23 Mar 2010

Update on the Future of H Street Streetcars

Uploaded to Flickr by dsb nola

Last week the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) hosted a community forum focused on the District’s Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) proposed Streetcar Project. The new system, as currently envisioned, consists of a 37-mile citywide system (8 lines, built in three phases) set to be completed by 2030. The first two lines will travel down H Street and through Anacostia.

These cars are expected to be powered with overhead wires, which are currently illegal. CHRS members have been opposed to the wires.

The moderator of the event, CHRS board member Monte Edwards, was clear in the organization’s support for a streetcar system for DC. Scott Kubly from DDOT expressed the city’s commitment to “wireless monumental views” – ie no wires by the Mall or in other monumental parts of the city. See everyone, we can agree on a few things!

Meg Maguire, a trustee for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, gave a presentation which included images of the thoroughfares slated to someday be part of a streetcar route.  Maguire asked questions about DDOT’s plans and studies. The Committee feels that DDOT is rushing forward despite many unknowns and the Committee thinks DDOT should pause and do more studies.

CHRS’s Edwards described the Streetcar Technology Showcase he attended in Charlotte, NC, which focused on cars powered without the use of overhead wires. DDOT’s Hubly agreed that DDOT should and will be looking into the technologies as they develop.

Kubly presented images of the modern streetcar, low to the ground and air conditioned with a smooth ride. The biggest news from the evening was how the streetcar would get into Union Station.  They plan on using the old H Street which is still under the Hopscotch Bridge. The tracks will cut into the bridge,  go under the Amtrak tracks, and then turn into the station.

Kubly agreed that the wireless technology was promising but also pointed out that currently no city in the world relies solely on wireless streetcars and that DDOT has concerns about how such cars run in severe winter weather. Saragossa, Spain is set to unveil a wireless system this spring. Looks to me like this city has a more temperate climate than DC’s but I’m no meteorologist…Perhaps THIH should send me over to Spain to do more in depth coverage?

Another DDOT concern regarding wireless technology is the proprietary nature of the existing companies. Committing today to a wireless company basically locks the organization in for a long time. They prefer an option that leaves future flexibility to adjust as technologies evolve. Kubly admitted that DDOT and the Streetcar Project have met with the most favorable administration in many years – another reason to move  forward with the project.

Fans of streetcars point to the economic boon they bring to neighborhoods along the streetcars routes. This was a contributing factor in deciding that H Street NE and Anacostia would get the first lines. Opponents of the overhead wires asked for a study to see what negative impact overhead wires could bring to a neighborhood, such as potential loss of home value.

As someone who has lived a block from H Street for 10 years, I think I can safely say that few people I know care all that deeply about the overhead wire issue. In my conversations with H Street business owners and residents it appears they would agree with the comments  made by the former ANC 6A Chair Joe Fengler which can be summarized to say that while wireless technology would be ideal, he would not want to delay the streetcar project too significantly in its pursuit.

In fairness to the folks at CHRS and the Committee of 100, the issue extends beyond H Street and Anacostia as the streetcar lines will eventually reach more majestic parts of the Hill and the city. They fear that despite DDOT’s promises of seriously considering new wireless technologies their concerns will eventually be forgotten.

The overhead wire issue is not going away.  Kubly said more than once that they plan to have the streetcars on H Street by fall of 2012. Somehow a law needs to be repealed…of course whether it’s local or federal law is also a question. And what action will the Committee and CHRS take if they do go forward?

So I’m curious. Where do THIH readers stand on the overhead wire issue?

Jen DeMayo is the Communications Director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center.


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  • Mary

    I understand the aesthetic issues, but I think the law was more about power lines being strung up all haphazardly. I think streamlined, clearly delineated lines just for the streetcars are vitally necessary to get them on the road and revitalize these neighborhoods ASAP. It’s a waste not to have these cars running.

  • I’m as much a fan of historic preservation as the next guy, but this isn’t about preserving history. It’s about the rest of us paying for the aesthetic vision of a small minority. CHCS is more intent on preserving an idealized version of our city’s history than they are about bringing us into the future.

    CHRS did great work fighting the freeways back in the 50s and 60s (and other issues). It’s thanks to them that so much of historic Capitol Hill exists today. But the issue here is different and I don’t think they’ve adjusted.

    Wireless technology will cost much more and will take much longer to be implemented than overhead wires. Where will the additional money come from? Schools? Police? Additional taxes? Something’s got to give, and I’m happy for it to be overhead wires.

  • rg

    The anti-overhead wires stance is a smokescreen for the anti-streetcar crowd. They do not want to be preceived as against transit or progress, so they latch on to this issue. Some of the most beautiful and famous streets in the world have streetcars with overhead wires: Ringstrasses (Vienna), Banhofstrasse (Zurich), Avenue Louise (Brussels), La Canabiere (Marseille), Maxmilianstrasse (Munich) and on and on. See http://www,streetcars4dc.org for detailed rebuttals of the the Committee of 100 and CHRS reactionary anti-streetcar petitions, which are full of outright lies and misleading statements. (For example, they claim that cities throughout the world are building streetcar systems that do not use overhead wires, when in reality, only two cities (Nice and Bordeaux) have such systems and the vast majority of both systems use overhead wires.) Tons of beautiful, historic and liveable (indeed, streetcar cities lways make the list of most liveable cities) cities benefit from streetcar systems with overhead wires: Vienna, Munich, Prague, Budapest, Bordeaux, Nice, Milan, Zurich, Brussels, Lyon, Basel, Geneva, Amsterdam, Melbourne, Toronto, Paris, etc.

