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Streetcars now on the front burner

Over 100 people packed a theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, NE last night to hear DDOT Director Gabe Klein and Chief of Staff Scott Kubly talk about DC's streetcar project. DC has had plans to build streetcars for many years, but recently progress seems to have stalled.

Klein said that people at DDOT within the Mass Transit Administration and IPMA (the engineering arm) had continued working on the project, but there was no clear owner keeping it a top priority. Kubly is now in charge of the streetcar program, and is committed to making it happen. Klein also added that in his opinion, sluggish occasional progress is not acceptable; DDOT should either pursue the program actively or not at all.

Klein and Kubly emphasized that the project is still in early stages, and had few specific answers on timelines, costs, and more. Klein also pointed out that Portland's project took eleven years from initial vision (1990) to the first operating segment (2001); by that standard, DC's project isn't actually very far behind.

There's also still no definitive answer on how DC will power the streetcars. In many areas, the streetcars will use overhead wires, which are much less visible than the heavy, multiple wires of old systems. Instead, a single, thin wire powers streetcars almost invisibly. That's still not satisfactory to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which wants a different power technology on at least some of the system. Klein said that DDOT is likely to pursue a dual mode system that can use wires in some areas and another technology in more sensitive regions.

The Business Journal reported earlier this week that DDOT also plans to pursue federal funding, contrary to previous plans. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is reportedly excited about streetcars, including the potential for them to run past USDOT headquarters on M Street SE, one alignment in DC's Comprehensive Plan.

Klein reiterated support for the streetcar alignments in the current Comprehensive Plan. The first streetcars will run from Anacostia over the 11th Street Bridge, and along H Street and Benning Road, ultimately connecting to downtown on the K Street Transitway. Phase two is 7th Street and Georgia Avenue, and Minnesota Avenue between Anacostia and the Minnesota Avenue Metro near Benning Road, connecting the two lines across River East. There are still many outstanding alignment questions, like how to connect the streetcar to Union Station, where to continue it over the 11th Street Bridge (to Eastern Market? M Street SE?), and where to place maintenance facilities and storage yards for the H/Benning line.

Recommendations from the 2005 Alternatives Analysis.
Blue is streetcar, green BRT, yellow "rapid bus."

The program will depend on public support, both in neighborhoods and citywide to advocate with the Council, NCPC, and Congress. DDOT has communicated very poorly so far. Advocates had been pushing for about a year to even get this meeting, and DDOT shared little about its progress or plans. Councilmember Jim Graham had to force them to attend hearings to share their latest thinking on alignments last year, and officials were extremely close-mouthed about the reasons they had chosen particular alignments. They promised to release an updated version of the "Alternatives Analysis" last year, but held it back because the Mayor had to review it first. Then, months later, they refused to release it saying it was now out of date.

How many of you knew that construction is actively underway for the Anacostia streetcar line? Last I had heard, DDOT was close to awarding a contract for construction of the segment from the maintenance facility on South Capitol Street to Barry Farm and Anacostia Metro, but there were reports of delays. However, DDOT hasn't touted recent progress or released engineering details for the line. Even leaders of the streetcar advocacy movement didn't know about this. We can't support DDOT if we don't know what's going on. It's okay if thinking shifts from month to month as new information comes to light. People can handle changes. Silence and resistance, however, won't build the support the project needs.

With Kubly's and Klein's leadership, sharing progress more openly with advocates must become a top priority. Fortunately, Klein and Kubly have been much more open about communication than many others. Kubly, in fact, is also managing new DDOT Web tools to share status and plans for projects across the city, from streetscapes to repavings to tree trimmings. Klein committed to quarterly public meetings on the streetcar program; the next one will be in Ward 5. If DDOT can work with DC's communities instead of against them, with the help of advocacy groups like Streetcars 4 DC, we'll be able to replicate the strong public support that catapulted Portland's streetcar dreams into a successful reality.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Is the overhead wire ban limited to the Federal enclave downtown, or is it throughout the District? I've never been clear on that point.

