Photo by the author.

In March 2012, streetcars will glide along H Street NE, according to the Streetcar System Plan DDOT released yesterday.

The plan details alignment, fares, and operation logistics for the system’s two initial segments: the H Street/Benning Road segment and the Anacostia Initial Line Segment (suffering the unfortunate acronym “AILS”).  For only $1, passengers will be able to travel 2 miles along H Street NE from Union Station all the way to Oklahoma Avenue NE, just before the Anacostia River.  In Anacostia passengers will be able to travel about 1 mile from the Anacostia Metro Station, past Barry Farm, and on to the Navy Annex on South Capitol Street.

Below I have mapped the two initial segments (in blue), their planned extensions (in green), and the locations for the stops, power substations, and maintenance yards:

Click for interactive version.

DDOT expects 4 or 5 streetcars to serve H Street, providing service every 10 minutes.  One car will run the Anacostia segment providing service every 15 minutes.  Since the District already owns 3 streetcars, one will go to Anacostia and two will go to H Street.  The District will purchase 3 additional cars for H Street.

The fleet size of 6 cars complicates H Street’s ability to provide 10-minute headways in rush-hour traffic.  Rush-hour slows on-street transit, often necessitating the temporary addition of rolling stock to compensate for slower speeds.  DDOT would like to buy a seventh spare streetcar to fill in for broken-down streetcars, which will help, but they may be cutting it close.

Fares and payment

DDOT proposes a $1 fare, placing the streetcar on par with the Circulator and cheaper than Metrobus.  Transfers will be free for SmarTrip customers and the system will honor Metrobus passes.  The streetcars will follow a proof-of-payment system, a practice that Michael Perkins recommended a year ago.  Riders will have to pay for their rides, but won’t have to prove payment until prompted by a random inspection by the MPD.  Eliminating the individual fare purchase at the front door speeds boarding by allowing riders to enter at all doors without having to wait in a line with the insufferable passenger who digs for change.

The System Plan explicitly states the desire to minimize cash transactions.  The best way to do this would be to charge a higher fare for cash transactions, say $2, and to require that cash purchases be made at machines at the streetcar stops.


The Union Station Connection

The western terminus for the H Street line is complicated by the fact that the District does not own the land under the eastern approach of the Hopscotch Bridge that carries H Street NE over the rail yard.  In April Geoff Hatchard reported that DDOT plans to cut a portal in the eastern approach of the bridge and allow streetcars to pass through at ground level.  The streetcars would pass below the bridge and through an existing tunnel below the elevated rail yard to stop at 1st Street NE, just a tad north of Union Station.

A quick, convenient connection to the Red Line, Metrobus, CaBi, and the Circulator is essential in ensuring the H Street segment is a success.  The better the integration with other transit modes, the better the line’s practicality, ridership, and ability to spur economic growth.

When the Union Station terminus opens in 2012, passengers will have to walk a short distance down 1st Street NE to Union Station’s side entrance.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Shortly after the line and tunnel open in 2012, DDOT will start construction on a pedestrian passageway to connect the western terminus to the Union Station Metro mezzanine.

Schematic of the maintenance yard (left), 1st Street NE (center), the Union Station stop, and tracks toward H Street (right). Image from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

The streetcar stop will also include elevators to connect passengers to the Circulator stop two levels up near the bridge deck.

In 2015, DDOT will start reconstruction of the Hopscotch Bridge with the goal of carrying the streetcar line onto the deck of the bridge permanently.  The elevators will then ferry passengers down from the streetcar stop to the passageway to the Metro mezzanine.  The original track will become a non-revenue access track to the storage and maintenance facility that will remain under the bridge’s western approach.

DDOT’s aim is to stage the bridge’s reconstruction so that it won’t disrupt the nascent line.  Since the planned Burnham Place development will abut the northern edge of the bridge deck, and itself will deck over the rail yard, the later streetcar stop on the bridge will resemble any hilly city block instead of a rail yard overpass.

Ridership projections: A tale of two lines

The System Plan predicts that 1,500 passengers will ride the H Street/Benning Road line daily and that an additional 4,300 will ride the Benning Road extension over the Anacostia daily.  That’s a healthy number that may grow considering streetcar fares will beat both Metrobus and Metrorail.

In contrast, the Anacostia line’s numbers are anemic.  The initial segment stretches only 3/4 of a mile to deliver people to the Navy Annex, which already provides ample parking to employees free of charge.  It’s no surprise that only 150 riders are expected to ride it daily.

WMATA initially planned the Anacostia segment as a “demonstration line”.  When DDOT took over the project, the alignment changed to serve Anacostia’s main streets rather than skirting them.  Even still, the initial Anacostia segment appears to be more of a face-saving measure than a practical transit line and could become the poster child for streetcar opponents.

Power substations and wires

Since DC repealed the century-old overhead wire ban in the L’Enfant City, DDOT has chosen to install one aerial wire for each direction and one “feeder” wire under each concrete track slab.  This minimizes the visual impact of the overhead wires. The System Plan does not state whether the ground wire was already installed under H Street or whether it will have to be inserted later.

After the District expands its current streetcar fleet from 3 to 6, future streetcars will be required to operate for a mile without wires.  This gradual shift to a hybrid wire-wireless system is the compromise that allows us to get the streetcars rolling sooner, while adopting hybrid wireless streetcars in a few years, after they become technically feasible in a mid-Atlantic U.S. climate.

Streetcars need power substations every mile for reliable service.  For the H Street/Benning Road line, DDOT will install the western substation under the western approach of the Hopscotch Bridge.  They will also install a mid-point substation at the southeast corner of 12th and H Streets NW, by that poorly-designed AutoZone store.  The eastern substation will go behind the library kiosk at Benning Road NE and 26th Street NE.


The hourly operating cost for $130 per Metrobus and $80 per Circulator bus.  Though the System Plan budgets for an hourly operating cost of $216.81, DDOT expects the cost will come out less than that.  Also, those figures are per vehicle; since each streetcar can haul 168 passengers, the cost per passenger will be closer in line with Metrobus.

DDOT intends to solicit bids to contract out streetcar operations to WMATA or any qualified private firm.  The agency has not yet settled on the term length or operator responsibilities, but will do so in the coming year.  A few days ago I wrote that this arrangement, that is, DDOT oversight and outsourced operations, has the ability to enshrine a greater level of accountability into the system.

Economic benefits

The System Plan reiterates the link between “high-capacity and high-quality transit service” and economic development in the corridors served.  Since the document doesn’t belabor the point enough, I will: the Streetcar system is more than a transit mode; it is a serious public investment that guides and catalyzes further private investment in the city.

The H Street/Benning Road corridor is ripe for this investment for two reasons.  H Street NE after decades of disinvestment has plenty of room to grow to accommodate the new and existing residents.  Furthermore, the X1, X2, X3, and U8 buses that currently run along the corridor already carry 18,000 passengers daily, making it one of the heaviest traveled transit corridors in the District.

The excitement behind the H Street NE project indicative of something larger; it will translate to increased reinvestment in a neighborhood that needs economic growth.  In a few years, the H Street line has the possibility of transforming a neighborhood people used to avoid into a neighborhood people envy.