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D.C. drops plan to extend streetcar line to Georgetown

A rendering of what a two-lane dedicated transitway could look like on K Street NW through downtown. (DMJM HARRIS and AECOM)

District transportation officials have dropped a years-long plan to extend the city’s streetcar line between Union Station and Georgetown via downtown, saying they will instead build dedicated bus lanes on K Street NW.

Jeff Marootian, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, said extending the streetcar line about three miles west to the Georgetown waterfront would be too costly and require finding land for an additional rail car storage and maintenance facility.

Instead, Marootian said, the city will improve east-west mass transit by building protected bus lanes in part of the same corridor via a 1.3-mile K Street Transitway between 12th and 21st streets NW. The project will include dedicated bike lanes, and the bus lanes could be converted for streetcars in the future, he said.

“We’re pursuing the K Street Transitway because it’s expected to deliver a maximum impact in a quicker and more cost-effective way,” Marootian said. “A streetcar project we know takes significantly longer and has several complexities” such as the need for another storage and maintenance facility.

Planners hope new transitway can transform K Street NW

He said DDOT still plans to extend the streetcar line 1.9 miles east from its eastern terminus at Oklahoma Avenue NE, across the Anacostia River to the Benning Road Metro station. That project, which is being studied and is estimated to cost about $175 million, will proceed because it also will include other improvements such as rehabilitating three bridges, he said.

The eastern streetcar extension is scheduled to open in 2025 or 2026, according to DDOT.

The plan to extend the streetcar line west to Georgetown was part of city officials’ years-long quest to provide faster and more reliable east-west transit than buses stuck in traffic. It also would have provided another mass transit link to Georgetown, a major employment and entertainment district with stifling traffic congestion and no Metro station.

But business leaders and residents keeping close tabs on the proposal say news of the Georgetown extension’s demise, first reported by WTOP, was expected.

The project lacked a political champion and languished amid staff turnover at DDOT, said Joe Sternlieb, president of the Georgetown Business Improvement District.

Two years after launch, D.C. looks at ditching its initial streetcar fleet

“This has been a long time coming,” Sternlieb said. “We’ve been tracking the fact that there’s been no money or effort put into it as of two to three years ago.”

Sternlieb said he and others had been concerned that streetcars in Georgetown might have to share lanes with traffic, which would have made the ride too slow to attract people out of their cars.

“To get a project like this done, you need an enormous amount of political will and championing of the idea,” said Sternlieb, who also chairs D.C. Sustainable Transportation, a coalition of transit, smart growth and environmental advocates. “The problem is enough people looked at it and said ‘I’m not sure this is going to solve the problem.’ ”

He said the K Street Transitway could accomplish much of the same goal of moving more people more quickly in dedicated bus and bike lanes.

How D.C. spent $200 million over a decade on a streetcar that took years to ride

The D.C. Streetcar, which opened in 2016 after a decade of delays and missteps, runs 2.4 miles and has eight stations along H Street NE and Benning Road NE between Union Station and Oklahoma Avenue NE. While DDOT said it carried about 1.1 million passengers in fiscal 2019, the line also has generated complaints of being too slow and providing limited service in a short stretch.

The K Street Transitway will have two dedicated bus lanes — one in each direction — down the middle of the road, separated from traffic by medians that will provide waiting room for passengers. The street will continue to have three lanes of traffic in each direction but will lose its service lanes and have better bus stops, lighting and landscaping, city officials say.

Janice Ferebee, a Ward 2 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and member of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, said she was happy to hear the streetcar won’t be extended to Georgetown. Ferebee said the area needs more lanes designated for buses and bicycles, rather than a streetcar line whose construction would rip up streets for years.

“I didn’t want it to happen anyway, because I thought it would be much too disruptive for much too long,” she said.

D.C. wants to make clear that bike lanes aren’t for cars

Randy Downs, another Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for Ward 2, said his community supported both the streetcar extension and K Street Transitway. He said that he, too, is happy the city is focused on building more dedicated bus lanes.

“I think in general folks were excited about the idea of the streetcar,” Downs said. “But I think as long as we’re prioritizing public transportation through dedicated bus lanes, I think we can achieve the same goal of moving people quickly and efficiently.”

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.