Greater Greater Washington

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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Development


Upper Northwest hits peak NIMBY about a homeless shelter

Fifty short-term apartments for homeless residents are likely coming to Idaho Avenue in upper Northwest DC. At a community meeting last night, some residents showed just how much they think the poorest people in DC need to stay far away from their exclusive enclaves.

Helder Gil posted this flyer on Twitter, which people anonymously circulated at a community meeting Thursday night on a proposed homeless shelter next to the police station on Idaho Avenue, between Cleveland Park and Cathedral Heights.

It includes the astoundingly offensive phrase, "Homeless lives matter; the lives of community homeowners matter too."

What's being proposed

Mayor Muriel Bowser set a very laudable goal of spreading out homeless shelters across all eight wards of DC. It's not best for homeless residents to all be concentrated in one small area, and puts the burden entirely on one neighborhood.

Most people expected people in some wealthy neighborhoods to fight the idea of any homeless people coming to their communities. But the flaws in how the Bowser administration executed on this plan, with seemingly too-high payments to property owners, some of whom were campaign donors, overshadowed any such debate.

Recently, the DC Council revised the plan to place all shelters on public property or land the District could acquire. In Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, the new site is the parking lot of the police station on Idaho Avenue. And now that the legitimate problems with the plan are past, some are indeed attacking the very idea that upper Northwest has to play any part in solving the need for homeless housing.

Many of the usual arguments against any project have come out in full force: the zoning doesn't match, our schools can't afford it, what about neighborhood security, this will up the traffic and down my property values.

Misconceptions abound

The anonymous flyer says, "We fundamentally oppose the Mayor's plan of equal distribution of homeless population—to build a shelter in each ward regardless of land availability and economic soundness." (The land seems to be quite available, actually, and economically, DC has to spend nothing to buy a parking lot it already owns.)

The letter, and people at the meeting, alleged that a shelter would harm property values. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson disputed that:

"There are plenty [of] empty public buildings in the city which can be renovated and used as shelters," the letter also says. First off, not really; second, this really is pretty much empty public land. What they mean is, "there are plenty of public buildings in someone else's neighborhood."

Talking about how the statements are wrong on their face is beside the point. The statements are morally wrong. Many people of DC's fancier neighborhoods, even ones who identify as Democrats ("liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets") believe all of the city's need for housing, whether for homeless residents, the working poor, young college grads, or anyone else, should be solved somewhere else where "there's plenty of empty land."

Never mind that all of those other neighborhoods "over there" have people in them too, people who might be okay with some shelters or halfway housing or other social services but understandably don't want it all. Why should one part of the city get an opt out just because it's the richest part?

Not all residents of the area are hostile to the less fortunate:

Yes, to whoever said that, thank you.

Transit


Metro doesn't have four tracks. That's not why maintenance is a problem.

"Yet from the start, Metro was saddled with two structural flaws. First, each line runs on just two tracks—New York City's subway generally has four—which makes it difficult to perform maintenance while still shuttling commuters."


Photo by Andrew d'Entremont on Flickr.

That's part of a detailed profile of Paul Wiedefeld and Metro's current struggles in TIME Magazine, the rest of which is excellent but unfortunately behind a paywall. But in the above excerpt, reporter Alex Altman repeats a very common canard about Metro, that having two tracks instead of the four of many New York subway lines is a major flaw.

This pops up in article after article about Metro, though rarely if ever sourced to a specific transportation expert. Instead, it's just something that every reporter "knows"—even though it's largely false.

Frederick Kunkle said something similar in a May 13 blog post:

Metro riders will probably have to pay for Metro's past sins, including the original sin of designing an ambitious regional subway with only two tracks.
False.

We heard the same from unnamed reporters at Agence France-Presse:

But the system was created with two chinks that have proven costly as the subway expanded to keep pace with the metropolitan area's population growth, and money for repairs and upkeep became increasingly scarce.

First, while other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks, Washington's has just two. This was done to save money.

Incorrect.

Other articles, like in the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and ABC7 also mention the 4-track issue and often compare DC to New York, though they don't make the outright incorrect statements of the others.

What is true

1. Metro does have only two tracks on all its lines.

2. This was a deliberate decision, partly because more tracks would have cost more. George Mason history professor Zachary Schrag, the guy who literally wrote the book on Metro, explains that planners thought about making more tracks, but chose not to because it would have been too expensive, and given limited resources, they wanted to build more lines instead.

