With Czech Streetcars, H Street Seeks a Boost

Planning, Funding Barriers Remain for Area

Posted December 1, 2009 at 4:04pm

The streetcars are coming! The streetcars are coming!

In a highly anticipated sign of progress, streetcars expected to run along the H Street Northeast corridor are crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the Czech Republic to Washington, D.C. They should arrive Dec. 15 and will be stored at a Metro station.

The new streetcars are part of a larger renovation of the corridor’s streetscape and transit. The District Department of Transportation hopes to finish the overhaul by the end of 2010 and have the streetcars running soon after.

Yet the corridor has a long way to go in the next year. The critical decision on whether the streetcars will run on aboveground or underground electricity has yet to be made. Planners prefer aboveground electricity, but city ordinances prohibit it in areas considered part of the old city. Charles Allen, chief of staff to Councilmember Tommy Wells (D), said his boss is willing to introduce legislation that would overturn the ban but is waiting as the DDOT tries to work out a compromise.

A second element that could hold up streetcar progress is that only three streetcars are on their way to the District, so the government needs to buy more. At least six would be necessary to make the system reliable, Allen explained.

As city officials make progress on the streetcar system, improvements to the corridor’s streetscape continue. Crews have been tearing apart one side of three blocks of the street at a time and are currently wrapping up the section between Third and Sixth streets. That process includes improving or replacing sidewalks, utilities, manholes, gutters, curbs, traffic lights and park benches, as well as laying down tracks for the streetcar line.

While that process continues, the H Street Cooperative, a nonprofit founded by local business leaders, solicited funds from the DDOT to run a free shuttle the length of the corridor. The service began running in January and is intended to alleviate visitors’ problems with construction, parking and Metro’s crowded X2 bus line.

The shuttle runs every night from 5 until the Metro closes, starting at the Gallery Place-Chinatown stop on the Red, Yellow and Green lines and running to the Minnesota Avenue stop on the Orange Line. Vans wrapped in the green and white H Street logo leave the two Metro stops every half-hour and make six stops along the route.

The shuttle will run out of funds in the next week or two, according to H Street Cooperative co-founder Jen DeMayo. She said she hopes the DDOT will renew its funding soon.

Allen said he expects the shuttle to bring 67,000 people to the corridor next year.

“Ideally it’s something that is going to continue at least until the streetcars are running,— Allen said, adding that the shuttle will begin to establish a rider base that could transition to the streetcar system.

Wells saw a tax deferral passed into law that lasted through Sept. 15, and he has introduced another bill encouraging Mayor Adrian Fenty to continue strategizing ways to help H Street businesses as they struggle through the transformation.

Even after the streetcars are up and running, Allen said, more improvements may begin, potentially including underground parking.