Bring streetcars to the District

November 5, 2009

With budget problems mounting every week for D.C. transportation organizations, it’s hard to think about investing $1.5 billion over the next seven to ten years in an entirely new citywide transportation system. But the District Department of Transportation invited Washingtonians to do just that last week, when it unveiled its 3-phase streetcar plan, which would connect many neighborhoods underserved by Metro, and strengthen links between District neighborhoods.

It might seem like buses could just as easily get people around these new routes, but streetcars offer distinct advantages over simply patching holes with buses. The first modern streetcar system developed in the U.S.—after cities’ existing lines were dismantled and replaced with buses in the 1960s—was built in Portland, Oregon in 2001. The system has seen $18 invested in the area immediately surrounding their tracks for every dollar invested in the streetcar system, a testament to how greatly streetcars can improve the area they serve.

This phenomenon occurs because streetcar lines encourage new development around them—unlike bus routes, which are created to serve already-developed areas. A bus route can be changed at will, but streetcar tracks signal that a city has made an investment in the area and plans on staying there. Just as housing becomes more desirable the closer it is to a Metro stop, so would living or owning a business near a streetcar line––something that can’t be said for buses. One of the major arteries of the proposed line would run along the waterfront in Anacostia, and connect it across to the rest of D.C. Currently, this part of the city only has one Metro line cutting through it out to Maryland, but the addition of an above-ground, permanent streetcar along the Anacostia River would give much-needed service and opportunities for development.

Other proposed branches of the streetcar line will serve different purposes, such as reducing overwhelming congestion in the K Street corridor. Currently, multiple bus lines compete with traffic through this dense area of town, often causing traffic jams by trying to pass other vehicles or maneuver around the complicated medians on either side of the four lanes of traffic. This could be simplified by placing streetcar tracks down the center of the road, and letting cars pass on either side. The K Street Line would continue west to the Georgetown Waterfront and east to H Street NE, also known as the Atlas District, an area that could benefit immensely from a long-term investment in the neighborhood’s permanent connectivity to the rest of the city.

Another important advantage of streetcars, which shouldn’t be overlooked is their ease of use. A system that is simpler to understand than bus routes––its a fixed route, clear system map, and conveniently scheduled cars every five to ten minutes––will encourage more people to use public transit and leave their cars at home.

Aside from the positive impact streetcars would have in encouraging development and providing clear links between neighborhoods, the plan should be encouraged simply because D.C.’s transit system is already operating near-capacity. By 2030, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority estimates that daily ridership will be nearly 1,000,000 people per day––a number only seen so far on the day of President Obama’s inauguration. Anyone who tried to navigate Metro that day should understand how important it is to develop new ways of transporting hundreds of thousands of people around the city. The streetcar lines could be a major part of this long-term solution.

Currently, DDOT’s proposed streetcar system isn’t officially affiliated with WMATA, leaving the option open for both federal and private funding, such as contributions from local business improvement districts. Compared to the cost of drilling entirely new underground lines, the streetcar option is far more economical. Committing to building a streetcar system means that D.C. is looking past short-term bus solutions, investing to improve and interconnect D.C.’s disparate communities.

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