Metro: It's Not Easy Being Green

“Alstom 6024 at Branch Avenue, 2006” (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alstom_6024_at_Branch_Avenue.jpg
The Green Line Metro faced 20 years of disputes and problems before trains finally started running in 1991. (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

May 11, 1991 marked an important milestone for the Metro and for Washington. On that Saturday, complete with official speeches, marching bands, and other forms of pomp and circumstance, the first three stations of the Green Line opened at Mount Vernon Square, Shaw-Howard University, and U-Street. Getting to this celebration was anything but easy, however. For many years, it had seemed that the Green Line would never become a reality, as the last color of the Metrorail project faced countless setbacks due to budgeting, route disputes, and construction methods.

Following 10 years of research on transportation in the greater Washington area, and the 1967 creation of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), on March 1, 1968, the WMATA Board officially approved a 97.2 mile rail system which would service D.C., and surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland.[1] This plan created the five original Metrorail lines: Blue, Orange, Red, Yellow, and Green. The first portion of the Red Line opened on March 27, 1976, with the Blue, Orange, and Yellow following suit over the next seven years. By 1984, however, the only line that was left completely untouched was Green—and hopes for its construction were not looking promising.

With a proposed route from Prince George’s County through the core of the city, the Green Line promised to invigorate some lower income areas of Maryland and D.C.[2] The project would bring high-quality transportation to Anacostia for the first time, as well as help restore the Shaw and Cardozo neighborhoods in the aftermath of the 1968 riots.

“Metro Map from 1982” (Photo Source: ggwash.org) https://ggwash.org/view/67044/happy-birthday-metro-watch-metros-evolution-since-1976-in-this-slideshow
A dashed green line on a 1982 Metro map shows WMATA's designation for the future Green Line. The final line would end up almost identical to this one with a few minor station changes on the Brance Ave side. (Photo Source: Greater Greater Washington Website)

From the time the line was drawn on the original 1968 plans, however, its route was disputed. While long-time residents of the areas in question felt the need for the Metro line was well overdue, they expressed significant concerns over the day-to day disruptions and permanent displacements that the new transit line would force upon them if it was routed in certain directions. In a 1980 interview, Jackson Graham, Metro’s first general manager, explained:

“Every time we would go to a public hearing, some strong-willed matriarch would stand up and say, ‘You can’t come up this street,’ and we knew it wouldn’t go up that street. So we’d draw another line, and hold another hearing.” [3]

This arduous process of rerouting mainly affected the portion of the Green Line between present day U-Street and College Park, and resulted in the creation of the Fort Totten and West Hyattsville stations, as the route was shifted slightly eastward from Chillum to avoid demolishing too many residential areas.[4]

Although the Green Line was included on the original Metro plan, routing disputes spanned over several years, and the construction schedule followed “the path of least resistance,” meaning that the lines with comparatively less controversy—Red, Blue, Orange, and Yellow—were built first, pushing Green further down the list.[5]

These construction pushbacks seemed to suggest that the Green Line was on the verge of extinction, which only infuriated “neighborhood activists, politicians, and government officials” more, as they argued that the Green Line “should have been the first built because it would serve the most disadvantaged sections in the Washington area.”[6]

As construction work on the first four lines progressed through 1980, a new contract was needed in order for work to continue after June of 1981. Larry Saban, regional representative of the Maryland Department of Transportation, was concerned about the uncertainty of the Green Line, and refused to sign the new contract until there was assurance from his D.C. and Northern Virginia counterparts that there would still be economic support when the Green Line was to be built. This move threatened the completion of the rest of the unfinished Metro system, causing conversations—and controversy—about the Green Line to increase rapidly.

In 1980, the cost of the Green line was estimated at $2 billion with a predicted completion set in 1990.[7] This plan was again threatened, however, by two main issues. First, in Prince George’s County, a decision to change the entire end of the train route would force the removal of homes and threaten a historical area.

“DCSubwayConstruction, August 1989” (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DCSubwayConstruction.jpg
Construction on Metro tunnels in 1989. (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Second, in the Fort Totten neighborhood of D.C., citizens requested that a planned elevated section of the train be, instead, placed in a tunnel. This request was in line with a promise that former D.C. transportation director Douglas Schneider had made to Fort Totten residents at a public hearing two years earlier. However, by 1980, officials were asking for “flexibility,” as they faced a much different fiscal reality than they had previously envisioned.[8] Adding a tunnel would increase the Green Line’s cost by at least $100,000, and was also opposed by the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration which provided 80% of the money for building the Metro system.[9]

The District government shared citizens’ uncertainty that the Green Line would ever become a reality, and at a meeting in December 1980, it threatened to withhold funding for the project until the Metro Board created a construction schedule more favorable to the Green Line—according to the Washington Post, this “incident was only the latest example of snafus and politicking that [had] slowed [the line’s] construction.”[10]

