Greater Greater Washington

Posts by David Alpert

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

WMATA's new general manager is listening before he even takes the reins

We won't know for some time whether WMATA's new General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, will be able to fix the agency's many problems. But he seems to be off to a good start even before he officially starts the job.

Image from the Maryland Aviation Administration.

To get Metro on a stable path, Wiedefeld and other leaders at WMATA will need to address safety, finance, maintenance, communication, and much more. That won't all happen overnight, and fixing some problems will require help from local and federal governments. Therefore, he's going to need the support of riders, residents, local officials, members of Congress, federal regulators, and more.

WMATA has historically not been good at building bridges with people outside its walls. Too often, the message was "leave us alone, give us some money, and we'll fix things," a sentiment which rings hollow at any time but particularly after revelations this year that things weren't getting fixed very well after all. And, it turned out, WMATA almost hired someone who chafed at the level of public scrutiny that unceasingly accompanies this job.

Wiedefeld embraces it. He doesn't officially start until Monday, but he has already started meeting with people to understand what needs to change at WMATA. He's met with members of Congress and given press interviews. He sat down with leaders of the WMATA Riders' Union and agreed to attend a public forum.

"Paul Wiedefeld has already shown that he the initiative and interest in the immense challenge of reforming WMATA in the short time he's been named to the job by reaching out to advocates and riders," said Ashley Robbins, the chair of the WMATA Riders' Union. "He called us before he was officially voted in by the board and wants to be engaged with the rider community going forward."

On Friday, he also sat down to speak with me.

"Not sweeping stuff under the rug"

"We can't pretend our problems away," he said, in a refreshing change in tone from some in the past. "We're not sweeping stuff under the rug." Too often before, people in some divisions at WMATA kept problems quiet, hoping they could fix them before anyone else found out, and the agency as a whole would similarly keep problems from the public. That prevented bad press only until the problem became too acute to ignore, at which time riders and local leaders felt even more betrayed by the cover-up.

Wiedefeld is intent on changing this, though he acknowledged that bringing this attitude to the entire agency will be a challenge. Just some pronouncements at the top won't end decades of culture of not sharing bad news with superiors or the public. But he plans to push each department to think about how it can support others' goals and avoid "tunnel vision" of doing things the way they've always been done just because.

He's not going to come in swinging an axe, but also said some executives, if they're not on board with this approach, may need to go elsewhere. He made an analogy to an architect who, when Wiedefeld ran BWI airport, refused to design a ticket counter for electronic ticketing that was radically different from the traditional counter layout. That architect is not at the airport any longer.

The wrench-turners know more than we do

One more group Wiedefeld will be listening to is the front-line employees. "The gentleman or woman turning the wrench: They know a heck of a lot more and it's amazing what you can find out by listening, walking, and talking," he said. "The perception is that they don't, but that's not true."

Riders sometimes vent frustration at the employee who has a bad attitude, and certainly, Wiedefeld said, "every organization has knuckleheads." But he argued that most other workers are themselves getting frustrated at those colleagues and at bad conditions. As another analogy, he referred to an experience while he was running the Maryland MTA. Bus drivers were frustrated because the rest areas at the ends of the bus stops had no toilet paper. "If you worked in an office, would you go into a restroom like that?" he asked, rhetorically. And then, why would we "expect [the bus drivers] to turn around and have a smiling face?"

"Don't underestimate what an organization can do if you get buy-in up and down the line," he said. About trends toward "bashing" public sector and unionized employees, "that's total baloney."

There are still big problems

Certainly, listening is not everything. Just understanding everyone's points of view won't cure the financial gap; WMATA will very quickly face trade-offs between higher fares, lower service, more money from local governments, or compensation for employees. WMATA isn't able to adequately maintain its railcars to get the number running that are supposed to be, and listening won't make new ones arrive faster from the manufacturer.

But while listening isn't everything, to paraphrase Red Symons, not listening is nothing. Good communication inside the agency will help Wiedefeld know what he needs to work to fix (and who he needs to hire to do it); good communication outside the agency will help build goodwill from riders, local leaders, and federal officials to help him succeed.

Communicating is also one thing he can do right away. He knows that it might "drive some staff nuts" for him to talk with everyone, but every big organization has people who think their best value is to stop the flow of information, to channel all communication through a rigid process to ensure it's fully sanitized. That doesn't make organizations effective. Wiedefeld isn't afraid to speak with advocates, or the press, or riders, or Congress. That frankness is just what WMATA needs right now.

"I am impressed and optimistic about what the future has to hold for WMATA with Paul at its helm," said Robbins. "If he maintains the openness that he's already shown and the gusto with which he's hit the ground running, I believe that we will see a very different agency in five years, and one that we will all be proud of."

Knowing that he can't solve all of the big problems at once, he also has been asking for quick steps he can take to make a difference. I suggested a few. What do you think he could do, realistically and in the short run? Post your ideas in the comments—he'll be listening.

DC's move to legalize a little more housing (and other zoning changes): The finish line is in sight!

