Greater Greater Washington

Posts by David Alpert

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief 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. 

How two families dealt with Metro problems and other transportation options in the snow

There was track work on the Red Line last weekend, and as it turned out, a smoke incident as well. Both Mitch Wander and David Alpert were riding the Red Line, and the experiences yielded plenty of examples of the bad and the good of Metro and other transportation choices.

A family (not Mitch's or David's) in the snow. Photo by Amber Wilkie on Flickr.

Mitch says, "My son and I considered car2go or Uber for an early morning trip from Glover Park to Catholic University. Uber had surge pricing in effect, likely because there were few cars on the road, but there were two nearby cars2go. We walked to the first only to find it parked on a patch of ice and on a hill. But the second one fit the bill."

Meanwhile, David and his daughter were going to Tenleytown. He says, "We've mostly given up on using Metro on weekends when there's track work (and often, sadly, even when there's not). But we didn't want to drive back in a major snowstorm, so we tried the Red Line even though the Metro website said service was only running every 20 minutes.

"We just missed a train to Shady Grove by a few seconds, but fortunately, though the website didn't mention this, there were some extra trains just from Dupont to Shady Grove (and from Judiciary Square to Glenmont), one of which pulled in shortly after."

The snowstorm begins

By the time both families were coming back, the snow was coming down heavily.

There were nearly two inches of snow on the ground when Mitch and his son left Catholic University just before noon. He says, "I overruled my son's suggestion to use car2go again. Instead, we decided to take Metro to Tenleytown and either take Metrobus or get a ride from my wife home.

"We walked to the Brookland-CUA Metro station. The first train arrived but the conductor announced that the train would go out of service at Judiciary Square without explaining why. We waited for the next train which continued downtown.

"At Dupont Circle, the train stopped with doors open for several minutes. There were still no announcements, but Twitter showed photos of smoke at the Woodley Park station."

"My son and I left, as did a few other passengers I informed about the problem. People by the bus stop said that the D2 had not been running for 45 minutes, so after trying to walk a few blocks, we decided to use Uber despite the 1.7x surge pricing. A car arrived within 10 minutes."

Another Metro delay compounds problems

David and his daughter left a little later, at 12:30. It was difficult to even push a stroller two blocks up a small hill to the Metro along sidewalks with fresh snow. This was not a time to be driving.

"Another 'special' train pulled in right as they got to the platform, which I knew wouldn't go through downtown, but he initially assumed it would reach Dupont before turning. However, it instead went out of service at Woodley Park. The conductor also did not explain why; I guessed that perhaps the train was going to wait in the pocket track before going to Dupont, though it also could have related to the smoke which I didn't yet know about.

"The conductor announced that another train was 20 minutes behind, and the signs confirmed this. This seemed odd since the wait between through trains was supposed to be 20 minutes, and the special was surely in between. Nonetheless, we settled in for a wait. Since mobile phone service works in Woodley Park, they were able to play music and watch videos.

"However, 20 minutes later, there was no train,though multiple trains had passed outbound. The top 'Glenmont' line on the digital displays showed a blank space instead of a time estimate. Eventually, the station manager announced that there was a disabled train at Friendship Heights.

Photo by David Alpert.

"I considered bailing on Metro, but my daughter is too small to ride in a car2go or an Uber without a carseat. There were no Uber vehicles with carseats available at all, according to the app, even at a surge rate.

"The platform had grown quite crowded at this point. Fortunately, Metro sent an empty special train in the opposite direction to pick up waiting passengers (even though, as Twitter showed, having a train pass by without picking them up annoyed some people waiting at Dupont Circle).

"An employee arrived on the platform and told people that a train would come within 15 minutes. And it did. The total trip ended up taking about an hour."

What can we learn from this story? There are a few conclusions we can draw:

Travelers have so many options, which is terrific. Mitch and his son used three modes of transportation (car2go, Metroail, and Uber) and considered two others (Metrobus and private car). He says, "I think my son takes for granted that we can seamlessly jump from one transportation option to another." If one mode is struggling, as Metrorail did, many people can opt to switch.

Modern technology is extremely helpful to compare options. It wouldn't have been possible to find out about the smoke so quickly or evaluate as many choices without today's smartphones, apps, and social media. We didn't have these options or this timely, decentralized information even just a few years ago, and it's transformed mobility.

Metro still can do far, far more to communicate about outages. Neither Mitch nor David knew about the short-turning special trains before riding one, and the website didn't talk about them. Some train announcements are hard to understand because of bad equipment and/or train operators who mumble through their explanations.

The following day, David and his daughter rode the Metro again, and when arriving at Dupont on a special train which was turning around, he overheard a rider saying, "I don't understand how this system works." People get confused and frustrated during planned or unplanned disruptions. Communication wouldn't stop all frustration, but could stop the confusion and reduce anger.

We're still lucky to have Metro even despite all its problems (which are many). Even though it took an hour to get from Tenleytown to Dupont Circle, that was better than trying to drive. Buses were not running. Walking was out of the question. Underground trains had a lot of problems, but they still worked. Maybe that's not much to be happy about, but people in most cities and even most parts of our region don't even have that.

