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D.C. Streetcar Land Use Study Makes Strong Case for Streetcars

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

The D.C. Office of Planning released the District of Columbia Streetcar Land Use Study Phase One report last week after months of anticipation.  The conclusions are overwhelmingly good.  The report thoroughly analyzes the land use, fiscal and pedestrian benefits of D.C.’s 37-mile system. The report presented a compelling case for how the streetcar system will transform the District into a more livable and sustainable city.

The report shows that building the streetcar system would bring an additional 72,000 D.C. households within a quarter mile of a streetcar line, and this expanded access to transit would mean that more than 50% of D.C. households would be within a quarter mile of a streetcar line or Metrorail station. It states that 100,000 residents along the planned streetcar corridors do not have access to an automobile so streetcars would improve their mobility.

The streetcar system will strengthen the District’s economy by incentivizing real estate investment and attracting new jobs and residents along the streetcar routes, thereby increasing our tax revenues. The report projects that the streetcar system would:

  • add $5-7 billion to the value of existing real estate and lead to an additional $5-8 billion in new development;
  • attract 6,300-7,700 new jobs and 4,000-12,000 new households to D.C.; and
  • add $238-291 million per year in revenue to the D.C. government’s budget.

The streetcar system will attract new jobs and an easy way to get to those jobs. It also would help reduce residents’ transportation costs by providing a convenient alternative to owning and operating an automobile, which can save the average person more than $8,400 per year, according to the report. (An American Public Transportation Association fact sheet not cited in the study states that the average household spends 18 cents of every dollar on transportation, and 94% of this goes to buying, maintaining and operating automobiles.)

Streetcars present the opportunity to improve walkability as noted in the report. Each transit trip begins and ends with a walk, which can provide many benefits, ranging from improving an individual’s health through physical activity, to improving one’s sense of safety as more people are walking, and supporting local businesses and helping support historic commercial districts across the city.

Streetcars offer the opportunity to take cars off of our roads, reducing energy use and the resulting air pollution and climate change emissions that threaten our future. They offer D.C. a more sustainable and livable future that so many of us are working toward.

The potential for displacement of residents remains a concern. The report estimates that the streetcar system could raise housing values and rents 5-12%, and it identifies housing affordability as an issue that should be addressed. Although it concludes that this increase “appears unlikely to cause widespread displacement[,]” it presents several strategies to mitigate these effects. We believe it is important for the D.C. government to implement such strategies to address this challenge as early in the planning process as possible before real estate values begin to appreciate significantly.

Families will be happy to know that streetcars will achieve better transit access to DC’s public charter schools, making it easier for families to stay car free.

In the meantime, it seems clear that streetcars will promote economic development and the health of residents.

DDOT Holds Meeting on the Eastern and Western Terminus of Streetcars

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

The D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) held a community meeting at the Atlas Theater tonight to discuss the proposed eastern terminus, western terminus and maintenance facility for the H Street streetcar line.   Councilman Tommy Wells attended along with several ANC commissioners and citizens.  DDOT set up four stations staffed with experts to listen to citizen concerns and to provide information to the public. The meeting lasted an hour and half and DDOT recorded as many remarks and concerns as they could.   Sign-language interpreters assisted the hearing-impaired members of the community.  Several citizens made helpful suggestions to DDOT.   These included a suggestion for added safety features on the western terminus atop Hopscotch Bridge at the northern edge of the Union Station parking lot.   A citizen who lived near Spingarn High School recommended that any car barn and training facility be constructed to match Spingarn’s much loved architectural features and include special walls to prevent children from entering the facility.  DDOT’s experts stayed the entire meeting and even lingered afterward to greet citizens and conclude ongoing conversations.  The meeting represented a hopeful step toward greater community outreach and information dissemination on the part of DDOT.  Streetcars4DC looks forward to further meetings.

