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Does Maryland’s statewide planning make big projects harder to build


Maryland Governor’s Mansion. Image from the Boston Public Library on Flickr.

Despite years of work and broad community support to build the Purple Line, Maryland’s new Republican governor-elect may kill the project. Does Maryland’s heavily centralized state-level planning make it particularly susceptible to shifts like this one?

Most US states delegate transit planning to regional or municipal agencies, rather than doing it at the state level. Maryland is unusual. It’s geographically small and dominated by urban areas, and it has a history of governors interested in planning. So the state handles much more planning than usual, especially for transit.

That can be a mixed blessing.

When things go well, it means Maryland directs many more resources to transit than most other states. But it also means transit projects in Maryland are inherently more vulnerable to outside politics.

Maryland’s centralized system is designed under the assumption that Democrats will always control the state government, and therefore planning priorities won’t change very much from election to election. Were that actually the case, the system would work pretty well.

But recent history shows Maryland is not nearly so safe as Democrats might hope. With Larry Hogan’s election, two out of the last three Maryland governors have been Republicans. And they have different priorities.

Of course, it’s completely proper for political victors to have their own priorities. We live in a representative democracy, and we want it that way.

But shifting priorities are a big problem for any large infrastructure projects that take more than one governor’s time in office to complete.

It takes at least 10 years to plan and build something like a light rail line, or a new highway. If every new governor starts over, the project never gets done.

Thus, large infrastructure projects like the Purple Line, Baltimore’s light rail, and even highways like the ICC wallow in uncertainty for decades, shifting back and forth as one governor’s pet project and another governor’s whipping post.


Maryland’s spent literally half a century debating and re-debating whether or not to build the ICC highway.

While many states centralize their planning for highways, so much money automatically flows towards highway expansion that a lot of big road projects inevitably sail through without becoming political issues. Since transit rarely has dedicated funding for long term expansion, transit projects are more likely to become politicized.

And although this problem can happen anywhere, Maryland’s particular system centralizing transit planning under the governor’s office seems to make it par for the course.

When regional or local agencies control more of the planning, they’re less susceptible to the whims of any individual election.

For example on the southern side of the Potomac, where Virginia kept Silver Line planning alive through multiple Democrat and Republican governors, but only managed to actually build it after the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority took over ownership of the project from the state in 2007. After that, the state was involved but not the leader, making the project less of a target for governors or legislators.

Is there a best of both worlds?

The benefit to statewide planning is statewide resources. The Maryland Department of Transportation is much more willing to spend its own money on transit than almost any other state DOT.

While Fairfax County and MWAA had to increase local commercial property taxes and tolls in the Dulles Corridor to build the Silver Line, MDOT leadership meant Montgomery and Prince George’s weren’t supposed to need such schemes for the Purple Line.

Could we find a way to preserve access to the state’s financial resources without putting urban transportation projects at the mercy of voters on the Eastern Shore? Maybe.

Virginia offers a compelling model, with its regional planning agencies like the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. NVTA makes decisions and receives funding at the metropolitan level, and is governed by a relatively stable board rather than one single politician.

Naturally the NVTA system has trade-offs too. For example, NVTA has independent funding streams but doesn’t get to allocate VDOT money. And NVTA is ultimately under jurisdiction of the Virginia General Assembly, which can impose its will any time.

No system is ever perfect, and Maryland wouldn’t have to copy Virginia directly. But something similar in concept might work, especially if it combined regional decision-making with state funding.

Don’t mistake Maryland’s problem as a criticism of planning in general

One common trope among some sprawl apologists and highway lobbyists is that central planning is inherently bad. For them, “central planning” is a code word that really means smart growth and transit planning in general.

Maryland’s reliance on statewide rather than regional-level planning does not prove those pundits right. Without government planning no large infrastructure projects would be possible at all.

Maryland has a specific problem with how it implements its planning, which leaders in the state can practically address without throwing the planning baby out with the bathwater.

Perhaps it’s time to begin that conversation.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 7th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, lightrail, proposal, roads/cars, transportation



Norfolk’s light rail decision: Embrace the city, or follow the highway

As Norfolk plans the next expansion of its burgeoning light rail system, a classic transit dilemma faces the community: Will the northern extension to Naval Station Norfolk run through rider-rich urban neighborhoods, or take the path of least resistance along wide suburban highways?


Potential light rail routes. Image from HRT.

Hampton Roads Transit is planning two light rail extensions. One, east to Virginia Beach, is relatively straightforward; it will follow an old rail right-of-way. The other, north to Naval Station Norfolk, is a challenge.

The northern extension will have to run on or adjacent to streets, and could follow any one of several alignments planners are currently considering.

