The D.C. Council approved emergency legislation Tuesday that permits overhead power lines as part of the construction of the streetcar line along H Street and Benning Road. The move came after a transparent power play by National Capital Planning Commission Chairman L. Preston Bryant Jr.
Last week, Bryant -- who lives in Richmond, Va., 100 miles away from the impacted area -- asked the Federal Transit Administration “to withhold federal funds from the District” for the streetcar system because of the overhead wires.
While such wires were banned under 1888 and 1889 laws, Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert argues that those laws applied only to the original territory of Washington City, not the entire District of Columbia, meaning Georgetown lines were already legal. The Council action Tuesday clarified that issue.
Alpert also rightly argues that Bryant is overstepping the NCPC’s bounds. The commission is charged with protecting the “federal interest” in the District, which is generally thought to apply to the National Mall and major monuments. Georgetown is well outside that purview.
“Has June been proclaimed Richmond Republican Power Grab Over Washington Month and nobody told me?” Alpert asks.
The streetcar plan is sensible and popular. Downtown businesses and residents in impacted areas are generally supportive, and a streetcar system makes sense for the city’s concentrated downtown. The system would reduce traffic and help ease up Metro overcrowding.
“I love Georgetown and D.C. as much as anyone, and cannot fathom how anyone's love and appreciation of D.C. and Georgetown would be diminished by overhead wires," Georgetown resident Ken Archer said in testimony before the Council. "Why do we find overhead wires more detrimental than the cars that they would take off of the streets? Why are the former so distracting and the latter somehow invisible? I just don't get it.”
The H Street line and an Anacostia streetcar are scheduled to begin operation in 2012, the first two of eight proposed lines. Councilmember Tommy Wells’s Chief of Staff Charles Allen said, “We're not trying to put wires on the National Mall or by Abraham Lincoln.”
Wells himself said of the legislation, “Today's action brings local control and accountability to the District as it continues the development of the streetcar transportation system to better connect neighborhoods and support local economic development.”
A vote on making the measure permanent will take place July 13.