3. Having more tracks would make maintenance less painful. On New York's four-track lines, the subway system is able to shut down one or two tracks for a weekend and keep two-way service running, though people at some stations may not get trains or might only get them in one direction.

What is false

"Other subway systems in America were built with three or four tracks" (from the AFP article). This is almost entirely false. As Matt Johnson explained back in 2009 (the first time we discussed this), there are only three US subway systems with express tracks: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

New York has a lot of express tracks, and since so many people are familiar with the New York subway, it's likely why people keep asking about the issue. Otherwise, Matt wrote, "In Philadelphia, the Broad Street Subway includes express trackage for most of its length. The Chicago L offers express service on the Purple Line during rush periods (and a short stretch of the Red south of Belmont)." That's it.

There are a few places where other systems have multiple lines that converge for a transfer, like around BART's MacArthur station in Oakland, but that's just a short bit.


Two track line in Chicago. Photo by Jason Mrachina on Flickr.

Worldwide, even, four-track subways are the exception rather than the rule. A few pieces of lines in London have four tracks, but other cities do not. Paris's extensive Métro is all two-track lines. Two lines, the #8 and #9, run together in a 4-track subway for four stations, and the RER regional rail has some sections with more than two tracks, but Paris has more miles of 2-track lines than Washington, and most US and world cities are all 2-track lines.

Resilience isn't why some systems have more tracks

Lines with more tracks aren't that way for redundancy, but rather capacity: they make it possible to fit twice the trains along the same avenue. In only the densest places in the world, like New York, is that sensible, and even so, most cities don't do it.

Instead of making 4-track lines, what world cities with better transit systems than Washington enjoy is just more lines, period. You can shut down a line much more easily when there's another one nearby. Back to New York, for instance, the tunnels between Manhattan and other boroughs are 2-track, but there are many parallel ones.

If the A train is under repair, the trains could travel on the F line instead. When the L tunnel has to be shut down for Sandy-related repairs, it'll be horrible for residents of Williamsburg and Bushwick, but at least they can transfer to the G train to go around to another East River crossing.

When Chicago shut down its Red Line for months, it was able to set up bus service to get people to the parallel Green. Fewer parts of the DC Metro have alternate lines nearby.

More tracks? How about more lines

If the builders of the Washington Metro had had more money, they should have done just what Schrag said they already wanted to do: build more lines, not more tracks. More lines would make transit closer to more people but could also offer redundancy.

In the core, it would have been better to separate the Blue and Orange, or Yellow and Green, into separate, nearby subways. Metro has, at various times, suggested plans to do that. Such a layout would allow rerouting those trains onto the other line in the event of night or weekend shutdowns (and make room for more trains during rush).

While the articles above didn't talk about express service, a related complaint about Metro is that it doesn't have express trains. Actually, the truth is more that it has nothing but expresses. Schrag writes, "The wide spacing of stations in the suburbs make them the equivalent of express lines elsewhere. Rather, Metro lacks the slow, hyper-local routes like the Broadway Local in New York City, which stops every few blocks to serve the tens of thousands people in apartment buildings."

There's no doubt Metro has maintenance problems. But we can't blame them on the system having only two tracks. Other systems keep up maintenance with only two tracks. It's simply not true that building two tracks is "the original sin of Metro" or one of "two structural flaws."

Rather than bringing up the issue about two tracks over and over, news articles would do better to talk about ways Metro is falling short of all the world's 2-track train systems which operate and maintain themselves better.

Transit


Orange, Silver, and Blue riders: Pain is coming in just a month. DOTs: Get moving on bus and HOV lanes now.

Metro's revised SafeTrack plan is out, and riders along the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines will be suffering much earlier than in the original plan. That may be necessary maintenance, but it'll mean local officials have to move fast to find alternative ways to get people east and west.

Shutdown from June 14-16.

The first "surge" is single-tracking from Ballston to East Falls Church from June 4-13. That single-tracking includes rush hours and every other time. There will be fewer trains at rush hour everywhere along the Orange and Silver west of there and the Orange Line east all the way to New Carrollton.

Then, the really big challenge hits June 18, when Metro will shut down the line from Eastern Market to Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road for 16 days, June 18-July 3. This will also mean no trains from Arlington Cemetery to Rosslyn. That means no trains on these areas for over two weeks.

Shutdown from June 18-July 3.

And this won't just affect people traveling on the east side of the region. There will be 54% fewer trains from Eastern Market to Rosslyn during rush hours and 40-43% fewer on the Orange and Silver lines in Virginia.

