Oof – “Streetcar program pieced together without needed discipline, data or strategy”

Photo by PoPville flickr user Victoria Pickering

Thanks to all who sent links to the Post’s Transportation chief asks if troubled District streetcar system can be saved:

[DDOT head Leif] “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?”

42 Comment

  • Sounds like the dominoes are falling on the streetcar. Dormsjo doesn’t do an in-depth interview like this if they are going to pull out all the stops to get it running.

  • I’ll post here what I posted in the comments of that article:

    I live half a block from the streetcar line on Benning Road. I am a streetcar supporter.

    First, I applaud Dormsjo’s leadership. We should all follow suit by stepping back to reassess with open minds

    Second, let’s all agree: there are clearly enormous problems with the DC Streetcar that must be addressed. It was poorly planned, fraught with mismanagement, and ultimately hamstrung by lack of clarity at the tie-in to Union Station and an operational plan based on delusional ideas of driver compliance. I am very thankful Gray was not able to open the system at the 11th hour in December. It would have been an epic disaster.

    Third, there are clearly ways to make this idea work in a way that will provide much needed rapid transit and eliminate the problems that have plagued the testing phase. These include, but are not limited to, dedicated streetcar lanes, light priority, and a firm commitment to tie the fledgling system into Chinatown and Minnesota Avenue Metro stations. The two hurdles to these fixes are budgetary constraints and political will to stand up to inconvenienced drivers.

    In conclusion, we finally have clear leadership at DDOT, and this leadership is taking prudent steps to objectively understand the problems present in the existing line, which should be welcome by everyone. And most importantly, there are options for fixing the identified problems. They may be impossible based on budgetary or political constraints. I hope they are not.

    Frankly, I’m just happy we will all finally fully understand what’s going on here, and hopefully end up with an optimal outcome rather than some sort of haphazard, destined-to-fail feather in DC’s self-governance dunce cap.

    • Agreed.

      Standing up to inconvenienced drivers is key. They have too loud a voice.

      • And drivers have had the vast majority of America designed exclusively for them for the past 50 years. I think it’s fair that we give other modes that kind of public priority now. After all, drivers are also pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders.

    • This is really well-stated. It’s kind of incredible just how badly DDOT screwed up the implementation of this thing, but I believe it’s still salvageable under better leadership.

    • I like your thinking except that if gets to all the way to Chinatown, pushing just a few blocks further to Metro Center might make it more appealing for Arlington/Fairfax folks to try.

      • notlawd

        Is this a joke? Why would we care about Arlington or Fairfax commuters?

        • Because most DC residents have to commute out to VA since all the jobs are moving out there. I guess you are still lucky enough to have a job in DC but that will probably change soon.

          • “Most”? Maybe many (most?) private-sector jobs, but most public-sector jobs are staying in the District (or were already in the suburbs to begin with).

          • What jobs are you referring to? The only public sector jobs I know that are moving out are FBI-HQ ones, and that is ____ years down the road. Private sector, has there ever been a high # in DC itself (law firms excluded)?

          • Well, I’m an engineer, and I guess the majority of people I know are in STEM fields, and none of us can get jobs in DC.

    • Transit signal priority would make a lot of sense here. I think it may be way too late for dedicated lanes on the H street portion, but perhaps now the case can be made for dedicated lanes for the rest of the system.

      I think the pain point will be when people realize that the streetcar isn’t worth doing without signal priority and dedicated lanes. That’s a debate worth having and one that I think the smartgrowth advocates and transit peeps are much better organized for now than a few years ago. No idea if Bowser has the stomach for that or what side she would take.

      • I’d love to see dedicated lanes, but that sounds like the kind of thing that would require going waaay back to the drawing board.

        I wonder though, why not Bus Rapid Transit? You get a dedicated lane and signal priority, so that gives you speed, and you don’t have rails or overhead power lines to install, so that keeps costs low. And the dedicated lane requires some degree of permanent infrastructure, so that will have some of the economic development benefits that street car lines can give.

