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. 

Ask GGW: Will DC soon limit the renovations I can make to my row house?

Reader Jim writes, "I live in Columbia Heights. We own a rather tattered 'charming' row house, and are gearing up to do a big project to redo it. And I am totally confused about what's coming down the pike" about DC's so-called "pop-up" limits.

Photo by IntangibleArts on Flickr.

DC's Zoning Commission recently voted to impose new limits on how tall a homeowner can make a row house in an R-4 zone, the moderate density row house district that includes most of Columbia Heights. It also tightened restrictions on how many units such a house can contain.

But what exactly was the final rule? When will it take effect? Jim writes, "I'm wondering if there's any way for me to look at the actual language of the proposed regulations. If I added a third unit in my home, would I have to rent it at a reduced rate? Is there somewhere you might guide me for some clarity? Is it your sense that this is a done deal?"

Here's the scoop, Jim.

What the rules do

Right now, you can make your row house up to 40 feet tall. After the rules go into effect, you will be able to only go to 30 35 feet, or 40 feet with a "special exception." A special exception is easier to get than a variance, but it still requires the homeowner to file for a formal hearing with the Board of Zoning Adjustment, notify neighbors and attend a hearing. Most of the time people need to pay for a zoning attorney to help with this process.

Today in R-4, buildings can only have two units, except if the building is on an unusually large lot, when it can have more. The BZA has also granted variances for some property owners to make three, four, or more units in a building.

Under the proposed new rules, buildings will still be able to have three units if it was legal to make them three units before. The Office of Planning backed off on the idea of outright limiting buildings to three units, which is what it originally suggested.

Instead, now where it would have been possible to have four or more units, the building owner can still make more units, but the fourth unit will have to be an Inclusionary Zoning unit reserved for people making 80% of the Area Median Income, and so would every second unit thereafter (so a six-unit building would need two IZ units, an eight-unit building three, etc.) Also, even on a large lot, the owner can only go up to four units without getting a special exception.

There are a few more new rules as well: An addition can't block a chimney or other vent of a row house next door, and can't cut off light from solar panels on an adjacent house either. It can't remove or raise a turret or other architectural feature on top of the front and can't extend back more than ten feet past the rear walls of the houses on either side.

What does this mean for Jim?

Basically, Jim, this change doesn't affect whether you can create a third unit in his home, but it does limit your ability to make your home bigger. If it was legal before to split your home into three units (which it might have been, or might not have been), you still can.

For most people, the best way to find out about zoning rules is to talk to the Homeowners Center at DCRA. They only help people in homes of one and two units, so you should talk to a zoning attorney before pursuing any plans to make your house three or more units.

If you were planning to make your house bigger physically, you will have to get a special exception if it would be more than 30 35 feet high, more than 10 feet back past the rear of the houses next door, overshadow someone's solar panels, or conflict with certain other rules.

Also, you should make sure to know what zone you are in. Most of Columbia Heights is R-4, but a few parts are R-5 (higher density). Near the commercial corridors, some houses are part of the adjacent commercial zone. You (and everyone else) can find out your zone with the handy interactive DC Zoning Map.

Zoning in a portion of Columbia Heights.

What's next for the rules?

DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which has the final say on zoning in DC, voted for these rules on March 30 as what's called "proposed action." Next, those rules get published in the DC Register for a 30-day official comment period; they will get published May 1, according to Sharon Schellin of the Office of Zoning.

That period closes June 1, and Schellin said the Zoning Commission will consider the rules at its June 8 meeting. The commission could choose to make the rules effective immediately as soon as they can be published in the DC Register. Or, it could choose to make them effective with more of a grace period, or ask the Office of Planning for more research and delay action entirely.

At-large DC councilmember Vincent Orange wants the commission to put the rules into effect right away. In fact, he wants a moratorium on any additions to row houses until they can go into effect. Some people have filed for permits on additions that are legal under current rules, and supporters of the new rules have asked to block any more of those.

Orange withdrew his moratorium proposal amid criticism that it was illegal—the Zoning Commission has the authority to make zoning rules, not the DC Council. But like Orange, many supporters of the proposed rules also want further limits.

