In the wake of recent news that the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line will be delayed even further — this time from late 2012 to late 2013 — we received more bad news for H Street and the future of streetcars in D.C. when D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown unceremoniously removed Councilmember Tommy Wells (Ward 6) as chairman of the Council’s Public Works and Transportation Committee, allegedly as political payback for Wells’ thorough investigating of Brown’s self-inflicted “fully loaded” SUV scandal. Wells has been an ardent supporter of streetcars and other forward-looking, environmentally friendly transportation options for a more livable future. So the fact that he no longer chairs this key committee with oversight over the streetcar initiative is bad news for the future of D.C. streetcars.
Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), who has ascended to chair the new Environment, Public Works and Transportation Committee, is a strong supporter of environmental protection, and she has been a streetcar supporter, if not leading the charge like Wells, whose ward is slated for the first streetcar line on H Street, whereas Cheh has commented in the past that the planned 37-mile streetcar system wouldn’t have much of a foot print in Ward 3 (and that it should). A coalition of ward 3 residents has been advocating that the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) plan for an additional streetcar line on Wisconsin Avenue in her ward.
It was certainly disappointing to read Cheh’s comments kicking Wells while he was down by belittling his commitment to a “livable, walkable community” as little more than a slogan without a substantial legislative record to back it up. Among other accomplishments, his determined leadership and unwillingness to take “no” for an answer was largely responsible for then-Chairman Gray’s decision to reverse course and restore significant funding to complete the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line last year (along with the grassroots outcry against Gray’s last minute decision).
But Cheh seems to understand livable, walkable communities — which streetcars can help foster — and she supports them. When she first ran for the Ward 3 Council seat in 2006, she had the support of Ward 3 Vision based on her support for smart growth in Ward 3 where knee-jerk NIMBYism has delayed or derailed projects like a new street-oriented (as opposed to parking lot-oriented) Giant on Wisconsin Avenue for years. Indeed, her support for the proposed Akridge mixed use development at 5220 Wisconsin Avenue (which was to replace a car dealership nearby the Friendship Heights Metrorail station) helped set her apart in a crowded field of candidates and win her the Sierra Club’s endorsement (I was among those who voted to endorse her.)
So while I remain greatly concerned by the future of D.C.’s streetcars in the face of back-to-back announcements amounting to a 1.5 -year delay in the start date for the H Street-Benning Road line in just the last three months, there is some reason for hope. Cheh gets it; it’s a just a matter of whether she decides to make streetcars a high priority and pushes the Gray administration to make good on the mayor’s pledge to continue moving forward on streetcars. It’s up to those of us who support streetcars to make Cheh — and other Council members for that matter — make it a priority.