A map of Montgomery County's rapid transit future

The Purple Line may dominate recent headlines, but Montgomery County's 81-mile, 115-station Bus Rapid Transit proposal also has tremendous potential. Here's what the future network might look like.

Map by Peter Dovak.

The BRT network would create a vast web of ten major corridors stretching across the county. That may be a bit harder to wrap your head around than simple one-line proposals like the Purple Line, so we've put together this map based on Communities for Transit's diagram of the network.

The map also shows the the Corridor Cities Transitway, a BRT line which has been in planning longer than the larger countywide BRT network; the Purple Line light rail; and existing rail transit in the form of the Metro Red Line and MARC Brunswick line.

Combined together into one map, you can get a glimpse of just how great Montgomery County's transit future could be, extending the reach of the Metro with a connection at every Red Line station, including two long-desired links between the eastern and western halves of the line, connecting Wheaton to Rockville and Glenmont to White Flint.

To make this work, Montgomery County has to avoid "BRT creep" and stick by its plans to give routes dedicated lanes. There will be tremendous pressure to cut corners, and already some segments of the plan don't have dedicated lanes. On the map, those appear with a hollow line instead of a solid one.

The maps shows the lines continuing into DC. The current plans don't include the District, but officials have started talking about ways to make the lines reach Metro stations in DC or go all the way downtown. The county also cut back the line on Wisconsin Avenue to end at Bethesda following resident objections, but it could span that section again if and when the line can continue farther, such as to Georgetown.

2.5 minutes of extra walking is not nothing

This week's Walkblock of the Week highlighted the closed sidewalk at Connecticut and Yuma, NW. To get to the Franklin Montessori School from the Van Ness Metro, people have to walk past the school, to Albemarle Stret, and double back. Is this a big deal?

The walk from Van Ness Metro to Franklin Montessori with the sidewalk closed (left) and open (right). Images from Gmap Pedometer using Google Maps.

It's .29 miles versus .21 miles. That's 39% more walk from the Metro, a significant jump. On the other hand, it's only an additional .08 miles plus crossing Connecticut.

Some commenters think it's making a mountain out of a molehill to talk about this. "Notabigdeal" wrote, "Wait, they have to walk .08 miles farther? The humanity!" And "seriously" said:

Wow you must have a great life when you consider this to be "a significant additional inconvenience."

People, get a grip. So you have to cross the street. I live in the area, I do it all the time. Would I prefer not to cross the street? Sure. But do I give it a second thought afterwards? NO! How entitled do you have to feel to be outraged by having to walk an extra .08 miles? I mean come on.

It's 2.5 extra minutes and 1-2 major crossings

At an average walking speed of 3.1 mph, it takes 1.5 extra minutes to walk that distance (longer for kids who walk slowly, of course). Let's assume an extra 1 minute wait for the light and you have added 2.5 minutes to the trip.

That may not sound like much, but twice a day, 5 days a week, 10 months a year is about 17 hours a year of extra time, per person. Crossing Connecticut Avenue one or two times each way is also not nothing. Crosswalks on six-lane streets like Connecticut are common places for pedestrians to get hit, especially seniors and children, and while we all live with this risk, increasing it isn't something to do lightly.

Would drivers stand for a delay like that?

More importantly, these commenters' reactions highlight how we tend to think about inconveniencing pedestrians versus drivers. Would drivers stand for having their commute lengthened by 2.5 minutes each way?

We got to see such a case recently when DC put in (and then removed) a median on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. The traffic count data said that drivers' trips lengthened by 1-2 minutes. But drivers, including Councilmember Jack Evans, who drives on Wisconsin to and from his kids' school, screamed bloody murder.

Evans insisted that the delay was more than 1-2 minutes. But 1-2 minutes can feel like a lot when you're stuck in traffic. How do you feel if you're waiting at a light, it turns green, and you can't make it through because of traffic, or maybe someone turning that blocks the way? That's a delay of about a minute, and it can be very infuriating.

Traffic engineering standards even agree: If the average car is delayed 1 minute and 20 seconds at an intersection, vehicular Level of Service, the measure for how well traffic flows, would be a failing F. In other words, traffic engineering considers it totally unacceptable to add that level of delay.

Or if you commute by car, try this experiment: Pick a spot along the route (if you use Connecticut Avenue, it could be this area). Every time you get there, stop the car and wait 2.5 minutes. I know I wouldn't want to have to keep doing that.

Maybe closing a the sidewalk was right in this case since it's such a busy street. Maybe not. But DDOT doesn't even habitually compute how much delay a closure will cause pedestrians, while it's mandatory before closing any lanes to traffic. To at least weigh the impacts quantitatively would be a good start.

Restore the sidewalk now

One thing is for sure: This sidewalk ought not stay closed for much longer.

DDOT's George Branyan said that in initial applications for the permit, the developer's representatives promised that once the vault (the area under the sidewalk) is built, they would put a top on and create a pedestrian path. They estimated that would happen by about December 2014.

It's past that time now, and the building's structure is above the street level. Branyan said permit officials will be talking again with the construction team to find out when there can be a new sidewalk.