        • How difficult would it be to either move the tracks or install another configuration along the 2.2 mile line? The DC experience would suggest it’s damn near impossible, but cities have installed streetcar tracks on all kinds of roads in short spans of time. If it’s so impossible to lay another 2.2 miles of track, what hope did we ever have for a city-wide system?

    • I don’t live out there and don’t really know what transit options there are out there, but doesn’t the X2 line serve the exact same route that would be served by this streetcar?

      • It does. The difference is in mode. The X2 could in theory be given a dedicated lane and have a lot done to improve its operation– including something like light priority, and something enormous happening within metro to improve its operation and scheduling. Or maybe the city funds another circulator- type bus line to function as the streetcar would, supplementing the often-lamented X2 and getting people around quicker. To me, the tracks and established route of a streetcar or light rail are important in facilitating ease of movement around the city. For the same reason people go places that metro rail can get them but wouldn’t dream of taking unfamiliar bus routes to– the buses are simply less familiar and less predictable than a well-administered, continuous and reliable rail system. Maybe buses could be rebranded and run in such a way that people will use them like they use rail. But I’m not convinced.

        • I’ve always found bus maps and schedules to be far more confusing, especially to newcomers, than rail maps and schedules. Not sure why that is, or why a bus map couldn’t be presented as a schematic like a metro map.

      • Yup. Keep in mind though that the streetcar was designed for X2 riders.

      • It does, but the X2 is operating at or over capacity nearly every rush hour. The buses come nearly 2 minutes apart (if there are delays, which there usually are) and they are still standing-room only from 7-9 am and 5-7 pm. And that’s *before* all the new condo developments and apartments have opened up, which will only strain the transit options further. The streetcar will carry 2x the passengers as the bus, and siphon off the riders who are just going to H St NE locations or Union Station.

    • “stand up to inconvenienced drivers” Thats hilarious!

      The whole point of a 3 billion dollar system should be to integrate it seamlessly and not inconvenience anyone. Notice how the metro rail doesnt inconvenience drivers? Without a dedicated lane, the street car is a disaster. It does interfere with drivers, interstate buses, commuter buses, and bicycles… and for no reason and limited, if any, benefit.

      The idea of a “war on cars” isnt that far fetched. When you hear so many advocates for city planners going out of their way to inconvenience drivers because of this perception of a privileged class (as if it wasnt the will of the people to build roads and spread out), and then you hear the full throated support from internet commenters, and then notice how many roads in DC have traffic signals intentionally timed to dissuade car travel, its hard not to think that DDOT has a deeply ingrained perspective that drivers are the enemy.

      The fact is, our metro area covers a ton of space. There is no transportation solution without cars. Undoubtedly more money needs to be spent on mass transit, peds. bikes, etc. But, the street car is a prime example of what not to do. It will move people a very limited distance, is not connected to any other transportation hubs, and interferes with the efficient movement of vehicles.

      Local DOTs have to fight hard for any money, let alone 2 billion… and this money has been squandered on a couple miles of very badly planned street car rail.

      Its an inferior method of moving people to buses and costs a lot more. But its prettier AND has the benefit of sticking it to those establishment car owning types, so a bunch of entitled yuppies and hipsters are all up-in-arms about it.

      For the record, I think they should fix the line, open it, and expand it – but use this whole mess to revamp plans for the future… finding someway to lower costs, serve exclusively underserved areas, and for gods sake DEDICATED LANES. For cars, predictable, single lanes, with ample turning space actually increases traffic flow – so there are many roads all over the city that can lose 1 lane, have the other turned into long “only” lanes, and 1 travel lane for cars in each direction.

      • I agree with nearly everything you say regarding restructuring the streetcar. But the idea that taking away an entire lane on H Street and Benning from cars won’t be seen as an inconvenience by drivers, especially Maryland drivers clog that route all day every day and couldn’t give two bits about those of us who actually live here, is ridiculous. Perhaps this backlash can be mitigated with good PR and explanation of an improved plan by DDOT, but there are plenty of drivers who will complain about it no matter what.

    • First, I’m not applauding his leadership, I’m paying his fee. And, since it’s DDOT, I’m sure it’s a richly paid contract. I mean, this is the agency that is spending $5,000/day to study 16th St traffic!

