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  • New Metro Stations Key to Revitalization

    Beverley Wheeler, left, Pamela L. Porter, center, and Alice Sexton fought to make sure no homes were lost to construction of the new Green Line Metro stations. (Rick Bowmer The Washington Post)
    By Lyndsey Layton
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, September 18, 1999; Page B1

    With the flash of the first silver subway car at 8 a.m. today, Metro will open its Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue-Petworth stations, completing the missing link in the original subway plan for central Washington.

    The new Green Line stations will reconnect a wedge of the city isolated since 1968, when rioters burned hundreds of businesses and homes and pitched the Cardozo, Shaw and Petworth neighborhoods into desolation that has lasted a generation.

    For residents of those communities, the stations will bring quick and easy downtown access, in contrast to the crowded, lumbering buses that require multiple transfers to reach schools, jobs and stores. For the metropolitan area, the new stations will mean seamless travel from Greenbelt in Prince George's County to Anacostia in Southeast Washington, creating the subway system's only true north-south line through downtown.

    And for Metro, completion of the $643 million project marks the end of a huge technical feat. Crews built 2.9 miles of subway tunnels under densely populated neighborhoods without tearing down a single home, working through a thicket of utility lines and older pipes and in sections where water made the soil as stable as soup.

    They used special tunneling techniques to burrow beneath Grant Circle without disturbing an ancient cedar tree, and under historic Rock Creek cemetery without unsettling graves. In one tight squeeze under Park Road, they stacked the inbound and outbound subway tunnels one atop the other, instead of the side-by-side approach used everywhere else in the rail system. And to satisfy preservationists, Metro took the facade of a 1911 firehouse on Georgia Avenue, moved it across the street to the front of the air-conditioning building for the subway station and built a new $4 million fire station elsewhere.

    "This has been one of our toughest engineering and construction challenges in our history," Metro General Manager Richard A. White said. "I haven't spent more time on a single project than I have on this."

    The man who has wrestled with the construction headaches, Metro project manager John Dickson, called it "a once-in-a-lifetime project."

    Complicating matters was Metro's agreement with community leaders that none of the 100 homes in the subway's path would be torn down. Fights and lawsuits over the alignment of the route delayed construction for decades. When work finally began in 1994, the technical problems stretched construction from two to five years and exacerbated noise, dirt, rats and disruption.

    "They were always cutting off water lines, phone lines," said Dorothy Brizill, a community activist. "We still have streets that are partly closed and piles and piles of debris."

    Both the dispute over the subway's alignment and the more recent construction delays prompted residents to accuse Metro of mismanagement and racial and economic discrimination. "When Metro built underground for the Red Line in upper Northwest, they didn't take any homes, any historical property," said Beverley Wheeler, an activist who helped found the Coalition for Fair Treatment. "They thought we didn't know any better, that we would be so happy to have a subway. . . . But we deserve fair treatment on the east side of Rock Creek Park."

    A class action suit filed by 62 homeowners near Columbia Heights, who complained of noise, trash accumulation and water and power cutoffs, was settled late this week; neither Metro nor the residents would discuss the terms. Of five other lawsuits filed by individuals, two have been settled and three are pending.

    Merchants, too, said they were devastated by the years of construction. When the sidewalk and roadway outside Capital Locksmith on Georgia Avenue turned into a staging area for construction equipment and materials for three years, owner Jack Exler saw business drop 50 percent.

    "They came in, handed me a hard hat and took away the street in front of my store," said Exler, whose father opened the store in 1948. "People didn't know we were open. We were totally blocked by the construction trucks and pipes and concrete. There were days we didn't see more than five, 10 customers, all day. It was so slow, we could fall asleep."

    Metro board member Jim Graham, who represents the neighborhoods on the D.C. Council, said the small business environment "has been virtually destroyed. Neighbors have been inconvenienced, in some cases injured. I don't want to suggest this was a callous, uncaring Metro system that came roaring through, but the fact of the matter is there were major engineering challenges that had to be overcome."

    He and others are hoping that today marks a turnaround for the neighborhoods.

    "This will open our neighborhood up for economic development," Wheeler said. "People will be able to get to us."

    Last week, the city gave preliminary approval to $149 million worth of development on two city-owned parcels near the Columbia Heights station. The plan, which some critics say is too meager, calls for a supermarket, retail shops and town houses.

    The station openings also mean an end to the much-hated "Green Line shortcut." Passengers who boarded the Green Line north of Fort Totten and wanted to reach the southeast part of downtown were forced to get off at Fort Totten, change to the Red Line and switch back to the Green Line.

    Marsha Quarles, who lives near the Columbia Heights station, said the new service will make visiting her mother in Hyattsville much easier. Until now, her usual trip was an ordeal: take a bus to the U Street-Cardozo Yellow Line station, ride to Gallery Place-Chinatown, transfer to the Red Line, transfer to the Green Line at Fort Totten and ride to Hyattsville. "This will make it so easy," she said. "I just get on and it's one ride."

    Metro expects that the two new stations will add 4,000 passengers a day to the subway system. Ridership for the stations is projected to grow to 6,000 in one year, spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said. No new rail cars have been bought in conjunction with the new station. Metro says it has enough existing stock to serve the new passengers.

    The openings are being celebrated by Metro and city officials as the end of construction for the original subway system planned for central Washington.

    There are five more stations still to be built on a seven-mile piece of the Green Line that stretches from Congress Heights at the edge of the District to Branch Avenue in Prince George's County. That work is expected to be finished by late 2001.

    White said the transit agency now can shift its focus toward extending rail further into Virginia and Maryland.

    "Our goal is to double ridership over the next 25 years," said White, noting that a project to extend Metro to Largo awaits federal approval, while Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) has said he wants to build rail to Dulles. "The challenge is to prepare for the next generation of extensions while maintaining our system so it can serve our customers into the future."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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