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D.C.'s streetcar plan is really making tracks now

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By Robert Thomson
Sunday, November 1, 2009

The District is developing a new transit network based on a mode of transportation that disappeared from Washington half a century ago. So the city government decided it needed to get people reacquainted with the concept. Eight open houses -- one for each ward -- are being held to explain what the program involves, what work is underway and what is planned.

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"This is the end of the start of the streetcar planning process," District Department of Transportation Associate Director Scott Kubly said at one meeting this past week in Columbia Heights. And it has been a long start-up. But Kubly's mission is to "build as much as we can as quickly as we can."

The program's goals

This is what the District says streetcars can do for its communities:

-- Link neighborhoods with a modern, convenient and attractive transportation alternative.

-- Attract new transit riders.

-- Offer a broader range of transit options for District residents.

-- Reduce short inner-city car trips, parking demand, traffic congestion and air pollution.

-- Encourage economic development and affordable housing options along streetcar corridors.

History

The first D.C. streetcar line began operating during the Civil War. But older residents of the District can remember a streetcar network of more than 200 miles, with service provided by private companies. The last of the old, investment-starved generation of streetcars stopped running in 1962. After that, city transit meant buses, until Metrorail opened in 1976.

The rest of the nation also abandoned its streetcars, but they have made a strong comeback in cities including Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Tampa.

Advocates refer to the new generation as "modern streetcars," providing a smoother, quieter and cleaner ride than buses. Metro provides a regional transit service, the advocates say, so the District's streetcars will not only relieve some of the congestion on Metro lines but also connect neighborhoods in ways Metro cannot.

Now what?

The first segment of the hoped-for network, the 1.5-mile Anacostia streetcar line financed by the District, had a ceremonial groundbreaking while Anthony A. Williams was still mayor. Actual construction began in March, and the line is scheduled to begin service by late 2012. The original course has been modified to include South Capitol Street, Firth Sterling Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

As work crews tear up H Street and Benning Road NE for the city's Great Streets reconstruction project, they are laying down streetcar tracks for a future line. That line would open after the Anacostia line, but no one wanted to tear up Benning Road and H Street twice. This segment could link to the Anacostia line across a rebuilt 11th Street Bridge.

The District has plans for more lines, such as the proposed route along K Street through downtown that would connect to H Street and Benning Road, a line along Georgia Avenue/14th Street/Seventh Street, and a Rhode Island Avenue/U Street/14th Street/K Street route. The entire network of eight lines would cover 37 miles. The cost estimate is $1.5 billion, and the District is exploring potential sources of financing.

Questions for planners

Here are just a few issues that must be resolved:

-- Who will operate the streetcars? There are three basic options: DDOT could operate the system, Metro could do it or a private company could be hired. The issue of who will run the lines is similar to what planners of Maryland's Purple Line confront.

-- Will they have overhead wires? The District says it is committed to operating vehicles without overhead wires in parts of the city where the wires could interfere with views of monuments and historic sites. Wired lines aren't as attractive, but they are easier to maintain than systems that put the power lines in the streets, where ice and road chemicals can affect them. One potential solution: batteries.

-- Won't the streetcars take away precious lanes? DDOT says the streetcars will operate in traffic, sharing lanes with autos, but some streets -- like K Street -- might have dedicated transit lanes. Street parking would still be available in most cases.

-- How frequently would they run? DDOT says it envisions the streetcars operating every seven to 10 minutes, seven days a week, but that could change with further study.

Open houses

Three sessions remain. Each is from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Visitors can look at display boards and maps and talk to the project team.

Monday: Savoy Elementary, 2400 Shannon Place SE .

Tuesday: Luke Moore Academy, 1001 Monroe St. NE.

Wednesday: Stoddert Elementary, 4001 Calvert St. NW.


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