Funding for D.C. streetcar system at issue during overhead-wiring dispute

The District has begun assembling a fleet of streetcars.
The District has begun assembling a fleet of streetcars. (District Department Of Transportation)
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By Jonathan O'Connell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Disagreements over whether to allow overhead wires on D.C. streets continue to stymie efforts to build a streetcar system in the city.

The chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission asked Friday that $25 million in federal transportation funds be withheld from the project until an agreement is reached over the conditions under which wires would be allowed.

The D.C. Council is close to passing legislation to allow electrical wires to be run on H Street and Benning Road NE, the first leg of a proposed 37-mile, $1.5 billion system.

L. Preston Bryant Jr., a former Virginia secretary of natural resources who President Obama appointed last year to chair the commission, has been negotiating with D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and D.C. Department of Transportation officials to ensure that a 1889 federal law banning overhead wires in parts of the city not be violated.

But in a letter Friday to Peter M. Rogoff, head of the Federal Transit Administration, Bryant said a legal opinion prepared for the commission indicates that Congress has the power to repeal the ban and that the FTA ought to withhold federal funds for the streetcar system until "I am able to communicate with you regarding a successful resolution of the issues."

Bryant, now with McGuire Woods Consulting in Richmond, said in an interview that the commission has generally expressed support for a streetcar system. But he said that without a resolution of the overhead wires issue, he needed to make the commission's position known before the FTA makes a decision on the city's application for funding. He said he expects a decision as soon as next week.

"We have been holding off on that letter for quite some time while we continue to have these very collegial discussions with the District officials," he said.

D.C. officials, however, said Bryant's letter was a setback to negotiations and an example of federal intrusion into city governance.

Wells said he went out of his way to protect historic views with his bill to require that all streetcars bought for the system -- after three cars already purchased for the H Street-Benning line -- be capable of running for at least a mile on another energy source. The bill, which has wide support and could pass next month, also stipulates that no wires be installed near the Mall, the White House, the Capitol and other sites.

Wells said that the commission wanted veto power over any legislation and that he and his colleagues would not agree to it. "They wanted that from the very beginning so I don't see any change," he said.

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