Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Streetcars

Transit


Ask GGW: Now that the streetcar isn't happening, why aren't there bigger buses on Columbia Pike?

Columbia Pike is one of the most heavily-traveled transit corridors in the area. A streetcar there is no longer a transportation option, but that only highlights the need for a solution for current and future congestion.


Photo by WMATA.

Reader Brandon Shaw wants to know why there are only standard buses on Columbia Pike as opposed to articulated buses, which are longer and can carry more passengers:

Why aren't there articulated buses on Columbia Pike? My understanding is that replacing the current 40 foot buses with 60 foot buses would have a 50% increase in passenger capacity.
Ryan Arnold wrote a post in 2012, when Arlington first solicited comments on the option to replace the streetcar with articulated buses, that tackled the streetcar vs. articulated bus debate. He emphasized that articulated buses are appropriate in many areas but don't accomplish the same goals as streetcars.

In Columbia Pike's case, streetcars were favorable because Arlington's main goal was to transform the corridor from a suburban commercial strip into a dense, mixed-use neighborhood.

But with that option off the table, is it possible that articulated buses are the next-best thing?

The Columbia Pike routes, also known as Pike Ride, are a combined Arlington Transit (ART) and Metrobus service on Columbia Pike that consists of three main Metrobus lines, two MetroExtra routes, and three individual ART routes. All of these buses are operated with standard buses (vehicles with a length of 35 to 42 feet).

Standard buses are enough if bus service is what Arlington is sticking to

Currently, there is no demand for articulated buses on this line. As Metro planned it years ago, standard buses are enough to provide the service and frequency desired.

Chris Slatt mentions that Arlington Transit staff are moving forward with streetcar alternatives by conducting a study that's part of Arlington's revamp of their Transit Development Plan.

There's not enough space to store articulated buses

Metrobus stores their articulated buses in three bus divisions (garages), and none of them are in Virginia. At one time, the Four Mile Run division, which runs the Columbia Pike Metrobus routes (16 Line), stored articulated buses. But the garage was renovated to store their current fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.


The 2010 Metrobus Fleet Management Plan showing Metrobus fleet at the end of June 2009. Only two articulated buses were assigned to the Four Mile Run division. Image from WMATA.

A new Metrobus garage is scheduled to open in 2016 in Fairfax County, replacing the Royal Street division in Alexandria. The new Cinder Bed Road division will store about 160 buses, but there are no plans to store articulated buses.

Articulated buses are more expensive

Canaan Merchant points to possible maintenance issues with using articulated buses on Columbia Pike saying, "the road at present would deteriorate faster due to the excess weight and wear and tear".

Articulated buses currently in revenue service by Metrobus have a maximum life cycle of 12 years before they need to be replaced. Standard buses, on the other hand, have a maximum life cycle of 15 years. A number of standard buses that are about 7.5 years old have gone through a "mid-cycle refresh" or rehabilitation in order to keep them running their full life cycle. Only six articulated buses have been rehabbed and a number of them are planned to be replaced by a new order later in 2015.


A Metrobus articulated bus that is scheduled to be replaced in the near future.Image from Robbieraeful on Wikipedia Commons.

The long maintenance bays needed to service articulated buses could be restored or added to the Four Mile Run division in the future, however there are no plans or funding in place.

Do you have a question? Each week, we'll pose a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing ask@ggwash.org. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!

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Transit


Beyond Metro, there's no big idea for transit in DC anymore

The excellent Housing Complex writer Aaron Wiener is leaving the local reporting scene for a position at Mother Jones. For his valedictory column, he proposes 15 "not-so-modest proposals for how to make DC better." The first three cover transit. So what's the big pie-in-the-sky for transit?


Pie in the sky image from Shutterstock.

First: "Build new Metro lines."

Second: "At the very least, add some infill stations."

Third: "Stop building streetcar lines in mixed traffic."

Unfortunately, building new Metro lines is not really going to happen. Beyond that, this list doesn't give much to be excited about. And that's not Wiener's fault; it's exactly the problem with transit planning and advocacy in the Washington region right now.

