Tom at Ghosts of DC keeps finding fascinating old plans for downtown. This one, from 1912, proposed a network of tunnels for the streetcars, and an underground terminal at 15th Street and New York Avenue.
Streetcars would have descended into the tunnels as they approached downtown. Part of the purpose was to cut down on traffic on the surface streets; another part, not unfamiliar to any who follow DC federal-local transportation debates, was aesthetic.
The plan said the tunnels’ effect would be “relieving the congestion of traffic in that part of the city and adding greatly to the appearance and comfort of one of the most important sections of town, in the neighborhood of the Treasury, White House, and Judiciary square.”
This was projected to cost $5 million; Tom notes that equals about $120 million today, though it’s dangerous to simply adjust such costs for inflation. According to Measuring Worth, a $5 million project in 1912 equals $88 million (if you use the GDP deflator), $521-747 million (if you use wage growth, or $2.2 billion (if you look at the share of GDP).
But the biggest obstacle was the streetcar companies. The Washington Railway and Electric Company and the Capital Traction Company each had their own streetcar systems. Who would control the tunnels? Leaders proposed consolidating the companies (an approach which had been floated before), and then the single surviving company could operate the tunnels.
Senator Joseph Johnston (D-AL) introduced a bill in 1918 to do just this, but the idea moved no further. Tom writes,
Some letters to The Washington Times from Washingtonians mentioned that putting lines underground would be ill-advised because Washington is a tourist town, and people often ride the streetcars for the enjoyment of the views.
In DC, such arguments often do come down to the views. But depending on the century, that could mean keeping views free of streetcars, or preserving the views from the streetcars.