If you want to rent out a basement or garage and can't today, you might be able to by the end of 2016. DC's long-running zoning update finally got, um, "preliminary final action" approval at a meeting Monday.

This might be mostly legal in less than a year. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The zoning update, in a nutshell, does two types of things. First, it will completely overhaul the District's zoning code to be more modern and, at least in theory, more understandable. Second, it makes a few targeted policy reforms, like allowing buildings near transit to have less parking if the owner doesn't think it's necessary, or letting homeowners in low-density areas rent out a basement or a garage or other space in a home to make some extra money and provide more housing.

Other changes let grocery stores possibly locate in residential areas as long as they're on corners and comply with a raft of other limitations; make it easier for theaters to operate in church basements and elsewhere in residential zones, subject to a public hearing; expand the area where certain downtown zoning applies; and a plethora of other small tweaks.

Advocates of keeping the cost of housing reasonable have been eager for the provisions to allow renting basements and garages (accessory apartments). Doing so creates the potential for more housing, and lower minimum parking requirements, which reduce the cost of building housing. Unfortunately, these efforts, which gained general Zoning Commission assent in 2009, have been waiting since, while the DC Office of Planning in the meantime pushed through other zoning changes that reduced potential new housing.

Good changes got caught up inside bigger, harder ones

One reason the zoning update has been delayed so many years is because a new zoning code is certainly intricate. The Office of Planning's former staffers who ran the zoning update back in 2008 may have made a tactical mistake in coupling key policy changes together with the new code in its complexity; anyone uncomfortable with the scale of such an undertaking balked at parts of the process even if their intent was not to hasten the rise in housing prices.

For example, several neighborhoods now have "overlays" which add special zoning rules on top of the base ones for similar areas. The new code instead sets up new base zones for each area with an overlay, so property owners don't have to look in two places and reconcile conflicting rules. But to people familiar with the old code, this is initially confusing, and the new approach has some cons along with the pros.

Coupling the important policy changes with technical ones like this hooked the effort to add housing to a very slow caravan. This afforded more chances for opponents of the actual changes to lobby to water them down. Politicians nervous about adding housing could couch concerns in the language of confusion or community engagement more readily.

The changes to accessory apartments and parking minimums are valuable, if too little on their own to make much dent in DC's housing needs which have grown since 2008. Had these more modest changes passed in 2010, say, it could have moved the ball forward and given people a chance to demonstrate these changes don't cause calamity. Accessory apartments would not have brought criminals into a building or engendered elder abuse, as some of the more strident opponents claimed; buildings with less parking would not have brought carmageddon.

The zoning board says, let's go

Much of the public opposition, at this point, is not really about substance, but process; the Committee of 100 argued that the code needs a third party review (and, of course, substantially more delay). Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd asked for another month's delay. But DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which makes the final decisions on zoning, has had enough of this process after eight years.

Chairman Anthony Hood did repeatedly express that he was "nervous" about signing off on a new zoning code. He worried about having to stand in front of Costco (which is relatively near his home) and defend the new zoning code to neighbors. He bit at the Committee of 100's independent-review idea, but the other commissioners felt the time for that was long past and the code was ready for approval.

Well, almost: The Office of Planning still has to make a few more small, mostly technical tweaks and present a final version. The commission will consider taking "final final" action (versus this week's "preliminary final" action) on January 14, but there will be no more testimony in the meantime.

Also since the last revision, OP has backed off somewhat on its plans for alley lots; there will have to be a hearing before alley lots can get housing, while previously OP was proposing allowing one dwelling unit on such a lot without a hearing.

If approved in its final form, the Office of Zoning, which administers the zoning code, will publish it in the DC Register, and then six months later, the new zoning code will apply. Anyone applying for a building permit before that date will use the old code; after (with a few exceptions), the new one.

Residential zones as of 2008. Accessory apartment rules apply to R-1 (yellow), R-2 (orange), R-3 (red), and R-4 (purple). Image by David Alpert from Office of Zoning base map.

Change may be less than a year away!

This means that if you live in one of the low-density areas of the city (generally, detached houses, or houses in pairs which share one wall—yellow and orange in the above map, or a very small set of areas with row houses that are categorized R-3 today, red in the above map) you will be able to rent out a part of your house as a separate unit, with a variety of restrictions, but without having to go through a public hearing.

If you live in one of those areas, or a moderate-density row house area like Columbia Heights or Capitol Hill (purple in the above map) and you have a garage, you will be able create a unit in that garage. However, you will still have to show up at a public hearing where neighbors will be able to oppose (or support) the idea, and will probably need a zoning lawyer to navigate that process.

A few buildings will be able to get built with less cost. A few corner groceries may appear in some residential areas. It'll be a significant, but small and long-awaited, step forward.

How downtown parking is like your smartphone

Would you rather pay $27 a month or $2.50 a month for your phone? A lower price means more dollars in your pocket, right? But what if one of those were an iPhone and the other a flip phone?

Photo by Mitch Barrie on Flickr.