      Second, this wasn’t a failure of leadership or management. This route was an obvious boondoggle from the get go to some of us, and we got hammered here for having that viewpoint. It had a slim chance of success from the beginning, whether it was led by wiz kids or bureaucrats.

      But, hopefully, it can get going and be sustainable. If so, that’s when applause will be deserved.

  • I always thought the streetcar was a lousy idea. However, people get really excited about them so the dollars flow. A Circulator style bus would have been much cheaper and would have been operating years ago. Also, all those track made H. St very bike unfriendly. Even though the city is trying to encourage bikers to move to parallel streets, I think we will still see many bike in the tracks accidents.

  • Lets just be honest about the street car – it was a politically motivated giveaway to vested real interests that owned property in the NoMa and Northeast DC. Just the mention of the street car boosted property values overnight. It turned $175K old rowhouses into $700K flips.
    Same as it ever was, DC.

    • Agree with this, and DCrat. Underground subway systems make a lot of sense. Streetcars are generally inferior to buses. When the streetcar was announced I read a lot of the transport wonk ideas that were being published at the time, and it basically came down to this: yes, buses are superior to streetcars (they are flexible in deployment, can drive around parked cars etc), but streetcars are more trendy, so we expect more use of streetcars. Plus, streetcars spur urban gentrification. That’s it. No other justification. Now we can add to the vested interest groups, everyone who has paid way to much for a rowhouse near H St over the last 5 years.

      • This is not actually true. Because streetcar vehicles last two-three times as long as buses do, and because streetcars hold more people than buses, streetcars are a superior option for routes with high passenger volumes. Rather than creating entirely new routes, streetcars should have replaced buses on existing routes with capacity issues–and the X2 certainly qualifies. The big issue here is the lack of dedicated lanes, which was an absolutely moronic sop to the car lobby. Everything else is fixable for fairly cheap.

        • +1 on the lack of dedicated lanes.

        • Agreed that this won’t work without dedicated lanes (and signal priority would really help as well). IMO the truly fatal flaw in all of this was placement of the tracks – it may make dedicated lanes along H Street impossible now unless we basically start all over.

        • The streetcar is still a terrible deal for the cost.

          A streetcar may last twice as long and hold more people, but $190 million (the total cost of the streetcar project so far) would buy 100 state of the art hybrid buses and pay their drivers’ salaries plus overtime for 20 years.
          Here are the numbers: It’s roughly $500K for a new hybrid bus, and the max salary of a Metrobus driver is $58,600 with an average of $7,400 per year in overtime, so a bus + 20 years of driver pay = 1.82 million which means we could buy 100 and pay their drivers for 20 years for $182,000,000. Since buses will have to be replaced after an average of 12 years of service as per the DOT, that means for those 20 years we could have 50 buses running the H St. route at any given time.
          The streetcar’s rolling stock is the Skoda 10T, which has a maximum capacity of 157 passengers. DC owns 6 of these, so the streetcar system has a maximum capacity of 942 passengers at any given time. A newer Metrobus, say a New Flyer XDE40, can hold 83 passengers, so 50 of those would give a maximum system capacity of 4150 passengers at any given time. Obviously buses require fuel, maintenance, and whatnot, so we should probably halve the number of buses and drivers to free up money for those things, which leaves us with 25 brand new buses, carrying more than twice as many passengers as the streetcar, with drivers’ salaries, fuel, and maintenance paid for for the next 20 years, along with a full replacement of the fleet halfway through, for $8,000,000 LESS than the cost of just building most of the streetcar.

          So how exactly is the streetcar a better deal than buses?

          • That this streetcar project was really badly mismanaged and wasteful does not mean that streetcars are always, or even usually, a bad deal.

    • Former Mayor Williams, is that you?

  • Wow…two pretty negative DC Streetcar articles in two days.
    “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”

    Seriously, give this guy a raise. Where has this philosophy been?

    The system is nearly 6 years behind schedule, and it went from a cost of 150 million last year, to 200 million today. The citywide plan also spontaneously and inexplicably jumped from 1.5 billion to 3 billion and it is years from construction, and the thing is an accident magnet, has actually worsened traffic on H street (according to DDOT and WMATA) and they still have no idea how to charge fares for the thing.