More Metro is best

It's absolutely true that, if we're not "constrained by the limits of reality," putting more Metro lines everywhere is indeed the key. (If you're really unconstrained by reality, you just invent teleportation, but if we're suspending fiscal reality but not the laws of physics, Metro is the way to go).

Even despite disinvestment and mismanagement in WMATA, the Metro is a fast way to travel. If it's working, it's often faster than any other mode—when there's a station near where you want to go. More lines and more stations would undoubtedly offer better transportation than nearly any other system.

Unfortunately, Metro lines cost billions of dollars. Many cities and nations in other parts of the world are willing and able to keep building more tunnels for more trains, but not the United States.

What's the next best idea? Surely there is another, somewhat cheaper, somewhat less speedy, but still eminently worthwhile idea ready for an alternative weekly blogger to tout?

There isn't a second-best idea

Well, not really. And Wiener's list demonstrates this. Not because he's not coming up with it—he's a reporter and blogger, not a transportation planner. Rather, there's nothing on the shelf.

(In DC, anyway. In Maryland, the Purple Line continues to be a slam dunk, and will only not happen if the governor is more intent on punishing a part of the state that mostly didn't vote for him instead of making the state more attractive to businesses and workers.)

Infill stations, sure, and there are a few good spots. Besides Potomac Yard in Alexandria, a station already in the planning stages, Wiener points out an opportunity to build a station east of Stadium-Armory next to the former Pepco plant, if and when all of the toxic chemicals under that plant can get cleaned up.

But there aren't many good places where there's much or even any new development potential. So what else?

All there is for us is an exhortation NOT to build something. Don't build a mixed-traffic streetcar.

DC planners and leaders have not teed up any better solutions. Bus lanes and dedicated streetcar lanes (Wiener mentions the possibility of a dedicated lane on Georgia Avenue) could offer a way to move people quickly and smoothly around the city, but we're very far from being able to make that a reality, and we're moving at a snail's pace.

A study of lanes on H and I Streets foundered amid interagency squabbling between DDOT and WMATA. A study for 16th Street is actually underway, but only after multiple earlier studies in prior years. At best, it seems we can hope DDOT could design something this year, build it a couple of years from now, test it, then maybe slowly start studying some more lanes by Muriel Bowser's second term or the next mayor's first.

There are existing plans for dedicated transit lanes on K Street, but there's no longer enough money in the latest budget to actually build them. These dedicated K Street lanes, by the way, have been rarely mentioned in news stories criticizing streetcars (Wiener's list included).

The MoveDC plan lays out a network of 47 miles of "high-capacity transit" including 25 miles of dedicated lanes, but little idea of how to build those, when, or how to pay for it.

Arlington has canceled its transit vision, which grew out of years of public processes and compromise. Maryland may as well. Beyond finishing the Silver Line, the region may soon be left with no big transit ideas. And as the political climates have shifted in all of these jurisdictions, there also seems to be little appetite right now to make any new big plans.

Wiener brings up many of other excellent ideas as well. Foster some creative architecture in the District. Spread homeless shelters out around the city so every area can be a part of the solution. Buy vacant or blighted property now, when it's cheap, to build affordable housing later. Don't build football stadiums. Get rid of parking minimum requirements in new buildings.

The next Housing Complex writer will surely continue talking about all of these issues. DC leaders need to give him or her, and residents across the city and region, something to get excited about instead of a choice between the practically impossible and the undesirable.

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Roads


Mary Cheh's annual joke budget memo mocks the streetcar, endless transportation studies, and more

Each year, as the DC Council considers the District's budget, Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff issue fake recommendations that satirize recent news. This year's poke even sharper fun than usual at a number of issues around transportation, Eleanor Holmes Norton's parking, the Vince Gray prosecution, and many others.


Bookshelf image from Shutterstock.

On the streetcar, for instance, they "suggest,"

Transfer $500,000 million from the District Department of Transportation to the Commission on Arts and Humanities. This transfer will be used for an innovative, progressive, and transformative production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
That wasn't even the harshest cut at DDOT, though. As we prepared to talk to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, a lot of you suggested questions about DDOT's apparent habit of conducting a study, then conducting another one a couple of years later, and so on.

