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Wells to introduce bill for overhead wires on H, Benning

On Tuesday, DC Councilmember Tommy Wells will introduce a bill to modify the existing ban on overhead wires in the L'Enfant City, his office announced last night.

Streetcars in Frankfurt. Photo by Ralph on Picasa.

The new bill would not allow wires across the District, but would maintain the current ban with an exception for streetcars on H Street NE and Benning Road.

To add wires to any other areas, DDOT would need to formulate a citywide streetcar plan and seek Council approval. They would also need to protect important viewsheds using some kind of hybrid approach.

The existing laws, passed by Congress in 1888 and 1889, prohibit overhead wires of all types in the L'Enfant City, the area north of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, south of Florida Avenue, and east of Rock Creek. It's often been claimed that "federal law" prohibits wires, and therefore the DC Council can't modify the ban.

However, in a legal memo for DC Surface Transit, noted historic preservation lawyer Andrea Ferster argues that the Council can indeed modify the law (subject to the usual Congressional review). Congress passed all laws in the District before 1973, and when they granted Home Rule, they gave the Council the right to modify those laws, with certain specific exceptions.

One exception was that DC can't allow buildings that exceed the 1910 Height of Buildings limits. Only Congress can do that, and has from time to time, such as for the current tallest building, the National Shrine, constructed in 1959. DC also isn't allowed to impose a commuter tax, or to modify the DC Courts or the U.S. Attorney. They also can't override any federal laws that apply beyond DC, but the wire ban isn't one of those.

The Home Rule Act and District Charter do not mention the wire ban as one of the non-changeable laws, and therefore, argues Ferster, the Council can modify it just as they could modify any other DC-specific law that was in effect prior to 1973. There were lawsuits about this in the 1980s, such as District of Columbia v. Greater Washington Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO in 1982, where the courts allowed the Council to repeal a federal law that applied federal workers' compensation laws to DC private employers. The wire law appears to fall into the same category.

DC also isn't allowed to legislate about the property of the United States, and the U.S. technically "holds title" to streets in DC, but laws allow DC to close streets without Congressional approval, and in the 1986 case Techworld Development Corp. v. D.C. Preservation League, a court held that streets are "precisely the sort of local matter Congress wishes the D.C. Council to manage" through the Home Rule process.

Another opinion by the DC Office of the Attorney General says that the Council's right to allow wires won't apply to a few specific areas: the land controlled by the National Park Service or the Architect of the Capitol. They also can't build wires that exceed the Height of Buildings Act or local zoning, and are required to respond to (but not obey) NCPC's recommendations for in-ground power systems instead of wires.

The Wells bill also requires DDOT to submit a report by January 2014 on whether it's feasible to remove existing streetcar overhead wires and convert the lines to wire-free operation. Based on the information presented at the streetcar technology forum, it seems that completely wire-free operation is indeed likely to become possible and practical in the not-too-distant future.

The PowerPoint presentation from APTA on streetcar technology is now online, and DDOT has posted video of the Q&A segment of the technology seminar (part 1, part 2).

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I'm not a huge fan of wires, but this seems like a reasonable compromise solution to me.

by jcm on May 29, 2010 12:00 pm • linkreport

Techworld case is being misinterpreted from what I have heard. District was going to be ruled against in this case, but the case got settled for other reasons. The findings developed as part of that case support feds rights to the streets. r

by Lance on May 29, 2010 12:24 pm • linkreport

Excellent write up. Thanks, David.

by Tommy Wells on May 29, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

It'll be nice if it passes and survives the likely legal challenge. But pardon me if I don't hold my breath...

by Froggie on May 29, 2010 1:58 pm • linkreport

Amazing that so much debate and controversy surround overhead wires for a streetcar system in an area that has already seen its fair share of desecration to the original L'Enfant plan over the years (highways, street closures, etc.). I live in SF which is crisscrossed with overhead wires for the light rail, historic streetcar and trolleybus vehicles. Nobody cares. In fact, a lot of "historic" SF resembles any modest city in Europe. DC get over it.

by swirlycooking on May 29, 2010 2:48 pm • linkreport

Based on the information presented at the streetcar technology forum, it seems that completely wire-free operation is indeed likely to become possible and practical in the not-too-distant future.

