The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by David Alpert

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 

Transit


Metro's "pick your own price" pass will become permanent. Here are 3 ways it can continue to grow.

WMATA's SelectPass, new this year, is a good deal for almost anyone who rides Metro daily. It's been a pilot program, but soon will likely be permanent.


For some of these folks, riding Metro may have gotten a lot cheaper when SelectPass came around. Now, it's going to stay that way. Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.

The pass lets you select a fare level (say, $3.25), pay one fixed price for the month, and then get unlimited rides that cost that amount or less. For more expensive rides, you only pay the amount beyond your set level. Our handy calculator helps you figure out what level is the best deal for you.

According to a presentation from WMATA, Metro now sells 3,700 SelectPasses a month, compared to just 400-1,000 a month for the long-standing unlimited rail pass which did not offer various price levels.

98% of pass users rate the pass at least a 7 out of 10. Low-income riders are even more likely to use the pass, representing 18% of pass users but just 12.8% of overall Metro riders. And WMATA estimates that the pass has slightly increased revenue while increasing ridership even more—just the point of a pass like this.

Michael Perkins has been pushing the idea for this pass since 2009 after getting the idea from Seattle's ORCA; the transit in that area, as with WMATA, has a variety of fare levels that makes the simple one-price-fits all pass not work.

You can currently get the pass at a fare level of any 25¢ increment from $2.25 to $4.00, plus the $5.90 max fare. Metro plans to add fare levels from $4.00 to $5.75 as well if the (quite old) faregate computers can handle it.

Beyond this, there are a few ways Metro could work to further improve this pass:

Make it easier to get with employer benefits

Many riders get transit through their employers, either where the employer pays for some transit fare for free, or as a pre-tax deducation from the employee's paycheck. Unfortunately, it can be a pain to get a Metro SelectPass this way if the employer or payroll personnel are not helpful or knowledgeable.

Employers set up benefits through a special (not very user-friendly) WMATA website. To get a pass, the benefits administrator has to specially designate the money for a pass rather than to go on your SmarTrip card as cash.

Many employers don't know how to do this. Other commenters have said that some employers use third party companies to process these benefits, and not all of those companies support the pass yet.

One GGWash contributor, who asked not to be named, writes, "I made a request with my employer when the pass first came out. I followed up a few months after that. I still haven't heard anything."

Metro either needs to work on making it possible to get the pass even with a non-savvy payroll department, or it should make the payroll process easier so employees can help their employers set up the pass correctly.

Allow riding rail or bus without extra cost

Right now, you can add on a bus pass to your Metro Select Pass for $45 more per month, which is like buying a month's worth of bus rides for just over $1 each. It's a good deal if your normal commute includes a bus ride, but it's not a good deal if some of your trips are on rail only and some of your trips are on bus only.

We want to encourage people to use the best transit mode for their needs. If the train isn't working well, people could switch to the bus; let them. Plus, for people who commute daily by rail, it's in Metro's best interest to let them take some midday bus trips for free when the buses aren't full.

Therefore, it would be better if the Metro Select Pass worked for either mode of transit, rail or bus, as long as it's less than your selected pass value.

Encourage more bulk purchases

Right now, if you're a student at American University, you (or, more likely, your parents) pay a $260 per semester mandatory fee, and you and all other students get an unlimited transit pass. This encourages more students to ride transit, while Metro can charge only $260 a semester because most students don't ride every day.

Beyond adding more universities, Metro could explore building a program to create such passes for other groups, including condo or apartment buildings, employers, and others. When passes are purchased in bulk, the price per pass can be reduced, and everyone is encouraged to use transit.

To get approval for new buildings in many jurisdictions, developers have to prepare Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plans, where they identify strategies to help residents or workers commute by more efficient means than driving. This often includes Bikeshare memberships, car-sharing memberships, TransitScreens in lobbies, and more. Passes could be a great amenity as well.

Congrats to Metro on building a successful new pass program! We look forward to seeing where this goes in the future.

Transit


A business group suggests Congress impose changes to Metro. Is that a good idea?

Congress should make WMATA unconstitutional, says a local business organization, unless DC, Maryland, and Virginia make changes to the agency. These could include smaller board of only transit experts instead of elected leaders, no arbitration for labor contracts, and a dedicated funding source.


Photo by Ben Schumin on Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5.

The idea comes from the Federal City Council, an organization of mostly business leaders and some other prominent civic individuals in Washington. Highly-respected former DC mayor Anthony Williams is its executive director.

Its chairman, Robert Flanagan of Clark Enterprises, and vice-chairman, W. Edward Walter of Host Hotels and Resorts, signed an op-ed in the Washington Post on Sunday. They suggest Congress withdraw its consent to the WMATA compact, the interstate agreement between DC, Maryland, and Virginia which established Metro—that is, unless the three step up and make changes.

The US Constitution (Article I, Section 10) requires Congress to approve any "Agreement or Compact" between states, like the WMATA compact. The op-ed says Congress could withdraw that consent and instead take over WMATA directly. Some recently suggested a federal takeover as the only way out of the predicament.

