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On Eve Of Launch, D.C. Streetcar Backers Recall Origins Of Its Revival

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You're just hours away from — finally! — being able to ride the D.C. Streetcar.
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You're just hours away from — finally! — being able to ride the D.C. Streetcar.

After more than a decade of planning, construction, and delays that spanned four mayoral administrations, Washington’s first streetcar line since 1962 is ready to launch on Saturday — amid a good deal of negativity and doubt. 

The $200 million project’s troubled history has eroded much of the excitement that greeted the initiative to bring rail transit to the two-mile H Street and Benning Road Northeast commercial corridor. Endless test runs that began in Aug. 2014 served to remind the public of the many empty promises about the start of passenger service.

But in recalling the original impulse for reviving streetcar service in the capital city – the idea emerged in the mid-1990s – supporters say the goal of spurring economic growth remains attainable, especially in parts of the District historically underserved by transit, if the initial line is extended east of the Anacostia River. 

Moreover, D.C. hopes its late entrance into a nationwide streetcar rebirth repeats the success enjoyed by other cities that have launched or extended lines in the past decade.

Looking at launch day

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Back to the future

In 1997 Mayor Marion Barry proposed several streetcar lines in a city-wide transportation plan, but his successor, Anthony Williams, would narrow the focus to Anacostia.

“Mayor Williams had the Anacostia waterfront initiative,” says Dan Tangherlini, who headed the District Department of Transportation in 2000-2006. 

“As we were looking at neighborhood economic development, we looked very hard at transportation networks,” he says. “There was an initiative…that the first investment in this new transportation system should be where the prior investment happened last; that we should go and start in Anacostia because they were the ones who got the Metro last.”

The Anacostia plan was not realized, but the idea of using streetcars as a tool to transform neighborhoods carried over into the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty.

During a major streetscape project along H Street, crews laid streetcar tracks amid the reconstructed roadways, parking lanes, and sidewalks, the corridor’s revitalization already well underway.

Gabe Klein took over DDOT in 2008, and as the H Street work continued he developed a plan for 37 miles of streetcar lines crisscrossing Washington. 

“[H Street] was one of the great streetcar corridors in the 1940s and 50s, and it was going to be again,” Klein says. “But I felt strongly…that if we are going to market this to people, it’s got to be a bigger vision. It can’t just be the H Street system.”

“If you want a city to be vital and grow, what you need to do is diversify the transportation network so people have options and choices,” adds Tangherlini, who joined Klein for an interview with WAMU 88.5 at a coffee shop at H and 5th Streets Northeast.

Reality falls short of the vision

The former DDOT chiefs are unhappy it has taken so long to launch the initial line.

“It was not supposed to take this long, obviously,” Klein says. “It was a bit of a comedy of errors, but that is why when [Mayor Fenty] left at the end of 2010, the 37-mile plan would be done…by one consortium, the best in the world at design, engineering, operations and maintenance.”

Fenty’s successor continued to develop the grandiose plan for a District-wide streetcar network. Mayor Vincent Gray, touting the potential for streetcar-induced economic development, twice visited Portland, Oregon, the city considered the model for America’s streetcar renaissance with multiple lines now carrying more than 20,000 riders daily. 

“Virtually without exception, people were ecstatic about having the streetcar system there,” says Gray, who is now running for D.C. Council in Ward 7 against incumbent Yvette Alexander.

Meantime, construction of the 2.2 mile H Street-Benning Road segment continued right up to the end of his one term in office. But not only did he fail to open the initial line before the end of 2014, he saw the D.C. Council cut funding for future extensions. The 37-mile vision was trimmed to about eight miles of tracks cutting east-west across downtown Washington. 

“Right now it goes no further than right around the RFK Stadium area on Benning Road and could wind up being essentially a novelty,” Gray says. 

His concern is shared by everyone from neighborhood residents to transit advocates. The short distance of the initial line is less a problem than where that lines goes. 

On the western end, the streetcar stops atop the Hopscotch Bridge, leaving passengers to walk through the Union Station bus garage on their way to Metro’s Red Line platform. At the eastern end, the line connects to no other mode of travel. Gray is among many who believe the District must extend the line across the Anacostia River to Minnesota Avenue.

“When you think about Benning Road, Minnesota Avenue, and East Capital Street too, there is enormous potential and opportunity there for people being able to move around, and businesses that might not otherwise go to those areas of the city,” Gray says.