This has been a particular source of ire for Capitol Hill residents who have been waiting years for traffic calming on Maryland Avenue, or supporters of a bus lane who wonder why there has to be another study this year to implement a bus lane that was the subject of at least two earlier studies. Commenter Jimmy, for instance, wrote:

Some of us actually refer to his agency as DDOTS (District Department of Transportation Studies). While some study is necessary to avoid ready-fire-aim debacles like the streetcar, use of "further study" (on bike lanes, bus lanes, bus signal priority, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move more cars faster or provide more parking for private automobiles) has clearly become a delaying tactic. What can be done about this? How can we move forward on things that have already been studied to death?
Cheh and her staff feel your pain. Their budget "recommendation":
Transfer $1.5 million from the Department of General Services—what's another million and a half, anyway—to the District Department of Transportation to conduct a study. It has recently come to the Committee's attention that DDOT has had issues in implementing previously conducted studies. Despite extensive work being done to study traffic calming measures on Maryland Avenue, the agency is about to initiate another study. Additionally, despite conducting a study in 2013 on a 16th Street Bus Lane, DDOT will shortly begin a new study on the topic.

To assist in reducing redundant redundancies, the Committee recommends that the funds be used for DDOT to study these studies. This endeavor will help keep the agency busy because the Committee has no doubt that two years from now they will scrap the study on studies and conduct a new study that studies the study on studies in a rather studious manner.

Burn.

Eleanor Holmes Norton does not get off lightly. A video surfaced in March showing the Congresswoman trying to park between two other cars and somehow managing to end up diagonally in her space. Cheh and her staff "propose" a new Eleanor Holmes Norton Office of Parking and Driving to provide free taxi service for elected officials.

And speaking of federal activities, remember how US Attorney Ron Machen was looking into alleged campaign finance misdeeds from the 2010 Vincent Gray mayoral campaign? Machen charged a number of Gray staffers, but never seemed to find any evidence linking the mayor himself. Yet Machen, in an unusual step for a prosecutor, publicly said "there's there there," saying in essence that he was sure Gray was involved.

Gray lost the primary election, in large part because many people believed Machen, but nothing has happened since. Cheh and her staff caustically "suggest" funding a dictionary and a map for the US Attorney's Office so it can "determine where exactly is the there."

Other biting critiques in the memo include:

  • A recommendation about the DC Board of Elections printed entirely upside-down, a reference to the upside-down DC flag on the 2014 voter guide which BOE first pretended was intentional, then admitted had been a mistake.
  • That upside-down proposal suggests a primary date based on the lunar calendar to "enhance voter turnout and continue to make elections a part of the news cycle." DC had shifted its primary from September to April due to federal laws about getting absentee ballots to servicemembers overseas. But the turnout in 2014 hit record lows, so the council moved it back.
  • A budget allocation to make space for "all of Mayor Bowser's former staff and campaign aides" on the council. Bowser staffers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May won the two recent special elections, in Wards 4 and 8 respectively. Todd said he would be independent of Bowser and even, while campaigning, opposed her controversial DC Jail healthcare contract which Bowser had been pushing; days after winning, he decided he would support his former boss after all.
  • A new job training program for councilmembers forced out of office due to corruption.
  • Body cameras for councilmembers whose footage will be televised on a reality show, "Keeping Up with the Kouncilmembers."
  • A staffer to submit "all office supply orders" to Congress, given that Congress is so eager to get involved in DC's local affairs.
Cheh and her staff conclude with a suggestion that if you don't find her memo funny, you "participate in some recently-legalized activities" (i.e. smoke marijuana) and then you will "find it to be, like, totally the funniest thing ever."

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Transit


To replace Columbia Pike streetcar, Vihstadt proposes Circulator bus

Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt, whose opposition to the Columbia Pike streetcar proved decisive in Arlington's decision to cancel that project, now proposes "Circulator-type buses" instead. Only one problem: Bus service on Columbia Pike is already better than DC Circulator.


There are already multiple special bus brands on Columbia Pike.

Vihstadt's suggestion to emulate the Circulator came last week during community discussions to develop a post-streetcar plan for Columbia Pike. Residents said progress since Arlington cancelled the line has been too slow, and in response Vihstadt suggested a Circulator-type bus as an interim measure until something more can get up and running.