Crews sometimes want to keep the sidewalk closed longer than absolutely necessary because it's more convenient to be able to pull up construction trucks to the site and not worry about pedestrians. That, for sure, is not a good reason to keep a sidewalk closed, and when sidewalks do have to close, it's important for DDOT to push to reopen them as early as possible.

Sidewalk snow shoveling hall of shame: "DC government is the worst offender" (and Arlington too)

After a warm Sunday, many buildings and property owners were able to clear their sidewalks, as the law requires. But some did not. We asked you to submit your photos of snow clearing scofflaws or, as reader Jasper Nijdam dubbed them, "snoflaws."

Photo by Jasper Nijdam.

He sent along this photo of the sidewalk past the Key Bridge Marriott, at the corner of Lee Highway and Ft. Myer Drive in Rosslyn. He writes,

I'd like to nominate eternal snoflaw The Marriott at Key Bridge. Their own parking lot is so well treated that I doubt snow ever reaches the ground. But they utterly refuse to do anything about their busy sidewalk.
Update: Commenter charlie says that this is National Park Service land, and thus NPS is responsible for clearing it rather than Marriott. However, both agree in the comments that Marriott could do a public service and clear it anyway.

Nijdam continues:

Also nominated, whomever lives on the west side of 35th [in Georgetown] between Prospect and M Street. Note how the east side is nicely cleaned.

Georgetown from the Key Bridge. Photo by Jasper Nijdam.

Bridges remain treacherous

While local governments have avidly plowed streets, sidewalks along bridges have not gotten the same love. These are especially problematic for pedestrians since the bridges often represent the only nearby path across a major barrier like a highway, railroad tracks, or a river.

Left: North Meade Street overpass over Route 50 in Rosslyn. Photo by LMK on Twitter. Right: H Street "Hopscotch Bridge" over railroad tracks in DC. Photo by Emily Larson on Twitter.

Twitter user LMK tweeted a picture of the bridge over Route 50 at the south end of Rosslyn, which connects Ft. Myer Heights, the eponymous military base, and the Marine Corps Memorial to Rosslyn. The already-narrow sidewalk is now a sheet of ice.

Across the Potomac, we have a similar condition on the "Hopscotch Bridge," where H Street crosses behind Union Station. Dave Uejio alerted us to this photo on Twitter by Emily Larson.

"DC government is the worst offender"

Ralph Garboushian writes an email with the apt subject line, "DC government is the worst offender." He calls out DC's Department of General Services, which is responsible for maintenance in and around District property including parks. He says,

DCDGS never clears the sidewalks around the triangle parks between 17th Street, Potomac Avenue and E Street SE and at 15th & Potomac. Both see pretty heavy pedestrian traffic—people walking to the Metro, going to the grocery store, taking their dogs to Congressional Cemetery, etc. A neighbor and I usually tackle the one at 17th.

Photo by Ralph Garboushian.
It infuriates me to see Mayor Bowser patting herself on the back for doing such a great job clearing the snow. On Potomac Avenue SE, the main beneficiaries of her efforts are the suburban motorists who speed up and down the street with no regard for pedestrians or neighborhood residents.

By Sunday morning the street was bare pavement. Meanwhile, the sidewalks along the triangle parks were a disaster, even as most homeowners had already shoveled their sidewalks. It boggles my mind that taxpaying neighborhood residents have to pick up the city's slack to ensure we can travel safely on foot while non-taxpaying suburban motorists get gold-plated treatment.

Many of DC's square and triangle parks (like the triangles along Pennsylvania Avenue west of the White House, for instance) are not local, but federal, and it's the National Park Service (NPS) which should (and doesn't) clear their sidewalks. This one, however, is DC land and not federal, though it's next to Congressional Cemetery, which NPS controls.

Garboushian and his neighbors later shoveled this sidewalk themselves, which is a great public service, but they shouldn't have to. The DC government (and Arlington government, and other governments) should take responsibility for clearing sidewalks that don't abut private property. Arguably, they should just handle all sidewalks, but we can at least start with these.

Thanks to everyone who sent in images! We didn't have room for them all, and I preferred ones showing conditions Monday, after everyone had ample time to clear sidewalks on a warm day.

Correction: The original version of this article identified the property on the west side of 35th Street as the Halcyon House. That is actually on the west side of 34th Street. We apologize for the error.

Update: Here's one more, from whiteknuckled, who tweets, "Our neighbor never shovels his side-sidewalk, only the front. But digs out his driveway and piles snow on sidewalk."

Photo by whiteknuckled on Twitter.

Shovel your sidewalks!

If your home has sidewalks which aren't yet shoveled, clear them today! It's warm and will be relatively easy to clear snow, but tonight anything left will freeze and turn into solid ice. So get that pedestrian path cleared (and wide enough for multiple people to pass, people in wheelchairs and strollers, etc.) today.

Photo by randomduck on Flickr.

Along my route to and from the Metro this morning, I want to thank the Dupont East Condominium, National Women's Democratic Club, and Mathematical Association of America for getting their long corner sidewalks cleared this morning. Perennial scofflaw the Embassy of Botswana still hasn't cleared their three sidewalks on 18th, Q, and New Hampshire.

