Should the streetcar run on K Street through downtown in both directions? Just one and on I Street the other? Along the waterfront or on M Street in Georgetown? Or should it be a bus instead?

At an open house-format public meeting last night, DDOT officials and consultants were available to answer questions about 3 alternatives they have devised for “premium transit” from Union Station to Georgetown: a streetcar in the median of K Street, a bus in the median, or a streetcar in the median eastbound but on I Street westbound.

Streetcar alternative 1.
Streetcar alternative 2.
Rapid bus alternative.

Each alternative assumes that DC builds the “K Street transitway,” a project to move the medians inward so there is a dedicated transit lane in each direction in the center of the road, plus 3 general lanes (2 plus parking off-peak) on each side.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

On the middle part of K Street, Alternative 1, the streetcar in the median, seems the clear winner. Rapid buses are indeed a mode DC needs more of, but here, there will already be a streetcar from H Street ending at Union Station. Extending the streetcar is obvious.

The team is likely only looking at rapid bus because of Federal Transit Administration requirements that a study consider multiple modes, even when looking at extending an existing transit line. (The Federal Highway Administration does not require every highway study to include an option for something other than roadway lanes.)

I jokingly asked one of the designers where the elevated gondola or helicopter-shuttle alternatives were; he replied in complete seriousness that at many of these, people ask why they didn’t consider monorail.

As for the one-way pair, this also makes little sense here. In general, splitting transit on adjacent one-way streets is not ideal; as Jarrett Walker explains, it reduces the number of people within a set walking distance of each direction. Here, in particular, there will be a 2-way median transitway on K Street.

One big question is how the transitway will also work with buses. The plans for the transitway call for moving the Circulator and many local buses into the transitway, but they stop more often. Will that back up the streetcar? It won’t be able to go around a bus that stops every block, unless DDOT switches back to the other, 3-lane transitway option.

Segment of original K Street transitway option 1.

WMATA is studying dedicated bus lanes on H and I Streets; it might be most appropriate to keep moving forward on those, with an eye toward many buses going there. On the other hand, if DC is building a whole transitway, it also makes sense to maximize its use.

There’s more to discuss about the ends of the lines. One streetcar option just has the line staying on H Street until New Jersey Avenue, when it would move up to K; the other option would use North Capitol to jog southward to Massachusetts Avenue. This gets a streetcar station a little closer to the Metro and nearer Union Station’s front door. Most likely, this is not worthwhile, since it will take extra time; also, one day Union Station will hopefully have an attractive entrance on H Street.

Image from the Amtrak Union Station plan.

In the west, there are options to cross under Washington Circle and then travel onto Water Street, under the Whitehurst, or to go up Pennsylvania to M Street in Georgetown. The study doesn’t explicitly consider how or whether to connect the streetcar to Georgetown University, Wisconsin Avenue, Rosslyn, or other places from there.

All of the boards from the meeting are online, including a lot more information about the lane configurations at stations, other alignments DDOT considered, and more.

This is a good time also to take a look back at this video from 3 years ago envisioning the K Street streetcar. ZGF Architects made it for the Downtown BID and DDOT, and ZGF is part of the team for this study.

What option do you think is best?

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.