District given updates on proposed Union Station-to-Georgetown streetcar line

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The District's streetcar network is currently limited to a stretch of H Street and Benning Road in Northeast. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

The return of streetcars to Washington, and to the neighborhood where Joe Gibbons lives and serves as an elected official, brings out the philosopher in the Georgetowner.

“A streetcar has a bit of Norman Rockwellness to it,” Gibbons said. “It’s a social form of transportation. It gets you out of your bubble. You sit next to someone, or you’re standing with other people.”

Gibbons, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith), was in the audience on Jan. 24 at a public meeting held by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to provide an update on the proposed extension of streetcar service from Union Station to Georgetown.

The addition of three-and-a-half miles to the existing streetcar line along H Street NE that opened two years ago will require 15 additional cars and additional storage and maintenance space. While the added storage facility is likely to end up on Pepco property along Benning Road NE or at Hechinger Mall, the transportation department is also looking for an additional, smaller storage site for three cars in Georgetown or Foggy Bottom.

Haley Peckett, a transportation department official, said a storage space near the west end of the new line will ensure the cars keep moving.

“If Mount Vernon Square closed due to a visiting dignitary, we could maintain service on the west end of the line with a small storage facility for three cars,” Peckett said.

In response to a question from Gibbons, officials said such a small facility in Georgetown would not be a maintenance garage. It would contain a traction power substation and a bathroom for car operators, in addition to storage space.

Gibbons thinks a storage facility of the kind described would be a “light touch” on Georgetown.

“People are worried about facilities going in that would cause bottlenecks and traffic jams, about historic preservation and how it will look,” Gibbons said. “But this facility will be minimal in nature. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the presentation, the consideration for Georgetown residents.”

However, Gibbons added that his comments are subject to the actual design and that a submission to the Old Georgetown Board is needed.

Peckett said one important reason for adding streetcar service from Union Station to Georgetown is the need for improved east-west travel across the city.

“The Circulator bus takes 45 minutes to an hour to get across town,” Peckett said. “The streetcar would take 25 to 30 minutes, half the time,” on account of consolidated stops and faster boarding.

The blocks between 10th and 21st streets NW along K Street are a particular bottleneck, Peckett noted. Buses along what the transportation department calls “the K Street transitway” travel at an average speed of three miles per hour.

“The way K Street is configured now is not efficient for anybody,” Peckett said.

One alternative under consideration on the K Street transitway calls for the construction of dedicated lanes reserved exclusively for streetcar use. A publication from the department said the lanes reduce delays resulting from parked cars and deliveries.

The brochure stated that center-running lanes allow streetcars to operate in the left lane, closest to the median. Unlike curb-running lanes, streetcars operating in center-running lanes face fewer delays from double-parked vehicles, buses and opening car doors. The existing H Street line has curb-running lanes.

The publication gives the rationale for a Georgetown streetcar line.

“Georgetown is a major activity center with limited connectivity to the east due to the natural barrier of Rock Creek Park. Georgetown is not currently served by a Metrorail station, and a streetcar would offer the first rail service to the neighborhood,” it said.

When the H Street line opened in February 2016, cars ran every 15 minutes, six days a week. Last year service was increased to seven days a week, with headway (time between streetcars) of 12 minutes.

The department projects the proposed Union Station to Georgetown line would cost $375 million to design and build. Fifteen additional streetcars would cost $75 million. In comparison, the H Street streetcar line cost $200 million to build. However, the transportation department’s Sam Zimbabwe said that amount involved a complete re-building of the corridor, in addition to laying track and constructing shelters at the stops.

“The reconstruction was from building face to building face, property line to property line,” Zimbabwe said. “We widened the sidewalks, planted trees, relocated utilities, put in new lights. It was 1950s infrastructure before, now it’s new.”

The new streetcar line along H Street was also intended to help revive an area that suffered extensive damage during the 1968 riots.

“Part of the investment in streetcars was an investment in the community,” Zimbabwe said.