Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

A group of residents in the Carver-Langston neighborhood of Ward 5 have successfully lobbied councilmember Kenyan McDuffie to oppose a streetcar maintenance facility in the southeastern corner of the ward. If they succeed in blocking the planned facility at that location, the city is left with few options that aren’t very viable.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie released a letter  asking the Gray administration to find a location for the facility that’s not adjacent to Spingarn High School.

The letter said, “Many residents have indicated that they found the justification for the Spingarn site to be one of expedience, rather than necessity.”

Letter makes several specious arguments

McDuffie’s letter goes on to say that residents felt “disrespected” because more meetings weren’t held in Ward 5. This is a straw man argument: Ward 6 meetings were held within blocks of Ward 5. A streetcar meeting at the Atlas Theater may have been outside of the ward, but it was close enough that anyone from the Trinidad or Carver Langston neighborhoods could walk to it.

A hypothetical meeting in North Michigan Park would be in Ward 5. While that would allow planners to say they held more meetings inside the ward, it wouldn’t actually make it easier for neighbors voices to be heard.

The letter further says that residents are “dismayed that a major decision affecting our ward was made without the benefit of a Councilmember at the table to represent the community’s interests.” While this might be true about the apparent “final” decision to place the bar at Spingarn, Harry Thomas, Jr. was in office for years during the planning and construction along Benning Road. Perhaps he didn’t reach out to members of the local neighborhoods for their input because he was busy stealing from them?

McDuffie used the term “dumping ground” as well. While he didn’t say whether he feels this is an appropriate term to describe the ward, it’s disappointing to see him giving the term credence by perpetuating its use. In debate and discussion during the election season, he distanced himself from the use of that term, but chose not to in this instance. Why?

Push DDOT to address real neighbor concerns

Finally, in his letter, McDuffie laid out five points that he classified as major concerns coming from neighbors. They include:

  • Lack of material benefits to the Carver Langston neighborhood;
  • Safety of students during and after the construction phase;
  • Environmental impact;
  • Level of noise from repairs and maintenance;
  • Resources and job opportunities available at the training center for Spingarn students and Ward 5 residents.

On the first point, increased, reliable, safe, affordable transportation towards downtown is already a material benefit to the neighborhood. DC officials have frequently stated that streetcar pricing will be the same as Circulator service. That would be cheaper than taking the X2 bus along Benning Road and H Street.

The safety of students is an important concern. The streetcar project would be subject to the same safety requirements as any construction project in the city. After construction, when operations begin, the concern likely turns to students being hit by streetcars. It’s worth noting that students stand a higher risk of being hit by cars speeding down Benning Road or 26th Street, yet neighbors are not seeking a ban on automobile traffic on those roadways.

The environmental impact of the construction can be mitigated with a green roof, solar panels, or other carbon-neutralizing accommodations.

The level of noise is a very valid concern, and DDOT should provide hard data showing the current decibel level at the site, and the expected future level, along with concrete plans to mitigate any increase in noise.

DDOT and DCPS also need to show plans for how a training program run through the school would work, how many spots would be available for students, etc. This is something these agencies should have worked on already, and it’s certainly the city’s fault for not having this information available by now.

Other options are not practical now, though it’s worth pursuing them for the future

If all of these points still do not satisfy the residents of Carver-Langston, what options does the city have for alternate sites for the maintenance facility? Other locations were discussed at an April meeting at Spingarn High School. One of those is the RFK Stadium north parking lot area, across Benning Road from the Spingarn site.

However, the federal government owns this land, and leased it to DC with the limitation that it be used only for recreational purposes. Perhaps McDuffie could initiate a serious discussion with Eleanor Holmes Norton, for whom he interned before attending law school, about relaxing this requirement and allowing a car barn to be built on this land.

Another possibility was the site that is currently home to the Pepco plant just east of the Anacostia River. Unfortunately, that site is not under the control of the DC government either, and is much larger than what a streetcar facility would require.

If the District were able to get control of that site (which may require years of environmental mitigation), there would still likely need to be a small-area plan created for the entire site, which would take even more years of planning and meetings. Even if there were a way to fast track all of that, the line doesn’t yet extend that far. DDOT plans to build the line there and beyond, but can’t do that before next year, when they hope to open the line.

DC didn’t plan adequately

The fact is that the District didn’t plan well enough for the streetcar barn. DDOT officials long assumed that a space under the H Street “Hopscotch Bridge” would be available for a maintenance facility, and this never came to be. They should have put more time and effort into making sure that plans for the area under the bridge were solid, and should have planned for an alternate location in case the original plan fell through as it did.

As things stand now, the streetcar maintenance facility can’t be built anywhere other than the area south of Spingarn High School without delaying the start of revenue service for at least another 5 years, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, or both. If that happens, Ward 5 residents will definitely lose out.