DC’s Sleek, Bright Red Gizmo in the Economic Development Toolkit: Streetcars

Have you heard about the District’s latest multi-billion dollar economic development project?

Nope, we’re not talking about City Center, the remaking of the Old Convention Center site downtown.

And sorry, Tom Sherwood, we’re not talking about a new Redskins stadium.

We’re talking about streetcars.

The District’s 37-mile plan to build a streetcar system is often talked about in terms of transportation, yet it is also a roadmap to see where the District plans to concentrate its economic development resources over the next 30 years. Certainly streetcars will enhance DC’s public transportation options’offering a modern and attractive way to get from Point A to B as well as increasing walkability’but the fact is, many of the eight proposed lines are already served by subway, bus and bikeshare. So why add a streetcar system? As noted in the recently released Streetcar Land Use Study, it is conventional wisdom among urban planners that buses do not drive development. Streetcars do, because the fixed tracks show a commitment by government to invest in a specific area and this type of “premium” transportation is more likely to be used by more affluent riders whom developers and businesses want to attract.

That’s certainly been the case for H Street NE. This historic DC retail corridor, which was ravaged during the 1968 riots, has been a magnet for investment from big developers, small business owners and house hunters in recent years’and that’s before the first red vehicles will even glide down the street’s tracks. (The city’s latest estimate is for the H Street line to be operational by Summer 2013.)

So it’s important for us to ask the same questions about streetcars that we might ask about any other major economic development project:

“¢ What impact will streetcars have on land prices, affordable housing, existing businesses, renters, and homeowners?
“¢ What jobs might be created out of the project and how can city residents benefit?
“¢ What is the best way to pay for such a project, given that the streetcar is estimated to cost $40 million per mile?
“¢ In what neighborhoods should streetcars be built and how should we prioritize who gets it first?

The recently released Land Use Study touched on several of these questions. Over the next few days, DCFPI will explore these topics more in depth: how streetcars will impact affordable housing, how streetcars can be integrated into the city’s job training and workforce development efforts, and how to approach balancing the new investment streetcars will attract with the needs of existing businesses.

Stay tuned to the District Dime for our special streetcar week!