But the Federal City Council is suggesting an actual federal takeover as a step of last resort. Instead, Congress could threaten that step (as some members did with this bill regarding the Delaware River Port Authority, an interstate compact between Pennsylvania and New Jersey). Any change to the compact requires DC, Maryland, and Virginia to pass identical legislation (and then Congress to agree).

What would this mean? Would Congress's involvement make Metro better, or worse? It's clear that Metro really needs something to change—right now, it faces a nearly impossible short-term budget crunch and many long-term challenges without much end in sight.


Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

What could change?

The op-ed lists some proposals for changing the compact, which I've reformatted into a list for ease of reference:

  1. "abolish the existing board and reestablish a smaller board using criteria based on experience and expertise in transit or logistics"
  2. "redefine the role of the board and limit its focus to the most critical issues facing Metro"
  3. "finalize the establishment of a federally compliant Metro Safety Commission"
  4. "outline a process for future compact revisions"
  5. "remove the mandatory-binding-arbitration provision associated with union contract negotiations"
  6. "require the jurisdictions to collectively address their commitment to provide dedicated funding for WMATA"
  7. provide "additional funding from the federal government ... with the achievement of both cost accountability and funding parameters as thresholds"
When evaluating this policy, we should ask the following questions:

First, would these changes fix Metro's problems?

Second, do we need Congress? Are these changes achievable without federal involvement, or would they not happen otherwise?

Third, is Congress likely to agree to impose these changes?

Fourth, would Congress impose other requirements that are detrimental to Metro?

Fifth, is this a legally valid approach?

Let's take them one by one.

1. Would these changes fix Metro's problems?

Governance changes make up the first two: (a) "abolish the existing board and reestablish a smaller board using criteria based on experience and expertise in transit or logistics" and (b) "redefine the role of the board and limit its focus to the most critical issues facing Metro."

The current WMATA board has four members from each of DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government, all appointed in various ways. Some are elected officials (most in Virginia, none in Maryland); some are transit experts; some have other skills or perhaps not really any relevant experience at all.

It's widely believed that the board is too large (especially after it was expanded to add the federal members in 2009). And certainly some members have not brought much value to the board. It's worth noting that some elected officials have been effective and others ineffective; the same goes for expert members. Tom Downs and Mort Downey, both transit experts with long and notable resumes in the field, chaired the board during the Sarles era when the system decayed without us knowing about it, for example.

There has been much electronic ink spilled over the board's composition, and much more will in the future if this plan moves forward. I'm open to board changes—at this point, WMATA's problems are so dire that we need significant change—but it's important to understand what, exactly, the change is meant to achieve. Governance doesn't fix anything on its own, though it can lay the groundwork.

The current board has been very hands off with Paul Wiedefeld, letting him make most decisions. The board certainly should continue to be involved in decisions about budget, fare increases, and service cuts. Most of the current board debates are about those issues.

The value of a board of just transit experts is that it might waste less time learning the basics and could focus on the key issues, and hopefully provide effective oversight of Metro. The fear is that it would do so without listening to riders and lack the political connections to local jurisdictions. Right now, Metro depends on local governments for much of its money; defenders of elected officials say having board members who are involved in those budget process ensures Metro's needs are not ignored.

Safety: (c) "finalize the establishment of a federally compliant Metro Safety Commission" is not as controversial. Leaders in all localities agree that Metro needs a new safety oversight office. They have said they plan to get this done in early 2017, when the Maryland and Virginia legislatures are meeting.

Amendments: (d) "outline a process for future compact revisions"—I'm not sure what this one means. I am not aware of a way to change an interstate compact other than the current one, where signatories agree on a change and Congress gives its consent. I've asked the Federal City Council to elaborate.

Arbitration: (e) "remove the mandatory-binding-arbitration provision associated with union contract negotiations" is a key debate. Metro's unions can't strike, but instead, arbitrators resolve any contract dispute. In a 2011 contract negotiation, the arbitrator awarded 3% per year raises. WMATA said it couldn't afford that cost without raising fares; a judge ruled that didn't matter.

Some have called for a return to the model where strikes, rather than arbitration, resolve these disputes. It could be more disruptive, but it would force both sides to essentially make their case more publicly and fight it out. Today, local leaders and WMATA officials basically consider labor costs a factor they can't control at all.

Labor relations is a tough issue. On the one hand, unions were a strong force for building a strong middle class in the mid-20th Century, and riders want skilled workers who know how to do their jobs. On the other, sometimes inflexible work rules, in particular, hamstring organizations. And Metro is competing against other travel modes that don't involve unionized workers (or workers at all—if you drive, walk, or bike, you're your own worker), so it can only give so much.

Dedicated funding: (f) "require the jurisdictions to collectively address their commitment to provide dedicated funding for WMATA." Leaders including board chairman Jack Evans, DC mayor Muriel Bowser, leaders at the Council of Governments, and the Board of Trade have been trying to organize for dedicated funding. So far, the reception in Maryland and Virginia has been mixed, at best.

Finally, (g) "additional funding from the federal government" would of course be fantastic; the question is, is it possible?


