Wes Vernon Commentary
February 2012



The Streetcar: Back to Washington's Future

Those whose responsibilities involve looking farther into the future than next year's budget or employee contract have told us that at some point, perhaps 10 to 20 years in the future, Metrorail is going to run out of space, literally filled to its capacity to meet its growing demand, even if ridership is occasionally drops (as at present) because of weak economic times.

Some have speculated that if Metrorail, as currently operated, is to accommodate that growth, a substantial investment in new lines throughout the metropolitan area will be required to build significantly more rail operations underground in D.C.

But at what cost?

That will not come cheap. The huge public works project that is today's 106-mile system was 32 years in the making (from first groundbreaking to final line opening) or 92 years (from first proposed until final line opening).

We won't have that much time, to say nothing of the money to pay for it all. Thus there are plans to go back to Washington's historic rail roots with less expensive streetcars plying DC's thoroughfares.

Background

From 1862 to 1962, Washington, D.C.'s massive streetcar network grew - and grew and grew. It worked well. But pressures were on to get the streetcars out of the way of the automobiles. That mantra, resonating in the halls of Congress, drowned out those who suggested a better priority would be - au contraire - to get the automobiles out of the way of the streetcars.

The upshot was a replacement of the streetcars with a hopelessly inadequate bus system. In a classic case of reinventing the wheel, during the 13-year interval between the disappearance of the street cars and the opening of the first Metrorail line between Farragut North and Rhode Island Avenue, there was an increasing awareness of a need for a serious rail service. Partly as a result of that realization, we have today's Metrorail network.

Now what?

But even that is not enough to meet the upcoming needs. So for the past few years the DC Department of Transportation has attempted to construct the beginnings of a streetcar network to supplement the area's Metrorail and bus service. It is a project that has been crawling along in fits and starts.

The argument has been made that a comprehensive truly national HSR map, especially if it fills out with transit connections at its stations, will result in uprooting of those whose whole lives and pursuits center around what the automobile/asphalt complex hath wrought. To what extent can landscape and lifestyles be reversed or revised in a significant way? Are we not trying to unscramble an egg here?

An Anacostia line was proposed, with actual construction started - and stopped after spending $25 million over two years, mainly because of delays that had impaired the construction schedule. Rails at the intersection of Firth Sterling Avenue SE and Suitland Parkway were buried beneath asphalt and weeds grew among the tracks at South Capitol Street and Bolling Air Force Base. DC officials vowed to finish the line, possibly expanding the streetcar plan along Rhode Island Avenue SE, Florida Avenue NW, along U Street and Calvert Street NW and into Georgetown.

That is a very ambitious idea for a project that has had so many difficulties. DDOT denied the undertaking was mothballed, though they have acknowledged having made little if any progress on securing a contractor for the job.

We are told there are better prospects for the 2.2-mile H Street/Benning line from west of First Street NE to West of Oklahoma Avenue NE, supposedly to open in mid-2013. That good intention, however, was set before a dispute emerged between two competing streetcar manufacturers.

The District canceled a proposed $8.7 million deal with Oregon-based United Streetcar LLC for two new streetcars after a competing bidder, the Czech Republic-based Inekon Group, protested the decision. A formal review appears to have sided with Inekon.

To make a long story short, Inekon, which had supplied the first two cars for the line, had offered to build the next two for $9.5 million.

That is higher than United Streetcar's bid; however, Inekon argues the United's bid should have been ruled ineligible because of a low technical score.

This series of stumbles is a sample of the ongoing problems that have plagued the effort to bring streetcars back to Washington. Future population growth argues for an expedited schedule.

There are also plans for a K Street line to be constructed from Union Station to K Street NE, then west to 26th Street NW (including the center of downtown DC). Hopefully it would link with the H Street line.

The question of precisely where the electric cars would stop at Union Station has centered on suggested space at its west end. That idea ran into objections from Amtrak which wanted to reserve that same space for a future high-speed rail service (Presumably for the envisioned, but unfunded, multi-year ambition of a "Next-Gen" 220 MPH line from here to Boston.

A Maine Avenue line is supposedly in the works along the city's southwest waterfront. If that goes forward, it would operate down the middle of the entire length of Maine Avenue.

So many plans, so many delays, such disappointing progress. Let us hope all the snafus are resolved before Washington grinds to a virtual halt. If this kind of snarl culture had prevailed on the previous streetcar network in this town, that system might have ended its 100-year run with the horse-cars of Abe Lincoln's time.