We're buying smartphones in droves even though they cost 10 times as much as the flip phones of old. Clearly, there's more to these decisions than price.

We make decisions based on value, not just cost. But on a pair of transportation issues, we're hearing rhetoric that tries to obscure this issues. It's coming from groups of people more concerned with swaying public opinion than informing the public. The first one is tolls on Interstate 66 in Virginia; the second, DC's new parking pilot for the Chinatown area.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post. Also, the Post editorial board agrees with me on parking; in an editorial, the editors liken the experience of circling for downtown parking to the long gas lines during the 1970s energy crisis. Meanwhile, Michael Hamilton argues the rates should vary even more than DDOT plans to do.

A lot more people will ride Metro (and not drive) if the FBI makes a smart choice on where to move

Our region has been discussing where the FBI will move for years. A new analysis shows the choice is between a good option (Greenbelt), a mostly-good option (Springfield), and a pretty terrible option (Landover). Let's hope the federal government makes the right call.

Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

The FBI wants to leave its aging headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, and many in the District would not be sad to see it go. The FBI, like other security-related agencies, wants a high-security fortress with impenetrable walls and what amounts to a moat. That's not ideal in downtown DC, where shops, restaurants, condominiums, and top-tier office space are all in high demand. The block-size dead zone that is the Hoover Building in its current state is bad enough.

The current FBI site does have it's upsides: it's near every single Metro line and countless buses, and since it's in the center of the region it's not very far from anyone. A new site near the Beltway, like the three finalists, all will force longer commutes on at least some people, and push more people to drive, increasing traffic.

How much traffic, however, depends very much on how close the site is to Metro. Build a new headquarters next to a Metro station and near bus lines, and many people will use it; force people to take a shuttle bus, and many fewer will bother.

The more people ride Metro, the better for all of us

Even residents who have no ties to the FBI should care deeply about this important decision. Metro is struggling from low ridership that is squeezing its budget, thanks to maintenance woes, cuts in federal transit benefits, management failures, safety fears, and much more. Our region needs a healthy Metro system to move the hordes of commuters that traverse the region every day.

One of the best ways to strengthen Metro is to use "reverse commute" capacity. Trains are the same size and number going both in and out of downtown, of course; if they're full going in but empty going out, that's a lot of wasted capacity. Large employment centers at outer stations, like at Medical Center, Suitland, and now with the Silver Line, Tysons Corner, drive that reverse traffic. Plus, research has shown that people feel much more willing to use the train if the office is very close to a transit station; a short to medium drive, walk, or bike ride is more palatable from home to the train than on the other end.

No shuttle at Greenbelt; a long shuttle at Landover

According to the recently-released Environmental Impact Statement, an FBI headquarters at Greenbelt could mean up to 47% of workers, or 5,170 people a day, could ride Metro, and they would mostly be using the extra space on reverse peak direction Green Line trains. There would only be 3,600 parking spaces, meaning at most only 3,600 more cars on the Beltway and other roads.

A site in Springfield, Virginia, is almost as good; the station is 0.3 miles from the potential site, and the General Services Administration estimates there would need to be a shuttle, though many people would not need it; this is similar to the distances at Suitland, where there is a bus but many people walk. The EIS predicts 4,070 riders, or 37% of workers, take Metro, and also 3,600 spaces.

Landover, meanwhile, is far, far worse. That site is 1.9 miles from Metro, much too far for walking and forcing everyone to ride a shuttle (which would also take longer, naturally). The EIS estimates only 19% of people ride Metro and a need for 7,300 parking spaces, or about double the added traffic.

These Metro mode share estimates do seem too high—all of them, but definitely Landover. According to public ridership data from WMATA, the Suitland and New Carrollton office parks are getting about 10% of workers riding Metro. It strains credulity that 19% of FBI workers would ride a shuttle to a site 2 miles from the station when 10% don't do the same for a much shorter half mile trip.

Suitland. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Will everyone who can't park take Metro?

Why the discrepancy? The methodology assumes strict limits on parking based on the National Capital Planning Commission's policies. NCPC limits parking to one space per three employees at federal facilities outside DC but within 2,000 feet of a Metro station, and one space per 1.5 employees farther from Metro. That's a very progressive policy that pushes federal agencies to help their employees get to work in ways other than solo driving.

The EIS assumes anyone who can't park will ride Metro, except for a carpool/vanpool rate based on similar federal installations of 10-11%. But will the FBI obey? The National Institutes of Health, right at a Metro station, has been resisting NCPC's policy; the FBI surely has even greater clout if it wanted to build massive amounts of parking. And even if it didn't, it seems doubtful that the lack of parking, while a strong motivating force, would push 19% of employees onto Metro and then a long shuttle ride.

Regardless, it's clear that a choice for Greenbelt or Springfield would help the FBI have a positive impact on Metro's health and minimize the traffic effects, while Landover would do the opposite. Because there are more jobs on the west side of the region than the east, the Beltway and other roads similarly have extra capacity going east, which is one of several reasons why adding jobs to Prince George's County also will strengthen our region.

