21 Apr 2010

Streetcars in DC – what’s the status?

Photo originally uploaded to Flickr by sierraclub_metrodc

Walking into the gymnasium of Wheatley Elementary School in Northeast last night, I wasn’t shocked by the large crowd assembled. To say the streetcars have been a hot topic in DC is an understatement. Last night’s “quarterly” update (SNOMAGEDDON seems to have pushed some things back…) was, in a word, unsatisfying.

I’m not sure I left with many answers. The list of introductions seemed to go on for miles.  Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 5B, 6A and 6C were all in attendance, as was District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Gabe Klein and Streetcar Project Manager Scott Kubly.  Councilmembers Thomas (Ward 5) and Wells (Ward 6) also made some remarks. But the burning questions residents had seemed to get the brush-off and received the typical canned answers that appear in every article you read about the streetcars.

So what did I find out? For those of you new to the streetcar debate, the goal of the streetcar project is to add another piece to the District’s public transportation puzzle. The current Metrorail system is designed to get people in and out of our fair city, but the streetcar would connect our neighborhoods, making DC a true “live, work, play” city vs. a cut-thru from Virginia to Maryland.

There are three phases to the project, starting with the H Street-Benning Road line. The cost of the current phase is $63 million, and while it seems silly to invest this kind of money given the current budget, it was suggested that Metro is approaching capacity and starting this project now could result in federal funding down the line. The current administration supports urban travel, specifically streetcars, and with a total price tag of $1.5 billion, we could use some federal dollars to complete it.

There was an update on the vehicles. THEY’RE HERE! We currently have three of the cars, stored in Greenbelt, MD. The plan is for a public viewing at some point in the future. Stay tuned…

There was also an update, if you want to call it that, regarding the overhead wire issue as well as the power supply for the streetcars. Regarding power, there will be three Pepco substations built along the 2.2 mile route. And according to Kubly, they are “actively pursuing technology” that would partially eliminate the need for wires. They are committed to a system with minimal wires. During the slide presentation, they did show a picture of wires from a European streetcar system and we were assured the wires are made using the thinnest wires possible. Not sure if that satisfies you.

The timeline proposed for completion last night was Winter 2012, with service beginning Spring 2012.

So like I said, the update was that there really wasn’t an update. Then we got in Q&A, and in the interest of not confusing you, I’m going to share a few of the questions I found more compelling below.

Impact on G Street and I Street, will we lose parking?

There are multiple streetscape plans for the areas surrounding the streetcar line.

Estimated fare? Will we be able to use Smartrip?

Will more than likely match Circulator/Metro bus fares. And yes, Smartrip will be accepted.

Follow up question: will there be fare-free zones like there are in other cities with streetcars?

Not planning that at the moment, however it’s something they will consider. Depends on operating budget.

How will this affect traffic on H Street?

The streetcar will have 3 doors, unload and board will happen faster than a bus.

Will the businesses on H Street be compensated for the disruption?

No. Kubly went on to further state that it’s the hope once the project is complete this will bring much business to the H Street Corridor.

Is there a timeline for the power/overhead line issue?

Being pushed off…

Can we get the streetcars made in America? Why are they getting shipped over from the Czech Republic?

Oregon Iron Works just recently produced the first American-made streetcar in over 50 years. Currently working on a grant with them.

What about inclement weather? Snow?

There are different plows and solvents needed to clear the area surrounding the tracks, that has been addressed.

Will there be a circle line? North-South?

Not at this point, but this project is being built with flexibility.

How long will the pedestrian tunnel at Union Station be?

600 ft. 510 ft. has already been built (in 1974-75) and was uncovered. Score!

Will 2nd Street have to close?


Impact on neighborhood power grid? And is it safe?

Shouldn’t be any with the substations. And yes, it’s safe.

So there you have it. Feel free to add your questions/comments/concerns about the streetcars below. I plan to attend the next update and will certainly ask on behalf of my concerned neighbors.

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6 responses to “Streetcars in DC – what’s the status?”

  1. IMGoph says:

    I would disagree with your assertion that “there really wasn’t an update.” The information about the maintenance yard, how the line will connect to Union Station, where the power substations will be located, the grant application. If you have been following the project (as I have), there was a lot of new information brought out.

    Questions about compensating businesses isn’t something that DDOT can answer, that’s not their bailiwick. That’s the politician’s job, not the bureaucrats….

  2. Tim Krepp says:

    Not exactly on point, but just once I’d like to go to a community meeting where there wasn’t a twenty minute round of introductions. Perhaps we could just have people wear giant name cards around their neck. Or, if you have something to add, you must write your name and position in giant purple marker on your forehead.

  3. Tory Patrick says:

    @Tim, don’t get me started. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always lived by the adage “early is on time and on time is late,” so starting at 6:50 p.m. last night and then going through numerous introductions was testing my patience. 😉

    @IMGoph, I guess for me the update I was really looking for was regarding the wire situation, and I just felt like there wasn’t and might not ever be, an answer. And I thought the business compensation question was out of place, but interesting that someone asked. I agree, not something DDOT can handle, though.

  4. Jon says:

    Thanks Tory for the update…as I’ve asserted in the past, the overhead wires shouldn’t be looked at as a blight on the streetscape. We have plenty of other great cities to look to who have “wired” streetcars.

    It would be great if they could somehow tie in a renewable power source to the streetcars, making it a greener option for the city. Public transportation is already green…wouldn’t it be great if it was powered by the sun, or wind?

  5. Matt says:


    How about a sailboat?

  6. Tim Krepp says:

    @Tory Wait until you go to a few more of these. I’ve yet to go to a community meeting that starts on time. The intro’s take forever, and someone’s always late and you have to recap it for them.


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