We'll need bus/HOV lanes and staging parking lots

Based on all the feedback you gave in comments and emails, plus talking to some transportation experts, we think our region's transportation departments need to immediately get together and consider a set of bus and HOV lanes along main arterial roads and bridges along the Orange/Blue/Silver Line corridor.

In addition, the DOTs should find lots that can serve as park-and-rides and slugging staging areas. People could park in these zones and form ad-hoc carpools (called "slugging"), or ride special shuttle buses using the 42 extra buses Metro has available for the surges.

Workers, employers, retailers, and everyone else will have to step up too, to share rides and adjust work hours to keep people getting where they need to go. Still, many people don't have that option and need a way to travel east and west without spending hours in traffic.

We don't have all the answers. The local DOTs have the experts who need to figure out the specifics. Or maybe they have variations on this plan that would work better. But while asking people nicely to please telework or carpool is part of the answer, it's not enough on its own. Some priority for carpoolers and buses is necessary.

There's not a lot of time. But the SafeTrack "surges" won't be permanent. It's not unreasonable to try some meaningful policies in late June to try to keep people moving. Because then in July, the pain will hit Yellow/Blue riders from the south, followed by more single-tracking on Orange/Silver, and then a big Red Line single-track in August.

Ask your local DOTs to get this figured out RIGHT NOW with the form below.

Ask your DOT to act fast

Please ask your local transportation officials to step up. We've suggested some recommendations in the form, but you can customize it as much as you'd like. Our system will automatically send your letter to the right officials based on the jurisdiction you enter.

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Roads


A streetcar to Georgetown could add a loop ramp under K Street and a pedestrian walkway

DC is planning dedicates lanes for the streetcar almost entirely from Union Station to Georgetown. One tricky spot: from Washington Circle over Rock Creek and I-66 to Georgetown. Here's how it could work.


Image from the Georgetown BID.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) project team will present its latest options on Tuesday night, and we got a look ahead of the meeting.

The study is considering two options to build a streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, one in mixed traffic and one (better) one with dedicated lanes, and no overhead wires except at stations and below underpasses.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

Along K Street downtown, a 2-lane transitway in the center of the road has been planned since 2010. Heading west, the streetcar would then go through the underpass below Washington Circle (leaving just one lane in each direction for cars). That's where it gets tough.

The turn to 27th Street

If you drive west on K now, you encounter a long left turn lane for cars turning onto 27th Street NW, a little street with almost no buildings but which leads right to a ramp to I-66 and to Virginia Avenue. That left turn lane would mix horribly with a dedicated streetcar lane.

DDOT planners have an idea. The bridge where K crosses two I-66 ramps has an extra span to the west, and there's a lot of open land which is technically highway right of way in between the various ramps.


The loop ramp would use the left side of this bridge. Image from Google Maps.

They therefore want to study adding a new loop ramp from K Street, turning right instead of left, looping around, and rejoining 27th Street where it connects to the current off-ramp from 66.


Image from DDOT.

This would allow the streetcar to have the middle of K Street to itself. It would also smooth traffic at that complicated intersection, where there has to be a whole phase for turns onto 27th.

According to the presentation, DDOT is looking at widening the bridge in that area, partly to add lanes and also to create a sidewalk on the north side of K, where there is none today.

Washington Circle

The streetcar will be down in a trench from about 21st Street to 25th. So how can people get from the streetcar line to places in between, like George Washington University?

The study team is looking at putting a station in the median between 24th and 25th Streets, where the center part of the road is still largely below ground. At 25th is a regular at-grade intersection where people could cross from the middle of K to go north or south, but the team wants to better connect it to 24th and Washington Circle as well.

Therefore, they are looking at building a pedestrian ramp from the below-ground streetcar level up to street level at 24th.


Image from DDOT.

Both of these pieces would cost money—exactly how much, project manager Jamie Henson said, they will study in the next phase of this process.

That will likely make the alternative with dedicated lanes more expensive than the one without, but if the price tag is reasonable, it's worth it. Encourage DDOT to move ahead with as much dedicated lane as possible below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


West of Union Station, no overhead streetcar wires

When (and if) DC extends the streetcar from Union Station to Georgetown, it almost certainly won't use overhead wires, except at stations. Connections in the stations' canopies will charge supercapacitors for power, according to the latest plans.


Those wires? They won't be farther west. Photo by Dan Malouff.

