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Streetcar signal work to cause congestion on Benning Road NE

Wednesday - 9/4/2013, 7:15am  ET

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Construction for a streetcar in northeast D.C. has impacted traffic for three years, and a new change adds to the congestion. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON - As construction crews wind down their work on the first streetcar network since the 1960s, motorists and residents near Benning Road NE in D.C. will deal with more gridlock in the months to come.

D.C.'s Department of Transportation began a project on Tuesday to finish up track work and install two track switches along Benning Road between 21st and 26th streets NE, which will take up to two months. Traffic will be reduced to one lane in each direction, meaning backups and delays for commuters.

"It's inconsiderate for the people that live here. It causes nothing but congestion," says Dee Burke, who lives near the construction.

"This has been going on for the last three years. They dug up the street, made it nice, but then came back to re-dig and make it even worse than it was. So it's not a good thing."

The H Street/Benning Road line will have eight stops between Union Station and Benning Road at Oklahoma Avenue NE (next to 26th Street). Burke says she doesn't support the projects because Metrobus already covers the same route. She's also concerned about safety.

"It's bad for the pedestrians. You're walking down the street with cars driving right up near the sidewalk, it's very uncomfortable. Everyone is merging into that one lane, so there's a fear that someone is going to crash and I have my children wondering will that car come up and hit me," she says.

But Clifton Corry said he believes the benefits outweigh the short-term inconvenience.

"It will tie in a better commuting service into Chinatown and beyond. It'll be less congestion, but for change to come, sometimes you have to suffer," he says.

"The change that'll come from this is monumental because now you're going to have all these venues accessible without needing a vehicle. It'll be easier to get from point A to point B."

According to DDOT, westbound Benning Road traffic will be reduced to one lane from the Metrorail Overpass to 21st Street. Eastbound Benning Road traffic will be one lane from 21st Street to 26th Street, at which point two-lane traffic will be restored.

Diane Neverson says all the work on Benning Road has a big impact on her. She lives on 25th Place, right in the middle of the work throughout the last few years.

"It impacts my home. The traffic. The dust. I'm wondering about the building structure. It always weighs on my mind," she says.

"Traffic is always coming down the alley, you can see it. It's really bad between 4 and 7 [in the afternoon]. You can't get through the local streets."

In fact, several cars sped through as WTOP spoke to Neverson. Motorists go south on local roads between 21st and 28th streets to loop around RFK Stadium and cross the Anacostia River at East Capitol Street rather than Benning Road.

Driver Mike Johnson admits he's one of them.

"I just try to avoid this area any way I can. Take all the back streets. I try to stay away from Benning Road-H Street. Too much traffic for me," he says.

Johnson says the corridor used to be smooth driving, but now a rush hour looks more like the Southeast/Southwest Freeway (395) or D.C. 295 than a local road.

DDOT streetcar spokeswoman Dara Ward says she understands the frustration residents feel.

"This closure is necessary in order to install two switches for the streetcar line. Switches allow the vehicles to 'switch' to a different track and are necessary at this end of the line," she wrote in an email statement to WTOP.

"We ask that drivers bear with us during this time and remember that the payoff, a brand new transit service, is getting closer each day. In the grand scheme of the project, this short term pain will bring long term gain."

As far as timeline, DDOT still needs to finish installing the contact wire to power the streetcars and do some final roadway reconstruction before testing the cars and getting a certification from the Federal Transit Administration.

While DDOT officials still believe it's possible that the first streetcar with passengers could go into service before the end of the year, it will likely take about 90 days from the first streetcar test to service actually being offered. Such a timeline could push the official launch into early 2014.

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