Owner of H Street tunnel not so eager for streetcars
In April, DDOT presented an exciting plan to run the planned H Street streetcar through an existing tunnel under the H Street "Hopscotch" bridge. However, one obstacle still stands in the way of that vision: the current owner of the tunnel, Potomac Development Corporation.
The current tunnel runs under the H Street bridge and the Amtrak tracks, and is about the width of a 4-lane road. Currently, the center two lanes are kept clear for ingress and egress, and Amtrak uses the side lanes for parking.
PDC, which also owns the REA Building at 900 2nd Street, NE, adjacent to the tunnel on its eastern end, also has a parking garage that opens onto the tunnel and a loading dock just outside it.
DDOT hopes to run streetcars on the center lanes, to a single-track station connected to an existing tunnel to Union Station Metro, with a track connection then across First Street to a maintenance facility under the bridge's western end.
On May 7, PDC President Richard Bell sent a letter to DDOT Associate Director Scott Kubly saying they opposed using the tunnel for the streetcar:
After reviewing sketches and meeting with DDOT on three occasions, we are convinced that running streetcars through the H Street tunnel will unreasonably interfere with our use of said tunnel and the adjacent public space, which is critical for access to our garage and loading dock, and essential to the operation of our building.
Even if you could find ways to minimize interference with our uses once operations begin, the construction phase is likely to be especially disruptive. And, according to a DDOT employee at one of the meetings, you anticipate replacing the H Street Overpass in approximately five years, during which time we expect to suffer interference with out use of the tunnel. We see no reason to subject ourselves to such interference twice.DDOT replied, making a number of points. First, on operations, other vehicles can continue to use the tunnel as well, just as the streetcar will operate in mixed traffic. DDOT plans sliding gates at each end to prevent other vehicles or pedestrians from going into the tunnel, and the platform will have gates as well so people waiting don't venture into the tunnel.
Furthermore, according to you, DDOT ultimately intends to run the streetcars over the Overpass. As taxpayers, we object to the District building this two-block run of the streetcar line twice. Please instruct your personnel and contractors that we will no longer provide access to our portion of the tunnel.
DDOT argues the tracks are not duplicative because, even once the streetcars go over the overpass, the track segment would still be used to access the maintenance facility.
As for construction, DDOT says they "are committed to minimizing" disruption to PDC and Amtrak. Moreover, Kubly said DDOT believes the project will increase the value of PDC's property (the tunnel) by providing ventilation and fire suppression which are not currently present, improving drainage, and creating a streetcar stop next to their building.
Later in the PDF, DDOT responds to engineering concerns that Amtrak has raised about attaching the overhead wires to the underside of the underpass, operational concerns about the long-term use of the tunnel for loading access to Burnham Place, the development project planned atop the railyards, and more.
When Phil Mendelson raised objections to the streetcar project, saying it has "no beginning and no end," he was partly talking about this issue. Mendelson told Eric Fidler that he's not satisfied DDOT has determined the full costs of building this end and what is required to secure the necessary easements.
He makes a good point, and DDOT needs to work out these issues. However, it's not a reason to delay getting started on the entire streetcar project for years. When Metro was being built, plenty of operational issues arose during construction. They had to retrofit for elevators, and the Park Service refused to allow a Farragut transfer station under Farragut Square. They worked around them.
Likewise, DDOT can work around these issues if they can't work something out with PDC. They have other options for the siting of the maintenance facility and how to turn the streetcar around on the western end. Those aren't as ideal as using the tunnel, which would hide the facility in otherwise unused space under a bridge and which would get the terminal station right to Union Station Metro, but they can happen. And in the long run, the streetcar will go over the bridge anyway and stop in front of the new Burnham Place with a connection to the Metro station.
It's also odd that PDC has so firmly closed out consideration of. Perhaps PDC's letter is simply a negotiating position. But especially with the last paragraph "as District taxpayers," it sure sounds as though they are opposed to the streetcars in general.
This is a genuine issue and one DDOT should keep the public up to date on whatever solution gets worked out. It also would have been nice for us to have found out about it sooner. However, any project hits plenty of small hurdles, and this won't be the last.
Under the final Council budget decision, DDOT can go ahead with car purchases, but has to present detailed plans to the Council. That's a sensible approach that will ensure the issues are thought through while also letting this important project move forward as quickly as possible.
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