Community

Ward 7 Residents Ponder Benning Road Streetcar

The D.C. government’s project to extend a streetcar line east of the Anacostia River has residents of Ward 7 in a buzz of anticipation and some anxiety.

The D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) has active plans to bring the city’s streetcar line from its H Street NE origin near Union Station to ultimately the Benning Road Metro Stop on the Blue Line near the intersection of East Capitol Street and Benning Road in Northeast.

Robyn Jackson, a transportation planner for DDOT, told residents at a July 6 meeting of the Marshall Heights Civic Association at the Capital View branch of the D.C. Public Library that the streetcar will be a boon to its immediate neighborhoods.

“The streetcar will be a tool for growth in Ward 7, especially Marshall Heights,” Jackson said. “We are engaging the community to find out what your concerns are.”

The District had streetcars as a primary mode of transporting its residents from 1862 to 1962, when city officials determined that bus service had become more expedient at that time. Decades later, city officials revived the idea of a streetcar to take cars off of the roads and to lighten the burden of the Metro buses that carry thousands of riders each day and, in many cases, snarl traffic.

In addition, advocates of modern streetcar argue that its cars can carry more passengers than most buses and in a more relaxing fashion plus it would add to the hip persona of H Street NE among newer District residents.

After years of delays, the H Street-Benning Line took off on Feb. 27, 2016.

The venture, known as the Benning Road Reconstruction and Streetcar Project, will begin construction in Northeast at the Oklahoma Street stop and extend eastward with stops on Kingman Island and 34th Street before crossing the Loraine Whitlock Bridge past the Minnesota Avenue intersection.

From Minnesota Avenue, the line will continue with stops on 39th Street and 42nd Street before reaching its terminating point at the Benning Road Metro Station.

Jackson said the Benning extension will go 1.95 miles and will have to require some extensive work on the corridor.

“We have to widen the roadway a bit,” she said. “It will not cause the city to infringe on any property to do that. Plus, we have to reroute some utility lines.”

Jackson said the project will take 36 months, eliciting groans from audience members. She then quickly reminded the audience that the construction will take place in phases and not all at once.

Jackson said the streetcar will be free for the foreseeable future.

“We have no plans to charge fares,” she said. “We have learned from studying other streetcar systems that charging fares doesn’t make money for the system. [Metro] makes its money off of advertising, not charging fares.”

Jackson said the building of the streetcar will complement other modes of transportation such as walking and biking, with plans to add more walking and biking space to the Whitlock Bridge.

Jackson said she has visited several advisory neighborhood commissions and civic associations to talk about the streetcar extension and announced that a public meeting on it will take place in September.

Delia Houseal, chair of the 7E advisory neighborhood commission, said her primary concern for the streetcar project has to do with businesses along the route.

“We don’t want to happen here what happened on H Street,” Houseal said. “A number of businesses shut down because of the streetcar and we want the city to put resources into business on Benning Road so they can continue to operate in spite of the streetcar’s construction.”

Houseal also wants to make sure that Ward 7 residents are able to work on the project and that houses will not be taken under eminent domain to build it.

Despite her concerns, however, Houseal said she is in favor of the project.

“My mother who is disabled said she wants the streetcar,” she said. “My mother told me that the streetcar could take her to grocery stores such as the Giant near Union Station or Whole Foods on H Street. The streetcar will make her more mobile and I can’t argue with that.”

Tyrell Holcomb, who chairs the 7F commission, said he wants DDOT to have more dialogue with the community before construction starts.

“The public engagement should have taken place months ago, not now,” Holcomb said.

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