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Washington, D.C., Tests New Streetcar System

Frontal view of streetcar
The first segment of the District of Columbia’s streetcar system is complete, and streetcars are currently being tested. The 2.2 mi line, which will operate on H Street NE and Benning Road NE, will open this year. A 22 mi “priority” stretch is currently under development, and the full system is expected to include 37 mi of track. Lateef Magnum, District Photographer

Testing of the new streetcars that will run on the first segment of a 37 mi system planned for Washington, D.C., is under way.

June 4, 2013—Streetcars first came to Washington, D.C., just over 150 years ago in 1862. Beginning with horse-drawn cars that gave way to electric versions by 1888, streetcars made it easier for people to travel short distances and brought an influx of people and money into parts of the city that previously had had little of either. Now if the wishes of D.C. leaders come true, history will repeat itself; after a 50-year hiatus, streetcars are being welcomed back to an area of the city referred to as the H Street NE corridor. Streetcars sparked development here with their arrival in 1870 and turned the stretch into one of the city’s most significant transportation corridors. The first segment of the new D.C. streetcar project is a 2.2 mi stretch that will operate along H Street NE and Benning Road NE and run from Union Station to 26th Street NE. Officials began testing the cars in May.

The first segment will operate on surface tracks embedded in the street and will be powered by an overhead catenary system; a 14,500 sq ft structure that will be called the Car Barn Training Center and have a 15-car storage yard and a turnaround is being constructed at the eastern terminus of the line, according to the historical architectural survey conducted for the District Department of Transportation by HDR Engineering, Inc., of Omaha, Nebraska. The proposed line as a whole will extend through all eight wards of the city and have a length of 37 mi. A 22 mi stretch has been given high priority, the goal being to have it up and running within five to seven years, according to Ronaldo T. “Nick” Nicholson, P.E, M.ASCE, the chief engineer and associate director of the District Department of Transportation’s infrastructure and project management division. (Nicholson was part of the team that received ASCE’s 2008 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement [OCEA] Award for its work in replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which crosses the Potomac River to connect Virginia and Maryland just south of the nation’s capital.)

“Right now the District is a growing community, growing at over 1,100 residents per month,” Nicholson says. “And because we have a fixed geographic area, we can’t grow our transportation system. So we have to give people choices, and right now those choices that we’re looking at are more transit.”

The planning team is issuing a design/build/finance/operate/maintain offer this year in an effort to meet the proposed time frame for the 22 mi high-priority portion, Nicholson says. “From the best that I’m aware, it’s very aggressive for us to pursue twenty-two miles at one procurement, one effort, one contract. And in comparing notes, it is definitely—if not the largest—one of the largest in the country . . . ever initiated.”

Washington, D.C., is funding the development of the line, according to Nicholson. “The investment that the current administration has put into streetcars is probably the largest of any jurisdiction out there, at $400 million over the next six years,” he says. “So we have not been strapped [and forced] to wait on federal funding.”

Streetcar systems bring multiple benefits to the corridors they serve, according to Nicholson, regardless of where they operate. “[We] first witnessed it in Portland, [Oregon], which is where we got the model from,” he says. (See “Streetcars Make a Comeback,” “Portland Streetcar Extension Set to Open,” and “Transit,” the last dealing with New Orleans’s line, in Civil Engineering online.)

The streetcar system is part of the city’s Great Streets initiative, a multiyear, multiagency effort to transform nine corridors that at present do not receive sufficient investment into thriving and inviting neighborhoods, according to the program’s website. The H Street and Benning Road NE corridor, which has been on a downward trend ever since the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of those corridors and is particularly in need of a boost. And even though the streetcars are not yet running, businesses are preparing for their arrival, Nicholson says, and investors are eyeing properties for potential commercial and residential development. “We began initially seeing it a block over from the corridor, and now I think our latest study said it can go as far as three blocks from the corridor,” he says.

The Great Streets initiative includes sidewalk reconstruction, plaza design, curb and gutter realignments, public art installations, improved lighting, and new trees, according to HDR Engineering’s report. These changes have been designed “to encourage walkable, sustainable communities,” Nicholson says. “They’re more pedestrian-friendly, bicycle-friendly streets, where people do have options.”

In addition to the economic benefits that a reliable network of stops can offer, the streetcars will be “clean,” running on electricity rather than gas, which will preserve the street-level experience of pedestrians and further the sustainability goals of the city. They may also become a tourist attraction in addition to providing a predictable way for residents to travel short distances, Nicholson says.

Along H Street NE the support poles for the overhead power lines will be located on either side of the track. Along Benning Road NE the support poles will be located in the center median and will have cantilevered bracket arms. To minimize the visual obtrusiveness of the overhead lines and preserve the views, which, according to Nicholson, is an important aspect of this project, a single, trolley-type contact wire supported by catenary wires will be used.

Three traction power substations, each roughly 20 ft wide and 40 ft long and up to 8 ft tall, will be located along the first segment of the streetcar system. There will be one at either end of the line, and the third will be at the midpoint, according to HDR Engineering’s report.

A public meeting to discuss the expansion of the line from Union Station to the Georgetown waterfront, primarily along K Street, was held in late May. If all goes well, construction could begin on this segment of the streetcar system by 2015, Nicholson says.

The H Street NE and Benning Road NE segment of the line is expected to open later this year once testing of the streetcars is completed.



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