The federal government may ignore all of the impacts on other commuters and our region's transportation systems when making the decision about a site, but drivers, Metro riders, and just all taxpayers whose dollars help fund the roads and rails should hope the choice is a wise one.

It'll soon be easier to find a parking space in Chinatown

It can be tough to drive in DC—there's congestion, motorcades, and "parking signs harder to decipher than CIA code—that is, if you can find an open spot." DC can't do much about motorcades, but a new pilot program will help drivers find places to park and even cut down on congestion, though recent news coverage has sown confusion.

This parking pilot will make spaces easier to find than unicorns. Photo of D Street NW from Google Maps; unicorn image from Shutterstock.

There's no free lunch, to be sure; an easy-to-find spot will cost somewhat more than a spot today. However, if you try to park on the street in the Gallery Place/Chinatown area of DC today at a busy time, you might be circling for 20 or 30 minutes. This program will make parking much more predictable and less stressful.

What's this parking pilot?

DC is running an experiment, called ParkDC, based on a successful pilot in San Francisco and similar programs elsewhere. There, as here, parking on the street is extremely difficult to find at busy times, but is far, far cheaper than in a garage.

Because of this, people end up circling for 10, 20, 30 minutes looking for the elusive cheap space, and in doing so, add considerably to traffic congestion, not to mention getting frustrated.

People who need to run a quick errand or drop something off can't park, and since garages generally gear their pricing toward all-day or all-evening parkers, it's very pricey to park for a very short time.

The solution is obvious, at least if you're an economist: Price parking according to supply and demand. Raise the price when demand is high, and drop it when it's low.

This encourages people who want to park for a long time to use a garage, while giving people who need quicker and shorter parking a chance. Reduce the circling and speed up traffic for everyone.

A map of where ParkDC will go into effect. Image from DDOT.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is running this as an experiment, with money from the Federal Highway Administration, to see if it's possible to accurately gauge the number of free spaces without having to install sensors in the ground (as San Francisco did), and whether changing the rates affects the availability of parking. After the pilot, DDOT could decide to continue the program or try something different instead.

I heard parking could cost $8 an hour. Is that right?

A highly-sensationalized article over the weekend in the Washington Post called this a sort of "surge pricing" for parking, like Uber's much-maligned surprise ride hailing rates, and said the rates could reach $8 an hour. Reporter Faiz Siddiqui wrote,

[Y]ou could be paying $8 an hour to park in Chinatown-Penn Quarter at peak times.

You read that right. $8. An hour.

This is only accurate in the same sense that the subscription price for the Washington Post digital edition *could* rise to $600 a year (also quadrupling its current price). It's possible, but it's very unlikely you would actually pay that.

This number is just a cap

Where did this $8 an hour figure come from? Siddiqui doesn't give a source for the number in the article, except in quoting AAA's John Townsend, who has consistently opposed market pricing for parking.

In fact, the $8 an hour is a cap in the legislation authorizing a parking pilot program. DDOT can adjust rates on its own, but only up to a maximum of $8 an hour.

The legislation which caps the rates at $8 also limits price changes to 50¢ a month or $1.50 a quarter. Right now the rates are $2 per hour. That means that the rates could, in the spring, rise to $3.50, then maybe $5, and so on. At the absolute maximum, it could hit $8 in a year.

But in San Francisco, many rates decreased. Even if a few, super-popular blocks do eventually hit $8 an hour, it's almost certain that other blocks will not. You'll be able to park a little farther from your destination to save money if you want to.

The rates will rise only where demand warrants it

DDOT will decide whether and how to change rates based on data. Recently, the spots in this zone, from E to H, 5th to 11th Streets NW, switched to "pay by space." Instead of getting a printed receipt at a kiosk to put in the dashboard, parkers enter a space number on the kiosk, or enter the same number into the Parkmobile app.

Infographic of the new pay-by-space system from DDOT.

This means DDOT will have much more detailed data on how many spaces are filled at what times of the day. In January and February, DDOT will evaluate the data and recommend changes to pricing. If a block is more than about 85% full during most of a block of time, the price in that area during that time period will go up; if it's less full, the price will go down.

If rates rise in a certain area during a certain time but that deters enough people from parking there that the block stays mostly empty, the rates would go back down.

This means that the only way rates could hit $8 an hour during any timeframe is if so many people want to park there so badly that they actually will pay $8 an hour.

$8 an hour might not be so high for short-term parkers

Paying $24 to park for a 3-hour dinner sounds kind of steep, but you're unlikely to ever pay it. That's because you can easily pay much less for off-street parking today. Many restaurants have valet parking which is much less, and there are a lot of garages in the area where you can park for $10-15 for three hours on a Saturday.

Garage pricing for 7-10 pm on Saturday, November 14 from BestParking.

(One standout exception to the general price range is the Verizon Center garage, at $40-60 for the evening shown in the image above; there's a Wizards-Magic game that night so people ought to be able to apparate in anyway. Seriously, though, that price shows that there are some people who want to pay really high rates, and they might be able to park right in front of the restaurant; everyone else can use the valet for half as much and still feel like first class.)

