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Washington City Paper

Nov. 25–Dec. 1, 2005

Exile to Main Street

by Ryan Grim

If the city can’t cut a deal with CSX Corp., a light-rail line may run through Anacostia’s busiest streets.

The Shepherd Industrial Spur is hardly an iconic piece of D.C. real estate. For starters, it’s an unused rail line in an out-of-the-way spot, running its 6 miles in the shadow of the Anacostia Freeway. The spur these days is overrun with litter, car parts, and weeds that have prospered in the three years or more since trains carried chemicals to and from the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in the southern corner of the city. But early last year, city planners saw an opportunity underneath the trash and foliage.

Instead of leaving the spur in its fallow state, why not convert it into a light-rail transit system? The passenger trains would run from Pennsylvania Avenue SE to Bolling Air Force Base, stopping at key spots in between. Along the way, the Anacostia Light Rail Demonstration project would clean up a portion of what had become a 6-mile-long dumping ground, create a magnet for future development, and finally show east-of-the-river residents that big-scale projects happen somewhere other than downtown.

“It was supposed to start here,” says Christopher Jerry, a member of the Fairlawn Citizens Association’s transportation committee, staring at the overgrown tracks just south of Pennsylvania Avenue as cars hum along the nearby freeway. “And I supported it.”

But he doesn’t anymore. After 10 months of public hearings, community meetings, and even a groundbreaking ceremony, the city did an about-face and pulled the proposal off the tracks. Now the light rail will run on some of the city’s busiest streets. “It was a bait and switch,” says Jerry.

According to Dan Tangherlini, director of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), railroad giant CSX Corp. is at the root of the snafu. DDOT was hoping that CSX would be willing to turn over the right of way on favorable terms. The property, after all, is of virtually no use to the railroad; the area’s transportation needs, says a CSX filing, are now being met by trucks. Though the property is not taxed, it costs CSX money to maintain. And, around the same time the District was planning the light-rail system, the D.C. Council was considering banning the railroad from shipping hazardous materials through the capital; DDOT hoped CSX might see the parcel as a bargaining chip. “They were returning my calls a lot quicker in those days,” Tangherlini says.

On Nov. 13, 2004, the District held a groundbreaking ceremony near the Anacostia Metro station for the light-rail line—even though no agreement had been reached with the railroad. “It wasn’t even our ground to break,” says Tangherlini. Negotiations over the use of the right of way had gotten rocky just before the ceremony, he says, but the event had already been scheduled.

According to Tangherlini, after the ceremony “the wheels came off the wagon.” Two days after the groundbreaking, CSX filed paperwork with federal authorities, confirming that it would discontinue train service on the right of way but hold on to the rights—which meant that though CSX wouldn’t be using the line, nobody else would, either. The District had tentatively agreed to pay $16 million for the land, but when DDOT read the fine print, it rejected the deal. “Everything hadn’t been made clear to us,” says Tangherlini, adding that CSX had led the city to believe it owned the land the track sits on, when all it had were easements, which would have required the city to wage condemnation battles. “I guess it was caveat emptor,” says Tangherlini.

The railroad sees the failed negotiations differently. Meg Scheu, a CSX spokesperson, says that the company had every ability to sell its track for the District’s use. “We have certain rights that accrued to us by owning that right of way, and we negotiated within those boundaries,” says Scheu. The $16 million sale, she says, would have allowed the city to run trains in perpetuity.

Now that CSX has gone home and taken its ball with it, DDOT has moved the light-rail project to the streets, infuriating local residents who say it will snarl traffic, reduce bus service, and eliminate much-needed street parking. Under current plans, the streetcar would travel south from Pennsylvania Avenue along Minnesota Avenue, turn onto Good Hope Road, then onto Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. From the Anacostia Metro station, the line would pass Barry Farm, snaking its way to Bolling.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Linda Eckles says that Anacostia’s streets simply aren’t wide enough for the streetcars to run in both directions. Local businesses generally rely on street parking, she says, which would be reduced by the streetcar tracks. Moreover, Eckles says, the proposal is redundant: “Almost everything that could be wrong with an area, we have wrong here, but one thing we have is a good bus system.”

The vast majority of residents who supported the project along the CSX tracks now oppose its being dropped in the middle of the streets, says Jerry. “It was amazing the number of community meetings they held about the light rail on the CSX tracks,” he says. But there has been no real public debate around putting trains in the street.

Tangherlini says that he regrets ever having proposed putting the streetcars on the CSX right of way but that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Proposing to use the CSX line, he says, “would avoid debate about how it works in traffic. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good idea.” Ultimately, though, Tangherlini is satisfied: “We did what we eventually hoped to. We moved the streetcar to the street.”

These buses-on-tracks have been the rage of the urban-planning world ever since downtown Portland, Ore., installed its streetcars in the late ’80s, and the District blueprints borrow heavily from that system. For weeks, says Jerry, DDOT representatives told him that if he had reservations about the streetcar proposal, he should go to Portland and see its system for himself. One weekend in October, Jerry did just that. A second member of the civic association’s transportation committee, Graylin Presbury, went to Portland recently with city officials, including Tangherlini and east-of-the-river Councilmembers Vincent Gray and Marion S. Barry Jr.

After seeing the system, Jerry and Presbury are both strongly opposed to DDOT’s plan. Fairlawn’s citizens association has passed a resolution against it. “It’s a great system for Portland,” says Presbury, “and it could be great for us—but not on our narrow streets.” Says Jerry: “Downtown Portland is not Anacostia.”

Tangherlini, though, says the system will work just fine in Anacostia. “Good poets don’t copy; they steal,” he says, paraphrasing T.S. Eliot. “We want to be great transportation poets.”

While residents battle DDOT on the streetcar proposal—an uphill climb, given that the city has already ordered three streetcars from a Czech company—the District says it isn’t finished with CSX. After the failure of the District’s carrots to persuade the railroad to give up the land, DDOT is reaching for the stick. Tangherlini says the agency is pursuing a “forced abandonment” of the rail bed, an action allowable under federal surface-transportation regulations.

And while that effort is under way, the District intends to convince the railroad that voluntary abandonment is in its best interests. The city is threatening to make use of an obscure law that requires a railroad to cover as much as 10 percent of the total cost of bridges crossing its right of way. On this front, CSX could end up receiving some hefty bills: The 11th Street Bridge, which runs over the right of way, needs refurbishing, and so does the Welsh Memorial Bridge, according to Tangherlini. On top of that, he adds, the city may want bridges for some potential bike paths.

CSX maintains it has always been open to discussing the transfer of the right of way, regardless of the District’s negotiating tactics. “If they are interested in talking, we’re open to it,” says Scheu. “We’re happy to enter into negotiations again.”

Tangherlini, too, says he looks forward to speaking with CSX. CP

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