Georgetown residents lobbying for a Wisconsin Avenue streetcar line

The District Department of Transportation is undertaking a massive effort to install 37 miles of streetcar tracks in D.C. That includes uncertain plans to run a streetcar line up Wisconsin Avenue, connected to the line that will run down K Street and Benning Road to the H Street NE corridor, shown in red on the map at right.

A group of Georgetown residents, however, are trying to turn the potential line into a sure thing. They’re called the Wisconsin Avenue Streetcar Coalition, and they want DDOT to make firm plans to route a streetcar through Georgetown.

Of course, as with any local ambitious project, there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding this issue.

Ben Thielen, who is heading up the Coalition, wrote on the wall of the WASC Facebook page that a member of the Tenley neighborhood listserv posted a Human Transit article to erode support for the streetcar. (The article argued that streetcars aren’t any faster than buses.) Meanwhile, he’s suspicious that upcoming construction on Wisconsin Avenue near Glover Park will impede streetcar tracks, and Glover Park residents are questioning how serious about the possbility of expansion DDOT really is in the Gazette (PDF).

For its part, the Voice is internally divided over whether a streetcar is such a good idea. In the Fall, the editorial board warned that streetcars were a foolish thing to pursue, considering that DDOT has enormous year-to-year budget shortfalls. In his feature story about the up-and-coming Atlas District, however, Chris Heller pointed out that the connectivity a streetcar line offers can mean big things for individual D.C. neighborhoods.

Via Georgetown Metropolitan

25 Comments on “Georgetown residents lobbying for a Wisconsin Avenue streetcar line

  1. My experience, having lived in Georgetown for the better part of the 1990’s, is that Georgetown is lacking key connections to other parts of the city, most particularly out Wisconsin Avenue, Rosslyn and downtown. The addition of a Georgetown connection via streetcar to these areas will improve transit options for residents, and further enhance business prospects for retailers and larger firms (which generally operate south of M Street). This is an environmentally sustainable transportation improvement over buses and single-occupancy cars — one that should be seriously considered by DDOT and the affected communities.

  2. I like the idea. And black people don’t ride streetcars, so the neighbors should like the idea.

  3. Tim-

    I do not want to speculate about the motives of certain people for opposinig this and I certainly hope that all District residents will ride the streetcar system. A streetcar connecting the metro stations at Friendship Heights and Tenley to Georgetown will better integrate the District– providing a way to reduce some of the stark inequality in the District– in addition to providing more reliable transportation. Some of the opponents of a Wisconsin Avenue streetcar, however, are raising the same arguments against this that they used against a Georgetown metro station a generation ago. This is from an anti-streetcar letter published in the January 2010 isuse of the Glover Park Gazettte (http://www.gloverparkdc.com/Gazette0110.pdf, pg 11):

    “If we are isolated, let’s stay that way, with a “country” and neighborhood atmosphere in the city. This isolation, if anything, makes us safer by keeping crime at bay.”

  4. The main argument against a streetcar line along Wisconsin Avenue is that it would be obscenely expensive (over $200 million) and won’t increase connectivity/mobility. It duplicates the 30 series buses and will have fewer seats, less frequent service, and longer distances between stops. It’s an investment in inflexibility — both micro (lane changes) and macro (route changes) and DDOT made the right call when it decided that a Wisconsin Avenue line wasn’t a good investment.

  5. Sue-

    Is that the same 30s bus that has the third worst on-time performance in the District, according to the DC Transit Alternatives study? The same 30s bus that is already over-capacity in a part of DC that is still expected to enjoy strong residential growth between now and 2030? I just wanted to make sure.

  6. That’s obsolete performance data. The TAA was published in 2005 and the 30s subsequently underwent restructuring.

    The way to address capacity issues is to add a few more buses at rush hour, perhaps only along the parts of the route where demand exceeds capacity. It’s a much cheaper and more flexible solution than a streetcar system.

  7. @Sue/Ben

    The best argument for streetcars that I have seen is that they are, in fact, inflexible.

    That inflexibility promotes investment along the routes, which is something that doesn’t happen with bus routes. Proponents argue it’s more akin to how the Metro revitalized parts of the District.

