Streetcars in Georgetown? It’s Complicated

A standing-room-only crowd, including Georgetown’s many planning wonks, gathered in Pinstripes Bistro on Wisconsin Avenue Nov. 17 for another meeting for those of us who love engineering details.

Two weeks ago, the subject was airborne gondolas over the Potomac River, presented by the Georgetown and Rosslyn Business Improvement Districts. This week it was D.C. streetcars between Georgetown and Union Station, presented by experts from the District Department of Transportation. The focus was on K Street, from Washington Circle in the West End to where K Street becomes Water Street.

Nothing is decided. The operative words were “eventual,” “probable” and “maybe.” But in this third public planning stage for the project, experts dug deep. A variety of options — including several that had been rejected — were explained in charts, slides, graphs and an energetic oral presentation by Federal Highway Administration and Transit Administration officials.

They first presented various ideas for streetcar placement. Should the lanes be dedicated, semi-dedicated and/or shared with buses, shuttles and cars? Should the rails and stations be in the middle of the street? Along one side? Other considerations were the visual impact and other advantages/disadvantages of fully wired, wireless (an option being tried in various cities of Europe, with some problems due to weather and energy grid overloads) and limited-wire systems — the latter a new third way involving recharging bars at stations that the cars touch when they stop to load and unload.

Storage of the streetcars when not in use was also a factor, the suggested site being the open area on the north side of K Street between 30th and Thomas Jefferson Streets.

The biggest concerns on the part of the public seemed to be placement of the route and rails within other vital elements of Georgetown’s streets. Width of sidewalks as small as seven feet were considered, as well as whether or not sidewalks were “noisy” — placed next to traffic — or “quiet” — furthest from traffic lanes, with parking spaces (or not), bike ways and landscaping in between. The health of growing trees was considered. The trade-offs almost always seemed to be the loss of parking spaces or space for bike lanes.

Representatives from community interest groups asked questions (though no answers were provided) in the “listening” portion of the program. Concerns were expressed about space for bikers, runners, children, dog walkers and parents crossing the multiple car, bus, shuttle and streetcar lanes.

David Alexander of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council wanted planners to take special care concerning the many bicyclists who use K Street as a commuter route. Bob vom Eigen, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, said that he found it “very inappropriate” that there was not an earlier opportunity to review details. He added that five minutes to make comments is “ridiculous.”

Some even asked the perennial question: “Why?” Is all this worth a greater (maybe two times) and faster (maybe by 20 minutes) public transportation capacity than buses? One neighbor wondered aloud if the streetcar would make traffic worse on K Street. DDOT will present more details and answers at the next public meeting in early spring 2017.

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