City Desk

Streetcar Project: More Bumps in the Road

Rerouting, ratcheting expenses, delays—the streetcar project is having a bumpy ride so far. The two lines that are planned—H Street to Benning Road in Northeast and Fifth Sterling Avenue to Good Hope Road in Anacostia—are intended to boost economic development. Up to now, they've mostly created frustrations.

So it's time to get the project back on track, D.C. Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein said Thursday evening in a public meeting at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Well over 100 people turned out to hear Klein speak about his long-term vision for an integrated District-wide streetcar system. Audience members expressed irritation about the lack of progress – and a lack of communication – from DDOT. So Klein promised to keep the project moving forward as quickly as possible and to meet quarterly with communities.

To that end, he's made his chief of staff, Scott Kubly, the new "Streetcar Czar." Kubly is putting a large dedicated team in place. He's hoping to get federal funding.

But the question of how to power the cars is still up in the air, as Jason Broehm, transportation chair of the local Sierra Club and streetcar advocate, explained to City Paper last week. When National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) lawyers reviewed the Anacostia project back in 2007, they ruled that an 1889 statute prohibits use of overhead wires in Georgetown and L'Enfant City (basically south of Florida Ave. and north of the Anacostia River). DDOT lawyers disagree. It's been three years since the issue surfaced, but the legal wrangling continues.

Stephen Staudigl, NCPC spokesman, proposed one solution—completely new technology.

"This is a capital city. We are very interested in exploring the development of different propulsion technologies with the District of Columbia." he said.

Back at the meeting, Klein was quick to dismiss this suggestion—a sign of the continuing discord between the two agencies.

Klein admitted to "hedging [his] bets" on wires, after one local resident noted that the foundations for overhead tension poles are already being installed along H Street. The DDOT director didn't rule out the possibility of getting the 1889 legislation overturned, and even suggested that this might be on the agenda over the next few months.

As for the scale of the task ahead, one commentator back in January mused:

Obama may be able to resolve middle east disputes, but getting streetcar wire into D.C. will be more than a challenge ... probably impossible.

There is another option: hybrid cars. Klein has been talking to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) about a model that is currently being developed in Portland. He reminded people that they could use wires in some areas and battery propulsion elsewhere.

Oregon's streetcar project has been hailed as a model to follow. Blighted neighborhoods have been transformed since its launch in 2001. (The Portland streetcar project was so popular that one establishment brewed up the BridgePort Streetcar Ale in its honor.)

It'll still be a while before D.C. can boast the same. According to current estimates, the Anacostia streetcar route will be ready for 2012. And DDOT can't even guess when the H Street-Benning line will be up and running. On the plus side, it leaves time to dream up names for a D.C. beer. Answers on a postcard.

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