    So the real question is, what areas of DC need reliable transportation that will increase investment in the surrounding areas? DDOT isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with funds, so it’s all about prioritization…

  8. Jeff-

    You are exactly right. Portland’s streetcar has resulted in $2.5B – $6B in new economic development as a result of the infrastructure investment for the streetcar. This will provide a strong incentive for high-quality infill development along the Wisconsin Avenue corridor, which will reduce sprawl and emissions/pollution in our region and reduce our consumption of foreign oil as we build close to the job centers of downtown Washington. The new infill development that a Wisconsin Avenue stretecar will encourage will also bring new residents to the city and with them, more sales and income tax– which can be used to pay for the streetcar. A Wisconsin Avenue streetcar will also encourage more retail, dining and entertainment options along this corridor- and jobs that will help reduce DC’s 12.4% unemployment rate.

  9. Jeff —

    I agree that streetcars make more sense as a redevelopment scheme than as a transit option. But that’s another reason why Wisconsin Avenue is a poor choice — less bang for the buck. Upper Wisconsin Avenue (with two Metro stations) already experienced its rail-induced growth and at the other end of the Avenue, Georgetown’s growth is constrained by the historic district and maybe the Naval Observatory overlay as well. In general, this is already a highly and expensively developed corridor — at this point, it’s not a place where additional rail can or will be transformative.

    H Street strikes me as the most promising from an investment effect.

  10. Wisconsin is already a hell hole for traffic. Adding a streetcar would only make things worse, especially if it goes ALL THE WAY DOWN Wisconsin into Bethesda, Rockville, etc.

  11. Sue-

    As I said on another blog, unless you consider rubble heaps, mattress stores, and 1-story fast food restaurants right next to the Tenley metro stations to be desirable and ‘rational’ developments there is still plenty of potential to build in the Wisconsin Avenue corridor. Perhaps building new residential units above the Safeway in Tenley (within a 5-10 minute walk of two metro stations) or not inhibiting the Akridge/5220 Wisconsin Avenue residential development would be a good place to start. There are at least two dozen parcels that are either vacant lots or surface parking lots that could be redeveloped that would provide the District more property tax revenue and that would bring new residents to the District. Perhaps you’re content, however, with sales and income taxes going to Maryland and Virginia instead of to the District to pay for things such as better schools and transit.

  12. DC Resident-

    Streetcars have higher ridership than buses because they don’t have the stigma attached to buses. This will encourage new riders to leave their cars behind and use transit– improving travel times for both the streetcar passengers and the remaining passengers on Wisconsin Avenue. As Jeff noted, a Wisconsin Avenue streetcar will strongly encourage infill mixed-use development. As there are more amenities and more housing choices on Wisconsin Avenue, walking and bicycling becomes an option for travel mode instead of driving. A streetcar will also provide more reliable travel to Georgetown, helping reducing the constant parking issues there as people further up Wisconsin Avenue have more travel choices.

  13. re posting on the GM blog — I am — the question is whether the moderator is letting my posts through.

    Perhaps it would make sense just to refer others to that discussion rather than reprise it here. That said, my response was that even if there are two dozen vacant lots along Wisconsin Ave, that represents a 5% vacancy rate which is normal churn. And the only way you can get to two dozen is by including cemeteries and treating multiple adjacent lots with the same owner as separate parcels. Most of the parcels are government-owned and a number of the private ones appear to be in the process of redevelopment. And, of course, Wisconsin Avenue has no problem attracting investment — incentives aren’t needed here and would have much greater impact elsewhere.

  14. Echoing others: However dilapidated/inefficiently used certain stretches of Wisconsin may be, there are other parts of the city that are far worse and need the investment the streetcar line would bring. Wisconsin Ave should be near the bottom of the list.

    Also: The (far more reliable) Circulator complements the 30s, and metro stations (Dupont Circle/Foggy Bottom/Rosslyn) are all within reasonable walking distances. There are parts of our city that are lucky if they get more than a couple bus lines near their neighborhoods.