    To add further insult to injury the DC Streetcar program failures was a significant reason Arlington had to cancel their columbia pike streetcar, after having spent millions trying to convince Arlington taxpayers how their streetcar would be nothing like DC’s, and suffer none of the same problems.

    Somehow blaming poorly parked cars (it takes two to tango, are the streetcar drivers so bad at their job to have the spatial abilities to judge whether their streetcar will clear the obstruction), or equivocating regular vehicle accidents to this just shows how far down the rose colored rabbit hole some of this systems die hard supporters have gone.

    This streetcar makes what? 100 trips a day up and down H Street, or has made (at best 9,000) trips total the past 3 months, and its been in 11 accidents and one spontaneous combustion incident.

    H Street carries 20,000 vehicles per day. If the same percentage of vehicles were involved in accidents on H Street the past 3 months, as were streetcars, there would have been thousands of them. But there weren’t.

    What is the expression? When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. It is long past time DC stop digging with this.

  • Market Street in SF has heavily-used bike lanes and streetcars, along with buses, trucks, regular traffic, pedestrians. It can all work. I wonder if we’re not making it harder than it needs to me. Let those steel wheels roll!

    • Well said!

    • Market St is super wide with dedicated lanes for different forms of transport. The only street in DC that comes close to matching Market St in width is K St NW. Maybe also GA Ave.

    • True, but the F Line on Market Street was actually re-instated after a long absence. By the 1970’s the traffic on Market with the streetcars had become so terrible that Muni moved them all underground from upper Market down to the Ferry Building. It was only in the late 1990’s that the F (the historic streetcars) returned streetcar service above ground, and it also took several years of testing, setbacks, accidents, etc. And even now that they are running, if you have to be anywhere at any specific time you know to take the lines underground rather than the F, which is extremely slow and mostly caters to tourists.

  • A lot of it is regional (perhaps US?) driving mentality. I was just in Brussels, which has TONS of street cars, an underground subway system, and no buses. The street cars occasionally have dedicated lanes, but they mostly traverse the same exact lanes and narrow streets as motorized vehicles. Their street cars don’t generally have signaling priority. They also frequently drop off passengers right next to parked cars or on the curb. The street cars wait in traffic at a busy light, just like any other vehicle.
    The difference? People there are conscience of the street car. They don’t double park. They don’t stop their SUV in the middle of traffic to talk to their friend who is walking down the sidewalk. They don’t drive erratically. They don’t swerve into oncoming traffic in order to pass a street car that is dropping off passengers. Drivers wait their turn.
    The problem with the street car is the entitled American mindset that is deeply embedded in “car culture.” They simply are not compatible in the near term.

    • justinbc

      Many salient points here, I noticed the same things in Brussels.

    • Even if you’re right, wouldn’t you still blame the planners for not taking into account the “American mindset” when they planned this thing? I mean, they are building this thing for DC, not Brussels.

      • @GloverGuy, this is my main point when people compare DC to other regions. This metropolitan area is so unique that it really is the old saying, comparing apples to oranges. The current city plan was created to be a commuter town for the suburbs and until really 10 years ago. To change that culture overnight and to expect that you can put up a streetcar and make people like it because of it’s minor benefits–and they are minor–is really immature thinking.

  • I can’t wait for the streetcar. I welcome any new transportation options. I even made my WaPo Peep contest diorama about it. A Peepcar Named Disaster. It wasn’t picked as a finalist but if you want you can see pictures here https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B5Ctgx02CP_sfjdDanJuQnBkdFQxRXdiSjVxbVdRY3NUeTlwbDhubUp2NnhybmJqbDJ5eVE&usp=sharing . If the city does abandon the streetcar, then I have another great crazy transportation idea. I think we should have gondola lifts that transport people over the city. Personally I would love a Georgetown, adams morgan, Columbia heights, hospital center, brookland line. I think that would fill a major gap in city transportation. The infrastructure seems easy, just two elevators and a big tower at each location. and no construction required along the routes. It sounds crazy, but why not. It would have no impact on traffic.

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