Atlanta offers a cautionary tale

Other cities are trying to seize on the potential economic growth associated with streetcars.

Portland, Seattle, Tucson, New Orleans, Kansas City and Atlanta, to name just a few, have opened or extended lines in recent years, but Atlanta’s $98 million venture has given critics of city-steered development schemes plenty of ammunition. Atlanta’s story sounds similar to the one told in Washington, with the important exception that the latter has not opened its line yet.

Atlanta launched its 2.7-mile streetcar loop at the end of 2014. Its inaugural year was a mess. 

“It wasn’t clear who was in charge and there was a lack of ownership in terms of the day-to-day operations,” says Andria Simmons, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal Constitution who, along with fellow reporter Katie Leslie, uncovered an array of problems. “There was so little stability.”

In a report titled ‘Cling Clang Clunk? Inside the Atlanta Streetcar’s first year,’ Simmons reported a “revolving door of staffers, scathing safety audits, equipment failures, and a barrage of criticism.” 

The Georgia Department of Transportation also audited the project and recommended 55 corrective actions. 

“There was a lot riding on the success of the streetcar because Atlanta wants to expand this little 2.7-mile loop that we have now, into 50-miles of streetcar service,” Simmons says. “And that would take an extra $5 billion dollars. Well, you are not going to get the government to give you $5 billion if you don’t have a proven track record right now.”

D.C. hopes patience pays off

After taking office in 2015, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s choice to run the District Department of Transportation, Leif Dormsjo, put the H Street-Benning Road project on hold. Dormsjo called in consultants to conduct a top-to-bottom review. Instead of launching passenger service, DDOT spent 2015 correcting problems that otherwise might have tripped up operations.

“Atlanta opened before the system was really ready,” says Dan Malouff, a local transportation planner and streetcar supporter. 

“They’ve had to fix several dozen problems while they were open. Had D.C. opened at the end of the Gray administration, they would have to do the same thing,” he says. 

In his view, Atlanta’s problems have less to do with streetcars as a mode of travel and economic development than that city’s own management failures. Done right, Malouff says streetcars can revitalize cities.

“Some cities try to build streetcars because of economic development and one of the problems they face is, if there is not an existing transit culture in that city, the streetcar isn’t all that useful,” he says. 

But in Washington, people expect both a variety of transit options and dense development around transit stations or, in this case, streetcar stops.

“In other cities, that may not be the case,” he says. 

Change in Northeast D.C.

The H Street-Benning Road commercial district has undergone dramatic changes, mostly along the western half. Most observers agree at least some of the redevelopment can be credited to the promise of streetcar service, although it may have happened without a new transit system at a slower pace.

Lying between 8th and 10th Streets Northeast, the H Street Connection strip mall is a signal of further changes to come.

“The team that is going be redeveloping this site has made clear from the very beginning their redevelopment decision is based on improving transit. And streetcar is something they’ve explicitly said they believe will help move people to their project,” says D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).

“They are going to build hundreds of residences, first floor retail, restaurants, and they believe streetcar is a big part of that success story,” he says. 

Whether the streetcar is a success may depend on whether it gets off to a smooth start.

“My hope is that we will start to see a more positive frame around the streetcar,” says Allen, who says the project’s well-documented problems have depleted the public’s confidence. 

“To make this work, it has to connect to transit. One of the things I am going to continue to work on is the connection to Union Station. Peoples’ expectations have been dialed back significantly, but I believe streetcars are an important way to connect neighborhoods.”

Advocates say streetcars are not meant for rapid travel or to compete with commuter rail. Instead successful systems “circulate” residents, dropping them off right in front of shops and restaurants. 

“They’re not going to be fast, but the idea of streetcar is to circulate you around your urban community and connect to the adjoining communities. You don’t need anything fancy to do that,” says Art Guzzetti at the American Public Transportation Association.

Washington is ripe for this back-to-the future technology, he says. 

“In Washington you have a huge rebirth of the appeal of urban living. That trend is going to continue. The streetcar is just going to enable it,” says Guzzetti, who says ridership totals, especially in the first couple years of service, are not the measure of success. 

“What has it done to the community?” is the right question to ask, according to long-time transit booster. “Not how fast you are moving people or even how many people you are moving. Is the community better as a result?”

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