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A Rage Against the Metro

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 10, 1996; Page E01

Seven years after subway construction devastated businesses and daily life in the Shaw area of Northwest Washington, two nearby neighborhoods are accusing Metro and District officials of breaking their promises to avoid similar problems during work on the Green Line.

Residents and business owners in Columbia Heights and Petworth -- where two subway stations are being built -- are complaining of dirty and unsafe streets, frequent interruptions in utility service, increased crime and rats, constant noise and blocked streets that could prevent emergency vehicles from quickly getting into the neighborhoods.

Metro had vowed that 14th Street NW -- the commercial heart of Columbia Heights -- would be open on weekdays, but transit and city officials closed the north-south artery at Columbia Road last month, fouling up traffic on parallel streets and rerouting Metro buses in a transit-dependent, low-income neighborhood.

"It might be beautiful when they're finished, but, hey, look at it now. It's disgraceful," Helen Crawford, 79, said as she sat on a park bench near the havoc along 14th Street near Columbia Road."

The tension between officials and residents has led D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to tell Metro General Manager Richard A. White that 14th Street must be reopened by December, and White agreed. Two meetings between officials and residents were hastily scheduled for tonight, the 36th and 37th such meetings since January 1995.

Resident John Nyarku got so tired of the noise from construction equipment outside his New Hampshire Avenue home this summer that he sat down next to the threads of a drill that lifts soil out of the ground, stopping work. Metro cooled off Nyarku by putting his family up at a Holiday Inn for two nights. Transit officials also paid $130 to Gary Imhoff, of Columbia Heights, to buy a device to protect his computer from frequent power outages. Potomac Electric Power Co. sent one contractor a $28,000 bill for cutting into a power line.

"We realize it's a major inconvenience to have their lives disrupted because of construction activity," said Nuria I. Fernandez, Metro's construction chief. "We apologize for the inconvenience."

Fernandez acknowledged that the contractors building the three miles of track and two stations in the Columbia Heights and Petworth areas have made mistakes, nicking utility lines too often and taking too much time to clean streets of the dirt and mud created by the trenches workers are digging to lay the tunnel and put in the stations. The stations, scheduled to open in 1999, will connect the Green Line between U Street and Fort Totten, giving riders a seamless trip between downtown Washington and Greenbelt in Prince George's County.

"I have to acknowledge we haven't done a stellar job of street maintenance and upkeep," Fernandez said.

Concrete barriers line 14th Street between U and Harvard streets, and steel plates cover holes. Cement trucks block crosswalks. Power lines are exposed at 14th and Harvard streets where schoolchildren cross. One recent day, the corner of 14th and Kenyon streets was covered with two inches of muddy water pumped from below the surface into a storm sewer.

It may not be much consolation to residents such as Crawford, Nyarku or Imhoff, but conditions in the Shaw and U Street areas were worse during the subway construction there. At one point the contractor was fired after stopping work, leading to delays and lawsuits during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

To avoid repeating the Shaw debacle, then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and the Metro board negotiated an agreement under which the safety and cleanliness of the Columbia Heights and Petworth areas were to be maintained at all times. In a unique concession, contractors agreed to hire community relations personnel to work with residents. The agreement also spared about 125 houses and businesses from being torn down for construction.

Unable to remove buildings, construction workers and machines are confined to tight spaces, only 20 feet from bedrooms in some above-ground areas and even more confined underground, where workers must navigate around utility lines. Transit officials knew that they would bother people, so they tried to head off criticism by warning residents that the construction would create dirt and noise.

Metro's admonitions were heard, many residents said, but the construction's impact has been worse than predicted. The closing of 14th Street, for example, has led to a scary scene each day as schoolchildren, seniors and disabled people in wheelchairs try to cross pockmarked streets covered with dirt and mud. Many don't even try.

The closed side streets make convenient escape routes for criminals on foot because police cars can't get to them, residents say. In the 1400 block of Chapin Street, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mary Treadwell said, there have been four car break-ins in the last year, compared with only one in the last 14 years. Some businesses have lost customers, they said, because access has been blocked.

Metro officials said they had to close part of 14th Street to install walls for the Columbia Road station. Their choice, they said, is to shut down the street until Dec. 1 or stick with their original plan of closing it on weekends, which could last as long as next spring.

"No large urban construction runs exactly the way it is originally mapped out," Metro spokesman Rod Burfield said.

Dorothy A. Brizill, a community activist, replied: "I was in Paris this spring, and they are building subway extensions. If you didn't read a sign, you wouldn't know there was construction under your feet. So I don't want Metro to say this is the only way they can do this."

Brizill accused Metro of ineffective self-policing because two of the city officials who oversee the subway construction retired from the D.C. government, then returned to work after Metro agreed to pay part of their salaries. Fernandez denied a conflict of interest, saying the officials have been tough on Metro.

Relief should come by next summer, transit officials said, when the above-ground work is scheduled to be finished and the streets restored. Noting the community backlash, Burfield said, "We're trying to go underground as fast as we can, folks."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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