Mayor, DDOT Update Community on Streetcar Progress

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Mayor Vincent Gray and Terry Bellamy, his transportation director, appeared at a packed Atlas Performing Arts Center auditorium on Tuesday to update the community on the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) progress on the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line, which is now planned to open in summer 2013.

After being forced by Amtrak to abandon earlier plans to connect the line to Union Station through the H Street tunnel, in recent months DDOT considered several other options and ultimately narrowed it down to two options. The first would end at the top of the Hopscotch Bridge on H Street, and riders would enter Union Station along a walkway through the parking garage. The second would stop at Second and F Streets NE (near the Securities & Exchange Commission building) by way of a loop south of H Street. After news of the final two options became public leading up to the meeting, residents east of Union Station organized in opposition to the latter terminus, citing concerns about streetcars on narrow residential streets and the proximity to the Capitol Hill Montessori School at Logan. During his opening remarks, Mayor Gray made clear that he had vetoed the latter option, and he stated emphatically that DDOT would connect to Union Station via the Hopscotch Bridge instead.

Bellamy made brief remarks following the mayor and then introduced David Vozzolo, the DDOT contractor who is serving as Program Manager for the DC Streetcar Team, and he gave the bulk of the presentation. The main updates were that: (1) DDOT has selected a design-build firm to complete the work required to make the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line operational by summer 2013 (the D.C. Council still must approve the contract) and the remaining construction work is expected to begin in early 2012; and (2) DDOT proposes to site the Car Barn Training Center, where streetcars will be stored and maintained and streetcar employees will be trained, at the corner of 26th Street and Benning Road NE, just south of Spingarn High School.

Councilmembers Mary Cheh (Ward 3), who chairs the Council’s transportation committee, and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) also attended the meeting, which was hosted by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A in collaboration with ANC 6C and ANC 7D01 Commissioner Lisa White. ANC 6A Chair David Holmes kicked off the meeting by introducing Mayor Gray, and during the question and answer session, ANC 6A Vice Chair Drew Ronneberg read audience questions from notecards that were collected from the audience.

Mayor Gray concluded the meeting by saying of D.C.’s streetcar effort “I really think we’re on the front end of somthing tremendous.”

The meeting was an important step forward for DDOT and the Gray administration both in demonstrating that they are taking key next steps on the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line and in beginning what appears to be a stepped up effort at public engagement. DDOT announced that the agency is already holding another public meeting on Tuesday, December 20 at 6:00 pm at the same venue for a “DC Streetcar 101″ focused on the “Interim Western Destination & Car Barn Training Center.”

Mayor Gray, DDOT Director to Update Community on Streetcar Progress on Dec. 6

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Mayor Vincent Gray

On Tuesday, December 6 at 7:00 pm, Mayor Vincent Gray and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Terry Bellamy will appear at a public meeting to update the community on DDOT’s streetcar program, including progress toward opening the District’s first streetcar line on H Street and Benning Road, which is scheduled for mid-2013.

Terry Bellamy

The meeting will be at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, which is located at 1333 H Street NE. ANC 6A Chair David Holmes took the lead in organizing the meeting on behalf of ANCs 6A, 6C and 5B, which have collaborated on similar meetings in the past, and ANC 7D01.

Mayor Gray Touts D.C.’s Planned 37-mile Streetcar System at Rail~Volution

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Mayor Vincent Gray kicked off the annual Rail~Volution conference on Monday, citing D.C.’s planned streetcar system as one of several examples of D.C.’s leadership in transportation. He called the decision to get rid of D.C.’s old streetcar system, which ceased operations in 1962, a “bad decision,” and he said the city is committed to plans for a 37-mile streetcar system, which will tie our neighborhoods together and stimulate economic development in streetcar corridors across the city.

At H Street Festival, Streetcars Supporters Petition Mayor Gray

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Volunteers Elisa Poteat and Jonathan Cohen at the Sierra Club table. (Photo by Brad Green.)

