Just a friendly reminder that the 4-day DC Streetcar showcase begins Wednesday May 5th at 11am at CityCenterDC (9th & H).
The DC will be using same articulated trams from the Czech based Inekon company that the Portland and Seattle streetcar lines use. I shared a detailed recap and slideshow of the Seattle Streetcar in 2008 that may be a useful primer for those planning to visit the showcase.
DDOT has plans to expand the initial streetcar lines into a 37-mile network. One of the Phase I expansion segments travels the Mount Vernon Triangle along K Street. Whereas I’m not entirely certain if the political will exists for the entire network to be built, I do feel the K Street segment is likely. Both K Street and New Jersey Avenue have future streetscape improvements planned and budgeted for. Integrating tracks and stations for streetcars into an existing streetscape improvement project creates synergy for DDOT and can render the project more cost effective than it would be as a stand-alone.
DDOT to Host DC Streetcar Showcase May 5-8
First Opportunity for Public to Board One of DC’s Modern Vehicles
District residents, workers and visitors will soon get their first opportunity to step aboard one of the District’s new modern streetcars. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will host the DC Streetcar Showcase from Wednesday, May 5 through Saturday, May 8, 2010 at City Center DC, the site of the old convention center. Read more »
According to the Washington Business Journal, earlier this month district officials and developers with major holdings along the proposed streetcar system traveled to Portland Oregon. The group met with meet managers of the Portland system and property owners who helped finance the Rose City’s streetcar line.
Portland Streetcar image from flickr user KGradinger
The WBJ article collects impressions from several major developers, including the Wilkes Company which counts Mount Vernon Place project in the Triangle among its holdings.
The Wilkes Company’s Sandy Wilkes, already a fan of streetcars, said he was further impressed by the residential occupancy and retail leasing rates along the Portland tracks. “There’s been a level of economic activity that is probably greater than they had even forecasted,” he said. His company plans mixed-use developments for Mount Vernon Triangle and NoMa, and Wilkes said the walkability, cleanliness, and ultimately value, of both those projects would be enhanced by streetcar lines. “There is something about the streetcar experience that is so appealing,” he said.
DDOT Director Gabe Klein held a chat today [transcript]. Chat is not the medium for highly substantive answers but it is great that our new director values and makes time for dialog with the community.
The Mount Vernon Triangle was a topic of several questions from participants (neither was me):
[Comment From Guest]: Thank you for taking questions and reaching out to the community. Will the ARRA money designated to improve K Street between NJ Ave. and 7th Street NW also include laying track for the proposed streetcar? If not, should it?
[Gabe Klein, DDOT]: We are still waiting to hear if our application will be approved. It is a very competitive field for this money. The streetcar was not part of the application.
[Comment From Tom]: Will DDOT implement the Mt. Vernon Triangle Transportation Plan to reconfigure the H Street / 3rd Street / Massachusetts Ave., intersection? It is a dangerous intersection for pedestrians. It would be helpful to, at least, remove the large billboard-sized signs that lead drivers to believe it is a freeway rather than a neighborhood.
[Gabe Klein, DDOT]: Yes, we will be improving this intersection. We are reassessing the signs as well. (urban alternatives).
Trees and overhead wires do not coexist well. Trees would need to be pruned, and in some cases removed, to make way for poles and station-stop bump-outs. In the suburbs you can see the grotesque pruning that results when trees are forced to compete with overhead wires. DC cannot afford a citywide initiative that cuts down mature healthy trees or unnaturally prunes them.
I confidently reject this close minded argument. I’ve visited other cities with streetcar systems and have seen first hand that trees and tram wires can comfortably coexist. But don’t take my word for it, review these Google Streetview images from residential streets tree-lined streets traveled by Portland’s streetcar.
NW Northrup Street in Portland Oregon; Image from Google Streetview
SW Harrison Street in Portland Oregon; Image from Google Streetview
It is unfortunate that the CHRS is choosing to oppose streetcars outright rather than focus on asking DDOT how they plan to minimize the impact of overhead wires on mature trees.
UPDATED (11/9/2009 2:20PM): Chris from ReadysetDC exposes the falsehoods in Monte Edwards editorial with even more gusto.
DDOT spokesperson John Lisle sent out an announcement yesterday that the agency will unveil it’s proposed streetcar system plan a series of public meetings scheduled in every ward. The meetings kick off next Thursday October 22nd with the Ward 6 meeting (our ward) at J.O. Wilson Elementary (660 K Street NE) from 7 pm – 8:30 pm.
Portland Streetcar image from flickr user KGradinger
During the tenure of Mayor Anthony Williams two disconnected streetcar alignments, one on H Street NE, and the other in Anacostia were planned and the trams were ordered from the Czech Republic based Inekon. The order was fulfilled by Inekon years ago but the trams remain in the Czech Republic as progress on the project stalled. Finally in 2009 with the appointment of new DDOT director Gabe Klein tracks have begun to be installed on Benning Road NE and in Anacostia along Firth Sterling.
