Terésa Dowell-Vest’s bus, or at least the bus she hoped would be her bus, was so jammed Monday that the driver wouldn’t even open the door. So she walked a few blocks to a streetcar stop on H Street.
“I was fully expecting the streetcar to be packed. It’s going to be like San Francisco, with people hanging off the back bumper to get to us,” Dowell-Vest said. What the communications professor got instead was an airy, almost empty streetcar that showed up within three minutes — and a sweet commute.
“Everything looks new. And the ride itself feels new, and that’s exciting,” said Dowell-Vest, noting she felt none of the lurching that’s a constant of bus life. “You don’t want to start your day feeling like you’ve been jerked around.”
Charles Mattison’s calculations were more cutthroat.
“This is free. It’s the only reason I’m riding it,” said Mattison, 20, who typically walks to his job at a Union Station handbag shop to save cash.
“I kind of find it pointless, because of all the money that went into this,” Mattison said. Still, as the train pulled up at 9:50 a.m. Monday, he didn’t argue with the results: “It got me to work on time.”
After a decade of delays, and a flood of happy first-timers riding just to ride during the system’s inauguration Saturday, the District’s long awaited streetcar system is now being tested by several key constituencies. Among them: commuters; errand-runners who need an easy lift to lunch or the laundromat; and nightlifers out for food and libation along a revitalizing H Street.
How the city’s costly new experiment in throwback transit will turn out remains unclear, even as District officials are pledging to expand the system. But the theory of streetcars is finally the reality of streetcars, and it’s being scrutinized by taxpayers who have already ponied up more than $200 million for the 2-mile line.
“The most expensive bar crawl on the continent, I’d call it,” said Damon Wells, a turkey-industry lobbyist who lives along H Street and rode with a group of drinking buddies Saturday night. The city’s investment, which some credit for spurring H Street’s rebirth, did get him closer to the Big Board, the latest bar on their multi-establishment tour.
“Premature close-ation!” Wells yelped when the streetcar doors closed in on the group unexpectedly. “That was a guillotine!”
Kamrin Mills, 23, had tried to make it into Po Boy Jim for dinner, but it was too crowded, so he, his dad and some friends headed to another bar and grill four blocks away. They walked past one streetcar stop on the way, even though there was a second stop right by their destination.
“I turned around and looked. None coming. I’m out,” said Mills, a student and Starbucks manager who likes walking. But he counts himself a big fan anyway, and can see himself jumping on when the timing works out. “I pay a lot of money in taxes, and sometimes you don’t see the value of it,” he said. “That has value.”
D.C. transportation officials said they hope to reduce the time between streetcars from 15 minutes to 12 minutes. The original plan was for 10 minutes, but maintenance problems cropped up. They plan to extend the line east from its current final stop on Benning Road across the Anacostia River to the Benning Road Metro station and later west to Georgetown. They also say they plan to charge, but not for at least six months, because they don’t have a collection-system ready and they want to spur ridership.
“I’m not impressed. I rode it when they were old,” said Karen Caldwell, 70. In the decades before the city’s first streetcar era ended in 1962, they carried her nearly everywhere she needed to go. “It would take you down and bring you back home.”
Now, destinations are limited, Caldwell said, and friends who live farther east see even less value because they would have to transfer from a bus if they want to experience the streetcar. It wouldn’t be worth the hassle or the potential cost, she said.
Despite her bad knees, Caldwell said she can move faster than the streetcar along some stretches of the line. Other riders, too, said they wished for a faster clip, although with the sparse ridership, the streetcars tended to make much better time than during their first outings Saturday. The streetcars were making the 2-mile trip in less than 20 minutes Monday morning.
The streetcar already seems to be resolving issues for some.
Warner Coleman, who works for the District’s Department of Human Services, said the streetcar may solve his parking problem near his office on H Street.
“Don’t even talk about it. A lot of tickets — towed and everything,” Coleman said. “I’ve just had the gamut.”
He said the city should make a deal with the federal government to allow commuters to use the usually empty RFK Stadium parking lot near the final streetcar stop. It would be good for drivers and feed passengers into the nascent streetcar system, Coleman said, while also pulling cars off congested streets.
He drove toward the last Benning Road streetcar stop, parked on a side street and climbed aboard, heading to the office. He was one of only a smattering of riders. “I think it’s just people readjusting themselves,” he said. The people will come.