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DDOT releases streetcar plan; trains will run in March 2012

In March 2012, streetcars will glide along H Street NE, according to the Streetcar System Plan DDOT released yesterday.

Photo by the author.

The plan details alignment, fares, and operation logistics for the system's two initial segments: the H Street/Benning Road segment and the Anacostia Initial Line Segment (suffering the unfortunate acronym "AILS").

For only $1, passengers will be able to travel 2 miles along H Street NE from Union Station all the way to Oklahoma Avenue NE, just before the Anacostia River. In Anacostia passengers will be able to travel about 1 mile from the Anacostia Metro Station, past Barry Farm, and on to the Navy Annex on South Capitol Street.

Below I have mapped the two initial segments (in blue), their planned extensions (in green), and the locations for the stops, power substations, and maintenance yards:

Click for interactive version.

DDOT expects 4 or 5 streetcars to serve H Street, providing service every 10 minutes. One car will run the Anacostia segment providing service every 15 minutes. Since the District already owns 3 streetcars, one will go to Anacostia and two will go to H Street. The District will purchase 3 additional cars for H Street.

The fleet size of 6 cars complicates H Street's ability to provide 10-minute headways in rush-hour traffic. Rush-hour slows on-street transit, often necessitating the temporary addition of rolling stock to compensate for slower speeds. DDOT would like to buy a seventh spare streetcar to fill in for broken-down streetcars, which will help, but they may be cutting it close.

Fares and payment

DDOT proposes a $1 fare, placing the streetcar on par with the Circulator and cheaper than Metrobus. Transfers will be free for SmarTrip customers and the system will honor Metrobus passes. The streetcars will follow a proof-of-payment system, a practice that Michael Perkins recommended a year ago. Riders will have to pay for their rides, but won't have to prove payment until prompted by a random inspection by the MPD. Eliminating the individual fare purchase at the front door speeds boarding by allowing riders to enter at all doors without having to wait in a line with the insufferable passenger who digs for change.

The System Plan explicitly states the desire to minimize cash transactions. The best way to do this would be to charge a higher fare for cash transactions, say $2, and to require that cash purchases be made at machines at the streetcar stops.

The Union Station Connection

The western terminus for the H Street line is complicated by the fact that the District does not own the land under the eastern approach of the Hopscotch Bridge that carries H Street NE over the rail yard. In April Geoff Hatchard reported that DDOT plans to cut a portal in the eastern approach of the bridge and allow streetcars to pass through at ground level. The streetcars would pass below the bridge and through an existing tunnel below the elevated rail yard to stop at 1st Street NE, just a tad north of Union Station.

A quick, convenient connection to the Red Line, Metrobus, CaBi, and the Circulator is essential in ensuring the H Street segment is a success. The better the integration with other transit modes, the better the line's practicality, ridership, and ability to spur economic growth.

When the Union Station terminus opens in 2012, passengers will have to walk a short distance down 1st Street NE to Union Station's side entrance.

Here's where it gets interesting. Shortly after the line and tunnel open in 2012, DDOT will start construction on a pedestrian passageway to connect the western terminus to the Union Station Metro mezzanine.

Schematic of the maintenance yard (left), 1st Street NE (center), the Union Station stop, and tracks toward H Street (right). Image from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

The streetcar stop will also include elevators to connect passengers to the Circulator stop two levels up near the bridge deck.

In 2015, DDOT will start reconstruction of the Hopscotch Bridge with the goal of carrying the streetcar line onto the deck of the bridge permanently. The elevators will then ferry passengers down from the streetcar stop to the passageway to the Metro mezzanine. The original track will become a non-revenue access track to the storage and maintenance facility that will remain under the bridge's western approach.

DDOT's aim is to stage the bridge's reconstruction so that it won't disrupt the nascent line. Since the planned Burnham Place development will abut the northern edge of the bridge deck, and itself will deck over the rail yard, the later streetcar stop on the bridge will resemble any hilly city block instead of a rail yard overpass.

Ridership projections: A tale of two lines

The System Plan predicts that 1,500 passengers will ride the H Street/Benning Road line daily and that an additional 4,300 will ride the Benning Road extension over the Anacostia daily. That's a healthy number that may grow considering streetcar fares will beat both Metrobus and Metrorail.

In contrast, the Anacostia line's numbers are anemic. The initial segment stretches only 3/4 of a mile to deliver people to the Navy Annex, which already provides ample parking to employees free of charge. It's no surprise that only 150 riders are expected to ride it daily.

