Sunday, March 15, 2009

This time, streetcars really are coming back to the District - for the first time in 45 years.

The D.C. Department of Transportation is “very close to announcing” the start of construction on a two-mile streetcar line in Southeast, said public information officer John Lisle.

The tracks will run from a new maintenance facility on South Capitol Street to the intersection of Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road, he said. The line will run past the Anacostia Metro station and near the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters.

The $25 million project - the first phase of the streetcar initiative - is expected to be completed in 18 months. The line will be served by three streetcars the District bought in 2005 for $10 million. They have been mothballed ever since in the Czech Republic, where they were built, because previous streetcar initiatives have failed.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, opposed one of those efforts last year because it would have run only from the Anacostia station to Bolling Air Force Base.

Mr. Graham is enthusiastic about the new route.

“Now there’s been a reorientation, so it’s serving the people of the District of Columbia and the route has a prospect now,” he said. “… [I]t’s poised to go over the [new] 11th Street Bridge. It can connect to Eighth Street and then can connect to K Street. You can see a vision for a light-rail system in the District of Columbia.”

Nothing would please transportation officials more.

“If we had our wish list, there’s an expansion we’d like to see throughout the city,” Transportation Department press officer Karyn LeBlanc said.

The second phase of the project is part of the $65 million, three-year reconstruction of H Street and Benning Road Northeast, which has already begun. Officials plan to begin laying tracks in 45 days while doing the road work, Mr. Lisle said.

“The H Street route makes an awful lot of sense. We’ll try to do some things on K Street down the line,” Mr. Graham said.

But streetcar service along that corridor is still in the planning stages.

“We haven’t identified all the pieces that need to get put together for this second phase,” Ms. LeBlanc said.

The Anacostia project includes laying track and installing poles and overhead cables. The line could be built at a rate of one block every two weeks. Service is expected to run seven days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight. The fare will be comparable to bus fare, officials said.

Metro first broke ground on a potential light-rail line in Anacostia in November 2004 as a way to demonstrate the benefits of having a light-rail line to shuttle residents to Metro stations.

Service was expected to begin in 2006, but the project was put on hold in April 2005 because of land-titling problems and difficulty finding qualified contractors.

In July 2008, D.C. officials proposed the 1.3-mile route from the Anacostia station to Bolling Air Force Base, but the plan faced opposition, including Mr. Graham’s.

“You weren’t serving many D.C. people, and it was largely only federal workers who would benefit. Since it is not a federally funded project, it made more sense to be relevant to D.C. residents,” he said.

Streetcars share lanes with automobiles and are powered by overhead electric wires. The small trains are quiet and efficient and can carry passengers through busy areas, reducing traffic and parking needs.

They last operated in the District in 1962, ending a 100-year run when lines covered the city and extended into Maryland and Virginia.

By 1916, streetcar use had reached its peak in the District. Combined systems had more than 200 miles of track with almost 100 miles in the city.

Faced with competition from taxicabs starting in 1908 and a motorized bus system in 1921, the number of streetcar companies in the District fell by half by 1923.

By 1958, buses had replaced most of the streetcars. Finally, on Jan. 28, 1962, the remaining system - lines to the Navy Yard and Colorado Avenue terminals and to the Calvert Street Loop and Union Station - were shut down for the last time. Streetcars in the District had reached the end of the line.

Today, the only visible tracks are in the 3400 through 3800 blocks of P and O streets Northwest in Georgetown, lines that were installed in the 1890s.

But Metro has preserved some of the history: the Metrobus routes are only marginally changed from the old streetcar lines, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

“I think people are very attracted to light rail. It has a mystique to it, much more so than other forms of transportation,” Mr. Graham said. “That’s what it’s all about is to get people onboard. There’s just something about it that draws people.”

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