At the H Street Festival on Saturday, Sierra Club volunteers collected more than 250 signatures from streetcar supporters calling on Mayor Vincent Gray to “seek public input on key decisions about D.C.’s streetcar system – including how the western terminus of the H Street-Benning Road line will connect to a Metrorail station – so that future riders are involved in ensuring that the system will be successful.” The petition signers also urge Gray “to keep D.C. residents informed about the progress toward implementation, including by describing challenges the District Department of Transportation is facing and the reasons for any delays.”

Those who stopped at the Sierra Club table to sign the petition expressed disappointment about the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) failure to reach a deal with Amtrak for use of the H Street tunnel to connect the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line to the Union Station Metro station, which has effectively delayed the start date for the line by more than a year until late 2013. DDOT is now considering three fallback options, none of which is as attractive. Streetcar supporters voiced different views about which of these fallback options they prefer, but they agreed that the public should have a voice in helping decide which of these three options DDOT will pursue.

Jason Broehm discusses streetcars with Mayor Gray. (Photo by Brad Green)

As he was making the rounds at the festival, Mayor Gray stopped by the table briefly to talk about streetcars. He touted the fact that DDOT recently announced that the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line will open in mid-2013. When I reminded him that until earlier this year the opening date was slated for spring 2012, he responded that he cannot control Amtrak. At its table several blocks down H Street, DDOT was handing out a flyer also promoting the mid-2013 start date for this first streetcar line.

Artistic streetcar running on the H Street rails. (Photo by Jason Broehm)

While D.C.’s H Street-Benning Road line will not be running for nearly two years, a team of creative, artistic people designed and deployed their own peddle-powdered streetcar vehicle, which ran on the tracks up and down H Street throughout the festival. Also of note, H Street business owner Joe Englert was selling streetcar t-shirts that read “Keep H Street Rolling” followed by a colorful parenthetical.

DC Streetcar Program Buffeted by Changes and Challenges

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

After D.C. took several important steps forward in 2010 on its planned 37-mile streetcar network, so far 2011 has been a mixed bag, and lately there have been multiple reasons to be concerned about the future — at least in the short term — of the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) streetcar program.

In late 2010 incoming Mayor Vincent Gray decided not to retain Gabe Klein as DDOT director. Klein had been the major force behind the resurgence of D.C.’s faltering streetcar program so his departure was a real loss. There was some good news though. Councilmember Tommy Wells, the leading advocate for streetcars on the D.C. Council, was named the new chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, and Mayor Gray included $99 million in his capital budget for streetcars over the next several years.

However, in April DDOT announced that the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line would be delayed from spring 2012 until late 2012. In an unexpected Council shakeup in July, Chairman Kwame Brown removed Councilmember Wells as chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, and he named Councilmember Mary Cheh to chair a revamped Environment, Public Works and Transportation Committee. Shortly thereafer, Scott Kulby resigned his position as director of DDOT’s Progressive Transportation Services Administration, which leads the streetcar program. Klein had tapped Kubly to manage the streetcar program, and Kubly provided continuity for the program after Klein left and DDOT was in transition at the beginning of the Gray Administration.

Shortly after Kubly’s resignation, DDOT announced that the city was unable to resolve Amtrak’s concerns about D.C. using the H Street tunnel (which D.C. owns) to connect the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line to Union Station, and according to reports, Mayor Gray’s chief of staff never responded to a letter from Amtrak seeking the mayor’s input on the matter. This means that the H Street line will now be delayed until at least late 2013, which is a huge disappointment for streetcar supporters who only months ago expected to be able to start riding streetcars next year. DDOT must now go to a less desirable plan B for connecting to Union Station (or perhaps the New York Avenue Metrorail station) in order to make this first streetcar line most useful. Until this decision is made, DDOT will not begin installing power substations or overhead wires on H Street and Benning Road. Also, because DDOT had planned to build a streetcar maintenance and storage facility in the H Street tunnel, the agency now must find an alternate location, most likely along Benning Road north of RFK Stadium.

