A Streetcar named Takoma, or Silver Spring?

BY ALEX HOLT

Over half a century after Washington D.C. stopped running them, streetcars could soon be returning to the Takoma neighborhood. The question is whether they should stop there.

This Thursday, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will hold its latest public meeting to discuss options for improving public transit in Washington’s North-South Corridor, one of a series of meetings resulting from a year-long study. Some of the choices are fairly conventional ones like buses but they also include a proposal for a streetcar line from Buzzards Point in Southwest DC to Takoma or Silver Spring. It’s a proposal that’s grabbing attention in the District and in Montgomery County.

The meeting will be held Thursday, Feb. 20, 3:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Emery Recreation Center at 5701 Georgia Avenue NW.

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DC’s H Street streetcar on a recent test run. By permission DC Streetcar.

Destination Takoma?

One of the people following the streetcar proposal has been Takoma Park City Councilman Seth Grimes. Grimes said that given that the project is in its early stages, the DDOT has done an adequate job of providing necessary information to residents. He also said that his sense of the current public reaction to the proposal is one of curiosity and “guarded support.”

“I believe that the public meetings are about listening, rather than  deciding,” Grimes said. “Really, the big questions are: a) whether the line would run to Takoma or to Silver Spring, b) the process for deciding whether it will be built at all and if it is, what the northern terminus will be, and c) the schedule. I’m willing to sit the process out for now, myself, and see how it unrolls.”

Destination Silver Spring

The question of where to end the streetcar line is particularly concerning for Montgomery County Councilwoman Nancy Floreen, who would like to see it run all the way to Silver Spring.

“We said a long time ago that we preferred that it’d run to downtown Silver Spring,” Floreen said, naming that issue as what she’s most eager to have addressed at next week’s meeting. “That’s where a lot of the ridership connect to that, at that location. It’s a big transfer point and I am not entirely sure why they are persisting on the Takoma connection.”

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Washington, DC streetcars, 15th Street and New York Avenue, NW, circa 1920, by permission DC Streetcar.

Floreen said through-traffic is one of the biggest problems for Takoma Park, which is better served by walking access to public transit than Silver Spring. Even with Metro and bus service, through-traffic is also a problem for Silver Spring, but it’s more of a destination than Takoma Park, and, unlike the Takoma Metro Station, there are public garages at or near the Silver Spring Metro stop.

Leave the car

“That’s one thing that would be useful, to have a place where people can leave their cars and they’re more likely to cut their trip short and get on to some kind of transit,” Floreen said.

Floreen noted that this is important because Montgomery County isn’t entirely urban and so it doesn’t have the same density of people who can walk to a bus stop or Metro as Washington, D.C.

“That’s a challenge, how do you get those people onto buses?” Floreen asked. “Or Metro? If they can walk, they’ll be likely to do it. If they cannot walk, it’s a problem.”

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Vintage Washington, DC streetcar. By permission DC Streetcar.

Bus vs. streetcar

Jamie Henson, the project manager who’s been heading up the study for the DDOT, said streetcars offer numerous advantages as a transportation option.

“They are larger vehicles. The folks with mobility impairments have a much easier time boarding,” Hunter said. “It allows them to move a bit more quickly and more reliably than a regular bus service while serving people better.”

Henson said that buses have their own advantages. They can be serviced quickly and people are used to them.

Installing streetcar lines would mean disruptive construction. But, so could installing a rapid-bus system, said Henson. “If we added a higher speed bus facility, there would be the need to do some reconstruction to figure out stops potentially as well,” he said.

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DC’s H Street streetcar on a recent test run. By permission DC Streetcar.

Henson said the DDOT plans to discuss several topics during the meeting, one of four held throughout the city this week, including which mode of transportation to choose, street alignment and how the route will look within that alignment.

“We’ll have things like cross-sections of how it might run, where service might be and how it might work,” Henson said.

Meetings

The meetings are the second of three sets of meetings the DDOT is holding to discuss transit options within the North-South Corridor. The first meetings were held in November and the final meetings will be held later in the spring. After that, the DDOT will begin the planning and environmental phases of the process.

Henson said that at last fall’s meetings, residents expressed the desire for faster and more reliable transit service.

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Washington DC streetcar at F Street and 14th Street, NW, 1924. By permission DC Streetcar.

“We didn’t hear a lot of concern on the mode,” Henson said. “There were surely folks that were very much concerned with construction and they generally associated that with streetcars.”  But he said that the concerns were more about the disruptions caused by construction than the actual choice of vehicle.

The next meeting for Takoma’s segment of the North-South Corridor is on February 20 from 3:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Emery Recreation Center at 5701 Georgia Avenue NW. There will be presentations at 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

About the Author

Alex Holt
Alex Holt is a first-year graduate student in the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a recent graduate of Ithaca College. When not at school, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland and he hopes to eventually pursue a career in sports journalism.