If you see sidewalks still uncleared tomorrow morning, whether private, federal, DC government, WMATA, foreign mission, or otherwise, please take pictures and send them to We'll put the worst offenders in a Sidewalk Snow Clearing Hall of Shame like these from past years.

Even more development may come to North Capitol Street. Will transportation be ready?

A whole new mixed-use neighborhood may soon arise on a portion of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the large 272-acre estate off North Capitol Street. Will the new neighborhood become an isolated suburban island, or integrate into the urban fabric of the city?

The Armed Forces Retirement Home-Washington. Image from AFRH.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home, also known as the Old Soldiers' Home, has been serving resident retired and disabled veterans since 1851. Abraham Lincoln spent much of the Civil War there and wrote the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in the historic Anderson Cottage.

The home operates as an independent federal agency with its own trust fund, and in 2002 Congress authorized leasing some of the land to raise funds to keep the home afloat. A 2008 Master Plan proposed carving out 80 acres on the southeast corner, along North Capitol Street and Irving Street, for the development.

Possible layout of future buildings, from the 2008 master plan.

The General Services Administration will soon start soliciting developers for the project, which will have to go through substantial federal and local review.

What will happen to North Capitol and Irving?

This isn't the first time the home has shrunk. This 1948 map shows the home's land extending all the way to Michigan Avenue, encompassing what's now the Washington Hospital Center, the VA Medical Center, National Rehabilitation Hospital, and Children's National Medical Center.

National Geographic 1948 map, detail around the AFRH. Click for an interactive version where you can fade between old and new.

That part of the land was a dairy farm and orchards until the hospitals replaced them. North Capitol Street used to end at Michigan Avenue, but was extended all the way through the estate. Between the hospitals and the Soldiers' Home appeared a new-freeway-like road, Irving Street.

Where Irving and North Capitol meet is a large suburban-style cloverleaf interchange. It's the only full cloverleaf in DC and a relic of a time when people assumed that freeways would cut through most District neighborhoods.

In 2009, the year after the Armed Forces Retirement Home finished its Master Plan, the National Capital Planning Commission and the DC Office of Planning came out with their own study of the cloverleaf. They considered ways to replace it with an intersection more appropriate to DC, such as a circle.

The four options from the OP/NCPC study. Left to right, top to bottom: The current North Capitol interchange, the "parkway/memorial," the "circle," the "four corners."

It would be an enormous lost opportunity for this development to go forward without a decision on how to change the intersection. If AFRH builds around a cloverleaf, the new neighborhood will turn its back on the interchange and create a permanent, impenetrable wall.

On the other hand, if there's at least a plan for the cloverleaf area, the architects could design internal roads and pathways to connect to future buildings between AFRH's property and the intersection.

While a walkable circle or other design would only serve AFRH at first, it would open up opportunities for future changes at the VA hospital site, development on Catholic University's land east of North Capitol, which the home sold to the university in 2002.

How can people get here?

Today, the easiest way to reach this area is by car. The 80 bus travels on North Capitol, but most of the existing developments (like the hospitals and the Park Place condominiums southeast of the cloverleaf) turn their backs on those streets. The proposed McMillan Sand Filtration site will engage North Capitol somewhat, but still has a large landscaped setback (in large part, to please neighbors) and buildings front onto interior streets.

The same goes for the conceptual design in the AFRH plan

Possible future roads. Image from the 2008 master plan.

These buildings primarily turn their backs on North Capitol and Irving and face a new street. There is a grid of streets, and if North Capitol and Irving stop being near-freeways, more of the streets that radiate from the historic Pasture could intersect urban boulevards.

If that doesn't happen, will buses have to wind through this area to be at all appealing for residents and workers? Transit works best when the densest uses cluster along a linear corridor rather than in self-contained office parks and cul-de-sac neighborhoods.

DC doesn't have room for massive amounts of new traffic. This project contemplates 4.3 million square feet, twice what's being proposed at McMillan and more than what will come to the Walter Reed site along Georgia Avenue. There has to be good-quality, desirable transit from all directions.

Already, many feel that the transit plans for McMillan are still a weak point. If another three McMillans of development are coming in this area, it's time for the District to get working on the transit that can go here. In the best case, the Yellow Line could branch off Green and run here; barring that, this should get high-quality light rail or bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes and frequent service.

A circle or other urban intersection at North Capitol and Irving can be a centerpiece of that, if DC and the federal government can agree on what to build. If so, the AFRH development can focus around the intersection instead of standing away from it.

Will governments be ready?

This project is still years away, and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will be involved as it moves forward. Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT said:

We have had initial discussions with AFRH representatives as they prepared for their solicitation. They are still at a very preliminary stage. ... We will be working with them on a comprehensive transportation report (CTR) similar to how we work with developers on large and small projects. ... With major development projects like AFRH, this process can often take years and multiple iterations. With McMillan, we probably had discussions over about 2-3 years as their designs and program evolved.
As for the cloverleaf, nothing has yet come of the study. NCPC spokesperson Stephen Staudigl said that "the buildings could be built in a way that could connect to any future traffic circle redevelopment," but added, "While NCPC remains interested in replacement of the North Capitol Street Cloverleaf, we have not done any work on the project since completion of the study."

