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Gray touts revival of streetcars for D.C.

But concerns linger about 2013 startup

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2012

D.C. officials hope a burgeoning streetcar program will revitalize parts of the city - especially east of the Anacostia River - when it begins in 2013 despite lingering concerns about its impact and ability to operate effectively.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray told the D.C. Council he personally saw the economic turnabout that streetcars brought to a section of Portland, Ore., during a pair of trips to the West Coast.

"I think that's the same vision we have for this system as well," he said at his monthly breakfast with city lawmakers.

Mr. Gray and his administration Wednesday laid out their funding and governance plans for the program, part of a transit-centric meeting that also explored long-term improvement to the Metro system and the Obama administration's decision to trim 10 percent from the federal government's $150 million Metro allocation, prompting city officials to say they have "reneged" on a previous pledge.

The D.C. streetcar program will start with a line from Union Station to Benning Road's intersection with Oklahoma Avenue in Northeast, an initiative that brings transit options to the up-and-coming H Street Corridor.

The city also laid a small segment of track in Anacostia and is studying the best way to extend the line to the foot of the 11th Street Bridge.

Tracks are in place on the inaugural section along H Street, and the city is studying an extension of that line to Georgetown on the west side and to the Benning Road Metro station to the east, connecting the city through a mode of transportation that vanished from the District many decades ago. The District used 200 miles of streetcar tracks in the 20th century before shutting down service in January 1962.

Plans to jump-start a new program have hit funding and planning snags in recent years, leading to uncertainty over its future.

The D.C. Department of Transportation on Wednesday outlined ways to fund and maintain the system, which is expected to receive $237.3 million in city capital funds through fiscal 2017. Potential revenue streams also include special assessments on properties that benefit from the line, new property-tax revenue and sales taxes from development along the system and parking fees that are dedicated to transit initiatives.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and longtime proponent of the streetcars, said the mayor is "absolutely" dedicated to the program but his administration has not procured enough cars to get the program off to a solid start.

The city only has three cars it purchased some time ago, and it typically takes about 17 or 18 months to obtain more, according to Mr. Wells.

"We should not open it unless we have five or six cars," he said. "Otherwise, it's just going to be a ride at the fair."

Council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, wanted assurances that streetcars are expected to generate business along Benning Road.

Mr. Gray again hearkened to lessons from Portland's Pearl District, which was transformed from an industrial area to a place with vibrant shops and residences.

"The streetcar line itself," he said, "can be an incentive for businesses to move, expand, develop."

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