WMATA initially planned the Anacostia segment as a "demonstration line". When DDOT took over the project, the alignment changed to serve Anacostia's main streets rather than skirting them. Even still, the initial Anacostia segment appears to be more of a face-saving measure than a practical transit line and could become the poster child for streetcar opponents.

Power substations and wires

Since DC repealed the century-old overhead wire ban in the L'Enfant City, DDOT has chosen to install one aerial wire for each direction and one "feeder" wire under each concrete track slab. This minimizes the visual impact of the overhead wires. The System Plan does not state whether the ground wire was already installed under H Street or whether it will have to be inserted later.

After the District expands its current streetcar fleet from 3 to 6, future streetcars will be required to operate for a mile without wires. This gradual shift to a hybrid wire-wireless system is the compromise that allows us to get the streetcars rolling sooner, while adopting hybrid wireless streetcars in a few years, after they become technically feasible in a mid-Atlantic U.S. climate.

Streetcars need power substations every mile for reliable service. For the H Street/Benning Road line, DDOT will install the western substation under the western approach of the Hopscotch Bridge. They will also install a mid-point substation at the southeast corner of 12th and H Streets NW, by that poorly-designed AutoZone store. The eastern substation will go behind the library kiosk at Benning Road NE and 26th Street NE.


The hourly operating cost for $130 per Metrobus and $80 per Circulator bus. Though the System Plan budgets for an hourly operating cost of $216.81, DDOT expects the cost will come out less than that. Also, those figures are per vehicle; since each streetcar can haul 168 passengers, the cost per passenger will be closer in line with Metrobus.

DDOT intends to solicit bids to contract out streetcar operations to WMATA or any qualified private firm. The agency has not yet settled on the term length or operator responsibilities, but will do so in the coming year. A few days ago I wrote that this arrangement, that is, DDOT oversight and outsourced operations, has the ability to enshrine a greater level of accountability into the system.

Economic benefits

The System Plan reiterates the link between "high-capacity and high-quality transit service" and economic development in the corridors served. Since the document doesn't belabor the point enough, I will: the Streetcar system is more than a transit mode; it is a serious public investment that guides and catalyzes further private investment in the city.

The H Street/Benning Road corridor is ripe for this investment for two reasons. H Street NE after decades of disinvestment has plenty of room to grow to accommodate the new and existing residents. Furthermore, the X1, X2, X3, and U8 buses that currently run along the corridor already carry 18,000 passengers daily, making it one of the heaviest traveled transit corridors in the District.

The excitement behind the H Street NE project indicative of something larger; it will translate to increased reinvestment in a neighborhood that needs economic growth. In a few years, the H Street line has the possibility of transforming a neighborhood people used to avoid into a neighborhood people envy.

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 


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That Anacostia line is such a waste of money. Also, I noticed that DDOT is wants to build K St next. I was hoping Georgia would be the third line.

by jcm on Oct 20, 2010 3:10 pm • linkreport

Hrm. The streetcar plan appears to no longer be available on the DDOT site. Hmph.

I'm curious about the off-board payment system. Will passengers use fare media (cash or SmarTrip) off-board and get a paper proof-of-payment? Or will passengers using SmarTrip tap their cards on-board?

by Michael on Oct 20, 2010 3:24 pm • linkreport

So this means people will stop complaining that there is no plan and no connection to Union Station, right?

I'm kind of surprised that the Benning Road Extension will provide that many more passengers (4300) when compared to the initial H Street line (1500).

by Steven Yates on Oct 20, 2010 3:24 pm • linkreport

The pedestrian tunnel for the H St streetcar to Union Station proper is mostly already in existence. There is minimal tunneling left to do.

by anonymous on Oct 20, 2010 3:25 pm • linkreport

Here's an updated link for the report and its appendices.

by Eric Fidler on Oct 20, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

@Michael in Baltimore's Light Rail, fare inspectors have handheld scanners to scan your SmarTrip or CharmCard to see that you've validated at the Ticket Vending Machines at stations. Not sure if they'd be doing it here, but it would probably be a good idea.

by Mike on Oct 20, 2010 3:28 pm • linkreport

Was the adaptation of long-proven hydrogen fuel cell bus technology to streetcars priced as an alternative? What is the incremental cost of external electrification per mile (including substations, aerial plant and analysis of interactions with existing buried utilities) and the annual fixed plant maintenance versus incremental fuel cell vehicle maintenance priced out?

