Washington DC goes Streetcar

November 5, 2009 43 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

For all those who believe an integrated transit system with multiple modes doesn't make sense, don't tell that to Washington, DC. Already blessed with the Amtrak Acela, a subway and commuter rail, the capitol city has an agressive plan underway to add 37 miles of streetcar routes to the region's transit mix.


• 37 miles, 8 lines

• The first two lines, in Anacostia and on H Street, are already under construction and will open in 2012.

• The DC lines will travel on their own dedicated right-of-way with traffic signal priority at major intersections.

• Streetcars will only stop every 4-5 blocks, instead of every 2, as in Portland to speed up operations.

• 7-10 years to construct the rest of the system after that.

• Total cost: $1.5 billion


Anacostia Line

Anacostia, one of Washington DC's most dangerous neighborhoods is now getting a new lease on life, thanks to the streetcar.

On November 13, 2004, Metro broke ground in Anacostia on a light rail line that would explore the usefulness of streetcars in ferrying people to the main Metro line. The line consists of 2.7 miles of track and six stations. Service was expected to begin in 2006.

District transportation officials had negotiated a $16 million payment to CSX Transportation for use of the right-of-way. But they later discovered that CSX was not the sole owner of the right-of-way; the city, for one, owned part of it. In April 2005, they put the project on hold and began to plan an alternate 2.2-mile route on city streets.

The new plan received neighborhood opposition.

In July 2008, District officials prepared a plan to begin construction of tracks and infrastructure that fall, with completion planned in late 2009. The route would run 1.3 miles from Anacostia Metro station to Bolling Air Force Base.

The Anacostia Line is expected to cost $45 million, and the three streetcars will serve stops every 10 minutes, with 1,400 daily riders.

Phase One of the Anacostia Line will run from the Anacostia Metro station along Firth Sterling Avenue, with stops at Barry Farm and the Anacostia Naval Station, then turn south along South Capitol Street to Bolling Air Force Base. The route lies outside the old City of Washington, which means it can and will use overhead wires, which are cheaper to install and maintain but which are prohibited within the historic city limits.

Delays in construction, caused in part by a decision to trim the Bolling AFB end of the line in favor of extending the line northeast through more of Anacostia, has delayed the opening of the line. Expected opening is now 2012.

H Street NE/Benning Road Line

In anticipation of being served streetcar, transit oriented development is already invading the H Street corridor.

In 2005, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams launched the Great Streets initiative, which focuses development and revitalization upon six corridors. Among those are H Street, NE and Benning Road.

On January 20, 2006, the District of Columbia Department of Transportation announced that it would build a streetcar line on H Street, NE, from Union Station to Benning Road as part of its Great Streets initiative, on much of the same route established by the Columbia Railway Company in 1870. As of July 2009, streetcar tracks are being installed on H Street as part of the scheduled street re-construction, with streetcar service beginning around 2011.



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


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.



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Article by Ennis Davis