Orange's bill would have not only blocked R-4 additions but additions in the R-5 zone, where row houses exist side by side with apartment buildings and converting a row house into a small apartment building has long been legal. Orange would have blocked making three units in a building even if it didn't "pop up" at all, or adding onto a building even just for a single family to have more space.

In his initial question, Jim asked, "If I added a third unit in my home, would I have to rent it at a reduced rate?" If Vincent Orange had his way, Jim wouldn't have been able to add a third unit in his home at all.

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly listed 30 feet as the new matter-of-right height limit in R4 zones. It will be 35 feet if the proposal goes into effect.

Montgomery backtracks on a sprawl-inducing highway

After a decade-long process, it looked like Montgomery County was pushing ahead with a new highway through streams and wetlands at the edge of the county's built-up areas. But last week, county officials announced they don't support the road project after all.

Image from TAME.

In March, the county Department of Transportation issued a report recommending a new limited-access highway, around the edge of developed areas. The road, designated M-83, would approximately parallel I-270 and MD-355 but farther east, connecting the east side of Clarksburg to the current Midcounty Highway, Route 124.

This dismayed advocates who had been asking the county instead to study ways to better connect to Clarksburg with transit and fixes to local roads. Last week, DOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh put out a statement essentially repudiating the DOT's earlier recommendation:

The County Executive does not support building this road, he did not recommend the preferred alternative, nor was it an option that I as MCDOT acting director recommended. Further, there is no funding proposed for the project in the County's capital budget.

The study, "Draft Preferred Alternative/Conceptual Mitigation Report" (PA/CM) was conducted before the Route 355 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system was in the master plan, and therefore it was not considered as one of the alternatives. If BRT is considered, I believe the results of the PA/CM study and its recommended alternative could be significantly different. I strongly endorse this reassessment.

During my three months as MCDOT Acting Director, I continue to look for ways to promote a broader view of mobility in Montgomery County that is not necessarily wedded to building more roads. Taking a fresh look at various M-83 options, including the Route 355 BRT, is an important step in my vision for this department.

The council pushes M-83 out of limbo

In 1964, before the Clean Water Act had passed, Montgomery planners drew a future highway on maps to the east of MD 355. The road ran through wetlands and stream valleys to complete a "ladder and rung" network of arterial roads that would facilitate development in upcounty Montgomery. Since then, Midcounty Highway, also known as M-83, has been the subject of battles for over 50 years.

In its most recent chapter, the Montgomery County Council asked the county DOT in 2004 to study whether the highway, with its impacts to wetlands and streams, would be legal under modern environmental laws. Last year, DOT officials said they would complete the study in March of 2014, but were then silent about their progress for the rest of the year.

On March 2nd, the council's Transportation and Environment Committee surprised MCDOT leadership by asking about the study. Members suggested that, if it was complete, it should go to federal regulators for a decision one way or the other. It appears that Council transportation staffer Glenn Orlin learned that the study had been finished for some time, and suggested that the committee ask for some resolution on the issue.

"If we're not going to build it, we should take it out of the master plan", he said in the committee session. "My understanding is that the report was done last summer and has not been sent to the feds. However you feel about the project, it's delaying a resolution."

Chair Roger Berliner said, "It's no secret I'm not a big fan of this project. I'm even less a fan of ambiguity and being in limbo." The committee members, while harboring different opinions about the project, all agreed that MCDOT should make the study public and send it to regulators. Berliner and fellow committee member Tom Hucker, along with a majority of council members, now publicly oppose to the project, while Nancy Floreen, the third member of the committee, supports it.

The county suggests a destructive option, then backs away

After getting the prod from the council, the DOT issued its report and recommended Alternative 9A, the original alignment from the 1960s master plan. At $350 million, it is the most expensive of the six alternatives analyzed, a price tag that doesn't include environmental mitigation to compensate for the wetlands, floodplains, and forests it would damage.

In contrast to his agency's position, County Executive Leggett has said he is against the road: shortly after the release of the study, a spokesperson for the County Executive told the Washington Post that Leggett "opposes the road project because of its cost."