In choosing to follow the past, Washington forfeited a wonderful chance to lead and may face a big removal surcharge when hydrolleys come along.

by Stan Thompson on Oct 20, 2010 4:20 pm • linkreport

ahem - that poorly designed AutoZone store is at 12th and H NE - we just simply won't allow that sort of thing in NW.

Did they announce what hours the streetcar lines will be running? Late night service on weekends - or is this just for commuters?

by andy on Oct 20, 2010 5:12 pm • linkreport

Why doesn't DC just use a system of buses? It's cheaper than installing an entire streetcar, and it can be up and running earlier? I just don't understand, they both take up the same amount of space on the road.

by joseph on Oct 20, 2010 5:21 pm • linkreport

Why doesn't DC just use a system of buses? It's cheaper than installing an entire streetcar, and it can be up and running earlier? I just don't understand, they both take up the same amount of space on the road.

Because they're not as hip as streetcars.

by MPC on Oct 20, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

@Andy, I can't access the pdf right now, but I think it said 6 a.m. to midnight (can't remember if there were extended weekend hours).

by Jacques on Oct 20, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

Why doesn't DC just use a system of buses? It's cheaper than installing an entire streetcar, and it can be up and running earlier? I just don't understand, they both take up the same amount of space on the road.

People shopping for property generally believe streetcars represent a more permanent commitment to a mass route. Developers won't pay a premium for property on a bus line, or even multiple bus lines, because the bus lines can easily move. They will pay a premium for Metro access, and the argument (which, on balance, seems plausible) is that they'll do the same with streetcars.

by cminus on Oct 20, 2010 5:35 pm • linkreport

@joseph here are a few reasons that streetcars are chosen.

1. Streetcar/rail is seen as more permanent, generally runs on a regular interval, so riders plan (oh I'll catch the streetcar whenever I head out) rather than riders having to check schedules and plan accordingly.

2. Streetcars are often given traffic-signal priority, allowing them to move faster than buses, and they typically have exclusive or preferred rights to a dedicated travel lane, avoiding some of the traffic that buses face.

3. Streetcars are bigger, with the proposed DC cars holding up to 168 people, more than can fit on a regular or an extended DC bus.

4. Streetcar routes, like Metrorail, can turn streets or station areas into destinations, encouraging economic development.

Some of these items are already accomplished by the Circulator buses, and several of them are theoretically possible to do with bus options, but these are some of the main justifications.

by Jacques on Oct 20, 2010 5:37 pm • linkreport

your link to the plan is not working ...

by Lance on Oct 20, 2010 5:45 pm • linkreport


Here's 36 reasons why streetcars are better.

by Ben on Oct 20, 2010 6:10 pm • linkreport

@Stan Thompson: There is no hydrogen fuel cell alternative to price. Yes, cells power a few buses and automobiles, but a quick Google search turns up only two actual rail applications, both one-off experiments: a switch engine and a retrofitted tramcar. Even if there are more out there, the hydrogen fuel cell powered rail vehicle is clearly not a mature technology.

By choosing to follow the past, Washington avoided the headaches, aggravations and possible failure of a new and untested technology. If "hydrolleys" as reliable as streetcars powered by overhead wires ever do "come around" it will be be decades hence -- probably about the time the overhead wires would otherwise need to be replaced anyway.

by davidj on Oct 20, 2010 6:18 pm • linkreport

Have the feeder cables already been buried on H St?

I support the streetcar project, and hope it gets built out across DC, but DDOT seriously needs to revise its construction methods before doing construction elsewhere. The pace at which the construction has proceeded on the H St and Anacostia lines is completely unacceptable.

(Also, have they resolved how they're going to build the underground connection to Union Station and also allow the streetcars to proceed westward? There have also been murmurs that the Hopscotch bridge is going to need to be replaced in a few years -- the report doesn't seem to mention this)

by andrew on Oct 20, 2010 8:50 pm • linkreport

Actually, the report does mention that and how DDOT intends to stage replacement of the Hopscotch Bridge (apparently beginning in 2015) in order to keep streetcar service going through the tunnel and the connections between both near 3rd St NE.

by Froggie on Oct 20, 2010 9:20 pm • linkreport

I believe the hours are: Monday-Thursday from 6am to midnight, Friday from 6am to 2am, Saturday from 8am to 2am, and Sunday from 8am to 10pm.

by SWill on Oct 20, 2010 10:15 pm • linkreport

"The pace at which the construction has proceeded on the H St and Anacostia lines is completely unacceptable."

The installation of the H Street line can proceed no faster than the major rebuilding of of the entire streetscape. New utilities and their vaults; relaid sidewalks, curbs, and gutters; new streetlights; relaid connections of utilities to individual properties from the street; reworked water supply and drainage; as well as the new road surface are all taking place. The expected completion for all this work is ahead of schedule.

