What are the prospects for the return of streetcars to our nation’s capital? Lisa Rein has a piece up at today’s Post, D.C. streetcar project may get hung up on overhead wires, explaining one complication: the objection by some to the visual clutter occasioned by the overhead wires used to power most streetcars. Opponents raise concerns about maintaining the open view lanes through the city and they point to laws restricting wired streetcars:
On their side is an 1889 federal law banning overhead electrification in Georgetown and the original center city design by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, bounded by the Potomac and Anacostia waterfronts north to Florida Avenue. Streetcars would run through much of the core, including H Street NE, where the city is now laying tracks.
“We have, in this city, an unusual number of clear views and vistas and broad boulevards,” said Meg Maguire, a leader of Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which opposes overhead wires anywhere in the city. “They’re not to be tampered with.”
Proponents of streetcars point out that getting more cars off the streets would do more to reduce visual clutter and open up the vistas of the city. The fixed travel path of streetcars are also likely to encourage a different kind of neighborhood development than, say, buses, which would bring other aesthetic and quality of life enhancements. While there are such things as wireless streetcars, DC’s transportation chief, Gabe Klein, notes some of the problems:
Klein said today’s wireless technology is costly and untested in cities with rain and snowy winters, like the District. Just a few companies make wireless streetcars, and they’ve had growing pains where they’ve been introduced, mostly in Europe. It could be fiscally irresponsible for the city to limit its options, he said.
He is floating a compromise to preservationists: a hybrid system that would run on wires outside the federal city and switch to battery power inside. United Streetcar, a Portland-based company looking at wireless cars to expand that city’s streetcar line, is designing a prototype that would recharge batteries every mile, possibly with a braking mechanism at stations.
But the battery could take several minutes to charge, and city planners want more flexibility.
Whose vision of the capital city might prevail? Can there be a workable technical compromise of a hybrid wireless streetcar? And what visual qualities of the city’s streetscapes are the most important? For whom?