  15. So the readers of this blog aren’t confused, lets be clear who Sue is. She opposed the public-private partnership for the Tenley library that would have allowed more residents to live right above the metro station. She opposed the proposal for a new Giant supermarket, new housing, and new retail by the Cathedral. She opposed the 5220 Wisconsin Avenue development (http://www.5220wisconsin.com/) that would have been a transit-friendly alternative to more sprawl, given that it is right next to the Friendship Heights metro station. The people who are opposing a Wisconsin Avenue streetcar are the same people bitterly opposed to providing more housing that would allow new families to move to this corridor– who would create new jobs and support more retail opportunities for area residents. These are the same people who claimed that developers in this area of DC are ‘out to rape our community’ (http://whyihatedc.blogspot.com/2007/05/i-dont-need-their-civil-war.html)

    “They’re coming in to rape our [expletive] neighborhood,” Carolyn Sherman, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and an opponent, said of developers in general as she toured the site.

  16. Ben — is it possible for you to rebut arguments against a Wisconsin Avenue Street car with data and analysis rather than ad hominem attacks? If so, please try.

  17. Wisconsin avenue has overlapping layers of bus coverage. The issue isn’t the buses, its that the buses are mired in the same traffic the cars are in.

    The cheapest solution to the problem and a replica of the tram plan for K street…set aside a dedicated bus lane on Wisconsin from Tenley to GT. No new tracks, trams or associated equipment.

    Wisconsin is pretty narrow from Glover Park to GT so I am not sure where they would get the ROW. Likely, curbside parking would have to be illegal to have room for it. Then again, if someone thinks there is enough ROW for two tram tracks, with existing traffic, then there must be a way to fit in dedicated bus lanes.

  18. Regarding the alignment, I would have dedicated north-south lanes in the median of Wisconsin Avenue between Calvert and the Tenley and Friendship Heights metro stations for the streetcars. According to the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Transportation Study (http://ddot.dc.gov/ddot/cwp/view,a,1249,q,618838.asp ):

    “The northern portion of Wisconsin Avenue (from Fessenden Street to Calvert Street ) generally has 60 feet of pavement within a 120 foot right-of-way. The 60 feet of pavement width is currently striped for six lanes, each 10 feet wide.”

    You can maintain two lanes of vehicle traffic in each direction with two dedicated streetcar lanes if you eliminated the curbside parking along this section of Wisconsin Avenue. I would reduce the speed limit to 25 miles per hour (currently 30 mph for most of this corridor) to reduce potential harm to pedestrians on the sidewalk and plant more trees throughout the corridor to create a greater buffer between pedestrians and the curbside lane of vehicle traffic.

    Between M Street or K Street (depending on the terminus—a K Street terminus would certainly be preferably because it would link to the Minnesota Ave. – Georgetown line, providing much-needed capacity relief to the Orange/Blue lines) and Calvert, I would have a curbside alignment for the streetcar.

    The usual group of the drive-anywhere crowd would complain about the elimination of curbside parking. I counted, however, and there are approximately 10 curbside spots per block. Assuming 1.2 people per vehicle (just an estimate) and that is 12 people per block with curbside parking. The Skoda streetcars that DDOT is purchasing, however, will accommodate 157 passengers (http://www.skoda.cz/?module=uploads&func=download&fileId=1745). I would gladly trade ten curbside spots for a streetcar that will hold 157 passengers. Additionally, parking is already difficult now. Many people forego visiting Georgetown, especially in the evenings and weekends because of the difficulty of finding parking. A streetcar will give many local residents the option to avoid driving, thereby freeing up spaces for the remaining drivers on the road.

    The slower speed limits would also encourage more people to take transit, as the time differential between streetcar and auto is narrowed as the speed limit decreases from 30 to 25 mph. I would also charge higher rates for parking on the streets immediately off Wisconsin Avenue since these streets will have to accommodate the cars that previously parked on the curbside lanes of this street. I would also think that as there is more infill development along this corridor (which a streetcar would encourage), much of the new development would have underground parking. There could be shared-parking arrangements with some of the spots available to the public for $5-$10 per day, such as what exists at CityLine now. Eliminating on-street parking on Wisconsin Avenue would also require a serious commitment to enforcing the Residential Parking Permit zones so neighbors in these communities are not crowded out.

    Some might object to the higher parking charges on the streets immediately off of Wisconsin Avenue but this higher cost of driving would encourage people to take transit and walk instead to local destinations. The addition of a streetcar line on Wisconsin Avenue and the development that would follow would make this corridor immensely more walkable, making it possible to entirely forego a car on local trips.