Throughout the study, it has been clear that the those in charge were building up arguments towards 9A. But more recently, top leaders who were most focused on building roads have left. Their replacements are already backing away from the controversial project.

WTOP reporter Ari Ashe tweeted recently that MCDOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh told him he was against M-83, and that it was "over." After I mentioned the M-83 report in a list of cautionary notes about whether the DOT was really reforming, DOT spokesperson Esther Bowring called to say that Roshdieh considers the 9A option "dead."

"If we don't do this, we need to do something else"

During the March 2nd committee meeting, Councilmember Floreen said, "If we don't do this, we need to do something else." Many residents in Clarksburg rightly feel that the county made and broke many promises, including to build retail and provide good transportation. Development in Clarksburg was initially supposed to coincide with transit service, but the transit has not materialized.

However, this road is not the answer. It will only make new sprawl development, including up in Frederick and Carroll Counties, even more desirable, leading people to live there and work in Rockville, Bethesda, or DC, be dependent on cars, and clog the roads further for commuting and shopping.

The better solution for all upcounty residents is to build the transit that was promised in the first place. Berliner and many advocates have recommended building the study's Alternative 2, a package of small widenings to congested intersections as well as new sidewalks and bike paths, and Alternative 5, which would widen MD-355—but using the new lanes as dedicated lanes for BRT rather than new car capacity.

Left: Alternative 9. Right: Alternative 5.

Bowring said that county officials are meeting next week to discuss next steps to reexamine the county's recommendations and start moving toward, or at least seriously studying, the transit options that many residents are pushing for.

To fully put the idea of a new highway to rest, the county would have to remove it from the master plan. The decision to do that would be up to the county council, Berliner said, and the council could ask the planning department to be involved if it wished.

Unless something changes, the Army Corps of Engineers will go ahead and evaluate Alternative 9A. Some may be hoping the corps just tells Montgomery County it can't build the road; that would forestall a local political battle between those who still want a new highway and the majority of the county council that doesn't.

Either way, this 50-year battle is far from over.

NIH says: Our scientists are too important to pay for parking or take transit

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants to expand at its Bethesda campus, but despite being on top of a Metro station, wants to build a lot more parking. Why is that necessary? NIH thinks its "high-ranking scientists" can't be asked to pay for parking or ride Metro in greater numbers like "regular people."

Sound unbelievable? Just listen to this:

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) slapped down NIH at a meeting on April 2. NCPC has a policy defining how much parking is appropriate for federal facilities. At locations outside the core but right near Metro, like NIH, that level is one space per three employees.

NIH, however, currently offers one space per two employees. It wants to plan for 3,000 new employees and build new parking garages with 1,000 new spaces. That's 1:3 for the new employees, but doesn't bring NIH into compliance for the other employeees with NCPC's policy, which has been in place since 2004.

If, instead, NIH fully met NCPC's standard, it could remove 2,300 spaces even with the new employees, said Drew Morrison, aide to Councilmember Roger Berliner, who represents the area. Berliner and other local elected officials have asked NIH to meet NCPC's standard, so far to little effect.

Morrison said that the traffic from all the cars driving to NIH impedes economic development in downtown Bethesda. "Many property owners in downtown Bethesda are telling us right now that they can't attract new businesses to Bethesda precisely because of this traffic problem." Reducing parking and driving to NIH, Morrison said, would improve that situation.

At the meeting, Ricardo Herring, NIH's Director of Facilities Planning, repeatedly said that it was "impossible" for more NIH employees to get to work by transit. He said this is because many employees live in far-flung areas not near Metro (though he didn't really explain why driving to Metro parking, like at Shady Grove, is not an option).

Of course people drive if parking is free

However, NIH also offers free parking to every one of its employees and contractors. Small wonder that so many people drive when it's subsidized by their employer (and by Maryland, which has to pay for the roads).

Mina Wright of the General Services Administration pressed Herring on why NIH can't try charging for parking. Herring said that was tried in the Carter Administration, but "there was a major rebellion." Wright acknowledged that it might not be popular with everyone, but said that sometimes management has to do unpopular things.

