Five Feelings About the Anacostia Streetcar
Yesterday, Greater Greater Washington reported that the Federal Transit Administration is requiring the District Department of Transportation to remove the installation of streetcar rails from its plans for the 11th Street Bridge. This is serious: It's yet another setback for a transit project that's seen its fair share, and puts a serious dent in the public's confidence that the streetcar's coming to Anacostia at all—which was on shaky ground anyway.
1. No one party is solely responsible. It appears that everyone involved screwed up. GGW’s post argues that the FTA should chill out, recognize the city’s commitment to building a streetcar system, and not add last-minute obstacles. The FTA told DCist, "DDOT, however, refused to follow FTA's guidance…had they done so, they would have preserved the City's long term options and perhaps saved taxpayer monies in the long run."
2. DDOT doesn’t want Anacostia to fail. Notable Anacostia boosters have accused the agency of giving the neighborhood false hope of revitalization. But this all seems a result of DDOT moving too fast and the FTA's inflexibility, not an intentional sucker punch to the neighborhood. Unless DDOT decides, based on public input, that it's better to not build at all (not terribly likely!), Anacostia is getting a streetcar—and it’s getting the second line in the whole system. (At-Large Councilmember David Catania took credit for this in 2008.)
3. The Anacostia line isn’t happening anytime soon, anyway. The most recent public meeting, held in June, presented four options for alignment, and a final option has not yet been picked. DDOT is still working on an Environmental Impact Study, required by the National Environmental Protection Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The Anacostia line is in its embryonic stages, and likely won’t be a reality for at least another five years or so; the last I heard, there was no chance of cars running on it until 2014 at the very earliest. That the bridge will be streetcar rail-ready and not actually equipped is a setback in time and money, to be sure, but one that might be made up for as other tenants of the project—like the finalization of the alignment—become clear. This thing wasn’t going to be running tomorrow, or next year, or the year after that.
4. Nonetheless, it’s really, really dumb not to build streetcar tracks into the 11th Street Bridge. The tracks on H Street NE were installed as part of the repaving and streetscape construction there. It only makes sense. Though DDOT may have brought this upon themselves in their urgency to get the streetcar system’s construction underway and to do so with federal funding, the agency has clearly demonstrated they’re committed to building the infrastructure. Even if the FTA is exacting proper punishment, it seems ridiculously inefficient.
5. In a perverse way, not building the tracks into the bridge might not be so bad, after all. Though there is some support out there for the streetcar line, most of those who have turned out to DDOT’s meetings have been stridently opposed to it. Part of the psychology of this, I suspect, is the fact that the streetcar rails were being baked into the 11th Street Bridge; in a neighborhood that’s prime for gentrification (consider Anacostia’s relatively low-cost-but-good-quality housing stock, ideal “downtown” infrastructure, and transit accessibility), that signifies to a lot of people that the city is making moves without their permission. Whether that is or isn't a valid way to feel is a discussion for another time, but it's certainly a sentiment that's been vocalized, loudly and often. If the 11th Street Bridge is rail-ready, not rail-equipped, the streetcar might seem like less of a monster—and, therefore, slightly more palatable.
I talked with DDOT spokesperson John Lisle shortly after writing this list. He explained that the 11th Street Bridge and the study area for the Anacostia streetcar line are two different beasts: The latter "goes up to the base of the bridge, so the discussion about the bridge and whether we put tracks in the bridge does not slow down what’s going on in Anacostia," he says.