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Nothing to say about the Arlington streetcar

In case anyone is wondering, as an Arlington employee it’s not prudent for me to blog about the Arlington County board’s decision to cancel the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.

Greater Greater Washington has excellent coverage of the issue, though.

November 21st, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: events, government, streetcar, transportation



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



Metro’s Richard Sarles announces retirement


Richard Sarles. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles announced at today’s Metro board meeting that he will retire, effective January, 2015.

The move comes as a surprise, since in 2013 Sarles agreed to a contract extension that would have kept him on the job until 2016. But not too much of a surprise: He’s 70 years old and has always said he didn’t intend to stay at WMATA long.

Sarles took charge of WMATA in 2010 and oversaw a significant rebuilding and safety-related overhaul of the transit system.

Metro board chairman Tom Downs says WMATA will conduct a nationwide search for Sarles’ replacement.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 24th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, metrorail, people, transportation



Two maps that explain what DC might look like as a state

On Monday, Congress considered DC statehood. But what would DC actually look like if it became a state?


Maps by Geoffrey Hatchard for Neighbors United for Statehood.

The most likely path to statehood for the District would shrink the federal city to a tiny section surrounding the National Mall and other federal properties. That section would remain not part of any state. The rest of the city would then become the 51st state, possibly called New Columbia.

Here’s a zoom-in to what would become the remaining federal city.


 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 17th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, maps



Will Cantor’s loss push congressional Republicans to balk on transportation compromise?

Last night, US House majority leader Eric Cantor lost the Republican primary to a tea party challenger who painted Cantor as too willing to compromise with Democrats. Cantor’s loss makes this summer’s looming congressional fight over transportation funding all the more unpredictable.


US Highway Trust Fund balance. If Congress doesn’t act soon, money will run out. Image from USDOT.

MAP-21, the federal transportation funding bill, expires in October. But USDOT will begin running out of money in August. Without a bipartisan bill to add new money, federal transportation funding will trickle to a halt.

Transportation wasn’t a major issue in Cantor’s election, but immigration reform was. Cantor mostly opposed immigration reform, but he briefly contemplated compromise, giving his more conservative opponent David Brat an opening to attack.

Some pundits fear that will push every other House Republican away from compromise in general, and grind whatever progress Congress was making on anything to a halt.

From an immigration perspective that probably makes little difference; House Republicans were not going to compromise anyway. But it could make a huge difference for transportation.

Transportation funding was a non-partisan issue in the 20th Century. Every 6 years Congress would pass a transportation bill with broad support from both parties. But in recent years, amid declining gas tax revenue and increasing need for supplemental funding, transportation has become a partisan spark.

Congress seemed primed to act, but now it’s an open question

Up until Cantor’s defeat, the general assumption in the transportation world has been that Congress would do something this summer. “Something” might mean a long term solution like a new bill and new taxes. Or it might mean a band-aid, like an extension of MAP-21 with an infusion of federal general fund dollars. Either way, Congress appeared to be making some progress.

But now? House Republicans might very well cease all legislative activity, and hope to ride out the rest of election season without upsetting their conservative base.

Polls show that raising money for transportation is popular, and voters rarely punish officials for doing so. But that may not matter to Republicans concerned about attacks from the extreme right.

While in Congress, Cantor fought against progressive transportation funding. But in this case his personal vote, and even his leadership on the specifics, might be less important than the simple fact that he was probably willing to advance a bill.

On the other hand, maybe the Republican establishment will take this as a call to arms, and moderate legislators will become more powerful. But that seems unlikely the day after the biggest tea party victory of the season.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 11th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: funding, government, people, transportation



If stars align, the Silver Line might open as soon as July 28. But everything’s not perfect yet

WMATA still has not announced an official opening date for the Silver Line. But if crews can work out remaining construction problems quickly, the new Metro line could, potentially, maybe open for passengers as soon as Monday, July 28.


Greensboro Metro Station. Photo from Stephen Barna of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project.

That’s if workers complete all remaining construction as quickly as possible, and there are no hiccups during equipment testing or training, and the weather is good. So far, the last bits of construction aren’t quite on target to wrap up so soon.

The union is ready for a July opening

According to WMATA’s union president Jackie Jeter, Metro has instructed train operators to begin scheduling Silver Line shifts for “simulated service” starting on July 20.

Simulated service is the last step before opening for passengers. It’s a training and testing phase, during which Metro will operate the Silver Line as though it were open, but without carrying passengers.

Simulated service is supposed to take a week, so if it does begin on July 20, and there are no last minute problems, everything could be done and ready to go by the 28th.

This would be a month early, and it may still not happen

According to WMATA’s official schedule, final construction and testing could last through the end of August. To actually finish it all in July would be early, per that timeline.

