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DC Streetcar...or National Monument View? Reason #4,080 Why D.C. Is Not Like Any Other City

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 12:48 PM

A prototype of D.C.'s new streetcar

(Washington D.C. - David Schultz, WAMU) So let's say you're a city. You want to build a big public works project, like a school or a fire house - or let's say a $1.5 billion, 37-mile streetcar network.

First you formulate a design for the project, then you find the money to pay for it and then you get local politicians to sign off. (Not necessarily in that order) In most cities, with most projects, that's how it works.

Not in the District of Columbia. In Washington D.C., you also have to make sure the project you're working on doesn't impinge on any of the august, historic symbols that populate the Nation's Capital.

For example: local officials here in D.C. are looking to create a streetcar network, but the federal government is uneasy because the overhead wires that power the streetcars may block the city's monumental vistas. Earlier this month, the D.C. City Council gave final approval to streetcars, but it may be overruled by the National Capital Planning Commission, the agency that oversees federal land interests in the District.

Now, to be fair, these aren't just any vistas we're talking about. Stare down nearly any street in Washington, and you'll get at least a glimpse of the Capitol, the Washington Monument or even the White House. In fact, Pierre L'Enfant, the legendary city planner who designed Washington back in the late 1700s, deliberately laid out streets and avenues so the views would be as eye-popping as possible.

And yet...

There's a long and frustrating history of the federal government exerting its special power over the District to block local initiatives. The city's Mayor-elect, Vincent Gray, sees this conflict through that lens.

For more, check out this story on NPR's All Things Considered.

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