Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Streetcars


US streetcar boom takes off in 2014

Three other American cities in addition to DC will open new streetcar lines this year, and at least 12 more cities are expected to advance construction on lines that will open later.

Streetcar undergoing on-street testing in Tucson, Arizona. Photo from the City of Tucson.

The four lines expected to open in 2014 are in DC, Tucson, Seattle, and Atlanta. Tucson's Sun Link streetcar will be the first modern rail transit to open in that city. Seattle's First Hill streetcar will run next to a cycletrack for much of its length, in an impressive multimodal layout.

Atlanta's downtown streetcar will be the first modern streetcar to open in the US that doesn't use the ubiquitous 66' long streetcar model first popularized in Portland. Instead, Atlanta will use a 79' long tram similar to the light rail cars in Norfolk.

North of the border, Toronto will shortly begin to use new 99' long trams on its expansive streetcar network, the largest in North America.

Even more cities will begin construction or continue construction on new lines that won't open until 2015 or later. They include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Tempe, San Antonio, and Saint Louis.

Many other cities, including Arlington, have streetcars that aren't expected to begin construction yet, but aren't far behind.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


With its biggest supporter gone, will the Arlington streetcar stay on track?

One of the Columbia Pike streetcar's biggest supporters has been Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. Now that he's stepping down, who takes his place could have a big impact on the project's future.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Of the four candidates running to replace Zimmerman in a special election this spring, one is opposed to the streetcar between Bailey's Crossroads and Pentagon City, while three others haven't shown strong support or opposition to it. But they are raising concerns about the streetcar's cost and the county's ability to manage projects like the million-dollar "Super Stop" and Long Bridge Aquatic Park, whose cost estimates are rising.

Meanwhile, streetcar supporters are gearing up to defend the embattled project. A study the county commissioned on the streetcar's economic benefits is due soon, and officials have yet to decide if it will once again seek federal funding to build it.

Streetcar looms over upcoming special election

One candidate for Zimmerman's seat, independent John Vihstadt, has already come out firmly against the streetcar project, citing it as one reason to break up Democratic Party control of the board. Vihstadt is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, an anti-streetcar group, and has the support of Libby Garvey, the sole streetcar opponent on the county board.

None of the three candidates seeking the Democratic Party nomination at its caucus in January have indicated their position on the streetcar. Alan Howze comes the closest, listing endorsements from many streetcar supporters on his website, including board member Jay Fisette and retired State Senator Mary Margaret Whipple who penned a pro-streetcar op-ed back in April.

Meanwhile, candidate Peter Fallon notes on his website that the county must support both transit and driving. And the third Democrat, Cord Thomas, recently told ARLnow that he wants more analysis before deciding on whether he supports the streetcar or not.

The Democrats' reluctance to support the streetcar suggests that while Arlington is generally known for aggressive investments in transportation, the party base may be reconsidering its priorities. But a streetcar on Columbia Pike has been in discussion for years, and it's hard to believe that a politically active person in Arlington doesn't have specific opinions about it. And candidates only have a few weeks to make their views known before the caucus.

Tejada responds to critics

Sitting board members are continuing Zimmerman's push for the streetcar. Chairman Walter Tejada recently wrote an op-ed defending the streetcar in the Washington Post. He responded to specific criticisms made by Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, particularly about the project's estimated $310 million cost.

Tejada noted that that figure includes streetscape improvements, new bus stops, and burying utilities, things that would benefit everyone traveling on Columbia Pike, whether or not they are on a streetcar. He also explained why AST's proposed alternative, Bus Rapid Transit in a dedicated lane, wouldn't work on Columbia Pike due to a limited road width and the Virginia Department of Transportation's requirement that there remain four general travel lanes.

But he focuses on the biggest advantage of streetcars over buses: the ability to carry more people over time. "The bottom line is not difficult to grasp: Streetcars have up to 100 percent more capacity than buses and attract more riders," Tejada writes. "Providing more capacity on fewer vehicles and substituting streetcars for some bus routes will minimize the impact of expanded public transit on the street network, allowing other modes of travel, including cars, to continue to move freely."

County waiting on new study

In September, Arlington commissioned a new study on the streetcar's capacity and its return on investment, with the results due any day now. It will likely influence whether the county tries to secure funding from the FTA's New Starts program after it was rejected for funds from FTA's Small Starts program back in April.

The county is making decisions for other aspects of the Columbia Pike corridor as well. Officials recently approved an affordable housing plan which allows for tax increment financing and the transfer of development rights, which could preserve and increase the amount of affordable housing in the corridor.

Next year, streetcar service will begin in DC. Arlington could soon follow, but only if current and aspiring county officials fully commit to it.


Topic of the week: Greater Greater 2024

Wednesday marks the start of 2014, but what about further into the future? We asked our contributors what they hope to be writing and reading about on Greater Greater Washington in 10 years.

Photo by Joe on Flickr.

