The District has invested $200 million in what was projected to be a $3 billion streetcar project. Now, the city’s new transportation chief is asking an existential question about the beleaguered new transit system: Is it worth saving?
Appointed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in January after the previous administration’s unsuccessful scramble to open the streetcar line by the end of last year, Leif A. Dormsjo, a former top transportation official in Maryland, has spent a couple of months probing the project with a notable lack of sentimentality or defensiveness.
“We’re not planning for failure. I’m trying to prudently and responsibly prepare the service to be started. But if I can’t get to that point, I’m not going to be enchanted by some philosophy of transit that leads me to do something that doesn’t make sense,” Dormsjo said. “There’s been a lot of investment in this thing. It’s not a good outcome for that to be squandered. But at the end of the day, it has to work, it has to be safe, it has to have utility.”
As of today, it’s not clear whether any of those things are true.
Dormsjo says streetcar backers have lacked “orderly thinking” about a program that was pieced together under three previous mayors without the needed discipline, data or strategy. Now, he says, he’s wrestling with basic questions so he can come up with his best advice for his boss and other city leaders. Among them: Can the city provide safe and reliable service on the 2.2-mile line that has been built on H Street and Benning Road NE? If yes, and the system opens, should it be expanded? If it is to grow, where should it go next?
With lives, vast sums and the government’s — and his — credibility at stake, it’s a fraught moment.
“I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to be the guy who quit early and threw in the towel and couldn’t get the job done,” Dormsjo said. “Nor do I want to be the guy who got swept up in the emotional crusade to open something, and I opened it and it turned out to be a miserable failure.”
Given the “irrational” way the project has unfolded, putting everything on the table makes sense at this stage, said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “Leif Dormsjo’s approach is completely reasonable.”
After years of delays and blown self-imposed deadlines, the District’s Department of Transportation had developed a closely held plan to open the streetcar system by last November.
But local safety oversight officials protested, saying the streetcars lacked needed safety certifications and the system wasn’t ready. Distrust bubbled over, with the safety office accusing transportation officials of providing inaccurate and misleading information, and DDOT pushing back at what it viewed as meddling.
Top officials in former mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration continued their push to open the line by year’s end, prompting a December warning from the Federal Transit Administration that the city needed to first tackle new safety recommendations. Hours before Gray (D) left office, his team relented, saying the system would not open under Gray’s watch, but it would be ready to launch by the week of Jan. 19.
But just days before that inherited deadline, Dormsjo, charged by Bowser to reexamine the project, said the city would not be governed by arbitrary deadlines and would bring in outside industry experts to scour the system.
As it turns out, the system was not ready to safely carry passengers.
That reality was underscored on an icy Saturday last month, when one of the District’s 35-ton streetcars had a particularly bad evening. With piles of snow obstructing easy access to curbside parking and obscuring white parking lines, drivers left their cars poking out near the path of a streetcar making practice runs.
So, amid the wintry mess, a red and gray District streetcar smacked into a car mirror. Then a few hours later, around 10 p.m., the streetcar slammed into a poorly parked Audi, damaging both vehicles. The black four-door Audi was three feet from the curb, according to a police report, and the streetcar operator “misjudged how much clearance there was.” The Audi driver ended up with dented doors, a fender-to-fender scrape and a citation for parking more than a foot from the curb.
Then, just before midnight, a section of the streetcar’s roof erupted in a small fireball. DDOT called the unexplained flames, which extinguished on their own, a “flash fire,” and is investigating along with Oregon-based manufacturer United Streetcar.
In a statement the morning after the Feb. 21 fire, DDOT said initial observations “suggest that this was an isolated incident.” On March 3, DDOT said it had taken the city’s other two United Streetcar vehicles off the streets during the investigation. Dormsjo said he has talked to officials in other cities with the same streetcars, and they have not had the flash fire problem.
“Why this vehicle? What happened, exactly? Did it have something to do with the weather? Did it have something to do with being idled for a while?” Dormsjo asked.
It’s not unheard of for the launch of a new streetcar or light-rail system in the United States to come with minor accidents, as motorists and operators get in sync. Houston had a slew of them, Dormsjo noted. In the District, DDOT says there have been “11 total incidents between streetcar vehicles and personal automobiles,” including “doors being opened into an oncoming streetcar vehicle.”
But concerns have been raised about the design of the District’s system, which runs streetcars particularly close to parked cars along busy H Street and near narrow pedestrian walkways in the medians along Benning Road. And the mysterious flash fire has heightened anxieties over the system’s fundamentals.
Whether the District’s experience is in line with that of other cities or a sign of deeper — even fatal — flaws is among the questions to be tackled by the group of outside experts Dormsjo has invited in. The team from the American Public Transportation Association is set to arrive Monday for a week of interviews and inspections, with a draft report expected within 45 days.
“They’re very rigorous. They give it to you hard,” Dormsjo said. He believes the team can give him a clear read on safety and reliability, even with just a week on the ground.
“I think they’ll be able to tell me whether there’s a pathway to passenger service. I hope and I believe they’re going to give us something that conclusive. Given how far along we are, it would be concerning if they said they didn’t know,” Dormsjo said. And if it’s a go, he has invited them back for a second visit to drill down on the system’s performance with passengers.
District officials have said they are operating “simulated service” as a kind of dry run to get ready for passengers. The city owns a fleet of six streetcars, three from Oregon and three from the Czech Republic. But by the afternoon of Feb. 17, after the season’s first major snowstorm, just three streetcars were on the street. On the day after the flash fire, one streetcar inched down H Street.
Transportation officials are “taking the opportunity” before the outside review to do maintenance on the full fleet, according to DDOT staff members, and officials are “periodically running a single vehicle for training and testing purposes.”
City transportation officials have made progress addressing questions raised by federal safety officials. The FTA says it remains concerned that all of its recommendations have not been addressed, but it also “recognizes the project team’s commitment” to do so.
Among the outstanding FTA recommendations: finding more ways to reduce the danger of cars and streetcars crashing into each other along the route, which was designed with ample opportunity for vehicles to make U-turns and other risky moves in front of streetcars.
Beyond safety, there are also questions of money and strategy.
A council move last May to slash planned future streetcar funding, pushed by Mendelson, had forced the Gray administration to dramatically scale back plans for building a 22-mile network by early next decade, with another 15 or more miles to follow.
Fundamentally, Dormsjo does not know whether the system, if it opens, should be expanded. That growth was assumed by his predecessors. But Bowser is pushing for prudence in spending and policy, he said.
“If there’s no utility in building off the foundation of the starter line, she wants to know that. If there is, she wants me to clearly describe that to her,” he said.
Answering that question means thinking not in terms of a wide network crisscrossing the city, he said, but trying to nail down a particular corridor that would get undeniable benefits. The strongest contender, although no shoo-in, would be the east-west corridor running from Georgetown, connecting to the current H Street-Benning Road line and then heading east over the Anacostia River, Dormsjo said. But a clear-eyed cost-benefit analysis needs to come first, something that’s been lacking in the past, he said.
“The project is kind of hostage to that lack of orderly thinking,” Dormsjo said.