Wow, that is an optimistic position. Is cost included in the definition of "practical"?

by David desJardins on May 29, 2010 3:25 pm • linkreport

Well, at least this will keep the lawyers busy.

by Fritz on May 29, 2010 3:44 pm • linkreport

I'll take wires over stinking oil belching buses any day.

by msurlo on May 29, 2010 3:45 pm • linkreport

Only in D.C. is there a psychotic anti-wire obsession. A simple single almost invisible wire supported by decorative lamp posts or buildings will not obliterate the view scape (whatever that means) anywhere in D.C. Trees, flags, commercial buildings, assorted street signs, nondescript federal buildings, road bridges, HIGHways, and the like all limit all views of D.C. more so than any simple wire.

D.C. thinks it's the jewel of the planet. And, we know it is not. Wires are now the mark of green thoughtfulness and the hoped for elimination of many noxious, noisy polluting buses. Streetcar wires ought to be considered the beneficial monument to civilization and not an evil malady.

And no, we don't want masses of other wires that are easily buried. But streetcar wires are not obscene and are not massive as to block any view. Anyone saying so is lying or very misinformed. Anyone believing that a simple barely visible wire can block a view is foolishness.

Streetcar wires have worked very well for more that 100 years and are one of the simplest technologies.

The newer non-wire technologies are not yet proven for the D.C. climate and almost all are proprietary, very much more expensive than a wire to install and maintain. Where installed they are for very short distances and add considerably to the expense, operation, and maintenance of the system.

D.C. needs to stop bitching about streetcar wires and tend to more important matters.

by George Barsky on May 29, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

Very interesting proposal. Let's see what happens... however, I do have a minor issue with the following:

"One exception was that DC can't allow buildings that exceed the 1910 Height of Buildings limits. Only Congress can do that, and has from time to time, such as for the current tallest building, the National Shrine, constructed in 1959."

Congress never altered the Heights of Buildings Act to permit the construction of the National Shrine; the building height was approved by the zoning commission (PDF).

The Heights of Buildings Act allowed the then-Commissioners of the District of Columbia to grant exemptions to the height limit, provided that the areas of the building that exceed the limit be fireproof and not be used for human habitation. The Basilica met those requirements and the exemption was granted.

by Adam L on May 29, 2010 4:33 pm • linkreport

@George Barsky, I see from prior posts that you live in Germantown and not in DC. Under what pretext do you feel you have the right to involve yourself in a decision that won't affect you?

by Lance on May 29, 2010 7:06 pm • linkreport

@George Barsky, I see from prior posts that you live in Germantown and not in DC. Under what pretext do you feel you have the right to involve yourself in a decision that won't affect you?

Excuse me? People here are making comments on a blog. What "pretext" gives them that right? How about the First Amendment?

by David desJardins on May 29, 2010 7:11 pm • linkreport

Wells' bill is overkill. The city was well served by a hybrid streetcar system of overhead and underground power for nearly half a century, until the 1960s. The real reason for this "wires vs preservation" debate is that DDOT screwed up and ordered a bunch of foreign-made streetcars while forgetting about the DC view shed laws. This is what happens when government is turned over to neophytes. Gabe Klein is way over his head at DDOT, and shouldn't be entrusted to steer anything much larger than a Zipcar

by Fred23 on May 29, 2010 7:44 pm • linkreport

@ Lance: I see from prior posts that you live in Georgetown and not in NE. Under what pretext do you feel you have the right to involve yourself in a decision that won't affect you?

by Jasper on May 29, 2010 7:51 pm • linkreport

@Fred23: The cars that have been purchased are for the Anacostia line, also currently under construction, where the overhead wire laws don't apply. The H Street line will require additional streetcars to operate.

I'd also argue the city wasn't "well served" by the old pit-and-plough system. Did it work? Yes, but it performed poorly in snow and tended to collect debris, and as a mechanical system could be balky and unreliable. It was also more expensive to maintain.