Townsend banks on a certain expectation in people's minds that parking is supposed to be really cheap. Townsend says,

For a lot of people of certain needs, it means to go out for your anniversary dinner in Chinatown, you pay a babysitter $12 an hour and now you're going to pay $8 to park in that area, because it's going to be evening hours when it's high demand. Those people will probably do it once or twice and say, "You know what? It's not worth it." So why go?

Instead of going to Disney World, instead of going to SeaWorld, you take your kids to DC. It's the nation's capital. You get gouged.

It's interesting to hear how $8 (again, which won't be the actual parking rate) is gouging compared to Disney World, which right now costs $91-105 per person to go to only one of the theme parks for one day.

If you're having an anniversary dinner in the Penn Quarter, you probably expect at least $100 for a bill including a bottle of wine. Tourists to DC seem happy to pay for tickets to the Spy Museum, which can run up to $75 for a family of four.

And if you don't want to pay for parking, this is the area of the city best served by alternatives, from Metro to countless buses, not to mention Capital Bikeshare, Uber and Lyft, Zipcar, car2go, and much more. Nobody has to drive, and those who want to won't have to pay $8 an hour unless they really, really want to.

Photo by marcovdz on Flickr.

This is not "surge pricing"

Analogies to Uber's "surge pricing" miss the mark. What generally bothers people about the Uber pricing is not that the price is higher; it's a taxi, after all, and often the price is quite low. (Some say too low for the drivers to make a living, but that's another discussion.)

Rather, what rankles many people is that the surge pricing is a surprise. You might plan to take an Uber and then suddenly find it's twice the price. (Don't forget to try Lyft.) Or Metro breaks down and Uber is surging to 8x.

DC's parking pilot will not surprise anyone. Rates will only change after robust public notification, and each time block in the day will have the same price every day until DDOT revises rates. There will be maps of the pricing online, and DDOT is working on an app as well.

Ideally, one day there could even be digital signs in the high-demand parking areas: "Want cheaper parking? Go over to _____." They could point people to cheaper blocks or to garages. Maybe the parking garage operators can even get together to help make those happen.

Both programs take advantage of principles of economics, but no, "surge pricing" is not coming to a parking meter near you.

The ability to count on more easily finding a space, however, is. That will save drivers a lot of headaches.

Vincent Orange wants to build 1,000 tiny houses. That's a great idea if they go in these spots.

Vincent Orange wants to have DC build 1,000 "tiny houses" for low-income and young residents of DC, spread around the city. His bill is kind of "gimmicky" and has some problems, but underneath, there are some good ideas as well.

Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

Orange's bill calls for the DC government to build the 1,000 houses, spread equally across the city's eight wards. Each would be 600 square feet, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, electricity, plumbing, and heating. He'd limit the construction cost to $50,000.

The Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity (currently, Courtney Snowden) would set up a process to pick locations, offer these homes to residents, especially first-time homebuyers, and keep the price under $50,000.

Is this a good idea?

Like many Orange bills, this reads a bit more like an idea someone might throw out on a listserv or blog than legislation. Orange has a habit of thinking of something, then writing a bill which describes his idea in incredible specificity. Such a bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, but generates some headlines.

Also like many Orange bills, this one includes some illegal provisions. In this case, by calling for housing specifically for millennials, it likely violates federal fair housing rules forbidding discrimination against older people.

But if we just pretend he wrote a blog post somewhere about this idea instead of a bill, is it a good idea? If we peel away a few of the conflicting details, there are some good ideas at the core.

  • Orange is acknowledging that we need to build more housing in DC. Lower-income residents and young people who can't afford expensive homes are indeed two of the groups most in need of housing.

    Many of the millennials, in particular, are willing to live in smaller spaces to be in areas with good walkability and transportation. That also applies to some lower-income residents, but many have families and a tiny house might not offer enough space.

  • Orange wants to spread the housing out across the city. This is the right policy. Every neighborhood should be a part of the solution and none should get a veto over accommodating more residents.

    Helping low-income kids grow up in wealthier areas also gives them a better chance to succeed long-term, though again, that benefit would only come if families moved into what are pretty small spaces.

This isn't the best use of all land, but is a good use of some

On much of the city's land, tiny houses aren't a great idea. If you're going to put a small dwelling unit there, it's even better to put a small apartment building with four, eight, twelve, or more units. The building could have outdoor space that people share; there are a lot of great buildings like this all around DC.

There is one place where this is a great idea: Alleys. All around DC there are small garages, sheds, or historic carriage houses along alleys. Some people have large backyards and don't need all of that space. There are also some alley lots, lots that border an alley but no main road, such as in blocks where the alleys make a loop.

Property owners could build tiny houses here or convert existing garages to tiny houses. This would be a perfect way to give existing owners some income and create new housing in the kinds of spaces Orange is talking about.

