To the Washington outsider, the streetcar tracks shooting down H Street and onto Benning Road NE—simply truncated at either end—are something of a mystery. Every few blocks, there’s a brand-new stop, but no signage to tell you when the next trolley is coming or where it’s going. In fact, there are no cars at all—or rather, there are cars on a lot in the Maryland suburbs, where they’ve been mothballed since 2009.
When then-Mayor Adrian Fenty broke ground on the first stretch of tracks four years ago, he promised that the streetcars would roll starting as early as 2009, which gave business owners on the depressed commercial corridor hope to get them through the unending construction that had been driving customers elsewhere. The street has since been sewn up, but that start date has slipped further and further into the future: first to 2012 and then 2013. Meanwhile, the city has spent $53.6 million on the scheme so far, and has budgeted another $237 million over the next six years—a lot of dough for what currently looks like just a couple rods of steel in the ground.
Now more than ever, cranky councilmembers ask: Why are we paying for this thing again? Buses are so much cheaper!
With nothing to show for four years of work, it’s hard to sell the next phase of construction, which will take the tracks through downtown D.C.
This is not a unique problem. Cities around the country are bringing back streetcar lines that they abandoned in the 1960s, when the automobile made them seem quaint. And the lines do take a long time to rebuild: America’s streetcar poster child, Portland, Ore., spent 11 years on planning and construction before service finally began in 2001.
Still, it seems like that first leg for D.C.’s line has encountered more than its fair share of hiccups. A couple of the delays are due to factors that no other municipality in America has to deal with: the overlay of fussy regulations found in Capital City.
The District’s streetcar vision is larger than most. Unlike cities that have built dinky segments that serve small parts of downtown—such as Seattle’s South Lake Union line, which trundles 1.3 miles through a once-industrial neighborhood that’s now full of tech companies—D.C. is planning a 37-mile network that’s supposed to fill in the gaps left by the Metrorail system, trailing development in its wake. A study commissioned by the D.C. Office of Planning estimates that it could spur between $5 billion and $8 billion in real-estate development after 10 years in operation.
The Metrorail system, with its 106 miles of heavy rail both above and below ground, was largely planned before D.C. gained a degree of independence from the federal government in 1973, and was almost wholly funded by the federal government. The first tracks in D.C.’s forthcoming streetcar system had none of that. Mayor Fenty started building with the city’s own money, without having figured out details such as how the line would connect to Union Station and where substations and a maintenance garage would go. The details would come along the way.
The first thing to go wrong had to do with something you don’t think about very much in Washington: There aren’t any overhead wires in the downtown core. Federal law prohibits such visual clutter, as a way of protecting historic views toward the Capitol or the White House. But the District’s shiny, expensive new streetcars can’t run without overhead electrification. Still, the federal National Capital Planning Commission asked the White House to withhold funding for future line extensions unless the city found out a way to do it without overhead wires—at considerable additional expense. Finally, the Council worked a compromise deal, allowing a thin overhead wire on the initial segment and promising to build wirelessly through more formal areas of downtown.
Then came the issue of connecting the H Street line to Union Station—essential for allowing smooth transitions to other forms of transit in and out of the city. All along, the District’s Department of Transportation had planned on running the line through an underpass beneath the federally owned station, and building an elevator to the upper level. It was an elegant solution: Even the maintenance facility could fit in the then-unused space. But as plans were nearly finished, Amtrak put its foot down: It wanted to keep the underpass as a staging ground for overhauling its tracks above, and to house the high-speed rail tracks that might get built, when Congress saw fit to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars for the purpose. The city, rebuffed, had to scramble for another solution.
Finally, the city learned earlier this spring that the Federal Transportation Administration wouldn’t let it incorporate streetcar tracks into a bridge to be built over the Anacostia River—a key part of the plan to extend service to the city’s most underserved neighborhoods—because they needed to change the kind of rails they were using in order to comply with Buy America requirements. Further, the new plan hadn’t gone through enough environmental review to pass muster with the FTA. Now, the bridge will be built streetcar-ready—and it will cost millions of dollars more than it might have otherwise to eventually install the tracks.
That last bit could’ve happened to any city trying to build a transit system using pieces of federal money. But it’s also made people ask: Should the city have figured this all out ahead of time? D.C.’s non-voting representative in Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) thinks so.
“The streetcar was built without any planning. There was no plan for where it would go. There was no consultation with Union Station. The mayor at the time said, ‘Lay the tracks,’ and all of a sudden people saw the tracks, and they thought, ‘Wow, that’s how you get a streetcar,’ ” Norton says, with some impatience. “I still believe that the renovated Union Station will accommodate the streetcar. But to do that takes sitting down. That kind of planning goes on for months. You have implicated the entire federal government, because of the monumental core.”
Actual streetcars or no, the effect of the tracks on H Street is undeniable. It’s become the number-one destination for new bars and restaurants in the city, since the pioneers figured they’d get in early before real estate values went through the roof. Now, that boom has generated its own gravity: Nobody’s even waiting for the streetcar anymore. And the sunk cost of rails on H Street means that even with all the challenges, there’s no going back. The additional complications of federal oversight made that first move all the more important—to “put stakes in the ground,” as D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh puts it. There could have been better planning, she says, but the plan needed to develop its own momentum at the outset.
“I’ve been thinking about Julius Caesar lately, and there is a tide in the affairs of men,” Cheh says, quoting Brutus. “And if you take things at the flood, you’re better off.”