken other pedestrian education efforts, including sending its educators to schools.
An FTA spokesman would not say whether the “no clearance” sign and other measures addressed the agency’s concern.
The process has highlighted the limited federal role in local rail safety. Congress passed legislation in 2012 intended to give the FTA clear oversight powers following the deadly 2009 Metro Red Line crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people, and other incidents. But the regulations needed to implement much of that legislation are still being developed, federal officials said.
The FTA said it is up to the District’s safety office to enforce any concerns.
“FTA does not give the ‘green light,’ ” said a spokesman. The city’s safety oversight office “gives the ‘green light’ and accepts the final safety certification of the project. FTA’s role is one of oversight and monitoring.”
Disagreements about the local safety review have run deep.
In a Nov. 11 e-mail to DDOT director Brown, State Safety Oversight Office program manager Capt. Kelton Ellerbe said, “the certification report that we received from DDOT, and verified by a third party, indicates that each car passed each test,” a reference to streetcar safety tests. But the next day, Ellerbe followed up to decry “misrepresentations.”
E-mails from the safety office say each streetcar had not passed required safety certifications, as DDOT claimed. Instead, a test on one car was used as a stand-in for tests on other vehicles built by the same manufacturer, according to the e-mails.
Ronald Garraffa, senior construction manager with District streetcar contractor HDR Inc., said there was no misrepresentation. Hundreds of elements of the streetcars are reviewed, and different types of certifications have different requirements, Garraffa said. Based on industry standards, sometimes the manufacturer’s documentation is sufficient, he added.
“We’re not saying we tested every single car. We’re saying we verified every single car is safe and secure,” Garraffa said.
Brown said the issues have been resolved.
“We did the propulsion and breaking tests, and all cars passed,” Brown said. “We did all the cars. There was one that wasn’t tested. There’s a car we need parts for that we can’t operate right now. . . . That car will be tested before we put it into service.”
In an Oct. 13 e-mail from Ellerbe to Barry Kreiswirth, DDOT’s chief of staff, the State Safety Oversight Office accused DDOT of “fabricating official documentation.” The e-mails said DDOT downloaded, filled out and distributed an FTA checklist on safety documents. But the State Safety Office says only it has that authority.
“The State Safety Oversight Office is confused at best as to the nature of this ‘final’ document. We are requesting its origin and the intention behind its circulation,” Ellerbe wrote.
Kreiswirth, as part of the exchange, responded that DDOT was only trying to provide the information that had been requested of it. Creating its own working checklist was meant to clarify the location of key documents DDOT had provided.
“The ‘final’ designation at the bottom of the document was part of the checklist itself,” which had appeared in a handbook for state safety offices, “so it got carried over from there when we converted it electronically.”
Brown said it was a misunderstanding: “We were trying to be open and honest and provide all the information the captain needed to review the document.”
The rail safety process, as outlined by federal officials, is meant to identify safety problems then track measures to fix, mitigate or otherwise address them. But at times, there were philosophical disagreements over just what could be accomplished.
After receiving what he believed was an insufficient response on the streetcar safety certifications, Ellerbe wrote that resolving the issue was “non-negotiable.”
“There are no acceptable workarounds for safety critical items,” Ellerbe wrote.
DDOT had Garraffa craft a response, which noted that the FTA has repeatedly explained how to manage “workarounds” on critical issues as long as procedures are in place to ensure that operations are safe.
Ellerbe e-mailed back to call that a “misinterpretation of the FTA requirements based on opinion.”
The goal of final “pre-revenue operations” tests in coming days is to validate “the design, execution, training, and operation and maintenance procedures in a real time environment,” according to the District’s plan. The objective is to “demonstrate that the streetcar line can be operated satisfactorily.”
“If there are any issues that arise, we will address them,” Brown said. “But I’m hopeful we can open by the end of the year.”
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