H Street streetcar platform between 5th & 6th Streets NE. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Once the initial H Street segment opens (now estimated for early 2014 at the earliest), the next step for DC’s streetcar system is to extend the line east across the Anacostia River. DDOT will present the options in a report this month, but major decisions remain, such as whether to end the line at Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro stations (or both).

DDOT staff and AECOM consultants told the approximately 50 attendees at a Nov. 27 public meeting that the government is focused on completing a streetcar line linking Ward 7 to Georgetown via H Street by 2025.

Its moniker, the “One City Line,” references Mayor Vincent Gray’s campaign slogan, which has become an official slogan of the District government. A study on the Union Station-Georgetown segment of the line will begin next year.

Having held the final public hearings as part of the study’s final concept development phase, the study team will release its final report next month, which will be followed by the environmental impact review process.

Among the decisions left to be made is whether the Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro station will be the line’s (initial) eastern terminus, or if streetcars will serve both stations. The final report will present options for either terminus, but not both simultaneously. DDOT staff acknowledged that if the community put significant pressure on the DC Council to pursue having the streetcar serve both stations, that would be possible. 

The other key unresolved question is whether streetcars will run alongside the curb or in the road’s median as they continue east along Benning Road. The main disadvantage of curbside running is that it takes away on-street parking spaces, but median running means either widening the road or taking travel lanes away from motor vehicles.

Options for streetcar track placement at Minnesota Avenue Metro. Yellow indicates proposed streetcar platform locations; turn-around track shown in purple. Image from DDOT/dcstreetcar.com.

At either Metro station, both streetcar tracks will merge into one and extend briefly onto off-street right-of-way to allow streetcars to pause for several minutes and reverse direction. To be determined is whether this terminal track will be in the median of Minnesota Avenue or between the road and the Metro tracks (if Minnesota Avenue is chosen as the terminus), or in the median of East Capitol Street versus into the small parking lot next to the Benning Road Metro entrance escalator.

Options for streetcar track placement at Benning Road Metro. Image from DDOT/dcstreetcar.com.

Keeping the proposed streetcar configuration at Minnesota Avenue would mean taking at least one travel lane from the avenue. That would turn it from a 4-lane road with only a double yellow line in the middle to a 3-lane road, 2 regular lanes plus a center turn lane or a reversible lane like the one on Connecticut Avenue.

The study determined, however, that streetcar operation would not worsen existing traffic congestion at the Minnesota-Benning intersection, which is already over its designed capacity.

At Benning, having the terminus in the small Metro parking lot would allow streetcars going both directions to serve one platform and provide more convenient access to Metro, but would make it more difficult and expensive to extend the line farther east in the future. Having the terminal station and turn-around track in East Capitol Street’s median, on the other hand, would make it simple to continue the line east to Capitol Heights Metro.

The study found there to be a “huge” demand for transit in the Benning Road corridor. The X bus line is overcrowded, and there are now more employment opportunities and activity centers in Ward 7, the Minnesota-Benning intersection being one of them. DDOT is also doing a lot of work on pedestrian safety around this intersection and along the block of Minnesota Avenue leading to the Metro station.

During the first round of public hearings, community members told DDOT they wanted to see bus and streetcar service integrated so that they don’t duplicate each other.  They also wanted more efforts at placemaking along the corridor, such as public art.

It will be possible to build streetcar tracks across the twin-span bridge that carries Benning Road across I-295 and the CSX railroad tracks, but it will require raising the entire road surface to the height of the tracks above the undergirding, or building new undergirding lower than the existing. There is enough room to do this while maintaining required highway and railroad clearances.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.