On Tuesday afternoon, the D.C. Council voted unanimously — for a second time – to approve the Transportation Infrastructure Temporary Amendment Act of 2010, a temporary overhead wires bill under emergency procedures (the Council must vote on legislation twice under its procedures). The Council amended the bill to address concerns raised by the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) recently, including by specifically listing Pennsylvania Avenue NW between the Capitol and the White House and the National Mall as wire free zones.
The Council action caps off several tumultuous weeks following the Council’s June 22 hearing on the legislation at which NCPC did not testify. However, just days after the hearing, NCPC Chairman Preston Bryant fired off a letter to the D.C. Council seeking unprecedented powers of approval for each individual streetcar segment before it could be built, and he threatened that if the Council failed to meet his demands, NCPC may be compelled “to pursue other measures that ensure protection of the federal interest.” Not only that, but he sent a letter to Peter Rogoff, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in an effort to torpedo D.C.’s application for $25 million in federal funding to extend the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line across the Anacostia River to the east and connect it to the Benning Road Metrorail station.
Within days, three D.C. officials — Robert Miller (NCPC Vice Chair who also works for D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray), Harriet Tregoning (Director of D.C.’s Office of Planning and an NCPC member), and Gabe Klein (Director of the District Department of Transportation(DDOT)) — sent separate letters to Bryant strongly objecting to his letter to the FTA seeking to kill D.C.’s chance to compete for federal funding for streetcars. As it turned out, NCPC had not agreed upon the position stated in Bryant’s letters so he found himself out on a long limb. He had to answer for his actions in a closed session of the Commission.
On July 8, the FTA announced awards for its Urban Circulator grants, and D.C. did not receive funds to extend the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line. As reported on Greater Greater Washington, Bryant’s letter appears to have had no impact because the FTA grant decision had already been made by the time his letter was received.
In an attempt to resolve the dispute, last week Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton convened a meeting in her House office with representatives from NCPC, the D.C. Council and DDOT. According to one account, that meeting appears to have been productive and has spurred further conversations between NCPC and the D.C. government, with NCPC apparently acting in good faith. Further, in an interview with Fox 5 on Monday, Norton expressed confidence that D.C. will be in a good position to win federal funding for streetcars in the next round.
Where do streetcar supporters go from here? First, we need to convert Congresswoman Norton from a lukewarm supporter of streetcars into our advocate for streetcars in Congress, particularly for federal streetcar funding. More on this soon. Second, we must ensure that when the D.C. Council returns from its recess in September that it immediately passes permanent overhead wires legislation (as the current “emergency” legislation is only temporary). The goods news is that according to Council sources, this is the Council’s plan.