Though many associate the word with bus services in DC and Baltimore, a "circulator" is just a type of transit service (not necessarily a bus) that provides frequent service for short trips, mainly within downtown or the urban core. If Vihstadt is specifically referring to the DC Circulator, what would that actually accomplish?

Vihstadt's proposal is for something Columbia Pike already has

There are two main differences between Circulator buses and regular Metrobuses: DC Circulator comes every 10 minutes, and it has its own brand aimed at making the system easy to use. Neither of those would be a big step in fixing Columbia Pike's transit conundrum.

Buses on Columbia Pike are already scheduled to arrive every two minutes, and the PikeRide brand has been around for years, telling riders bus service on Columbia Pike is unique. WMATA does something similar with the REX bus along Route 1 in Fairfax and Alexandria.

Arlington could request that Metro paint PikeRide buses in a brighter color, like in the past, or add a uniquely-branded ART bus route in addition to the many that already run up and down the Pike. But that would do nothing to solve the chronic overcrowding and bus bunching that PikeRide buses already face.

Copying DC's Circulator buses might offer one slight improvement to Columbia Pike beyond what's already there: The inside of Circulator buses have fewer seats, to make it easier for passengers who aren't going very far to hop on and off more quickly. That would add a tiny amount of new capacity to the corridor.

But we don't even know if that is what Mr. Vihstadt meant by "Circulator-like," and changes to Columbia Pike's bus system would likely be minimal.

A Circulator on Columbia Pike wouldn't address Columbia Pike's actual problems. It's not a replacement for streetcar, and it's not the kind of streetcar-comparable BRT that Vihstadt promised in his campaign. It's even a step down from articulated buses.

Vihstadt and the rest of the Arlington County Board have promised communities along Columbia Pike a real solution. Flippant comments proposing something that already exists is less than the bare minimum to meet that promise.

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Development


Modern streetcar planning in the region, visualized

This week we looked at streetcar planning in Anacostia, H Street and Benning Road, and Northern Virginia. To help visualize this evolution, here's an illustration of how and when all of these plans have changed over the last 20 years.

Slideshow image


March, 1997: A Transportation Vision, Strategy, and Action Plan for the Nation's Capital
Proposed three streetcar routes (and one crosstown Metro line).


April, 1999: WMATA Transit Service Expansion Plan
Identified three possible streetcar lines among a multitude of future transit projects.


August, 1999: Crystal City / Potomac Yard Area Transportation Study
Proposed a streetcar for the transit corridor.


January, 2002: DC Transit Development Study (WMATA)
Identified four possible streetcar corridors and initiated the study of a starter line in Anacostia.


February, 2003: Columbia Pike Transit Initiative
Proposed streetcar service as an alternative for the corridor.


March, 2003: Crystal City / Potomac Yard Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis
Selected Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) over streetcar for the corridor.


October, 2005: District of Columbia Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis
Proposed four streetcar lines. Construction started on Anacostia Demonstration Project.


June, 2008: District of Columbia Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis (2008 Update)
Modified proposed streetcar network. Construction of H Street/Benning Road line begins and the Anacostia line gets realigned.


October, 2009: District of Columbia Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis (2010 Update)
Proposed a 37-mile, 8-line streetcar network.


July, 2011: Route 1 Corridor Streetcar Conversion Project
Study of converting transit corridor to streetcar initiated.


June, 2012: 22-Mile Priority Streetcar System
Focus of DC Streetcar efforts scaled down to three lines; Anacostia line truncated.


October, 2014: 8.2-Mile Streetcar System
Focus of DC Streetcar efforts scaled down to two lines amid funding cuts.


November, 2014: Arlington Cancels Streetcar Projects
Both Columbia Pike and Crystal City / Potomac Yard streetcar efforts indefinitely suspended.


March, 2015: New Administration Commits to One Line
Mayor Bowser commits to completing the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line. Future lines remain uncertain.

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Transit


A history of streetcar planning on H Street and Benning Road

The DC Streetcar's H Street and Benning Road segment has been its most controversial. Here's a look at how we arrived at today.

The H Street and Benning Road corridor has been part of proposals for a crosstown streetcar line from Georgetown since WMATA's 2002 Transit Development Study. Some of the first proposals came from agencies that weren't DDOT, like one in the Office of Planning's H Street Strategic Development Plan in 2003.

