D.C. Streetcar Delays Traffic as Open Nears

If you've ever driven in or around the nation's capital, you've probably realized two things: the roads are congested, and there's lots of development going on. D.C.'s government is hoping that a new streetcar system will reduce some of the former and incentivize more of the latter, but slow test runs and a lack of administrative direction have cast doubts on how much it will actually help.

As the Washington Post reports, officials have been developing and promoting plans for a streetcar system linking the District's neighborhoods for several years now. Eventually, the system could consist of 37 miles of track stretching from Georgetown to Anacostia and many points in between. But the plans have been repeatedly delayed, as questions concerning the project's funding and the logistics of running a streetcar through D.C.'s often chaotic traffic have gone unanswered.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has been testing passenger-free cars along the inaugural 2.2 mile line on H Street (in the Northeast quadrant of the city), but the trials have shown several problems already:

  • Safety: Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) bus operators have complained that DDOT still hasn't offered final safety guidances concerning whether streetcars or buses have the right-of-way at certain intersections and turns. There have already been two streetcar-related accidents reported.
  • Congestion: The streetcars operate in the midst of regular traffic, which presents a major problem when cars and buses need to navigate the same routes.
  • Funding: The D.C. City Council has already committed $700 million to streetcar-related funding through 2021. However, there are still questions regarding how much riders will pay, and whether that will be enough to cover the estimated costs to run the streetcars. Based on recent ridership projections, a $1 fare would only cover about 8.8 percent of the system's $5.1 million annual operating costs.

Vox.com's Matt Yglesias points out that the proposed streetcar lines already overlap with WMATA's popular bus routes, and that only serves to amplify the problem: "It's not just that the city is spending a lot of money to build a transit line that will be less useful than the ... bus whose route will overlap with it. The city is spending a lot of money on a transit project that will slow buses down."

Officials across the Potomac River, in Arlington County, VA, have been grappling with problems facing their own plans for a streetcar route along Columbia Pike, an issue NTUF's Dan Barrett wrote about earlier this year.

Despite all of the concerns, DDOT and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray appear determined to push forward on the project, with plans to have the initial lines fully operational "by year's end," according to the Post's report.