Similar but not as extensive work on Benning Road is almost complete. A complete rebuild of the Starburst intersection at Maryland, H, Florida, Benning, and Bladensburg is complete ahead of schedule.

Rather than slow, the speed of the construction by the city and its contractors has been impressive.

David Holmes
ANC 6A03

by David H on Oct 20, 2010 10:54 pm • linkreport

Davidj, the value in using mature technology diminishes rapidly when succeeding technologies have begun to appear. Siemens, Bombardier, Shanghai Transit, Alstom and others have all recently introduced wireless streetcars. Whether the wire goes away is a matter of when, not whether. The meaningful conversation now is about how electrical energy is to be carried onboard.

Hand-wired circuit boards and cathode ray tubes are mature technologies; but would you invest big capital in them?

by Stan Thompson on Oct 21, 2010 12:18 am • linkreport

Who's idea was it to install a terminal temporary or permanent at Oklahoma Ave almost no one gets on/off a X2 there except for Spingarn High Students and people going to the RFK Parking Lot when something is going on.

Why not just start from Benning RD Station, the intersection of Benning Road & Minnesota Ave, Minnesota Ave Station, Hechinger Mall or even Stadium Armory Station.

by kk on Oct 21, 2010 7:54 am • linkreport

@Stan Thompson: No, but I do commute by bicycle.

by davidj on Oct 21, 2010 8:19 am • linkreport

According to the news this morning, it's going to cost $200 million, and there is no federal money available. A DDOT spokesman said potential funding sources have been identified but he wouldn't go into detail. So, where is the $200 million coming from? Homeless shelters? School budgets? Public safety? Maintenance of current infrastructure? A big tax hike on residents?

by ksu499 on Oct 21, 2010 8:21 am • linkreport

Since I live in Anacostia, I Can't say that I'm excited or lightly interested in the street cars plans. Or maybe I don't fully understand how it helps my area. I looked at the plans/map and it doesn't move me.

Hopefully the entire project will serve at least most of its purpose, freeing us taxpayers from more over the top spending on cute, pet projects.

If that happens, then all is good in DC for me.

by HogWash on Oct 21, 2010 10:07 am • linkreport

$1 is too little. The minimum should be the minimum fare of metro, rounded up to the next dollar for cash passengers. This low fare is setting the system up for yet another unexpected budget shortfall.

by Jasper on Oct 21, 2010 1:22 pm • linkreport

@kk, probably because that area of the city has yet to be "gentrified" in the manner that the great H Street/Benning Road corridor has/is. The streetcar is not meant to make commuting easier or more enjoyable for Metrobus' captive riders. It's meant to make the commute easier and more enjoyable for newer (gentry) Metro bus riders. In short, there are too many African Americans such as myself who live beyond Oklahoma Avenue, NE along the Benning Road corridor at this time. I wish that weren't the case. At the point when more "development" comes across the Lorraine Whitlock bridge (and more gentry with it), the streetcar line will extend. I just hope I'll still be able to afford my home once property taxes rise so I may also be able to commute to and from work more efficiently. Sigh...

by the truth on Oct 21, 2010 3:35 pm • linkreport

The streetcar is not meant to make commuting easier or more enjoyable for Metrobus' captive riders. It's meant to make the commute easier and more enjoyable for newer (gentry) Metro bus riders.

This wouldn't be part of "The Plan" would it?

Guess we'll file this under "Bike Lanes...FOR WHOM??"

by oboe on Oct 21, 2010 3:41 pm • linkreport

@kk The terminal was determined by the length of the streetscape project, not by a DDOT calculation that Oklahoma Ave NE makes sense as a terminal. In fact, it makes little sense as a terminal.
It was thought that installing rails during the streetscape project would minimize disruption later. As such the rails do not extend beyond the streetscape construction project at this point.

@the truth The fare will be $1 and will permit free transfers from Metrobus and will accept Metrobus passes. Obviously this will appeal to Metrobus's "captive riders" since it is cheaper than Metrobus.

It's also worth noting that DDOT applied for Federal money to fund construction of the extension from Oklahoma Avenue eastward. The Obama Administration declined to fund the application. I believe DDOT has identified other city funds for construction of that segment.

by Eric Fidler on Oct 21, 2010 4:30 pm • linkreport

@the truth You'd have a more compelling argument if they weren't building that stupid little Anacostia line that nobody is going to ride. They should kill it and do the extension to Benning metro instead.

by jcm on Oct 21, 2010 5:10 pm • linkreport

@Eric Fidler - I know all to well about DDOT's applications, plans, and the ability to transfer from Metrobus to the streetcar. (The application was submitted after the decision was made for Oklahoma to be the terminal despite community sentiment to the contrary). And I'll leave it at that.