By January 2006, DDOT announced that the Great Streets Initiative, a $43 million fund to rebuild H and Benning's roadbeds, would include money for streetcar tracks. The plan was to build a 3.5-mile line from Union Station to the Minnesota Avenue Metro.

Laying down tracks in 2007 made the streetcar line's route more permanent, save for its termini. In 2008, DDOT decided to delay the line's eastern connection to a Metro station on the other side of the Anacostia River. Also, there was still no set location for a western terminus near Union Station (an issue that remained in question for several years).

Initial work on the line concluded with the completion of the Great Streets project late 2011. While DDOT's DC Streetcar System Plan called for the streetcar to start running in the spring of 2012, a lot of questions about the line still remained unanswered. Among them were where to place the line's western terminus near Union Station, whether to put a maintenance facility near a high school, and, most importantly, how to fund the project.

As the city tackled these issues, construction resumed in December 2012. Substations, overhead wires, and tracks went in, and streetcars began testing. A study of an extension of the line to Benning Road Metro station also began that year.

Still, though, the line remained unopened. As each planned opening date neared, lingering issues still remained, and the opening was pushed back. Then again. And again. And again.

That brings us to today

DC Streetcar vehicles have been rolling down H and Benning in simulated service since the fall of 2014, but they've yet to carry passengers. The reasons why have not been easy to come by, and a lot of people have wondered if the line will ever open at all.

When the Bowser administration came in, DDOT dropped previous deadlines and reassessed. After a peer review found no "fatal flaws," Mayor Bowser committed to completing the full planned line to Georgetown.

Still, we don't know when the H Street and Benning line will actually open.

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Transit


A history of streetcar planning in Anacostia

As part of our look at the evolution of streetcar planning across the region, here's the history behind what was supposed to be DC's first modern streetcar line.


2002's Anacostia starter line. Images from DDOT unless otherwise noted.

The District of Columbia Transit Development Study, which came out in 2002, called for a 7.2-mile starter line that would connect the Minnesota Avenue and Anacostia Metro stations to the Waterfront and Navy Yard stations, which sat across the Anacostia River. It was DC's first modern-era streetcar proposal.

The next step was the Anacostia Corridor Demonstration Project, a July 2003 study of the possibilities for a first phase of this route. The city considered using various transit modes, including streetcar and DMUs, on CSX's 2.7-mile Shepherd Branch industrial spur, from Pennsylvania Ave SE to Bolling Air Force Base.

Construction starts for the Anacostia streetcar...

After an environmental assessment wrapped up in April of 2004, the city ordered three streetcars from Inekon DPO. There was a groundbreaking ceremony that November, in anticipation of a fall 2006 opening.

But two days after the ceremony, CSX announced that it wouldn't allow the District to use Shepherd Branch. The change of plans stalled the project. Negotiations carried on for months until DDOT relented in 2005, shifting the route from the railroad tracks and onto the streets. In doing so, the city scaled the streetcar's northern terminus back to Good Hope Road SE, just short of the 11th Street Bridge.

Though residents were unhappy with the realignment, construction began in earnest in September 2009. DC's three streetcars, which had sat in storage in the Czech Republic since 2007, finally arrived the following December.

...and then it ends

Workers finished installing rails for the first contract phase of the construction project August 2010. At the time, the city had yet to award a contract for further work. Anacostia residents weren't interested in pushing for the line, so H Street became a higher priority for a streetcar. The only part of the line the city finished was the half-mile of rails that run from Fifth Sterling Ave SE, just west of Suitland Parkway, down part of South Capitol Street.


What's there today. Image by the author.

DDOT completed a Testing and Commissioning Site at the southern terminus of this stub track in 2013, but no other physical construction has been completed since. The full planned route, whose northern terminus was relocated to Buzzard Point in DDOT's 22-Mile Priority System, remained in planning efforts despite funding concerns, and studies of extending the line into historic Anacostia happened as recently as 2014.

Finishing the Anacostia line would have been DDOT's next priority had funding for streetcar expansion remained in place. At this point, the Anacostia line's future is quite uncertain, as the new District administration has made no specific mention of the Anacostia line in its immediate plans for the DC streetcar network.

