Now, across the Potomac, the District of Columbia is rethinking the whole idea after spending $160 million to bring the trolleys back to the nation’s capital after more than half a century.
Just a few years ago, the streetcar revival was all the rage in cities across the country. Portland, Ore., set the trend with its 11.5-mile system, which opened in 2001 and was said to spur economic development while carrying 16,000 passengers on weekdays.
Elsewhere, New Orleans is extending its streetcar lines, while Atlanta, Salt Lake City and Tucson, Ariz., have also moved ahead with similar systems, almost always pegged to the promise of transit-related economic growth.
Minneapolis and St. Paul both are pursuing streetcar plans.
“The overall trend is very much on the side of streetcars,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy of the American Public Transportation Association, an industry group. “That doesn’t mean every project in the planning stage is going to happen. In the long run, there will be a lot of projects built.”
Yet, while several cities inaugurate new systems or expand older ones, the streetcar revolution, faced with fiscal and operational challenges, has stalled elsewhere. Last July, San Antonio abandoned its planned streetcars after a change in mayors, reallocating to other projects the $92 million it had set aside.
Even the most ardent streetcar supporters acknowledge that the challenges are daunting, though they argue that the rewards far outweigh the costs in terms of the economic development and quality of life that make cities more livable and attractive.
William Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and a strong right-leaning voice for streetcars, said that trolleys remained “not only a viable but an essential component” of successful cities.
“That said, there have been some blunders,” Lind added.
These include, he said, building short lines “that don’t go anywhere,” infrequent service and excessive and widely varying costs per mile, from $5.1 million in Kenosha, Wis., to $67.5 million in Washington.
“There is a lot of controversy around the country,” says Rick Gustafson, former executive director of the Portland system and a consultant to several cities planning streetcar systems. “At the same time, you’ve got 20 systems funded. So some cities are able to put it together, hold it together, build it. Others are facing all kinds of battles.”
The Arlington reversal was a surprise. The 26-square-mile county is widely regarded as progressive on matters of transit and urban planning and the decision to drop the streetcars was made shortly after the suburban county had awarded a $26 million preliminary engineering contract.
The 7.5-mile Columbia Pike line was considered such a sure thing that developers had already started investing along the route. Under the adopted timetable, the line was scheduled to open in 2020.
But John Vihstadt, a streetcar critic and a subway commuter to his Washington law office, had just been elected to the Arlington County Board. The campaign’s dominant issue was the planned system, with Vihstadt arguing that it would be too expensive and ineffective. The vote was seen as a referendum on the project that had been planned since the 1990s and formally approved in 2006.
“At the end of the day,” Vihstadt said, “Arlington voters concluded the streetcar didn’t make sense from a transit or economic perspective.”
Seeking alternate plan
Arlington officials are searching for an alternate plan that will meet transportation and development needs.
The District of Columbia’s streetcar revival seemed on schedule, if slow, to start passenger service a year ago. H Street NE., a formerly bustling shopping district that had been devastated by the 1968 riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was gentrifying, and streetcars were seen as further catalysts to revitalization.
But last year, the district council, worried about escalating costs, cut the planned system in half. Meanwhile, 11 accidents occurred between cars and streetcars sharing H Street since last October.
Starting dates were repeatedly announced and canceled under the former Washington mayor, Vincent Gray, while a federal oversight body cited lingering safety concerns. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who took office in January, also expressed misgivings. Her new transportation director, Leif Dormsjo, has been cautiously noncommittal, while a team from the American Public Transportation Association reviews the entire project.
While Dormsjo said he would like to see streetcars proceed, especially linking the H Street line with a Metro rail station “and really unify the city in a significant way,” he said he had not ruled out scrapping them.