D.C. Streetcar/Flickr

Should D.C. finish its streetcar system if the growth it promised arrived before the trains did?

There's a joke in my neighborhood in Washington, D.C.: Which opens first, the Silver Line or the streetcar? Feel free to swap any achievement with the Silver Line opening—say, the Nationals taking the pennant race, or good BBQ coming to the District. The joke being that the delays plaguing the opening of the H Street–Benning Road segment in Northeast D.C. have made the streetcar a benchmark for any overdue arrival. Serious planning for both the streetcar and Silver Line got underway in the 2000s, but no one really believed that the heavy rail in the Northern Virginia suburbs would beat the streetcar in the Atlas District corridor.

Now that joke isn't funny anymore. This week, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority assumed control of the Silver Line (which was constructed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority), meaning that only testing and training remain before it's up and running. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council voted to curb and recalculate longterm funding for the streetcar. While service on the Silver Line could start as early as July, the future of the streetcar system has been thrown into doubt.

Should residents in Northeast D.C. feel burned by the transit bait-and-switch? Maybe not. In Washington, announcing a streetcar system seems to have brought on all the effects of building one. 

Improved, wider sidewalks were a benefit of streetcar construction, but you don't need to build a streetcar to get them. (D.C. Streetcar/Flickr)

The H Street–Benning Road segment—the first in a proposed 37-mile system—was planned as a way to revitalize the Atlas District neighborhood that it spans. The trolley cars finally appeared on the streetcar tracks in D.C. late last year, following years of slow construction that clogged traffic along one of the city's few east–west commercial corridors. Testing is now underway.

But the time to build out the streetcar system—as a stimulative spending measure to spur employment during the recession—has already passed. With not even one leg of the streetcar system up and running, the Council is now moving on to tax cuts.

Yet the development spurred by the streetcar hasn't suffered with the delays in streetcar service. As the New York Times is oh so fond of saying, H Street NE is a place that's been transformed, for better or for worse, by an influx of new residents. D.C. "tavern magnate" Joe Englert has opened a number of restaurants and bars on H Street NE, making it a magnet for patrons across the city. As the Atlas District (or "Near Northeast") has gentrified, home values have risen sharply; and even while streetcar delays mounted, home prices in Near Northeast have outpaced those along the bustling U Street NW Corridor.  

Washington Zillow Home Value Index

And that's before any Whole Foods Effect registers from the gourmet-grocery outpost set to open on H Street NE in 2016. Gentrification is all that anyone talks about when they talk about H Street NE, the main commercial thoroughfare and an historically popular black retail corridor. 

But from the start, the H Street–Benning Road line at the heart of that rapid development has looked like a streetcar line meant more for tourists than for residents. (As so many streetcar projects do.) That's especially true when you compare it to the X2 Metrobus, whose route it traces. 

The X2, an approximately five-mile Metrobus route that nearly 13,000 riders use each weekday.
The H Street–Benning Road Line, a 2.4-mile Streetcar segment that's still in testing.

Riders know the X2 as the 4th-most popular Metrobus route in the city in terms of average weekday ridership. (The X2 comes in first in terms of wild stories.) The route takes riders from a Blue/Orange Line Station in Ward 7 (Minnesota Avenue) past a Red Line connection (Union Station) and through a Red/Green Line hub (Gallery Place/Chinatown), terminating downtown near the White House. It's a straight east–west shot from where people live and park to where they work. After Pennsylvania Avenue, H Street is the city's most important and best used east–west channel. (Mind the scale in the maps above: the X2 route is more than twice as long as the streetcar path.)

The streetcar, on the other hand, won't be nearly so useful to residents in Northeast. Once service gets going, the trolley cars will compete with the popular X2 buses over the entire 2.4-mile streetcar span. The eastern terminus at the Anacostia River is arbitrary from a rider's standpoint: That's neither where people park-and-ride nor where many residents live. At its western end, the streetcar segment terminates up on the bridge over Union Station, several levels up from the Red Line transfer. Many if not most commuters who use public transit will keep on riding the X2. The problem with this streetcar line is that it takes people from where they aren't to where they don't need to go.

In light of the Council's decision to curb streetcar funding, maybe growth in Near Northeast will simply collapse. I doubt it. While the issue gets resolved, local residents will continue riding the X2, spending money on H Street, and buying homes in the larger area, with or without the streetcar.

Now to be fair, a complete east–west line, one stretching from beyond the Anacostia River in the east to Georgetown in the west, would be immensely useful. And such a line is, ostensibly, in the works. But as a proof of concept, the streetcar (and its operator, the District Department of Transportation) hasn't won over the Council. In terms of boosting development in Near Northeast, that's already happened—without a single passenger ever boarding the train.   

Might the District have spurred revitalization along H Street NE without the ill-fated trolley? That same question applies to the gentrifying Downtown and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods in Cincinnati, where leaders determined last December that canceling the Cincinnati streetcar would cost more money than completing it. To undertake such a study in the first place signals a nearly complete lack of confidence in the project. Growth in those neighborhoods, though, would have continued had they scrapped it.

If the D.C. government's plan all along had been to announce a light-rail project and then scrap it, it would be judged a success by the growth in the Atlas District. Perhaps cities can do exactly that—by widening neighborhood sidewalks, improving streetscapes, and boosting the public transit that already exists along underused commercial corridors. The next city that weighs building a streetcar should consider whether there's a way to be up front about building a streetcar minus the streetcar. 

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