Could H Street be the only neighborhood that gets the streetcar? It's a possibility.
In a significant departure from the previous administration, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is not committed to extending the District’s first streetcar line since 1962 beyond the opening 2.2-miles along H Street and Benning Road Northeast, jeopardizing plans her predecessor viewed as the lynchpin for the city’s future economic development and multi-modal transportation.
What is left of former Mayor Vincent Gray’s vision of a priority streetcar system — pared down from 22 to 8 miles by D.C. Council funding cuts last year — is the subject of an internal review.
Mayor Bowser, who has displayed none of the public enthusiasm for streetcars that marked Gray’s single term in office, is considering killing plans to extend the current One City line west from Union Station along K Street Northwest to Georgetown, and east to Minnesota Avenue Northeast. Plans for a short line in Anacostia could also be eliminated.
“The administration’s focus right now is getting the H Street line up and running as soon as it is safe to do so. Long-term plans for Streetcar will be made following that,” said Bowser spokesman Michael Czin.
Private sector bids on hold
The H Street/Benning Road Northeast line has suffered from a string of blown deadlines and technical concerns. Mayor Bower’s new leadership at the District Department of Transportation has prioritized fixing its problems with the goal of finally opening the line to passenger service this year. In the meantime, bids by private sector companies to win the contract to build out the streetcar system are on hold.
In October, DDOT announced a short list of three private sector contractor teams who had advanced to the Request for Proposals (RFP) stage of the District’s procurement process. Those companies are waiting to submit their bids to design, build, operate, and maintain a streetcar system.
“We're performing a comprehensive reexamination of the streetcar program,” said interim DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo in an email to WAMU 88.5.
Dormsjo declined to describe the bidding process as “on hold,” but he made clear DDOT does not need design plans immediately.
“The solicitation is still active and it has not been placed on hold or cancelled. The schedule is being adjusted to reflect the need for more examination of the project goals and objectives. Upon completion of our review, we will notify the proposers and the public of our intention to move forward or not,” Dorsmjo said.
The three contractor teams that advanced to the RFP stage were led by URS (since merged with AECOM), Clark Construction (the builder of Phase II of the Silver Line Metrorail), and Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure.
A statement issued by Balfour Beatty appeared to contradict DDOT’s assertion that the bids are not on hold.
“While there has been no concrete update on the status of the RFP, we are committed to providing a responsive bid for the safe construction of this unique transportation link for the Washington, D.C. area when the procurement process proceeds,” said the statement by company Vice President Joe Reed.
Clark Construction did not respond to requests for comment, and AECOM issued a brief statement.
“As a matter of policy we don't comment on pending proposals or on other matters best left to the prospective client,” said AECOM’s Paul Dickard.
Privately, the companies harbor little optimism the Bowser administration will move beyond the current H Street Northeast line.
What if two miles is all D.C. gets?
The possibility D.C.’s first streetcar line in more than half a century will not expand beyond the borders of a single neighborhood is deflating for transit advocates who were once excited by the prospect of nearly two dozen miles of streetcar tracks crisscrossing Washington. Some are now questioning whether a 2.2-mile line would have any value, especially considering it has cost more than $160 million to build.
“The key factor isn't length, but rather what it connects. Does it provide useful connections?” said Dan Malouff, a transit and urban planning specialist who edits the blog Beyond D.C. “If you look at other American streetcar systems, a lot of them are longer.”
Malouff said the H Street Northeast streetcar line already has demonstrated some value, even though it has not carried a single passenger.
“It really did contribute to the energy of H Street revitalization. It is hard to know how much it contributed, but it is probably fair to say the promise of the streetcar is part of what made H Street boom faster than Rhode Island Avenue or Georgia Avenue in Brightwood,” Malouff said.
Maintaining a schedule is also easier along a short route. “It is more likely the streetcar actually will come every 10 minutes.”
The streetcar renaissance sweeping cities across the United States has given birth to lines usually longer than just a couple miles connecting multiple neighborhoods, Malouff said, pointing to Philadelphia and New Orleans as two examples.
“You can get all over those cities on their streetcar cities,” he said. “There are a few cities that have short lines like D.C. Cincinnati is building one that is very short that basically goes from downtown to the next neighborhood over. Some of them are useful and some of them aren't. It really depends on what is at either end of the line, and what is along the line.”
The more places a transit system goes, the more useful it is. Mayor Gray envisioned tourists and commuters hopping streetcars to traverse the city both east-west and north-south, until the D.C. Council cut funding for a 10-mile north-south line connecting Takoma with Buzzard Point.
Streetcars were seen not only as a more cost-effective mode of moving people than building additional Metro subway tunnels, but as engine of economic development. Gray never hesitated to bring up the experience in Portland, Oregon, where he credited billions in economic development to that city’s streetcar system.
“The foremost American example of a new streetcar city is Portland, which started in the 1990s with one line that was just a couple miles long. They are now up to about 15 miles of track with more under construction and scheduled to open this summer,” Malouff said.
“Portland consistently added segments every couple of years for the last couple decades. They have been a model for other cities that are emulating them. D.C. hoped to.”