Dec 28, 2006

Washington Trolleys Go Back on Track

Washington residents cheered the return of professional baseball to the U.S. capital last year after a 33-year absence. Soon, they'll be able to look back to the future again.

The city is planning a $25 million project to bring back the trolley cars that last rumbled along its streets during the Kennedy administration. The revival will begin next year with a 2-mile (3-kilometer) line in southeastern Washington that, fittingly, will pass near the Washington Nationals' new downtown ballpark, which is to open in April 2008.

``To have baseball and streetcars come back somehow makes the city seem whole,'' said Eric Madison, a city transportation agency worker. Madison, 32, volunteers at the National Capital Trolley Museum, which saved parts of the trolley fleet after the lines were torn up in 1962 in favor of subways and buses.

City planners are looking beyond the dreams of nostalgia buffs for trolleys to help spur economic development, cut pollution and ease traffic congestion. The Washington area ranks third in the U.S. in gridlock, behind Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to a 2005 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, a College Station, Texas-based research group.

``Light rail is the wave of the future if you care about the environment,'' said Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's delegate to Congress. Norton, 69, said she expects fellow Democrats, who take control of Congress in January, to boost funding for such projects across the U.S.

Counting on Revival

The streetcar line, being financed by the city, is part of an initiative to revitalize one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods, along the Anacostia River. Almost 30 percent of its residents live below the poverty line and unemployment is three times the national average, according to East of the River Community Development Corp., a local group.

``A lot of times, when streetcar systems are put into areas that are distressed or undergoing some kind of economic change, economic development occurs around the area of the fixed investment,'' said Catondra Noye, the city Transportation Department's coordinator for the streetcar project.

Washington is mainly counting on the Nationals' $611 million ballpark to draw $1 billion in investment for housing, stores and offices in the waterfront neighborhood, replacing a drab 1960s- era mall and rundown nightclubs. The city has spent $150 million on riverwalks and parks along both banks of the Anacostia. Trolley and pedestrian bridges are planned, starting in 2011.

Modern Look

The new red-and-yellow articulated cars, built by Prague- based Inekon Group, will have a ``sleek, modern look,'' Noye said. They will run on electric power from overhead wires. While initial plans only call for the Anacostia line and another along H Street in the northeast, the city eventually wants streetcars along seven major transportation corridors.

Streetcars once dominated Washington's traffic grid. From the first electric cars in 1899, the system reached its height during World War II as rationing of gasoline and rubber halted conversions to buses and a once-sleepy town hummed around the clock for the war effort, transporting 536 million riders in 1943, according to the 2001 book ``Capital Transit'' by Peter Kohler.

In August 1945, servicemen stood on the tops of trolleys owned by Capital Transit Co., which ran the city operation, to hear President Harry Truman announce Japan's surrender, according to the book.

Postwar prosperity, cheap gasoline and a surge of automobiles spelled doom for the streetcars, which were plagued by a reputation for clogging streets and being ``too cold in winter, too hot in summer,'' Norton recalled.

By January 1962, the streetcar ended its run, with the no- longer-needed cars sold to European cities from Barcelona to Sarajevo.

Fast Growth

Today, light rail is the fastest-growing type of public transportation in the U.S., according to the American Public Transportation Association. The number of light-rail riders increased 9.4 percent in the first half from a year earlier, the Washington-based group said.

Portland, Oregon, opened a 2.4-mile light-rail system in 2001 and is planning two half-mile extensions.

Commercial and residential growth in an area once dominated by old warehouses and industrial buildings has boomed, said U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat whose district includes Portland. The Pearl District, a high-density zone with parks, plazas and public art, has drawn $2.3 billion in investment within two blocks of the streetcar line.

San Francisco operates six streetcar lines and is considering a $50 million extension of its vintage streetcars. The city's N-Judah Muni light-rail line runs directly past AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

Economic Boost

``Washington seems to be following what many cities are doing: to see how the use of streetcars might be helpful in not only solving transportation problems, but in helping with economic-development issues,'' said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, an industry lobbying group.

Washington's plans are welcome news to streetcar buffs at the National Capital Trolley Museum in Silver Spring, Maryland, where a handful of the surviving old cars are kept in working order by volunteers.

``Streetcars don't pollute the air,'' said Wells Drumwright, an 82-year-old retired dentist from Colesville, Maryland, who rode the vehicles to Washington's Paul Junior High School in 1936. ``And they don't smell bad like the buses do.''

Thanks to Bloomberg for this report.

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