When Public Officials Announce They Won’t ‘Set Arbitrary Deadlines’ for Big Projects

It's been a very long journey for D.C.'s long-delayed streetcar project. It's been a very long journey for D.C.'s long-delayed streetcar project. District of Columbia Department of Transportation

WASHINGTON — You might be forgiven for thinking that the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line is fully operational. The tracks are installed, police are ticketing cars blocking the tracks and there are actually streetcar vehicles running along the route though the booming H Street NE entertainment and nightlife corridor.

Those streetcars, however, are test vehicles running simulated service in advance of securing the safety certification necessary for the actual opening of the streetcar line.

But when will the streetcars actually start passenger service?

Don’t look to the District of Columbia government for a specific answer.

Last week, the District Department of Transportation’s interim director, Leif Dormsjo—recently brought in by new D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser—announced there would be no new timeline predictions for the long-delayed streetcar project that D.C. officials had promised would open years ago.  

Streetcar tracks were installed many years ago along H Street NE in Washington, D.C. This DDOT photo was taken in 2011. It's now 2015 and streetcar service hasn't started yet.

D.C.’s former mayor, Vincent Gray, had promised that the streetcar line would be ready for passenger service two years ago and when that didn’t happen, pushed for an opening date by the end of 2014. That didn’t happen either. The project, which started construction in late 2007 under the the administration of then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, has been called “A Streetcar Called Delay.”)

Gray issued a statement right as he was leaving office late last year that the streetcar’s opening was on track for an opening the week of Jan. 19. Since then, D.C.’s transportation officials had been silent on the issue until late last week.

According to Dormsjo’s statement, released Friday:

Passenger safety is the number one priority for public transportation in the District of Columbia. Further, given the need to achieve safety certification, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will not set arbitrary deadlines for the independent State Safety Office (SSO) to complete their regulatory compliance review. The Bowser Administration will work to launch the H Street line of DC Streetcar as part of our effort to expand the District’s transportation infrastructure and will put this long-delayed line on track. DDOT will continue to work with the independent SSO to ensure that Streetcar meets – and exceeds – all safety specifications before setting an official date to begin passenger service.

As WAMU-FM recently reported:

Unlike her predecessor, Mayor Muriel Bowser has refrained from making any public predictions about the start of passenger service in her few remarks since taking office about the streetcar.

By now such promises carry little weight with a public that has been waiting four mayoral administrations to hop aboard a streetcar.

Project timelines, especially for infrastructure projects, can be very tricky things.

In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, a road expansion project led by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has been causing big local headaches and was put on a new timeline this past summer.

"They're running a year behind schedule," Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez told The Express-Times. "If there's any glitch, we're looking at 2017."

In North Carolina, state transportation officials delayed the start of construction for a long-planned highway project to bypass the town of Havelock to 2018.

“I remember being in high school remembering them talking about how there was a bypass coming, but every time it came to actually spending the dollars, DOT either didn’t have the money that they needed or it wasn’t a high enough priority to be funded,” Havelock Mayor Will Lewis told the Havelock News in December. “It’s always been pushed further down the timeline.”

And in New York City, there’s a long history of large infrastructure construction projects being delayed and delayed and delayed, from the Fulton Street Transit Center in Lower Manhattan—which finally opened last fall—to the extension of the No. 7 subway line, pictured here in this Metropolitan Transportation Authority map:

That subway extension on Manhattan’s far west side, not to be confused with the epically delayed Second Avenue subway project, is essentially complete, but the opening has been put off because of problematic escalators, elevators, ventilation systems and other issues.

When you mix elected officials into the equation, the desire to deliver a project on a timeline can create some interesting optics.

In the case of the No. 7 subway extension, Michael Bloomberg, then in his final days of New York City’s mayor in 2013, rode a ceremonial subway train along the extended, but still unfinished, line. (Bloomberg, who promised to deliver the project during his mayoral tenure, had said earlier that year he’d ride a train down the subway extension “if I have to push it myself.”)

That ceremonial train ride was in December 2013. It’s now 2015.

Straphangers in New York City might be able to ride it starting next month if all goes according to the most recent timeline.

Michael Bloomberg, then New York City's mayor, speaks in the unfinished 34th Street subway station of the unfinished No. 7 line extension on Dec. 20. 2013. (Photo by Patrick Cashin / MTA)

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