- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Betrayed. Confused. Dejected.

No, Anwar Saleem isn’t reeling over a breakup. But it’s how the H Street Main Street executive director feels about the possibility that the District’s Department of Transportation might pull the plug on the long-stymied streetcar project.

Mr. Saleem and business owners from the H Street corridor were left questioning whether the streetcar system would ever carry fare-paying passengers after the city’s new transportation chief raised doubts about the project Friday.

Director Leif Dormsjo said at a D.C. Council oversight hearing that he couldn’t rule out scrapping the entire streetcar project, even after the city spent $160 million on it.

Years of construction for the streetcar track ripped holes in H Street and Benning Road in Northeast, diverting traffic as well as customers and creating consternation for the businesses there.

But many endured, believing the trouble would be worth it once the 2.4-mile stretch of streetcar materialized.

“There are lot of businesses on H Street who really believe in the promise of the streetcar,” Mr. Saleem said. “It was too much sacrifice that took place for us to abandon it altogether.”

He counts about 20 businesses on Benning Road that shuttered during the years when track construction created a traffic nightmare. Mr. Saleem estimates that over the past several years another 25 businesses have opened each year, many lured by the promise of the streetcar.

The plan for a streetcar was a key factor in Scott Magnuson’s decision to open the Argonaut on H Street in 2005, when the neighborhood’s renaissance was just beginning to gain traction. His restaurant endured two years of construction on adjacent H Street and Maryland Avenue, and the business lost valuable nearby street parking as a result.

“We were very excited for the streetcar, as were a lot of businesses on H Street,” said Mr. Magnuson, who also serves as president of the board of directors of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. “We think the city should finish what it started.”

The H Street line, which runs from Union Station to the Anacostia River, has blown through a series of opening dates — so many that when Mr. Dormsjo took over in January after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed members of her new administration, he declared there would be no more arbitrary deadlines for the project.

All the while, streetcar testing, parking enforcement and ticketing have continued along the corridor.

Mr. Dormsjo, a former Maryland transportation official, has ordered the project to undergo a top-to-bottom peer review by the American Public Transportation Association, which began Monday.

“This project over 10 years was developed in an unprofessional and haphazard, contradictory and inconsistent manner,” Mr. Dormsjo said during Friday’s hearing.

The outside analysis should help determine whether and how the project can move forward and whether the system has “fatal flaws” that could hinder its rollout altogether, Mr. Dormsjo said, noting that it is not his goal to kill the project.

“It is my intent to responsibly advance the segment that we have,” he said. “I wasn’t brought in to kill a transit project. I was brought in to fix a transit project.”

But the notion that axing the project remains on the table is troublesome to business owners.

“It would be like quitting a marathon in the last half-mile to the finish line,” said Blair Zervos, owner of Vendetta Bocce Bar and Tavern.

The neighborhood also is served by buses, and businesses have flourished along the corridor with only the promise of a streetcar, but Mr. Saleem said the extra foot traffic from tourists could be a real boon. Without it, he said, some businesses may not be able to meet their bottom lines.

While Mr. Saleem plans to wait and see the results of the peer review, Mr. Magnuson views the DDOT director’s comments as a call to action for business owners. He plans to send a letter to transit officials and lawmakers reiterating support for the project among local businesses.

“Yes, it has been a complete cluster trying to roll this thing out,” Mr. Magnuson said. “But instead of coming out and saying, ‘We might not even do it,’ why not figure out a way to do it?”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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