If the light rail follows Granby Street, a tightly packed urban commercial street, or Hampton Boulevard, the main street through Old Dominion University, then it will probably capture a lot of local riders, since those are walkable transit-friendly destinations. On the other hand, adding transit lanes would be more disruptive for car drivers on narrow streets than on wider, more suburban highways, since there’s less space to go around.

Conversely, if the light rail follows the more easterly Military Highway, there will be plenty of space to accommodate trains without disrupting cars, and commuters to the navy base using park-and-rides near the end of the line will have a quick ride from their cars to the base.

But that alignment wouldn’t serve any strongly walkable neighborhoods; it would even miss downtown Norfolk. It would offer quick rides to one destination and easy construction, but the resulting line would be a glorified parking shuttle to the navy base, not the spine of a transit-oriented community.

Maybe after a few decades a Military Road alignment might induce enough transit oriented development that some of its stations could become walkable. Or maybe not. In the meantime, Norfolk’s genuinely urban neighborhoods will still need better transit.

Meanwhile, the Church Street alignment would split the difference by skirting the outer edge of downtown Norfolk, and the Chesapeake Boulevard alignment would snake along an indirect route that serves a few additional neighborhoods, but would be very slow from end to end. These options look like compromises unlikely to satisfy anybody.

Planners have already dropped the most urban alignment options, which would have gone through Norfolk’s dense Ghent neigborhood. Not only does that mean the most walkable part of Norfolk besides downtown will be without rail, but also that the western end of the existing light rail line will be a spur, forcing transfers.

Experience says pick the urban options

The fast and easy suburban options are tempting. Not only are they the path of least resistance, but computer models of traffic behavior probably predict that the more suburban routes capture the most navy base commuters.

But history shows light rail systems built like that don’t work very well. Computer models are good at predicting long distance car commutes, but bad at understanding travel in walkable areas. They naturally push planners towards park-and-ride oriented systems, when we know the most successful transit routes follow dense walkable corridors instead.

So Norfolk faces a choice: Embrace the city and build a transit line for the city, or follow a highway and build a park-and-ride shuttle.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 21st, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: land use, lightrail, transportation



Build protected transit lanes using cycletrack bollards

Simple plastic bollards and slight changes to lanes are enough to turn a regular bike lane into a cycletrack. Could the same trick work for bus lanes?


Bollard-protected bus lane in Washington state. Image from Zachary Ziegler on Vine.

DC’s 7th Street and 9th Street curbside bus lanes are famously dysfunctional. Cars use them at will, and pretty much always have. But it doesn’t have to be so.

The same tricks that work to protect bike lanes can also work to protect transit lanes. Plastic bollards, also known as flexposts, send a strong message to car drivers to stay out. The Virginia Department of Transportation even uses them on highways.

Flexposts on a Dulles Toll Road bus lane (left) and the Beltway (right).
Beltway photo from Google.

Generally speaking, the same complications would exist for bus lanes as exist for cycletracks. Adding bollards takes up a couple of extra feet, parking for cars has to move a lane away from the curb, and you have to find a way to accommodate cars turning at intersections. But mixing zones and other clever solutions have solved those problems for cycletracks, and could work for bus lanes too.

And flexposts aren’t the only cycletrack lesson we can apply to bus lanes. Red paint helps transit lanes the same way green paint helps bike lanes.

Green means bike, red means transit. Bus lane photo from NYDOT.

No matter how many special treatments like bollards or red paint an agency applies, median transitways will still function better than curbside transit lanes. Median transitways eliminate the right turn problem altogether (left turns are less common), and puts the transit lanes out of the way of parked cars, or cars pulling over to pick up or drop off passengers.

But median transitways take up more road space, because the medians have to be wide enough for stations. They simply can’t fit on all streets. Where that’s the case, tricks like these can help curbside transit lanes work better than the 7th Street bus lane.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

August 7th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bike, BRT, bus, lightrail, streetcar, transportation



Fun on Friday: Transit door chimes around the world

Whoever made this video compilation of “doors closing” chimes from metro lines around the world is a transit geek after my own heart.

After watching the video, I have a fresh appreciation for WMATA’s comparatively pleasant choice.

June 20th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: fun, lightrail, metrorail, transportation



MoveDC plan proposes more cycletracks, transit, and tolls. Will it actually happen?

The latest draft of DDOT’s citywide transportation plan, moveDC, calls for a massive expansion of transit and cycling facilities throughout the District, plus new tolls on car commuters. If the District adopts it, the plan will become one of America’s most progressive.


The moveDC plan summary map. All images from DDOT.

DDOT released the latest version of moveDC last Friday, launching a month long public comment period in anticipation of a DC Council hearing on June 27. Following that, the mayor will determine any changes based on the comment period, with final adoption anticipated this summer.