GSA spokesperson Kamara Jones was unwilling to be quoted on the record.

Zimbabwe said DDOT is working on starting a study of the general cross-town transportation issues between Brookland and Columbia Heights through this area, including but not limited to the cloverleaf. DDOT is "starting the consultant selection process," so it's still in the early stages as well.

Reconfiguration of the cloverleaf would be a pretty expensive undertaking, and something that is not currently in our capital program.​ The whole of area around the hospital center and in this broader east-west corridor is a real challenge in terms of providing multi-modal options, and there will likely need to be quite a bit of investment needed. As the timing of the various development projects becomes a bit more defined, I think each of these things will interact and we'll be prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.
Residents will have to watch this project closely as it moves along to ensure that DC plans and budgets for the transportation necessary to make it successful. The other option is to get behind the curve or let a bad and un-urban design, like today's cloverleaf, become even further entrenched.

Young people are living closer to the center of the region

There are more people in their 20s and early 30s in the center of the region than there were in the past, but farther out, they're less prevalent. A great set of graphs from UVA's StatChat show the change:

Graph for the Washington area. Image from UVA StatChat.

The orange line represents the 1990 Census; the brown one, the 2008-2012 ACS 5-year estimates. This counts people from age 22 (to try to exclude college students) to 34 (the usual line between Millenials and Generation Xers).

The StatChat post emphasizes that if the 2012 line is lower than the 1990 line, that doesn't mean young people are abandoning that area. Rather,

Across the country, young adults make up a smaller percentage of the population than they have in a long time. It's not because there are fewer of them (though there may be soon), but because there are far more older people. Thus, in any given area or group, they make up a smaller proportion of the population.
So if you pick a random smaller US city not known for its "creative economy" hub, the percentage of young people has declined at all distances. But the trend is very different close to many city centers, including ours.

The StatChat post also reminds us that just because more Millenials are moving to the center, it doesn't mean all are. Young people live everywhere. And, as Dan Reed has pointed out, many are clustering around other urban places like Silver Spring, which doesn't show up on this graph since it's aggregated with everything else six miles from downtown.

I'm curious why our region has (and had in 1990) a peak around 22 miles from the core. Is that the "drive till you qualify" line where housing is cheap enough for younger people to afford? Or is there a specific area with a lot of younger people around that distance? Any ideas?

Is "the GGW agenda" dead? No, but it's hard to build transit

Former Chevy Chase mayor and longtime Purple Line foe David Lublin provocatively wrote that "the Greater Greater Washington agenda" is "a fading dream" after a year of bad news for transit in our region. While we appreciate his compliment in choosing us to pick on, he's wrong.

Original agenda image from Shutterstock.

Lublin notes that Arlington canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, the DC Council cut its streetcar budget, and Maryland governor Larry Hogan is "reviewing" the Purple Line after campaigning on the idea that it's too expensive.

Lublin claims that this shows "the region isn't following" this site's transit vision. Indeed, the first two are significant setbacks. It's too early to call the Purple Line, though as a leader in the town which has vociferously fought the line since 1989, Lublin is hoping for its demise.

But has Washington really turned away from transit?

2014 was a bad year for transit... except it was one of the best

Lublin adds one important caveat: he says all this happened "since the high point of the opening of the Silver Line." That was a pretty high point. This was the first new track mileage for Metro since the Blue Line to Largo in 2004. The Silver Line route has been on maps since at least 1968.

Virginia also opened the region's first Bus Rapid Transit, Alexandria's "Metroway" around Potomac Yard. These were big wins, and they matter.

It's very, very hard to build transit projects in America. The original Metro came a time when the United States wanted to invest in infrastructure, to compete with the Soviet Union among other reasons. We believed we could achieve great things together; we went to the moon, we built great highways and bridges and trains. Now, Asian nations are doing that while we nitpick the cost of every project.

Unlike road money, federal transit funds are competitive. The Federal Transit Administration chooses projects based on cost-effectiveness, and there are far more worthy projects than available dollars. It took a sustained, bipartisan campaign from Fairfax and Virginia officials, local business groups, and landowners to win the Silver Line. The airports authority also had the power to raise tolls to bring in a little more money and get the project over any obstacles.

There were big setbacks for transit

Lublin lists three "key components of GGW's vision" which, he claims, "the area has begun to reject."

It's worth pointing out that "the GGW agenda" goes far beyond just transit. Walkable development and "main streets" are getting built instead of malls and sprawl subdivisions. There are bike lanes and protected bikeways everywhere, including in Lublin's mostly-suburban Montgomery County. Walking is getting safer. There are more retail choices in many neighborhoods. Cities are working hard to expand affordable housing.

Still, let's look at the real transit setbacks this year.

1) The Columbia Pike streetcar. Arlington had enormous success building dense development around transit stations, but it wasn't getting any new Metro lines. There's no way to fund a Metro line under Columbia Pike. A dedicated transit lane would also be excellent, but the Virginia Department of Transportation said taking any lanes away from cars was out of the question.