This is part of the information the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present at a meeting Tuesday night and which we got an exclusive early look at. Earlier, we talked about how using almost entirely dedicated lanes was a new (and better) option.

DDOT has also been studying power systems. Wires were banned in the part of DC originally designed by Pierre L'Enfant during the old streetcar days, so streetcars used "plows" that ran in grooves in the ground. These systems were very failure-prone, and modern technology can do better.

On H Street, the streetcars now use overhead wires, a tried-and-true (and not so ugly as all that) power system. However, federal planners and local preservationists have opposed wires on major "viewsheds" and, if the streetcar ever crosses the National Mall, there as well.

A possible solution is a hybrid system, where the streetcar connects to wires in some places but runs on batteries elsewhere. Jamie Henson, who's in charge of the Union Station to Georgetown study, and his team at DDOT believe that the technology is fast reaching the point where the wires only need to be at the stations themselves.

Under the plan DDOT is currently studying, the "wires" would be "rigid catenary" that look like they're part of a station canopy. When a streetcar pulls into a station, its pantographs would contact these canopy elements and start drawing power.

How the power would work

Charging batteries is slow, but supercapacitors can charge very fast. The streetcar could charge the supercapacitors in 20-30 seconds, Henson said, which can include some of the time the streetcar is finishing pulling in or starting to pull out. The supercapacitors then would more slowly discharge into the batteries.

The vehicles would also use regenerative braking, which charges the batteries when a vehicle brakes. There could also be wires where the streetcar line is underneath a roadway like the Whitehurst Freeway or Washington Circle.

According to an analysis by the project team, this would generate enough energy to power the streetcars even when heavily loaded, on a very hot or cold day with heat or air conditioning at full blast.

While this is the leading edge of streetcar technology, said Henson, other cities such as Dallas have hybrid off-wire segments and there are proposals for hybrid systems in Detroit, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee. Henson said streetcar technology is building on bus technology, which is slightly farther ahead.

DC is still 3-4 years away from the point of actually ordering more streetcars. Henson said he believes it is "reasonable to expect" the technology would be developed to a sufficient level by that time.

I hope so. Making this project depend on as-yet-unproven technology seems risky. While some people have long been fighting overhead wires, many far more historic European cities have trams with wires and it doesn't destroy their beauty.

It was clear that federal interests wouldn't allow wires across viewsheds (rightly or wrongly), but DDOT could accommodate that with shorter gaps in wires. That puts a lot less demand on a vehicle's batteries and thus demands less of a technological leap. If the tech works, that'd be great, but what if not?

What about the current line?

Hybrid vehicles could use the current wires on H Street/Benning Road and the future eastward extension to Benning Metro (assuming that extension ends up using wires, which is still an open question).

The existing streetcar vehicles wouldn't work on the hybrid line. According to Henson, part of the upcoming work in the Union Station to Georgetown study will include analyzing whether to have some vehicles only run east of Union Station, retrofit them to use hybrid technology, or replace them entirely.

However, this was going to be necessary regardless—full wires to Georgetown was never in the cards. The team seems to have a promising approach, but will have to be very vigilant to ensure that DC takes advantage of current technology, maximizing the benefit, while also guarding against buying cars that turn out to be lemons or investing in technology that leaves the cars stranded.

But if DC chooses dedicated lanes for the extension, that has a big benefit for the wireless technology: Not having to worry about traffic congestion makes it easier to go off-wire, knowing the batteries don't have to have enough power for very long stints in traffic.

Ask for dedicated lanes using the form below.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


DC's streetcar may go to Georgetown with dedicated lanes

You read that headline right—dedicated lanes! After lots of transportation experts and pundits said DC's streetcar needed dedicated lanes if it's to be valuable, DC transportation planners designed an option for extending the streetcar which devotes a lane for almost all of the length from Union Station to Georgetown.


Streetcar in the K Street Transitway. Image from DDOT video.

Tuesday night, planners from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present options to extend the existing H Street streetcar route to Georgetown. Greater Greater Washington has gotten an exclusive sneak peek at the proposals.

Besides a no-build option, there are now two: one in a dedicated lane from Mount Vernon Square to Washington Circle but in mixed traffic the rest of the way, and a new option to use dedicated lanes for almost the whole length.