In early August, at a public forum held in the Atlas Theatre on H Street NE, Klein pledged to place streetcars back on the front burner stating the sluggish progress on the project was unacceptable. These public meetings in each ward will give District residents an opportunity to hear about the current progress and view updated plans for future streetcar lines across the District.
What does this mean for the Mount Vernon Triangle? One goal DDOT has is to connect the H Street NE/Benning Road streetcar line to the K Street Transitway which will run from Mount Vernon Square to Georgetown. I pondered two potential alignments for that connection back in April. I have a reputable source that says we should expect when the system is unveiled the MVT segment will use New Jersey Ave and K Street then connect to the H Street NE segment behind Union Station on the Hopscotch Bridge.
That NJ/K alignment makes a solid sense as both streets have wide right of ways and streetscape money already earmarked in the coming years. I don’t have any information on timing or station locations but perhaps some of the details we crave will be shared at these public meetings.
Anthony Williams, the mayoral predecessor to Fenty, originally laid plans to build two pilot streetcar lines in H Street NE and Anacostia. Three streetcars had been purchased but have sat idle in the Czech Republic as the projects stalled. Klein wants to not only jumpstart those lines but build a network. How will it be different this time?
Although the Williams administration planned to build a streetcar network without federal dollars, as Portland, Ore. did with its model system, Klein said meetings with Ray LaHood, U.S. Department of Transportation secretary, have convinced him that the federal government will be a partner.
LaHood “is extremely supportive. I think he’s pretty excited about the possibility of it running right in front of the Department of Transportation headquarters,” which is on M Street SE, Klein said. He said the city plans to seek funding through the federal New Starts program, in which the Federal Transit Administration partially finances locally planned and operated transit. Klein said the program was being transformed under LaHood into an attractive option.
As we anticipated from our April discussion on a K Street streetcar, Klein would like to build a streetcar network that would include a route through downtown. The Downtown BID and other stakeholders have been pushing for the K Street line.
DDOT’s facebook page has a photo album of the ongoing track installation on Benning Road NE. If K Street will be part of the streetcar network our track installation should ideally occur the same time as the streetscape improvements so that residents and business only impacted by construction only once.
At tonight’s MVSNA meeting new board member, and City Vista resident, John Thompson will lead a discussion on the possibility of a K Street Streetcar. John has talked with contacts at DDOT about extending the H Street NE/Benning Road streetcar project to Mount Vernon Triangle via K Street.
The H Street NE / Benning Road Streetcar (fact sheet from Streetcars4DC) has been in planning for several years and tracks are presently being laid. The proposed alignment from 2006 begins by the Minnesota Ave metro, travels west along Benning Road over the Anacostia, upon reaching the Starburst intersection the streetcar follows H Street NE until terminating in no man’s land behind Union Station.
Click image to enlarge
John has been discussing the possibility of continuing to run the streetcar west to connect to K Street before terminating at Mount Vernon Square. This could increase benefit to the Mount Vernon Triangle and proposed development at Northwest One while also affording the H Street NE greater connectivity to downtown DC.
The above map shows two potential extensions for the streetcar line to K Street NW. The red segment takes the straightforward approach of going over the H Street NE bridge, heading north on North Capitol for one block before heading west on K Street for 7 blocks. The green segment promotes integration with the Columbus Circle area in front of Union Station. This alignment, while more expensive, would place the streetcar at a more natural transfer point for Metro, buses, and future streetcar lines.
Below is my profile on Seattle’s South Lake Union Streetcar. Because the intended audience was Greater Greater Washington, where it is crossposted, it wades deep into the details. The District is currently in the planning stages for a streetcar in Anacostia. If the district could settle the overhead wires issues I think streetcar routes down H Street NE and 7th Street NW could be outstanding catalysts for revitalization.
THE ROUTE The South Lake Union streetcar is a 2.6 mile, eleven stop loop, connecting downtown to the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union neighborhoods. The majority of the route follows Westlake Avenue, which is a wide two-way avenue with two lanes in each direction and metered parking on each side of the street. The Westlake segments are primarily at-grade tracks in each direction along the right-hand lane of traffic.
Sidewalk bulb-outs at the stations keep metered parking between the tracks and the curb, though there are exceptions. A four-block segment of the northbound route breaks off Westlake to follow the parallel Terry Avenue. Due to Terry’s one way traffic pattern, stations appear on the left hand curb on Terry.
The Westlake and Terry Avenue tracks meet again at a dedicated ROW and station stop along the 12 acre waterfront Lake Union Park. Upon leaving the park, the route returns into mixed traffic. The line continues to its northernmost point along Fairview Avenue with a station stop in the median. When in mixed traffic, the tram travels slightly slower than cars or buses and waits at traffic lights like other vehicles.
The streetcar takes about 10 to 15 minutes to traverse the route. Fares are $1.75 for adults and $0.50 for children and seniors. A single ticket gets you unlimited travel in a two-hour travel window, rather than a single trip. The streetcar uses the honor system for payment, with the possibility that a fare inspector may ask for your ticket. One tram operates in each direction throughout the system’s operating hours (6am to 9pm Monday through Thursday, 6am to 11pm Friday and Saturday, and 10am to 7pm Sunday).