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Transit


A history of streetcar planning in Northern Virginia

Yesterday we looked at the evolution of streetcar proposals in the District. Here's how Northern Virginia's two modern-day efforts unfolded.

Alternatives Analysis/Environmental Assessment from May 2012. Image from the Pike Transit Initiative.

Columbia Pike

Out of desire to revitalize one of its major corridors, Arlington County began the Columbia Pike Initiative in 2001. The project pointed out a need for better transit, and in February 2003 the county began the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative, a formal study of the possibilities.

After an April 2006 study of different transit modes, streetcars emerged as the best choice for Columbia Pike.

Arlington formally committed to a streetcar plan in March 2009, and an environmental study for the project followed. The county confirmed its plans in 2012 after a second alternatives analysis also recommended streetcar as the preferred mode. The state of Virginia committed funds in July of last year.

But by November, voter opposition to the project had grown, due in part to major holdups in the District's streetcar plan. After elections in the fall, the project went onto the shelf.

The board of supervisors from Fairfax County, a partner in the project, called the decision to end it short-sighted and disappointing.

Crystal City/Potomac Yard

Arlington and Alexandria have been working together on a transit service for the Potomac Yard development since 1999. At first, streetcars got serious consideration, but a bus rapid transit (BRT) system won out as the preferred mode for the corridor because of cost concerns.

The cities did not fully rule out streetcars on the corridor at this point, though. As construction of the BRT system neared, Arlington and Alexandria agreed to begin a study on converting the system for streetcar use in the future as the corridor developed. Arlington started its part of the study in July 2011, but Alexandria put its part off until a later date.

In December 2012, when Arlington started seeking federal funds for the project, Alexandria pulled out altogether, focusing its efforts on the Potomac Yard Metro infill station project.

Arlington halted its study of streetcar conversion in Crystal City when the Columbia Pike project got suspended. The first phase of Metroway, the BRT system for the corridor, had opened for service two months prior, in August.

Further developments around the Metroway should be complete later this year.

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Transit


A history of streetcar planning in the District

DC's streetcar plans have evolved over 20 years, ebbing and flowing mayor-by-mayor. In advance of the H Street/Benning Road streetcar's eventual opening, we take a look back at how we've arrived at where we are now.

You can trace plans for modern streetcar service in the District back to the Transportation Vision, Strategy and Action Plan, which the District Department of Public Works completed in March of 1997. This plan identified a need for better inter-District transit to complement the Metro, and it proposed three possible streetcar lines to make that happen.

In the following years, WMATA conducted two studies of its own. The first was 1999's Transit Service Expansion Plan, which identified three possible downtown streetcar lines as part of a larger region-wide transit vision. 2002's District of Columbia Transit Development Study was a more direct follow-up to the 1997 Vision study.

The result of the Transit Development Study was a proposal for four lines, including a starter line in the Anacostia region.

In 2003, DDOT started the DC's Transit Future program, which expanded on the 2002 study and assessed the transit possibilities for fourteen corridors across the District.

The program culminated in the release of the DC's Transit Future System Plan and Alternatives Analysis in September 2005, which identified nine corridors for transit investment, including four streetcar lines. The report got an update in June 2008, and in October 2009 DDOT unveiled a substantially upgraded and expanded streetcar vision before making a second update in April 2010.

Due to funding concerns and shaky construction efforts on the first lines in Anacostia and the H Street/Benning Road corridors, DDOT refined this 37-mile plan down to a 22-mile "Priority System" in June 2012, focusing efforts on three major corridors of the original vision.

As revenue service moved further into the future and political support for the DC streetcar network declined, more funding cuts in October 2014 meant shifting the near-term focus to just the two lines under construction (8.2 miles).

The Bowser administration has so far only committed to completing the planned extensions to the H Street/Benning Road line to Georgetown and down Benning. The performance of that first line will likely play a huge role in determining whether the broader vision's other plans become a reality.

In the coming days, we'll take an in-depth look at modern streetcar proposals in Northern Virginia, as well as the two DC routes that made it out of the planning phase and into actual construction.

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