Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Is DC’s proposed 37-mile streetcar network perfectly planned already, or could a few tweaks to the routes improve the plan?

The Streetcar Land Use Study released last month identified about a dozen potential route changes that might improve the system’s already impressive effects on development. The proposed changes adjust the details of streetcar routes to provide better transit service to locations that have a lot of potential riders or could see new development.

The study stopped short of actually recommending any changes to the adopted network, but did suggest that as DDOT drills down into the specific details of route planning, it analyze each of these segments further.

K Street at Union Station

Somewhere near Union Station, the H Street streetcar will shift north 2 blocks before continuing west along K Street into downtown. The adopted plan calls for the shift to take place on New Jersey Avenue, but it could be done on 1st Street NE instead.

The 1st Street alignment would provide more direct service through the heart of the emerging NoMa office district, and to the huge Greyhound bus station at the corner of K and 1st. The downside is this alignment would remove direct access to the New Jersey Avenue Walmart, which is sure to become a major destination.

Poplar Point and downtown Anacostia

Poplar Point could one day be the location of a large new mixed-use development. Unfortunately the location is isolated by I-295, and difficult to access by foot or transit. Meanwhile, the MLK Avenue alignment through downtown Anacostia is narrow, and proving difficult to work with. Adding tracks to Poplar Point would add a major new attraction and remove stress from a likely choke point.

Southwest Waterfront

Like Poplar Point, the Southwest Waterfront is primed for major redevelopment. The planned streetcar alignment follows Maine Avenue, but shifting it one block over to Water Street would put it closer to the action, for basically no additional cost. There is so much pavement in this area that it may be a location where a dedicated transit lane is possible. If that is the case, DDOT should put the streetcar wherever they can get the lane.

Buzzard Point

Diverting the M Street SW/SE streetcar to Potomac Avenue would more directly serve Nationals Park and much of the associated nearby development. Unfortunately, doing so would add a lot of travel time for other riders, since it would turn what is currently planned to be a direct 3-block trip along M Street into a lengthy 10-block crescent. Additionally, M Street is one of the few locations where a dedicated transit lane may be possible, so diverting from it would forfeit that possibility.

14th and 15th Streets

Shifting the streetcar from 14th to 15th through downtown DC would be easier to construct from an engineering perspective, and would put the streetcar on a busy tourist street close to the White House. The study does not discuss the implications of running a streetcar on the same street as a cycle track, but if they can both be accommodated it would certainly be an impressive sight.

7th/9th couplet

The adopted streetcar plan calls for both both north and southbound streetcars to use 7th Street south of Gallery Place. Shifting the southbound trains to 9th Street would mirror existing bus service, reduce impacts on congested 7th Street, and permit use of the 9th Street transit lane.

Washington Hospital Center

DDOT’s streetcar plan calls for half the streetcars on one line to take Irving Street and the other half to take Michigan Avenue. Eliminating this split around the hospital campus and instead routing the streetcar through the campus, or along its southern edge, would save tens of millions of dollars and have no serious negative effect on service to the hospital or any future development at the McMillan Sand Filtration site.

It would take away convenient service from the Armed Forces Retirement Home and development the home plans at the edge of its property, but that may not happen for some time and the size is still in question.

Columbia/Harvard couplet

The adopted plan calls for bi-directional streetcar travel along one-way Columbia Road. Adding tracks to Harvard Street and operating one-way couplets through Columbia Heights would be similar to the way existing bus service uses Irving and Columbia as couplets, and would improve operations. It would be worth exploring mirroring bus service exactly and using Irving instead of Harvard for eastbound tracks, but doing so would require more complicated engineering and may therefore be more difficult.

South Dakota Avenue and Fort Lincoln

Rerouting the eastern end of the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar to turn south on South Dakota Avenue and terminate at Fort Lincoln would bring service to potential redevelopment areas along South Dakota Avenue, as well as provide a convenient location for a maintenance facility. However, this would add significant new length and expense to the line, and would make it more difficult to ever extend rail service into Maryland.

Silver Spring

The Georgia Avenue line would end at Takoma Metro rather than Silver Spring in order to keep the entire line within the District of Columbia. However, Silver Spring is a tremendously more compelling destination, with very high density and one of the region’s most important transit transfer stations. Rerouting to Silver Spring would almost certainly be worth the cost, if Maryland is willing to participate as a partner.

Wisconsin Avenue

Wisconsin Avenue has repeatedly come up as a potentially strong streetcar corridor that was left out of the adopted plan. There is less opportunity along Wisconsin Avenue for substantial infill growth, which makes it a lower priority for streetcar service. However, if the system does expand significantly beyond its current scope, this would be a natural corridor.


Curiously, the land use study does not consider the possibility of extending the Georgetown streetcar line across the Key Bridge into Rosslyn. Certainly such an extension would be compelling, for many of the same reasons as the Silver Spring extension. It could be that the cost or engineering challenges of extending rail to Rosslyn are prohibitive, but it seems odd to leave out any discussion of the possibility.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.