D.C.'s transportation director slammed a federal planning official Thursday for what he called "blackmail" in trying to sidetrack the city's bid for a $25 million federal grant for streetcars.
District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein wrote a letter to the chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission in response to a letter the chairman had sent to federal officials last week. Klein told the chairman that he was "seeking to inappropriately expand your strictly advisory role" to the city.
"I respectfully request that you retract your letter immediately if you wish to have a productive dialogue with DDOT going forward," Klein wrote.
The letter was just the latest arrow in the battle over how planned streetcars should be powered. It came two days after the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation that it says repeals a set of federal laws championed by the planning commission.
Playing peacemaker, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has called for both sides to meet next week to help resolve the issue.
National Capital Planning Commission head L. Preston Bryant Jr. said he is looking forward to the meeting but remained firm in his stand, saying in a written statement that it was his "duty to notify" the Federal Transit Administration about the flaws in the streetcar plan.
"As a federal appointee, my obligation is to protect the interests of the federal government," he said. "The District is seeking a $25 million federal investment for a project that not only impacts federal law, but puts at risk the character of our nation's capital."
Other commission members have distanced themselves from Bryant, saying his letter did not represent the position of the entire commission.
The city is hoping to win the $25 million grant as a key step in its plans to build a $1.5 billion network of eight streetcar lines around the city by 2020, providing transit links in spots lacking Metrorail access. The first two lines -- H Street/Benning Road in Northeast and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Anacostia -- are scheduled to begin ferrying riders by spring 2012.
Even as the H Street line is being built, the city has grappled with whether it has the authority to power the streetcars with overhead wires. Federal laws from 1888 and 1889 have restricted such overhead wires in many areas of the city.
A bill passed by the D.C. Council on Tuesday repeals those laws and reinstates them locally, according to District officials. The city consulted with several legal experts and interpreted that the city had the authority to make the changes.