Klein doesn't seem concerned about funding. Is there some big pot of stimulus money they're sitting on? Because I haven't heard where any of the light rail funding is supposed to be coming from, apart from the Anacostia test bed.

Seems like the wires and the money are all that's standing in the way of streetcars in DC. And while I appreciate their enthusiasm, it has to be followed by money and a legitimate means of powering these things. Overhead wires are a dead issue; Congress will reverse this around the same time they lift the building height restriction.

by monkeyrotica on Aug 7, 2009 10:53 am • linkreport

What about putting a natural gas powered electric generator on the street cars? It could create electricity when the the street car is out of range of the overhead wires. With an automated system for refilling the tanks and its low noise, one wouldn't even notice a difference.

by shy on Aug 7, 2009 11:38 am • linkreport

General questions about the project: Will the streetcars have dedicated lanes, signal priority, fare payment before boarding, etc.? Or will they be buses on tracks?

If it's the latter, will there be any improvement over buses in terms of schedule (speed, headways, reliability, etc.)?

I recognize there are other potential benefits: the TOD that comes with a fixed track (though the still-visible streetcar tracks in some parts of town should remind us that nothing is immortal), the perceived ease of use over buses, improvements in energy efficiency, exhaust/pollution reductions, etc. I'm just wondering if it will actually be any faster -- and if not, how much ridership it will gain.

by Gavin Baker on Aug 7, 2009 11:48 am • linkreport

The H Street - Benning Road street car route will connect to Union Station with a stop on the H Street overpass and elevators connecting the H Street overpass to a pedestrian tunnel into Union Station and the north mezzanine of the WMATA station. There will also be an exit to First Street, NE. DDOT and WMATA have begun the design process for the first phase of these improvements at the subway station mezzanine.

by Steve Strauss on Aug 7, 2009 11:59 am • linkreport

Gavin makes a good point. Without signal priority, how will this be better than busses that are already stuck in traffic? Conversely, how will automobile drivers react when they see a streetcar plow through a red light? Will they even stop their cellphone call to notice?

by monkeyrotica on Aug 7, 2009 12:22 pm • linkreport


This is indeed news about how the H Street street car can connect to Union Station. I wonder why this information could not have been shared with us at the streetcar meeting yesterday evening. All we got is that this is an option. I know there is a Union Station Intermodal Transportation Center Feasibility Study that Parsons is doing on behalf of DDOT and is supposed to released in September 1009 (next month). If DDOT and WMATA have already begun the design process for the first phase of these improvements at the subway station mezzanine, then this implies that this particular option has already been chosen over bringing the streetcar underground into Union Station. I'd like to hear more information about this as the Union Station - H Street connection is critical to the success of this new transit infrastructure.

Also, in response to Dave Alpert's comments on how many us knew that construction is active for the Anacostia segment. I realized this a few weeks ago when I visited DDOT's mass transit page and saw the weekly "Construction Progress Reports" page. I agree with Gabe Klein's intention to dedicate a management team for implementing streetcars DC-wide because so far it seems that it's been woefully mismanaged. Civil engineers, mechanical engineers, transportation planners, electricians, and more need to be assigned specifically to see this through.

by otavio on Aug 7, 2009 12:25 pm • linkreport

Here's a link to the DC Streetcar Project "Resident Engineer's Weekly Reports". They are updated up to 31 July 2009:,a,1250,q,647412,ddotNav_GID,1746,ddotNav,|34060|.asp

by otavio on Aug 7, 2009 12:29 pm • linkreport

The comparison between DC and Portland seems simplistic. In 1990, Portland's light rail system was still young and the whole light rail idea was "cheaper subway." The public view of systems has taken an positive approach to streetcars, now that their benefits have been demonstrated. It should take much less time to get a streetcar running nowadays. The Lake Union streetcar in Seattle was first proposed in 2002, funded in 2005, and operational in 2007.

