Monday, March 17, 2014

Here is your likely DC Streetcar route alignment in Anacostia.

It's nowhere near where people live, or work, or recreate.

So why did DC Streetcar chose to ingore the needs of Anacostia residents and businesses, and meet those of phantom Virginia and Maryland commuters coming to phantom jobs at a phantom office park at Poplar Point?

On July 23, 2013, a DC Streetcar meeting presented the results of a three-year environmental and historic district study (which the city neglected to do when the streetcar system was announced). The city desperately needs to connect the Anacostia line with the 11th Street Bridges. The federal government (which paid for the bridges) agreed to let the city engineer the bridges so that the "local bridge" could carry streetcar tracks. However, it refused to pay for those tracks -- since the city was nowhere close to building the Anacostia line (assuming it ever would). Crossing the "i's" and dotting the "t's" is critical to winning federal approval (if not federal dollars) to construct this line across the bridge. The goal is to extend the Anacostia Line to M Street (there are already plans to build an M Street SW Line along the newly-fashionable Waterfront with its incoming 5,000 housing units) and up 8th Street SE/NE to connect with the H Street/Benning Line (now set to open... soon, sometime in 2014.)

Nine alternative routes were feasible between the Metro station and the bridge. You can see them all on page 11 of the PDF linked here. Three of them went up narrow, crowded, stalled MLK Avenue SE and then partially returned through the residential section to the east. Three of them went up MLK, and then returned in whole or part through the warehouse district to the west of of MLK Avenue.

Four went up either a new route along an access and Park Service road west of I-295, or along the now-abandoned CSX tracks to the east of I-295, a combination of the CSX/Park Service road, or up MLK and down the CSX tracks.

Four of the 10 alternatives met the land use, environmental, populations served, rider benefits, traffic and transit operations, economic development, community support, and cost goals.

It was deemed critically important NOT to interfere with the federally-designated historic district. Indeed, the DC Streetcar report advocated expanding the boundaries of this district, and adding two new buildings to the National Register of Historic Places (the Old Birney School/Nichols Avenue School and the 11th Precinct MPD/Whitman-Walker Max Robinson Center).

Alternative #2 (up MLK and to the east) was then dropped because it did not meet traffic, noise, economic development, and cultural resources goals.

Engineering studies were then done. Anything using MLK would require extensive modifications to corners ("corner clipping") to allow cars to make 90-degree turns, and clog the already-clogged Howard Road/MLK Avenue intersection.

This left the CSX route, and a route going north on MLK and partially returning south through the warehouse district ("MLK and west").

The "MLK and west" route would have re-energized the Anacostia business district and met the needs of local residents best. But it was vastly more expensive, was much slower, would eliminate on-street parking along the road, required more corner-clipping, hindered traffic on MLK, and clogged the MLK/Howard Road intersection.

The CSX alternative was faster and much cheaper. It didn't meet the needs of local citizens at all. It didn't create economic redevelopment at all.

BUT OH WAIT! If the city ever builds an office park at Poplar Point for people in Virginia and Maryland to work at, the streetcar line will pass right in front of it. And it gets these people to the lovely restraurants on 8th Street SE fast, and it gets them to the Anacostia Metro station fast.

The scoping document eliminated the "MLK and west" route, and went with the CSX/Poplar Point commuter route. (Note that the route connects with the route already under construction, which gets Virginia and Maryland commuters who work at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling to the Metro station faster, and to the lovely 8th Street restaurants faster, too.)

My assessment is that there was no good route here. Anacostia streets are the narrowest in the city, and any streetcar line was going to have a gigantic impact on on-street parking and greatly hinder traffic whether it runs up MLK or any other street. But my personal sense is that, if you have to choose between commuters and residents, you choose residents every time. It's their taxes that pay for it, not Virginia or Maryland taxes. If you have a choice between revitalizing an existing business district or adding value to a planned one that hasn't come together in 25 years, you revitalize the existing business district.

If the city were smart, it'd widen MLK and re-do the intersection at Howard Road. But it's not smart. All it sees is big costs in doing those things, and it wants to step over a dollar to pick up a dime.

The thing is, the Anacostia business district is dead as a retail sector. You aren't going to add shoe stores, magazine stands, banks, and the like to that narrow strip. Anacostia lacks the population density to make those types of businesses profitable. What you might have gotten was an arts district: A low-traffic, mostly pedestrian area served by streetcar (thus eliminating the concerns about traffic and parking) that would feature art galleries, small theaters, music venues, artist lofts, restaurants, and pubs that would draw people not only from Anacostia but from Near Southwest (those nice, middle-class folks living near the Marine Barracks who seem to have lots of handy cash) and all over the city. Easily accessed by Metro and streetcar, with little street traffic, and with plenty of history and cool 1880s buildings.

Indeed, the federal government wants to get as much traffic off mega-clogged MLK between Howard Road and the bridges as possible, which is why it is redoing the Suitland Parkway/Frederick Douglass Bridge interchanges to the south. Get that traffic away from the narrow, winding historic district and over that new, big, fat South Capitol Street bridge.

It doesn't seem like DC Streetcar wants to play along with that game, sadly.

Maybe this CSX route will meet business concerns about middle-class white people having to walk through gauntlets of poverty-stricken blacks, drug dealers, homeless, the unemployed, and others on the way to the Metro station -- and actually get Poplar Point off the ground. I doubt it.

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