News — 24 July 2008
The citys desire is named streetcar

During the first quarter of the last century, before the Blue and Yellow Lines connected commuters, tourists and general travelers in greater Alexandria to Washington and points northwest, streetcars gliding down Commonwealth Avenue defined public transit in the city.

The Washington, Alexandria & Mt. Vernon Railway carried passengers as far away as the District or as close as Old Town. Almost 80 years after bus transit replaced the last Alexandria streetcar, the city is making a push to resurrect the forgotten means to point B forgotten, that is, for some.

Streetcars are being constructed and planned all over the country and abroad, Councilman Tim Lovain said before a forum he hosted on the subject Tuesday. Lovain is spearheading the movement toward the quieter, cleaner mode of transportation. I just envision us someday hopefully connecting with the streetcar. Its a great alternative, he said.

The citys Transportation Master Plan, new this year, envisions three concourses Duke Street, Van Dorn Street/Shirlington and Route 1 spanning 17 miles. If realized, the network would connect riders both within the city and to Arlington and Fairfax.

Initially, buses with their own lanes will likely connect the corridors. The concept, called bus rapid transit, could establish the infrastructure for the environmentally friendly streetcars they would travel with traffic at times and with a separate lane at others down the line. The revived vehicles are smoother and quieter than buses and emit fewer pollutants.

But the main catalyst for the potential streetcars is not global warming; its not even transit, though both elements play a major role. The citys desire for streetcars stems from the potential for urban development.

The streetcar movement is not a transportation movement, its a development movement with transit benefits, said Charles A. Hales, transit planning principal for HDR Engineering. Hales, who was raised in the area, led the team that built the countrys first new streetcar line in 50 years in Portland, Ore. Its at least as much about development as it is about transit, he said.

Portland enjoyed an outsize return on its investment and a spike in population growth and property values after the streetcar network influenced urbanization, especially in the hotspot Pearl District, formerly a rail yard. Before that development took place, parts of the area greatly resembled Potomac Yard, which is slated to benefit from the increased connectivity. The area around Landmark Mall, which is in the planning stages of redevelopment, is also expected to benefit.

Urban growth around transit is not a new concept. City officials are already concentrating on smart growth around Braddock Road Metro Station, making way for mixed-use, high-density commercial and residential buildings. A Potomac Yard Metro station could also catalyze future growth.

[Streetcars] induce the type of development we like to see in the city, Lovain said. Once you lay the tracks, businesses and residents can count on that.

Some residents at the forum expressed reservations about a streetcar network, not because of the actual vehicles, but because of displacement. One speaker worried that single-family homes would be pushed aside for apartment buildings and other high-density structures.

Streetcars are not for every city, Hales said. But his presentation showed that development in Portland was confined to an area that extended no more than three blocks from a streetcar line. 

Urban development is important to city officials who have seemingly joined the nationwide trend of snubbing parking spaces and cars in favor of denser development. The environmental impact is positive, lending to the citys Eco-City Charter. Public transit decreases pollution and officials hope that an enjoyable ride on public transportation will give residents an incentive to streetcar-pool. 

A lot of people wont get on the bus, but they will get on a streetcar, Lovain said. Its been proven time and time again there is much higher ridership. People think its cooler.

Others echoed Lovain, indicating that a stigma attaches to bus-riders. Mike Whitley, a Del Ray engineer, said a streetcar may not make a difference for some residents. Some people are going to drive no matter what, even if its two blocks, he said.

Though Lovain said that he would not even talk about the possibility of a streetcar running through Old Town, residents were not up in arms about the idea.

Whitley said that Old Towns residences and business owners in particular would benefit from a streetcar system. It should go down to the waterfront, he said. Plus, buses in Old Town are really noisy.

The city has laid out two other options in the Transportation Master Plan: Build a light rail system, which is the most expensive option, or stick with a bus rapid transit plan without eventually upgrading to streetcars. There is also the possibility of combining the two services. Bringing streetcars to the citys roads would cost between $240 million and $345 million (in 2006 dollars), the plan estimates.

But so far, city officials do not yet know how the project would be funded if it were to become reality, especially after expected state funds fell through earlier this year, which left the city unable to fund major portions of the Transportation Master Plan.

Certainly we have no local dollars at all identified for any major transportation projects to move forward on a concept for funding a streetcar initiative, Mayor Bill Euille said. It would require funding on state and federal levels and collaboration with all regional agencies.

I think the reality is you can have a mixture of both [bus rapid transit and streetcars]. The beauty about the BRT is that theres no real new infrastructure needed.

Projects like this are expensive, City Manager James Hartmann said. It would take multiple funding sources federal, city, a mix of that until you have a viable project.

Multitudes of other jurisdictions around the country are at least considering the streetcar idea, including the District. Arlington County has a Columbia Pike streetcar initiative underway, and Alexandria will rely on its neighbor for insight on the process, hoping to eventually build a regional network that connects the two and Fairfax County. 

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