Washington, D.C.’s City Council Tuesday unanimously passed legislation that would revamp restrictions on overhead wires, enacted to preserve urban vistas, that have hindered restoration of streetcar service infederal historic areas.
The “emergency legislation” would allow construction plans to proceed for a streetcar line along Benning Road and H Street, in the city’s Northeast quadrant, and include overhead catenary. The legislation also creates a “public process” for determining whether overhead wires are acceptable on other parts of the planned system.
The bill did reinstate s a ban at the local level on the wires in historic neighborhoods, including Georgetown, and tourist areas, following intense pressure by some environmental and historic groups. The chairwoman of the National Capital Planning Commission has requested the Federal Transit Administration 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 banning overhead wire.
The move is considered an interim measure until a permanent revision can be considered, possibly within two weeks. The current interm measure 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.
Streetcar advocates (both local and national) say that while battery-powered options should be considered, and the technology is improving, total reliance on such an option would drive up capital costs and, possibly, squash any momentum to re-establishing streetcars anywhere in the city.
The vote “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 Councilman Tom Wells, part of the Committee on Public Works & Transportation, in a statement.