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Cover story: Streetcar fans see development following tracks
“It’s an amenity like a fountain is an amenity,” Mr. Thompson said. “You can actually walk faster than some of these streetcars. You are basically creating a caricature of the streetcar of old.”
So why streetcars, and why now?
Streetcars have become a phenomenon in a number of urban settings, accompanying the revitalization of urban and town centers. Some jurisdictions, including Portland with its widely touted system, have seen development of new housing, often taking the form of lofts, smaller units and other dwellings that expand the diversity of housing choices available, according the District’s Streetcar Land Use Study.
Area planners are banking on the streetcar’s success. A number of the proposed lines in the District in the projected 37-mile system are intended to serve areas that investors have largely ignored in the past few decades.
“It’s about making connections in areas where there currently aren’t connections,” said Dara Ward, a media relations consultant with the District of Columbia Department of Transportation’s D.C. Streetcar Communications Team. “I’ve already had a homebuyer call me and ask if the streetcar would actually run.”
But the costs of building them are high.
“They are very expensive relative to other systems,” said Eileen Norcross, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an Arlington resident who blogs occasionally about the Columbia Pike proposal. “An enhanced bus line would be a lot less, especially given that costs tend to escalate.”
But even in areas with substantial bus service — the X2 is a fixture on H Street Northeast — there are value-added benefits with a streetcar, planners insist. They point to the convenience of being able to ride the length of the H Street Northeast corridor, eat a meal and enjoy a show and then ride back to Union Station to transfer to Metro for the ride home. They note that if the system is fully built, more than 50 percent of District households and a majority of the city’s jobs would be within walking distance of a streetcar stop (compared to 9 percent for Portland and 6 percent for Seattle).
Proponents also expect that the presence of the streetcar, by its very visible permanence (there’s no easy rerouting of tracks) will focus investment. Detractors insist otherwise, noting that development could well occur without the streetcar.
Of course, even in the glory days of the streetcars of old, there were problems throughout the years. Costs often ran higher than anticipated, and proposed fare hikes were hardly welcomed by riders. Safety also was an issue — in 1918 alone, 178 pedestrians were injured by streetcars and eight people died in streetcar-related accidents, according to the Annual Report of the Capital Traction Co.
By the 1930s, newspapers were filled with reports of cost overruns, expensive maintenance and inadequate service, and lines were being abandoned rapidly in favor of buses.
“Yes, we used to have a streetcar system,” said Kenneth J. Button, professor of public policy at George Mason University. “It might be useful to ask, ‘Why did we get rid of them?’ “
There’s the rub, and for some, the worry. Planners often tout the “cool factor” of the new streetcars and the “cool-space potential” of the neighborhoods involved. Yet even residents who favor streetcars worry about the dislocation that comes with construction.
In Arlington, for example, some residents are concerned about the razing of homes in the historic Nauck neighborhood that will result from the Columbia Pike streetcar.
Still, planners point to a multiyear series of community meetings that were designed to explain the process and solicit input from residents.
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