A desire named streetcar

The United States has always been a transit-crazy nation. And why not? We’re a big country. In Lincoln’s time, states and the federal government concerned themselves with waterways, rails and carriage roads. The activities were called internal improvements in those days, when the land mass was mostly wilderness. The exhaustive history of the transcontinental railroad, “Empire Express” by David Bain, published in 1999, is a tale of crime, strongarm, cronyism, influence peddling, self-dealing, labor exploitation, and scandal reaching right into the rotunda of the Capitol.

Some things never change.

Yet the Republic survived without a Transportation Department until 1967, when Congress folded several transportation-related commissions and administrations, such as the FAA, into a new cabinet-level department. Now states, cities and counties have DOTs of their own. Since about the end of World War II, medium and big cities have steadily developed into metroplexes with suburban and exurban congestion.

This all came to mind in recent weeks, while following the rollout of a two-mile streetcar line along D.C.’s H Street N.E.. It’s a coming-back zone of the city starting east of Union Station to the Anacostia River. You can buy chocolate beer and $15 martinis in some of the places along there now. You know it when they start calling bars “bistros.” Judging from the nifty animated map provided by the District’s DOT, straphangers are in for, let’s say, a leisurely ride. It doesn’t appear do much by way of service for federal employee commuters.


I should point out, the federal government funded some of the D.C. streetcar studies, but ironically not construction of the stubby new system.

For the past couple of decades, the nation’s cities have become re-entranced with trolleys and streetcars, aided and abetted by DOT. For instance, San Jose, California, is at the center of a 30-mile light rail route. It first opened about 20 years ago. From my experience in Silicon Valley, it hardly makes a dent in the traffic.

The federal DOT, through the Federal Transit Administration, is involved in one degree or another in nearly 60 local transit  projects. Most of them are rail, with a few bus corridors thrown in. Two Purple Lines are underway: There’s money for engineering a trolley in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, and another heavy rail extension in Los Angeles (“L.A is a great big freeway …”). Los Angeles also has a short trolley line in the works. Cities as diverse as Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Honolulu have become struck with a desire for streetcars. The FTA pays for various portions, from engineering studies to outright construction grants.

For Washington, nearly two generations have passed since the last trolly system was ripped out, the final pieces of it disappearing in 1962. The old system resembled the one in Prague in that it stretched far beyond the city center. When I visited that city a couple of years ago, I liked the castles and all, but I swear one of the most amazing attractions was the tram system. It seemed to reach everywhere. In a century and a half, the city has developed what you might call a tram operating system, with principles for how the trams interact with traffic, where you stand to board, a ticket honor system with spot inspections that can land you in jail (no, it didn’t happen to me). I love subways and streetcars of all types, and make a point of riding them in every city I visit that has them.

I’m trying to figure out whether the Transportation Department is indulging cities where there’s nostalgia for trolleys, as the new 21st century urbanization takes hold, or whether the existence of federal money makes local DOTs say, what the heck, let’s get us a streetcar line.