While it’s hard to get past all of the bad news from recent weeks, there is some reason for hope. Now that Kubly — who was a holdover from the Fenty administration — is out, the Gray Adminstration and its DDOT Director Terry Bellamy own the streetcar program and will be held accountable for what happens going forward. Bellamy now has the opportunity to hire someone new to manage the streetcar program, and one would hope that this new manager would be included in decisionmaking and empowered to do the important work that must be done.

In order for D.C.’s streetcar program to get “back on track,” I believe we as streetcar supporters must take several steps. First, we must convince Mayor Gray that we need him to provide the leadership to ensure that a successful H Street-Benning Road streetcar line begins operation as soon as possible — and without further delays — while planning continues to extensions and future streetcar lines. Second, we must encourage Terry Bellamy to provide the necessary leadership at DDOT and to hire a talented new manager for the streetcar program who can help skillfully navigate the challenges ahead. Third, we must enlist Councilmember Cheh as a champion of streetcars in her new position as chair of the committee that will oversee the streetcar program. Finally, we must continue to build on the base of streetcar supporters we have developed in recent years and channel our collective voices to ensure that our elected and appointed leaders in D.C. government work hard to make tangible progress on streetcars. Our future as a sustainable and livable city depends on it.

What Does Council Committee Shakeup Mean for Streetcars?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

In the wake of recent news that the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line will be delayed even further — this time from late 2012 to late 2013 — we received more bad news for H Street and the future of streetcars in D.C. when D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown unceremoniously removed Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) as chairman of the Council’s Public Works and Transportation Committee, allegedly as political payback for Wells’ thorough investigating of Brown’s self-inflicted “fully loaded” SUV scandal.  Wells has been an ardent supporter of streetcars and other forward-looking, environmentally friendly transportation options for a more livable future.  So the fact that he no longer chairs this key committee with oversight over the streetcar initiative is bad news for the future of D.C. streetcars.

Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), who has ascended to chair the new Environment, Public Works and Transportation Committee, is  a strong supporter of environmental protection, and she has been a streetcar supporter, if not leading the charge like Wells, whose ward is slated for the first streetcar line on H Street, whereas Cheh has commented in the past that the planned 37-mile streetcar system wouldn’t have much of a foot print in Ward 3 (and that it should).  A coalition of ward 3 residents has been advocating that the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) plan for an additional streetcar line on Wisconsin Avenue in her ward.

It was certainly disappointing to read Cheh’s comments kicking Wells while he was down by belittling his commitment to a “livable, walkable community” as little more than a slogan without a substantial legislative record to back it up.  Among other accomplishments, his determined leadership and unwillingness to take “no” for an answer was largely responsible for then-Chairman Gray’s decision to reverse course and restore significant funding to complete the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line last year (along with the grassroots outcry against Gray’s last minute decision).

But Cheh seems to understand livable, walkable communities — which streetcars can help foster — and she supports them.  When she first ran for the Ward 3 Council seat in 2006, she had the support of Ward 3 Vision based on her support for smart growth in Ward 3 where knee-jerk NIMBYism has delayed or derailed projects like a new street-oriented (as opposed to parking lot-oriented) Giant on Wisconsin Avenue for years.  Indeed, her support for the proposed Akridge mixed use development at 5220 Wisconsin Avenue (which was to replace a car dealership nearby the Friendship Heights Metrorail station) helped set her apart in a crowded field of candidates and win her the Sierra Club’s endorsement (I was among those who voted to endorse her.)

So while I remain greatly concerned by the future of D.C.’s streetcars in the face of back-to-back announcements amounting to a 1.5 -year delay in the start date for the H Street-Benning Road line  in just the last three months, there is some reason for hope.  Cheh gets it; it’s a just a matter of whether she decides to make streetcars a high priority and pushes the Gray administration to make good on the mayor’s pledge to continue moving forward on streetcars.  It’s up to those of us who support streetcars to make Cheh — and other Council members for that matter — make it a priority.

