Transit Plans in Motion

Posted January 27, 2004 at 3:39pm

This is one in an occasional series on issues affecting Capitol Hill.

For the past half-century, the major transportation philosophy for development in Washington, D.C., has been based on the question of how to move people into and out of the city quickly and efficiently. But for city designers looking at transportation development in the next 30 years, planning for tomorrow will be based on moving people in a third direction — around the city.

And because of its location in the heart of new areas of development, Capitol Hill will be one of the first areas to see the implications of these new transportation initiatives.

A snapshot of development in the District for the next quarter-century shows traffic patterns moving over a dozen new and refurbished bridges anchored in the development of 3,000 acres of Southeast Washington known as the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative. It’s a vision of expanded pedestrian trails, circulator bus routes and newly developed light-rail trains that would complement Metrorail and connect people while moving them between points of interest across the city. It’s a transportation system that serves the needs of commuters, tourists, residents and the federal government alike, while at the same time preserving the beauty of the nation’s capital.

But while those who live and work in Washington may have to wait until man goes to Mars before this vision becomes a reality, numerous transportation projects are going on right now that will begin to impact transportation in the city in the next few months and years.

The Anacostia initiative is, at its heart, a residential, retail, cultural and commercial development plan that seeks to provide a direction for future growth of the District and provide areas to accommodate the 100,000-plus residents D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) hopes to bring back to the city in the next decade. In the four years since the start of the initiative, more than $2 billion in public and private resources have been invested in the waterfront area, and nearly $100 million of federal appropriations have been committed to waterfront-related projects.

Yet, as D.C. Office of Planning Director Andy Altman points out, people won’t decide to move back into the city if the transportation infrastructure isn’t there to support them. The theme of the initiative is to reconnect people to the Southeast part of the city and, as Altman has pointed out in numerous public meetings about the initiative, people can’t reconnect with the Anacostia River if they can’t get to it.

“We’re focusing on reconnecting our neighborhoods to the Anacostia River and reconnecting people to that vital but neglected asset,” said Dan Tangherlini, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation.

The waterfront initiative is built on a framework of existing Metro stations and includes the complete redesign of the South Capitol Street Bridge and the overhaul of the 11th Street bridges and Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge. The South Capitol Street Bridge, which will cost $61 million just to shore up and begin the redesign process, would be the centerpiece of the new South Capitol Gateway, a two-mile corridor between Capitol Hill and the Suitland Parkway in Anacostia. It is hoped that the project will make it easier for commuters to move in and out of the city and take pressure off the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The initiative also builds on past projects. One example is the expanded New York Avenue Metro rail station on the Red Line located between Florida Avenue and M Street Northeast, which is will open late this year. That expansion was planned as part of a broader economic development plan for the city, and “the wheels for that were turning before the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative was even a gleam in the mayor’s eye,” Tangherlini said.

The city’s new transportation planning “isn’t being done in a vacuum,” Tangherlini said. “It’s already happening now.”

And although the completed Anacostia waterfront is many years away, “We’re using the plan to help inform us in reviewing assets we have right now.”

Light Years Ahead

Perhaps the most dynamic of those projects happening right now is the implementation of light-rail transit lines. Light-rail trains, or “21st-century streetcars,” are viewed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as the vehicle of tomorrow for intra-Washington transit. And the implementation of the Anacostia Corridor light-rail starter line is already in the works.

This light-rail demonstration project, which would run 2.7 miles between Bolling Air Force Base and Pennsylvania Avenue on the Anacostia River’s eastern shore, will be the first of what the Department of Transportation hopes will be a 33-mile light-rail system running throughout the city.

The goal of the light-rail project, part of the District government’s Alternatives Analysis, “is to complement the existing Metrorail and Metrobus service and offer new transportation choices within the District, expanding the capacity of the entire transportation system,” said Tomika Hughey, assistant project manager for the D.C. Alternatives Analysis. “It will provide a network of efficient, high-quality, high-capacity surface transit across the District to provide additional connections between communities, commerce and Metrorail.”