The DC Office of Planning was trying to legalize these units, called accessory apartments. The long-running DC zoning update, now eight years in the works, included provisions to allow them. But, facing outcry from some residents of upper Northwest neighborhoods, they pulled back on the rule on accessory apartments in separate buildings.

An accessory apartment in an alley building.

Approve accessory apartments now!

If the zoning update ever gets approved (the DC Zoning Commission was going to discuss it on October 22 but delayed until November 16), property owners could build an accessory apartment in an existing or new garage, but would have to still go through a time-consuming zoning hearing first.

These would be perfect spots for Orange's 1,000 tiny houses. He could help encourage this to happen by asking the Zoning Commission to move forward with the accessory apartment rules. He might also consider asking the government to set up a program that could help interested homeowners create these accessory apartments on their lots and navigate the zoning approval process to get them done.

Many other cities have these, called "laneway housing" or some such. It's not crazy at all to try to create 1,000 tiny houses—as accessory apartments. Great idea, Councilmember Orange!

Here's who rides the bus to the airport, and why

The 5A and B30 buses take people to Dulles and BWI airports, in Virginia and Maryland, respectively. Do these just serve residents of those states, or everyone? Are they mainly for air travelers, or others? New graphs from PlanItMetro shed light on this.

Image from WMATA.

The data for these charts comes from a recent survey of bus riders. They show that that the 5A riders are 47% from Virginia, 22% DC, and 15% Maryland, while B30 riders are 29% Maryland, 33% DC, and 7% Virginia.

Image from WMATA.

The B30 serves a lot more air travelers than the 5A, which does double duty as a commuter bus for people working at the airport and people going from Herndon to downtown DC. That's because the 5A goes into downtown DC, to L'Enfant Plaza, while the B30 ends in Greenbelt.

You can also see that the B30 has more riders from outside our region (31%) than the 5A in the top chart.

One piece of information you can't see from these pie charts is that the 5A carries about twice as many passengers as the B30. I made these graphs into bar graphs based on May 2014 ridership:

As you can see, Montgomery residents actually use the 5A even more than they use the B30, while Prince George's residents use both about equally even though the B30 starts in Prince George's County. Virginians, meanwhile, hardly use the B30 at all. That's not surprising since it's at the end of the Green Line, a line that doesn't go into Virginia, while the 5A stops along five Metro lines which all go to Maryland.

This chart shows how the B30 and 5A are about comparable in serving people going on personal air travel, but the 5A gets far more riders going to and from home and work.

What'll happen with the 5A?

In May, the Hogan Administration (through its WMATA board member Michael Goldman) announced it didn't want to chip in any money for the 5A bus to Dulles Airport (which, of course, is in Virginia). Goldman threatened to withhold Maryland's $6 million share of paying for power upgrades if the rest of the board didn't go along.

Goldman argued that because the bus runs from DC to Virginia without going to Maryland, the state shouldn't pay. He also pointed out that Maryland fully pays for the B30 bus which runs from Greenbelt to BWI airport.

Metrobus has two types of bus lines: "regional," where jurisdictions share the cost according to a formula which factors in where bus riders comefrom; and "non-regional," where one jurisdiction pays the whole cost. The B30 is non-regional, while the 5A has a special formula due to its unusual history.

In the latest budget, the $990,000 annual cost of the 5A is split $405,900 from DC, $188,100 from Maryland, $79,200 from Arlington, $9,900 from Alexandria, and $306,900 from Fairfax.

Riders pushed back against cuts to the 5A, and in a presentation to the board for the November 5 meeting, Metro bus planners are recommending keeping the 5A. Instead, if Maryland wants to save money, the presentation suggests, the B30 bus to BWI airport could be cut.

Maryland may still refuse to pay any money for the 5A, though based on this graph, it seems that shouldering some of the cost, like the current 18% is reasonable since 15% of the riders are from Maryland.

There's one way Maryland could try to get more out of its investment: Push the airports authority to better support the 5A. At least as of 2013, the authority was refusing to post signs about the 5A, include it in announcements, offer employees SmartBenefits, or have SmarTrip vending machines at the airport. Instead of protecting the Washington Flyer, MWAA can help encourage people to ride the 5A at least until the Silver Line gets to the airport.

Fund regional buses regionally

Anyway, as this data shows, the 5A is more of a commuter bus than an airport bus per se. And it's one with a strong constituency. It's a necessary airport link when Metrorail is closed, but the rest of the time, it's still a bus that many people use, people who will likely still want to keep it when the Metro goes right to Dulles.

Goldman and Maryland do have a legitimate argument that the B30 ought to be consider a regional route, with the cost shared regionally, as other buses. It doesn't leave Maryland, but it connects regionally-significant destinations. It's not healthy for jurisdictions to pick and choose which regional routes to fund; Metro should have a regional bus system, with a single formula (which applies to the 5A and B30 as well) for sharing the costs of that regional system.

WMATA planners are already considering changes to redefine "regional" routes with a simpler, clearer formula. Applying that formula to the airport buses could settle the need for this kind of line-specific squabbling that should be beneath the board.

