Streetcar to GU should top Mayor Gray's jobs agenda
Few initiatives would address DC unemployment more directly than to extend the H Street-Benning Road streetcar on dedicated lanes directly onto Georgetown University's campus, while asking in return for GU to commit to build a satellite campus in Northeast DC.
The university, Georgetown businesses and residents, and city leaders should all fight for this initiative, because they all win in big ways. GU, the District of Columbia's largest employer, is moving jobs to Virginia. This flight will only further reduce the already low number of jobs these institutions provide to District residents.
The expansion of GU jobs into Virginia, which began in 2004 with the opening of a School of Continuing Studies campus in Clarendon, is being driven by the perception that the University has simply run out of room.
This job migration is almost certain to continue given Georgetown neighbors' recent success in blocking GU's plans to expand the main campus. Mayor Vincent Gray seems very aware of the problem this creates for the District, given that the Education and Health Care job sector is the District's, and the nation's, fastest-growing.
That's why he voiced concerns at a Jobs Summit about the limitations sometimes placed on employees and students to address town-gown conflicts. "I need to understand more about what these [university] jobs would be and reasons for those caps," Gray said. "Historically, there have been tensions between the universities and the neighborhoods in which they reside."
Some growth advocates criticize neighbors for opposing growth on campus without equivalent on-campus housing, and will undoubtedly do so in the comments to this article. The reality is that town-gown disputes are not new and are not going away, so we must learn how to address the concerns of neighbors without losing education jobs. Mayor Gray and other city leaders can and must do just that.
Earlier this year, in response to community opposition to its Campus Plan, GU committed to relocate "1,000 School of Continuing Students students to an off-campus location by Dec. 31, 2013." While one would assume that those SCS students will also go to the Clarendon campus, GU says it is "exploring potential transit-oriented locations elsewhere in the District." What can the District do to compete for those jobs?
To entice GU to build a satellite campus in DC, the District should offer to extend the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line onto GU's campus by a certain date. Specifically, the line would proceed without overhead wires on dedicated transit lanes along Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street, past Wisconsin Avenue and the Car Barn, joining mixed traffic at the Key Bridge intersection where it would reconnect to overhead wires and enter campus on the Canal Road entrance. The route would terminate in the parking lot outside McDonough Arena at the current Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle (GUTS) bus stops.
The streetcar line was initially anticipated to run along K Street in Georgetown. Recently departed DDOT Deputy Director Scott Kubly told the Georgetown BID, however, that he would prefer M Street in order to increase ridership. The M Street route, terminating on campus, would be a real win-win-win for every part of the city.
Improving DC residents' access to District jobs: 72% of DC jobs go to non-DC residents, and given the location of GU and GUH (DC's 6th largest employer) near the Key Bridge the percentage on campus is likely that or higher. A Streetcar onto campus would economically integrate the city, connecting residents around the city and particularly in Northeast with nearly 10,000 jobs on GU and GUH's campus. The much-expected future site of the GU Hospital on North Kehoe field would be a brief walk to a streetcar station in the McDonough Arena parking lot.
Creating GU jobs in DC: A streetcar terminating on GU's campus would provide door-to-door service to and from any satellite campus on the eastern half of the route. This will stem the flow of jobs from DC's top employer to Virginia. Furthermore, GU would face fewer constraints in the growth of its main campus because the congestion created by employees of and visitors to GU and GUH would be addressed. This route would eliminate the need for the controversial GUTS Shuttle to Dupont Circle, as it would include stops at Metro stations on several lines including Farragut North.
Improving Georgetown retail: Georgetown business leaders have experienced much angst lately about losing status to retail districts on 14th Street, U Street and H Street. Bringing streetcars along M Street on dedicated lanes would be a bold move to raise the strip's profile and cachet.
Historic preservation of Georgetown: Streetcars historically ran along M Street to the Car Barn. Any argument that a wireless streetcar on M Street somehow detracts from Georgetown's historic character would clearly be impossible to make. Furthermore, there would be no need for overhead wires as long as there are dedicated lanes.
Kubly explained to the Georgetown BID that the limits of current wireless technology are not in terms of distance, but in terms of time. Thus, a dedicated streetcar lane, meaning that streetcars won't waste valuable time (and thus electricity) sitting in traffic, significantly adds to the distance that a wireless streetcar can travel.
Reducing traffic and parking congestion in Georgetown: A couple years ago DDOT paid for a consultant to do a Transportation Study in Georgetown. One of the interesting findings was that congestion on M Street is at the intersections, and not in between them. Traffic analysis showed that the outside lanes were not used to capacity during rush hour, so the creation of transit only lanes should be able to shift traffic over one lane with minimal increase in congestion.
Even assuming no mode shift as a result of streetcars, then, dedicated transit lanes on M Street would likely result in little to no increase in congestion. Of course, there would be an expected mode shift not only to streetcars, but also to the bus lines that traverse M Street (which are the most-used Metrobus lines in the entire region).
The current fiscal environment makes it difficult to justify an investment in streetcar technology if it is merely viewed as a toy for the new, wealthier urbanites. But design it instead to improve access to jobs for DC residents, and sell it as such, and the project makes sense in just about any budget environment. In fact, few investments would result in as reliable and measurable an increase in jobs for DC residents as dramatically improving access to the largest employer in the city in return for that employer's expansion within the city.
Does the political will exist to do what makes so much sense?
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