A Georgetown streetcar.

All Georgetowners want to see the historic character of Georgetown preserved.  Few initiatives have the potential to impact Georgetown’s historic character as profoundly as the DC Streetcar project. 

Streetcars are obviously a central feature of Georgetown’s historic landscape.  What may be less obvious are the benefits streetcars would provide by reducing some ugly, non-historic features of Georgetown. 

These benefits would come at the expense, however, of introducing overhead wires in Georgetown.  Are the benefits worth the cost?

Streetcars and Georgetown’s historic fabric

Streetcars ran on the streets of Georgetown from 1862 to 1962 — without overhead wires.  Since 1800, Wisconsin Avenue and M Street have been central to the transit systems in Washington — from the early horse-drawn cars to today’s buses. 

This makes sense because most Georgetown traffic, due to a variety of constraints, is forced to pass through the Wisconsin/M intersection. From the beginning, these thoroughfares have provided an essential link between present-day Upper Northwest and Maryland, on the one hand, and downtown, Capitol Hill and Southeast, on the other.

As a result, transit and streetcars are natural extensions of Georgetown’s historical landscape and layout.  The current Metrobus line through Georgetown, which inherited the ‘30’ name from its streetcar predecessor, is accordingly the most traveled in the city.

Reducing ugly, non-historical blights with streetcars

Because Georgetown’s layout, unlike that of L’Enfant City, does not have a grid of major parallel streets that distribute traffic, the growth in car traffic over the past 75 years has taken its toll on Georgetown’s historic character.  Our neighborhood has become blighted with ugly gas stations, surface parking, and growing congestion and collisions, not to mention innumerable traffic lights, signs and signposts, despite a decline in population. 

Streetcars may be essential to preserving Georgetown because as the city grows, Georgetown will have to absorb a growth in population density. Without effective transit, cars will only continue to proliferate.

Some argue that increasing traffic cannot be stopped.  But research shows the opposite.  As the cost of driving goes up or the cost of transit goes down, people drive less.  In fact, Washingtonians have driven less and registered fewer vehicles the last couple years, despite our growing population, due to the rising cost of fuel. 

Streetcars have been an essential means of preserving historical landscapes and vistas while absorbing greater density in historic towns across Europe and can do the same for Georgetown and all of Washington.  As studies have demonstrated, 30-40% of streetcar riders would have otherwise driven, whereas only 5% of bus riders would have otherwise driven.

Overhead wires and streetcars

Streetcars would introduce non-historic features to our streetscape, however.  Today’s streetcars require overhead wires, which have been banned in L’Enfant City and Georgetown since the turn of the century.  While the DC Council has the authority to overturn this ban, it should do so only if the benefits outweigh the costs. 

Opponents argue that the overhead wires required for most of the route of today’s streetcars would tarnish Georgetown’s historic vistas.  The wires, in addition to obstructing views, may require additional poles and street signage to be erected.

Washington’s distinctive feature of unobstructed vistas, from the Mall to its grand avenues, reflects the value of transparency in a democracy.  As a result, opponents argue, overhead wires should be opposed on streets with historic vistas, such as M, Wisconsin and, possibly, K Street.  The Georgetown ANC and the Citizens Associations of Georgetown have passed resolutions taking this position.

Proponents argue that such historic views have been tarnished far more by traffic, surface parking and other ugly blights created by the demand for automobiles. They contend that reducing the intrusion of the automobile is well worth a single pair of overhead wires the diameter of a pen.  What is more historic to Georgetown, after all, than streetcars? 

Besides, residents of equally if not more historic towns across Europe have not found overhead wires to obstruct vistas, but to preserve their neighborhoods and quality of life by restraining car traffic. 

What do you think?  Are the benefits of streetcars worth the costs?