On May 23, 1985, the Metro Board adopted a plan to raise the cost of the project to $147.1 million, and place the section of rail between Fort Totten and Avondale in a tunnel, thereby settling the most controversial and disputed issue.[11] With this decision ending the “last major battle over the Green Line’s route,” construction finally began.[12]

“Construction Begins on the U Street-Cardozo Green Line Station, 1987.” (Photo Source: Ben’s Chili Bowl Website) http://benschilibowl.com/history/
Construction continues on a portion of the Green line under U Street in 1987. (Photo Source: Ben's Chili Bowl Website)

Though residents began to see tangible progress—in the form of backhoes and other heavy machinery ripping up streets—the project continued to face financial setbacks through the 1980s, including the Reagan Administration’s withholding of a congressionally appropriated $392 million.[13]

Still, construction continued until May 11, 1990 when the line met yet another hiccup. Metro fired contractor Mergentime/Perini Joint Venture due to the contractor’s breach of contract resulting in significant schedule delay, reduction in manpower, and unsafe conditions that they had been previously warned about.[14]

“Green Line Construction Outside Ben’s in 1989” (Photo Source: Ben's Chili Bowl Website) http://benschilibowl.com/history/
Green Line construction tears up U-Street in front of Ben's Chili Bowl in 1989. While Ben's made it through the construction, most other stores in the area were not as fortunate, and were forced out of business as the destroyed streets kept customers away for months. (Photo Source: Ben's Chili Bowl Website)

This latest delay had business owners in Shaw outraged, as they struggled to keep business going with the streets completely torn apart. Speaking to the Washington Post in 1990, Jamal Muhammad, manager of Talib’s Discount Clothing, claimed he had already lost 75% of his business since 7th Street NW had closed for tunneling, and worried that the new delay “is going to devastate us.”[15] Edward Archie, owner of nearby Tuxedo Valet, called the construction slowdown “a blow after many blows.”[16] In fact, Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street would end up being one of the only businesses in the neighborhood to survive the devastation of both the 1968 riots and the Green Line construction.

Anxious to avoid further public frustration and finish the already 80% completed Shaw and U Street Stations, Metro hired Perini, which had separated from Mergentime, as the new contractor on May 25.

After decades as a dashed green line on the Metro map, which was WMATA’s designation for a future line, the first section of the Green Line finally opened on May 11, 1991—exactly one year after the contractor firing. Several hundred people lined the streets in Shaw to watch marching bands parade down the newly paved road, momentarily forgetting the abandoned businesses behind them. And as the first passengers boarded the Green Line trains for free rides on that ceremonial Saturday morning, 20 years of waiting for a train that seemed like it would never come were finally over.

Epilogue: The Green Line officially opened December 28, 1991 with the Mt. Vernon square station connecting through to Anacostia by way of L’Enfant Plaza, Waterfront, and Navy Yard. The stretch from Fort Totten to Greenbelt opened on December 11, 1993, and the connecting section between U-Street and Fort Totten opened September 18, 1999. The last five stations between Anacostia and Branch Avenue opened for business January 13, 2001, thereby completing the Green Line and the entire original five lines of the Metro system.

For a year-by-year look at Metro’s evolution, check out this map animation: https://ggwash.org/view/67044/happy-birthday-metro-watch-metros-evolution-since-1976-in-this-slideshow

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ “Metro_history.pdf.” Accessed June 10, 2018. https://www.wmata.com/about/upload/history.pdf.
  2. ^ Feaver, Douglas B. 1980. “What Ever Happened to the Green Line?” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., October 14, 1980, sec. METRO Federal Diary/Obituaries/Classified. https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/hnpwashingtonp....
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973); Washington, D.C. 1968. “Metro to Have Eight Major Routes in District, Suburbs” March 2, 1968, sec. City Life. https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/hnpwashingtonp....
  5. ^ Feaver, Douglas B. 1980. “What Ever Happened to the Green Line?” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., October 14, 1980, sec. METRO Federal Diary/Obituaries/Classified. https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/hnpwashingtonp....
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ McQueen, Michel McQueen. 1981. “Green Line Progress.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., January 29, 1981, sec. THE DISTRICT WEEKLY. https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/hnpwashingtonp....
  11. ^ Lynton, Stephen J. 1985. “Tunnels Set for Disputed Section of Green Line: Section of Green Line Will Go Underground.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., May 24, 1985, sec. METRO FEDERAL DIARY. https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/hnpwashingtonp....
  12. ^ Ibid.
  13. ^ Lynton, Stephen J. 1986. “Metro Approves 3-Phase Plan To Build Green Line by 1990s: Green Line Plan Approved.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., May 23, 1986, sec. METRO FEDERAL DIARY. https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/hnpwashingtonp....
  14. ^ Henderson, Nell. 1990. “Metro Fires Contractor Over Delay: Green Line Opening Put Off Until Spring.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File); Washington, D.C., May 12, 1990, sec. Metro. https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/hnpwashingtonp....
  15. ^ Ibid.
  16. ^ Ibid.