Planners Hop Onto a Trolley Solution

Posted April 17, 2009 at 5:48pm

In a few years, H Street Northeast community leaders say, the corridor will be adorned with an electric trolley line that links it to Union Station and travels its length.

Today, though, H Street is a bit dreary. The streets are torn up, the Metro’s X2 bus line is often overcrowded and, like in many areas, locally owned businesses are struggling to survive in this economy.

Community planners hope an extensive streetscape project and the new trolley line will revitalize the corridor, drawing in customers for its retail district and audiences for its entertainment district.

The District has begun tearing up H Street between the intersections with Third and 15th streets, first down the north side and later down the south side. At any given time, about three blocks of either the north or south side will be closed off, but traffic will always be able to get through in the opposite lane. Among the elements of the street getting repaired or replaced are the utilities, the substructure of the street, manholes, gutters, curbs, sidewalks, intersections, traffic lights and park benches, according to Charles Allen, chief of staff for Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D).

“It is a head-to-toe overhaul of the entire corridor,— Allen said, adding that it is expected to cost $50 million (before the purchase of the streetcars).

Two initiatives are in place to help businesses cope while the street undergoes its facelift. The first is a free shuttle bus that began in January. Visitors who may have complained about construction and a lack of taxis and parking at night no longer have an excuse.

Operated by the nonprofit H Street Cooperative, the shuttle runs every half-hour beginning at 5 p.m. from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop. It has five stops along the corridor and ends at the Minnesota Avenue Metro stop. The shuttle runs until the Metro closes.

Patrick Stewart, executive director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center and one of the three co-founders of the H Street Cooperative, said the shuttle had about 1,700 riders in March and 1,200 in April.

“The ridership on the weekends is off the charts, which is to be expected,— he said. “During the week, it really kind of depends on programming.—

Anwar Saleem, director of H Street Main Street, said he has just one problem with the shuttle: It doesn’t run during the day and therefore doesn’t do much to help retail businesses in the middle stretch of the corridor.

“You just have to find a way to make it a little more well-rounded, to serve more of the district,— he said.

The second initiative to help businesses during the street renovation will target the retail businesses that might not benefit from an evening shuttle. Wells worked with at-large Councilmembers Phil Mendelson (D) and Kwame Brown (D) to push for a deferral until Sept. 15 on taxes for the H Street Northeast and Seventh Street Southeast corridors.

Wells’ chief of staff Allen said six months should be long enough for businesses along the section of Seventh Street adjacent to Eastern Market, where construction should be done and roads reopened this summer, but his boss has introduced legislation to renew the deferral in six-month increments for businesses along H Street as that project continues.

Elise Bernard, who has written the H Street neighborhood’s Frozen Tropics blog since 2004, said the tax deferral gives business owners “a little breathing space,— but they still have reason for concern.

“People are worried that it’s going to take a really long time,— she said.

The light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, will be progress on a streetcar system that would run the length of the corridor. Yet critical decisions still need to be made. A similar system that the District Department of Transportation is planning around the Anacostia Metro stop is a couple steps farther along in the process.

The first important decision is whether the line will run on overhead or underground electricity. That was a relatively easy decision for the Anacostia line, which will use overhead electricity, but it’s more difficult on H Street. Even though officials might prefer overhead lines, District regulations forbid them because the area is part of the “Old City.—

Another major step in the process is ordering the trolleys. Streetcars for the Anacostia line, purchased more than two years ago at a cost of $10 million, wait in the Czech Republic where they were manufactured. That line is behind schedule, but officials hope it will be up and running in 2012.

Allen noted that community members have to commit to the decisions that are made.

“Once you undergo something like this for several years, you actually cannot come back and dig it up,— he said.

The process toward a new H Street can be daunting, but community leaders are optimistic.

“It’s like having a brand-new baby, you know,— Saleem said. “You’re going to have growing pains.—