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D.C. streetcar project may get hung up on overhead wires

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; B01

The District is putting down the first miles of track for a planned 37-mile streetcar network, a throwback of a kind popping up in many cities that advocates hope will bring back Washington's still-languishing neighborhoods.

But what if the next catalyst of Washington's rebirth leaves a blot on the cityscape? The streetcars envisioned by D.C. planners -- and the first three they've purchased -- are powered by overhead electrical wires.

Similar wires are in use in Portland, Ore., Charlotte and a dozen other cities. But in Washington, the overhead system is being scorned by preservationists as outdated visual clutter inappropriate for a grand city of monuments and boulevards.

So before city planners can realize their vision of a $1.5 billion transportation system that connects neighborhoods instead of moving commuters, they must battle some guardians of the federal city -- or redefine what it should look like in the 21st century.

Wire opponents, from local preservation groups to the National Capital Planning Commission, want streetcars that draw electricity from buried batteries or power strips. On their side is an 1889 federal law banning overhead electrification in Georgetown and the original center city design by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791, bounded by the Potomac and Anacostia waterfronts north to Florida Avenue. Streetcars would run through much of the core, including H Street NE, where the city is now laying tracks.

"We have, in this city, an unusual number of clear views and vistas and broad boulevards," said Meg Maguire, a leader of Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which opposes overhead wires anywhere in the city. "They're not to be tampered with."

The National Park Service "does not want and does not approve of" overhead wires in the city, spokesman Bill Line said. The Capital Planning Commission also has inveighed against wires during reviews of city plans for the reconstruction of H Street, the 11th Street bridge and a 1.5-mile stretch in Anacostia, with the H Street-Benning Road section scheduled to open in 2012. Northern Virginia leaders are also planning a streetcar line along Columbia Pike, between the Pentagon City Metro station and Baileys Crossroads, that could eventually run Alexandria.

Along with the District's ban on virtually all city buildings more than 130 feet tall, the ban on overhead wires allows light and air to reach pedestrians. Telephone and other utility lines are buried beneath the city streets, and traffic lights are placed at the street's edges.

"We happen to think that's what keeps the beautiful character of the monumental core looking as it does," said Gene Keller, an urban planner with the Capital Planning Commission.

But top D.C. officials say that aesthetic regulation is getting in the way of the new generation of mass transit, which they hope will prod investment in Southeast Washington and continue the city's renaissance. And they're ready to make the 121-year-old law history.

"DDOT treasures the District's clear views as much as any of its stakeholders," said Gabe Klein, the District's transportation chief, who is counting on the Obama administration's keenness for public transit investment to jump-start the streetcar program. But, he said, "You have to weigh the impact of a single overhead wire on various less-significant viewsheds . . . versus the importance of connecting residents, businesses and visitors with needed jobs and services."

Compromise effort

Klein said today's wireless technology is costly and untested in cities with rain and snowy winters, like the District. Just a few companies make wireless streetcars, and they've had growing pains where they've been introduced, mostly in Europe. It could be fiscally irresponsible for the city to limit its options, he said.

He is floating a compromise to preservationists: a hybrid system that would run on wires outside the federal city and switch to battery power inside. United Streetcar, a Portland-based company looking at wireless cars to expand that city's streetcar line, is designing a prototype that would recharge batteries every mile, possibly with a braking mechanism at stations.

But the battery could take several minutes to charge, and city planners want more flexibility. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he will introduce a bill this month to not only overturn the ban on overhead streetcar wires but also upend the definition of downtown Washington held for more than two centuries. The legislation would allow the council to determine which views in the federal city are worth preserving and which aren't.

Wells said the vision of a city with unfettered views is no longer realistic, considering the clutter of self-storage facilities where the tracks are now being installed and an eight-lane Pennsylvania Avenue. Streetcars mean fewer vehicles on the road, he said -- and cars are the ultimate clutter, he contends.

"Frankly, the degradation of the air [from vehicles] is as bad if not worse than the wires," Wells said. "The purists are making this a religion rather than a practicality. . . . If the National Park Service only sees themselves as the steward of what happened over 120 years, we've got a problem."

Whether the existing law is now federal or local is a question likely to be heavily debated.

Easy fix back in the day

Streetcars ran on the streets of Washington from 1862 until 1962. They were the backbone of Washington's transportation system until Congress ordered buses to replace them as the auto industry boomed in the 1950s. The problem of overhead wires was solved by a plow attached to the underside of the trolley, which connected to power from a center rail about 18 inches below the pavement surface and supplied current to the car. Outside the core of the city, a pole was raised to meet an overhead wire. The center rail collected rain and snow, though, so the system was unreliable.

DDOT plans to pursue federal funds and private sector help in financing and managing the modern system, possibly by enacting special tax district for commercial property owners near the tracks. Three cars built in the Czech Republic and stored there for several years are now sitting in Metro's Greenbelt rail yard until the first tracks are ready for them.

City planners say today's overhead wires are far less obtrusive than the old ones, what Wells calls a "minimalist technology" that uses a single pole and a single wire. But preservationists argue that even modern streetcars require a web of wires to turn. And they object not just to the wires and poles but to the pantograph atop of the cars that conveys power to the overhead wire.

"Why are the tourists entitled to a better view than we are?" asked Monte Edwards of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. "I like to look up and see the sky and trees. They're as important to me as a resident as the tourist's views of our monuments."

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