Washington, D.C., Seeks To Build Streetcar Network

fromWAMU

The streetcar, once considered antiquated, is now back in vogue in many cities, and Washington D.C. is looking to build its own streetcar network. But the district is facing a very unique challenge: how to build a system with overhead wires that doesn't obstruct the city's historic, monumental views. City leaders say they can do it, but the federal government isn't so sure.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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Washington, D.C., is looking to join several other cities in bringing back the streetcar. Earlier this month, the D.C. City Council gave final approval for what could eventually be a 37-mile network of streetcars. Council members hope this will spur economic development in some of the Districts poorer neighborhoods.

But as David Schultz from member station WAMU reports, theyre running into an obstacle no other city has had to face.

DAVID SCHULTZ: So, Im standing on 8th street in southeast Washington. This is one of the proposed routes for the streetcar system. But that system may never actually get built because federal officials are concerned it may ruin something that is at the very core of this city.

Here, let me show you what I mean. If we walk a few steps over here and make a right onto this street, now were on Pennsylvania Avenue. And if you look up, you can see an amazing view of the Capitol. If streetcars were running here, that means thered be overhead wires on 8th street. And that means this historic, monumental view might be obstructed.

Ms. MEG MAGUIRE (Committee of 100): My God, we live in one of the best cities in the entire world.

SCHULTZ: Thats longtime D.C. resident Meg Maguire. Shes with D.C.s Committee of 100, an historic preservation group that seeks to uphold the grand avenues of the Districts famous original design.

Ms. MAGUIRE: We have been guided by a vision that very few cities in the world have had. Thats a precious thing. And its not a burden; its a blessing.

SCHULTZ: Maguire says installing wires over some of D.C.s most historic streets would tarnish that vision laid out more than 200 years ago.

Incoming mayor Vincent Gray is a backer of the streetcar plan. He sees this issue through a very different lens

Mayor-elect VINCENT GRAY (Washington, D.C.): This is yet another example of us trying to create a city that is on the grow, that is contemporary and then being stymied by the federal interests.

SCHULTZ: Gray says his citys difficulties in creating a streetcar system are due to federal intervention in local affairs, a very touchy subject here. Because of its murky status as not quite a state but more than just a city, Congress exerts special control over D.C., much to the dismay of local officials like Gray.

Mayor-elect GRAY: And thats a continuing rub, and that is, you know, where does the local interest begin and end, and where does the federal interest begin and end?

SCHULTZ: This uneasy relationship with its status as the nations capital is nothing new for D.C. After all, the cost of living here includes having to deal traffic jams caused by presidential motorcades and entire city blocks getting shut down when foreign leaders or protestors come to visit.

On a different part of Pennsylvania Avenue, near K Street in northwest D.C., the flag on top of the White House is visible off in the distance. This is another proposed route for Washingtons streetcar system.

D.C. resident Jerry Myrick has seen what overhead wires look like, and he hopes they dont come here.

Mr. JERRY MYRICK: You go to San Francisco, and you see these beautiful buildings, these structures. But then you see these wires in the center. Its like: Oh, great.

SCHULTZ: Jose Diaz also lives here too. He says, rather than the wires obstructing the views, maybe they can, instead, become a part of them.

Mr. JOSE DIAZ: If they do it in a proper manner, Im sure it will add some sense of old charm to streets so probably theyll benefit from them.

SCHULTZ: But before that can happen, D.C. will have to get its streetcar plan past its largest and most powerful resident: the federal government. For NPR News, Im David Schultz in Washington.

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