As the route proceeds down the Westlake Avenue corridor, it travels through the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union neighborhoods that are both brimming with potential for economic development. Along the way a stop at Westlake & Denny Way serves the most impressive Whole Foods Market I’ve ever stepped inside of and the city’s oldest park (Denny Park).
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT The streetcar project is part of a larger transformation for the area north of Seattle’s downtown.
The Denny Triangle, bounded by Fifth Avenue, Denny Way and Olive Way, has historically been a traffic funnel and sea of surface parking lots. Development has begun to seep from downtown into this underutilized land over the last decade. In 2006 the city council approved downtown rezoning south of Denny Way (map) that increased base height limits and outlined incentives for height bonuses (up to 500 ft) for developers that meet affordable housing and LEED standards. The rezoning placed intense development pressure on the area.
A big beneficiary of the rezoning is Clise Properties, which has amassed 12 contiguous acres that represent nearly all the land bordered by Denny Way and Fifth and Westlake avenues. Clise has changed directions and is looking to sell rather than build. Imagine a project with three times the land of Mount Vernon Place and about four times the height limit! Al Clise told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
“[The full potential is] a thriving world-class development on par with New York’s Rockefeller Center or London’s Canary Wharf. We’re a small, privately held company and for us to do it ourselves would be a very difficult task. I don’t think we could do it in the time frame it needs to be done.”
The potential for a downtown site this large is enormous, but it will require deep pockets in a climate where capital is tough to come by. It will be interesting to watch and I hope they don’t settle for fracturing it into tiny projects.
For decades South Lake Union had been a light industrial and auto services oriented district with residences only in the Cascades section (east of Fairview). Paul Allen has worked with the city for infrastructure improvements including not only the streetcar, but a new substation, multi-space parking meters and street lighting. In return, his Vulcan Real Estate is transforming the area into a 24/7 mixed use community with office, residential and retail. Vulcan has put a special focus on making the corridor a biotechnology hub; tenants include Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Zymogenetics, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and University of Washington Medicine. In December of 2007 online retailer Amazon announced that it will consolidate its vast Seattle operations into an 11 building urban campus spanning six blocks Vulcan has broken ground on the Amazon development and one can see cranes galore along Terry Avenue.
STREETCARS & INFRASTRUCTURE The city purchased three 12 Trio 3-segment articulated trams from the Czech based Inekon company. The Inekon website features photo galleries inside the tram manufacturing facility and one dedicated to the Seattle Streetcar that includes snapshots from inside the maintenance facility on Harrison Street.
The trams have 3 doors on each side and a low floor base for easy boarding in the middle section of the car. A drivers cabin is placed on each end of the tram to support two way use. At the end of lines drivers simply transfer from one cabin to the other. The cars feature air conditioning, an on board payment kiosk, stop request straps, and sparse seating. An on-board passenger information system provides audible announcement and digital displays of real time arrival information.
Stations are glass and steel overhangs roughly 12 feet wide equipped with LCD’s that state time until the next tram will arrive. Benches are no where to be found but riders do have the convenience of a route map and payment kiosk at each station. The trams are powered by overhead wires that are seemingly about 18-20 feet above the street. Aesthetically this was not much of a leap for Seattle as they have fleets of hybrid buses that use overhead lines.
RIDERSHIP & SAFETY Each streetcar can fit 140 riders (29 seated), which is more than double the capacity of the articulated buses in King County’s standard fleet. Presently ridership has been exceeding the city’s estimate of 950 riders per day or just 7.5% of the 12,600 capacity per day. In fact, the streetcar surpassed the estimated ridership for the first year (347,000) three months ahead of schedule. I believe those statistics are independent of the ridership from the inaugural first month when fares were free (video).
I explored the streetcar during the mid afternoon of a lazy Thursday. Traffic was light and cyclists few and far between. According to KUOW radio (audio link), five cyclists have raised litigation against the city because of accidents related to bike tires snagging on the street car tracks. Seattle has provided a bike lane on the parallel 9th street to address the concern. Lawyer Bob Anderton claims that the city was negligent to the risk the tracks impose on cyclists and that the city should have aligned the tracks in the left hand lane, leaving the right hand lane safe for bikes.
That would force all stations on two way streets to be in the median. Ethan Malone, streetcar program manager from SDOT, says that is a possibility for future lines. What do you think about this issue? I’m sure few care about the impact to automobiles of placing the tracks in the left hand lane, but what about forcing pedestrians/riders to the median strip? Another consequence of streetcars traveling in the left hand lane along the median is that it pushes the overhead wires further out into the street, often creating a nest effect.
CONCLUSION Overall, I was impressed with the streetcar. It was a reliable, clean, safe and predictable form of transportation. The passenger information system that displays the wait time for the next tram was a tremendous asset. However, with a one way distance of just 1.3 miles, it doesn’t span much pavement and at the moment is more of a people mover than great transit. It’s a first step. This line needs to be extended to the University District while Seattle plans and prioritizes the rest of the network.