Streetcars in a different Alexandria. Flickr photo by ubershibs.

With a combination of old, urban development, newer, suburban neighborhoods, major dense commercial corridors, undeveloped spaces, and several Metro station, Alexandria could benefit enormously from streetcars connecting its Metro stations and other key nodes. Today, the possibility for realizing that vision seems closer than ever, though many obstacles remain.

There are two main routes that would be ideal for the first streetcars: the Route 1, Pentagon to Old Town corridor in the east, and the I-395 corridor in the west. Both contain large, existing commercial hubs. Both also include areas whose development or redevelopment Alexandria is actively planning: the Potomac Yards area in the east, and the Landmark-Van Dorn area in the west.

Alexandria Councilmember Tim Lovain is a strong advocate for bringing streetcars into that city. In a recent email, Lovain told constituents that a streetcar now looks more likely in the west than the east:

Much to my surprise, the best chance of getting a streetcar in Alexandria now seems to be on the far west end of the City, thanks to the Provost of the [Northern Virginia Community College] Alexandria campus and the ill-advised decision of DOD to pick the Mark Center for their new Washington Headquarters Service site.  I am also actively discussing the advantages of a streetcar in the City’s deliberations about the Landmark-Van Dorn small area plan in the West End, e.g. converting the new “High Street” into a car-free street for just streetcars, bicycles and pedestrians.

According to Lovain, Provost Jonathan Gueverra of NVCC Alexandria is interested in running the streetcar throught he campus, placing a maintenance facility there, and adding classes on streetcar maintenance for their students. That campus is less than a mile from the Mark Center, where the Army recently decided to move 6,400 jobs. Lovain wrote, “The Army currently projects that 60 percent of the employees [at the site] ... will commute by single-occupancy vehicle.” If Alexandria and the federal government can build a streetcar from Arlington, through NVCC, and finally into the Landmark/Van Dorn area and its Metro station, it would connect large clusters of jobs, students, and upcoming commercial development to Metro.

In the east, Lovain said, Arlington currently plans a streetcar between the Pentagon to Crystal City, but Alexandria’s plans call for a bus instead through Potomac Yards. Riders would have to transfer between bus and streetcar at the Arlington-Alexandria border. Lovain feels city staff made up their minds too soon:

The City staff is much more resistant to the idea of a streetcar in the east end of the City.  Earlier this month, staff prepared a memo on possible federal requests to Congressman Moran for when he appeared before us on February 10.  The FIRST item they listed was a request that he ask for BUSES for the Transitway as part of SAFETEA-LU reauthorization. 

I spoke up in Council to ask Rep. Moran to disregard this request because, in my mind, the mode choice for the Transitway was still an open question.  Staff was not pleased with me, but I did not want to see us backing into a final mode choice in an offhand way.  The staff feels that, because we are “only” six years away, it’s too late to shift away from BRT as the initial mode.  I think we have enough time, especially for a decision of this much importance, and so does Chris Zimmerman of the Arlington County Board. ...

This is a very exciting idea that might just happen if we can leverage the new development at Potomac Yard to pay for it. The current plan, however, is for the Transitway to come only within one block of the new Metrorail Station, and some City staff want it at least four blocks away.  That Transitway should connect all of the Metro stations in Crystal City and Potomac Yard.

Lovain emphasized that many Alexandria city staff do support streetcars and have been working hard to help make that possibility a reality. For more on the nexus of transit and development in Alexandria, check out Charles Carson’s recent article about the Potomac Yard Metro station and the debates surrounding that major development.

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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.