The piece along K Street downtown has been slated for dedicated lanes since 2009, when DC finished an environmental study of plans to move K Street's medians over one lane. Instead of four lanes in the center and two on each side (one for parking), there will be a 2-lane transitway in the middle and one three-lane road on each side, which could have parking in one lane outside peak periods.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

Until now, that was the only dedicated lane being contemplated for the streetcar. But more and more people argued that without dedicated lanes, the streetcar would not offer a faster ride, making it no more appealing, transportation-wise, than existing bus lines.

Therefore, the project team added a new option which has a dedicated lane under the Whitehurst Freeway, along K Street to Washington Circle, under Washington Circle, and over to Mount Vernon Square.

New dedicated lane alternative from DDOT. Click for a larger version.

The streetcar would share the road with other vehicles around the square itself, but then go back into its own lanes to New Jersey Avenue, where the route turns to get down to H Street. The two blocks on New Jersey would be shared, as that road isn't wide enough (some parts of that area are just three lanes).

Finally, along H Street from New Jersey Avenue to the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, DDOT is studying a dedicated lane or possibly shared lanes. According to project manager Jamie Henson, this will depend on another study going on about how to allocate space on the Hopscotch Bridge (H Street's bridge behind Union Station) between the various needs of Amtrak (as it plans for a major expansion of Union Station), Akridge (which will be building offices atop the railyards north of H, and other needs.

If the streetcar can't get a dedicated lane on the bridge, Henson said, it wouldn't make sense to give it one on the short stretch from there to New Jersey Avenue, since each time it crosses in or out of a dedicated lane there has to be a special phase for traffic signals.

Where the planning stands

This is actually the third meeting in an ongoing Environmental Assessment which began in 2014. DDOT held two meetings that year, but with the change in administration and a halt to an ambitious Public-Private Partnership effort, the study went on hold as the Bowser Administration re-evaluated the streetcar program.

Ultimately, they decided to commit to opening the H Street-Benning Road line (done) and then extending the line east to Benning Road Metro and west to Georgetown. The Tuesday night meeting focuses on the Union Station to Georgetown end; another meeting Thursday will consider the Benning Road end (and we'll have a post later today on that).

In 2014, there were three options:

  1. No-build; don't build a streetcar here.
  2. Dedicated lanes along the K Street transitway, but mixed traffic everywhere else.
  3. Run the streetcar in the existing outer lanes of K Street instead.
The team has now jettisoned Option 3, concluding it wouldn't work, but added the new, more exciting Option 4, with as much dedicated lane as possible.

Option 2. Click for a larger version.

DDOT has also started involving the Federal Transit Administration more closely as a partner agency in this study. That might make it possible for DC to get federal Small Starts or other funding for some of this project, said Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT (though there is no guarantee). Zimbabwe said the FTA also may help improve the project through its expertise.

What's next

Planners will hear from the public at a meeting Tuesday night, May 17 (tonight, if you're reading the post the day it's first posted). They will then study the options in more detail before presenting in the fall, with a final public hearing in early 2017.

I like Option 4, with dedicated lanes, and would like them dedicated on the H Street portion as well. You can tell DDOT you agree (or express a different opinion) using the form below.

The rest of the study will fill in many of the open questions, including things like traffic operations around Mount Vernon Square (a thorny issue), cost, and more. A 2013 analysis put the approximate price tag for the section to Union Station in the ballpark of $325 million.

After the study wraps up next year, the streetcar line will open six months later. No, just kidding. DDOT will have years of engineering design, procurement, and more ahead of it. The current budget provides funding for actual construction starting in 2022, so a line would open at the earliest in the early- to mid-2020s, said Henson. (And nobody at DDOT wants to commit to any dates yet.)

There are some more details in DDOT's presentation about the streetcars' power systems and the area west of Washington Circle, which we'll talk about in upcoming posts.

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Weigh in

Tell DDOT what you want for the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar study. (I suggest asking them to put as much dedicated lane into the study as possible.)

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Transit


How can we help people get around during SafeTrack?

Metro's SafeTrack plan (plus any FTA-mandated changes) will mean weeks with no service, or month-long single-tracking, on big sections of the rail system. Our region will need to help people get around in other ways that avoid crippling traffic. How do we do that?


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Most of our major roads are already full during peak periods. Some Metro "surges" will disrupt travel for tens of thousands of people. If even a small proportion of these Metro riders drive alone, we could see major regional gridlock.

While the "surges" won't close the whole system at once, their effects will reverberate throughout the region. Lines with single tracking will see fewer trains overall, and the closures and decreased service will likely push people who connect from other lines to commute some other way. All of this means significant traffic impacts far from any given work zone.

