Thanking residents for their patience, and saying the District had broken free from years of project mismanagement, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said Thursday that the long city’s long-struggling streetcar line will begin carrying passengers Feb. 27.
Safety officials in the city’s fire department said last week that the system would be ready to go on or after Feb. 26, and now Bowser — the fourth mayor with a hand in the fledgling system — has put it on the calendar.
Her predecessor, Vincent Gray, had pledged to open it before he left office more than a year ago, only to see that promise fall apart after safety officials balked.
The streetcar still lacks a system for collecting fares, and Bowser sought to put a positive gloss on that reality.
In a statement, she thanked the residents along H Street and Benning Road NE, where the 2.2 mile line runs, “for their patience during the construction and testing of the system. As a way of saying ‘thank you,’ fares will be free on the system for an initial period of time.”
District transportation chief Leif Dormsjo added in a statement that Bowser’s administration had found success in a history of woe.
“Mayor Bowser charged my team with taking a failed Streetcar program and making it work for District residents. After years of overspending, mismanagement and lack of direction, we made it happen,” Dormsjo said.
In an interview, Dormsjo said things didn’t look good shortly after the Bowser administration arrived.
“We had a fire incident and a situation where the vehicles had been basically run into the ground,” Dormsjo said, adding that just one of the city’s fleet of six streetcars was operating early in 2015. “There was a series of collisions with cars and they were in no-man’s land with the” safety oversight officials in the fire department. “I don’t think you could have been in a circumstance that was more challenged than that.”
There were also “infrastructure problems along the entire corridor. Vehicles weren’t leveling to the platforms, platforms had to be rebuilt, there weren’t adequate traffic safety measures and hazard mitigation measures, in terms of striping and signage,” Dormsjo added.
The ambitions, and troubles, started early.
The District purchased its first three streetcars in 2004, and officials said passengers would be able to ride in 2006, on a line in Anacostia. But the District was unable to acquire the hoped-for right-of-way, construction problems followed, and now that line has been all but abandoned.
The H Street/Benning Road line has seen costs soar. A maintenance and storage facility nearly tripled in cost, to $48.8 million, three or four times what other cities paid for similar facilities. Streetcar spending has hit the $200-million mark.
Officials said passengers will be able to hop aboard the new line after a ceremony at 10 a.m. Feb. 27, to be held at the intersection of H and 13 streets NE.
Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who heads the panel’s transportation committee, is planning to be there and said she has her fingers crossed.
“I’m trying to cross my toes, but that’s difficult,” Cheh said.
Like Lucy snatching Charlie Brown’s football, “if somebody says, ‘Oops, only kidding. It’s going to be next year’…I guess we’re so deadened by false promises here, we could probably even tolerate that,” Cheh said.
But despite years of disappointment, Cheh said, she’s found a hint of optimism. She credits what she called Dormsjo’s methodical, non-ideological approach to clearing hurdles and getting the system open.
“I think we’ve got something. I think it’s going to go,” she said.
The six-day-a-week service will not run Sundays, including the day after the grand opening. Although plans had long been in place to run daily, officials decided last year to scale back, in part because one of its streetcars was damaged by being left out in the elements and remains out of service.
The streetcars are scheduled to run 6 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. Friday to 2 a.m. Saturday; and 8 a.m. Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday, officials said.
The frequency of service has also dropped, officials said last year, from the planned 10 minutes between streetcars to 15 minutes.
Back in 2010, officials projected the H Street/Benning Road line would carry 1,500 passengers a day. The X-line Metrobuses that tread the same ground, and go further east and west, have more than 12,000 riders per day.