Streetcars in Washington: Throwback tracks

January 19

A new streetcar arrived on H Street NE in December for testing. The line is scheduled to begin service this spring. (Eva Russo/for The Washington Post)

When you think about the future of transportation, you probably imagine driverless cars, hoverboards and maybe the Hyperloop.

The reality — at least, for the immediate future — is less sci-fi. The tech that’s set to alter the way we get around is the same that ruled D.C. and its suburbs a century ago: the streetcar.

Streetcar fever is upon us. The tracks are laid and cars are here for D.C.’s H Street NE line. In Arlington and Fairfax, plans are in the works.

“Streetcars fill a gap in our transit portfolio,” says Dennis Leach, deputy director for transportation for the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services. “This is a maturing of the region’s transit system.”

With 5.8 million residents and counting, Washington is pushing its transportation infrastructure to its limits. Metro trains and buses are overcrowded. Car commuters waste more time in traffic than those in any metro area nationwide, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Electric streetcars, which pollute the air less than buses and cars and are cheaper than new Metro stations, could provide relief.

City planners are forging ahead. After a decade in the works, the H/Benning line is slated to open this spring. D.C. wants to extend that line to Georgetown and build a new one to run from the Southwest Waterfront to the Maryland border, plus a shorter line in Anacostia.

Arlington and Fairfax are getting into the game as well, with streetcar lines planned for Columbia Pike and through Crystal City.

These projects aren’t cheap: In D.C., the government’s 37-mile streetcar proposal, of which 22 miles have been designated “priority,” is projected to cost federal and District taxpayers $1 billion over the next five to seven years.

Arlington anticipates a $250 million investment in federal, state and local dollars in the Columbia Pike line, which will link Bailey’s Crossroads and Pentagon City. Preliminary estimates for the Crystal City line, which will run south to the Alexandria border, clock in at $144 million.

Most of this is at least a decade away. In the meantime, commuters can expect to be inconvenienced as rails are installed along busy thoroughfares.

Leach likens this moment to the 1970s, when the region made heavy investments in building Metrorail. Despite any complaints modern Washingtonians may have about Metro, the system allowed the city to grow in ways it wouldn’t have otherwise.

“We are lucky that the community and the elected officials in the ’70s made the decision to do it,” he says.

If streetcars sound retro, they are. They dominated D.C. streets for about 100 years, until the systems were shut down to make way for private automobiles in the 1960s.

“The need to continually move people in a clean way brought us back to the streetcar,” says Ronaldo Nicholson, the District’s chief engineer.

Streetcars may be costlier to deploy than buses, but they can hold more passengers. About 16,000 people ride buses every day along the 4.9-mile stretch that the Columbia Pike streetcars would serve. Projections put that number at 30,000 by 2030. Buses already run every two to three minutes during peak times. Advocates say streetcars’ larger capacities are the only way to keep up.

There’s an even bigger draw for officials here and in cities such as Portland, Ore.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Cincinnati: Streetcars revive neighborhoods. Property values increase, apartments and condos go up, and new shops open.

Case in point: H Street NE. The area known as the Atlas District has seen a surge of new bars, restaurants and apartment buildings in anticipation of the coming streetcar line.

“The businesses and residential developers along that route know that there is a transportation option that is going to regularly bring people to and from there,” Nicholson says.

That economic windfall is what proponents say will justify the initial investments.

Some fans just think streetcars are cool. They’re old, but new: Like using a typewriter app on an iPhone.

“There’s a bigger ‘wow’ factor with streetcars than with buses,” Nicholson says. Planners hope streetcars will have enough “wow” to lure car commuters as well.

“We’re doing streetcars to convince travelers, commuters and tourists that you have options,” Nicholson says. “You don’t have to be in a single car.” Ambreen Ali (for Express)

The Region’s Streetcar Future

District of Columbia: $1 billion over the next five to seven years

H/Benning:
The nearest streetcar project to completion, H/Benning runs along H Street NE for 2.4 miles between Union Station and Benning Road. The first streetcar is on the tracks and testing has begun. The service is expected to begin in spring, once a safety certification is approved.

Union Station to Georgetown:
Set to connect with the H/Benning line, this east-west segment would give K Street workers a new mode of transportation along that congested thoroughfare. The city has completed an analysis of the transportation options and needs to complete an environmental impact study before receiving federal approval. No timeline is set.

Anacostia:
A 1.1 mile track will connect Anacostia Metro Station to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. It’s targeted for completion later this year. A proposed extension would run through historic Anacostia.

North-South Corridor:
This 9-mile stretch from Buzzard Point in Southwest to Takoma could run along Georgia Avenue. This line is the least developed and still under initial study. No timeline is set.

Virginia:

Columbia Pike:
This $250 million streetcar project would stretch from Bailey’s Crossroads to Pentagon City. After about a decade of studies, the planning process is under way. Streetcars still need to be procured, a process that takes about three years because cars are made to order. Engineering design plans are expected to be presented to the Arlington County Board in this year.

Crystal City:
This line would run along Crystal Drive to connect Pentagon City to Potomac Yard and the Alexandria border. A preliminary estimate puts the cost at $144 million. The project is in an early phase, with an environmental assessment expected in mid-2014. A.A.

 

What To Expect: Streetcars ride along rails embedded into public streets. They require overhead wires, called catenaries, in most locations, but some modern streetcars can run for 2.5 miles without them. In most cases, streetcars will share a lane with other traffic, but along K Street NW there may be a dedicated transit lane for streetcars and buses only. The streetcars planned for the District are about the same length as a bending bus, but hold more people — up to 160 riders. (Express)

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