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Smaller stations, fewer dedicated lanes for Gaithersburg BRT

As designs for the Corridor Cities Transitway BRT line solidify, officials are revising plans to try and cut costs and ease approvals. Among the changes: Smaller stations, fewer dedicated lanes, and fewer grade-separated street crossings.

>Original two-bus station design (left) and smaller one-bus design (right). All images from Maryland.

Smaller stations

According to initial designs, all transitway stations would have been 150 feet long, large enough to comfortably accommodate two articulated buses in each direction.

The revised plans reduce six of the transitway’s ten stations down to 65 feet long, and the other four stations down to 125 feet.

The 125-foot stations will still be able to squeeze in two buses at a time. The 65-foot stations will only fit a single bus. All stations will be designed so they can expand to 125 feet later if necessary.

With buses scheduled to come every six minutes at peak times, single-bus stations could cause delays if buses begin to bunch together.

Dedicated lanes at the Belward property

The Corridor Cities Transitway will be, for the most part, true BRT. It will have a dedicated running way for most of its length. But now officials are proposing that it run in mixed traffic for a 1.1 mile detour around the Belward property, aka the last farm in Gaithersburg.

Original alignment through the Belward property (left) and proposed mixed-traffic realignment around it (right).

This change isn’t to save money, nor is it to avoid upsetting car drivers. It has to do with the historic farmhouse in the middle of the property.

Under federal rules concerning historic preservation, the state cannot build the transitway through the farm unless the property is disturbed by development first. But Montgomery County’s master plan does not allow for development on the farm until after the transitway is up and running. It’s a chicken and egg problem.

Thus Maryland’s new plan: Buses will detour around Belward farm on existing roads, in mixed traffic.

It’s not clear whether the detour plan is supposed to be temporary or permanent. It could be the state will operate the detour at first, long enough to allow development at Belward, and then retrofit in the dedicated transitway once development is underway.

Or it could be the state will never correct this problem, and buses will run in mixed-traffic around Belward long after buildings have replaced the farm. Time will tell.

At-grade street crossing

Another major cost-saving change is coming where the transitway crosses MD Route 28, Key West Avenue.

Transitway crossing of Key West Avenue.

Initial plans called for an underpass below Key West Avenue. Buses never would have had to stop for a red light. New plans show a surface crossing, meaning buses will have to contend with traffic signals.

And although the state webpage does clearly say that an at-grade crossing will have minimal “effects on general traffic flow through the intersection,” it doesn’t say anything about how this change will affect transit travel time.

Questions about cost

Montgomery County official Glenn Orlin recently revealed that costs for the transitway are climbing.

The most recent state cost estimate, from 2012, was for $545 million. Officially that’s still the estimate. But Orlin says a new estimate is forthcoming and will be “in the $700-800 million range.” If true, that’s a troubling increase, and could explain some of the state’s moves to reduce costs.

On the other hand, Orlin also indicated the new estimate is in year-of-construction dollars, while the old estimate was in 2012 dollars. If so, inflation could account for the lion’s share of the difference. Until the actual estimate comes out, it’s impossible to know.

It may not matter anyway, as the transitway remains unfunded, and prospects for funding under Maryland Governor Hogan appear slim.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

July 14th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: BRT, master planning, transportation

33 things DDOT must fix to open the DC Streetcar

The long-delayed H Street Streetcar has been shrouded in secrecy for months. But now DDOT has released a report detailing the exact causes of the delays, and what they must do to fix them.

Red stripes next to streetcar tracks indicate where it’s unsafe to pass stopped cars. They’re installed wherever the tracks cross traffic lanes. Photo by Sean Emerson.

The complete list of 33 fixes is detailed below.

The list comes via an independent report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The recommendations are a mix of back-end organizational issues and physical problems with the line’s construction.

The final report confirms the APTA’s preliminary finding from this spring, that none of the problems are fatal flaws. All 33 items on the list are fixable.

DDOT has been working on fixes for months

DDOT has yet to comment on the status of fixes, but it’s clear the agency has been working on them.

For example, one item on the list notes that streetcar doors scrape against some station platforms when they open. Last month, DDOT began modifying platforms to correct this problem.