It's tough when there isn't money to build the best transit and politically you can't inconvenience drivers. Arlington leaders concluded that even a streetcar in mixed traffic would move many riders than buses and generate enough economic incentive to build more densely and fund considerable new affordable housing.

But they had to choose a deeply imperfect alternative, which many reasonable pro-transit people still opposed. It was far from a slam dunk. Leading opponents also blatantly lied about whether "BRT" was a realistic alternative.

Meanwhile, BRAC made office vacancy rates skyrocket and kneecapped Arlington's budget. Add in complacency and political tone-deafness from the sitting county board, and it created an opening for a new set of politicians to tell voters, especially ones in wealthy suburban North Arlington, that their tax dollars were being wasted.

Once, Arlington had one political party. Now, it has two. One is finding big success encouraging wealthy taxpayers to resent public works that benefit others. It has plenty in common with Town of Chevy Chase Purple Line opponents.

2) The DC streetcar. It's important to note that to this day, most DC politicians continue to insist they favor streetcars. Maybe it's just posturing, for some, but DC is not anti-transit. Rather, the problem is simple: the streetcar was terribly, horribly, miserably mis-managed under the Gray administration.

There had been mistakes before, too, but over the last four years, DDOT streetcar officials continually lied to the public about when the streetcar could open, completely failed to plan for a maintenance facility, and dropped the ball entirely on coordinating with WMATA to keep buses and streetcars interacting smoothly.

They even have absolutely no system right now to collect fares if and when the streetcar does open, and avoided telling almost anyone about this for years.

It's no wonder that when one of the councilmembers who most opposed streetcars in the first place tried to take the money away, almost nobody put up a fight. Who would stick his or her neck out amidst such failings?

The streetcar still has a lot of promise, especially if officials can muster the political courage to give it dedicated lanes (which is already part of the plan for the congested K Street segment). But DDOT will have a long road to rebuild confidence before elected leaders or the public will just hand the agency a big chunk of money.

3) The Purple Line, on the other hand, has none of these flaws or missteps. It is an absolute slam dunk of a transportation project. It will run in an old railroad right-of-way between Bethesda and Silver Spring, two massive job and housing centers, and then in dedicated lanes over to the University of Maryland, a huge activity hub, and New Carrollton, a significant transit center.

It would blow past the ridership levels of nearly any other light rail line in the nation. It would make the existing investment in Metro vastly more valuable as well and add significant ridership at the less crowded ends of lines. It will make parts of Prince George's County much more desirable for new office and retail.

Unlike the DC Streetcar, it has been well-planned and well-managed (in large part by the man who now has taken over DC's department of transportation and has the job of cleaning up the streetcar mess). It has passed all of the federal competitive grant processes and been found worthy, and has additional federal money attached.

There are only two reasons to oppose the Purple Line, neither good. One is Lublin's: you live in a leafy little rich town in between Bethesda and Silver Spring and don't want a train to run along its edge, no matter how valuable that is to other Marylanders. The other is the rural voters', many of whom helped elect Larry Hogan: you just don't want a big chunk of "your" tax money (even though the denser jurisdictions pay more in taxes) to go to things you won't use in a part of the state you don't live in.

The nation we were is gone

The Purple Line will bring economic growth whose benefits far outweigh the costs. It will move a lot of people very effectively. America used to invest in such projects because we believed in building great things. Yet our nation has grown more fiscally conservative since the days of building Metro.

Lublin writes,

Project after project promoted by GGW has gone by the wayside in some among the most liberal jurisdictions in the country, so it's difficult to blame the shift on the Tea Party. Moreover, most of these projects have had frequent and unremitting support from the establishment Washington Post.
Don't dismiss shifting political winds so readily. Even in our Democratic-dominated region, more and more voters just want a politician who will cut taxes and spending. There was real waste in those headier days, sure, but also real investments we no longer have the political will to make.

Despite its transit support, the Post's editorial board consistently supported conservative candidates this cycle. The editors endorsed John Vihstadt, the anti-infrastructure Arlington candidate, partly the grounds that he would "reevaluate other expensive projects" other than the streetcar, which they supported. (They also argued his election wouldn't kill the streetcar, which was entirely wrong.)

They endorsed Hogan in the primary with a fervent anti-tax statement, then tepidly supported Democrat Anthony Brown in the general election while continuing to complain about state spending. And they helped Muriel Bowser, who was one of the most fiscally conservative members of the DC Council, break out as the anti-Vincent Gray candidate and ultimately win the mayoralty.

Many people now speak of infrastructure more as "spending" than "investment." Even most press articles about any project lead with the top-line dollar figure in the headline and bury any analysis of the project's economic benefits, and one of the first commenters always shouts, "Boondoggle!"

Communities increasingly look inward and resent projects that benefit someone else. We want to do less together as a society. We don't want to build big things. Those who have want to jealously guard their advantages instead of bettering the whole. Even people who consider themselves liberal on national issues want to build virtual walls around their own communities to keep the other out.

Lublin is right that things have changed. More wealthy enclaves in the Washington area are adopting the Town of Chevy Chase's brand of tight-fisted, self-interested narrow thinking. I just don't think it's something to be proud of.

