Why the streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown died (mostly)

This is not happening (now). K Street streetcar rendering by DDOT, archived by BeyondDC.

"DC Streetcar to Georgetown is dead," read the WTOP headline. Amid 624 pages of oversight responses from the District Department of Transportation to the DC Council is a notation that the agency will "stop additional analysis" on the line and "not seek federal funding... for the foreseeable future."

But the once-proposed DC Streetcar extension in dedicated lanes from Union Station to Georgetown didn't just die. It basically died years ago. It's just that reporter Max Smith saw the death certificate on page 79, and that lent a certain finality to what many suspected and others already knew.

Meanwhile, an extension from its current eastern end at Oklahoma Avenue to Benning Road Metro in Ward 7 is still planned. And while a streetcar in dedicated lanes on K Street NW isn't in the cards at the moment, Mayor Bowser tried to fund dedicated bus lanes on K Street NW last year, which Chairman Phil Mendelson kept in the future budget but delayed at least a year. The K Street Transitway, as it's called, could still be designed and engineered to allow for a possible streetcar one day.

That is, if it's a good idea. Because there was far from unanimity among even transit advocates, let alone elected officials, about whether streetcar lines were a good use of funding or whether they promoted gentrification more than mobility. On top of that, certain DDOT officials at the time mishandled creating the current line on H Street and Benning Road NE, yielding a plethora of bad press which turned many who'd been eager for a new streetcar system against the idea.

A brief history of streetcars in DC

DC had transit cars running on rails in the street — streetcars — from 1862 to 1962, first drawn by horses and then electrically powered. Because of a ban on overhead wires in the center of DC, they got power from a third rail buried in a trench between the two rails, then switched to overhead wires like those in most cities farther outside.

Following a strike in 1955, Congress handed the system to a new operator but with instructions to change the streetcars to buses. Besides a few preserved remnants in streets, we still can see the shape of the old system in our bus numbering, where most two-digit routes (without letters), like the 42, 54, 70, 90, and others follow, more or less, the 1950s streetcar routes.

Image by Charles Wagner, DC Historical Society.

After seeing the construction of Metro, DC leaders started thinking about ways to add more rail lines without the cost of subway tunneling, and suggested surface streetcar lines in a 1997 plan and many follow-ups from DDOT, WMATA, and others. In 2010, DDOT rolled out a vision for 37 miles of lines in three phases. It subsequently narrowed this to a 22-mile "priority system" in 2012.

2010 streetcar vision by DDOT.

Vincent Gray, who'd tried to cut the streetcar system when chairman in 2011, became a major champion as mayor and proposed a funding mechanism that would set aside 25% of all future revenue growth for transportation. However, the political winds had changed by 2014, in part because the H Street line, then under construction, was mired in delays and surprise setbacks. You can read the long, sordid saga (and it's quite long and quite sordid).

Gray had also just lost his primary bid for renomination and was a lame duck. That May, council chairman Phil Mendelson and at-large councilmember David Grosso redirected almost all of that funding to a package of tax cuts. Leaders focused down to a much narrower vision, especially a line from Georgetown in the west to either Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro in the east.

Chaos continued to dominate streetcar construction until Leif Dormsjo, Muriel Bowser's first DDOT director, brought in a team of streetcar experts to actually get the thing running. With that in the past, DDOT turned to thinking about the future. To the east, residents of Ward 7 had long clamored for the line to continue across the Anacostia River, and the Bowser administration continued Gray's commitment to building an extension.

What would happen to the west was more uncertain.

Criticism grows over the streetcar

DC was far from the only US city trying streetcars in the early 2010s, but because of its role as the capital and the home of some national publications like Vox and CityLab, its program's flaws and failures got quite a lot of attention and repeated critical articles.

To understand the debate that was taking place, think about two groups of transit advocates which Alon Levy calls "politicals and technicals." Technicals, which include Levy, focus on making a transit project the best it can be. In their view, if there's a better route for a project or a way to get the same benefits for less money, it's worthwhile to oppose the original plan and push for the alternative, since with limited funds you need to do the best thing you can.

Politicals, on the other hand, might argue that if elected officials are interested in building a transit project somewhere, it's better to take them up on it because the consequence of criticism could be not a better transit project but none at all. After all, for instance, the $800 million over five years toward 22 miles of streetcars was cut not for an $800-million, 80-mile busway plan, but for tax cuts.

Technicals might say building a bad transit project or a too-expensive one might actually turn people against more transit in the future. Politicals might say that anything which gets more people using transit builds a political constituency for more dense, transit-oriented urbanism and against car-oriented suburbanism.

I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool political on this debate but I now think neither side is always right. Market Urbanist Stephen Smith gave the example of Austin, where advocates opposed a "poorly-routed light rail plan" and, this month, the city embraced the advocates' better proposal. On the possible other hand, Arlington canceld its Columbia Pike streetcar in 2014 and has gotten just about absolutely nothing in its place, six years later.