Another example is the thick lines of red paint that DDOT added at key locations along H Street this spring. The paint is a visual warning for when the streetcar tracks swerve across travel lanes (like when they shift from the left lane to the right lane at Benning Road and Maryland Ave). If a car is inside the painted area at the track crossing, the streetcar doesn’t have room to pass safely.

The complete list

The full 33-item list comes in two parts: The first 18 items are from the preliminary findings that came out in March. Following that, there are 15 new items.

Here they all are:

18-item preliminary list

  1. In conducting safety certification, the DC State Safety Oversight office should allow flexibility in resolving problem issues. Workarounds that adequately resolve safety issues may be considered acceptable as temporary fixes, provided DDOT identify a plan for permanent solutions.

  2. Hire a qualified chief safety officer.
  3. Hire additional technical staff with more experience in light rail / streetcar construction and operating.
  4. Repair breaks in the streetcar rails at three locations.
  5. Ensure the six railcars are all in a state of good repair, including railcar #202 which caught fire in February, 2015.
  6. Investigate why streetcar doors scrape at stations, and fix the problem.
  7. Add more prominent pavement graphics indicating where streetcars stop at stations, and add pavement graphics at switch points and passing locations to indicate to streetcar operators when it’s safe to pass another streetcar.
  8. Ensure all on-board radios are working.
  9. Add additional lighting at streetcar stations.
  10. Complete a new safety assessment.
  11. Hire an independent expert to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, have this expert review and if necessary correct the design of the rumble strips at station platforms.
  12. Train maintenance staff more thoroughly, so they’ll catch problems such as rail cracks sooner.
  13. Develop a pre-revenue operations plan, and do additional streetcar testing after all right-of-way and vehicle issues are resolved.
  14. Add heaters to rail switches, so they can melt snow pack.
  15. Resolve items from the previous safety & security reports.
  16. Develop a centralized tracking system for managing and resolving problems. DDOT’s current system is decentralized and results in oversights.
  17. Review documents describing operating & maintenance procedures, and correct inconsistencies and incomplete sections.
  18. Develop an opening day operating schedule.

15-item followup list

Items 19-26 all deal with recommendations for back-end reorganization of DDOT’s streetcar office. Most notably, APTA recommends DDOT appoint a single dedicated project manager with authority to make decisions, and delegate additional specific decision-making authorities to other designated staff. Currently all decisions are being elevated to the DDOT director, causing delays and leading to a lack of clarity regarding who is responsible for fixing problems.

  1. Conduct team building exercises to help streetcar staff work together better.

  2. Replace streetcar side mirrors with rear-facing cameras, reducing the width of the streetcars and thus reducing the risk of scraping parked cars.
  3. Ensure pedestrians on the south side of the Hopscotch Bridge have a safe and clearly-marked path. At the time of the APTA review, construction of Station House DC was blocking the sidewalk and stranding pedestrians.
  4. Add additional protection for pedestrians at the foot of the stairway at the Benning Road entrance to the streetcar carbarn, where a stairway terminates directly into the streetcar tracks.

    Photo from DDOT.

  5. Install a fence or landscaping along the street to prevent jaywalking.
  6. Add larger signs and additional on-street stencils warning car drivers to park inside the white line.
  7. Add bigger streetcar speed and signal signs. Current signs are too small for streetcar operators to see.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

July 9th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: streetcar, transportation

Hogan shifted transit money to roads. Here’s what he’ll build

When Maryland governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore’s Red Line and cut state funding from the Purple Line, he shifted over a billion dollars from transit to road construction. Here are the road projects he plans to build with that money.

Image from Maryland.

On the map, blue lines and dots illustrate major highway projects. Red lines are smaller road projects, and green dots are bridge projects.

There are three major highway projects in the Washington region, on I-270, the Beltway, and Route 1. Most of the money is going to projects in other parts of the state.

I-270 in Montgomery

Montgomery County will get one big project: $100 million for “innovative congestion reduction” on I-270, between the Beltway and I-370.

Image from Maryland.

That won’t be a widening. It will be operational tweaks to squeeze more efficiency out of the pavement that’s already there. MDOT will introduce things like ramp meters, bus-on-shoulder, and signals that let motorists drive on the shoulder at peak times.

Officials haven’t determined the exact location or mix of projects yet, but all three of those strategies have helped Virginia squeeze more capacity out of I-66.

