Greater Greater Washington

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A 1912 plan would have built a network of streetcar tunnels around the White House

Tom at Ghosts of DC keeps finding fascinating old plans for downtown. This one, from 1912, proposed a network of tunnels for the streetcars, and an underground terminal at 15th Street and New York Avenue.

Streetcars would have descended into the tunnels as they approached downtown. Part of the purpose was to cut down on traffic on the surface streets; another part, not unfamiliar to any who follow DC federal-local transportation debates, was aesthetic.

The plan said the tunnels' effect would be "relieving the congestion of traffic in that part of the city and adding greatly to the appearance and comfort of one of the most important sections of town, in the neighborhood of the Treasury, White House, and Judiciary square."

This was projected to cost $5 million; Tom notes that equals about $120 million today, though it's dangerous to simply adjust such costs for inflation. According to Measuring Worth, a $5 million project in 1912 equals $88 million (if you use the GDP deflator), $521-747 million (if you use wage growth, or $2.2 billion (if you look at the share of GDP).

But the biggest obstacle was the streetcar companies. The Washington Railway and Electric Company and the Capital Traction Company each had their own streetcar systems. Who would control the tunnels? Leaders proposed consolidating the companies (an approach which had been floated before), and then the single surviving company could operate the tunnels.

Senator Joseph Johnston (D-AL) introduced a bill in 1918 to do just this, but the idea moved no further. Tom writes,

Some letters to The Washington Times from Washingtonians mentioned that putting lines underground would be ill-advised because Washington is a tourist town, and people often ride the streetcars for the enjoyment of the views.
In DC, such arguments often do come down to the views. But depending on the century, that could mean keeping views free of streetcars, or preserving the views from the streetcars.
David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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We could've had a very different transit history if something like this had been built. It might have kept the streetcar network in place.

Stephen Smith observed that the streetcar systems that survived bustitution all have something in common: http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/the-key-to-surviving-the-great-american-streetcar-closures-dedicated-space

They all included portions of their network that involved dedicated rights of way that were not easily substituted with a bus. In other words, switching to buses would've meant the end of that particular service.

Examples include West Philadelphia's sub-surface lines; Muni in San Francisco (making use of the Sunset and Twin Peaks tunnels); Boston's Green Line, etc.

DC only had a few examples of that kind of streetcar infrastructure, but none were so central to the network that they couldn't be abandoned - such as the Dupont Circle tunnels, the C Street tunnel near the Capitol, etc.

Imagine if this tunnel network had been built - and then linked with the later construction of the Dupont tunnels. you'd have a streetcar subway under Connecticut Ave from R St to the White House.

by Alex B. on May 22, 2014 11:33 am • linkreport

I think having tunnels for pedestriants with a bike lane would be awesome around this area. Biking in this section of downtown is less than ideal and also by having the tunnels they could reduce cross walk time for pedstriants, thus making vehicle and bus traffic more efficient. cant tell you how many hours of my life have been spent on a bus waiting for some straggler to cross the street (i am looking at you S-bus line on 16th turning onto K street)

by corey on May 22, 2014 11:34 am • linkreport

I would turn that around and say bury the road and keep the surface for walking and biking. I wouldn't want to walk in a tunnel while the sunlight is saved for the cars and buses...keep the exhaust, noise, and speed below ground and provide light and cleaner air to the pedestrians. Let them enjoy their walk.

by dc denizen on May 22, 2014 11:41 am • linkreport

If only these tunnels had been built... in Season 7 of "24", they could have been used as a more plausible staging ground than the Potomac River for the underground attack on the White House.

by FHE on May 22, 2014 12:37 pm • linkreport

@ dc denizen

It works so good in Masdar city oh wait!

Even if it was built it would have had to be remodeled to add elevators for the disabled and that construction would still be ongoing like with many old subway systems across the world.

by kk on May 22, 2014 1:26 pm • linkreport

Had these tunnels been built, they would have been repurposed as fall-out shelters during the Cold War after street cars were decommissioned. They also would likely have been permanently closed after the Oklahoma City bombing (as was Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th Streets), if not earlier, continuing to the present day.

by Adam on May 22, 2014 1:43 pm • linkreport

Yes, you're right. If it doesn't work in the desert, it doesn't work anywhere.

by dc denizen on May 22, 2014 4:30 pm • linkreport

@ DC Denizen

Name one city where it has worked ?

The closest is probably Montreal with the underground pedestrian tunnels in its Downtown;

by kk on May 22, 2014 5:00 pm • linkreport

In Seoul there are underground tunnels throughout downtown. It's an interesting equilibrium. It's not a bike friendly city and the cars really rule the roads, which can be quite wide. But pedestrians don't care because they can get around so easily underground.

by JR on May 23, 2014 9:48 am • linkreport

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