Tangherlini said the projected cost for the demonstration project is somewhere from $30 million to $40 million, and he noted that the city already has $16 million in the bank and is seeking further federal funding. According to Hughey, construction on the corridor will begin this summer and the District could begin to see light-rail lines as early as 2006.

“This project will demonstrate the power of light rail,” said Altman. “It will build momentum toward a whole light-rail line” throughout the city.

If the Anacostia corridor project proves successful, other light-rail routes are already being studied between Georgetown and the Minnesota Avenue Metro station, Woodley Park and the Stadium-Armory Metro stations and Silver Spring, Md., Metro station and the Anacostia corridor.

In Circulation

A second transit alternative already in the works that could drastically reduce the time it takes to move across town is the development of several new circulator bus routes. The District’s Department of Transportation has already developed a plan to create and fund 30 of these new short-haul buses, which would run heavily traveled routes downtown and shuttle people to and from high-traffic areas, tourist stops and Metro stations every five to 10 minutes.

Tangherlini said the initial cost for developing the first two circulator bus routes, which would run from Union Station to Georgetown and the developing Southwest waterfront to the Convention Center, would be $10 million with an annual operating cost of $6 million. The funding plan for the buses was approved last week after the Senate passage of the omnibus spending bill, and Tangherlini said he hopes these new buses will begin moving in the next year.

The other key transportation component of the waterfront initiative that is already in development is the 20 miles of bike and riverwalk trails that will connect pedestrians across the entire length of the waterfront.

With $5 million going toward four demonstration segments of trails this year, trail building is already under way along the waterfront. When complete, the riverwalk trail will form a pedestrian loop around the Anacostia waterfront, and negotiations are under way to use existing CSX rail lines to cross the Anacostia and connect the trails in two places north and south along the river.

Streetscape Scene

Outside the initiative’s massive scope, there are a few other interesting projects that will soon affect the transportation future of Capitol Hill residents. Like the recently completed Barracks Row reconstruction project, these efforts are economic development projects that target specific areas in the Capitol Hill community. The effect of these projects is also felt in transit, said Ward 6 Transportation Planner Rachel MacCleery.

“At DDOT we try to look at a street not just as a way to move vehicles but as how it serves all users,” MacCleery said, explaining the transportation benefits of these street redesigns. “In the case of Barracks Row, we did change the traffic pattern in some minor ways, we added angled parking where it used to be parallel, and we were able to get additional parking to better serve retail,” MacCleery said.

Perhaps the first project Hill residents will start to feel the effects of is the H Street Northeast Corridor Transportation Study, a Barracks Row-type revitalization project along 13 blocks of H Street between North Capitol Street and Maryland Avenue Northeast. At twice the size of the Barracks Row and with an estimated price tag of around $20 million, residents could see groundbreaking and major changes on H Street as early as late 2006 if the project is approved.

“The designs are very innovative and cool and will set H Street in its context like nothing seen in D.C. before,” MacCleery said.

Along with new parking pattern designs, sidewalk reconfiguration and a redesigned H Street and Benning Road intersection, the H Street corridor redesign would also incorporate a street car that would run through the corridor.

“Depending on the circumstances of a specific corridor each is going to have different needs and objectives,” she said, noting that additional parking on H Street will help meet the needs of retailers and consumers along that corridor.

Just north of Barracks Row, a smaller-scale streetscape is already being planned for the Eastern Market area, along Seventh Street Southeast between Pennsylvania and North Carolina avenues. It will likely kick off in January 2005, according to MacCleery.

The Big Picture

Tangherlini said he hopes these projects and the early components of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative will help the community see that the vision for the next generation of transportation in Washington isn’t decades away but is happening right now.

“When we go out and engage folks the thing that troubles them the most is whether it’s going to happen,” Tangherlini said of transit improvements. “The biggest concern I hear from people is whether we’re going to have the resources to do it. And that’s why we’ve tried to build a plan that is modular.

“Things are happening now,” he said. “And what I want people to realize is that they all fit into the broader plan, of which the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is one part. … The idea is to find plans that will build peoples confidence that we can do it.”