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Four big questions for a Georgia Avenue streetcar

As DDOT begins to crystallize plans for a north-south streetcar, four big questions will drive what the line ultimately looks like: How will the line snake through the center of the city, will it reach Silver Spring, where will there be dedicated lanes, and is there any money to actually build anything?


Four route alternatives under study. Dedicated lanes could potentially fit on the purple and light blue sections. Image from DDOT.

DDOT’s planners are still months away from settling on final details for the North-South Corridor. But at a series of public meetings last week, these big questions came into focus.

How will the line snake through the center of the city?

DDOT’s latest report focuses on four potential alternate routes, but project manager Jamie Henson says DDOT could still mix and match components of multiple alternates to create the final path.

North of Petworth, DDOT has settled on a Georgia Avenue streetcar alignment going at least as far north as Butternut Street.

The line could run south from Petworth down Sherman Avenue as far as Florida Avenue, or it could stay on Georgia. Georgia is wide enough for dedicated lanes and is lined with shops instead of houses, so it would probably attract more riders, but Sherman would offer a more stark contrast to the route 70 Metrobus.

South of Florida Avenue things get really interesting.

The route could stay on 7th Street through downtown DC, but that duplicates Metrorail’s Green Line, and 7th Street isn’t wide enough for dedicated lanes. Or it could travel on 14th Street, where population density is most concentrated and where it’s a long walk to any Metro stations. But 14th Street is already booming; a streetcar might help more elsewhere.

11th Street and 9th Street are intriguing possibilities. Infill and commercial development have lagged there relative to 14th Street. Would a streetcar bring a 14th Street-like boom? Meanwhile, both 11th and 9th are wide enough for dedicated lanes.

9th Street is already home to one of DC’s only existing bus lanes. Though the bus lane is lightly used and poorly enforced, that might make 9th a particularly easy place to add streetcar lanes.


Existing 9th Street bus lane.

To traverse the National Mall, the line could either turn onto F Street through downtown and then use 7th Street to go south, or it could turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue and then use 4th Street.

The F Street to 7th Street option seems to be a path of less resistance, could fit dedicated lanes, would be more central to the National Mall, and would directly serve The Wharf development at the Southwest waterfront. On the other hand, 4th Street would better serve the existing Southwest neighborhood.

Will it reach Silver Spring?

Silver Spring is a natural end point for this corridor. It’s big, dense, and already one of the DC region’s largest multimodal transit transfer points.


Silver Spring.

Around 4,000 DC-bound passengers board WMATA’s route 70 Metrobus in Silver Spring every day, with still more boarding the parallel S-series routes. There’s tremendous opportunity for the streetcar to reach more people and have a greater impact by ending in Silver Spring instead of DC.

But for that to happen, Maryland and Montgomery County have to step up with plans of their own. DDOT has neither authority to plan nor money to build outside the District’s boundaries.

So for now, DDOT is keeping its options open. But eventually they’ll need to make a decision. At this point, it’s on Maryland to come to the table.

Where will there be dedicated lanes?

Whether or not the streetcar will have dedicated lanes depends on two factors: Is there adequate width on the street, and is there enough political support to repurpose lanes from cars?

The first factor is easy. This chart shows potential street cross-sections, color-coded to match street segments along the route alternatives maps.


Potential street cross-sections, color-coded to the map above. Image from DDOT.

Streets color-coded as either purple or blue are wide enough to potentially fit dedicated lanes. Streets coded as green, yellow, or orange are not.

The political factor is harder. Depending on the location, providing dedicated streetcar lanes might mean eliminating or reducing on-street parking, pushing truck loading onto side streets, or any number of other trade-offs.

DDOT’s ridership forecasts say shaving 5 minutes off streetcar travel time would boost ridership 11%. If true, that suggests thousands more people would ride a streetcar with dedicated lanes than without.

And of course, the inverse is true too: Without dedicated lanes, many riders who could be on the streetcar might instead opt to drive.

At public meetings last week, representatives from the Georgia Avenue business community voiced strong objections to dedicated lanes, fearing that loss of parking would hurt their stores. But if dedicated lanes add more streetcar riders to a block than they remove parking spaces, the reverse could very well be true.

Is there money to actually build anything?

Thanks to Chairman Mendelson and the DC Council cutting streetcar funding in the latest budget, DDOT lacks funding to build this line.

It’s possible the council could add more money in future budgets, or DDOT could seek alternate funding options like the federal New Starts program. But for now, this line is unfunded and there’s not yet any apparent strategy to change that.

In the meantime DDOT will continue to plan, with the next step being an environmental study. But all other details pale next to the overarching and unanswered question of how to fund whatever the studies recommend.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 19th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: streetcar, transportation



Bike racks inside a bus? Speeds up loading, but trades capacity

On San Antonio’s Primo BRT buses, cyclists bring their bikes inside the bus rather than lock them to the front. This speeds up loading and unloading, but reduces Primo’s overall passenger capacity.


Bike racks on Primo bus in San Antonio. Photo by Stuart Johnson on Flickr.

Primo carries about 6,000 passengers per day, compared to over 20,000 per day on DC’s 16th Street line. So for Primo, the speed versus capacity trade-off tilts to speed.

In DC, our busiest bus lines generally won’t have that option. Although it may make sense in some places, like Montgomery County’s proposed BRT network.

For DC’s more crowded lines, where we cannot justifiably sacrifice limited bus capacity to bikes, rail’s greater spaciousness is an increasingly important advantage. With longer vehicles, we get both the speed advantage and the capacity advantage.

Of course to really speed up buses or trams, give them a dedicated lane. But even in places where that’s not practical, improvements like longer vehicles, more doors, interior bike racks, and off-vehicle fare collection can make a difference, regardless of mode.

June 17th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, bus, streetcar, transportation



How to make cycletracks public art

As more cities build more protected bike lanes, some are beginning to use them as opportunities for public art. In Seattle, the new Broadway cycletrack includes a section with “art bollards.”


Seattle cycletrack. Photo by Gordon Werner on flickr.

Most cycletracks around the US use flexposts or concrete curbs to separate the bike lane from car traffic. A few use other methods like parking stops or zebras, but there are better-looking options available.

In addition to Seattle’s art bollards, a growing number of cities use landscaped barriers.


Vancouver cycletrack. Photo by Paul Kreuger on flickr.

These are great ideas. As cycletrack networks continue to expand, cities around the country can look for opportunities to make their bike lanes more beautiful.

But that being said, beautification adds time and expense to construction, and most cyclists would likely rank having more usable cycletracks sooner as a higher priority than art or landscaping.

So art is great, but there’s definitely a place for easy, cheap flexposts.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 16th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bike, transportation, urbandesign



Everybody loves infographics, Arlington streetcar edition

June 12th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: streetcar, transportation



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



With Metro’s latest step, the Silver Line’s grand opening may be less than 3 months away


Image from WMATA.

Yesterday morning WMATA took control of the Silver Line from construction teams, declaring the line has reached “operational readiness.” Metro now begins a 90-day testing and training period, prior to opening service this summer.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) owns the Silver Line and has been in charge of construction. Yesterday’s action officially transferred day-to-day control, management, and operations of the line to WMATA.

Following testing, opening day for passengers should come a little before or after the 90-day period runs out. The WMATA Board will set the exact date. If testing goes well, August seems the most likely bet.

The Silver Line was originally intended to open in December 2013, but construction delays and technical adjustments have pushed it out to this summer.

But now Metro officials think the delays are over. According to Metro Deputy General Manger Rob Troup, “We would not have reached this [point] if we were not confident of being able to do the testing within the time frame.’’

May 28th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: metrorail, 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



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