Besides, it's not unreasonable to ask scientists of the National Institutes of Health to respect their impact on the health of people who live around them. Presidential appointee Elizabeth Ann Wright asked, "What does it say when we encourage our nation's top scientists to drive?"

Commissioners noted that the Bethesda Naval medical center, now called Walter Reed after the Army's facility on Georgia Avenue closed and moved in, is able to operate with a 1:3 ratio.

National Park Service representative Peter May said, "There are ways to achieve 1:3 at NIH. There is no doubt about it. Other agencies do it." NIH seems uninterested in trying.

Herring's dismissiveness irritated many commissioners, who ultimately voted to disapprove NIH's master plan. May said, "It seems apparent to me that the policy that NCPC has adopted and has been trying to communicate to NIH for ten years has not gotten through and not been communicated at high enough levels at NIH."

The board's recommendation is technically advisory, but chairman Preston Bryant pointed out that federal agencies rarely if ever directly flout NCPC's express will, and strongly urged NIH not to either.

Watch the juiciest 13 minutes of the video below, or the full thing here or by scrolling in the timeline. Watch Drew Morrison talk at 54:20, then Herring respond at 57:17, May at 1:01:25, and Wright bring up charging for parking at 1:02:42, which elicits some of the most jaw-dropping statements from Herring until 1:07:13 when they move on to talk about bollards.

Oh, and check out those graphics showing the Metro service at 9:46 near the start of the video. Where could they have gotten those from?

Vincent Orange would close DC's gates against younger and/or poorer residents

If you want to live in one of DC's row house neighborhoods but don't make a ton of money, a new bill by DC at-large councilmember Vincent Orange would slam the door in your face while it hastens gentrification and displacement of poor residents.

Photo by chefranden on Flickr.

In many parts of DC, property owners have added on top of their houses, creating what are called "pop-ups." Some are very tasteful, while some are ugly. Sometimes these let a family grow while staying in its house, while sometimes it goes along with splitting the house into a few apartments.

Other times, someone makes apartments in a house without adding on top, but perhaps adding in back or not adding on at all. Even when a house doesn't change externally, some neighbors don't like having a larger number of new people come into the neighborhood, perhaps younger or less wealthy. Vincent Orange wants those folks to vote for his reelection next year.

Today, he circulated "emergency" legislation called the Prohibition on Single Family Dwelling Conversions Emergency Amendment Act, along with a resolution on the issue. The bill would forbid any building permit "to increase the height, or otherwise convert an existing one-unit or 2-unit house, including a row house, into a multi-unit dwelling [of 3 or more units]."

DC's Office of Planning recently proposed, and the Zoning Commission approved, rules to limit height and numbers of units for the R-4, or moderate density row house, zones. Those rules aren't nearly so restrictive as what Orange wants—they let people still build three units in a house and add on to houses up to 35 feet.

Those rules also don't apply to the denser R-5 zones which have a mix of row houses and larger apartment buildings. Orange wants to forbid anyone from building onto their home in those areas as well.

This is exclusionary zoning

Orange's bill would turn most row house areas into exclusionary bastions open only to people who can afford a whole row house. He'd redline many potential residents out of large parts of the city, even ones where multi-family buildings have always been legal.

In testimony on the recent R-4 rules, resident Meredith Moldenhauer wrote,

I grew up in the District and following law school, my husband and I wished to return to DC. When my husband was a Lt. JG in the US Navy and I was a graduating law school student, we were fortunate enough to purchase a basement 800 square foot unit in a renovated three-unit townhouse. Later we moved to a larger condominium in an 8-unit building and, finally, purchased our current home in Capitol Hill. ... In hindsight, we could not have afforded a larger unit had the building been [fewer than three units]."

In our current location, the character of the community is created by the mix of families, Hill staffers, young professionals, and retirees. We love where we live ... The natural mix of permitted housing types in the R-4 creates the environment that attracted my husband and me to our current home.

Orange's bill doesn't contemplate neighborhoods like Moldenhauer's except the few that already exist. It would keep future people like her out of DC. By driving younger workers to live farther away it could even discourage new companies from starting in the District.