    Performance parking would be an excellent way to provide dedicated funding for the capital costs of constructing the streetcar route. DDOT is earning $75,000 per meter by the Nationals stadium by charging market-rate prices for parking. You said you live in Georgetown. As you’re certainly aware, real estate and land is not cheap in Georgetown. The District shouldn’t continue to subsidize parking here. The District charges for parking from Mon-Sat. If the District charges for parking for 12 hours per day at the current rate of $2 per hour, and assuming that the space is continuously full each day, the amount from parking fees is $624 per month. I can guarantee you that the rent or mortgage payments for any of the homes immediately off of Wisconsin Avenue are more than $624 per month. Charging prices based on actual demand for parking (rather than continuing to subsidize driving) will encourage people to walk/bike on short trips and use the new
    streetcar investment or metro on longer trips.

  19. Frank’s right, of course, that if you can create dedicated lanes for a streetcar, then you can create the same dedicated lanes for buses at much less expense. (e.g. It cuts $40 million a mile in capital expenses for track/power/platforms and eliminates the need to create a dedicated storage and maintenance facility. And buses are cheaper than streetcars.) Plus you’d get more frequent service (which makes it easier to justify dedicated lanes), more seats, more stops. It’s a cheaper solution that clearly benefits transit users.

    I don’t drive, so parking isn’t my issue except to the extent that it affects local businesses. Eliminating street parking along upper Wisconsin would make Tenleytown a less attractive location for retailers (many of whom have small shops without lots or garages and whose customers and employees park on the street). In Georgetown, I suspect parking isn’t the issue (because you can’t count on finding it), so much as loading and deliveries (which is why a streetcar stuck in the curbside lane is likely to be much slower than a bus along that stretch of Wisconsin Avenue).

    Ben — in answer to your earlier question about why I’m not posting on Georgetown Metropolitan, the answer is censorship on the part of the blog’s author. Interesting to see how one individual can channel discussion in his preferred direction by invisible decisions about how much dissent will be allowed in what would appear to be an open forum.

  20. Sue-

    Lets be honest, I think the real reason you aren’t allowed to post anymore on the Georgetown Metropolitan blog is because you (Sue/Z/Cassie) have been creating false/fictitious names to appear to inflate your support. You and your ARD buddies know that there is no Heather/Ethan. It is this, and not censorship, that is preventing you from being able to post.

  21. I posted once pseudonymically on GM (as Cassie) in hopes of having a substantive conversation about the merits of streetcars as a public transit option on Wisconsin Avenue rather than a series of spurious allegations about my positions on various Ward 3 development projects. As soon as Heather (whom I don’t know) posted asking lots of questions about the economics and logistics of a streetcar solution, I realized I would stay around and decloaked, subsequently posting only under my own name and never claiming support from “Cassie” or anyone else. Unlike you, Ben, I’m making arguments on the merits and arguments that are backed up by research rather than just wishful thinking.

    As I’ve said to you before in another forum, I am not and have never been a member of ARD. I think you have a tendency (born of unfamiliarity with these issues and a lack of involvement in the neighborhoods in question) of assuming that I’m the only person who disagrees with you. It’s not true.

    That said, I may be one of the only people willing to keep posting and putting up with the cyberbullying you like to dish out. That’s because I’m public transit dependent (have been by choice and for decades) and I feel that my lifestyle depends on getting this stuff right. I’m well enough known in my community as a person who is smart, reliable, and has integrity that I don’t really feel threatened by your BS.

    What concerns me about the censorship on Georgetown Metropolitan is that information that is factually inaccurate goes unrebutted because I can’t post. I don’t know how many other people are being censored as well — just as few people probably realize that I’m being censored. As I said, these decisions are made unilaterally and invisibly.

    When I see that claim that, for example, streetcars are cheaper to operate than buses — but with a link to a site that is discussing light rail (and which specifically references 2-3 car trains — something DC does not plan to build the infrastructure for) rather than streetcars, I start to think that the key to getting people to buy into this project is misrepresenting it.

  22. So that make Sue the equivalent of former Ward 3 candidate Jonathan Rees in the realm of discourse. Now I think we have achieved a new low in civic advocacy.

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