D.C. and streetcar foes need to get on the same track

Tuesday, April 13, 2010; A16

OFFICIALS in the District are in an understandable hurry to get streetcars rolling again in the nation's capital. Streetcars could spur economic development as they make it easier for residents to move among neighborhoods. Perhaps, though, officials should have slowed down long enough to realize the obstacles posed by a 121-year-old federal law. A reasonable compromise must be found so this important transportation initiative can proceed.

The District has laid track and purchased cars for a planned 37-mile network connecting neighborhoods and complementing existing transit options. But as The Post's Lisa Rein reported, an 1889 federal law bans overhead electrification wires in the federal city. Preservation groups and the National Capital Planning Commission are insisting that the city's grand views are not to be tampered with -- even if the District already owns equipment that would require overhead lines.

The impasse is likely to come to a head over the initial segment of the system, a 1.6-mile stretch between Union Station and the H Street corridor that could open as early as 2012. The District thought it was being prudent when it laid the track as H Street was being rebuilt, but if some accommodation isn't reached, it could have tracks that go nowhere.

Wire opponents are pushing technology that wouldn't require overhead lines, but city officials say it's costly and unreliable. No one wants to see the city's glorious views marred in any way, but city officials make a good case that aesthetics must be weighed against the advantages of better mass transit. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is right to argue that the degradation to the environment is worse from cars on the road than from some unobtrusive overhead wires.

The city has only itself to blame for not initiating a better discussion and planning process earlier. Still, it is right to have a sense of urgency in providing transportation alternatives as congestion grows. The two sides need to come to an understanding. A good place to start is with the reasonable suggestion by Gabe Klein, the city's transportation chief, to use a hybrid system that allows overhead wires in some areas but still respects the city's capital views.

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