Streetcar Happy Hour on Wednesday in Ward 7

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

On Wednesday, June 22nd from 6:00-8:00 p.m., the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C. Chapter will hold a streetcar happy hour at Ray’s Steaks, 3905 Dix St. NE, located a short walk from the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station. Please join fellow sustainable transit advocates to have a drink and informally discuss the streetcar system coming to the District.

Directions to Ray’s: After leaving the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, walk 0.4 miles southeast along Minnesota Avenue. Turn left onto Dix St. NE. Ray’s is located on the right side of the road just past McDonald’s. The V8, U4, and X2 buses all stop nearby. Capital Bikeshare stations can be found at the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station and at the Benning Branch library, located on Benning Rd. one block north of Ray’s.

DDOT: H Street Streetscape Construction Nearing Completion But Streetcar Service Delayed

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

At a public meeting last night, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) updated the community on the agency’s progress on the H Street-Benning Road and Anacostia streetcar lines.  Scott Kubly, Director of DDOT’s Progressive Transportation Services Administration, which is managing the streetcar program, gave a brief presentation to an audience of about 150 people in the Atlas Performing Arts Center auditorium and then answered questions for about an hour.  (DDOT Interim Director Terry Bellamy, who was scheduled to appear, did not attend.)

First the Good News: Kubly touted Mayor Gray’s recently released capital budget, which includes $99.3 million over the next six fiscal years toward construction of D.C.’s streetcar system, as a major investment.  He said that this $99.3 million, together with the tens of millions of dollars already provided to complete the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line, represents the biggest investment in streetcars by a local government in the U.S.  Kubly added that the significant investment in local capital funds will help DDOT leverage federal and private funds toward construction of D.C.’s 37-mile streetcar system, including: extending the H Street-Benning Road line eastward to the Benning Road Metrorail station and westward from Union Station along K Street to Washington Circle in Foggy Bottom; and extending the Anacostia line across the 11th Street bridge to M Street SW.  Already this summer, DDOT will begin the Environmental Assessment process for the extension from Union Station to Washington Circle.

A DDOT colleague reported that streetscape construction on H Street is expected to be “substantially complete” by June 30, 2011, which was certainly music to the ears of business owners along H Street, who have suffered through the major, multi-year streetscape renovation.  He said this means that all traffic lanes and sidewalks will be open although a “punch list” will remain for more minor construction items.

Kubly stated that construction of the three streetcar power substations along H Street and Benning Road is expected to begin this summer, and he said that DDOT intends to install overhead wires as soon as possible after a contractor is selected to operate and maintain the streetcar system (DDOT is working on a Request for Proposals to hire such a contractor).

Now the Bad News: The start date for the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line has already been delayed beyond the planned April 2012 opening because of ongoing negotiations with Amtrak for use of the  H Street underpass, which is adjacent to Amtrak property and, therefore, requires Amtrak approval.  DDOT plans to use the underpass to connect the streetcar line to Union Station and for a streetcar storage and maintenance facility.  Kubly said that Amtrak has raised concerns about losing employee parking, stray electrical currents, and safety and security in the underpass.  He does not believe that any of these concerns are “fatal flaws” that would force DDOT to pursue a far less attactive plan B, one that likely would not directly connect to Union Station and, thus, make the streetcar line far less functional.

Kubly said that streetcar service on H Street and Benning Road will likely be delayed until fall 2012, and unless DDOT is able to obtain Amtrak approval for use of the H Street underpass by this summer, the streetcar line would not open until 2013.

Lydia DePillis of the Washington City Paper, Jen DeMayo of the Hill is Home, and Eric Fidler of Greater Greater Washington also covered the meeting.