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H St. Streetcar Funding Questions Linger

Come July, city workers will begin tearing up part of the H Street Northeast corridor in a $27 million effort to create tree-lined boulevards, lit sidewalks and friendly streets. They’ll also be installing the tracks for a streetcar line — one of the most hyped aspects of the area’s revitalization.

But one thing worries businessman Anwar Saleem: Washington, D.C., has not yet secured funding for the actual streetcars.

“If we spend a whole lot of money on streetcars, I want to see a plan that we can envision an end [and] envision a complete system,” said Saleem, who is president of H Street Main Street, which works to foster business in the area. “Right now, this far down the line, I think we should at least see this.”

The idea of a streetcar embodies the hopeful image of a revitalized H Street: It harks back to the once-thriving area’s heyday and screams “fun and easy.” But it’s also expensive. Each car goes for $3 million, and a hoped-for extension to Union Station costs even more. And so far, none of that funding is secured.

But H Street is just one section of a bigger effort by the District Department of Transportation to increase accessibility to the east and west sections of the District, said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Joseph Fengler. Because the city can’t fund it all in one budget, money will come with each stage of the project, he said. Already, he said, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells have indicated that the 2008 budget will include funding for the construction of H Street’s streetcars.

If the money keeps coming, those streetcars bring the hope of more visitors, who currently must navigate the Metro and bus system to get to an area that is just beginning to make a name for itself. The Atlas Performing Center, located at 1333 H St. NE, battles transportation issues by offering a free shuttle with other businesses to bring patrons to the street from various metro stations.

“We like the idea of the streetcars — anything to help the transportation in the area,” said Jen DeMayo, communications director for the Atlas. “We’re looking forward to that.”

But while Saleem said he also likes the idea of streetcars, he wondered whether a bus like the D.C. Circulator would be cheaper and easier to implement.

It’s simply the difference between a short-term view and a long-term one, where visitors eventually will be able to travel from Georgetown to H Street with ease, Fengler said.

“It’s very difficult for the city to set aside all the money in one budget because it’s a phase implementation,” he said. “It makes sense to break apart the project.”

And so DDOT is focusing on simply laying down the streetcar tracks and hasn’t determined how it will fund and implement the system later on, said Catondra Noye, streetcar coordinator for DDOT.

But District officials also say that the streetcars will be in place and working within five years. Pepco already is installing utility lines on H Street that eventually will power the track. The National Capital Planning Commission approved plans Feb. 1 for the street renovations — including the installation of streetcar tracks. First up is the Anacostia line — a 1.3-mile stretch roughly between the Anacostia Metro Station and Bolling Air Force Base; its role is to demonstrate such a line in preparation for a possible citywide track. The construction of those three cars for the Anacostia line will be finished in May and then will be stored until the track is ready.

“All the homework has been done, and now everyone is really excited to see the work begin,” said Citywide Transportation Planner Colleen Hawkinson. After meeting with business owners, officials have come up with a construction plan that will hopefully be the least obstructive to the street’s interests, she said.

But even as she pointed to Saleem as DDOT’s main contact on the street, Saleem said he isn’t completely sold — mostly because he’s unsure what is happening. And Pepco’s construction, he said, has given business owners a taste of what’s to come: less parking, more traffic and crammed construction.

“Right now we’re up in the air about what’s going on,” he said. “People are beginning to become concerned about what’s going to happen.”

According to Hawkinson, DDOT’s plan is this: Construction will begin in July and will be conducted in three separate phases to keep traffic running smoothly. Phase One will see the reconstruction of Third Street to Seventh Street Northeast. Phase Two will be Seventh Street to 11th Street. And Phase Three will complete construction between 11th Street and 14th Street. Traffic will always stay at one lane each way, except during rush hour, when there will be one extra lane. It all will be done in roughly two and a half years.

Still to be determined is whether the cars will have overhead lines; although they are banned on H Street and the NCPC encouraged all streetcar lines not to use them, Hawkinson said DDOT is hoping to come to a compromise.

The whole project is part of the Great Streets Initiative, a $100 million project aimed at beautifying the streets and sidewalks of six key corridors in the city. Although DDOT originally planned to separate the construction of the sidewalks and streets from the installation of the tracks, Fengler and others lobbied them to do both at once so the street would undergo only one long period of street construction, rather than two.

“It’s a culmination of people’s efforts over decades to get the city to put money where its mouth is and they’ve done it,” Fengler said, “and they’ll continue to do it.”