While Orange might be hoping to win some favor with residents concerned about gentrification in their neighborhoods, if he doesn't drive jobs out of DC he might in fact speed it up. By limiting the amount of new housing that can be created in the already-expensive row house neighborhoods, he would force more people to buy a bigger row house in a cheaper area versus a smaller apartment in a pricier one.

The singles and young couples seeking smaller apartments would also outbid poorer residents in many changing areas if Orange succeeds in slashing the number of those smaller apartments the can be built.

It's illegal

Of course, the bill probably won't pass. Even if nine councilmembers believed this constituted an "emergency," Orange's bill very likely illegal. DC's Home Rule Act creates a Zoning Commission with three representatives appointed by the mayor and two from the federal government. That body, it says, "shall exercise all the powers and perform all the duties with respect to zoning in the District as provided by law." (§492(a)(1)(e))

That means that the DC Council can't make zoning policy. And telling DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which issues building permits, that it's illegal to give a building permit for a project that's legal under zoning but not under Orange Alternate Zoning would be overstepping the council's authority.

DCRA spokesperson Matt Orlins confirmed this made a related point in a statement to the Washington Post, saying, "If a proposed project complies with the Zoning Regulations and Construction Codes, DCRA does not have discretion to disapprove it. The Zoning Regulations ... are written by the Zoning Commission, an independent body." Clarification: Orlins was talking about DCRA's ability to impose a moratorium on its own, not about council action, but it seems likely courts would not allow the council to take this action either.

But Orange got to make a statement. If you're a young person who doesn't own or can't afford a whole rowhouse, Orange doesn't want you. If you're a poor resident, Orange doesn't care about you. If you want your neighborhood to never change at all, Orange wants your vote, and he'll propose illegal legislation that will harm the District to get it.

Reform WMATA? Slash and burn? Or stay the course?

What does WMATA need? Just more money, and otherwise everything is okay? Major cuts, abandoning hope of eight-car trains and fixing the Blue Line in this generation? Or a balance of real management reforms and more investment at the same time? These are the positions Virginia, Maryland, and DC officials, respectively, are taking.

Rail switch image from Shutterstock.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Abigail Hauslohner and Robert McCartney reveal more details about management problems at WMATA: funding pensions out of the operating budget, failing to spend capital dollars on time, being months overdue on a required audit, and not delivering reports to the jurisdictions as promised.

Both DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland governor Larry Hogan have been pushing for a "turnaround specialist" to run WMATA. They agree some of WMATA's financial problems are serious. But beyond that, what each means by "turnaround" is somewhat different.

DC transportation head Leif Dormsjo wants a "CEO" to make service better for riders while also fixing these serious failures and problems with Metro's overall culture.

Meanwhile, Pete Rahn, the new Maryland transportation secretary who insists he's not a "highway guy," wants to cut costs much more deeply. He wants WMATA to completely shelve any talk about expanding the system or even increasing the number of eight-car trains. One anonymous Maryland official even suggested the state might want to cut service (and Maryland is already cutting some bus service this year had already considered cutting some bus service this year, though that plan was rejected in March).

Virginia transportation secretary Aubrey Layne, meanwhile, was happy to have WMATA pick another transit agency head, like Richard Sarles, as the next General Manager. Until this year, most of the WMATA board agreed. Both the Gray administration's member and last year's board chair, Tom Downs, and this year's board chair and federal member Mort Downey, who are both also longtime friends of Sarles, were ready to hire another person from the US transit executive club until DC and Maryland blocked that plan.

Maryland says don't think about the future

Rahn told Hauslohner and McCartney that "Discussions of expansion have to be deferred for maintenance, and it means saying 'no' to some popular things until [Metro] has addressed throughout its system the issues of performance and safety."

While maintenance is extremely important, it's also dangerous to completely ignore anything else. While Metrorail ridership has declined slightly, the overall trend is toward hitting capacity ceilings—not to mention the Blue Line, which is suffering right now.

Rahn would certainly not say that Maryland should cancel any plans for even the smallest local road capacity increase project until every road and bridge is in tip-top shape and nobody ever dies on the roads, period. For example, Rahn said Maryland would find the money, no matter what, to build new ramps at the Beltway to get the FBI at Greenbelt. I don't disagree with him that this is a worthwhile road project. Eight-car trains on Metro (and the Purple Line!) are similarly important.