Correction: The initial version of this post said the Washington Post had endorsed Larry Hogan for Maryland governor. In fact, it endorsed Hogan only in the primary, but its general election endorsement for Anthony Brown still took a fiscally conservative tack. The appropriate paragraph has been modified.

Bethesda's parking district is going broke while its most popular garage remains free

The fund that pays for parking garages in Bethesda may soon run out of money, Montgomery County officials say. The reason is simple: The county just built an expensive new garage, yet it continues to under-charge for parking on weekends.

The Bethesda Row parking garage is full and free. Photo by the author.

Montgomery County has special Parking Lot District entities to manage public parking in Bethesda, Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Montgomery Hills. Each one gets the revenue from meters along with a special tax that property owners pay if they want to build without the otherwise-required amount of parking. Each pays to maintain existing garages and lots and build new ones.

According to a report by county staff, the Bethesda district is in trouble. It will likely earn $21.7 million in revenue, including $13.9 million from meters, but spend $24.8 million.

The costs are so high for one big reason: the new underground garage at the corner of Bethesda and Woodmont avenues. There used to be a surface parking lot here, and a new mixed-use project has replaced it. But the county substantially increasd the number of public parking spaces at a cost of $80,00 per space, even though there are other public garages just a few blocks away which don't fill up.

Why is parking free on weekends?

One nearby garage does fill up: the garage in the middle of Bethesda Row, with entrances on Bethesda Avenue and Elm Street. This is one of the most popular since it is so close to the very busy Bethesda Row shops. Yet on a recent Saturday, I found it to be totally full. At the same time, it's free.

You pay nothing to park in Bethesda's garages on Saturdays or Sundays—if you can find a space. Businesses have resisted suggestions in the past to charge on Saturdays, at least. But the businesses are thriving, and most of all, the garage is so crowded some potential customers are getting turned away.

Unlike in the other districts, Bethesda does at least charge until 10:00 pm. But there's one simple step the county can take to increase revenue: charge on weekends at the most popular garages.

Maybe some suburbanites, so unaccustomed to paying for parking, will go to the mall instead. Though while there is also an Apple Store at Montgomery Mall, there are a lot of businesses in Bethesda Row that don't have counterparts elsewhere nearby. It just doesn't seem that Bethesda Row, one of the county's most thriving shopping districts, is anywhere near in danger of dying off or that a dollar or two to park should deter people from spending $50 for a meal or $100 for a pair of jeans.

Alternately, people could park for free at the farther garages and walk a shorter distance to the shops than they would have to if they parked at the mall.

All the space in the new garage might mean that the Bethesda Row garage will stop being totally full, but that still doesn't remove the value of charging. With the new spaces, more people will still be going to Bethesda, and using this infrastructure that cost a lot of money.

The fault isn't transit or smart growth policies

The report also tosses backhanded criticisms to county council actions that have used some of the parking district money for the Bethesda Urban Partnership, the local organization that promotes Bethesda, or transit service to and from Bethesda. But if you don't narrowly look at the district's goal as only getting cars to Bethesda, it's clear that spending money on these efforts helps draw more people to Bethesda without requiring more, expensive parking.

County staff also give the side-eye toward the county's new zoning code, which relaxes some parking minimums. That will mean fewer buildings paying extra taxes to get out of too-high minimums, money which goes into the district. But the zoning aims to help places grow less reliant on people driving in. That, in turn, cuts down on the need to build new garages and thus the need to tax buildings to build garages.

We often go to Bethesda, and we do frequently drive there. We don't need a subsidy from Montgomery County to do it, especially if it's bankrupting the parking district. We'll still go to Bethesda if it costs a few dollars. There's a simple path to keep the parking district in the black.

Death spiral or budget chicken? WMATA floats drastic cuts

Waits for a Metro train could get longer or trains could not run at all after midnight on weekends, if the WMATA Board adopts a budget proposal released yesterday. Fares would also rise by 10¢. Many bus lines could also come less often or stop running earlier, and Metro buses to the airports would stop completely.

Photo by cranneyanthony on Flickr.

Is this for real? It's likely that fares might rise, but doing so could just drive more riders away from Metro, giving it a bigger budget gap next year and starting a "death spiral." Or, local governments could come up with the money WMATA needs, but until and unless that happens, riders will be caught in the middle of a high-stakes game of "budget chicken."

WMATA's costs have increased four percent while ridership is down, a change WMATA attributes mostly to cuts in federal transit benefits that force more federal workers to pay out of pocket for transit or switch to driving.

What WMATA might cut, and why

The agency therefore says it needs $140 million more from DC, Maryland, and Virginia ($919 million versus $779 million) to keep service running. If they don't get it, then fare hikes and/or service cuts are the only option, and yesterday, WMATA officials released a proposal for how that might work.

They are proposing a 10¢ hike in both bus and rail fares (and, once again, a double increase for bus and rail riders).

For rail service, there are two options. In one, trains would only come every eight minutes (up from six today, at least when Metro keeps to its schedule) during rush hour, except the Blue Line which is already less frequent and wouldn't change. Off-peak weekdays and Saturdays there would be 15 minutes instead of 12 between trains, and on Sundays trains would come every 20 minutes instead of 15 (when not further disrupted by track work).

