Current law prohibits wires under the Whitehurst Freeway. Should that change? Image from Google Maps.
Now that DC’s oft-delayed H Street streetcar is hopefully near opening, DDOT officials are planning the next wave of lines. One of the biggest emerging questions (besides the role of dedicated lanes) is where the streetcars should run without wires.
DC has important monumental views that wires could impact. Therefore, DDOT has been promising hybrid streetcars that can run off-wire for part of their route since 2009. It could mean wires along some roads but not at major intersections, crossing state avenues, or across the National Mall, for example.
DC Councilmember Mary Cheh is convening a public hearing today to discuss the question with District Department of Transportation (DDOT) officials including new director Leif Dormsjo.
Where wires are legal
Current DC law prohibits overhead wires in the central L’Enfant city (basically everything between Florida Avenue and the Anacostia River) and Georgetown, except on H Street. In 2010, the council exempted H Street from the law, specifically to permit streetcars there.
But only exempting H Street was never a permanent solution. It was a stopgap to let H Street move forward while giving DDOT time to study wire-free planning in more detail. Now it’s time for a broader plan.
Is wireless technology ready?
The 2010 law also required DDOT to study wireless streetcar technology before building any other lines, so leaders could make an informed decision about other exemptions.
DDOT completed that study in mid-2014, and in it concluded that off-wire technology is still only practical for short distances. Batteries, ground-based power supplies, and various other wire-free systems do exist, but they’re vastly more expensive and vastly less reliable than traditional overhead wires. Hybrid streetcars that operate on-wire part of the time, and off-wire at other times, remain by far the best option.
Moving forward, the DC Council could opt to change the wire law in one of four ways: 1) Keep the existing law allowing wires only outside the core; 2) Prohibit wires everywhere; 3) Allow wires everywhere; or 4) Allow wires in certain additional locations, but not others.
DDOT’s report proposes an approach in line with option 4:
In the near term, proven overhead contact system (OCS)-based technologies will form the basis of the system, with limited application of off-wire technologies in the most sensitive areas to the extent possible. As technologies advance, the amount of off-wire operations will be gradually increased.
This option makes sense. Most people agree that the north-south streetcar line should be wireless when it crosses the National Mall, but it would be absurd to demand the K Street line be wire-free when it runs under the Whitehurst Freeway.
Others worry that DDOT will not actually “gradually increase the amount of off-wire operations” once wires are in the ground. If DC buys streetcars that can handle only limited off-wire operation, it would cost money to upgrade, and that might not happen for a long time.
But wire-free technology still only works for short distances, so a hybrid is still the way to go. Modern streetcar wires can be relatively unobtrusive and won’t mar the streetscape. Allowing overhead wires in some other areas while prohibiting them in the most sensitive spots is the rational solution.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.