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Cover story: Streetcar fans see development following tracks
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.
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.
“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.
“We had a huge community process between 2003-06,” Ms. Hynes said. “Residents were deeply engaged in the options that were available, and we got support from a large and significant majority of people.”
According to the department, the projected increase of housing values appears unlikely to cause widespread displacement or dramatically transform neighborhood character. In Arlington, officials are adamant that the affordable housing stock in the affected area — currently about 25 percent — will stay the same.
“We want to end up with the same number of affordable units,” Ms. Hynes said.
In other cities, the development of streetcar lines often is spurred by a combination of federal, state and local funding, with the federal money often coming from the discretionary New Starts and Small Starts program. Arlington and Fairfax counties are using this kind of mix for their streetcar projects. The District is relying on local investment, according to Ms. Ward but is not ruling out the possibility of federal funding in the future.
The mix of funding is part of the concern, detractors say, because blending funds often masks the real costs of such projects.
The jury is still out on whether the projects will be worth the expense. Proponents point to increased development; opponents note declining ridership in existing networks and rising costs.
But Ms. Hynes pointed out that rising costs are a fact of life.
“Of course costs have increased from what they were,” she said. “It’s just the reality. But lots of people thought Metro was too expensive. You have to make those investments for the long term.”
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