Like seemingly every other city in the country, Washington, DC is planning a streetcar network. Its transportation officials, however, seem uniquely positioned to actually construct their system; unlike other municipalities, Washington is installing tracks in the ground — albeit with no power source — and owns several streetcar vehicles — though they’re in storage in the Czech Republic.
Last week, Greater Greater Washington broke the big story, which is that the District plans eight streetcar lines to be built in three phases, to extend 37 miles across the city. Beyond DC followed up with news that local transportation officials expect the project’s completion in ten years or less at a total cost of $1.5 billion. It would be the most significant example of municipal entrepreneurship on behalf of such street-running light rail vehicles in almost a century.
At a first glance, the project seems well-planned — the streetcar network would complement existing Metro lines and complete connections that are tenuous today. The first routes would serve transit-deprived and primarily lower-class neighborhoods along H Street and Benning Road in Northeast Washington; along the planned K Street Transitway downtown; from Anacostia north along 8th Street through Capitol Hill and into the developing Navy Yard/Ballpark district; and north-south along 14th Street and Georgia Avenue.
The full network, as illustrated above, would connect a number of destinations with the intention of linking Metro stations circumferentially. Anacostia’s Minnesota Avenue Orange Line stop and Anacostia Green Line stop would be linked directly along Minnesota Avenue; Woodley Park, Adams Morgan, and Union Station would find themselves closer via a new streetcar on Calvert Street, U Street, and Florida Avenue; and new Rhode Island Avenue and Columbia Road lines could ensure east-west connections in Mid City. Wealthy and white Northwest DC would get virtually no service. This plan is dramatically more ambitious than that envisioned in 2005 by the city, which proposed fewer streetcars and more bus lines.
There is no provision for new transit on Pennsylvania Avenue, which bisects the city; this despite the fact that the 30s buses that currently use the street are the city’s most popular.
From a process standpoint, the District’s decision to pursue streetcar construction in a series of phases rather than line-by-line is an unusual approach that indicates the city’s interest in developing the system as a network, rather than as a series of individual elements. Each of the three phases will undergo an impact study, and will be constructed as a unit. The 1.5-mile Anacostia line already planned for fall 2012 and the tracks being laid on H Street and Benning road already will be incorporated into the first phase.
This is an important advance that evokes memories of the development of the Washington Metro, virtually all of whose construction followed a single plan and environmental assessment developed when the project was first authorized. Because of procedural changes in the 1970s and 80s by the Federal Transit Administration, most transportation authorities have approached capital expansion from the perspective of serving one corridor at a time, rather than in the interest of planning a unified network from the start. Washington’s decision to articulate a streetcar system now, rather than suggesting, for instance, one line in Anacostia, followed by something else to be determined at a later time, is the right move.
The decision to move forward with this network plan would allow overall completion by 2019 if the District is able to assemble enough local and national money. Federal aid in the form of Small Start grants seem likely.
There are some contradictions in the District’s proposal. The Department of Transportation, according to Beyond DC, plans streetcars as a quick way to get around the city, with stations positioned every four to five blocks (a quarter mile), versus every two blocks, typical for local buses (and the Portland Streetcar, for instance). For many people, streetcars would be the city’s most convenient and fastest mode of transportation and provide service levels somewhere between that offered by express buses and the Metro.
Yet plans also call for platforms that aren’t full-length; worse, the city will not generally operate trains with more than one car, meaning it’s not expecting particularly large numbers of users. Streetcars will operate in mostly mixed traffic, with the exception of along K Street, M Street Southeast, and Rhode Island Avenue: everywhere else, the vehicles would be competing with automobile traffic. That’s not a recipe for success, but it certainly will allow the city to build more miles for less money. It’s the primary explanation for why $1.5 billion is enough to construct this large of a system.
One wonders if Washington would benefit from fewer lines with increased investment in those that are built. Though right-of-ways are not available for full reservation, between intersections most of the DC streets planned for streetcar lines are wide enough to provide independent lanes for the streetcars alone. There’s no reason to mix train and automobile traffic, and if the city chooses to separate the right-of-ways, ridership will increase correspondingly.
The city wants to build a 37-mile system, but perhaps it should double its proposed price tag and extend the time frame for completion. A faster, more reliable system that takes longer to build will be more worthwhile than a street-running network thrown together at a minimal cost.
Image above: DC Streetcar Plan, from District DOT