The second option is to end rail service at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays instead of at 3 am. That's the same closing time Metro had until 1999, when it started getting later as our urban areas started seeing more late-night activity. The agency floated the same possible cut in 2011.

As for the buses, the B30 to BWI, 5A to Dulles, and 13Y to National Airport would end completely, and there would be a plethora of other, smaller cuts (the 30th page of the PDF, numbered page 63).

Event organizers who want to open Metro early would have to pay $50,000 an hour instead of the current $29,500, and the TransitLink card that offers rides on Metro along with MARC, VRE, or Maryland MTA commuter buses would go away.

There are a few seemingly sensible changes to parking fees: the Minnesota Avenue garage costs $1 less than other garages, but more people are parking there, so it no longer makes sense to offer a discount at that one garage. Parkimg becomes free after midnight Monday to Thursday and 3 am Friday, but some parkers wait until after that time to leave and get free parking.

Our contributors react

How should riders feel about this? We posed the question to our contributors.

Kelli Raboy said,

The proposed rail service cuts are definitely the biggest punch to the gut. 25 minute headways (weeknights and weekend evenings/nights) would make any trips requiring transfers more or less impossible. And I can't imagine how much worse crowding would get with increased headways during peak (from 6 to 8 minutes).

The option for rail service cuts is presented as 1) increase headways overall OR 2) cut all weekend late night service (12pm to 3am); I'm pretty sure all the jurisdictions would pick option 2.

I think the proposed bus service cuts could also have a big impact, but it's (obviously) harder to see on a regional scale. They also snuck in a proposal to defer the Priority Corridor Networks program for buses, which is the main means for improvements like transit signal priority and bus-only lanes.

Matt Johnson added, writing on his phone on his way home last night, "Incidentally, I'm currently waiting 16 minutes for a Green Line train. And this is before the service cuts."

Gray Kimbrough pointed out that the service cuts actually don't save that much money:

What I find most shocking is how little those proposed rail service changes would actually save. In particular, cutting all weekend rail service after midnight would have projected gross savings of $8 million, which would fall to a net savings of $4 million after reduced revenue.

Increasing headways at all times by from 2 minutes (peak service) to 5 minutes (most other times) would have a projected yearly gross savings of $24 million. Offsetting this by the projected revenue loss of $11 million, it would only save $13 million.

So I guess my main takeaway from this is how little it would cost to reduce most headways and provide better service if we actually had the political will and rail cars to do so.

All of the changes that harm riders (the fare hike and all of the service cuts) would save DC, Maryland, and Virginia governments a total of $46 million, out of $140 million total WMATA wants to add to the jurisdictions' bill.

Death spiral of budget chicken?

Kelli Raboy added, "This is my first round of the WMATA budget game of chicken so I'm not sure how nervous I should actually be about all these proposed changes, but as someone who relies on Metro, it's pretty tough to see on paper." Nick Keenan agreed, saying, "I had to wonder if this was indeed 'budget chicken.'"

WMATA officials know that riders will hate this and protest loudly. And they should. Service cuts like these threaten to send Metro into a "death spiral" where lower service and higher costs drive people away from transit, further decreasing ridership and creating new budget problems.

Each year, the agency does manage to squeeze down its budget a little bit, and so there is indeed a game of "budget chicken" where the jurisdictions might hold out to pressure WMATA to save a little money here and there elsewhere before either going for a fare hike, service cuts, or ponying up more for the bulk of it. Unfortunately, riders are caught in the crossfire.

This is also a more public process than most budget issues. Staffing and other costs rise inside the DC budget and other local jurisdictions' budget, but outside of a recession, so do tax revenues. Maybe there's a surplus or a gap, but the money coming in often balances out the money going out and you don't see the higher costs in the same way you do for Metro.

In the long run, the region ought to dedicate some sort of funding stream to Metro which can predictably grow about as fast as Metro costs. However, to get public support for this, WMATA is also going to have to more directly confront its constantly-rising costs and the things that frustrate riders, like surly employees, eternally broken escalators and elevators, and constant track work without trustworthy information about if and when the rebuilding will end.

A lot of change has to also come from the executives and legislatures of DC, Maryland, and Virginia. As a multi-state agency, WMATA is just doing the bidding of its constituent governments, but because it's not under a single chief executive, no elected official really takes responsibility.

If DC Public Schools proposed big cuts or needed more money, Muriel Bowser would have to address the problem, for example. She should take responsibility for addressing Metro's short-term and long-term problems too. So should Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and Larry Hogan in Maryland.

Ben Ross wrote, "Anger should be directed at the overlords in Annapolis, the District building, and the Virginia counties whose emissaries comprise the WMATA board, not at WMATA." The WMATA Board can only ask for more money or make cuts; the governments of the region can fix the real structural issues here.

Having a transit system scraping along year after year on the verge of ruin is not good for the people of our region. Our leaders need to get WMATA onto a sustainable footing at the same time the agency admits to its problems, fixes them, and gets long-term costs under control. So far, there's no sign that's about to happen, and instead, we face the threat of a death spiral and a game of budget chicken.

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