Will they make it? During WMATA’s weekly conference call with reporters yesterday, Metro deputy general manager Rob Troup not only declined to confirm the July 20 date, but also cautioned that work crews are behind schedule on some of the last tasks.

Most of the remaining issues are minor. Tasks include painting hand rails and checking the public address systems, among others. The largest remaining task may be to correct water drainage problems on the station platforms.

So the July 28 date is by no means guaranteed, and it’s really not a delay if opening slips to August, or even September.

Thanks to good communication, we know what to expect

This timeline jives perfectly with what Troup said when Metro accepted control of the Silver Line on May 27. At the time, he said Metro budgeted 90 days for final testing and construction, but that they might not need the entire time.

WMATA gave the public a realistic range for how long this will take. Now that more detailed rumors are flying, we have the necessary knowledge to evaluate them. We know that July 28 is an achievable but optimistic timeline. We know that if it’s not met and opening comes a month or two later, that’s not a problem.

We know that dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” on a complex infrastructure project like the Silver Line is impossible to completely predict. But we know the Silver Line is getting really, really close.

So I’m tempering my expectations, but I’m still excited.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 10th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, metrorail, transportation



The H Street streetcar will take even longer to open than many thought. It’s past time for DDOT to be more honest

There’s more bad news for DC streetcars: The latest estimates show the H Street line may not open until early 2015. This isn’t an additional delay, but rather seems to be simply a more genuine timeline of how long the remaining work will take. That’s a step forward. Unfortunately, DDOT is still not being fully forthright about what’s going on.


DC streetcars at the Anacostia testing & commissioning site.

> Continue reading at Greater Greater Washington

June 5th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, streetcar, 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



DC’s most useless park is a parking lot in disguise

Capping an underground parking garage with a public park is such a nice idea. It’s a shame DC’s most prominent example is such a terrible park.


Spirit of Justice Park. Image from Google.

The South Capitol parking crater is undeniably one of DC’s most inappropriately underused plots of land. It’s 6 complete blocks of parking lots, all in a cluster mere steps from the US Capitol.

By all rights these blocks should be active and vital parts of downtown DC. Instead, they’re under the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol, and thus off-limits to the normal rules of city building. In the vacuum of capitol complex land management, vast parking lots for Congresspeople and their staffs are a higher priority than housing, amenities, or attractive streetscapes.

So it’s nice that federal planners at least tried to spruce up this neighborhood-sized sea of asphalt with Spirit of Justice Park, a cap atop a two-block section of parking that’s covered with green space.

Unfortunately, it’s a lousy park.

The biggest problem is that rather than sink the parking below grade, the park is raised a level above the sidewalk. As a result, many people only see an imposing wall, and have no idea the park behind it even exists.


The sidewalk in front of the park. Image from Google.

People who actually want to enter and use the park must find one of only four entrances over the entire two-block area. Of the four entrances, two face the congressional office buildings and one faces the street between the two park blocks (though you can’t walk between them directly), leaving only a single entrance on the south side facing away from the capitol complex towards the public city.

Meanwhile, there are no visible entrances facing east nor west.


Entrances to Spirit of Justice Park. Image originally from Google.

That’s not the only problem. With a parking garage directly beneath the grass, the park’s soil is too shallow to support trees large enough to provide shade or protection against wind. The park is uncomfortably hot in the summer, and cold in winter.

Finally, management apparently only cares about capitol complex workers, because the fountains at the center of each block are switched off over the weekend.


Small trees and a dry fountain hidden behind a wall. No people.

The overall message is that the public is barely tolerated in this park, not really welcome, and certainly not a priority. As a result, the public mostly stays away.

A park that’s not used is a useless park. We can do better.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

May 27th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: government, parks, urbandesign



NFL stadiums belong in the suburbs

Should Washington’s football team relocate back to Washington? The DC Council is considering replacing RFK with a new stadium, hoping to lure the team back to DC, from Maryland.

It’s a terrible idea.


FedEx Field and its acres of parking. Photo by the US Navy.

Some people will no doubt oppose this idea simply because it’s expensive. But that’s not the problem. Stadiums are cultural amenities that people want, so it’s appropriate for cities to subsidize them sometimes.

This is a terrible idea because football stadiums specifically don’t fit well in cities. NFL stadiums are only used for 8 home games per year, and need large surface parking lots to accommodate the tailgating culture ingrained into football fandom.

The RFK site may not be in the middle of a walkable neighborhood, but surely there are better uses for it than a rarely-used stadium and vast parking lots.

I’m glad we have an NFL team in the region, but let’s leave their stadium in the suburbs.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

February 26th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, government, urbandesign



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