NCPC wants more power over streetcar wires
NCPC is asking the DC Council to agree to give it a greater authority over the District's streetcar system than its federal mandate may currently provide. If it doesn't get that power, NCPC may try to discourage the FTA from giving DC the grant to extend the streetcar to Benning Road Metro or possibly file a lawsuit.
According to attorney Andrea Ferster at the recent streetcar overhead wire hearing, the law gives NCPC approval over certain issues including federal property and buildings, but not over streets.
Therefore, Ferster argued that while NCPC has an advisory role on overhead wires, they don't get to formally approve or disapprove a street project. (There may be legal nuances, but this seems to be the same reason DDOT was able to go ahead with poles on the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane despite CFA's dismissal of the idea.)
However, in furtherance of its mission to "protect the federal interest," NCPC is asking the DC Council to modify its overhead wire legislation to grant it more decisionmaking authority over wires within the City of Washing than its current advisory role provides, according to Ellen Jones of DC Surface Transit, the nonprofit organization supported by BIDs and other groups which helps market the Circulator and is advocating for the streetcar program.
NCPC Chairman Preston Bryant sent a memo to the other Commissioners saying that,
There are sticking points as to NCPC's suggested amendments for our proposed role in the planning and approval process so that we can achieve a certain level of involvement and can properly defend any decisions we make in terms of the streetcar plan and overhead wires.If they don't get this power,
NCPC reserves the right to bring suit on this matter. Whether we exercise that option remains to be seen and would require further discussion by the Commission.I have asked, but don't yet have details on NCPC's proposed amendments. If they just want approval for streetcars crossing the Mall or key viewsheds, that seems fine. If they want approval power over streetcars anywhere in DC, that sounds unfair. Most likely it's somewhere in between, like just the L'Enfant City or just a core portion like Union Station to Georgetown.
Last, as things appear to be unfolding where NCPC cannot support the District legislation, it is likely that we will not be able to positively opine on the District's Urban Circulator Grant funding application to the Federal Transit Administration or on future requests for federal funding from the FTA. The District's application to the FTA is for upwards of $25 million. This is substantial funding.
Absent an agreement being struck between NCPC and the District on the proposed legislation, NCPC will likely notify the FTA of our legal opinion concerning overhead wires and other federal interests.
Should the FTA not grant this or future funding, it calls into question the District's ability to go forward with the streetcar project. Thus, a lot depends on NCPC getting comfortable with the proposed District legislation.
I can understand NCPC's desire to have the power to ensure wires don't go across major viewsheds, like Pennsylvania Avenue or 16th Street. Therefore, NCPC should identify a narrow set of corridors that do matter, like any road with a clear view of the Capitol, White House, or one of the three major monuments, and ensure that batteries are used instead of wires in any of those areas.
But blocks which feel like part of a commercial district instead of a monumental extension of the Mall, like most of K Street, don't need to be included. It doesn't really affect the "federal interest" what those streets look like any more than there's a federal interest in the streets of Crystal City.
If DC gives up some of its legal right to govern its streets and NCPC ends up being particularly obstinate, requiring wireless operation everywhere west of Union Station even on blocks without any important views on H and K Streets NW, DC could end up shooting itself in the foot. On the other hand, maybe averting conflict is best and once the wires are up on H, everyone will look at them and realize it's all a tempest in a teapot and they aren't nearly as intrusive as some feared.
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