I basically walk from my house to Minn/Benn to take the X bus to work. I shouldn't have to 1) walk from Minn/Benn to Oklahoma Avenue in order to catch the streetcar or 2) catch the X bus from Minn/Benn and transfer to the streetcar at Oklahoma Avenue. It makes no sense. Like I said, the plan isn't to make commuting easier for all. And as you've said, Oklahoma Avenue NE does not make sense as a terminal. So, to oboe's point, let's file this one under "The Plan". If you knew me you'd know I am not one to buy into such urban myths/ideas, but the facts (and the fact that they make no sense) substantiate this one.

by the truth on Oct 21, 2010 5:15 pm • linkreport

No need to worry about opponents of streetcars using the Anacostia line as a poster child. First of all, the line is so tiny, so hidden and so useless that opponents won't even know that it exists. Second, none of them will ever make the trip to Anacostia to actually see how useless it is in person.

by JJJJJ on Oct 21, 2010 5:19 pm • linkreport

@jcm - my argument is compelling and valid. The Anacostia line isn't for the residents of that area. It's for the workers who will be commuting in from the suburbs to Bolling and the Dept of Homeland Security from Metrorail. Again, the streetcar isn't meant to make commuting easier for Metro's captive riders. They want to be able to traverse Firth Sterling Avenue SE "safely"...whatever that means.

by the truth on Oct 21, 2010 5:19 pm • linkreport

@jcm - my argument is compelling and valid

I'd like to add that all my arguments are also compelling and valid. I am also aware of all Internet traditions.

by oboe on Oct 21, 2010 5:26 pm • linkreport

now, oboe, play nice...

by wylie coyote on Oct 22, 2010 2:09 am • linkreport

MPC: "Because they're not as hip as streetcars."

Why would MPC care anyway? I'm sure he observes his self-imposed rule of never getting within 10 miles of DC proper. Too many whippersnappers, government-types, and scary crackheads for him.

by Simon on Oct 22, 2010 7:56 am • linkreport

what? Only 1500 initial rides and 4300 more when it's extended? I hope those numbers are a low estimate. Over 13,000 people ride the X2 bus daily; I'm sure MORE than half would switch to the light rail, especially since it will be cheaper than the bus- and free in many circumstances, since many people wil "take their chances" and not pay. I know a lot of people take X2 to Gallery Place, but it would probably be quicker to take the light rail to the bridge and walk to Gallery Place that it would be to take a bus from Heckinger Mall to Gallery Place.

@steven yates: The X2 is often full by the time it crosses the anocostia river. But, I know many people who live along H ST. who don't bother trying to take the overcrowded and often violent X2. Currently, It's much more pleasant to just walk to union station.

by Tom A. on Oct 22, 2010 10:25 am • linkreport

My problem with the X2 (which I can catch at 15th & H) isn't the standing-room only or the occasional fracas, but the fact that it takes up to 40 minutes to go 15 blocks (and that was before the construction started). It's easy to see why it so slow. Each block has a stop and each stop lets at least a dozen people on and off.

A streetcar with multiple doors and an honor system won't fix this, because that sleek, efficient streetcar will be stuck behind an X2, every single time. With no way to pull around and pass, it will be just as slow as the slowest bus.

So I'll just continue with the X8, which takes a longer route to Union Station, but gets there three times as fast.

by AJM on Oct 22, 2010 10:46 am • linkreport

If you build it, they will come. Sure it would be cheaper to just add more buses to the routes but who wants to ride a bus when you can hop on a pretty streetcar? Thanks Gabe Klein.

by Snwopeas on Oct 22, 2010 11:38 am • linkreport

A streetcar wont help Benning RD/ H Street what is needed is a fully functional Lightrail with separate lanes or Subway line with at least three stops (19/21 Street, Hechinger Mall, 8th Street).

Just take two damn lanes out of Benning Road and H Street and put a damn lightrail there.

by kk on Oct 22, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

I'm wondering who's brilliant idea (sarcastically) it is to have the train run from to a less-traveled point, instead of a much needed area, for example, from Good Hope Rd. to the Anacostia Metro.

by Darrin Davis on Oct 22, 2010 10:19 pm • linkreport

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