Mark Byrnes/CityLab

Plainly, building a streetcar line isn’t easy. But lots of things aren’t easy.

D.C.’s H Street/Benning Streetcar sailed forth on its inaugural 2.2-mile journey on Saturday. How long it has taken Washington, D.C.’s Department of Transportation to make this happen is a question that requires some unpacking. There were more false starts than stations in the build-out of the D.C. Streetcar.

Highlights include the time when the District bought three streetcars in 2004 from the Czech Republic, where they sat, unused and racking up storage fees, until 2009. (One of them was even lost to rain damage.) Or the day in 2010 when the D.C. Council nearly voted to strip $49 million in funding from the project.

Then there were the broken promises: Service would start March 2012. Service would start late 2012. Service would start late 2013. No, service would start mid 2013—scratch that, late 2013. Make that early 2014. The streetcar finally took to the rails in August 2014. Then 18 months of tumultuous testing followed.

Plainly, building a streetcar line isn’t easy. But lots of things aren’t easy. Lots of things take political capital and financial commitment. And lots of things required a heck of a lot more of both than the D.C. Streetcar—and still managed to get finished in less than the roughly nine years it took to get this single trolley line up and running.

Here’s a brief list of some of those things:

Mark Byrnes/CityLab

Nine years is time enough to make something good, if not great. Some of the greatest civic endeavors and infrastructure projects in history were accomplished in only a slightly longer window. The Colossus of Rhodes—the towering statue of Helios erected by the magnificent Chares of Lindos in 280 B.C.—took 12 years. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built in 10–20 years. (Granted, the Colossus only stood guard over Rhodes for half a century before it tumbled in an earthquake, and Giza’s all sorts of cursed.)

The problem isn’t that the District Department of Transportation failed to build a 2.2-mile Wonder of the World. Of course not. Rather, the issue is that too often, streetcars just don’t meet the standard of great transit—and the D.C. Streetcar rollout didn’t meet even low expectations. Consider recent examples from around the nation:

  • Portland Streetcar: 7.2 miles (construction on the NS Line began in 1999, and its first phase opened in 2001; construction on the CL Line began in 2010, and its first phase opened in 2012)
  • S-Line (Salt Lake City): 2 miles (2012–2013)
  • Atlanta Streetcar: 2.7 miles (2012–2014)
  • Dallas Streetcar: 1.6 miles (2013–2015, with an extension planned to open late 2016)
  • CityLynx Gold Line (Charlotte): 1.5 miles (2012–2015)
  • KC Streetcar (in Kansas City): 2 miles (May 2014–projected May 2016)
  • Cincinnati Streetcar: 3.6 miles (2012–projected September 2016)

Maybe things could be worse for the District residents who will line up Saturday to be among the first passengers on the H/Benning line. It could be the World Trade Center Transit Hub, that magnificent boondoggle” whose costs and timetable both doubled over the course of its construction. But not much worse: Nine years in the making, it’s still unclear whether D.C. residents will ever make good use of the D.C. Streetcar. What was originally envisioned as a transit link has been compromised to the point of near uselessness. Development along the corridor and other benefits of the plan materialized before the first streetcars ever did.

The D.C. Streetcar never needed to be Abbey Road or gravitational waves. No one expected the Great Pyramid of H Street. But the District could’ve gotten more for its money. Nine years is a long time to wait. Worse still, nine years is a long time to lose.

Mark Byrnes/CityLab

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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