Personally, I think the whole 'view shed' argument is a canard, and that a majority of people complaining about wires don't really care about wires as such but want to stop streetcars because either 1) they're the type of 'civic' people who always oppose any change of any form or 2) they're still wrapped up in a 50's vision of the world where the automobile is the ONE TRUE VEHICLE. If the 'wires problem' is solved, I don't expect groups like the Committee of 100 to embrace the streetcars. No, like UMD with the Purple Line, I suspect they'll just come up with a new issue, previously unvoiced, to drag the process out further.

One can certainly argue the merits of streetcars - or roads, or buses, or indeed any other form of public infrastructure. That's the healthy, democratic thing to do. To focus just on wires seems disingenuous.

by Distantantennas on May 29, 2010 7:58 pm • linkreport

Actually, street cars are a very 1950s idea. And the system Washington had then worked well. Certainly they were more reliable than today's Metrobuses, with their notorious bunching along the 30s line, chronic lateness and often discourteous (and law breaking) drivers.

I support street cars, but I also like the ban on overhead wires. Frankly, Id like to see wires moved underground in more parts of the city, as PEPCO and the cable company install taller poles and heavier infrastructure and generally butcher the tree canopy. (Talk about threats to green and clean energy savings, when the tree canopy -- a fraction of what it was in the glorious 50s -- is further threatened.

My point stands. Gable Klein may be an interesting guy, but he's no manager. A good manager would not have let this become the big non-issue that it has.

by Fred23 on May 29, 2010 8:28 pm • linkreport


Your history on DC's old streetcars isn't quite right. The APTA presentation from the propulsion seminar (David linked to the slides and some video in his post) indicated that the old conduit based system was both far less reliable than overhead contact systems and also far more expensive. Capital costs were seven times higher than overhead wires, operating and maintenance costs were five times higher.

Conduit was the only alternative to overhead wires that saw any substantial use around the world. It's worth noting that all of those conduit systems discontinued operations in the 50s and 60s due to high operating costs, even the ones in Europe.

A 7x increase in capital costs is a tough pill to swallow if all it saves you is a few wires that you can barely even see. The 5x increase in operating costs is more troubling, however. That's not "serving the city well," despite your assertions.

Granted, newer power supply systems aren't that lopsided, but the point remains - bringing up the old conduit system as an example of good technology is just plain false.

by Ruh roh. on May 29, 2010 9:45 pm • linkreport

Granted, newer power supply systems aren't that lopsided

I think you're being too generous there. Who knows? People will always overpromise in order to get funding, then they figure you are stuck with your commitment even if there are huge cost overruns. The advantage of buying existing technology is you pretty much know what it costs. If you're buying a hypothetical new technology that doesn't exist, the sky's the limit as far as what you'll actually end up paying.

by David desJardins on May 30, 2010 1:04 am • linkreport

I like living by H St. But H St has no real views to speak of. The issues affecting 'views' are decaying or empty buildings, and empty lots.
Nearby Maryland Ave has great views of the Capitol. Which are obstructed most of the year - by trees. Should we cut them back since they were mere seedlings when L'Enfant planned this? What exactly does it mean to obstruct a view? Trees demonstrably block a view. A wire demonstrably does not.

by Brian White on May 30, 2010 8:11 am • linkreport

@Jasper, a. I don't live in Georgetown, b. the streetcar system isn't specific to NE, and c. I am a DC resident who will live with and pay for this system. Will George? Will most of those who phone the Council the other day to say they 'wanted it NOW, and they didn't care what it cost!'

by Lance on May 30, 2010 9:43 am • linkreport

@Lance I'm pleasantly surprised to read that you object to streetcars for financial reasons. I was previously under the impression that your wariness of streetcars was more emotion-based, and overhead wires were a facade for your discomfort. I apologize for misjudging you and I look forward to reading more detailed posts from you on the topic based on sound research.

by Amber on May 30, 2010 10:18 am • linkreport

So what is the rational reason why H Street & Benning Road do not have bus/streetcar only lanes like K Street will

by kk on May 30, 2010 10:21 am • linkreport


I think it's pretty funny that you think Mr. Klein (it's Gabe, not "Gable" btw) is "in over his head" for finally addressing these issues, and taking a stumbling project farther in one year than it has moved in the prior 5. Also, didn't DDOT order these cars many years ago? Let's be honest, you just don't like wires period, and that's fine, but don't take false swipes at people because they are advancing something you oppose.