Irrespective of comparisons, back in 2003 or so, when the Anacostia streetcar was first proposed, the operations were expected to being in 2008. ItÂ’s not his administration, but the agency has not proven its ability to get things done.

by цarьchitect on Aug 7, 2009 12:39 pm • linkreport

Any discussion of connecting the DC streetcar system with the Columbia Pike route?

by Juanita de Talmas on Aug 7, 2009 12:54 pm • linkreport

Here's my recommendation on where the streecare routes should be:

by Old Timer on Aug 7, 2009 12:57 pm • linkreport

+1 on tsarchitect's comments. The extra layer of bureacracy vis a vis the feds should only allow DC an extra 12-18 months to do anything like this. The fenty administration is unable to get things done.

by JTS on Aug 7, 2009 1:00 pm • linkreport

Also, +1 on Old Timer's AWESOME link.....

by JTS on Aug 7, 2009 1:02 pm • linkreport

NCPC has its head up its nether regions concerning its anal retentive attitude on overhead electrification. It isn't a problem in Germany, it isn't a problem in San Francisco, it isn't a problem in Melbourne, Australia, so why turn it into a fake problem in DC?

There is a problem with street cars though -- as much as they can do to replace bus service in the city, they cannot and never will be able to address the "Orange Crush" or the lack of Metro connectivity in near north and near northeast DC. Only the M Street Subway Blue Line relocation can do that.

by DBX on Aug 7, 2009 1:29 pm • linkreport

Thanks DBX for making the comment. I agree with you. Streetcars aren't the only tool in the toolbox. I think the 2005 DC Alternative Analysis concentrated to heavily just on streetcars and buses, and it didn't do much to connect the adjoining jurisdictions. How about a Light Metro to augment metrorail? How about light rail with dedicated right-of-way? All of these should be on the plate. It would cost less to build than heavy rail. It could run below and above ground if we wanted and could reach a capacity of about half of metrorail at 30,000 persons per hour per direction with 4-car platforms. I'd advocate for a line such as this to run from Dupont Circle-Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights-Washington Hospital Center/Soldier's Home-Rhode Island Avenue. This would be an awesome cross-town link and would address the city's some of the city's transit needs in a solid way.

DC could also partner more aggressively with the business community for funding like it did with the New York Avenue infill station. Transportation planning should be more integrated with land-use planning. DC has about 40 million square feet of office potential (that's about the capacity of two Tyson's Corners) and enough capacity for 100,000 new residential units. DC should be using transit to steer growth their way in this region. I know money is tight now, but it won't be that way forever. We need to develop these plans with funding mechanisms so we can act when economic times get better (and they will).

As for the H Street streetcar project, it was stated that working with the utilities really has slowed down the work. I think DC could be more aggressive with the utilities in the interest of efficiency, cost, and time. DC should do it through legislation, too, if need be.

by otavio on Aug 7, 2009 1:48 pm • linkreport

Benning Road NE Streetcar Tracks Photos 08-02-2009

by Sand Box John on Aug 7, 2009 11:08 pm • linkreport

@Steve: I'm confused why an elevator and tunnel would be needed for the H Street overpass to connect to the Metro mezzanine. Indeed, given how crowded the Union Station Metro north mezzanine is already, I'm not sure how smart adding another entry point would be.

At the top of the H Street overpass, there is already a pedestrian walkway along the eastern side of the bus level of the Union Station garage, where the Circulator lines originate. Union Station - and thence the Metro station - is accessed from there via escalators to the main Amtrak concourse or via elevators.

by Craig on Aug 8, 2009 1:23 pm • linkreport

why is DC so anal about overhead wires? screw that ye olde BS law against overhead wires... theres a lot of very attractive cities with overhead

by jon on Aug 8, 2009 3:05 pm • linkreport

@jon-- Agreed on the overhead, but it's not just NCPC's preferences, it's written into federal law. Congress would need to amend the restrictions, which ban overhead wires of any types on streets within the old L'Enfant city limits. It's the same reason we have no overhead power lines and no overhead telephone or CATV lines, except in alleys. I think we agree that the lack of overhead clutter is a good thing, but an exception needs to be more made for streetcars. The lines can be nicely designed and nearly invisible. I much prefer that to relying on some sort of costly and unproven "magic bullet." Fire crews can be trained to work around the wires, as they are in other cities. I do note, however, that the nest of wires over intersections in SF can be a little unsightly. But those are mostly from the electric buses that use two trolley poles and two wires. The intersections get complicated. And we're not proposing anything approaching that for DC.

by Paul on Aug 8, 2009 3:28 pm • linkreport

I was recently in Vancouver, which has an extensive network of trolleybuses (buses with overhead wires). It's not terrible-looking, but it's not that attractive, either.

