NCPC Chair Preston Bryant.

Is expanding the power of a federal panel more important than transit and economic development in the District of Columbia?

If you’re Preston Bryant, the chair of the National Capital Planning Commission and an economic and infrastructure consultant in Richmond, yes it is. Bryant sent a letter to FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff asking the agency “to withhold federal funds from the District” for the streetcar system.

The H Street-Benning Road line would not involve federal funds, but DC is looking for an “urban circulator” grant to extend the planned streetcar across the Anacostia River to Benning Road Metro.

This segment would almost entirely lie outside the L’Enfant City, the only area that has ever had a ban on overhead wires. That means that Bryant is asking FTA to refuse to fund a project which is legal even without changing any laws.

NCPC is tasked with protecting the “federal interest.” The federal government, and NCPC, have taken very little interest in most of the District’s planned streetcar corridors, including H Street and Benning Road, Georgia Avenue, and neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8.

Items that impact the Mall and views of major monuments are generally agreed to be part of the federal interest, and DC has clearly offered to protect those. The updated draft of the DC Council’s overhead wire legislation even more clearly protects these. All new streetcar purchases will be required by law to operate for one mile without wires, and the Council will need to approve any new segments including a plan detailing the potential impacts on view corridors or historic districts.

However, Bryant is not satisfied with that or even giving NCPC heightened power to guard against wires on their view corridors (even though NCPC seems relatively uninterested in other blights on their view corridors). He has asked the DC Council to give NCPC the right to review and approve every single streetcar segment, no matter where in the District, even outside the L’Enfant City.

Has June been proclaimed Richmond Republican Power Grab Over Washington Month and nobody told me?

The full Commission didn’t even approve these letters, despite their appearing on official NCPC letterhead. According to people who’ve spoken with various NCPC representatives, some members don’t personally like wires, or aren’t convinced that streetcars are worth the money. Some commenters here share some of these concerns.

However, appointees of the President, the Park Service, DoD, GSA, and Congress should not be deciding what individual DC neighborhoods should look like or what is or isn’t a prudent investment of capital dollars. That’s why we have a democratic political process of home rule, and that’s what democracy is about. People get to decide for themselves instead of having some “king” decide for them.

Bryant also expresses concern that the public be involved in the streetcar planning. That is important, but since when is this NCPC’s responsibility? They haven’t done the same for other, not so federal items in the past.

H Street wants the streetcar. Downtown businesses want the streetcar. Georgia Avenue wants the streetcar. It doesn’t affect the federal government if there are streetcars there, even ones with wires, except right past the national parks and on the view corridors. The NCPC members should stop trying to be the Mayor of DC and worry about the real federal interest instead of their personal interest.

We’re working on a page for you to reach out to NCPC members about this, but in the meantime, feel free to email your Councilmembers and the Mayor. Thank them for their streetcar support so far and encourage them to stand up for our right to home rule.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.