The public deserves a voice

Dormsjo and Rahn have been more public about their views than the board has generally been in the past. This is welcome. The public has a right to be a part of this conversation. Too often, WMATA executives and some board members (especially ones who themselves were transit executives) want to keep the controversies quiet.

That's a mistake. Hiding all of these problems has just made them seem so much worse, and the transgressions so much more severe, than if the agency had been honest in the first place. Even some board members, like now-mayor Bowser, say the agency misled them.

Ultimately, board members and riders alike will respect the CEO more for exposing, admitting to, and then fixing problems instead of continuing to hide them. That's the only way to build trust, and trust is something WMATA sorely needs.

There's a fair concern that if Maryland, Virginia, and DC can't ultimately agree, then it will be hard for anyone to run the agency. A great CEO will need his or her board united behind a course of action. The three jurisdictions will ultimately have to agree on whether to use new railcars for more eight-car trains, whether to plan to fix the Blue Line or not, and so on.

The best way to get there is through a public conversation first about these priorities and the agency's problems. The WMATA Board announced that it would seek public input on the General Manager hiring, but has only provided two opportunities, neither very satisfying: you can speak at a board meeting in person on Thursday at 10:00 am (if you don't have to be anywhere else all morning), or you can fill out an online survey.

Part of the survey. Click to take it.

That survey gives a large list of qualities we might want the next GM to possess. Unfortunately, all are uncontroversial, positive qualities and it's virtually certain that the scores will come out strongly for all, giving the board the chance to do whatever it would have anyway rather than providing any truly meaningful input.

Multiple Greater Greater Washington contributors reacted to the survey by speculating that this was "input for input's sake" or a way "to get the answers they already decided on." Hopefully one of the next General Manager's skills will be understanding how to actually seek input from the public that is useful and actionable.

Change is coming to the Montgomery DOT. Will things get better for residents?

Montgomery County leaders and residents want walkable, transit-served neighborhoods, but the county's department of transportation has a reputation for putting cars over everything else. Now that two of the agency's top officials have departed, will new leadership bring the department in line with a changing county?

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

MCDOT's former director Art Holmes retired at the end of last year. Holmes had brought little vision or leadership to the department. Instead, most of the on-the-ground decisions fell to Deputy Director for Transportation Policy Edgar Gonzalez, a dyed-in-the-wool champion of designing roads for more and more cars to the exclusion of all else.

Last month, county officials announced that Gonzalez, too, was leaving the department, to become deputy director of the Department of Liquor Control. Gary Erenrich, who ran the county's transit programs, will fill the post on an acting basis, reporting to MCDOT's acting director, Al Roshdieh.

Gonzalez's legacy: Lanes yes, walkability no

While an accomplished planner, Gonzalez prioritized building of highways over other priorities. He relentlessly pushed to extend the Midcounty Highway (M-83) from Gaithersburg to Clarksburg over protests from both neighbors and county councilmembers. MCDOT even protested a bill from councilmembers Hans Riemer and Roger Berliner that would require narrow, low-speed street designs in urban areas like Silver Spring and Bethesda.

Despite Montgomery's vision for a walkable, urban White Flint, Gonzalez fought the plan every step of the way, pushing an extension of Montrose Parkway through the area, and resisting calls from residents to make Old Georgetown Road less of a traffic sewer.

A change in leadership is an opportunity to bring the county's transportation policy in line with its planning and economic development policies, which promote walkable neighborhoods around transit hubs.

At a time when the county's fastest growing areas are near Metro stations and driving rates have plateaued, that only makes sense. New leadership is a signal to anyone who supports sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit that MCDOT is ready to work with them.

Has MCDOT turned over a new leaf?

To be fair, the department has made some big strides in recent years. Last fall, Montgomery County got its first protected bikeway, on Woodglen Drive in White Flint, and the DOT decided to allow the narrower, slower-speed design for Old Georgetown Road than the county's plans originally called for. After a years-long fight with parents at Wilson Wims Elementary School in Clarksburg, MCDOT agreed to install a crosswalk across a busy road.