Anthony Foxx might destroy Metro in order to save it

Riders have been deserting Metro. If the agency ran even fewer trains, the trains were slower, and they didn't run at night or on the weekends at all, would that make people start riding again? No? But that might be exactly what US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will force upon Metro if he's serious in his recent rhetoric.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Metro has severe problems with operations, with finances, with communication, and with safety. The agency needs to improve in all of those areas, all at the same time. But in a recent op-ed, Foxx, whose agency just took over safety oversight, says the agency may only work on safety, seemingly to the exclusion of all else.

We all want Metro to be safe, and the agency has earned our anger at its recent behavior. However, it's not actually unsafe today, and if the federal government insists it drop everything to work on safety without also working on the immediate and long-term problems with the quality of the service, we may soon find ourselves with a much less useful transit system and an overall transportation network that is less safe rather than more.

Foxx takes charge

Foxx's agency recently took over Metro safety oversight through the Federal Transit Administration, which regulates US transit systems. Metro is the first and only transit system where FTA is directly monitoring safety.

This situation arose because the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the joint entity between DC, Maryland, and Virginia which was supposed to be monitoring safety, dropped the ball multiple times over the past few years. The National Transportation Safety Board suggested giving oversight to the Federal Railroad Admnistration, which monitors safety on commuter and freight railroads, but Foxx opted to give it to the FTA instead.

This weekend, he published an op-ed explaining just what he expects of Metro. And it amounts to insisting Metro not do a single thing except work on safety until FTA is 100% satisfied.

Here are a few quotes:

  • "The FTA ... will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements."
  • "We may also require periodic closures of some Metro facilities to ensure safety measures are implemented."
  • "There will be no new projects until Metro completes its punch list."
  • "Metro can forget any new rail-expansion projects until it meets our safety standards."
You might say, what's wrong with that? Everyone agrees safety is the most important priority—including the WMATA Board. But there's a huge difference between something being top priority and being the only priority.

How much will Foxx hamstring Metro?

Some of Foxx's quotes sound frightening. FTA might force Metro to shut down some facilities? When? For how long?

If FTA just pushes Metro to do a longer closure here and there to get more repairs done, well, maybe that's reasonable (though both Metro and FTA should be open with the public about the tradeoffs inherent in such decisions rather than just making a choice behind closed doors).

What's more scary is the idea that FTA might force Metro to run fewer trains, or trains farther apart, or make the trains slower, for months, years, or even permanently. After all, it's surely safer if all of the trains run at no more than 30 mph, or are always at least 5 minutes apart, for instance.

Already, riders at Stadium-Armory are suffering with most trains skipping their stop thanks to the transformer fire. Blue Line riders have suffered from scarce trains for years now. Trains are running slowly in parts of the system. Metro is not putting as many trains out as its own service plans call for. Will the FTA impose more of this on top?

I've contacted FTA to ask for more information, and will follow up if they provide more details.

Will FTA care about service at all?

Foxx doesn't sound like he's completely ignorant about how important service is. He even mentions it a few times:

  • "While the FTA will oversee Metro's safety activities, Metro must step up maintenance and operations, improve service and earn back the confidence of riders and workers."
  • "Metro and state and local officials must pull together and do what is necessary to make Metro a safe, reliable and desirable option for travelers."
These sentences are absolutely correct. But they contradict his statements elsewhere that he "will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements." Making Metro reliable and desirable, as well as safe, will require some dollars, too. So will stepping up operations, improving service, and earning back confidence.

Those shouldn't come at the expense of safety—and sometimes in the past, they have—but need to happen concurrently.

The "Federal Less Transit Administration"?

There's particular reason to worry because the FTA has not behaved in the past like an organization that wants to help transit agencies. Instead, it's like a sword of Damocles hanging over each transit agency, ready to fall if the agency missteps.

State transportation officials who weren't willing to speak publicly (for fear of retaliation from FTA) have told me that at industry events, FTA representatives generally lecture transit agencies on their compliance responsibilities but don't try to work collaboratively to make the bureaucracy work well for everyone. FTA has been far less flexible than the Federal Highway Administration on things like putting tracks on bridges.

Already, FTA has one hand around Metro's throat: It's been withholding federal funds until after Metro spends money on repairs, only reimbursing WMATA after the fact and only if officials fill out all of the paperwork perfectly. It had a legitimate reason to start this penalty: WMATA had lax controls that led to procurement missteps and bad contracts. That's been fixed now, though, yet Metro continues to labor under deep restrictions on getting the money it needs.

This is the transit equivalent of the old saying, "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

FTA regularly behaves as though there's no problem with transit agencies running very little transit, yet spending huge dollars on expensive bureaucratic overhead. I'm sure not everyone at FTA feels this way, but the ultimate stance of the agency often ends up being that it doesn't matter if the transit gets run, only if every comma is in place on the forms.

Foxx seems to be saying he'll stand firmly behind FTA's safety people if they take the same attitude as the rest of the agency. If there's a way to improve safety by 0.000001% but it causes thousands of hours of rider delays, well, safety is number one.