Dan Reed: I'd like to write about how the region's ethnic enclaves, from Langley Park to Annandale, have become the new hot spots, drawing investment from around the globe as the cool kids finally realize there's a big world outside DC, and it's got much better food. Meanwhile, the Rockville Metro station gets renamed "Chinatown."

Jim Titus: I hope to read that that Metropolitan AME complains about DDOT's insensitivity to churches, while the city makes excuses. Church officials complain that CaBi needs to completely empty its 60-bike dock early on Sundays, to prevent the dock from exceeding capacity at the 11:00 AM service.

But DDOT says the real problem is that the new "trikeshare" three-wheelers used by most elderly parishioners each take up two spaces. Church officials concede that the dock never fills at the 7:45 service, which is generally attended by younger members.

Michael Perkins: Goal for the next five years is for DC to take the experience in San Francisco to heart and get serious about managing their curbside parking. Adjust hours and prices to ensure people can find a space if they're willing to pay what it's worth.

Ben Ross: Construction of a new Metro line through downtown DC, and new rail lines in the suburbs. And a reorientation of the Montgomery and Prince George's transportation departments, like DC and Arlington, to operate urban complete streets rather than suburban highways.

Canaan Merchant: 1) Hopefully I'll be reading about construction on a number of new transit lines. 2) Hopefully we'll see so many people on bikes that we'll need to discuss how to handle bicycle congestion. 3) How the city has adapted under new buildings that have broken the current height limit. 4) What the city has planned for an RFK site that is now focused on providing new housing/retail for the city and not more stadiums and parking lots. 5) How the Columbia Pike streetcar has aided in transforming the corridor and led to calls for streetcar expansion throughout Northern Virginia.

Chad Maddox: How the region has successfully absorbed many more residents while simultaneously managing to keep housing relatively affordable. Also, how the District has become a national model for its efforts to eliminate concentrated poverty and residential segregation in its borders.

Tracey Johnstone: That better coordination among local transit agencies, combined with the implementation of free transfer among subway, light rail, bus, and streetcar increased transit usage by over 25%.

Adam Froehlig: In a controversial effort to address chronic bike congestion on the MVT and the 14th St Bridge path, NPS and DDOT implement all-electronic bicycle tolls. A local bike commuter is quoted in the news as saying it will force him to switch to driving while another complains that the revenues will go to the private collector and WMATA instead of to path and bridge repairs.

And after years of false starts, the District finally implements a mileage tax. The effort is seen as a colossal failure as non-DC-registered cars are exempt and the elimination of the gas tax prompts Maryland drivers to suddenly flood DC streets such as Benning Road and Georgia Ave to take advantage of the cheaper DC gas.

Neil Flanagan: I'd like to hear Montgomery officials getting anxious about how successful Prince George's Smart Growth program has been. That it's putting pressure on DC to drop rents, but won't someone think about the historic Greenbelt gas station that's going under?

Also, "Daddy, what's a Millenial?"


Watch DDOT's beautifully animated streetcar video

In anticipation of the upcoming H Street streetcar, DDOT created this safety video that illustrates how drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians should act once the streetcar begins running.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.



Philadelphia's streetcar infrastructure: Old but interesting

Philadelphia's streetcar network is the largest and busiest in the mid-Atlantic. It has several interesting features, some of which can help inform the planning for DC's growing system.

Philadelphia's Girard Avenue trolley, with island platform. All photos by BeyondDC.

Philadelphia calls its system trolleys instead of streetcars, because it's vintage from the original trolley era. While Philadelphia did discontinue many of its original trolley routes, unlike DC they also kept many.

The Girard Avenue trolley line even uses vintage trolley vehicles, originally built in 1947. It also runs in a unique on-street arrangement, with tracks down the center of wide Girard Avenue, and stations in narrow floating medians.

The Girard Avenue trolley's floating platforms.

The Girard Avenue arrangement is totally different than DC's H Street layout, which uses a mixture of curbside and full median tracks.

Philadelphia's center-running tracks result in fewer conflicts with parked or turning cars, which speeds the trolleys down their route. It's almost-but-not-quite like a dedicated transitway.

Unfortunately, the platforms are too narrow to meet modern disability-accessible design guidelines. If DC were to use a similar arrangement, we'd need wider platforms and thus more street width.

Narrow platform on the Girard Avenue trolley line.

On narrower streets in West Philadelphia, trolleys still run in the center, with bike lanes between the tracks and a row of parked cars.

Trolley line on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia.

The trolley subway

Five trolley routes that run on-street in West Philadelphia combine and then move into a dedicated trolley subway to speed through Center City. It's a great way to maximize the efficiency of the system through its most dense and congested section, while still taking advantage of the flexibility of on-street operations further out.

13th Street trolley subway station.

DC once had a short trolley subway too, under Dupont Circle. Today, DC's reborn streetcar plan doesn't call for any. They're hugely expensive, after all. But with the specter of Metrorail capacity constraints looming, and new DC subway lines under consideration, perhaps someday a streetcar subway could again be appropriate in DC.