Two in Prince George’s

Prince George’s will get two big projects: $185 million to expand the Beltway interchange at Greenbelt Metro station, and $30 million to rebuild US-1 through downtown College Park.

Greenbelt interchange (left) and US-1 in College Park (right).
Images from Maryland.

The Greenbelt project will add new highway ramps, so drivers coming from northbound I-495 will be able to get to the Metro station, and so drivers leaving Metro will be able to reach southbound I-495. Those movements aren’t possible today.

The College Park project will make US-1 a four-lane highway with a raised median, and add better bicycle and pedestrian accommodations. This is the same project GGW has advocated for over the past year, although it’s not clear from Hogan’s announcement what the final design will look like.

Most of the money goes elsewhere

Those three projects will most directly affect Washington-area drivers. Here are the biggest new projects elsewhere in the state:

Crowdsource safety problems on DC streets with this interactive Vision Zero map

Do you know of a safety problem on a DC street? If so, tell DDOT about it using the interactive Vision Zero map. It allows residents to click a location and type in notes to describe problems.

Image from DDOT.

This new map is part of DC’s Vision Zero Initiative, which aims to eliminate all fatalities and serious injuries in the transportation system.

The map lets you add notations for a wide variety of safety problems. There are separate categories for driver, pedestrian, and cyclist problems, with several options available for each. You can also scroll around DC to see what your neighbors have submitted.

It’s a neat tool. I’ve already submitted a handful of problems.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

July 1st, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: bike, pedestrians, roads/cars, transportation

By 2019 it will have taken 34 years to build the Silver Line

Given how much Metrorail can transform a community, it’s little wonder communities want it to reach them. But planning and building new Metro lines is so politically and technically complex that it takes decades. Consider the Silver Line:

Slide from WMATA.

This slide showing a timeline of Silver Line planning and construction comes from a presentation WMATA planners Allison Davis and Kristen Haldeman gave at StreetsCamp this past Saturday.

The timeline begins in 1985, when the idea of a Metro line to Dulles Airport went from vague concept to serious planning initiative following a study that determined it would be feasible.

Planning (yellow on the timeline) and environmental work (green) took the next 21 years, until 2006. It took another 3 years for officials to finalize funding (blue) before construction (purple) could begin in 2009.

By the time the last segments open in 2019, it will have been 34 years.

Worth the wait, no doubt. But there’s bad news for other communities:

Plopping a rail line down the middle of a gargantuan suburban highway with a capacious median is easy compared to putting one virtually anywhere else. Almost any other potential Metrorail expansion imaginable will be harder to plan, fund, and build.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. But it’s definitely going to be hard.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 26th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: metrorail, transportation

Hogan will build the Purple Line, not the Red Line

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced today the state will build the Purple Line.

Hogan announced his decision to build the light rail line at a press conference at 2:30 this afternoon.

To reduce costs, trains on the Purple Line will come every seven and half minutes rather than every six. The state will not change the alignment, nor the number or location of stations.

The Purple Line has been on the books for decades, and enjoys wide support in Maryland’s urban and suburban communities surrounding DC. It was primed to begin construction this year, but Governor Hogan has been threatening to cut it since entering office.

Our neighbors in Baltimore are not so lucky. At the same presser, Hogan announced the Baltimore Red Line will not move forward as currently conceived.

 Comment on this at the version cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

June 25th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: events, government, lightrail, transportation

Seven spectacular photos of last night’s stormy sky

Last night’s heavy storm produced a truly breathtaking evening sky. Here are seven spectacular photos from around the region.

M street, Georgetown.

According to Capital Weather Gang, the storm washed pollutants from the air at exactly the right moment. The clear air combined with dramatic clouds and red light from the sunset to produce the memorable view.

> Read more

The rest of this post uses photos from the GGW Flickr pool. Therefore the full post only appears on Greater Greater Washington.

June 24th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: environment, fun, galleries

Why positive storytelling matters to transportation

Better streets, transit lines, and bike lanes are wonderful things. But for communities hoping to kick the car habit, good marketing and public relations matter just as much as the infrastructure itself.

At StreetsCamp on Saturday, Mobility Lab’s Paul Mackie taught us why marketing is crucial, and how to do it right.