New director Al Roshdieh has expressed an interest in focusing on pedestrian and bike infrastructure and wants to reexamine all of the county's policies. He wants to combat the perception (though rightly earned) that the agency is "pro-car."

But there are signs that elements of the old, highway-focused culture remains. Roshdieh insists that the county's proposed bus rapid transit line on Route 29 won't work without building highway interchanges. And though Roshdieh said there isn't room for new roads, the department recently recommended building the most environmentally-destructive route for Midcounty Highway.

Change might not come all at once, but neither are merely small changes (or just words and no changes) enough. Roshdieh is evidently angling to become permanent director, and he'll need to take bold action to fix an agency deeply out of touch with a county that's changed significantly since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, it seems a little ironic that Gonzalez, who spent much of his career pushing for transportation and land use patterns which force people to drive, now is in charge of liquor. Car dependence all but forces people to drive home from restaurants and bars where they want to drink, while people who can walk or take transit home need not worry about driving drunk. Gonzalez will now be in charge of mitigating a problem he himself exacerbated in the past.

Muriel Bowser promises to finish the DC streetcar from Georgetown to Ward 7

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser gave the annual State of the District address Tuesday night. Among many other statements, one caught the eye of most reporters, people on Twitter, and others: She has definitively decided to finish the main east-west streetcar line.

Image from Muriel Bowser.

DDOT director Leif Dormsjo made something of a stir when he told the DC Council that all options were on the table for the streetcar including scrapping it entirely. But it's now totally clear that this option, while perhaps truly on the table, is not on said metaphorical table any longer.

Further, the line will stretch to Georgetown in the west and "downtown Ward 7" in the east (and, presumably, to a Metro station). Such a line will be far more useful than just the "starter segment" that has been built. Plans always called for this to be just one piece of a line stretching across the District, and now that will be the policy of a third consecutive administration.

Bowser did not, however, commit to building any more streetcar lines. While DDOT's former plan was compelling, the agency has not yet demonstrated it can build a citywide network of streetcars. It may indeed be sensible to try to make one line work very well before moving too quickly to build more.

To make the line work well, it should have dedicated lanes for a considerable portion of its length. There are already plans to rebuild K Street from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle with dedicated transit lanes for a streetcar. But if the streetcar sits in traffic around Mount Vernon Square, between that square and Union Station, and along K into Georgetown, it won't be as valuable of a transportation facility as it could be.

Advocates will need to push DDOT to really study dedicated lanes and other methods of ensuring the streetcar is actually a good way to get to and from downtown instead of the novelty some critics fear.

Play Pac-Man on the street grid

Each year right around this time, Google adds some joke features to its products. Today, Google Maps just got a "Pac-Man" mode, where you can turn any street grid into a little pellet-eating, ghost-chasing game.

Pac-Man around downtown DC.

Depending where you pick, the game can be really hard or easy. Good luck winning a round around Dupont Circle.

Pac-Man around Dupont Circle.

The game ignores dead-end streets (since you can't escape if a ghost traps you there), so if you pick a neighborhood that's almost all cul-de-sacs, it'll say you can't play Pac-Man there. Another disadvantage of unwalkable street designs?

What are some of the best spots you can find for a fun Pac-Man game around the Washington area?

Ask GGW: Urbanist children's music?

Greater Greater Washington readers came up with a great list of children's books which have urbanist themes or describe experiences of kids growing up in the city, like riding the subway or walking outside an apartment neighborhood on a snowy day. What about for music?

Bubble Ride cover from Vanessa Trien.

Sophie has really been enjoying Bubble Ride, a CD by Boston area children's singer Vanessa Trien. Besides some (great) songs about the popular topic, farm or zoo animals, there are several songs about living in the city.

"Train Dance" is about some people on the T who can't help but dance to the rhythm of the train rumbling. And "Spinning Around" relates the experience of a child who lives in a second-floor apartment in the city and goes on a "walk to the bank or to the grocery store" in the stroller.

Do you know of other children's albums that kids in walkable urban places can relate to?