Thanks to Adam L for the very interesting information on the zoning commissions authority over the height limitation.

by CPT on May 30, 2010 12:11 pm • linkreport

@CPT, would you feel the same way if his actions ultimately resulted in a hurried up project for H St resulted in no 'rest of the 37 mile system?

by Lance on May 30, 2010 12:44 pm • linkreport

Guys, can we keep the ad-hominem attacks down?

by andrew on May 30, 2010 1:05 pm • linkreport

I live out past Germantown. Hooray for Tommy Wells's bill, which affects my future ability to ride a streetcar in DC, the city that I work in and like to visit.

(I did not call Vince Gray's office. I'm not one of his constituents.)

by Miriam on May 30, 2010 1:56 pm • linkreport

I'm also not a District resident but I take a great interest in the streetcar for several reasons.
1. I'd like a way to visit H st. and support those businesses while not adding to the already present parking problems. I'll spending my money (and paying sales tax) in DC rather than in Va.
2. A successful streetcar in DC would hopefully spur other jurisdictions to either consider or accelerate streetcar projects. (Like the columbia pike streetcar)

Of course the streetcar will affect me. Not as much as someone who lives in the street car neighborhoods or even DC at large but I feel like I'm allowed to have an opinion about the streetcars. I didn't call vincent gray though since I'm not a resident. I will call the fairfax county board of supervisors when decisions about new transit projects in my county come up.

by Canaan on May 31, 2010 12:48 am • linkreport

>> "So what is the rational reason why H Street & Benning Road do not have bus/streetcar only lanes like K Street will"

K Street has a much wider Right of Way (ROW). Including sidewalks the K Street ROW is 120' and even widens out to 148' in segments. I'd estimate the ROW for H Street NE is much less - possibly only 80'.

by Paul on May 31, 2010 11:02 am • linkreport

@ Paul

That doesnt mean that there could not be lanes on H street just take the streetcar lane or it could have been the shoulder lane and forbid parking on the street for its entire stretch

For Benning Road there is enough room except for maybe the stretch between Minnesota Ave & Southern Ave every else along the street has enough room to add streetcar/bus only lanes.

by kk on May 31, 2010 11:31 am • linkreport

I am a long-time DC resident, pay property and income taxes to DC and vote in DC and agree with George Barsky. What's your comeback to that? For someone who claims to support streetcars, you seem to come up with an incredible array of reasons to argue against them.

The Committee of 100 and CHRS are starting to make themselves look ridiculous in this debate. Why not just drop the platitudes about vistas symbolic of democracy and open government (a democracy and open government, by the way, that DC residents do not fully participate in) or about "process?" Please just come clean and admit that your real agenda is so save as much of the public right-of-way as you possibly can for cars (and parking for cars). Streetcars, like bike lanes, mean less space for cars and car parking and we all know that if there is one thing that the oil guzzling and forever deprived of parking dinosaurs who make up the Committee of 100 and CHRS feel strongly about it is making sure nothing, no matter how beneficial to the city, to the quality of life of its residents and to its environment, is as important as plenty of space for cars and car parking. (I might not be so suspect of your real motivations had you not so adamantly argued against removing parking minimums a few years ago and if you agitated as much against the scars that ugly surface parking lots and parking garages inflict on our city as you do against streetcars and bike lanes.)

