Dispute deepens on overhead wires for D.C. trolley

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

The clang-clang-clang surrounding a plan to use overhead trolley wires on H Street and Benning Road continued Thursday with the District's transportation chief scolding the chairman of the region's planning commission and suggesting he was "blackmailing" local elected officials.

At issue is whether the use of overhead lines violates a 19th-century ban intended to preserve the appearance of areas surrounding federal buildings. It also brings into play the age-old tension between the authority of Congress to preside over the federal city and the limited powers of self-determination accorded the D.C. Council.

The latest exchange came after L. Preston Bryant Jr., chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), wrote to the Federal Transit Administration last week, opposing the use of $25 million in federal money needed to fund the proposed new trolley line, which would connect communities east of the Anacostia River with Union Station, until an agreement is reached over the conditions under which wires would be allowed.

The District needs federal money to extend the streetcar line, under construction on H Street and Benning Road NE, for two miles into communities across the Anacostia. The line is the first leg in what city planners envision as a 37-mile, $1.5 billion trolley system.

Gabe Klein, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT), responded with a letter on Thursday that asked Bryant to retract his FTA letter, contending, among other things, that the ban on overhead wires passed in the 1880s does not apply to the portions of the trolley route at issue.

"DDOT has never planned to use overhead wires along the National Mall," Klein wrote. "Moreover, this segment is not located in a region of the District within NCPC's jurisdiction."

The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation Tuesday approving the use of the overhead wires along Benning Road and H Street NE and to create a public process for determining whether overhead wires are acceptable in other areas. The council is scheduled to vote on a permanent version of the legislation July 13.

"You also cite an NCPC legal memo opining that the D.C. Council does not have the authority to repeal the 1888 and 1889 wire bans," Klein wrote, citing two other legal briefs, which concluded that "the D.C. Council does not need congressional approval to amend the 19th-century overhead wire restrictions."

Klein accused Bryant of "an attempt to leverage influence on the overhead wire legislation now under consideration by the D.C. Council. "

"This use of apparent blackmail is troublesome since NCPC appears to be attempting to sidetrack a rare funding opportunity for a key transportation project that lies beyond its authority and jurisdiction," Klein wrote. "It also appears that you are seeking to inappropriately expand your strictly advisory role related to projects in the District."

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