What’s in the plan

Amid the hundreds of specific recommendations in the plan, three major proposed initiatives stand out:

  • A vastly improved transit network, with 69 miles of streetcars, transit lanes, and improved buses, plus a new Metrorail subway downtown.
  • A massive increase in new cycling infrastructure, including the densest network of cycletracks this side of Europe.
  • Congestion pricing for cars entering downtown, and traveling on some of DC’s biggest highways.

Transit


Proposed high-capacity transit network (both streetcars and bus). Blue is mixed-traffic, red is dedicated transit lanes.

The plan proposes to finish DC’s 22-mile streetcar system, then implement a further 47-mile high-capacity transit network that could use a combination of streetcars or buses. That includes 25 miles of dedicated transit lanes, including the much requested 16th Street bus lane.

Although the proposed high capacity transit corridors closely mirror the 37-mile streetcar network originally charted in 2010, there are several new corridors. In addition to 16th Street, moveDC shows routes on Wisconsin Avenue, both North and South Capitol Streets, H and I Streets downtown, and several tweaks and extensions to other corridors.

The plan endorses WMATA’s idea for a new loop subway through downtown DC, but explicitly denies that DC can fund that project alone.

MoveDC also shows a network of new high-frequency local bus routes, including Connecticut Avenue, Military Road, Alabama Avenue, and MacArthur Boulevard.

Bicycles

MoveDC also includes a huge expansion of trails and bike lanes, especially cycletracks.


Proposed bike network. The pink lines are cycletracks.

Under the plan, DC would have a whopping 72 miles of cycletracks crisscrossing all over the city. From South Dakota Avenue to Arizona Avenue to Mississippi Avenue, everybody gets a cycletrack.

Meanwhile, moveDC shows major new off-street trails along Massachusetts Avenue, New York Avenue, and the Anacostia Freeway, among others.

Tolls for cars

Congestion pricing is clearly on DDOT’s mind, with multiple proposals for new variable tolls in the plan.


Proposed downtown cordon charge zone.

The most aggressive proposal is to a declare a cordon charge to enter downtown in a car. This idea has worked in London and has been discussed in New York and San Francisco, but so far no American city has tried it.

Meanwhile, some of the major car routes into DC would also be converted to managed lanes. Like Maryland’s ICC or Virginia’s Beltway HOT lanes, managed lanes have variable tolls that rise or fall based on how busy a road is.

MoveDC proposes managed lanes on I-395, I-295, New York Avenue, and Canal Road.

What will the council think?

DDOT has produced a very strong plan, but is it going anywhere? The DC Council will discuss moveDC on June 27, at which time we’ll find out if the same people who pulled the rug out from under streetcar funding are interested in progressive policy-making, at least.

Even if DC does adopt this plan, whether the council will actually provide the funds necessary to build it is anybody’s guess.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the DC Council will approve or deny this plan. Authority to approve it actually rests solely with the mayor.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 2nd, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bike, BRT, bus, government, lightrail, master planning, metrorail, roads/cars, streetcar, transportation



The DC region has over 250 miles of planned light rail, streetcar, & BRT

What do you get when you plot onto a single map every known light rail, streetcar, and BRT plan in the DC region? One heck of a huge transit network, is what.


Every planned light rail, streetcar, and BRT line in the DC region. Click the map to open a zoom-able interactive version. Basemap from Google.

This map combines the DC streetcar and MoveDC bus lane plan with the Arlington streetcar plan, the Alexandria transitway plan, Montgomery’s BRT plan, and Fairfax’s transit network plan, plus the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, the Long Bridge study, the Wilson Bridge transit corridor, and finally the Southern Maryland transit corridor.

Add the route mileage from all of them up and you get 267 miles of proposed awesomeness, not including the Silver Line or other possible Metrorail expansions.

To be sure, it will be decades before all of this is open to passengers, if ever.

The H Street Streetcar will be the first to open this year, god willing, with others like the Purple Line and Columbia Pike Streetcar hopefully coming before the end of the decade. But many of these are barely glimpses in planners’ eyes, vague lines on maps, years or decades away from even serious engineering, much less actual operation.

For example, Maryland planners have been talking about light rail extending south into Charles County since at least the late 1990s, but it’s no higher than 4th down on the state’s priority list for new transit, after the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and Baltimore Red Line. Never mind how Montgomery’s expansive BRT network fits in.

Meanwhile in Virginia, the Gallows Road route seems to be a brand new idea. There’s yet to be even a feasibility study for it.

Even if governments in the DC region spend the next few decades building this network, there are sure to be changes between now and the day it’s all in place. Metro’s original planners didn’t know Tysons would become the behemoth it is, and contemporary planners can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy either.