Once upon a time, we walked

Once upon a time, there was an easy, cheap, and effective way to travel around cities. It was called walking. And then about 100 years ago one of the most effective public-relations campaigns in the history of mankind convinced everyone that streets belong to cars, and walking is dangerous.

Perception became reality, and a century later we’re still dealing with the consequences:

Implied message: You’re better off if you just drive. Image from MWCOG.

Does that ad make you want to walk safely? No. It makes you want to drive. Chalk one up for unintended consequences.

Here’s another example:

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s Mackie’s straightforward rule for doing it right:

What kind of “positive, personal stories?” How about Arlington’s Car-Free Diet campaign:

Image from Arlington.

You can even be positive while talking about safety, like in Arlington’s Be a PAL campaign.

Image from Arlington.

Once you’ve got a story to tell, how do you get it out there? Mackie has a guide for that too:

Following that guide is part of Mobility Lab’s formula for success. And yes, it works. It really works: It takes 40,900 cars off Arlington’s roads every day.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 23rd, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: in general, transportation

Meet Ride-On Plus, the every-10-minute bus that may run on Route 355

Montgomery County is hoping a federal grant will jump-start its proposed BRT network with a new bus line on the county’s biggest main street, Route 355. If the grant comes through, the new “Ride-On Plus” won’t be full BRT, but will rather be a limited-stop route akin to WMATA’s MetroExtra.

Ride-On Plus route map. Image from Montgomery County.

Last month, Montgomery County submitted a grant request to the federal government for approximately $20 million to add a new bus line along busy Route 355. The line would run from Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg south to downtown Bethesda, making stops at key locations along the way in Gaithersburg, Rockville, and North Bethesda.

Buses would come every 10 minutes at peak times, and would only make a total of 9 stops over the course of the 11-mile route. By stopping so infrequently, buses would travel the route significantly faster than existing Ride-On buses.

Although Ride-On Plus will not qualify as bus rapid transit—it won’t have dedicated lanes—it will include some BRT-like upgrades: Traffic signals will stay green a few seconds longer if a bus is about to pass, and bus stops will have premium features like real-time arrival screens.

The grant is a long shot

Unfortunately, Ride-On Plus may never happen. County officials hope a federal TIGER grant will cover $18.5 million out of the project’s total $23 million price tag. But TIGER grants are extremely hard to come by; the federal TIGER budget is $500 million nationwide, and there are usually tens of billions of dollars in requests. Most grant requests never get money.

But if this grant comes through, Ride-On Plus could provide a nice first-step towards an eventual bona fide BRT line, helping to build ridership and make the case that there’s a market for better transit in Montgomery County.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 19th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: bus, transportation

Four blocks of Georgia Avenue will get red-painted bus lanes

By Spring 2016, a four block stretch of Georgia Avenue near Howard University will feature DC’s first red-painted bus lanes.

Location of bus lanes. Image from DDOT.

At a community meeting last night, officials from DDOT announced they will reconfigure Georgia Avenue between Barry Place and Florida Avenue, converting two car lanes to curbside bus lanes, adding a center left turn lane, and improving the sidewalks, bus stops, street lighting, and traffic signals. Construction will begin in mid July of this year, and should wrap up by next Spring.

Detailed plans for part of the bus lanes. Image from DDOT.

The plan finally implements a concept DDOT planners originally conceived in 2010, as part of a federal grant for a series of bus improvements around the region 2007, as part of the Great Streets Initiative. Until recently, the last anyone had heard of this project was a public meeting back in 2012. But with the federal money due to expire in 2016, it’s now do or die for DDOT.

Ride the red carpet

Although it’s a short four blocks, this will become DC’s most significant bus lane yet. It will feature a bright red surface, providing the same kind of high-visibility as DC’s now common green bike lanes.

San Francisco red carpet. Photo from Matt’ Johnson.

According to DDOT officials, the red carpet will be the last thing construction crews install. They’ll let the bus lane operate for a month or so without it, to form a baseline that planners can look back against later, helping inform the agency about the effectiveness of the red paint.

Bikes and taxis will be allowed to use the bus lanes, and cars will be permitted to enter for up to 40 feet at a time, strictly to make right turns.

Buses already carry about half of all trips on Georgia Avenue. With bus lanes in place, that number could grow even higher.

If only the project were longer than four blocks.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 18th, 2015 | Permalink
Tags: bus, transportation



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