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

2. Do we need Congress?

Congress' influence may be necessary to push a regional funding approach, item (f). We don't know for sure; the campaign for that has just gotten going. Perhaps an organized and sustained effort to sign up local business, civic, religious, and other leaders; get state, county, and city candidates on the record; and make the policy case in detail could succeed. Congress' pressure could speed that up, if Congress wants to do it.

The same goes for the governance changes, (a) and (b). DC, Maryland, and Virginia could change the compact. As above, I'm not yet persuaded that will fix the problems, but it's something to continue to discuss.

We don't need Congress to set up the safety commission, (c). We absolutely need it to get federal funding (g), but that could happen with or without compact changes.

Finally, removing arbitration, (e), is probably only going to happen with Congress. DC and Maryland, in particular, are unlikely to pass laws that eliminate a process which is currently quite favorable to labor.

3. Is Congress likely to agree to impose these changes?

A lot depends on who's in charge of the relevant committees in Congress. It's likely the Federal City Council has already been talking to some members of Congress.

Given the Republican control, support for (e), removing binding arbitration, is almost certain.

Many GOP members have taken a firm stance against any new taxes. A requirement that DC, Maryland, and Virginia provide a dedicated funding source would require some kind of tax, though not a federal one. Does that run afoul of their anti-tax pledges?

Would Congress provide any federal money? It seems a long shot, but perhaps in combination with some other of these provisions that they find more appealing, maybe there's a chance. Or maybe not.


Photo by angela n. on Flickr.

4. Would Congress impose other requirements that are detrimental to Metro?

The biggest question is whether getting Congress involved is playing with fire. Except the filibuster in the Senate (and that could even disappear), Democrats control no chamber of Congress, nor the White House, and won't be able to stop provisions unacceptable to them. If your primary goal is changing the labor relationship, maybe that's a positive, but what else?

Could certain members of Congress who have campaigned against cities, against coastal elites, and in particular against Washington, add their own ideas for changing Metro?

Could any of these happen?

  • Congress insists that Metro run less service and focus just on the most profitable service. Most service outside peak goes away and Metro becomes more like a commuter rail; regional buses are substantially cut and local jurisdictions take on more bus service.
  • Congress requires Metro to immediately sell some of its property, or requires it to immediately cover unused property in parking spaces, or some combination. Joint development becomes impossible; TOD becomes a far lower priority.
  • The formula which allocates costs between DC, Maryland, and Virginia is changed to be much more favorable to Virginia, which has more Republicans in Congress, at the expense of Maryland and/or DC.
  • The funding formula is changed to benefit exurban riders (with more Republican voters) to the detriment of the (more Democratic) core jurisdictions, such as a flat fare or a ban on parking charges.
  • Congress just prohibits a union at Metro entirely.
Hopefully none would happen; none of these would be a smart move, even for a GOP representative. They would kill Metro outright or make its problems worse by damaging its regional support. And if Congress wanted to kill Metro entirely, it could simply do that regardless. (So if you are a staffer for a GOP member of Congress, don't get any ideas!)

But it seems that the Federal City Council is really hoping the threat of Congressional action would spur DC, Maryland, and Virginia to take steps that they're not all otherwise willing to do to save Metro (whatever the consensus might ultimately be on which those are).

5. Is this a legally valid approach?

One other question is whether Congress can even legally withdraw its consent to an interstate compact. However, Ben Ross noticed a legal opinion that Congress can't actually do this:

Emeka Moneme of the Federal City Council said that their lawyers have given thought to this, and believe the case law and past experiences (such as the Delaware River one above) lead them to see it as a viable approach.

Plus, while we can't know which side the Supreme Court might ultimately take if it ever came to a lawsuit, Congress could impose its will in other ways as well (like with funding). Therefore, Congressional involvement is not an option to dismiss outright.

What do you think of the Federal City Council's proposals?

Meta


Alienation and inclusivity

This year's campaign season and election have been very divisive, and has left many members of our community feeling alienated. This includes people of many races, national origins, sexual orientations or identities, religions, or other qualities. Our hearts are with you today.

Whatever happens in years to come, we want to emphasize at this moment in history that we strongly believe that being inclusive and welcoming to everyone is a big part of why our region and nation are great, and it is important to making them even greater. It's something we as a Greater Greater Washington community, and we as a country, don't always get right, but we want to keep working on it for ourselves and our society at all levels.

Our volunteer contributors and staff are working on posts about election outcomes, from transit ballot initiatives to ANC races to the bigger implications of the urban-rural divide. As we write those pieces in the coming days and weeks, we're excited to share them with you. Tomorrow, we'll be back with the first of those posts, as well as our traditional urbanist coverage, including WhichWMATA and other local issues.

Moving forward, no matter who you are and whom you voted for, we hope you will continue to live and work here if you can, and collaborate with us to build informed and civically engaged communities who believe in a growing and inclusive Washington region for all.

Politics


America's most unattainable housing is right by downtown DC. That's a huge problem.

Tuesday is Election Day! In celebration, we're re-running our favorite April Fools post from earlier this year to remind everyone exactly how important it is to go vote! The polls are open until 7:00 in Virginia, and 8:00 in the District and Maryland. Find your polling place here, and Greater Greater Washington's endorsements here. Don't forget to vote!

Five people are currently vying for the chance to occupy the White House this November, but only one will win. This is a classic supply and demand problem, and the solution is simple: Build more housing.


Concept rendering for The Estates At President's Park. Original image by Jeff Prouse.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW is an extremely low-density property, with 82 acres housing a population of only 5 people (and a very small amount of office space). Even without adding new buildings, the existing one could become a taller apartment building with plenty of room for the Clintons, Sanderses, Trumps, Cruzes, and Kasichs, even without changes to Washington, DC's federal height limit.

This building is also located in a gated community with large open spaces around it which serve little purpose. They are off-limits to most pedestrian foot traffic and residents of the exclusive community are rarely seen using them either. The Ellipse, just to the south, is largely used as a parking lot. Developing some of these open areas could have provided even more housing.


Significant underutilized land. Photo by US Department of Defense via Wikimedia.

The exclusionary nature of this area has already prevented numerous families from being able to move here. According to news reports, families from Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, Arkansas, California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and others gave up on their hopes of being able to move here for a better job. The lack of available housing is an clear impediment to labor mobility.

Historic preservationists and other groups may complain about such a move. After all, this house is one of many which tour groups frequently pass by on their tours, and some (but not all) US Presidents lived here, adding to its historic value.

However, Washington has many historic buildings; this one is not as architecturally interesting as the office building next door to the west. The National Park Service, which controls the area, is so under-funded it may have to shut down a bridge which carries 68,000 vehicles a day. NPS needs to prioritize its funds and not waste so much money on a property which few people can enjoy.

Original architect James Hoban actually proposed a larger building, but changed his initial design, supposedly to better reflect the "monumental" nature of Washington, DC. As Kriston Capps put it, it's a "Hoban cut off at the hipbone." "It's a perfect architectural metaphor for the almost-urbanism that characterizes life in Washington," he wrote.

Candidates react to the idea

Reached on his corporate jet, Donald Trump said, "I think it's terrific. I can make a great deal to build this and I'm working with the GSA on the hotel down the street which will open early and will be the best hotel in all of DC. I'm good at building things. I'm the best. I have built so many things. Good things, you know, really good things. I know how to build. I have the skills, the best skills. And I can get this done. And I have great taste in furniture, the best taste. We'll increase the quality of the finishes substantially, marble finishes, very, very high quality of luxury marble, the most luxurious marble you've ever seen. Just phenomenal luxury."

Based on the District's inclusionary zoning ordinance, the new White House will be required to include one affordable dwelling unit, which will likely go to Marco Rubio.

In a press release, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager said they'd worked out an agreement to use the basement to build an ultra-secure server room inaccessible to the House of Representatives.

Reached on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, Ted Cruz expressed his opposition to the proposal. "I'm an outsider. I don't need a building to live inside."

The Burlington, Vermont headquarters of Bernie Sanders' campaign sent this statement: "This is why we need to break up the big banks and make sure everyday Americans benefit instead of just Wall Street and big corporations."

While many are excited about the 1600 Penn project's increased density, others have expressed concern that this is simply another situation where developers will trigger displacement of another black family from a neighborhood with an overwhelming percentage of African-American residents according to the 2010 Census.

Still, this neighborhood is very close to ample parks, stores, jobs, and transportation, including multiple Metro stations. The low quantity of housing is a clear public policy failure. Let's end the Lafayette Square housing crisis immediately.

Budget


WMATA says bus fares are low (while trying to raise them). That's not really true.

The latest WMATA budget proposal would raise fares on Metro rail, bus, and parking, while also cutting service. It's a crushing plan for everyone. In proposing to raise bus fares, the agency claims they are lower than in other cities, but for many riders who ride both the bus and rail, our bus fares are actually among the highest.


Image from Arlington Transit.

When announcing the fare hike plan, the WMATA press release read:

For bus riders, one-way local bus fares would increase from $1.75—among the lowest nationally—to $2.00.
We've heard "Metro bus fares are low compared to other cities" before. Last time Metro raised fares, in 2012, the PR around the change said the same thing. However, that's misleading at best—at least for the many riders who ride both bus and rail.

A lot of people don't just ride the bus. They take a bus from home to a Metrorail station and then ride the train, and back again in the evening. Or a bus to a train to another bus.

That's not just because they are using a lot of transit. Large parts of the bus network are designed as feeders to the rail system. In fact, many buses don't go downtown at all, but end at a Metrorail station. When Metro opened, many existing bus lines were cut back to the nearest rail station, with the expectation that riders would take the bus only locally or to the nearest rail station rather than all the way to a distant job center.

If you do ride bus to rail or vice versa, you pay the full fare on both minus a 50¢ discount. By comparison, New York (for eaxmple) charges non-pass users $2.75 for any bus (or rail) trip, but a trip on a train and a bus (or more than one bus) still just costs $2.75, no more. You can't ever take a Metrorail and Metrobus trip for only $2.75.

How do bus fares really compare?

This table compares fares for combo trips in the eight cities with the highest transit usage. Since our rail system's fares vary based on how far you travel, it's more complex to compute the bus-to-rail fare, so for simplicity let's look at how much you'll pay for a bus trip once you've already paid for a rail trip from some other location.

City & agencyBus fare (w/card)1Bus fare after railBus fare after other rail
Washington (WMATA) proposal$2.00$1.50FREE from VRE and for MARC or VRE pass holders
Washington (WMATA) today$1.75$1.25
Philadelphia (SEPTA)$2.25$1.00$1.65 from PATCO2
Chicago (CTA)$2.2525¢Full fare from Metra
New York (NYCT)$2.753FREEFull fare
Atlanta (MARTA)$2.50FREENo other rail
San Francisco (MUNI)$2.504FREE$2.00 from BART
Los Angeles (LACMTA)$1.75FREEFREE from Metrolink
Boston (MBTA)$1.70FREEFull fare from commuter rail
but free for pass holders

1 All fare calculations assume you have the electronic fare media for that city. Most agencies offer better fares for people with the card (SmartTrip in Washington, MetroCard in NYC, Clipper in SF, Breeze in Atlanta, etc.)

2 Riders transferring from PATCO to select city train and bus lines can buy a round-trip ticket for $3.10, for an effective per-direction fare of $1.65.

3 Riders using the pay-per-ride MetroCard also get an 11% fare bonus when putting $5.50 or more on the card, making the effective fare for riders who don't have passes as low as $2.48.

4 SF MUNI fares are scheduled to rise from $2.25 to $2.50 on January 1, 2017.

By this computation, the cost to get on a Metrobus after riding rail is more expensive than on any other system in the eight cities where people ride transit the most. Five offer free transfers, and of the other three, Metro is by far the stingiest with its transfer discount. It's definitely misleading to say the bus fare is lower in Washington than other US cities.

Free transfers for Metro?

WMATA could make free transfers part of a fare increase package. There's precedent for that, most recently in Los Angeles. LACMTA used to charge full fare for a bus ride after a subway ride (and even switching from one bus to another), but instituted free transfers in 2014 as it raised the base fare from $1.50 to $1.75.

There are other good reasons to institute free transfers. Because there's no free transfer, and because the base bus fare (to compensate somewhat) is lower than elsewhere, many poorer residents ride the bus long distances on the lines which don't just end at a rail station. The trip from Southern Avenue to Foggy Bottom on the 32 local might be excruciatingly slow compared to a two-train trip, but it's cheaper. This exacerbates a class disparity between rail and bus riders.

Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel confirmed via email that the current fare increase proposal "does not contemplate any changes to existing transfer discounts." The region needs to work to find alternatives to fare increases that could trigger a "death spiral," but if a fare increase does happen, the agency should reexamine its transfer policies.

Correction: The initial version of this post omitted Los Angeles' Metrolink under the "other rail" column in the table, and omitted some free transfers for MARC and VRE. These errors have been corrected.

Transit


Metro is being more transparent (and persuasive) about late-night closures... and weekend track work

After hearing strong opposition to his plans to cut late-night Metro service, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and his team have been opening up about the system's maintenance needs.

They're making a strong case for why Metro needs a lot more downtime for track work—both at nights and through periodic weekend single-tracking and shutdowns, which will have to continue into the future.


Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

Metro is now making the case for late night maintenance, and the reasons seem strong

I sat down with Wiedefeld, Andrew Off, WMATA's Assistant General Manager for Transit Infrastructure and Engineering Services, and a few other Metro officials along with the Coalition for Smarter Growth for a briefing. Off will be presenting the same slides to the WMATA Board Thursday and recently showed them to Bob Thomson of the Washington Post as well.

Off went into details about the kinds of maintenance his team wants to do, like "cable meggering" (testing cables so they don't catch fire) and "tamping" (smoothing out the ballast under the tracks to make the tracks more stable). You can read lots about this in his presentation.

To keep up with this maintenance requires bigger chunks of time. After the system officially closes, some trains are still taking passengers to the end of the line for up to another hour. It then can take an hour to drive the work trains from the yards (which are mostly near the ends of lines) to the work sites, shut off the power, and so forth.

Couple that with an hour on the other end to close up and get the equipment off the railroad, and a 4-hour overnight closed period only allows one hour for work. (Plus, Metro has to pay for an 8-hour shift for all the workers.)


Image from WMATA.

And, Off argued, there's just so much work to be done that Metro needs these windows every day. He also said they can't do this work in "surges" like with SafeTrack, or close just one line at a time. On an average night, Metro may have 57 work crews and work on 164 of the system's 234 miles. That's a lot of maintenance, and more than can fit in a smaller, targeted shutdown, Off explained.

He added that the "surges" aren't fixing everything. They're just dealing with some issues, mostly on outdoor tracks, like deteriorated rail ties. The surges have not gone into the core and not covered the same kinds of maintenance that Off lists for the night shutdowns.

I don't want to support any reduction in Metro service lightly. Still, if Off's presentation is correct, it does seem that Metro needs this time. We all know the system is in bad shape and needs work. Limping along with fires and derailments is absolutely not an option.

When criticizing the initial late night plan, I focused on two issues: First, WMATA wasn't explaining, in detail, why another alternative wouldn't work. Second, there was no analysis available about adding "night owl" or other bus service to help people get around late at night without the rail system.

Off has begun; other people who know more about track maintenance than I should listen to the board meeting Thursday (the audio will be archived after the meeting as well) and put questions in the comments to this post. I'll pass on the best ones to Wiedefeld, Off, and the others and try to get you answers.

WMATA doesn't need to just convince me, or other activists; it needs to give engaged members of the riding public the information to be persuaded as well. This is a good start, but not the end.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Nights won't be the only time for track work—keep expecting shutdowns and single tracking

Remember those great days of the mid-2000s, when Metro ran late at night, didn't single-track on weekends, and was reliable? Those days are not coming back, unfortunately.

Hopefully the reliable part will come back. But Off made clear that the agency just wasn't keeping up with its maintenance then. We were enjoying long hours of service while the then-shinier, newer tracks and circuits were gradually decaying right under us.

Off thinks Metro needs to do this amount of maintenance at nights forever. Further, and this is important to understand: late nights won't be the only time for track work. Weekend single-tracking and shutdowns will continue as well.

There are two kinds of track work which we might colloquially call "maintenance," explained Off and WMATA COO Joe Leader. The late night closures will permit what's called "preventive maintenance." There, track workers look for parts that are wearing down, coming disconnected, etc. and fix them. That work helps forestall most (but never all) track fires, bumps, and risks of derailments.

In addition, Metro needs to regularly replace aging equipment and sections of track, such as rail ties. (SafeTrack was mostly about replacing rail ties.) For that, Metro will need to occasionally take whole sections of track off-line for a weekend or more.

In the past, riders have often gotten the impression that if we just soldier through a few years of fixes, things will be "back to normal." That was certainly the subtext of Richard Sarles' Metro Forward efforts. It wasn't said explicitly, but I've talked to many riders who thought that was also true of SafeTrack—that we'd have some pain for a year and then things would all be pretty much fixed again.

Things can get fixed, but the new normal won't be the same as the old. SafeTrack is repairing and replacing some of the most critical systems that were causing the worst problems and posed safety risks, Leader said, but that still leaves all the other equipment that's working okay but will need repair and replacement in the future. SafeTrack isn't making Metro new, just (hopefully) taking it off life support.

Successive General Managers have been unwilling to speak the truth about the system's needs. They'd paper over the problems, letting the maintenance picture grow worse and worse; they'd launch repair initiatives and make rosier pronouncements than were grounded in reality. Wiedefeld joked that he's too old for that; he's going to prescribe what he thinks Metro needs and not pretend it'll be an easier task.


Transparency on Metro. Photo by anokarina on Flickr.

What should Metro do next?

If Metro does go forward with cutting late-night service, I'd like to see a strong commitment on these five points:

1. Be more open. This level of detail is much more compelling than the "trust us, we need 20 hours a week" we got before. In the past, WMATA has also been so afraid of bad press that many people in the agency didn't want to admit how bad the problems were. Instead, the information came out anyway, but WMATA lost the public's trust.

Metro officials need to abandon any mindset that information about the system's operations might be too detailed for the public. Let riders decide how much they want to know, but help them know as much as possible. Surprises, cover-ups, etc. are worse than admitting to problems.

Also, we need transparency about the maintenance that's done. I don't think Off and his team will get the 20 hours a week of maintenance time and then just sit on it without doing much work, but the board and riders should be able to "trust, but verify." Provide information for our wonkier transit followers about how many cables were meggered, how many still need to be, where, and when. Let people check for themselves that Metro is really using most of its work time effectively.

2. Deliver on safety. This is a no-brainer. The system has to get safer. Track fires and such won't go away completely overnight (or ever—any transportation system will have occasional problems, though they should never be fatal or hazardous). But the system has to get to the point where safety overseers are confident it's meeting the standards of a well-run transit system.

3. Deliver on reliability. Metro has been promising a lot of service but not always delivering on it. Travis Maiers has documented how Metro isn't meeting its targets for trains at peak times. Off-peak, there are often longer waits than expected as well.

Wiedefeld promises that with more maintenance (and adequate funding), Metro can set a schedule it can keep. The agency needs to deliver on that.

This has sometimes been worst with weekend single-tracking. The agency says trains will come every 20 minutes or something, and then the gaps might be far larger. Single-tracking has made riding Metro on weekends extremely unappealing for anyone with an alternative (like a car). It doesn't have to be that way, and Metro should ensure that its weekend track work doesn't mean no schedule at all.

4. Maximize alternatives to rail. The train isn't the only way to get around. Metro also operates a large bus network, and can and should identify ways to beef up late night service in the absence of rail. Its significant job and tax benefitsthe Downtown DC Business Improvement District estimated that late-night service cuts could hurt 2,000-4,000 jobs and cost up to $12 million a year in tax revenue.

Our region has grown housing, jobs, restaurants, and more near transit with the expectation that it would offer a way to get around nearly any time of day. We shouldn't abandon that if there's any alternative. If the rail system needs fixing, fix it, but provide other options.

5. Watch for that death spiral. Metro is in danger of a "death spiral" where riders leave, fare revenue declines, the budget shows a deficit, and the agency has to cut service which only drives even more riders away. Arguably, it's already about there.

Wiedefeld said to me that he thinks the bigger "death spiral" danger is about poor safety and reliability rather than service. He wants to ensure that Metro is safe and reliable.

The main risk, if Metro cuts back on service like late at night, is that it promises less AND still doesn't deliver. Then riders are worse off, the system is worse, and we've backed away from the region's commitment to transit service.

If more maintenance windows is what it'll take to get out of this hole, I'm willing to support Paul Wiedefeld, who certainly seems to be making a start at turning things around. Let's all help him succeed—and help hold the agency to its promises to do better.

Development


Peter Shapiro is nominated for a seat on the powerful DC Zoning Commission

Mayor Muriel Bowser has nominated Peter Shapiro, a resident of the Chevy Chase neighborhood of DC, to the board that decides DC's zoning and rules on many large development projects.


Image from Prince George's County.

Shapiro would replace Marcie Cohen, a former affordable housing and community development professional. Cohen has been a strong advocate for zoning that allows more overall housing in DC, speaking about the need for more housing many times.

Shapiro's day job is head of the Prince George's County Revenue Authority, an entity which acquires and helps develop land in the county to boost its economy. He used to live in the Prince George's town of Brentwood, where he served on the town council for two years and then the county council for six.

He helped bring community members, developers, businesses, and others together around a vision for the Route 1 corridor just east of DC, which ultimately led to the Gateway Arts District spanning four towns (and including Bird Kitchen, the site of our extremely successful recent happy hour with County Executive Rushern Baker).


Left to right: Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, Chief of Staff Glenda Wilson, Communications Manager Barry Hudson, and Revenue Authority Executive Director Peter Shapiro. Photo by the author.

Shapiro later moved back to DC where he ran unsuccessfully for DC Council against Vincent Orange four years ago, winning our endorsement but splitting the anti-Orange vote with Sekou Biddle. (Our endorsed candidate Robert White beat Orange this year.)

He has long been a proponent of better transit and transit-oriented development. Way back in 2001, he endorsed the Purple Line and supported running it through existing communities with people who need to get to jobs, such as the area he represented.

He served on a Maryland "Special Task Force for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)" in 2000, chaired the regional Transportation Planning Board in 2003, co-chairs the Urban Land Institute's Regionalism Initiative Council, and is part of a joint ULI Washington and Baltimore TOD Product Council. He is an elected member of his neighborhood's the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, but says he would resign that seat if confirmed to the Zoning Commission because both are very time-consuming, volunteer jobs.

Nomination, take two

Mayor Bowser initially nominated developer David Franco for the seat, but DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson refused to hold a hearing.

Mendelson told the Washington Blade that he's concerned about having developers on the commission. Franco is very civic-minded and more supportive of affordable housing than most developers, but according to the Blade, Mendelson opposed confirming any developers, period.

Shapiro does not have the potential conflicts of interest that a developer would, but as someone with long experience with how well-designed development can enhance communities and boost the economy, he would be a valuable member of the Zoning Commission. Mendelson will hold a hearing on Shapiro's nomination at 1 pm on Thursday, November 10.

What is the Zoning Commission?

The Zoning Commission is far more powerful than planning boards in other jurisdictions. When DC got home rule, Congress did not want to give the local legislature full authority over land use. Instead, the Zoning Commission has the final say (other than potential court appeals) over zoning and development decisions in DC.

The DC Council can guide the future direction of growth through the Comprehensive Plan and smaller plans, which the Zoning Commission is required to follow. But when it comes to changing zoning rules or approving particular developments, it has no authority; all councilmembers can do is write letters expressing an opinion.

There are actually two zoning boards in DC, the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Zoning Commission. Mainly, the BZA handles smaller individual projects; it grants variances and special exceptions to zoning rules for unusual circumstances. The Zoning Commission makes bigger-picture policy, like changing a neighborhood's zoning or a citywide zoning rule. It also reviews Planned Unit Developments, generally big development projects which need more flexibility and also provide more community benefit. The BZA is somewhat more legalistic, while the Zoning Commission focuses more on policy.

The Zoning Commission has three members nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council, as well as two federal members, one from the National Park Service and one from the Architect of the Capitol. This makes DC's three appointees even more crucial.

While the federal representatives serve as part of their jobs, locally-appointed Zoning Commissioners are not paid for their service. Yet, they have to attend two (often long) meetings most weeks and also sit on some meetings of the BZA, which has a seat for a rotating Zoning Commission member.

This makes it tricky to find someone with experience and knowledge who is not also a developer. The city would be lucky to get Shapiro, with his regional perspective, experience with development, and positive vision for DC.

Politics


Term limits are a terrible idea for Montgomery County

Here's a plan that is sure to improve the quality of your local hospital: Fire all the doctors and nurses with nine to 12 years of experience. Just kick them all out. Or why don't we fire every Apple software engineer who has been at the company that long? That'll surely yield better iPhones. Or fire every Post reporter with a decade under his or her belt.

No? Sound crazy? I agree. Those are terrible ideas.

For some reason, though, a lot of folks who would never suggest this do seriously entertain term limits for legislators, which Montgomery County will vote on this November as Question B. It's a bad idea, and voters should say no.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post.

Events


Ask DC's planners to address rising housing costs!

DC's Office of Planning will be updating the city's Comprehensive Plan, and wants to hear from you about what needs to change. Can you attend one of eight meetings over the next few weeks?

The "Comp Plan" is the high-level document governing the city's growth and change. It includes chapters on housing, the environment, waste infrastructure, schools, and more. The most specific parts of the plan dictate how much can be built, and where; zoning and development decisions are supposed to be based on the Comp Plan, and a recent court case gave the plan, specifically one map inside it, even more teeth.

This makes the update critical if we want to be able to keep adding enough housing to meet demand, focusing new growth near Metro stations and high-frequency buses, and encouraging walkable urbanism. OP planners need to hear from you to prioritize these needs as they consider amendments.

Every five years, the government updates the plan. This year, changes will be relatively modest, focusing on ways the assumptions or predictions in the 2006 plan have fallen out of step with reality. A group of GGWash staff and readers have been reading the plan and noticed some ways the plan has gotten out of date:

Some people will be attending these meetings to ask for even more obstacles against new people moving into neighborhoods. It's important for the planners to hear residents ask for improvements in the Comp Plan that truly fulfill its stated objective of "a growing and inclusive city."

We need the Comp Plan to ensure there is housing for people at all income levels and enough so prices don't spiral out of control (any more than they already have), and for all neighborhoods to be part of the solution rather than a competition for each neighborhood to wall itself off and push change to someone else's street.

There are eight meetings, one per ward (though OP uses "planning areas" which don't change every ten years). Each meeting will feature a presentation by planners about the Comp Plan, an open house where people can talk with planners, and then an "open mic" for feedback.

The meetings are:

  • Wednesday, October 19, 6-8:30 pm in Columbia Heights
  • Saturday, October 22, 9-11:30 am in Anacostia
  • Tuesday, October 25, 6-8:30 pm in Tenleytown
  • Thursday, October 27, 6-8:30 pm on Minnesota Avenue
  • Tuesday, November 1, 6-8:30 pm in West End/Foggy Bottom
  • Thursday, November 3, 6-8:30 pm in Southwest Waterfront
  • Monday, November 14, 6-8:30 pm in Brookland
See the specific locations and other details here. If you can't attend, you can also give your thoughts at this online survey.

Either way, sign up using the form below to get further updates from Greater Greater Washington about ways to make a difference on this Comp Plan process.



Bicycling


Copenhagen uses this one trick to make room for bikeways on nearly every street

I visited Copenhagen for the first time in June. I knew it was one of the bikiest cities in the world, but it's quite astounding to see what a place looks like where 52% of commuters travel by bike.


All photos by the author.

Almost every street has a type of protected bikeway. It's essentially a lane of the street but raised up with a small curb, low enough that vehicles can mount it but high enough to discourage that. (And generally, they don't.)

These are everywhere. It's not just the main streets or a few selected bike boulevards. Virtually every street of any appreciable size had one. It was almost strange to encounter a street with any traffic that didn't. The typical medium-sized street had two car lanes (one each way), two bike lanes of the same width (one each way), and a sidewalk on each side.

As an old city, the streets are fairly narrow (and, honestly, the sidewalks were pretty narrow and are made of cobblestones; it might be a bike mecca, but the walking experience could be better). So how can there be enough room?

Here's a picture. What do you notice that's missing?

If you said "on-street parking," you're right! As compared with most US cities which have parking on nearly every city street, Copenhagen has it on many smaller streets but far from all, and doesn't have it on most mid-sized and larger streets.

Could DC be like this?

There are some obstacles to DC having as much biking as Copenhagen (once again: 52% of commuters!) For one, our weather is both hotter and colder, and DC has more hills. Copenhagen is a smaller city, with about 2 million people in its metropolitan area versus 6 million for Washington.

Still, we can do so much better. We don't have to put a bikeway on every street, and maybe won't ever have the mode share to justify that, but there already is enough mode share to warrant a network of them connecting every neighborhood and spaced a certain distance in the city's core.


Instead of always blocking bikeways with construction, they keep the bikeways open!

More bikeways would also boost the amount of cycling; with DC's weather and topography we could easily double, triple, or quadruple the 2% of commuters bicycling (after all, 11% walk and they have to contend with the same weather!)

It's crazy that it takes years to build support for a protected bikeway on even one street. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) built only 0.14 miles of protected bikeways and 4.28 miles of other bike lanes in 2015.


A few streets also do have on-street parking as well, but it's uncommon.

The MoveDC plan calls for 7.5 miles a year of bike lanes. New York built 12.4 miles of protected bikeways in 2015, and the city does have about 12 times as many people as DC proper, but that means DC is still falling short by a factor of about seven.

It's certainly true there are political obstacles to changing even a single parking space into something else, but there's a simple political solution as well: do it differently.


Copenhagen is building a new bike/ped bridge next to an existing one, because the existing one has too much bicycle traffic.

Compared to many other US cities like Orlando and Cleveland, DC is doing great on transit, on bicycling, on walking. We shouldn't forget how far we've come, either; DC had zero protected bikeways until 2009. But go around the world and it can easily become clear: we also could do so, so much better.

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