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Questions Raised About Streetcar

The District's ambitious plan to create a billion-dollar network of streetcars and rapid buses over the next two decades is supposed to begin next year along a 1.3 mile track in Anacostia. But some District leaders are questioning whether they've picked the right place to start.

DC%20streetcar%20%282%29.jpg Streetcar desired for DC. Cars now in Czech Republic. (DDOT photo)

At $45 million, the Anacostia line represents a tiny portion of the overall cost of the network, but it's still a hefty hunk of change as the District government looks ahead to some lean years on revenue. So it's worthy of attention all across the city. And for transit advocates regionwide, the debate over this streetcar plan offers some insights into issues they will face repeatedly over the next 20 years.

Here are the sides of the argument, in very reduced form.

The District Department of Transportation and some D.C. Council members:
-- Before we can create a full network of streetcars, we need a test drive. It's been more than four decades since trolleys operated in Washington and the people who managed that system are long gone. We need a demonstration project on an easy route to work out the inevitable bugs.
-- We're on the verge of getting started. We can get construction bids this summer and start looking for a contractor to operate the line. A successful test will build enthusiasm for more lines. We already bought the streetcars, which are ready and waiting in the Czech Republic.
-- We promised this to Anacostia, a community that was among the last to get Metrorail.
-- This will spur economic development in an area that desperately needs it.

Other council members and some transit advocates:
-- Most people in Anacostia will never see this line. The route follows the path of least resistance from the Anacostia Metro station down to Bolling Air Force Base. Completely funded by D.C. money, the line will most likely serve people from outside the community traveling to their federal jobs.
-- Don't expect a route bordered by federal institutions and an interstate highway to spark development. There's no place for it to go.
-- If your test drive works, how will you know? Your route guarantees limited ridership and limited development. You can't build enthusiasm for a streetcar most city residents won't see.
-- For Anacostia residents, the streetcar is an expensive toy that will get tucked in a closet and never used. Why not give people a system of rapid buses that they're more likely to ride?

The Anacostia streetcar project has been in the news on and off for more than five years. In fact their was a well-attended groundbreaking in November 2004, during the Anthony Williams administration. But it's still a sleeper issue. When Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) convened a hearing about it on Monday, he said he believed it might be the first oversight session on the streetcar line.

While most of the participants in this debate believe in the streetcar system, some have an interest in placing the first line elsewhere. For example, Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) have a natural attraction to the proposed Benning Road-H Street streetcar line, the foundation for which will be laid during a streetscape project already underway.

Graham recessed his Monday hearing after making a reasonable request: He wants the District Department of Transportation to show him a document that says, We picked this route for these reasons.

By Robert Thomson  |  July 16, 2008; 6:37 AM ET
Categories:  transit  
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While I don't oppose the streetcar idea I do think the above ground electrical lines that run it are ugly. Not only that but the first bad storm that blows through will bring them down or interrupt service in some fashion. Why not run the streetcars on natural gas or something else besides electric lines strung from the "ceiling".

Posted by: dancermommd | July 16, 2008 7:19 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: dancermommd, there are plenty of issues about the power source. Congress banned overhead lines in Washington's core. A streetcar on the Benning Road-H Street corridor would enter that zone.

DC might have to go to Congress to get the ban lifted, if core communities would tolerate that. Or the city could find a streetcar that works without overhead wires.

Streetcars that use a below ground power source have maintenance problems. For example, road chemicals corrode the wires. Batteries aren't powerful enough to drive a streetcar for a long distance. We do have gas-powered streetcars but we tend to call them buses.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | July 16, 2008 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Out of curiosity, is this a WMATA project, or would it be completely separate?

I would agree that the Anacostia area really needs the additional development, but if the only people who use it are The Feds, as opposed to the people of Anacostia, I can see community resistance becoming a big-time issue.

Posted by: Joseph McMahon | July 16, 2008 9:26 AM | Report abuse

As one of those federal workers who would eagerly ride the demonstration line, I think the question is what the purpose of the project is. We've seen that transit is well used across the region, and that development does result from better access - don't think we really need to spend money looking at that again.

The question is whether or not we really need to "practice" with a demonstration project in order to run the more trafficed lines properly. Given Metro's past performance, that might not be a bad idea. But you can't pretend the streetcar will be an economic boon to Anacostia, since it will go through pretty much only federal areas.

Overall, streetcars I think are essential to the future of DC and to getting folks out of their cars in the city. I was in Toronto eariler this year and amazed by the streetcar network they have in their downtown - almost every street in the downtown grid has one, and they are frequent and quick.

Posted by: One of those Federal Workers | July 16, 2008 9:55 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock:
For Joseph McMahon -- The District Department of Transportation is in charge of the streetcar project, though it might operate lines in a partnership with Metro, as it does now in operating the downtown Circulator bus. Picking an Anacostia route, or a Benning Road-H Street route, is a DDOT decision.

For Fed Worker -- I think DDOT's strongest case for the Anacostia route is that it lets the city figure out how to build and operate a streetcar in a relatively easy spot. That's not an unusual transportation strategy. NASA didn't start the space program by building a Saturn V and launching it toward the moon. It started by strapping Alan Shepard into a tin can atop a relatively reliable rocket and launching him toward the Bahamas.

While many Washingtonians remember the streetcar era, there's no one in D.C. government who operated those trains. There's got to be a learning curve.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | July 16, 2008 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I was at the hearing on Monday. One concern Graham raised and I share is that given the uncertainty regarding what the capital budget will be for DDOT in the next 3-5 years, there is a good possibility that this 1.3 mile segment will be operating in isolation without any further streetcar development for many years.

Surely there are public-private partnership opportunties that would allow for a more agressive build out of the streetcar system.

All that would be required is for the city to agree to an annual availability payment to a concessionaire. If it is priced right then the private sector can use the guarantee of that payment to get private sector capital to front the construction in return they get they get a 30-50 year concession, the term can be negotiable.

This can happen very quickly for the streetcar alignment that is outside of the federal city.

Until the overhead catenary (power line) restriction is lifted though, we won't see streetcars in the city core.

Posted by: DC Resident | July 17, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

I'd love to see WMATA try to figure out a space launch.

Posted by: Ha | July 17, 2008 6:12 PM | Report abuse

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