Will the nation's capital's streetcars be built in this nation?

Earlier this month, Washington, D.C. unveiled one of its shiny red streetcars--built in the Czech Republic. When streetcars left U.S. cities, streetcar manufacturing left as well. Who will build the rest of the cars for this new 37-mile system?
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

There was a lot of excitement in Washington earlier this month, when one of the city’s shiny new red streetcars was on display and open to the public. Nearly 50 years after streetcars vanished from our city streets, the District is planning a 37-mile, eight-car system, and construction on two lines is underway. Service is expected to start in 2012.

D.C., which will host the national Rail-Volution conference next year, is issuing a request for information from industry experts on how to design additional streetcars—that can operate for limited distances without overhead wires. To learn more about the system, I talked to Gabe Klein, director of the District Department of Transportation, who said he wants Washington to have the first hybrid propulsion system in America.

Why did the streetcars go away in the first place?

Post World War II, you had people coming back and wanting to raise families. Everyone wanted a white picket fence in the suburbs and one car, if not two. It was the ultimate freedom. Living in an urban environment wasn’t as appealing. So our new auto economy out of Detroit decided they wanted to start making buses. Nationwide, the streetcar systems were turned over to the bus companies and then shut down, and buses were sold to municipalities. These little decisions people make completely alter the way we live.

I was talking to a family who has lived in D.C. for 67 years and was heartbroken when the streetcars shut down in 1962. She said, “I don’t think people realized the impact. That’s how people used to get around the city.” We joked that we’re repairing the damage that’s been done over the last 50 years.

D.C. Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein

Why now?

In the early 2000s we started looking at the streetcar. People are realizing, “Wow, maybe there’s a higher quality of life in the city. I don’t have to sit in the car for two hours commuting.” We’re giving people what they want. It’s unfortunate that we paved over a great system, and it’ll cost us $1.5 billion to put it back. But the new system will link people to jobs, link the east and west parts of the city and bring investment to these communities.

Now that the streetcar is returning, what role will it play in the whole transportation system?

Metro is a hub and spoke system--it primarily brings people in and out of the city. We started our own Circulator bus system that circulates people between neighborhoods. So the streetcar will complement the existing modes of transportation. There’s a chance we will replace a few bus lines, but our transit needs are growing. We have two lines of Metro that will be at capacity by 2013.

How will the streetcars be used differently than buses?

Each street car holds 162 people and is about a $3 million investment. It’s much more environmentally friendly. It’s quiet, smooth and a really high-quality transit system. But one of the most important things about fixed rail is that developers and the investment community—which are very important when you’re talking aobut bringing back a neighborhood—when they see a type of fixed investment, they’re much more likely to invest. The city is investing $63 million in the proposed budget for next year. That’s all local funds.

I understand the first three streetcars came from Prague? Where will the others be built?

When we shut down the streetcar systems nationally, there was no reason to build them here anymore. So an entire section of the rail industry went away. Europe was much more level-headed in what they did: They have tram, light rail, a streetcar system… and because of that, they have the manufacturing. We’re looking to have the first hybrid propulsion system in America. Recently United Streetcar in Portland was awarded a grant to build one car for us, with a hybrid, battery-powered system. They’re the first manufacturer to build a streetcar in the U.S. in 50 years.

Here's a video from Portland-based United Streetcar, which has manufactured modern streetcars for Portland and Tuscon.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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