Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

A vocal minority in Ward 5 is pushing back against a streetcar maintenance facility at Spingarn High School, and has recently broadened its opposition to the streetcar system as a whole.  But while loud, these opponents don’t reflect the views of most Ward 5 residents. It’s time for Ward 5 residents to speak up in favor of new investments in our ward.

I live in Ward 5 and I support streetcars. Anyone reading the Ward 5 listserv this week would see that it has become quite a contentious topic, and might even think that my opinion is in the minority. But I don’t believe that is true.

The debate first arose from the proposed streetcar maintenance facility on part of the Spingarn High School lawn and the outrage that some in the community feel about this proposal. Some residents have taken the opportunity to bash the streetcar system as a whole.

As the discussion evolves away from the location of the car barn to the entire streetcar system and even further into the “bike lanes, dog parks and gentrification” realm, I am left frustrated. I have read countless pros and cons on streetcars and light rails. I have experienced streetcars in many other cities around the world. I want them and everything that comes with them.

I want the increased ridership, permanent tracks and stops, overhead wires and the big, shiny red streetcars traveling down them at regular intervals. Instead of opposing any projects at all costs, we should be lobbying for more of the coming investments to happen in Ward 5, and ensuring that we reap a fair portion of the economic and infrastructure benefits that will come with the new transportation system.

I want the District to take a real interest and invest in Ward 5, helping to fill our empty storefronts and letting our residents travel comfortably around the city.

“Car barn” could improve, not harm, Spingarn and the area.

The proposal for the Springarn maintenace facility, or “car barn,” does not bother me.  The location is off a major road that will have a streetcar line running down it.  The current streetscape in the area could easily accommodate a new building.

If DDOT sites the facility close to Benning Road, which is one of the 2 options, it will leave a large space, partly green and partly tracks, between the car barn and the school, and it will actually replace a grimy, shuttered DC Library mini-branch building.

Potential locations for car barn at Spingarn. Image from DDOT via Frozen Tropics.

Concept sketch for car barn. Image from DDOT.

The car barn will be brand new. We can ensure that it blends in and adds to the area. It could even be designed to match the architecture of the school. Many of DC’s historic car barns are beautiful buildings; a new one could be, too.

Historic car barn on Capitol Hill. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Instead of opposing to the car barn, Ward 5 residents should be working with DDOT to ensure it is the best car barn that we can get. We can set an example for the many more similar facilities the District will build as it adds and extends the streetcar lines.

We should make sure that it is a true training facility that ties in and expands the current curriculum at Phelps Vocational Technical Academy and provides strong job training for students and adults alike.

Debate really isn’t about the car barn, but the streetcar generally

Sadly, some vocal Ward 5 activists have seized on the Springarn controversy to spread opposition to the entire streetcar system.  They’ve sent press releases, posted messages and issued calls to action. For example:

Premier Community Development Corporation, PCDC, is opposed to the District Government’s proposal to spend over 1.5 billion dollars on a trolley car. PCDC also opposes the DC Department of Transportation’s ill made decision to build the streetcar barn on the front lawn of Spingarn High School.

PCDC opposes these short cited[sic] decisions in support of the trolley car for the following reason. First, the trolley plan is not well thought out and does not serve the needs of the majority of the residents that elect to use public transportation. The trolley does not connect to any transportation hubs and thus is not a part of a comprehensive city-wide transportation system. Currently, the trolley starts at the foot of the Hopscotch Bridge and ends around 26th and Benning Road. Clearly, the trolley is only intended to ferry bar and restaurant customers from one end of H Street to the other.

The opening lines demonstrate that the Springarn issue has already become secondary. As Rhode Island Ave Insider has written, some members of PCDC are older residents who feel threatened by the engagement and activism of newer, younger residents who want to see a different kind of investment and change. It’s not surprising that they’ve latched onto the term “trolleys” as a derogatory. This fear is so deep-seated that they ignore the fact that their outright opposition just further delays DDOT from connecting the streetcar to transportation hubs, as planned.

Then there are community members who are more concerned with making sure DDOT listens to them than with getting the best investments for Ward 5. Activist Kathy Henderson wrote:

I am glad many of Ward 5’s leaders attended the meeting regarding the car barn fiasco. It is really a bad idea to tear up Spingarn’s front lawn for an industrial eyesore. I find the entire matter to be very disrespectful to residents, underscoring that DDOT representatives were not chastened by the last meeting on the issue in April; they came back and uttered the same nonsense again. [Emphasis added]

Still others see streetcars as an investment that’s not for them, such as LeRoy Hall:

By the way, who are the streetcars for anyway?  This reminds me of those red Circulator Buses for people in Georgetown to visit people on Capitol Hill.

It’s sad that some people have lost sight of the streetcars as an investment in our communities and in our mobility.  That makes it that much more important that the larger community speak out in support.

Streetcars will benefit all residents, include the lower-income residents of Ward 5. About 35% of residents do not own cars, and DC plans to make the streetcar fare the same as the Circulator, which is less today than the bus fare.

Streetcars, much like the Metro, will become a permanent fixture in the community.  Ward 5 has the Red Line of the Metro running through it north to south, and is briefly touched by the Yellow and Green Lines at one station, Fort Totten. Many of us define our location by the nearest Metro stop.  The planned streetcar lines for Ward 5 would run mostly east to west across the ward, creating new transportation connections and new stops to identify with the community.

The permanent nature of the streetcars with their tracks installed in the ground will develop a confidence in the investment in an area.  Adding streetcars and streetscape improvements would enhance the travel, experience and atmosphere of our ward.

Anyone that has walked down Rhode Island Avenue NE can will agree that we still need a lot of infrastructure improvements to ensure it becomes a more vibrant destination, attracting new businesses to empty storefronts and bolstering existing ones.  The success of streetcars in spurring economic development is well demonstrated in other cities such as Portland.

Planning in Ward 5 and the rest of the District, especially near streetcar lines, needs to ensure that affordable housing is a priority. The streetcar will make the neighborhoods near it more valuable. That’s great for existing homeowners; Ward 5 should discuss how it can do more to ensure that residents on fixed and low incomes are able to stay in their homes if they wish.

Ward 5 should fight to get streetcars early

Ward 5’s southern edge will benefit from the first streetcar line, the so-called “One City” line along Benning Road to downtown. In Phase 2 of the streetcar system, Rhode Island Avenue will get a line from Eastern Avenue, past the Metro station, to Florida Avenue where it will connect with the Florida Avenue line. A line in Phase 3 would connect Brookland to Woodley Park and Adams Morgan.

The District released a Request For Information this week that would privatize and prioritize 22 miles of the streetcar system to be built over 5-7 years. However, except for the Benning Road segment at the ward’s edge, none of the Ward 5 sections were included in this proposal.  It is imperative that we push to have the Ward 5 lines included to spur the economic development in our ward, not fight against the streetcars.

22-mile priority streetcar system. Image from DDOT.

I am a Ward 5 resident and I want streetcars. As a vocal minority in my ward spreads fear, uncertainty, and doubt, not to mention false information, opposing the streetcars, it becomes more and more important for those of who do support them to speak up.  Who’s with me?