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Streetcars to return
Tracks, stops to be built on H Street-Benning Road
(Published January 23, 2006)

Staff Writer

Northeast Washington neighborhood leaders are hailing a decision by the Williams administration to revive streetcars as a victory for grass-roots resident activists, who pushed the District's transportation planners to include the light rail vehicles as part of the mayor's "Great Streets" initiative.

"This is great news. Twenty-four months we will have streetcars on H Street," predicted Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Joseph Fengler, ANC 6A-02, who helped lead the effort to bring streetcars to the H Street-Benning Road commercial corridor of Northeast Washington.

D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) officials announced last week that laying tracks for the planned 3.5-mile streetcar line, stretching from Union Station to Minnesota Avenue, will be included in a $43 million project that will rebuild the H Street-Benning Road roadbed. The project, currently in the design phase, is expected to be bid this spring for construction to commence in the fall.

The last streetcars in the District stopped running in the early 1960s, after playing a critical role in developing some of the city's outermost neighborhoods.

Elected neighborhood leaders from five Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in three wards, through which the streetcar line would run, spearheaded the lobbying effort to revive streetcars and gained support at the end of November from Councilwoman Sharon Ambose, D-Ward 6, who chairs the council's economic development committee.

In a joint letter sent to DDOT Director Dan Tangherlini last September, the chairmen of ANCs 5B, 6A, 6C, 7A and 7D called the streetcar line a project that "will bind our communities together to continue and expand the existing efforts to reverse decades of economic decline and decay." All five ANCs approved resolutions in September to support the streetcar line.

The streetcars, which will be powered by a single overhead electrical line, are envisioned as an attractive short-distance transport mode for neighborhood residents, rather than focusing on moving suburban commuters in and out of the city. Ambrose, in a November letter to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, also noted that the streetcars would "complete" the cross-town public transit corridor that is being partially served by the new D.C. Circulator bus between Georgetown and Union Station.

Karina Ricks, DDOT's Great Streets project coordinator, said the planned streetcars will share new stations with longer-distance Metrobuses, which will continue to operate along the H Street-Benning Road corridor.

"Think of the streetcar as a better bus," Ricks said. "It won't cause any more traffic congestion than the buses do now and won't take up any more parking spaces, but it will move more people using much less road capacity than if those people traveled in private vehicles."

Ricks said the streetscape redesign of H Street NE calls for three traffic lanes to be maintained in each direction, with the curb lane available for metered parking. Streetcars are expected to share the middle traffic lane in each direction with other vehicles.

City officials and neighborhood leaders agreed that laying tracks for streetcars during the planned rebuilding of H Street and Benning Road makes economic sense and will avoid the disruption of tearing up the roads for a second time.

But Ricks and Fengler noted that many critical decisions about the streetcar line remain to be made. Fengler's ANC is creating a Transportation Committee, which he said will engage the community in helping officials made those decisions.

Siting a storage and maintenance facility for streetcars is among major decisions to be made. The entire streetcar line's total cost also has not been determined.

"We haven't gotten a [financial] commitment for the cars," Fengler said. "But once we get the tracks and the power overhead, the streetcars will come. The weight of logic will prevail."

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator