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. 

Beyond Metro, there's no big idea for transit in DC anymore

The excellent Housing Complex writer Aaron Wiener is leaving the local reporting scene for a position at Mother Jones. For his valedictory column, he proposes 15 "not-so-modest proposals for how to make DC better." The first three cover transit. So what's the big pie-in-the-sky for transit?

Pie in the sky image from Shutterstock.

First: "Build new Metro lines."

Second: "At the very least, add some infill stations."

Third: "Stop building streetcar lines in mixed traffic."

Unfortunately, building new Metro lines is not really going to happen. Beyond that, this list doesn't give much to be excited about. And that's not Wiener's fault; it's exactly the problem with transit planning and advocacy in the Washington region right now.

More Metro is best

It's absolutely true that, if we're not "constrained by the limits of reality," putting more Metro lines everywhere is indeed the key. (If you're really unconstrained by reality, you just invent teleportation, but if we're suspending fiscal reality but not the laws of physics, Metro is the way to go).

Even despite disinvestment and mismanagement in WMATA, the Metro is a fast way to travel. If it's working, it's often faster than any other mode—when there's a station near where you want to go. More lines and more stations would undoubtedly offer better transportation than nearly any other system.

Unfortunately, Metro lines cost billions of dollars. Many cities and nations in other parts of the world are willing and able to keep building more tunnels for more trains, but not the United States.

What's the next best idea? Surely there is another, somewhat cheaper, somewhat less speedy, but still eminently worthwhile idea ready for an alternative weekly blogger to tout?

There isn't a second-best idea

Well, not really. And Wiener's list demonstrates this. Not because he's not coming up with it—he's a reporter and blogger, not a transportation planner. Rather, there's nothing on the shelf.

(In DC, anyway. In Maryland, the Purple Line continues to be a slam dunk, and will only not happen if the governor is more intent on punishing a part of the state that mostly didn't vote for him instead of making the state more attractive to businesses and workers.)

Infill stations, sure, and there are a few good spots. Besides Potomac Yard in Alexandria, a station already in the planning stages, Wiener points out an opportunity to build a station east of Stadium-Armory next to the former Pepco plant, if and when all of the toxic chemicals under that plant can get cleaned up.

But there aren't many good places where there's much or even any new development potential. So what else?

All there is for us is an exhortation NOT to build something. Don't build a mixed-traffic streetcar.

DC planners and leaders have not teed up any better solutions. Bus lanes and dedicated streetcar lanes (Wiener mentions the possibility of a dedicated lane on Georgia Avenue) could offer a way to move people quickly and smoothly around the city, but we're very far from being able to make that a reality, and we're moving at a snail's pace.

A study of lanes on H and I Streets foundered amid interagency squabbling between DDOT and WMATA. A study for 16th Street is actually underway, but only after multiple earlier studies in prior years. At best, it seems we can hope DDOT could design something this year, build it a couple of years from now, test it, then maybe slowly start studying some more lanes by Muriel Bowser's second term or the next mayor's first.

There are existing plans for dedicated transit lanes on K Street, but there's no longer enough money in the latest budget to actually build them. These dedicated K Street lanes, by the way, have been rarely mentioned in news stories criticizing streetcars (Wiener's list included).

The MoveDC plan lays out a network of 47 miles of "high-capacity transit" including 25 miles of dedicated lanes, but little idea of how to build those, when, or how to pay for it.

Arlington has canceled its transit vision, which grew out of years of public processes and compromise. Maryland may as well. Beyond finishing the Silver Line, the region may soon be left with no big transit ideas. And as the political climates have shifted in all of these jurisdictions, there also seems to be little appetite right now to make any new big plans.

Wiener brings up many of other excellent ideas as well. Foster some creative architecture in the District. Spread homeless shelters out around the city so every area can be a part of the solution. Buy vacant or blighted property now, when it's cheap, to build affordable housing later. Don't build football stadiums. Get rid of parking minimum requirements in new buildings.

The next Housing Complex writer will surely continue talking about all of these issues. DC leaders need to give him or her, and residents across the city and region, something to get excited about instead of a choice between the practically impossible and the undesirable.

Mary Cheh's annual joke budget memo mocks the streetcar, endless transportation studies, and more

Each year, as the DC Council considers the District's budget, Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff issue fake recommendations that satirize recent news. This year's poke even sharper fun than usual at a number of issues around transportation, Eleanor Holmes Norton's parking, the Vince Gray prosecution, and many others.

Bookshelf image from Shutterstock.

On the streetcar, for instance, they "suggest,"

Transfer $500,000 million from the District Department of Transportation to the Commission on Arts and Humanities. This transfer will be used for an innovative, progressive, and transformative production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
That wasn't even the harshest cut at DDOT, though. As we prepared to talk to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, a lot of you suggested questions about DDOT's apparent habit of conducting a study, then conducting another one a couple of years later, and so on.

This has been a particular source of ire for Capitol Hill residents who have been waiting years for traffic calming on Maryland Avenue, or supporters of a bus lane who wonder why there has to be another study this year to implement a bus lane that was the subject of at least two earlier studies. Commenter Jimmy, for instance, wrote:

Some of us actually refer to his agency as DDOTS (District Department of Transportation Studies). While some study is necessary to avoid ready-fire-aim debacles like the streetcar, use of "further study" (on bike lanes, bus lanes, bus signal priority, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move more cars faster or provide more parking for private automobiles) has clearly become a delaying tactic. What can be done about this? How can we move forward on things that have already been studied to death?
Cheh and her staff feel your pain. Their budget "recommendation":
Transfer $1.5 million from the Department of General Services—what's another million and a half, anyway—to the District Department of Transportation to conduct a study. It has recently come to the Committee's attention that DDOT has had issues in implementing previously conducted studies. Despite extensive work being done to study traffic calming measures on Maryland Avenue, the agency is about to initiate another study. Additionally, despite conducting a study in 2013 on a 16th Street Bus Lane, DDOT will shortly begin a new study on the topic.

To assist in reducing redundant redundancies, the Committee recommends that the funds be used for DDOT to study these studies. This endeavor will help keep the agency busy because the Committee has no doubt that two years from now they will scrap the study on studies and conduct a new study that studies the study on studies in a rather studious manner.


Eleanor Holmes Norton does not get off lightly. A video surfaced in March showing the Congresswoman trying to park between two other cars and somehow managing to end up diagonally in her space. Cheh and her staff "propose" a new Eleanor Holmes Norton Office of Parking and Driving to provide free taxi service for elected officials.

And speaking of federal activities, remember how US Attorney Ron Machen was looking into alleged campaign finance misdeeds from the 2010 Vincent Gray mayoral campaign? Machen charged a number of Gray staffers, but never seemed to find any evidence linking the mayor himself. Yet Machen, in an unusual step for a prosecutor, publicly said "there's there there," saying in essence that he was sure Gray was involved.

Gray lost the primary election, in large part because many people believed Machen, but nothing has happened since. Cheh and her staff caustically "suggest" funding a dictionary and a map for the US Attorney's Office so it can "determine where exactly is the there."

Other biting critiques in the memo include:

  • A recommendation about the DC Board of Elections printed entirely upside-down, a reference to the upside-down DC flag on the 2014 voter guide which BOE first pretended was intentional, then admitted had been a mistake.
  • That upside-down proposal suggests a primary date based on the lunar calendar to "enhance voter turnout and continue to make elections a part of the news cycle." DC had shifted its primary from September to April due to federal laws about getting absentee ballots to servicemembers overseas. But the turnout in 2014 hit record lows, so the council moved it back.
  • A budget allocation to make space for "all of Mayor Bowser's former staff and campaign aides" on the council. Bowser staffers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May won the two recent special elections, in Wards 4 and 8 respectively. Todd said he would be independent of Bowser and even, while campaigning, opposed her controversial DC Jail healthcare contract which Bowser had been pushing; days after winning, he decided he would support his former boss after all.
  • A new job training program for councilmembers forced out of office due to corruption.
  • Body cameras for councilmembers whose footage will be televised on a reality show, "Keeping Up with the Kouncilmembers."
  • A staffer to submit "all office supply orders" to Congress, given that Congress is so eager to get involved in DC's local affairs.
Cheh and her staff conclude with a suggestion that if you don't find her memo funny, you "participate in some recently-legalized activities" (i.e. smoke marijuana) and then you will "find it to be, like, totally the funniest thing ever."

It's our live chat with DC transportation head Leif Dormsjo

Today we talked with Leif Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). Here is a transcript of our conversation.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

David Alpert: Welcome to our live chat with DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo! I'm here at DDOT HQ with Greater Greater Washington volunteers Eric Fidler, Tracey Johnstone, Payton Chung, and Abigail Zenner.

David Alpert: Our guest will be joining us at noon. Meanwhile, if you have questions you'd like to suggest, you can tweet them with hashtag #ggwchat.

David Alpert: The way the chat will work is I will ask questions verbally, including some of the many great questions you all submitted. Eric, Tracey, and Payton will be frantically typing in his answers. We'll correct any typos later; if you see some, it's definitely our fault and not anything to do with Leif.

David Alpert: Leif Dormsjo is now here. Welcome! Thank you so much for joining us.

Leif Dormsjo: Great to be here, David

Leif Dormsjo: It is my office, of course.

David Alpert: To get started, can you tell me what top three(ish) things you hope will be different about the way DDOT operates and/or about transportation in our city after four years of your leadership?

Leif Dormsjo: Sure, Well, the mayor has been very clear with me from the get-go what her expectations are, and it's real exciting to be part of the Bowser administration.

Leif Dormsjo: So even as early as my interviews, she was focused on Vision Zero, which extends beyond my department. The second area she wanted me to focus on was how DDOT performs on quality of life issues and how we engage with people outside the walls of our departments.

Leif Dormsjo: And the third area that the mayor is keeping a focus on and is a topic of every conversation I have with her is our capacity and ability to deliver projects small, medium and large. Vision zero, customer service and a focus on project delivery I have my hands full.

Vision Zero

David Alpert: Let's talk about Vision Zero first. JR asks, What is the most ambitious thing you are planning to do as part of Vision Zero? Would you support lowering the city speed limit? Eliminating right turns on red?

Leif Dormsjo: Well, those are two good issues to bring some clarity to, and then I can talk about some things that we're focused on. Most people don't appreciate that the citywide default speed limit is 25 MPH. It's only in rare exceptions that it would be higher or lower. One thing that many cities are looking at is slow zones. Lower speeds will help us drive fatalities and life threatening injuries to zero.

Leif Dormsjo: Regarding rights on red, the biggest factor in intersection crashes is during green. It is green permissive rights when there are pedestrians in the crosswalks. There are red light cameras and those can be configured to ensure there is a stop before a right on red. But the issue of intersection safety requires more attention that just right on red.

Leif Dormsjo: The soft right is a part of the L'Enfant plan, means that a driver's visibility is very limited. We have to think about the total view of intersections to make sure we do everything we can about safety.

David Alpert: And just for people who might not know, could you clarify what a "soft right" is?

Leif Dormsjo: It's a diagonal right turn. So what that means is that we have a lot of turning movements where vehicles are not really required to come to a stop to make a hard right turn. And so we're doing some things right now to extend the curbs, and make those turns more linear—a hard linear turn—so that will avoid and mitigate some of the issues that we've had with people moving through intersections too quickly, and not being aware that there's pedestrians in the crosswalk, which is a very dangerous circumstance.

David Alpert: Thanks. And I know you wanted to talk about the broader Vision Zero, well, vision.

Leif Dormsjo: I think we have some great ideas in traffic engineering, but strengthening our alliances with stakeholders in education and enforcement is a smart thing to do. I have already had conversation with agency counterparts to improve our efforts in the safety front. I am talking to the attorney general about impaired driving.

Leif Dormsjo: Impaired driving is a huge contributor to crashes, fatalities and injuries. We have some laws on the books that are solid, but we can make some improvements there to focus on habitual impaired driving. I'm told there are a very limited number of ignition lock participants in Maryland and that was a big push on drunk driving and impaired driving and I know there were issues on access to work. Whether that's red light runners or speeders, those should be top priorities.

Leif Dormsjo: With regard to education, I think younger folks are one place where we can get some benefits. For one, younger drivers tend to get in more crashes. I think we need to spend more time preparing people for the privilege of driving. I've been talking with the head of the motor vehicle administration about that, and she's been a huge supporter. That education can come in the form of reaching out to college students who are pedestrians.

Leif Dormsjo: We have some issues around American University in particular. There's a concern, one I think is valid, that many of those students are not paying attention while crossing the street. That's something I spent some time on around the University of Maryland in College Park; there were many incidents along Route 1 in College Park.

Leif Dormsjo: Enforcement and education are certainly important and we will do everything we can on the engineering side for new roads and redesigned roads.

Bus lane studies

David Alpert: In our comment thread from last week asking for question submissions, one question stood out above all others that was asked by at least ten commenters. They all wanted to know about the 16th Street bus lane study. There have been multiple studies about this in the past.

David Alpert: As RDHD asked: How will the new 16th St. bus study differ from or otherwise provide new information that the already completed studies did not offer? What was lacking in those studies?

Leif Dormsjo: I've run into a number of instances where we had multiple studies of the same issue and I find that as frustrating as the rest of the city. With 16th Street, we had a lot of high level analysis of travel demand and the make up of traffic along that corridor and the time components of traffic congestion and delay. There wasn't treatment of operation al issues that are the root causes of issues and delays.

Leif Dormsjo: The next study is to take our work to the ground level so we have a better sense of bus bunching delays that are occurring at bus stops, traffic signal issues, and whether or not we can create some priority or preemption with traffic signalization. I think it's a refinement of the work that's been done before.

Leif Dormsjo: I certainly agree that we need to a better job of moving from study, to technical feasibility, into environmental review, into a design solution, so we have tangible results. That pattern of having study after study—I'm talking to our team about that, because I don't think it's helpful when we have so many.

David Alpert: Many readers hope you can achieve that and commented or tweeted about their frustration with endless studies.

Bicycle infrastructure

David Alpert: Here's a question from Councilmember David Grosso's staff.

Leif Dormsjo: We've got a solid work plan for 2015 in terms of the construction of more bike lanes, be they fully protected or simply shared lanes, and we've got a lot of work in the pipeline with the trail projects. There's been some really terrific success in both the bike lane program and the trail program and we are coming to a phase of our work that will require more consensus building and technical work to achieve high quality results. I agree that a lot of the low hanging fruit has already been plucked, but we need to maintain an aggressive approach to bike maintenance and safety.

Leif Dormsjo: But many of the areas where we have that final block or next connection to make involved stakeholders whether they be the federal government or businesses or third parties that own property. It will require a different skill set with regard to how the department conducts itself. We're not lowering our target in terms of increasing the bikeable mileage within the city limits, but the more simple, easier-to-implement solutions are not available to us any longer.

David Alpert: To tie together those two last points, how do you reconcile the fact that it's now going to be even more difficult to do some things, with what you were talking about before that it takes so many studies to get anything done already?

Leif Dormsjo: Studies typically take about 12 months, but if we're talking about a federally designated roadway—as many of the roads in Washington are—the environmental process of going through an inventory of impacts to air, other environmental resources, community and safety concerns, that process can last from 12-24 months. And then design of improvements can take 12-24 months, and then you're in the actual implementation and construction phase. One of the imbalances is that we have a lot of study work. You can perform five studies in one year, but you can't deliver five projects in one year.

Leif Dormsjo: In the course of some really good planning, whether MoveDC or small area plans or other plans, we have raised expectations that we can deliver solutions—and that's good—but the timeframe to bring those improvements online can be extended based on the type of project we're talking about. A transportation project lifecycle is five to seven years.

Leif Dormsjo: And then we'll see a lot of improvement once those projects are brought to fruition. The key is to get our team and program set up so we can be more predictable in the delivery process. That's an area ripe for improvement. Ideally, we can move seamlessly from one project to the next. Then we can shorten the phases of these projects to the period of time that allows us to responsibly look at everything that's required but no dwell too long on it.

Leif Dormsjo: Getting the whole program aligned so that we're getting repeatable successes—as we take projects all the way from concept to completion—is a re-engineering effort that is underway here, and I'm excited because I think that's what people have been looking for.

David Alpert: Thanks. On another specific bicycling-related topic, Andrew Schmadel asked: 1) When can we expect Capital Bikeshare to resume adding new bikes and stations? Have the supply issues been resolved, and are there any plans to prevent a similar issue from occurring in the future?

Leif Dormsjo: In the bikeshare program, we have a relationship with a contractor and so one of the challenges recently is the financial difficulties that contractor has run into. There was a bankruptcy that impacted Capital Bikeshare. As they worked through that, we will have more clarity about how they expand and improve their program in the District. We don't have a timeline for that.

Leif Dormsjo: We continue to have one of the strongest programs in the country and we are able to—I think because of the structure—we're able to do some things that keep the rates affordable and work with memberships that you couldn't do if it were a franchisee model.


David Alpert: One other travel mode I know everyone wants to hear about: The streetcar.

Leif Dormsjo: We're in the process of developing a master schedule for the launch of the project. We had the benefit of the APTA peer review, and they issued some preliminary recommendations several weeks ago and they're finalizing their report now, which I expect shortly.

Leif Dormsjo: I want to compare their report to the work that we've done internally, in terms of a risk adjusted schedule. At that time, I think it would be appropriate to commit to a public opening date. I want to get the full benefit of the APTA peer review before we set expectations with regard to the project.

Leif Dormsjo: We have been working diligently to correct some of the operational and technical issues that were highlighted in the APTA peer review and I'm very pleased with the progress that we're making and we have done a lot to strengthen our team and make sure we have the right group to bring the project into passenger service.

David Alpert: Someone else asked about communication around the streetcar (some of which I know took place before you were here). JR asked, "Why didn't DDOT tell the public what was and is holding up the streetcar? I learned a lot from Martin Di Caro's reports on WAMU, which all seemed like information DDOT could have given to the public themselves." Will there be more communication going forward?

Leif Dormsjo: Well, first of all, the information that Martin Di Caro reported on was public information and he just did a better job of reporting than his competitors. He's a good reporter. Peer review is something we've disclosed as will the final report that they're working on right now.

Leif Dormsjo: I completely agree with the suggestion that we be open and informative and transparent as information is brought forward. I've been very clear about some of the issues about the legacy program we've inherited. I've spent hours in front of the city council testifying before the city council and it's there in transcripts. Looking forward, there will be legislative oversight and robust disclosure and availability to the press so people know what's going on.

David Alpert: August 4 asked: "And if the streetcar ever starts running, will it be extended to Gerogetown and become really useful?"

Leif Dormsjo: As the mayor stated in her State of the District address, our commitment is to take the necessary steps to expand the streetcar service from Benning Road Metro in Ward 7, all the way across the east-west corridor of the District, to Georgetown in Ward 2.

David Alpert: It doesn't have funding in the 6-year capital budget, however. What will it take to make that extended line possible?

Leif Dormsjo: There is funding in the six-year capital budget. There's $335 million for the streetcar project along with the bulk of the funding for the H Street bridge replacement so we have a very significant funding commitment in the mayor's funding proposal to Council. So right now we're in the process of bringing the relevant components of the extension to 30% design.

Leif Dormsjo: When we move into the more detailed design work that will allow us to refine the budget and the schedule. We will work with Amtrak and Union Station Redevelopment Corporation to get the connection with the railyard there on the H Street bridge.

Leif Dormsjob We have some environmental work to get to the point where we can further refine the scope should and budget for the overall project but I would say that there's a very strong commitment reflected in the mayor's budget for this type of transit initiative.

David Alpert: Let's talk a bit more about safety and Vision Zero. A few people on Twitter were nervous about the way you focused on impaired driving. I wanted to give you a chance to follow up.

Leif Dormsjo: Well first of all, maybe I was a little bit mistaken in assuming most people knew how strong the District's commitment to speed enforcement and road geometry have been. The District's speed enforcement has been one of the most aggressive in the country and there's no retreat in that.

Leif Dormsjo: Speed enforcement has to be at the top of your list in terms of safety focus. I believe, based on the plans that we have within our design capital program, that we're doing a tremendous amount in improving corridors from an engineering perspective.

Leif Dormsjo: Maryland Avenue is a good example. It's been perceived as perpetual study, but we're moving into a block-by-block design process to reduce the travel lanes along Maryland Avenue and improve the intersection characteristics and safety features of that corridor.

Leif Dormsjo: So I agree with the questioner: Speed enforcement, highway geometry are key tools in the tool box. I was just saying that with my experience in Maryland on an annual basis, the department was working with the safety committee to expand relevant laws and statutes to cover impaired driving and I think that needs to be part of the continuing dialogue in the District.

Leif Dormsjo: In many jurisdictions, the trial attorneys have a very robust lobby and will quiet those conversations. And being the son of two trial attorneys, I'm not afraid to push back on trial attorneys.

David Alpert: Thanks very much. I know some readers had wanted to hear about Maryland Avenue (like the below tweet), so thanks for touching on that.

David Alpert: A few people asked about other neighborhood-specific safety challenges: Ward Circle, Florida Ave NE, and South Dakota Avenue.

Leif Dormsjo: Ward Circle: I had spoken to that indirectly earlier in the chat when I was talking about American University. So we're in the process now of trying to achieve some consensus with the community to improve the crosswalks, the signage, signals. There's particular concern on nighttime conditions and visibility through that area with so many students walking to and from campus facilities.

Leif Dormsjo: So that is an area where we want to try to do as much as we can on the traffic engineering side. We work with school officials to make sure students are paying attention to motorists and people aren't looking at their smartphones or have their earbuds in and don't understand what's going on around them.

Leif Dormsjo: Florida Avenue is an area where we've done some study and we need to move into the more formal environmental review process because it's designated as a federal highway. We need to go through the steps of taking account of what impacts would be caused by a roadway project there so that when we work on projects that have federal funding in them.

Leif Dormsjo: We have to study an area as exhaustively as we do, but he who has the gold makes the rules, and in this case the federal government has the gold that we're looking for, so we're going to make sure that we get through that environmental process responsibly. Maryland Avenue is ahead of that—it got a categorical exclusion from a much longer environmental process.

Leif Dormsjo: That might be the result for Florida Avenue, but you can't predict what the federal interest and triggers might be. It has to be neutral from the beginning. It's clear that you have issues with narrow sidewalks, challenging slopes, heavy traffic demand through that corridor, important community stakeholders like Gallaudet University, a growing number of residents and retail shoppers at Union Market, layered on top of some busy bike lanes in that area.

Leif Dormsjo: So you've got an intersection of a lot of important transportation issues along Florida Avenue and we have to methodically move through that process if we're slow to make improvements. A lot of the development and travel demands through that corridor is going to be way far ahead of anything we're able to do to the physical infrastructure.

Leif Dormsjo: I think that's a great example of where we'll have to make some down-payments on time and money to build something of permanent benefit.

David Alpert: Let's talk about the Circulator. 3 people asked about expansions—and different ones, which perhaps illustrates the challenge.

charlie: Where is DDOT getting the new hybrid Circulator buses? When is the expansion to U st?
drumz: When can we expect circulator service on the mall?
GP Steve: When will the Circulator expand to the Cathedral?

Can you talk about the Circulator vision and plan?

Leif Dormsjo: Sure. The Circulator program has been very successful over its decade of existence and we want to make sure we continue to invest in it and it's a high quality service that has a clear brand recognition and maintaining the 10 minute service headways is important to that.

Leif Dormsjo: We've run into some issues because the fleet has aged. We have replacement vehicles that are in the pipeleine. Right now our fleet is 49 vehicles—29 are beyond their useful life—so the next priority is taking the new flyer vehicles, which are manufactured in Minnesota, and accomplish some replacements so we don't have as many replacement issues with the fleet and traffic conditions and development, and making sure that we can really stabilize the performance, the next call on the vehicles is to selectively introduce vehicles into a route to make sure that the quality of service is really of a high standard.

Leif Dormsjo: We do have an expansion planned for the National Mall, and that's something that you should stay tuned for. We're going to be making some news on that in the coming days. We have the vehicles for that, and have the operators hired, in the process of going through their training to be ready to launch that this summer.

Leif Dormsjo: In the order of priority, we're replacing the aged vehicles that have done their service. We'll look to stabilize some of those routes—we want to arrest that schedule deterioration. Then, expand the Nationall Mall service—we think that will have great ridership and that's going to provide a really great service to institutions that get so many visitors.

Leif Dormsjo: And we'll look at some route extensions: the Cathedral connection and the extension from Navy Yard to Waterfront. That's the hierarchy of how we're thinking of the new vehicles.

David Alpert: Ask you talk about all of the things that have to be done to essentially ensure you are doing service better, what comes to mind is that this sounds great, but also, at the same time, continues to mean more steps before service can start. Is this a short-term situation, in that you have to clean up some messes but the future, leaner, DDOT will be able to launch service more numbly and quickly, or has DDOT (and maybe residents) just been unrealistic in the past about how long it takes to start up a new bus or Circulator or streetcar line?

Leif Dormsjo: I think it's probably a bit of both. I think the department has a responsibility to address both issues. There are things we can do to improve how we function as a business. I'm seeing opportunities across the board. But in transit, we've been overly reliant on consultants and outside contractors. I'm purposefully trying to improve our in-house expertise so we can benefit from outside professionals—but in a way that protects our financial investments, responsibility to the public and the mission to our efforts.

Leif Dormsjo: I agree with the comment that DDOT needs to do more to improve how we tee up these projects for delivery. That's getting better, I think. It's growing a team and strengthening our team. I'm excited about that.

Leif Dormsjo: I think the public has had expectations that need to be informed by facts, and by good reliable information form the government, and that is at the end of the day our responsibility as public servants. So, I think that being candid, being clear, being informative about what can be done, what can't be done, what needs to be corrected before you move forward may not be as emotionally satisfying as a hollow pledge to do something, but an earnest, sincere, realistic pledge is what the public ultimately is looking for, and that's really the attribute I want our team to embrace—to be more open, to be more clear, but to be realistic about what we're able to accomplish.

Leif Dormsjo: I don't think that it's a lack of ambition or achievement that will affect our work. I think it's a matter of not trying to say popular things so that people will applaud our press releases. We want people to applaud our results.

David Alpert: As we wrap up, I wanted to ask one other question that several people brought up: MoveDC.

Chris Slatt asked, "Will DDOT be implementing MoveDC or will all of that extensive community engagement be tossed out the window?"

Or Randall M: "We have something called MoveDC. We've spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours developing it. Will the current DDOT Director and Mayor implement all, some or none of it?"

What's the future of MoveDC?

Leif Dormsjo: I think the direct answer is that we're going to implement some of it. That plan was the product of great community engagement and there's no doubt that it established a blueprint for the city in terms of planning for the future growth and travel needs for the population and its community and its businesses. It was a plan. It's not funded. It was not constrained by any budget and therefore it's not going to self-actualize.

Leif Dormsjo: We need to be very thoughtful about which elements of the plan can be prioritize and put in the right sequence. There are billions of dollars of investments called for in the plan, but the last time I checked, I didn't see billions of dollars flowing into the DDOT budget or the WMATA budget. I think that's a classic example of needing to be very clear and direct about what factors contribute to the feasibility or practicality of getting things done.

Leif Dormsjo: I think there are some great elements to the MoveDC plan. It shouldn't be abandoned. We should be thinking about how we strategically achieve as much of the program as we can—and think about how that process worked and think about future community engagement. There is a need to continue to refresh that planning but we need to have a relevant period of time to compare our future planning efforts. That is something that as we look at projects or issues that come up in our day to day work.

Leif Dormsjo: As we reorganize our capital program, we ask, "how does this fit into MoveDC? Is this helping us advance some of the priorities spelled out in MoveDC?" As a blueprint and reference point, it's a great, great product.

David Alpert: Thanks. Just wanted to hit a few more specifics people asked about.

Corey H and tondo wanted to hear about the Southeast Boulevard. DC just reopened a freeway segment while a study is or was underway to put in a boulevard (and maybe some development) instead. Is that going to happen? How are DDOT and the Office of Planning interacting on this?

Leif Dormsjo: That's a great question and a great issue. OP has been doing some good work in terms of alternatives analysis for that stretch of the freeway. I think the work that DDOT had done previously was more limited in its scope. It was simply looking at that highway from a transportation perspective and I'm glad OP has gotten engaged because their charge is to broaden the view to access to the river, potential development within that area, and ways to address the CSX right-of-way, which is a real barrier to the community.

Leif Dormsjo: I think we'll work with them in partnership to complete conceptual planning and move that project into the more technically driven federal process. The work that's being done now is really a movement away from the more transportation specific work that our department had done in the context of the 11th Street Bridge project. It's a good sign that our agency has studied it and is open to a different way of thinking about it. I think this will be one of many examples of our agency working with OP to look at a more holistic approach.

David Alpert: Final question, from Jasper: "When will the Georgetown-Rosslyn gondola open?"

Leif Dormsjo: I think this is a project that right now is under consideration for some feasibility funding with the Council. I know there is an effort to pool some resources with Virginia to get through the basic tests of whether something like this could be done. I think I'll have to wait and see how the Council reacts to this proposal. But in the spirit of being multi-modal I would say that we should always be open to decent ideas as long as they effectively move people at the right cost. I've not worked on a gondola project but that's not to say that I won't in the future.

David Alpert: And that's all the time we have. Thanks so much for spending the time to talk to us!

Leif Dormsjo: Thank you, thanks for coming.

David Alpert: Thank also to all of the readers who submitted questions in comments and on Twitter; to our hardworking team of typists, Eric, Tracey, Payton, and Abigail, and everyone for reading!

David Alpert: Please post your thoughts and reactions on the comment thread for this post. And stay tuned for more live chats in the future!

Hogan stalls on the Purple Line, calls it too expensive

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has still made no decision on the Purple Line (or, if he has, is refusing to announce one) while calling the project's current costs "not acceptable."

Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr.

Hogan had been expected to decide around "mid-May," but told the Washington Post Friday that a decision would come "in the next month sometime." This further pushes off the possible schedule for private bids and then construction, which is now totally uncertain.

Hogan did say the cost would have to be "dramatically lower" to convince him to move forward. He said that "two miles of [the line] would fund our entire school construction for the entire state."

This argument about fiscal poverty rings very hollow when Hogan just lowered tolls across the state, costing about $54 million a year.

Since the Purple Line is $153 million per mile (for one-time construction), the school construction Hogan says costs the same as two miles of the line also costs only six years' worth of the foregone tolls. Hogan could have said he'd keep the tolls high for six years to fund school construction.

The line would actually cost the state of Maryland relatively little; the federal government will provide $900 million, Montgomery and Prince George's $220 million, and hundreds of millions from the private bidders. Two miles of the Purple Line cost would only pay for school construction if schools suddenly became eligible for federal transit funding and private bidders offered to foot some of the bill.

But what we're hearing is a sadly common refrain among anti-transit, so-called "fiscally conservative" politicians. They talk big about how important it is to save money, but really mean saving money by cutting things they don't like, usually in particular things that are associated with denser, walkable, perhaps more liberal areas.

Hogan's priorities are apparently, drivers first, then students, then transit riders.

Likewise, Hogan is choosing not to give credence to studies that show significant economic growth benefits for the Purple Line.

Pete Rahn, Hogan's transportation secretary and someone who at least appears to be making some effort to find a path to approval, said after talking with bidders, he believed the project could happen for about ten percent less money. Hogan hasn't said if that is "dramatic" enough for him.

In the Post interview, Hogan also talked about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whom Hogan considers a mentor. Christie also came into office and almost immediately canceled a major transit project that had been in the planning stages for many years. New Jersey lost a lot of federal funding, and worse yet, there's now no redundancy for commuter trains coming into Manhattan; shutting down one tunnel at a time for needed repairs will cripple commuting across the Hudson.

Hogan seems poised to make a similarly short-sighted blunder for Maryland. He himself summed it up best to the Post while talking about another matter: "It's challenging to change the mind-sets of folks that believe very strongly in what they're talking about."

We're talking to DDOT head Leif Dormsjo on Monday. What do you want to ask him?

Leif Dormsjo, Director of the District Department of Transportation, will join Greater Greater Washington for a live chat on Monday, May 18, from noon to 1 pm. What do you want to hear about?

Leif Dormsjo. Image from DDOT.

DDOT is responsible for the city's roadways, trails, traffic signals, bus shelters, street trees, and more. It manages the DC Circulator bus system and, if it ever opens, the streetcar. Dormsjo is also one of the District's representatives on the WMATA Board.

As with our chat with Muriel Bowser during the election, I'll interview Dormsjo by posing questions all of you have suggested and some of my own. You can suggest questions in the comments here and on Twitter on Monday using the hashtag #ggwchat.

A crack team of typists will furiously transcribe Dormsjo's responses so you can read them. Follow @ggwash to see a reminder of the chat and key responses as it's going on.

Our transit systems are falling apart. What can we do?

Friday, news broke that WMATA could be unable to repay its loans by June. Monday, Blue, Orange, and Silver line service melted down. Then an Amtrak train derailed Tuesday night, killing six.

What's going on with our trains?

Photo by Make Lemons on Flickr.

Certainly, money is a big part. Amtrak officials have been warning for years that the infrastructure is falling apart due to lack of funds for maintenance. It's a sad, tragic, but perhaps not so surprising turn of events that a train will derail if maintenance is ignored (and there have been several more minor derailments recently).

Metro's infrastructure, too, is in bad shape after decades of neglect while the region's governments let a brand-new subway system degrade. It needs repairs all over the place, and while the agency works on repairing one set of things, like the track circuits that led to the 2009 Red Line crash, other things don't get the attention they need, like radios or arcing insulators.

It's not sustainable to lurch from one crisis to another, never getting to work on the second-tier, but still high-priority, items.

Everyone in frustrated with WMATA

Still, from talking to government officials, business leaders, advocates, and riders, all express how frustrated they are at trying to work with WMATA. Just look at Friday's meeting with the DC Council on the financial crisis. DeWitt said insolvency could be just a month away. Jack Evans said there is "cause for concern." Corbett Price said, "This company has been building on a sandy foundation for a long period of time now." But "Transit officials ... said Metro could scrape together" the money.

The Federal Transit Administration put WMATA in a "penalty box" last year because the agency allegedly wasn't properly documenting expenses, awarded some no-bid contracts, and paid some people improperly. This means that auditors won't sign off on the agency's books, which is precipitating this crisis.

Clearly, WMATA screwed up, big time. But a number of officials who aren't inside either WMATA or the FTA do say privately that they feel the FTA is also being far too demanding. To implement (strict) federal procurement rules, they have layered on more and more regulations which put a tremendous burden on already-strapped transit agencies. FTA officials would say they had to take this step with WMATA, but it's worth asking the deeper question: is our federal transit bureaucracy also stifling transit in its zeal for regulation?

Even so, this doesn't excuse WMATA. Yes, they don't have enough money. Yes, they probably labor under the heavy yoke of federal overseers. Yes, the infrastructure is in bad shape since long before any of the current people were here.

But we don't hear about these problems from the agency. Instead, we hear about them when they get so bad that the agency can't deny their existence any more. Officials said last summer they thought the FTA problem would get cleared up in a month or two. I'm sure they hoped so, but always putting on a brave face to the public just makes supporters feel betrayed when it turns out the problem is far worse.

The same goes for escalator repair projects where the reliability is less than promised, cell phone service which takes longer than promised, delays which are worse than promised, and much more. It's like people think if they just don't fess up to problems, they'll go away. They won't.

And now, officials in DC, Maryland, and Virginia don't trust WMATA, nor do most riders. That makes it even harder to come together to find a solution to the problem.

I discussed many of these issues Tuesday with Bruce DePuyt on his show NewsTalk Tuesday morning (other than the Amtrak derailment, which hadn't happened yet.) You can watch our interview below:

"Car Free A to Z" compares your commute options

How long would it take to bike to work? Walk to transit? Drive to transit? Drive the whole way? Use Capital Bikeshare? What about Bikeshare to transit? A new tool lets you compare these options.

Tools like Google Maps already let you see how to get from one place to another by transit, walking, biking, and driving. But this new tool, called Car Free A to Z, thinks deeper and lets you explore trips that combine more than one mode.

It also puts all of your choices on one easy-to-read map, labeling each mode with a different color and style of line so you can see them all side by side.

The above map shows the trip from an area in my neighborhood to Arlington Mobility Lab's offices, where the idea for the project was born.

Car Free A to Z can also help people who live in suburban areas find options that don't use a car or don't entirely rely on the car. This example from Vienna to the Navy Yard, for instance, shows buses to two Metro lines, biking to Metro, and driving.

For each option it shows how someone could save money (on gas and parking) and/or time. As you can see, it stylizes things like the transit routes, as a transit map does, to help the user focus on the transfer points instead of the irrelevant twists and turns of the transit line.

Building Car Free A to Z

I spent a few months working in 2011-2012 with a group of coders on a Transit Tech fellowship, which came out of a discussion with Arlington County Commuter Services head Chris Hamilton.

Eric Fidler built a prototype of real-time arrival screens and Andy Chosak made a demonstration program called Transit Near Me.

Matt Caywood later turned Eric's prototype into the company TransitScreen, while Kevin Webb and his company Conveyal created Car Free A to Z out of some of the concepts from Transit Near Me, and other ideas we brainstormed, with the help of a grant from Virginia DRPT I wrote as the fellowship program was wrapping up.

The program is still in beta and still has a few rough edges. A trip plan from my in-laws to our house, for instance, suggested all of the right routings that I'd think about, but also threw in a couple of weird ones, like riding Metro one stop beyond ours and then having a longer walk back. But it's important to not expect software like this to be perfect, especially since it's not from a huge company. And you can submit any bad or strange bugs to the team so they can improve the program.

Car Free A to Z builds on open source technology including OpenTripPlanner, a routing engine that Conveyal originally created for Portland TriMet but which anyone can use in their own software. This means that not only does our region get a useful tool, but also people building future tools also can benefit, and so does the riding public.

Mary Cheh wants to change the definition of assaulting a police officer. Here's why that's important.

On Tuesday, Ward 3 DC Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill to reform some elements of criminal justice procedure. It would change the law around "assaulting a police officer," strengthen prosecutors' duty to turn over evidence to defendants, and other things. Why does Cheh feel these laws need reforming, and what will her bill do?

Image by chriswhite313 on YouTube.

First, a quick quiz: Which of the following would be considered "assaulting a police officer"?

  1. Punching a police officer in the face.
  2. Standing behind a gate holding it closed while an officer tries to push it open.
  3. Sitting in your car grabbing the steering wheel while an officer tries to drag you out of your car.
  4. Standing at a Metro station with your hands in your pockets, refusing to take them out of your pockets when an officer commands you to.
  5. Being a Metro passenger and having transit police drag you from your wheelchair and smash your face into the ground.

If you guessed just #1, you are wrong.

All of these are cases which happened in recent years and where people were charged with Assaulting a Police Officer (APO). The DC Court of Appeals upheld APO convictions in #1, #2, and #3. The US Attorney argued #4 was APO, but the appeals court said no. In #5, charges were dropped after the incident was caught on video.

This post revises and expands on one from 2011 on this issue, when incident #5, above, was in the news.

When assault means assault

#1 is obvious. If you do that you can be charged with a felony APO. DC law § 22-405, "Assault on member of police force, campus or university special police, or fire department," reads:

(c) A person who violates subsection (b) of this section and causes significant bodily injury to the law enforcement officer, or commits a violent act that creates a grave risk of causing significant bodily injury to the officer, shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years or fined not more than $10,000, or both.
But the law contains another kind of APO, a misdemeanor, which most of us would probably not consider "assaulting" a police officer. It's more like what we think of as "resisting arrest."
(b) Whoever without justifiable and excusable cause, assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer on account of, or while that law enforcement officer is engaged in the performance of his or her official duties shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 180 days or fined not more than $1,000, or both.
To be guilty of misdemeanor APO, someone might need to only "oppose" a law enforcement officer without cause. Courts have drawn a distinction between "passive" resistance, like slumping to the ground when being arrested in a protest, versus "active" resistance against the officer's actions. That's why the court overturned a conviction in Ava Howard v. United States (#4 in the quiz), where a trial court only found Howard guilty of refusing to sit down and take her hands out of her pockets.

Riot image from 1000 Words /

When it's really just resisting arrest

But in other cases, the Court of Appeals has upheld APO convictions even without evidence of actions that the average person might consider "assault." In Dolson v. United States, Dolson ran from police and went to his own house, where he went inside a chain link fence. Dolson pushed the gate closed while the officer tried to push it open. The Court of Appeals upheld Dolson's conviction just based on this action, finding it constituted misdemeanor APO.

In Coghill v. United States, the court upheld a conviction for misdemeanor APO. Coghill was stopped by police while driving a car and refused to let police search it. He got out of the car at their instruction, but at some point got back in. Officers tried to drag him out of the car, but he braced himself against the floorboards and gripped the steering wheel.

The court held that it counts as "assaulting a police officer" just to be "actively interposing some obstacle that precluded the officer from questioning him or attempting to arrest him" and upheld Coghill's conviction.

Why does this matter?

If someone is convicted of misdemeanor APO, a future employer might look at their record and think they're quite a violent person if they assaulted a police officer. But they might have just panicked and resisted, without even touching or hitting an officer.

If the police respond to someone resisting arrest by savagely beating him or her on the ground, as has happened in some places, it can be very difficult to file a civil rights lawsuit with a conviction for "assaulting a police officer," even if it's again not really what most people consider "assaulting."

In one incident, New Jersey police beat a Rutgers student who was lying on the ground, all the while yelling "stop resisting." And in 2011, a shocking video showed transit police roughly dragging Dwight Harris, a homeless man in a wheelchair, out of his chair. They charged him with APO, but dropped the charges after the video surfaced.

It's important to keep in mind that some people really do hit police officers, and many who do should be prosecuted. Legally, "assault" also covers more than just physically punching; it includes spitting on someone or threatening to cause physical injury, for example.

Dolson, for instance, did end up hitting an officer in the face and breaking his nose later on, after the chain link fence shoving match. Neighbors say this was self-defense and the officer was choking Dolson. Without video, we can't really know.

If there hadn't been video of Dwight Harris, the charges might have stuck, too. This is the same pattern we've been seeing in high-profile cases around the country, where the presence of bystanders with camera phones belies a police claim of why they had to hit, shoot, or even kill someone.

(Disclosure: My wife works for the DC Public Defender Service. She did not work on any of the cases listed in this article, and nothing here represents the official opinion of the Public Defender Service.)

Cheh's bill makes APO into two offenses

Among other changes, Mary Cheh's bill deletes the "assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer" language. Instead, it creates two, separate misdemeanor offenses, both punishable to the same degree (up to $1,000 or six months in prison).

One, Assaulting a Police Officer, would get narrower. Instead of "assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer..." the law would read just "knowingly assaults a law enforcement officer." Someone accused of this would also have the right to a jury trial.

But the bill also adds language saying, "A person may not intentionally resist a lawful arrest; or prevent an individual who the person has reason to know is a law enforcement officer from making or attempting to make a lawful arrest or detention of another person."

It'd still be illegal, and a misdemeanor, to resist arrest. However, this would only apply while an officer is trying to make a "lawful arrest," not at any time whatsoever as under current law.

That's not all

APO and resisting arrest represent just one of the sections of the bill. Another would codify and expand prosecutors' duty to turn over evidence, especially evidence that could help the defendant. One section would make more information available to the Office of Police Complaints, which handles—you guessed it—complaints against police.

Another would set stricter standards for how police get eyewitnesses to make identifications, ensuring that if the witness is looking at a set of photos, for instance, the process doesn't unfairly bias the witness toward picking out the person the police have in mind.

This bill is just one of many that councilmembers introduced at the latest legislative session. Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) now chairs the judiciary committee and will decide whether to hold a hearing on the bill. If he does (and he ought to), prosecutors and/or police may oppose some provisions, and the legislative process will determine what, if anything, becomes law.

Mayor Bowser wants to raise DC's parking tax. Here's who would win and who would lose out

In her annual budget, Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed fully funding DC's share of WMATA's costs. Part of that cost would come from a higher sales tax on parking garages and lots. Will the DC Council go along? If it does, who will pay more?

Photo by Trakker on Flickr.

Under Bowser's budget, the tax would rise from 18% to 22%, raising $9.9 million out of the $30.8 million by which DC's payment for Metro transit service will rise this year.

Bowser also wants to raise the general sales tax from 5.75% to 6% and use that money to fight homelessness.

Bowser's staff compiled a set of comparable cities and their parking taxes.

  • San Francisco: 25%
  • Chicago: 22% weekdays, 20% weekends
  • Baltimore: 19%
  • Pittsburgh: 31%
  • Miami: 20%
  • New York: 18.5%
The new rate would put DC around the middle of the pack among cities on this list.

Who pays if rates rise?

Most analysis of the tax, like that from DC's CFO, has assumed that parking rates will rise, and commuters will be the ones paying. Some arguments for the tax cite this as a plus.

For example, unlike many taxes, this will affect both District residents and non-District residents who commute into DC. Past DDOT analysis has estimated that about two-thirds of the vehicles on DC streets during rush hour are from non-residents. Metro service, which the tax money will help fund, also benefits people who live all across the region and not just DC residents.

Also, the federal government subsidizes parking by letting federal and private-sector workers (if their employers offer the program) pay for up to $250 a month of parking out of pre-tax salary. (Sadly, that figure is now only $130 for transit riders).

This means that if garages raise their rates in response to the rising tax, many people will not feel the full brunt of the increase. The money is going to Metro to compensate, in part, for the revenue WMATA lost when the federal transit benefit dropped to $130 in January 2014 and some long-distance riders stopped riding Metro.

Metro riders weathered a price increase of 3% for rail and 9% for bus (and double for bus-and-rail riders). A 4% increase in parking costs is wholly in line with this.

Car cost image from Shutterstock.

But... will rates rise?

This analysis assumes that the tax will drive up parking prices. Economics 101 says that if you impose a tax, it will increase the price of the good, lowering the quantity demanded. Will that happen here?

The parking market is a little different than most markets. For one thing, at least for daily parkers, garages generally post prices and collect cash payments in round numbers which include the tax. This is different from the way it works at a store or restaurant. There's incentive for the garages to keep their prices at a round number of post-tax cash dollars.

Also, parking operators are in the business to make money, so aren't they already charging as much as the market will bear? In other words, if they could raise their prices when there's a new tax, why don't they just raise their prices now regardless?

Well, isn't that true of all markets? But in most markets, competition drives down the prices of goods. If you're making more money than a small profit over and above the cost of providing the service, someone else will enter the market too and try to undercut you.

Parking isn't really a competitive market. In the short run, the supply of parking is absolutely fixed, and there isn't empty land to turn into new parking in central DC. Also, many people also only really want to park in the building where they work, are going to the doctor, etc. and aren't shopping around. That's especially true when a company is buying parking for executives.

These factors make the parking market closer to a monopoly and/or oligopoly, and consequently, the pricing is more at the level that maximizes total revenue in the entire market, a level that's higher than the perfect competition price.

Therefore, there's some reason to conclude that garages already charge as much as people will pay, and can't easily raise rates a few percent.

The other possibility is that garages actually could charge more, but nobody wants to be the first; with the tax, it will trigger a wave of price increases.

A garage in Phiadelphia. Photo by John Donges on Flickr.

Philly parking operators and an expert agree

When Philadelphia was debating the level for its parking tax, the parking operators commissioned an economic analysis that concluded that the burden would fall on them rather than on consumers. It says:

In the short run, a change in the parking tax has no impact on the parking rates paid by the consumer. Consequently, the parking facility operator pays the entire amount of a parking tax increase. Parking facility operators face the same short run problem every day—how to maximize revenue.

In other words, parking operators are already charging as much as they can and the price consumers pay is determined by the number of spaces and the demand for parking, not by the level of taxes. The level of taxation and the other costs of operating a facility do not affect the price charged or the number of spaces available unless the costs are so great that the operator shuts down the facility.

In the long run the story is quite different. An increase in parking taxes discourages the rejuvenation of aging facilities, the replacement of facilities lost to development, and the construction of additional facilities. Thus higher parking taxes will decrease the long-run supply of parking, will increase the cost to the public of parking, and will decrease profits to owners of parking facilities.

Further, should an additional parking facility be required, a higher parking tax implies that the facility will require larger subsidies to develop than it would in the absence of the parking tax increase.

Rick Rybeck, a transportation consultant who previously worked as deputy associate director for transportation policy and planning at DDOT, agreed. He wrote in an email, "For the most part, parking operators are charging the maximum prices that they can charge for parking. If operators are charging the maximum possible price for parking at their location, an increase in sales price will not immediately increase the price of parking."

"Instead, the additional tax will reduce the net revenue to the operator, effectively reducing the base price for parking that the operators collect," Rybeck added. This would just come out of their profit margin, if that margin is large enough (or, depending how the parking deals with buildings are structured, out of the building owner's revenue from leasing the parking to an operator.)

In the long run, this might lead to less incentive to build parking, though DC is not Philadelphia. The Philadelphia report is saying that it might no longer be economically viable to take land in job center areas and use it for surface parking lots or garages. In and around downtown DC, that became the case long ago, and all new parking is underground.

Underground parking is already so expensive to build that developers build what they think is necessary to attract the kinds of tenants they want. According to testimony developers have given at zoning hearings, the revenue from the parking often doesn't cover the cost of building it (though, once it's built, they certainly want to try to sell it).

Maybe a slightly higher parking tax would lead a few companies to rethink exactly how much parking they really need in an area with plentiful transit service.

Jack Evans in a car. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

What will the DC Council do?

The tax increase first has to go to the Committee on Finance and Revenue, which Jack Evans chairs. He is one of the council's most anti-tax members, but is also now the DC Council's voting representative on the WMATA Board and a longtime supporter of keeping Metro strong.

At a recent hearing on WMATA, he said, "I am a big fan of Metro. I served on the baord back in the 1990s and I serve on it again today. Metro is responsible for moving a million people around the area and is critical to the well-being of the metropolitan area."

Evans may not like the tax, but if he wants his committee to remove it, he might have to find the money elsewhere in his committee's budget. More likely, he could try to convince Chairman Phil Mendelson to rearrange the budget in other areas to make up for the money. Evans also opposes the sales tax increase.

In an op-ed in the Georgetowner, Evans wrote,

What is my greatest concern in my initial review of the budget? Proposals to increase our sales and parking taxes. ... This latest [parking tax increase] is a triple whammy. When it's more expensive and difficult to find a parking spot, people are less likely to go out, spend money in the District and generate tax revenue.

Plus, most of these costs get passed on to residents, making it more expensive for people to park near their offices, restaurants and stores. More than a third of those parking in garages are District residents. So, in effect, we are taxing our own people again and again.

Evans makes one strange link when he talks about parking being "more expensive and difficult to find." In truth, more expensive does not mean more difficult. If anything, it's the reverse; more expensive parking means there's more available and it's easier to find. Also, when Evans says a third of affected drivers are District residents, even if drivers do pay more (which isn't certain), two-thirds come from outside DC.

Evans' committee will mark up its section of the DC budget on May 13. After that Chairman Mendelson will propose his own set of changes, and the council will vote on the budget on May 27th.

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.

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