    So, why streetcars?

    Streetcars (steel on steel) offer a much smoother, more comofortable ride than buses (rubber on asphalt).

    The electric motor in a streetcar is MUCH quieter than the internal combustion engine in a bus (or a car, for that matter).

    Electric streetcars have no ground level emissions, unlike buses (even the natural gas ones).

    Streetcars offer higher higher capacity than buses.

    Though the initial capital cost of a streetcar is higher, streetcars have lower operating costs than buses. And, streetcars last longer than buses, meaning lower long-term capital costs.

    Streetcars attract choice riders that buses, no matter how nicely painted or branded, never will.

  • Oops, CHRS, not CHCS. I doubt the Center for Health Care Strategies gives a crap about this issue.

  • rg

    Let me put it another way: would anyone questioning streetcars (apart from an anti-transit crank like Wendell Cox) seriously advocate that Zurich ditch its extensive streetcar system (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/34/Tramnetz-zuerich2.png) and replace it with buses? Seriously?!?

    Or that Munich (http://www.mvv-muenchen.de/web4archiv/objects/download/5/barrierefrei_tram_2010.pdf) do the same?

  • DCole

    I have been in plenty of historic, scenic & “majestic” cities with streetcars & electric buses with their associated wires and never noticed. (Vienna, Prague, Portland, San Francisco, etc..)

    The argument about lowered property values is baseless. I would take some overhead lines with a quiet electric streetcar over the rumbling B2 (which roars directly past our house) any day.

    Plus, if you travel further down Benning Rd, there is already a large run of overhead lines, so I’m not sure what difference a few streetcar wires would make here.

  • Jon

    Far more historic cities than Washington DC have “wired” streetcars and no one seems to mind. Rome, Italy, has very modern, bright orange and green streetcars that offer an interesting contrast to the historic vistas of the city. Boston also has public transport lines that run on overhead wires. I would imagine the added connectivity more public transportation brings (and thus customers for retail) would far outweigh the aesthetic concern of a few wires suspended above the street.

  • Brian

    Greater Greater Washington did a great write up on the wire issue in DC. Modern Streetcar wire setups are far less intrusive than what most probably realize.


  • Paul

    Where did the “completed by 2030” statement come from. When DDOT first unveiled the system they stated they wanted to make it happen in 7-10 years. While that felt aggressive it’s still deflating to hear the timeframe has already been expanded by a factor of 2-3x.

  • Max

    Who are these “Committee of 100” and who do they claim to speak for? CHRS also needs to get a clue. Their complaints are incredibly petty and insular. As other commentors have noted, the world’s most beautiful cities, Budapest, Vienna, etc. all have overhead streetcar wires. Blocking the streetcar, or forcing the city to delay or spend additional dollars when it is facing a fiscal crisis, is shockingly callus.

  • Jen DeMayo

    Max here is the Committee’s Mission from their website.
    “The Committee of 100 advocates responsible planning and land use in Washington, D.C. Our work is guided by the values inherited from the L’Enfant Plan and McMillan Commission, which give Washington its historic distinction and natural beauty, while responding to the special challenges of 21st century development. We pursue these goals through public education, research and civic action, and we celebrate the city’s unique role as both the home of the District’s citizens and the capital of our nation.”

    Tim or anyone, did the CHRS make any complaint when either the Auto Zone or the H Street Connection went in?

  • JP

    Wire opponents are concerned about loss in property value? What about the vast increase in property value from having the cars implemented in these difficult to reach neighborhoods? Making these neighborhoods more accessible to the rest of the city would have a far greater (and faster) positive impact on home values than any slight decrease due to the aesthetics of above ground wires.

  • An important clarification. The article states: “These cars are expected to be powered with overhead wires, which are currently illegal.”

    Wires are, in fact, perfectly legal in most of DC.

    The Committee of 100’s petition–which seeks to truncate discussion by opposing any consideration of even a hybrid system–has fostered the impression that wires are not permitted.

    Current law prohibits wires in “the old city of Washington,” while the vast majority of today’s District of Columbia falls outside those old small boundaries in the original Act.

    The Cmte of 100’s petition makes a great deal over the old prohibition, while only much further down in its petition, and accompanying letter to neighborhood orgs, does it acknowledge the limits of those boundaries.

  • @Joel, while your point is well taken re the city at large, the majority of Capitol Hill – the neighborhood with which we are painstakingly and obsessively concerned with here at THIH – falls within “those old small boundaries in the original Act.” So, while for most NW dwellers and others beyond the Old City, this all seems a silly point, for most of us here on the Hill and nearby, this issue of the legality of wires is an important one to solve, especially since the first streetcar lines are within the boundaries of the Old City, affected by the overhead wire-prohibition.

  • Trulee

    Streetcars? Sooner, please.

  • lou

    Even though H St is in the boundaries of the “Old City” it’s ridiculous to say it has “monumental views” with that big ugly hump of a bridge over the railroad tracks blocking any such “views.”

    And as others noted, far more historic cities have overhead wires. CHRS needs to buy a clue.

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