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Norton Declares Barney Circle Freeway a Dead End

By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5 1997; Page B01
The Washington Post

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) declared yesterday that the Barney Circle Freeway project is dead and said she was working to transfer $200 million earmarked for what had been the city's top highway priority to other urgent District transportation needs.

More than 20 years on the drawing board, the Barney Circle Freeway would have connected the Southeast-Southwest Freeway (Interstate 395) and the Anacostia Freeway (Interstate 295) with a new bridge across the Anacostia River, enabling motorists to bypass the Capital Beltway and cut diagonally across the District on linked interstate highways.

But the D.C. Council, responding to strong opposition by neighborhood and environmental groups, voted overwhelmingly to reject an initial $15 million construction contract in December. That action spurred Norton to pursue alternatives with D.C. Mayor Marion Barry (D), council members and federal highway officials.

"The Barney Circle opposition, after 15 years, has been successful," Norton said yesterday in an interview. "The $200 million is still ours. I am looking at -- and talking with the District about -- the best use to be made of the money."

Norton said she would introduce legislation to shift the funds to other transportation projects.

With clear precedent for such a bill, Norton said, Congress should be willing to let the District keep the funds, given its current financial state.

"It's my job to go for it," Norton said, but she added that it would be up to Barry and the council to decide how the money should be spent.

The Barney Circle Freeway "is absolutely dead, and it's a victory -- a major victory," said council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who sponsored the resolution disapproving the construction contract.

Norton publicly declared the project dead for the first time Monday night at a meeting she arranged in Anacostia between the community and officials of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Proponents of the project, who for years have counted on support from federal highway officials and D.C. mayors Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly, said the connector would draw thousands of commuters off clogged local streets east of Capitol Hill. It would have been the first major new road built in the city in decades.

But environmentalists and neighborhood opponents waged a withering battle against the project, arguing that it would pave over federal parkland and further pollute low-income city neighborhoods for the benefit of Maryland commuters and more affluent residents of Capitol Hill.

Those opponents filed two lawsuits in 1994 challenging the project on procedural and environmental grounds. Ramps on the 11th Street and Sousa bridges, they argued, could accomplish the same thing at a fraction of the cost.

"I'm leery to say that the project is dead. It seems to have more lives than an alley cat," said Fern L. Shepard, a lawyer for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which challenged the project in court on the grounds that federal and city officials covered up the presence of hazardous wastes buried along the proposed route.

"But if the money is taken away," she said, "then that really is the death knell for this project. I think it's a really wonderful development that [Norton] has taken this step."

John Capozzi, a Barney Circle civic leader and longtime freeway opponent now running for the D.C. Council, also welcomed Norton's declaration that the project is history. But he added: "We don't give up until we see the money spent somewhere else. I love the ramps. I've always felt the ramps are the solution."

Capozzi also released a letter he received last week from Jane F. Garvey, acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, in which she cited instances in which California, Oregon and Wisconsin succeeded in having legislation passed to redirect interstate highway funds.

Garvey also noted that her agency would not require the District to pay back millions of dollars in federal funds already spent on designing the Barney Circle Freeway if it decided that the Department of Public Works had scrapped the project for "valid issues and concerns."

Barry already has directed public works officials to study the feasibility of an alternative plan to build two ramps connecting the Sousa Bridge with I-295 in either direction.

Council member Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Public Works Committee, said he thought public works officials had backed off their historic support for the freeway, especially now that Norton is pursuing legislation to make the funds available for other projects.

"We've got some potholes and some streets within the city that federal money now doesn't take care of," Thomas said, adding that he has a long list of alternative road projects for Barry and Norton to consider.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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