If you are so devoted to preserving and implementing the McMillan Plan in all of its supposed glory, why not push for elimination of the of the freeway-like stretches of North Capitol Street, Michigan Avenue and Irving Street, which mar the street grid and waste huge swathes of land for little productive purpose? Similarly, the McMillan Plan calls for a wide, tree-lined monumental parkway between Rock Creek Park and the Soldiers Home along what is now Shepherd Street NW? Building it so that it is true to the McMillan Plan would mean displacing hundreds of homes and businesses, but if one is committed to a full-throat defense of the century old McMillan Plan, then it needs to be done, including the monumental circle at 7th Street and the attendant northwest-southeast diagonal avenue that was never built. Or, perhaps we could put the lower reaches of Rock Creek in sewer and fill in its valley for construction of a parkway, which the McMillan Plan puts forth as an option. The McMillan Plan, by the way, is focused almost exclusively on parks and does not once mention overhead wires and should hardly be considered as a comprehensive plan for the city, because it is not one. One of it's few mentions of transportation is construction of Union Station, and even then the impetus is more "get the tracks off the Mall" focused than it is "we need a good intercity passenger terminal" focused. The McMillan Plan makes little mention of water, sewers, housing, economic development, transportation, etc. It is almost entirely about parks and recreation. Indeed, the one time I saw a mention of streetcars in it, the Plan seems OK with them as an integral part of the city: it mentions building a bridge over Michigan Avenue and "its electric cars" for the above-mentioned monumental parkway. In addition, when the Plan mentions view sheds, it mentions them as "between federal buildings and monuments." Indeed, that bias towards parks and federal buildings in the monumental core brings up another problem with the McMillan Plan, at least in terms of its use as an overarching blueprint for our entire city: it is a product of our former colonial overlords on the Senate District Committee. Indeed, as the Committee of 100 and CHRS lose more and more ground on this issue, I fully expect them to dump any pretense of support for home rule and go running to Congress and the courts to ask them to override the decisions of the officials elected by the residents and taxpayers of the District. (Just like the pro-highway crowd back in the 60s could count on the segregationist William Natcher of Kentucky to fight for freeways and against Metro.)

The furor over the streetcars issue is silly: It's not as if though the District is embarking on some novel, untested project that has yet to prove its merits in another city. Hundreds (300+, actually) of cities around the world are expanding their streetcar systems or building new ones. And almost all of these streetcar systems, save TINY segments of two (Nice and Bordeaux), use streetcars powered by an overhead wire. Indeed, I think the average resident of say, Zurich, Melbourne, Vienna or Lyon, would simply shake her head in amusement at this whole debate. If streetcars powered by an overhead wires are so terrible and so harmful to the urban fabric, you would think that streets that host them would be shunned by residents, visitors and businesses and left to smolder in decay, neglect and abandonment. Yet, some of the most beautiful, most vibrant and most visited streets in the world host streetcars powered by an overhead wire. Indeed, they are often the heart of their respective city and are tourist attractions in their own right. To hear the Committee of 100 and CHRS speak, you would think that the Ringstrasse in Vienna, the Banhoffstrasse in Zurich, La Canabiere in Marseille, Maximilianstrasse in Munich, Avenue Louise in Brussels and the Park Blocks in Portland are terrible, derelict and ugly streets lined with crumbling buildings, marginal businesses, empty lots and empty storefronts that are shunned by residents and visitors. Anyone familiar with those streets knows the reality is completely the opposite......

by rg on May 31, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

Wow. Reading about progress being held back by some moldy 100+yr old law is disgusting. This just reinforces my view that all laws should automatically sunset at 30yrs and have to be reconsidered and passed again.

Paying attention to old, outdated, and pointless laws in the modern era is assinine.

by James on Jun 1, 2010 10:57 am • linkreport

A novel idea, but the recent calamities that came about following the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act speak to the contrary....

There is much more at stake in the streetcar debate than outdated laws vangaurding cosmetic standards. In theory DC is supposed to be America's city, and represent the trends and institutions of our country. My personal, crackpot theory is that, subconsciously or otherwise, many opponents of streetcars worry about the concern raised in RG's post; the sublimation of car transit to public transit, and worry that the presence of streetcars in DC will make it a nationally acceptable solution to small-scale public transit at the expense of drivers.

Streetcars are simpler to install than light rail. They require far less infrastructure work and sheer funding than subways. They don't require people to change their personal and physical habits as much as bicycle commuting.

In other words they are a direct and potent manifestation of the growing demand for public transit. Perhaps opponents of streetcars see them as a harbinger of things to come. Just look at how quickly the whole processed has moved, when compared to the ICC, or the Purple Line, or the Silver Line. This isn't a slog through decades of red tape; this is, comparatively speaking, a legislative and public outcry avalanche.

Anyway, that's my two cents, crackpot or not. Born in NW DC, currently live in Annapolis, plan to move to NE or SE in the next few years. Will be happy to pay for streetcars and am eager to use them.

by MikeS on Jun 1, 2010 11:29 am • linkreport

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