Thursday, June 03, 2010

Washington weighs waiver of overhead wire ban

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Washington, D.C.’s District Council is considering a plan to circumvent a federal law banning overhead wires to power streetcars in the city’s historic district, which would enable the city to re-establish streetcars on H Street in the city’s Northeast quadrant, to be powered by catenary wire.

A bill sponsored by Councilman Tommy Wells would repeal a pair of 120-year-old laws to allow overhead wires to be used in an area bounded by Florida Avenue to the north, Georgetown to the west and the Anacostia River. The prohibitions would be re-established under the D.C. Code, with an exception for streetcar lines on H Street.

Other historic neighborhoods, such as Georgetown (northwest Washington) and Capitol Hill, would retain a ban on overhead wires. Such a move is largely tactical; Georgetown, a well-to-do portion of the city, traditionally is resistant to any rail transit plans, and defeated plans to have the Metro system serve the neighborhood when construction was under way during the 1970s.

The Wells bill also sets a precursor for additional streetcar routes using overhead wire, after a proposed 37-mile citywide streetcar plan is approved, “for the use of aerial wires for the additional streetcar lines and routes, with special attention paid to the view corridors of the federal monumental core.”

Wells says that repealing federal law is within the council's right, citing “legal analysis by several distinguished attorneys,” including the D.C. Office of the Attorney General. But both the National Park Service and the National Capital Planning Commission have specifically opposed the use of overhead wires in older and historic areas of the nation’s capital.

Still, Wells' bill was co-introduced by 12 of 13 council members, suggesting that at the local level, support for the change is substantial. “I believe the council has ample authority to act in this fashion,” said Councilman Jim Graham.