Some critics said the streetcar was more about economic development, stimulating investment and growth in corridors that won't get subways and need a boost. Some streetcar supporters would agree and say that's just fine. This effect did appear on H Street, before the streetcar opened; whether that was good or bad, or because of the promise of the streetcar or independent, is an endlessly debatable proposition.

Some critics said streetcars weren't advancing equity, that they were pandering to wealthier, whiter residents who wouldn't want to ride a bus but would take a train. Supporters counter that all transit is more equitable than spending on highways or leaving unchanged a status quo that all but requires driving.

And, it's worth noting, the package of tax cuts the council enacted in 2014 came from a commission, the Tax Revision Commission, which included both business leaders like former mayor Tony Williams, now head of the Federal City Council, and Ed Lazere from the left-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute. The tax package made the DC tax code more progressive, though it also cut taxes on the wealthy.

Streetcar opponents say it's no better than a bus and way more expensive. Supporters say there are significant differences, such as streetcars being able to carry more riders. And so the debate goes on and on.

Go to Georgetown?

After 2014, DDOT continued to conduct environmental analysis for a western extension. Officials like Sam Zimbabwe (who's now running the Seattle DOT, where there are streetcars and streetcar controversies) and project manager Jamie Henson incorporated much of the criticism of recent years, especially that streetcars weren't so great if they had to run in traffic with other cars.

So, they designed a streetcar that did have dedicated lanes — just what many technicals called for. In 2016, they announced a plan which gave the streetcar its own lane for almost the whole length to Georgetown.

Dedicated lane streetcar option by DDOT.

Such a line would make the streetcar more than just a stub. Instead of a branch off the Metro that only goes to one area, it would bridge neighborhoods, job centers, and all Metro lines. It would save riders almost 30 minutes crossing the downtown area east-west, and carry 19,000 riders a day — three times the ridership of the current buses, per a 2017 analysis. That would make the streetcar line perform better than 39 of the 40 US streetcar or light rail systems, beaten only by Boston's Green Line which runs in a tunnel downtown.

Travel time comparison for current buses versus the dedicated lane streetcar by DDOT.

That analysis doesn't tell us how many people would ride a bus in the same kind of dedicated lane. DC might have a chance to find out, because in 2019 Mayor Bowser suddenly revived an even older plan than the K Street streetcar, the K Street Transitway. DDOT had studied reconfiguring K Street to have bus lanes in the center, only to then amend that idea into the streetcar plan. Now, it's back to buses.

Mendelson, however, delayed K Street funding into later years, though DDOT has been able to find money to keep planning it and released some early designs. If Bowser's forthcoming Fiscal Year 2021 budget (due this spring) retains K Street money, as is likely, and Mendelson doesn't try to delay it again, DDOT could finish its design by 2021 and open the transitway, which now also includes dedicated bikeways, in 2024.

Why the streetcar died (but, actually, it didn't)

The western streetcar extension is not necessarily dead; it's mostly dead, which as we learned from Miracle Max, is slightly alive. If a dedicated lane is built on K Street, a streetcar could likely use that one day. DDOT could design the K Street Transitway to not foreclose that possibility, and DCST has suggested they do so. The streetcar could likely share the transitway with buses, and still would bypass car traffic congestion.

Whether putting in a streetcar one day is a good idea or not is also endlessly debatable. DC does have a streetcar now, and it's on track to get five more stops, from Kingman Island to Benning Road Metro. There's a logic in connecting it to jobs and more Metro lines. On the other hand, putting in rails will add cost.

One thing is for sure: DDOT is not actively planning a streetcar extension to Georgetown. But, in truth, it hasn't done much on that for a few years now, and last year's K Street Transitway announcement clearly elevated a different transit planning priority in this area.

The western streetcar mostly-died for numerous reasons, but a few stand out. The technical-political debate turned many transit advocates off to the idea, while the construction fiascos turned off many in the public. The appeal of other spending priorities like the Tax Revision Commission's cuts attracted elected officials, and now-former councilmember Jack Evans, whose ward includes almost all of the potential western extension, was no fan of the project, nor was Mendelson since the beginning, before he was even chairman.

A project only happens when either it lacks appreciable opposition or when it has fierce support (and even then, often don't). The western streetcar benefited from neither, while the eastern one still enjoys strong Ward 7 community support. Thus, the streetcar is going east and not west. It's as simple as that.

And advocacy energy, including from DCST, has focused in more recent years on dedicated bus lanes, where DDOT has already made significant progress with the H and I lanes downtown that now operate all day. The agency is working on future bus lanes in addition to K Street, and DC transit advocates, at least at GGWash and DCST, will be working very hard for those at the moment.

As for the streetcar extension, it might come back, or not. Who can know? But it might take a miracle.