All Aboard To Work D.C.'s New, Old-Fashioned Streetcars

Washington, D.C., is preparing for the return of streetcars to the nation's capital. It's been decades since the system shut down and workers have been laying new tracks. This week, hundreds of people lined up for a chance at a job on the line.

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Cities across the country have been returning to the classic streetcar. Some think it's a great way to move people cheaply. This spring, though, they'll be back in Washington, D.C., bringing with them the promise of new jobs. Hundreds of people in D.C. queued up for a chance at any one of those jobs this past week. But as NPR's Leah Binkovitz reports, with only 34 jobs available, many will be disappointed.

LEAH BINKOVITZ, BYLINE: The line wraps around the corner. People wait with their coats and hats, their resumes tucked into manila folders.

MARK WHITLEY: We're all here for the same thing.

BINKOVITZ: Mark Whitley got to the employment office at 8 a.m., two hours before the doors would open. But looking at the line, he thinks seven might have been better. Whitley's a DC native. He has a job, inspecting homes for banks, but he's looking for a second income.

WHITLEY: I'm married now with a little girl. I've been married for three years. And I just want to do better for my wife and my daughter.

BINKOVITZ: These jobs pay from 15 to almost 28 dollars an hour, depending on the position. Whitley would be fine with anything - operator, technician, warehouse staff or service attendant, so would many of the 700 people who showed up for the 34 available spots.

MATT MCDOW: Any job. I need a job.

COLETTE TREADWELL: Right now, I'm willing to take anything. I'm just that desperate.

JADA PERKINS: Any job that I can get, actually.

BINKOVITZ: Matt McDow, Colette Treadwell and Jada Perkins showed up early too. The city's unemployment rate is roughly 9 percent, but in some areas, it's more like 22 percent. Long lines at job fairs are nothing new. It's been more than 50 years since streetcars stopped running in D.C. Now, they're new again.

WALTER JONES: It's fresh. I like the idea, you know?

BINKOVITZ: That's Walter Jones. He works during the soccer season at RFK Stadium, but says he needs something for the off-season. He knows he might not have the experience for some of the jobs.

JONES: I don't even have the certifications for the streetcars, you know? I did that online. I don't even have certificates for that job.

BINKOVITZ: But he's hoping for one of the other jobs. Elsewhere in the city, not everybody is as excited.

JANICE HILLARD: I just think it's a waste of time. I really do.

BINKOVITZ: Janice Hillard stood outside her hair salon on H Street to watch the modern-looking, red and gray car make its first test run down the 2.4-mile segment of track.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREETCAR BELL)

BINKOVITZ: The line has already taken some of her off-street parking. Plus, she says, the route is redundant. Buses already travel along the busy street.

HILLARD: We have enough public transportation around here, so what good is it going to do?

BINKOVITZ: Well, for one, the city argues the whole system will bring millions in new tax revenue. But that's a long way off. For now, the streetcar sits in the middle of H Street surrounded by orange barrels. It won't be running until early spring. Meanwhile, all these folks at the job fair are waiting on a phone call to see if they'll be along for the ride when that day comes. Leah Binkovitz, NPR News.

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