VIDEO: What It Takes to Build D.C.'s First Streetcar in 50 Years

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The H Street/Benning Road corridor is undergoing a permanent—and highly anticipated—transformation.

Construction crews hired by the District of Columbia are building the city’s first streetcar line from Union Station to Oklahoma Avenue, about two-and-a-half miles, on a dense commercial strip. And the project faces several difficulties that have to be overcome in order to achieve the goals of providing residents a fast connection between neighborhoods while spurring economic growth.

So when will the streetcar be ready? There is no exact answer. Even the people building the streetcar system cannot say for sure. The District Department of Transportation hopes to have construction and safety testing done by the end of the year, but has refrained from naming a start date because of the uncertainties surrounding the federal safety certification process. The public is waiting and wants to know, but the realities on the ground dictate patience.


Tearing up the roadway

Stand at the corner of H Street NE and Third Street NE and the sound will swallow you. The roar and rumble of construction equipment sends dust floating through the air. Workers lay the streetcar tracks on top of rebuilt utility conduits and beneath black catenary polls that will suspend the overhead power lines to electrify the line.

“All the work is down below those two pieces of steel,” said Thomas McFall, who supervises the design-build team under the general contractors Dean-Facchina. “We had to relocate a lot of existing utilities so that they were out from underneath the tracks. This road is decades old and the utilities that are under this roadway are just spaghetti, a network of conduits, a network of water lines, and gas lines.”

The finished track of two parallel rails embedded in fresh asphalt can make the project look fairly simple, but the installation of the train control systems inside the roadway added technical complexity to the job, as did the construction of a double track system at the western terminus of the route at H and Third Streets—all while redirecting traffic patterns multiple times.

“This is our second of three phases that we are working in right now,” McFall said. “Our first phase, we had traffic on one side while we constructed the tracks through the intersection. We’ve switched traffic and now we are doing a mirror image of what we did on the north side on the south side of the road, installing new track, reconstructing the roadway, all of the controls for the train system, all of the signalization work that needs to go in and the re-routing of the utilities.”

Vehicular traffic will pass over small black boxes planted in the roadway. Those boxes are the streetcar’s central nervous system.

“They’ve got power going to it, communications going to it, train control, systems integration, all housed in that little box that you see in the middle, and then that fans out through a network of conduits to controllers,” said McFall. “A controller… will actually be the computer system that ties the signals through this intersection with the switch, with the trains, with the smart arrival system at each stop that will tell you when the next train is coming.”

A busy corridor

Thomas Perry, the streetcar program manager at the District Department of Transportation, describes the entire operation as a “coordination project.”

“Throughout the 2.5 miles we have several entities, whether it’s the community, developers that are building within the corridor, the various utilities—whether it’s Pepco, Washington Gas, Verizon and so on—we have to coordinate all of our efforts so we can get this job done.”

Real estate developers are building a mixed-use development adjacent to the Hopscotch Bridge, over which the streetcars will run to Union Station. Under the bridge, DDOT crews are installing an enormous, one megawatt traction power substation built in Houston and shipped to Washington on an 18-wheeler.

“This is one of the larger traction power units that you will see,” said Ron Garraffa, a consultant to the construction and engineering teams. “It was basically made to order 12 months ago.”

The substation is a long, metal rectangle. Three substations are being installed along the corridor to power the line. Like the streetcars above them, the substations need to be tested and certified before they may begin conveying Pepco power to the red and gray streetcar fleet.

More so than construction, testing is the variable that makes predicting a start date a risky endeavor. While the streetcar could be ready to go before the calendar turns to 2014, it seems likely the first passengers may have to wait until next year, considering the work that lies ahead.

“Each step along the way, car one is certified, car two is certified, and then car three is certified, as well as the drivers, and also the infrastructure within the system is all certified and deemed safe,” said DDOT’s Perry. “Then from there we can move to the next step -- which is actually ridership.”

H Street merchants prepare for change

When streetcars finally begin whirring down H Street and Benning Road on a fixed track, they will share a lane with car and bus traffic and make several stops. The tracks will run outside the curbside parking lane, so delivery trucks will no longer be able to stop outside storefronts to unload. DDOT is working with businesses on an alternative, but some merchants say they will be left in a quandary.

“Parking is going to be a major problem when the system is up and running. Right now we are struggling with parking on the street,” said Enock Adewuyi, the manager of a pharmacy at H and 11th. “We have a business, we pay taxes, and we don’t have anywhere to park, even to load and unload, so we don’t know how that is going to affect our operations.”

Merchants interviewed by WAMU 88.5 said they were mostly looking forward to the changes the streetcar will bring to a corridor marked by empty lots, pawn shops, check cashing businesses and liquor stores.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say I have a whole bunch of concerns about the streetcar. Obviously, if we do have delivery trucks that are trying to move in and around them, I’ve already warned the FedEx and UPS drivers that they are going to have to pay attention to that and find alternative ways of delivering to us,” said Loren Copsey, the owner of the Daily Rider bicycle shop.

“It will possibly bring in people who might not ordinarily come to this area. Metro stations are at least a while away from here. Union Station is a mile away from here. We are looking at a corridor largely served by bus service but never had any sort of rail service,” he added.

Human concerns

The streetcar system’s eastern terminus is currently a construction site, too. DDOT is building the car barn that will house the early fleet of four vehicles. It will stand in a historically black neighborhood amid symbols of African-American progress, where residents were very wary of the District’s plans.

“Initially, there was a lot of suspicion and rightly so. This is a big deal, it’s disruptive, it’s inconvenient,” said Don Edwards, a resident who has been working as a consultant on the project, providing residents a direct voice to the transportation planners. “The technical aspects of having these streetcars come here… there were safety concerns.”

“It could all turn out to be a great package, but when you are first starting the conversation people aren’t exactly confident about that. Most people feel more positive about it now,” he added.

The car barn will stand next to Spingarn High School, which is near Langston golf course -- one of the first courses in D.C. to allow black golfers.

“The project has tried to be very respectful to that history, while also trying to move forward. In the same way these institutions represent progress in their generation, that’s what this project is supposed to do,” Edwards said.