Transit Plan on Track

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

The District's on-again, off-again streetcar project has reached a critical stage: Officials are to unseal bids next month and award a contract this fall for construction of tracks and other infrastructure. Three new modern streetcars have been bought and are sitting in storage in the Czech Republic.

If all goes according to plan, the red-and-gray streetcars could be running along a 1.3-mile stretch from Bolling Air Force Base to the Anacostia Metro station by late next year. That segment, which will cost about $45 million, would be part of an extensive network of streetcars and rapid bus service that transportation officials envision will stretch across the city in coming years.

Like transit planners elsewhere, District officials see the modern streetcar as a way to connect inner-city neighborhoods and jump-start economic development without harming the environment. Transportation officials are to give an update on the project at a public hearing tomorrow convened by D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

District transportation planners hope the streetcars can do for Washington what they did for Portland. In Oregon's largest city, the streetcar system that began operating in 2001 is credited with accelerating redevelopment along an eight-mile continuous loop, turning a once-deteriorating area of warehouses into one full of restaurants, upscale hotels and galleries. Planners say that every dollar spent on the system resulted in $18 of development. The Czech-built streetcars, the same type bought by the District, inspired a local brewery to make a beer in their honor, Streetcar Ale.

The renaissance of streetcars, a form of light rail, has been taking place across the country for the past several years. Light rail, which includes modern streetcars, had the highest percentage of ridership increase -- 10.3 percent -- of all transit in the first quarter of this year over the same period last year, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Streetcars share lanes with automobiles and ride on rails built in existing streets. Power comes from overhead electric wires. The small-size trains are quiet, efficient and environmentally friendly, carrying people through high-density areas on short inner-city trips, reducing automobile traffic and parking.

At a time of "higher-than-ever fuel costs and greater-than-ever concerns about air quality," the appeal of streetcars is especially high, said Chris Zimmerman (D), Arlington County Board member.

Northern Virginia also has a streetcar project, a five-mile line along Columbia Pike in Arlington and Fairfax counties. Progress on that $172 million project is behind the District's, and because of Virginia state legislators' failure to come up with transportation funding, that streetcar line is certain to be delayed even further, officials said.

The projects coincide with plans in Maryland to build a light rail or bus rapid transit Purple Line extending inside the Beltway from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

In the District, the Anacostia streetcar segment is anticipated to have 1,400 daily riders, mostly made up of federal workers, District employees and city residents, according to transportation officials. The cars would travel with automobile traffic, on in-street embedded track occupying one of the lanes. For the past year, the three streetcars have been stored at the manufacturer's site in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Graham said he called tomorrow's hearing after attending a light rail conference in Istanbul last month representing Metro, for which he is a board member. The conference prompted him to question the project's scope and location, he said.

He has asked for a temporary hold on a budget request to transfer $10 million from another District transportation project, the 11th Street bridge, to the Anacostia streetcar segment. The initial streetcar line is funded entirely with District moneys.

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