Metro isn't dangerous

If riding Metro actually posed a serious risk of injury, then I'd be the first to say shut it down until it's safe. But it's pretty darn safe now.

It's terrible that a woman died of smoke inhalation at L'Enfant Plaza in January, and even more unforgivable that Metro had been keeping quiet about the fact that radios didn't work. WMATA needs to not only fix the problems that led to this, but also be far more proactive about identifying, disclosing, and fixing safety risks.

Still, you have to put this in a bit of perspective. Just this weekend, people driving killed one person walking and two people biking. Crashes that kill drivers on high-speed roads are a sadly common feature in the news.

If platforms get more crowded, that will harm safety too, perhaps far more than whatever a long-term shutdown or slowdown will fix. Same if people switch to driving, where they might imperil not only themselves but others. Shutting down night Metro service might help with repairs but also increase drunk driving, for instance.

Anthony Foxx has been a strong proponent of road safety, no doubt, and deserves credit for it. Still, none of us expects him to write that "America can forget any new road-expansion projects until the roads meet our safety standards."

Even if he wanted to say that, Congress wouldn't allow it. And not just Republicans; Senator Barbara Mikulski has been the first to be outraged beyond belief at any safety lapse at Metro but quiet on both Metro's service lapses and road safety. Foxx is just hearing the message loud and clear.

Will Foxx and FTA make Metro better or worse?

Of course Metro needs to do better on safety. Its lapses have been intolerable. The current oversight scheme has failed to actually provide oversight. DC, Maryland, and Virginia transportation heads failed to ensure the oversight officials in their employ had the tools to properly monitor safety.

The Federal Transit Administration could be a positive force here or a negative one. It could watch for the real safety risks and insist Metro address them while also recognizing there has to be some balance of prioritizing service, safety, and other imperatives.

Or, it could force Metro to sacrifice its service until ten years from now we're left with something no better than a commuter rail system, lines useful at rush hours and nearly useless at any other time, trains that crawl along most of the way, and an agency continually unable to communicate or set long-term plans.

We'd get increasingly-congested roads as more people abandon Metro and more net deaths, but nobody would blame FTA or Anthony Foxx. I'd like to hope that people at USDOT and FTA recognize this issue, but that will require Foxx sending a different message to people inside the agency from his bellicose posture in this weekend's article.

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WMATA picks a new General Manager from outside the transit world

The WMATA Board has chosen a candidate for General Manager. His name is Neal Cohen and he comes from the airline and aerospace industry, mostly on the finance side. Is he what WMATA needs?

Image from Orbital ATK.

We don't know a whole lot yet. He hasn't even gotten the job; the board is currently negotiating with him over his compensation package. If he takes the job, he'll be stepping into one of the region's highest-profile positions to run an agency in desperate need of an executive who can turn things around.

There's a biography of Cohen from a news release when he was appointed CEO of Orbital ATK, "an aerospace, defense, and commercial products company." It says:

Mr. Cohen has 16 years of experience with Northwest Airlines, Inc. and US Airways, including serving as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, where he led merger and acquisition activities, restructuring, and profitability and growth initiatives. He also held a number of operating and marketing positions at Northwest Airlines. He started his career and spent seven years at the General Motors New York Treasurer's Office.
So, he has financial and operational experience, but outside of the transit industry. Is that a good thing for WMATA?

The skills the General Manager really needs

Transit experience could be helpful, but is not the most important characteristic. Any transit veteran can at best have deep experience in one or two areas, like rail operations, bus, paratransit, safety, service planning, finance, maintenance, and so forth.

We can't expect WMATA to find one person who knows how to do everyone's jobs; instead, WMATA needs someone who can hire top people who can do their own jobs. And he needs the aptitude to get information from these top people and make good judgments based on it.

WMATA has problems. The General Manager needs to identify those problems by meeting with and listening to employees, managers, riders, transit advocates (including the Riders' Advisory Council and the new Riders' Union), local leaders, and others. Then, he needs to be able to candidly talk about the problems internally and externally, as well as how he's going to fix them.

The local and federal governments will also have to invest funds in WMATA. The GM needs to confidently and credibly make the case to the public, elected leaders, and regulators at the Federal Transit Administration that the agency can be a good steward of public funds.

WMATA may have some people who need to stop being a part of the organization, and needs to better emulate successful businesses by being more efficient and effective. However, a business sometimes closes down unprofitable products; WMATA should not be cutting service. This is an agency with a vital public mission, and we can hope any executive from outside the industry would hold that public mission close to his heart.

The next General Manager has to understand that riders are very, very frustrated. They want Metro to work, but many are close to the point of wanting to burn down the neighborhood out of powerlessness. If Cohen gets and takes the job, he'll have a big task ahead of him to rebuild trust through both effective management and open communication. From what we know so far, he could be the guy to do it.

Correction: The initial version of this post identified Cohen's current company as ATK. It has been called Orbital ATK since a merger in February 2015.

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