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Overhead wires bill passes D.C. council

(This post has been updated)

The D.C. city council today approved emergency legislation that will allow construction of the streetcar line along Benning Road and H Street Northeast to move forward with overhead power lines on that corridor and create a "public process" for determining whether overhead wires are acceptable on other parts of the planned system.

It repeals a 19th-century federal prohibition on the wires, but reinstates a ban at the local level on the wires in historic neighborhoods, including Georgetown, and tourist areas.

The move was, well, down to the wire. On Monday, the Post reported that L. Preston Bryant Jr., chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, asked the FTA to withhold federal funds for the streetcar system until "I am able to communicate with you regarding a successful resolution of the issues" surrounding the 19th-century laws.

"We have several legal opinions that DC has the full legal and legislative authority to change these laws and establish them within DC Code," said Charles Allen, chief of staff to council member Tommy Wells, in an e-mail to the Post's Lisa Rein.

The legislation--a permanent version of which will be voted on in two weeks--requires the mayor to periodically review whether segments powered by wires could be converted to battery or other alternative power, and report to the council.

Wells said that the planning commission wanted veto power over any legislation and that he and his colleagues would not agree to it. "They wanted that from the very beginning so I don't see any change," he said, according to the Post's Jonathan O'Connell.

"Today's action brings local control and accountability to the District as it continues the development of the streetcar transportation system to better connect neighborhoods and support local economic development," said Wells, a member of Committee on Public Works & Transportation, in a statement.

Original post: D.C. Ward 6 council member Tommy wells just tweeted that the council has unanimously passed an emergency "measure allowing overhead wires on H St Benning" for the city's streetcar project.

Funding at issue in streetcar project | D.C. seeks federal funds
Streetcar effort may go down to the wire

By Michael Bolden  | June 29, 2010; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  Advisories, Commuting, District, Transportation Politics  
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Great news!

The streecars are a good thing. It would be even better if they expanded the network.

Traffic in the District is bad as it is. I don't see how streetcars can make it any worse. Who knows? They might be an improvement. I know I would ride them.

Posted by: ceefer66 | June 29, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Wait, a ban in "historic neighborhoods" or a ban in the L'Enfant Federal City? There is a big difference. The former would suggest places like Woodley Park, Columbia Heights and Cleveland Park - places that once had overhead wires to power streetcars.

Have streetcar proponents been schnookered or can someone clarify this?

Posted by: LukasWP | June 29, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

There is a "way around" the overhead trolley wire issue in certain areas of D C, yet nobody is even considering it. Just have auxiliary Diesel engines onboard each car that would generate the electricity in those sections where you think the wires would be unsightly. There would be no need for staffed "plow pits" as in the old days at change-over points. Pantographs could be raised and lowered automatically with the press of a dashboard button by the operator. The Diesel generators would also turn on and off with the flip of a toggle switch on the dash.

Diesel engines to generate electricity for electric traction motors is proven technology and used every day. One such example are the new electric trackless trolleys in Philadelphia, that feature off-wire capability. At the flick of a dashboard toggle switch, the trolley poles automatically lower. Another toggle switch turns on the Diesel generator and off the coach goes, without the wires, to get around detours, obstructions, etc.

Another successful example is New Jersey Transit's RiverLINE light rail line in Southern New Jersey. The cars have an onboard Diesel engine which produces the power for the electric traction motors. However, I do agree that we need to limit the use of Diesel fuel and oil consumption where possible and thus, D C's new street cars should only use the "off-wire" generators in spots where deemed absolutely necessary.

Posted by: TransitJeff | June 29, 2010 9:20 PM | Report abuse

DDOT has the cart WAAAAY before the horse with this streeter car idea. The idea of returning streetcars to DC from their elimination in 1962 has been around for several years now but it has never materialized into an actual plan for a system that could be costed out, assessed for environmental impact, put in the budget nor vetted with the public. What has happened so far is an embarrassment for anyone who wants the DC government to work better and more openly. DDOT has been completely misleading about it getting people all excited about something that is, yes, an appealing idea with some merit as an additional form of transporatation the District could and perhaps should incorporate into its overall public transportation plan, but which is not at the actionable stage right now. The July Hill Rag has a great article outlining some of the many unanswered questions just about the one segment on H St. as well the negative effects on some of the small businesses there. A lot more thought needs to be done to get the horse back in front of the cart on this idea so that, if approved by the citizenry, it can proceed in the smoothest, most fiscally and environmentally responsible way and will be a system we can maintain for ages.

Posted by: 1citizen | June 29, 2010 10:00 PM | Report abuse

I totally support light rail; HOWEVER, only it if is thoughtfully used. One important question is: Will the streetcars have a dedicated right of way in the street, allowing only limited turns by motor vehicles? If not, the streetcars will be operating in mixed traffic, which will slow the streetcars down, making them no faster than the less buses that they might replace. As far as I can tell from the Post's rather limited, superificial reporting on this issue, is that the streetcars will not have a decided right of way.

Posted by: RockvilleBear | June 29, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

Miracle of miracles! After 121 years the District has finally broken the strangle hold of the nafarious Cable Car Traction Trust---and at that it was a squeaker!

Seriously though, Chairman Bryant and the National Capital Planning Commission need to find a more cooperative approach to affecting policy. Their heavy-handed appeals to the FTA to cut federal funds if they aren't assured of unilateral, extralegal control is an embarressment to the profession of planning.

Please remind the staff of the "Three Cs of Planning," Preston: Comprehensive, Continuing and Cooperative.

Posted by: TRHickey | June 30, 2010 12:42 AM | Report abuse

@RockvilleBear: The answer to your question is NO. Just take a look at the Benning Road-H Street tracks already laid. They are in the center of the road that will necessitate intersection with cross traffic. In essence, stopping.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | June 30, 2010 7:58 AM | Report abuse

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