Cover story: Streetcar fans see development following tracks

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Back in your great-grandfather’s day, streetcars cranked their way around Greater Washington with fairly predictable regularity. In the early 20th century, family weekends might include “riding the lines” out to amusement parks in Glen Echo, Bethesda or far Northeast, lines locals used daily to get to work, school or shopping.

But by the 1960s, the streetcars were gone, victims of America’s fascination with the automobile.

So, are Washington-area residents ready to get back on board after all those decades wedded to their cars? Area planners are hoping the answer is a resounding yes, as new lines are being planned for the trendy H Street Northeast corridor, along Columbia Pike in Arlington and out to Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax County.

“With the growth in the area, the streetcar has the requisite capacity to accommodate more people,” said Leonard Wolfenstein, chief of transportation planning for Fairfax County. “It’s more of a catalyst to the type of development we envision.”

And that type of development — a mix of commercial, residential and some retail — can mean an increase in property values.

“Anytime you improve transit, it has an effect on housing values,” said Mary Hughes Hynes, chairwoman of the Arlington County Board.

Test cars may be rolling along H Street as early as next fall, and the Columbia Pike plan calls for it to be fully operational in 2017. Future plans include tracks in Anacostia and Georgetown, on Georgia Avenue and possibly on a route to Silver Spring to connect to Metro’s Purple Line.

Proponents point to the revitalization of downtown areas that have accompanied the streetcar in other cities, such as Portland, Ore. At least 40 other cities are exploring streetcar plans to ease traffic, spur development and attract young professionals and suburbanites.

“Fifty years after the last streetcars, we’ve gone full cycle,” said Kenneth H. Rucker, director of administration at the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville. “Many things that were going in one direction in the 1960s are going in the opposite direction now.”

Of course, there is always a bottom line.

“Transportation is economics,” said Seth Morgan, associate planner with Pace Suburban Bus in Chicago. “It helps focus the location of development in regions that are already growing. But it’s not a magic wand.”

With careful planning and financing, streetcars can be an engine for economic development. Early on, “streetcar suburbs” followed the streetcar lines as they extended out from the District’s core — north along 14th Street and what is now Georgia Avenue, east and south to Anacostia and Congress Heights, west to Georgetown and north to Tenleytown. And those are just a few of the many lines — and streetcar companies — that started up, and sometimes went bust, in the decades before World War I.

But these are not your great-grandfather’s streetcars, and that’s where the naysayers come in.

“The streetcars of old were designed to do a transportation job and do it as rapidly as possible,” said Greg Thompson, chairman of the Light Rail Transit Committee of the Transportation Research Board and a retired professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University. “But if you want to stimulate development and create a sense of place, you need to go slowly.”

Unlike the riders of the streetcars of old, today’s potential riders are faced with an array of options, including their own cars and public buses. Detractors often talk of streetcars that would better serve tourists or those residents who would use them for an occasional ride rather than those who would rely on them for daily transportation.

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