Ricky Williams stood on the platform inside the new Columbia Heights station yesterday, looked at the shiny escalators, the immaculate track bed, the curve of the vaulted walls and smiled.
"People that ain't got cars can use this," said Williams, 31, who grew up in the neighborhood and was among hundreds of passengers, Metro workers, train buffs and dignitaries who streamed into the station at 14th and Irving streets to ride inaugural trains on a new 2.9-mile stretch of the Green Line. "It ain't been right here since the riots. This is going to help."
A parade of city, regional and national officials echoed Williams's thoughts at ceremonies marking the debut yesterday of the Columbia Heights and the Georgia Avenue-Petworth stations. Under a bright blue sky dotted with Green Line balloons and pennants, officials said the openings would bring access and hope to the neighborhoods of Shaw, Cardozo and Petworth.
"My friends, transportation is destiny," D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) told several a cheering crowd that spilled out from a white tent onto the west side of Georgia Avenue. "Anyone who doubts that can look at U Street and its revival. . . . The very prospect of this subway line has stirred, finally, economic development in Columbia Heights. The subway signals to everyone and to businesses that this community is alive!"
Last week, the city gave preliminary approval to $149 million worth of development on two city-owned parcels near the Columbia Heights station. Critics, who say the plan is too meager, used the ceremonies to vent anger toward D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Dozens of protesters dogged the mayor, holding signs and chanting, "Reverse the decision!" Backers of the mayor yelled back, "We support the mayor!"
Metro expects the stations to add 4,000 daily passengers to the system. Completion of the Columbia Heights and the Georgia Avenue-Petworth stations leaves five more stations to be built to complete the Green Line. The final seven-mile stretch from Congress Heights in Anacostia to Branch Avenue in Prince George's County, is expected to be finished in 2001.
Crews worked into Friday night at the Columbia Heights station and were back at dawn yesterday, feverishly setting cement and finishing roads around the station. The glass was still missing in the entrance canopy and plantings were still in their plastic buckets, but Metro managers were jubilant.
"We did it!" said P. Takis Salpeas, Metro's assistant general manager, who was handing out commemorative pens like a new father handing out cigars.
To celebrate what amounts to the completion of the original subway plan for central Washington, Metro offered tickets for free rides at both new Green Line stations yesterday and today.
Harold D. Blackwell Sr., 79, took one and strolled through the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station with his video camera raised to his eye. "I used to live here--I saw all the disturbances," said Blackwell, who moved to Military Road NW after the 1968 riots that left the neighborhood charred and isolated. "I wanted to come back and see this."
Neighborhood activists, while happy to see the $643 million project completed, said they are still angry about years of disruption, power outages, trash accumulation and other problems stemming from construction delays. The project began in 1994 after years of fights and legal challengers over its alignment. It was supposed to take two years to finish but unexpected engineering problems added three more.
"Metro hasn't been kind to us," said Shirley Jarrett, 59, one of 62 Columbia Heights residents who filed a class-action suit against Metro. The suit was settled late last week.