Metro has not one but three old, dilapidated streetcar trestles it inherited decades ago and is desperate to get rid of.
They are, as the transit agency describes, “structurally compromised” and “should be removed in the interest of safety.”
We’ve been chronicling the story of the Foundry Branch trolley trestle in Georgetown and the fight to have it restored and the trail beneath it reopened. But it turns out that the transit agency also owns two other trestles: one at Walhonding Road over the Sycamore Store Trail and the other at Wilson Lane. Both are in Montgomery County.
How did Metro end up with what basically amounts to unusable memorabilia? It’s an interesting tale.
The region’s former bus company, the D.C. Transit System, which sold its bus operations to Metro for $44.9 million in 1973, was ordered to repay the public millions of dollars to compensate for excessive fares collected during the last 10 years of its operations.
D.C. Transit was owned by a former New York entrepreneur, O Roy Chalk, who took over Washington’s transit system in 1956, acquiring a mixed streetcar and bus system that became an all-bus operation in 1962.
“In the years immediately after his arrival in Washington, Mr. Chalk was viewed as something of a community hero,” according to The Washington Post’s 1995 obituary for Chalk. “The organization he took over, Capital Transit Co., which had been owned by Lewis E. Wolfson, had fallen from favor after a 57-day strike in 1955, and Congress had revoked its franchise.”
Chalk stabilized fares at 20 cents a ride in the first years of D.C. Transit operations, according to news clips, but ultimately raised the fare to 40 cents.
“In the latter years of Mr. Chalk’s tenure, the D.C. Democratic Central Committee and the Black United Front, among others, sued D.C. Transit over its last fare increase, which boosted the price of a bus ride from 32 cents to 40 cents. The groups contended that the 1970 increases resulted in excessive profits,” The Post reported.
That continuing D.C. Circuit Court case gave rise to a 1990 settlement, the creation of a Riders Fund and the transfer of many of D.C. Transit assets to the riders.
“The riders had valid claims against D.C. Transit,” said Leonard Bebchick, a retired Washington attorney who litigated the case on behalf of riders. “D.C. Transit promised to pay and defaulted, so the riders proceeded to collect the assets of D.C. Transit.”
Among those holdings were streetcar barns and some trolley rights of way. There were also Georgetown office buildings and former bus garages — all worth more than $10 million in the late 1970s.
On behalf of the riders, Bebchick sought the foreclosure of many of the properties of value. Property was put up for public sale, and the Riders Fund acquired the few that weren’t purchased.
“At the time, my eye was on the portion traversed by the existence and planned expansion of Clara Barton Parkway and parcels of possible economic value, including the portion or the right of way passing through Brookmont,” Bebchick said.
“I purposely left gaps for parcels which clearly had no value or created potential liabilities, namely the trestles,” he said.
In 1997, the court ordered that all the proceeds and holdings of the two restitution funds be transferred to Metro. Because the court couldn’t determine who had paid extra during the years of unlawful fares in the 1960s and early 1970s, it ruled that the funds would be used to benefit all future riders.
Metro received a net restitution that resulted from three decades of litigation against D.C. Transit’s unlawful fare increases, Bebchick said. It included a total cash distribution of $10.38 million, according to his records. The transit agency also got possession of a Brookland garage property then valued at $4.4 million.
Some Georgetown lots, including the trestle, the Cabin John lots and some Prince George’s County lots, were valued at $367,123, Bebchick said. There were also proceeds from the sale of an abutting right of way to the town of Glen Echo for $90,000.
The circuit court’s April 7, 1997, ruling said that the proceeds “and all additional monies realized from the lease, sale or other disposition of all properties and non-cash assets received” from D.C. Transit as a result of the settlement of litigation with the Riders Fund were to be “used by [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] to purchase buses for operations in the District of Columbia and for operations on routes between the District of Columbia and destinations in suburban Maryland.” (The service area of D.C. Transit’s operations.)
The trestles weren’t part of the Riders Fund’s assets that were transferred to Metro, but the transit agency obtained them through the same case.
“All of the trolley trestles were assets of D.C. Transit at the time and were conveyed to WMATA as part of the lawsuit” that sought compensation for the riders, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said. The agency inherited the structures in 1997.
In their glory days, the 120-year-old-plus structures — one in the District and two in Montgomery County — were part of the streetcar network that transported thousands of residents. It was the main mode of transit for almost a century, until it was considered too antiquated and closed for good in the early 1960s, giving way to the bus era. And so was the end of the useful life for the trestles.
Now the relics are a hazard and a burden to the region’s transit agency.
Still, a few streetcar enthusiasts and preservationists see potential in them, chiefly the one in District, where they say investment could give the trestle new life as a pedestrian bridge connecting neighborhoods on both sides of Georgetown University.
Metro wants them gone. The structures rotting just above national parkland could fall any day. A storm could topple them. Metro inspectors found them to be in such poor condition that the National Park Service ordered public spaces under them closed.
Those were the safety concerns Bebchick said he had three decades ago when he sought the properties and decided not to put the trestles on the Riders Fund out of fear they would turn into a liability.
“I can understand why Metro wants to just take them down and forget about it,” Bebchick said. “If there is a positive use and someone can finance it, fine. But absent of positive use, I think it is a danger and a public nuisance.”