Last year the Coalition for Smarter Growth published a report documenting every known route at that time, and already a lot has changed. More is sure to change over time.

Holes in the network

With a handful of exceptions these plans mostly come from individual jurisdictions. DC plans its streetcars, Montgomery County plans its BRT, and so on.

That kind of bottom-up planning is a great way to make sure land use and transit work together, but the downside is insular plans that leave gaps in the overall network.

Ideally there ought to be at least one connection between Fairfax and Montgomery, and Prince George’s ought to be as dense with lines as its neighbors.

But still, 267 miles is an awfully impressive network. Now let’s build it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

May 6th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, lightrail, maps, master planning, streetcar, transportation



Fairfax’s answer to neighbors’ transit plans: Light rail, streetcars, and BRT

Not to be outdone by its neighbors’ aggressive plans for rail and BRT networks, Fairfax County has an impressive transit plan of its own.


Fairfax County’s proposed high quality transit network. Image from Fairfax.

DC has its streetcar and moveDC plans, Arlington and Alexandria have streetcars and BRT, and Montgomery has its expansive BRT network, plus of course the Purple Line.

Now Fairfax has a major countrywide transit plan too, called the High Quality Transit Network.

Fairfax’s top priorities are to finish the Silver Line and the Bailey’s Crossroads portion of the Columbia Pike streetcar, but that’s not the end of their plans.

County planners are also looking at several other corridors, including Route 1, Route 7 (both east and west of Tysons), I-66, Route 28, and Gallows Road/Dolly Madison Boulevard.

Both rail and BRT are possibilities for all those corridors. Some may end up light rail or streetcar, others bus. Route 1 and I-66 could even include Metrorail extensions.

In addition to all that, Fairfax County Parkway is slated for HOT lanes, which could make express buses a more practical option there.

As the DC region continues to grow, and demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities continues to increase, these types of plans are crucial. If our major arterial highways are going to become the mixed-use main streets of tomorrow, transit on them must significantly improve.

Fairfax is undeniably still spending a lot on bigger highways. Planners’ inability to calm traffic on Routes 7 and 123 through Tysons, for example, indicates roads are still priority number one. But it takes a plan to change, and this is a strong step forward. So good on Fairfax for joining the club.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

April 22nd, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, land use, lightrail, master planning, metrorail, roads/cars, streetcar, transportation



Elevated supertrain for 1/3 the cost of light rail? Yeah right

A startup maglev manufacturer that’s never built a functioning transit system is stirring up controversy in Virginia Beach, claiming they can build a levitating, elevated high speed maglev from Norfolk to Virginia Beach for 1/3 the cost of surface light rail.

Yeah right. And if you believe that, they can probably sell Hampton Roads a couple of bridges, too.


Unfinished maglev at Old Dominion University. Photo by withvengeance86 on flickr.

Elevated rail is more expensive than surface rail. New technologies are more expensive than proven ones, and maglev in particular (on which trains levitate above a magnetic field rather than glide on tracks) has been super expensive wherever built. And since Norfolk already has light rail, you’d be forcing a transfer unnecessarily.

Oh, and this same company tried to build a maglev at Old Dominion University in Norfolk years ago, and never finished.

This is all reminiscent of the California hyperloop proposal. They’re both completely unrealistic, almost certainly built on either faulty assumptions or outright lies, and serve no purpose but to strip support away from actually practical transit options.

I hate to be a closed minded curmudgeon. Maglev trains are cool and can work. Absent the claim that this could be done for 1/3 the cost of light rail, it might be worth exploring. But we have enough experience with other maglev proposals to know this one smells fishy.

March 4th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: lightrail, transportation



Europe’s real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it’s not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.


Like many cities, Portland builds both.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn’t SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.

That’s true. It’s because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don’t need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that’s what they do. That’s what US cities do too. That’s what everyone does.

That’s why DC’s east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington’s streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It’s why Salt Lake City’s “light rail” sometimes runs in the street, while its “streetcar” runs in an old freight corridor. And it’s why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it’s why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn’t an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It’s an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don’t use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that’s planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren’t proposed, it’s totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don’t get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there’s a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That’s a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn’t be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It’s not true and it’s not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let’s do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let’s not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it’s the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 29th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: lightrail, streetcar, transportation



All northeast US passenger rail on one awesome map

This map shows every Amtrak, commuter rail, metro, light rail, and tourist rail line from Maine to North Carolina, to scale.

It comes from NortheastRailMap.com, and you can even download it in a fully-editable Adobe Illustrator format.


Image from NortheastRailMap.com.

Update: The map’s author has requested that you “like” their page on Facebook. Please help them out and do that!

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 5th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: commuterrail, intercity, lightrail, maps, metrorail, streetcar, transportation



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