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Details emerge for D.C. streetcars, set to begin in 2012

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 8:19 PM

After more than 14 years of planning, false starts and questions over the feasibility of embarking on a $1.5 billion plan to bring back streetcars to the District, the first trolleys will run in the spring of 2012, officials said last week.

The question now is how to pay for the system.

The District Department of Transportation released detailed plans for how the streetcar system's first two lines will be operated - and how the projects could be paid for. The H Street NE and Anacostia tracks are the first steps in what could become a 37-mile citywide network, one of the largest transportation projects ever undertaken in the District and one envisioned to aid cross-town commuters and provide jobs and development to once-blighted wards.

According to the revised streetcar plan, two miles of streetcars will run along H Street NE, from First Street NE to Benning Road NE and Oklahoma Avenue NE, connecting Union Station to the growing H Street corridor with seven stops.

Long-term plans call for streetcars to run over a reconstructed H Street Bridge. The smaller Anacostia line will run less than a mile, from the Navy Annex to Barry Farm and finally to the Anacostia Metrorail station.

Preliminary estimates put the streetcar lines' opening in late March or early April of 2012.

Streetcars ran on Washington streets for a century, until 1962, when Congress ordered them replaced by buses. Hundreds of electric streetcars were sold or junked, and most of the track was uprooted and scrapped, save for a small stretch of rail embedded in cobblestone along P and O streets NW in Georgetown.

Still, eager developers and city officials have long cited streetcars as a way to advance the renaissance of the city's urban center.

The two fully extended lines will cost about $194 million to build and about $8 million a year to operate, officials said. Fares will be set at $1, the same as the Circulator bus and cheaper than Metrobus. Those transferring to a streetcar with a SmarTrip card can ride for free; the vehicles are not expected to be equipped to collect cash fares.

Three streetcars, assembled in the Czech Republic, have been delivered and are being stored at Metro's Greenbelt rail yard.

Streetcar service will be scheduled to run seven days a week, every 10 to 15 minutes, from 6 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Fridays, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays.

Opening Day ridership will probably be scarce; about 6,350 passengers on both lines a day in the first year are projected, with the Anacostia line having especially "low ridership potential." But by 2030, D.C. officials project ridership to nearly triple, to about 23,450 passengers per day.

"Anacostia was never intended to have a lot of riders. It's really there to demonstrate the technology," said Scott Kubly, who manages the streetcar project for the D.C. Department of Transportation. "But it will serve as a critical link to east of the river for the future."

The chief challenge, officials say, is how to pay for it all. The District government has applied for more than $110 million in federal funding, but last week it lost out on $18 million worth of U.S. Transportation Department infrastructure grants.

Transportation officials have proposed tapping $180 million of debt service provided for the Metrorail system; private landowners have been lobbied to consider a special tax district or additional fees for zoning or density allowances; and public-private partnerships are being looked at.

"We will have to gather the political will to make sure that funding supports the implementation of streetcars," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), one of the streetcar plan's biggest proponents.

Funding in the city budget for the the streetcar system has been politically messy, with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, the presumptive mayor-elect, nearly eliminating the program during a late-night meeting in May before finding $50 million to keep it going.

Wells has suggested leveraging federal funding with the benefits for improved commuter access to the former St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington, which is being converted into the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security by 2016.

The other issue is the use of overhead electrical wires, which are used in more than a dozen cities with streetcar systems, including Portland, Ore., and Charlotte. Preservationists have criticized the use of aerial wires, saying they could clutter a historic city made up of national monuments and tree-lined boulevards and would violate a 1889 federal law banning such wires in parts of the city.

"The city says it will be okay, but aside from the financing issue, we still believe overhead wires are a bad idea," said George Clark, president of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

Battery-powered streetcars that could run without wires for up to a mile are being studied, Kubly said, and were referred to in the 42-page plan released by the city, but much of that technology is costly and untested during rainy and snowy weather.

More detailed guidelines for a third-party contractor, possibly Metro, that will operate the streetcars will be developed. A management and architect team has been selected, led by two Seattle- and Portland-based developers.

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