The 22-mile priority streetcar network. Image from DDOT.

DDOT thinks they may be able to build a 22-mile streetcar system in just 5 years. Is that really possible?

Although DC has planned a 37-mile streetcar network, planners are currently focusing strongly on the first 22 miles. The H Street line is under construction and in the home stretch, while planning has started for the crosstown line and the north-south line.

Project spokesman Dara Ward says DDOT hopes to build the 22-mile system in 5 years. That’s optimistic, but possible.

Streetcars are relatively easy to build. Actual construction can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years, depending on the specifics. Planning and engineering take a couple of years as well. But if funding is ready, there’s no controversy, and everything moves along on schedule, 5 years is about how long it should take.

If that seems impossible based on how long it’s taken H Street, remember that H Street is atypical. DDOT installed streetcar tracks there in 2009, years before the planning was really done, because they were rebuilding the street anyway and didn’t want to go to the expense of tearing it up twice.

So really H Street planning and construction came in two separate phases. Each phase took a couple of years. If it had all been done at once, it wouldn’t have started until more recently, and likely could have been done within about 5 years.

It does often take longer.  But usually the big holdups are politics or funding. Those issues can tie any project up for decades.  And the first line is always the hardest.

But after discussing streetcars for years, DC seems to have the money and politics pretty well worked out. If they stay the course and focus strongly on moving forward, 5 years is doable.

Difficult and optimistic, yes. But not a complete fantasy.

Update: DDOT spokesperson Dara Ward clarifies that the 5 year estimate is for construction only, and doesn’t begin until planning is complete. - 10.1.2013


Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post .