WMATA needs to do better, says DC transportation head

DC's new transportation director Leif Dormsjo says the region's transit authority needs to change. This might not sound like shocking news to most riders, but it's a sentiment many top WMATA officials don't share or seem reluctant to admit if they do.

Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr.

Dormsjo and Corbett Price, both appointed to the WMATA Board by Mayor Muriel Bowser, recently spent a day at WMATA learning all about the inner workings of the agency. That experience, he said, gave him a clear understanding about problems at the agency.

"WMATA needs to hire and fire better, manage its capital projects better, follow accounting principles better, and communicate with the public better," he said.

Not everyone in positions of authority feels this way. Current board chairman and federal appointee Mort Downey, as well as the Gray administration's board pick Tom Downs, had strongly praised Richard Sarles' tenure and were looking for a similar transit veteran to succeed him.

Dormsjo thinks WMATA instead needs an outsider who will shake up the culture at the agency. "WMATA needs a CEO," he said.

Is Metro service good enough?

Bowser has sometimes described her idea for a new WMATA General Manager as a "turnaround specialist." At a panel discussion Monday, I said I thought the agency does need an outsider, as long as that person understands that change means doing better, not just doing less to cut costs at the expense of riders.

Here's the audio recording from the panel:

Graham Jenkins, who tweets about transit @LowHeadways, agreed that we need more service, not less. He said,

Put simply, there aren't enough trains and there aren't enough buses. Frequency is freedom. If you're in a car it's very easy to say, "I'm going to begin my trip now," and get into your car to begin that journey. Transit can only run that way when it runs frequently enough.

The British have a term for it, "turn up and go service." It means that you can leave and ... be relatively assured that within a pretty short amount of time something will come and you'll be on your way. But ... our level of weekend service is considered adequate when even without trackwork the headways on Sundays are 15 minutes. It's commuter rail level of service.

There are certainly many people who work at Metro who don't like that level of service, but the agency doesn't have the financial resources to run more. Later, Tom Bulger, a member of the board appointed by the DC Council, seemed to say that rush hour is what mattered to the agency: "We're only as good as our last rush hour. Sorry Graham, sorry David, that's how the system operates."

Jenkins replied,

That's also the problem with the system. The board seems to have abdicated oversight responsibility. The board needn't be passive. ... This is the same mentality that Muriel Bowser had when she was on the board and decried that, if this were my railroad, I would change certain things. ... It is her railroad, it is your railroad. You have the power to change things and to accept the status quo passively is why these problems will not go away.
Has WMATA management not been honest?

Bowser indeed did not exercise vigorous oversight of WMATA while she was on the board from 2011 to 2014, but has seemingly moved decisively to appoint people who will now that she is mayor.

Procurement errors under former CFO Carol Kissal led to a scathing report from the Federal Transit Administration and punitive steps where FTA has withheld federal funds and put WMATA in a short-term cash flow crunch. Board members including Bowser and Bulger did not know the extent of this problem until it was too late.

Moderator Pat Host noted that Bowser has said top management was not "honest and forthright with the board about the financial situation of the agency," as Host described it. But Bulger feels that the board has "enough CFO experience with our current CFO Dennis [Anosike] and the current chairman of the Metro board, Mort Downey."

He did not seem very concerned with the agency's current direction. Nor did Jackie Jeter, the president of the union representing most WMATA employees. She said that she worries a "turnaround specialist" would create too much whiplash.

WMATA never gets a chance to run its plan. A couple of years ago Metro came up with a 25-year plan for what it needed to do ... but now that this has happened we abandon that and move to something else. At some point we have to stop this ADHD approach to transportation and actually come up with a program, run the program, and do what is needed.
But as Metro was running its program, its culture of secrecy persisted. Besides not telling even some of their own board members about the financial situation, the message from the agency too often was "just trust us" while anyone who did later felt betrayed. Dormsjo is right that one of the most-needed changes is for WMATA to communicate better—and that's not just to utter talking points more persuasively, but actually be more open with customers.

In the panel, Bulger said, "It's hard being on this board when you don't have partners." Many riders and advocates want to be partners, but can only do that if the agency treats them like partners instead of children. When it's even treating its own board members like children, it's clear something has to change.

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