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Moving the Capital: Public Transit in Washington. D.C.

The Washington, D.C. Metro is recognized as the trademark transit system of the capital city, but it is hardly a befitting one. With frequent breakdowns, and delays due to track work, it is a consistent source of frustration for the region's commuters. Coupling this with the fact that it is currently operating over capacity during peak times, it is not surprising that the District has begun to explore other options to increase the mobility of its residents, even as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) works fervently to repair the dilapidated rail system.

Metrorail train stopping at a station in Washington DC

The DC Streetcar is the District's initial move in the neverending chess match of providing efficient, affordable transportation options. This nostalgic nod to the past is a project that promises to redefine the city, assuming it is ever completed. The streetcar pilot project, a 2.4-mile line running along H ST NE, has seen countless delays, with initial construction beginning in 2008, and passenger service still a few months away. The price tag is also a major point of contention, with the total cost of the thirty-seven-mile DC Streetcar system estimated at $1.5 billion.

So, as city council and mayoral elections draw near, the debate surrounding DC's transit future is heating up. Everyone seems to think that they know how to do it better, but to find the right solution the right questions need to be asked. Firstly, what is the purpose of any transit investment? If the answer is simply to move people from point A to point B, then some candidates may be justified in extolling the cost effectiveness of rapid buses compared to the estimated $50 million per mile to install a network of streetcars.

Picture of the DC Streetcar one H St NE

But urban planners argue that looking at transit in such a way is too simplistic. It's also important to consider the value streetcars add by the development they spur. Buses, even rapid buses with dedicated lanes, don't offer the same sense of permanency to developers that digging up roads and laying down tracks does. The resulting higher densities and land values near streetcar lines, and the increased property tax revenue, give the District the potential to turn the streetcar investment into a profit generating endeavor. Furthermore, there is the added consideration that people are generally willing to walk farther to access rail transit than to access buses.

But with so many competing interests vying for a voice in the process, and DC's bus ridership increasing, there are still many questions the streetcar will have to answer. The current planning study focused on the North-South corridor is instructive of this. And it isn't just questions of competing options for designs and routes. What impact will the streetcar have on housing affordability in a city already struggling to cope with rising rents? And what are the soft costs of construction like increased traffic congestion and the impact on small businesses?

Is the DC Streetcar worth it, or would the city be better served by more flexible, less costly transit investments?

Credits: Images by Chase Keenan. Data linked to sources.