If DC extends the streetcar west to downtown and Georgetown, it's going to be more like light rail, much faster, and more reliable than the H Street line. It would be the linchpin for making streetcars in DC a success overall, and would become one of America's best surface rail lines.
Unfortunately, the DC Council has put the K Street line “on ice” in the latest city budget. Some delay is justifiable, but this line, more than any other streetcar proposal, merits moving forward.
Yes, it really would be a lot better
No one can deny that the H Street line has problems. It's slow, faces too much interference from cars, and doesn't connect well to important destinations. The K Street line would have none of those problems.
First, by running to downtown, Foggy Bottom, and Georgetown, the line would simply be a far more useful transit connection. Unlike the too-short-to-be-effective H Street line, this one would go where riders need it to go.
Imagine if Metrorail were only two miles, and didn't enter downtown. It might run quickly and efficiently, but it never would have succeeded. Neither can a two-mile streetcar.
The K Street line would be like the Metro Center to Gallery Place portion of Metro's Red Line: It's the segment you really need to make the whole thing work. This line would become the core of the system, around which everything else revolves.
Dedicated lanes make a monumental difference
Secondly, by running the streetcar in dedicated transit-only lanes down the middle of K Street, the line would avoid the pitfalls that slow down H Street.
There would be no parked cars in the way, no sitting in queues of traffic congestion, no waiting for drivers to close their car doors before the streetcar can pass by. And because of all that, streetcars could run much more frequently—rather than one every 12 minutes, there'd be one every five.
When DC Councilman Phil Mendelson spoke to justify his decision cutting streetcar funding, he said “There are problems constantly on H Street. Why would it be any different on any other segment?”
This is why. The dedicated transit lanes would make a monumental difference. DDOT's traffic models show that streetcars in dedicated lanes on K Street could shave more than 30 minutes off a rush hour trip from Union Station to Georgetown:
Massive numbers of people would ride
The H Street line carries about 3,000 riders per day. Despite the line's problems, that's actually not bad for such a short segment. It beats projections, and on a riders-per-mile basis its 1,600 per mile ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other US streetcar and light rail lines.
But the K Street line would be a juggernaut.
According to projections, the K Street segment would carry about 19,000 riders per day, or about 5,700 per mile. That's extraordinarily good.
How good? It's over three times the ridership of existing buses. Nationally, out of the roughly 40 light rail & streetcar systems in the US, only one has higher ridership per mile: Boston's Green Line, which runs in a subway through downtown Boston.
K Street would carry more riders per mile than San Francisco's Muni Metro, Seattle's light rail, Portland's light rail or streetcar, Philadelphia's trolleys… More than all of them.
Granted, that's comparing one segment in DC to entire systems elsewhere. San Francisco's best segment might be higher, for example. But the point is, the K Street line is extremely compelling. It's an entirely different animal than H Street.
Build it, but a delay may be OK
For all the faults of the H Street streetcar, the K Street streetcar would be that good. Maybe better. If streetcars are ever going to become more than a novelty in DC, the K Street line is the one absolutely crucial segment.
But there is a convincing argument for not quite building it yet: Hopscotch Bridge, which the streetcar must cross to get from H Street into downtown, must be replaced first.
Hopscotch Bridge will soon be torn down and replaced as part of Burnham Place, an ambitious new city neighborhood to be built above Union Station's tracks. Since the streetcar runs over the bridge, any extension west into downtown has to wait for the replacement bridge.
The bridge will cost about $200 million to replace. Mayor Bowser's initial budget proposal included $165 million for it in 2019 and 2020, but a big funding gap remained. The Council's budget (see line BR005C) increases that funding to $196 million, but pushes it out to 2021 and 2022.
In effect, it's going to be at least another five years before the bridge is replaced, meaning the K Street streetcar has to wait at least that long as well.
Ideally, enough money would be in the budget to simultaneously replace the bridge and build the K Street line. But that's a lot to ask sans a large infusion of outside money. Inside the constraints of the budget, it's not unreasonable to do it in phases.
Thus, some delay on streetcar funding for K Street is not the end of the world. It's unfortunate, and there's certainly a risk the line will never happen, but as long as the new bridge is designed to include tracks (and preferably built with them, in a dedicated lane), the next necessary step is still happening.
But in the meantime, planning and design work for K Street should continue. It's too important a line not to build.