While a few lines on a few streets wouldn't be too bad, having lots of wires is probably something we want to avoid. I doubt Congress is going to repeal the ban on overhead wires entirely, though an exemption for streetcars might be possible. We could also make do without a blanket exemption for streetcars and instead just the option for NCPC to waive the restriction for streetcars at its discretion. That could prevent a mess of wires while allowing NCPC to approve a few limited ones.

I don't know much about the current state of the technology, but I note that the Trolley Museum has photos of streetcars running in the L'Enfant City without overhead wires -- 50 years ago.

by Gavin Baker on Aug 8, 2009 4:23 pm • linkreport

I noticed a reference to the Transit Alternatives Analysis back in 2005. I wonder to what extent DDOT still adheres to those recommendations? Has GGW ever critiqued it? On the whole it's a fairly depressing read, especially its uncritical invocation of "rapid bus" and "BRT" which it treats as separate things even though it never clearly distinguishes them.

Personally, I'd like to see all of the (c.2002?) priority corridors get streetcar service (my reading of the TAA is that they nixed a streetcar on Wisconsin Ave simply because there was no room for economic development there IE, it's a high-end neighborhood already. By that reasoning, there shouldn't be any metro lines downtown). If anything, all the corridors should get streetcars with the most significant (GA Ave and M-K street) getting quasi-light rail service (like two car trains with 6-8 minute headways).

As for BRT and "rapid bus" just incorporate the grab-bag of upgrades they involve into the already existing Metrobus lines. (Except, drop the "extensive branding" and all that and don't try to imply it's like metro, it's just a bus, after all.)

by Steve on Aug 8, 2009 5:34 pm • linkreport

I dont understand why the wire issue is such a big deal. Just use the system the french have (Bordeaux) and be over with it.

by JJ on Aug 8, 2009 5:42 pm • linkreport

I am not sure it's fair to look at cities that have trolleybus or few restrictions on wires as an example of what we'd see if the bam were modified. I would support a limited ban modification that required DDOT to certify that overhead wires were more cost effective and to exercise a reasonable amount of care in minimizing the visual impact of wires.

For example the cars could carry batteries that carry them across intersections of particular scenic interest, or at locations where switching or joining are required (junctions are particularly bad for visual impact).

It's less likely that the batteries would have capacity to drive the whole length.

The wireless system used 50 years ago would not be allowed under modern electrical codes, for what I know. There are systems used in other countries, but we still don't know how much more expensive they are.

I would just like to see the cost. If it's only a little then go for the wireless option. My guess is that since it's not the standard, you have to buy from a particular vendor, and the systems I've seen require precise switching for safety, that it will be much more expensive. I could be wrong. I do know that the ones supporting the overhead ban aren't bringing any money to the table.

by Michael Perkins on Aug 8, 2009 6:52 pm • linkreport

There is a Klingle Street in Kent.

by цarьchitect on Aug 8, 2009 9:07 pm • linkreport

In addition to restoring the system as it existed 50 years ago (thanks OldTimer!), I would also restore and extend the Connecticut Avenue line out to at least Kensington, if not Wheaton (to connect to the red, MARC, and purple lines), and add a Military Road line that connects Friendship Heights to either Takoma or Brookland.

by Andrew on Aug 9, 2009 7:59 am • linkreport

LA, the most congested city, and DC the 2nd most congested city, both suffer immensely by the abolition of their extensive streetcar system.

The 7th Street Streetcar and the Columbia Line on 14th opening in the late 1800's are the reason residences were built north of Mass. Avenue. Until frequent regular service like streetcars is restored to 7th and 14th the transit here will remain disfunctional. Cars and irregular buses aren't a substitute.

by Tom Coumaris on Aug 9, 2009 9:37 am • linkreport

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