What else is there?

I've never personally lived in Philadelphia, so my experience with its trolley network is fairly limited. I'm sure there are other interesting features. What did I miss?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Streetcar arrives on H Street

On Friday night, DDOT crews moved the first streetcar to H Street.

DC Streetcar. All images from BeyondDC.

The last time streetcars ran on DC streets was January, 1962, just shy of 52 years ago. But don't expect to catch a ride just yet. The streetcars must now undergo a series of on-street tests before passenger service can begin sometime in 2014.

Are you excited? We're excited.

Many city residents stopped by over the weekend to snap their own pictures. If you haven't had a chance yet, it's right there. You can go anytime.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Topic of the week: 4 more years for Gray?

On Monday, DC Mayor Vincent Gray said he will seek a second term. He joins an already crowded field, which will make for a very interesting race. But there's also the question of how Gray has done as mayor.

Photo by AFGE on Flickr.

What are his biggest accomplishments? What are his biggest disappointments? And does he deserve a second term? Our contributors weigh in:

Dan Malouff:
On transportation, Gray has been OK but not perfect. He's done a good job moving the streetcar program forward, but progress on bike infrastructure has moved much more slowly than it did under Fenty. He'd be a low risk/moderate reward choice for a second term. We'd know that we'd be getting someone who basically advances our goals, but maybe not as quickly as a more progressive candidate might. On land use planning, he's worth voting for just to keep Harriet Tregoning on the job.

Malcolm Kenton:
One Gray accomplishment that I'm fond of is the Vision for a Sustainable DC, which cuts across departments and agencies and sets aggressive goals for emissions reduction and restoration of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. It remains to be seen how aggressively Gray will implement the plan and whether each department will receive adequate funding for their share of the work, but the plan is a significant step in the right direction.

I also applaud Gray for sticking with the streetcar plan despite opposition from many corners, including many voters who supported him.

However, I am unhappy with Gray's positions on minimum wage and labor standards issues. The majority of the Council is ahead of him there. I supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act and am dismayed that Gray vetoed it.

Erin McAuliff:
I think Gray and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero have made great headway in planning, laying out a vision and foundation that moves DC in the right direction (Sustainable DC and Age Friendly DC are my two big ones).

We will have to wait and see, though, how implementation plays out (as Malcolm mentioned) either through Gray in a second term or through a newly elected administration that could turn all of that good work on its head. I'm inclined to say he deserves a second term because it's a better bet for successful implementation. But maybe I would also support a candidate that recognizes those accomplishments and is highly committed to being an implementer.

Matt Malinowski:
Although "One City" sometimes gets short shrift, Mayor Gray has done much to fill the slogan with meaning. The One City Summit, held in early 2012, brought 1800 residents to the Washington Convention Center.

It was actually successful at getting the participants to work together in diverse groups to identify the priorities for government services and the future of the city. Participants became engaged while educating themselves about the trade-offs of various policies, such as how new business attraction may drive out existing small businesses.

Increasing sustainability and diversifying DC's economy while improving access to it were the big policy winners at the Summit. And Gray's administration has followed up, continuing its support for the Sustainable DC plan, promoting development at the St. Elizabeths site, and enabling continued growth city-wide through the MoveDC plan and relaxation of the Height Act.

Bringing Walmart to the District is a negative for sustainability and diversifying the economy. While improving the connections between education and jobs will take much more time, it is clear that Mayor Gray is not just continuing past policies on autopilot, but is asking hard questions about how the city and the region can succeed in the years ahead.


Delve into streetcar details with this track schematic

Simply put, the H Street streetcar goes from Union Station to the Anacostia River. But really its route is more complex.

This unofficial schematic shows the line in much more detail, including where it runs in the curb lane versus the middle lane, where there are track crossovers, and the layout of the railyard.

Schematic by John R. Cambron AKA Sand Box John.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.



With the streetcar, H Street will need clear signs

For streetcars to move through traffic, rail tracks have to be free of parked cars. To keep them that way, the rules of the road must be crystal clear for drivers.

Streetcar parking zone sign, Seattle. Photo by BeyondDC.

Last week DDOT used a truck for a test-run of the H Street streetcar route, and because of illegally parked cars, the going was slow. But other cities with similar streetcar layouts, like Seattle and Portland, have had a lot of success keeping their lanes clear. How do they do it?

With constant and clear communication to drivers, like the sign pictured here, and with strong enforcement.

Any time you take pavement away from cars, there's a learning curve. Drivers accustomed to doing as they please have to change behavior. That's to be expected, and it doesn't happen on the first day you run your first test truck. But most drivers do fall in line, once they understand what's changed. That's how streetcars have worked in other cities.

And if all else fails, ticketing cameras mounted on streetcars, like in San Francisco, would solve any remaining problem in a hurry.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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