What should the region do?

We talked with a number of transportation professionals for their thoughts. But we'd also like to hear yours. We'll compile a list of promising measures, and we're working with the Coalition for Smarter Growth on a tool for you to reach out to your local DOT and elected leaders to ask them to make it happen. Sign up here and you'll be the first to know when it's ready to go.

Get SafeTrack updates!

Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are working together on ways for you to reach out to your local DOT and elected leaders to ask for the measures we need to see the region through SafeTrack. Sign up here and you'll be the first to know when it's ready to go.

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Where you live:    ZIP code:

Here are the ideas we heard:

Teleworking is the biggest no-brainer. Many people can telework. But many more cannot. If people who can, do, that would alleviate some of the crunch. But not all.

Bus lanes. A lot of people will switch to the bus. But if they are stuck in traffic, they're not able to get to the ends of their routes and start the next run, effectively cutting down on bus capacity. The bus would also then be an unpleasant way to travel, pushing more people into cars instead, making driving and riding the bus worse, and so on.

The Washington region actually had a network of bus lanes before Metrorail opened. Without the trains, those lanes helped get people in and out of job centers. We need them again.


Bus lane network, pre-1976. Image from WMATA.

Walking and bicycling are an appealing alternative people who live close to work. Capital Bikeshare capacity and bike parking are likely to be some of the biggest crunches for bicycling. In Metro-accessible job centers like downtown DC, Silver Spring, Rosslyn, and others, bike corrals could help keep Capital Bikeshare balanced, and help people riding their own bikes find a place to park.

Carpooling can fit more people into fewer vehicles, making more efficient use of the road space we have. Some people may carpool without any prodding. But even more people will carpool if there are incentives to do it, like:

  • HOV lanes. On key arterials, one lane could be made HOV for a year. Both buses and carpoolers could use these to get a faster ride, making it more worthwhile to carpool or ride the bus.
  • Slugging. About 10,000 Virginians ride with strangers every day. Drivers pick up these strangers to get to use the I-395 carpool lanes, a practice called slugging. There are designated areas for people to park and then find rides.

    If DC added HOV lanes on key arterials from Maryland to downtown, Maryland counties could help find places, like shopping center parking lots that go mostly empty on weekdays, to serve as slug pickup areas. The same goes for Virginia routes into DC besides 395.


A "slug line." Image from Wikimedia.

  • Employer incentives. Employers could help people carpool, such as by offering reserved parking, running programs to match people up, or simply trying to structure the work day to make carpooling more feasible. Carpooling has declined as people's work schedules became more irregular; employers can reverse that trend, at least for the year.
  • Business incentives. Retail businesses can play a role, too. Restaurants and shops could find ways to offer discounts or specials to people who biked or carpooled.
  • Ride-matching services. Existing programs like Commuter Connections run bulletin boards and employer programs to match people to potential carpool or vanpool buddies.
  • Apps like Split, UberPool, and Lyft Line already try to match up people to share rides. Carpool lanes would create an even stronger incentive to use them. Or, governments could work with these companies to find other ways to increase the incentive to try them.
Special parking lots and shuttles. When a Metro line section shuts down, there could be a temporary park-and-ride with shuttle buses. For example, RFK's parking lots are huge and almost always empty. They could serve as a commuter parking lot and special buses could zip people (ideally, on a temporary HOV lane on I-695 and I-395) to the Capitol and downtown job centers. Where else could this work?


Potential park and ride? Image from Bing Maps.

Optimize bus routes. Besides (or ideally in addition to) adding bus lanes, there are ways to boost capacity on major bus lines, especially the ones paralleling Metro lines (like the S and 70s buses from Silver Spring to downtown DC, when the eastern Red Line shuts down). Some approaches:

  • Add express buses. Metro has a dedicated fleet of 42 buses to add to areas with shutdowns. Local transportation officials are already thinking about how to best deploy these. Other than a direct "bus bridge" between closed stations, some could be new express service on likes like the S9 and 79. A few local buses could switch to express during the shutdown as well.
  • Restrict on-street parking. Many DC arterial roads have parking on the non-peak side during rush hour, and on both sides at other times. The road could carry more vehicles without that. But it's best to make the new lane a bus or HOV lane, so that people have an incentive to carpool or take the bus instead of consuming all that capacity with new single-passenger trips.
  • Fix chokepoints. Likewise, Metro already knows where the major bus routes waste the most time. Retiming a signal, temporarily removing some parking, or adding an interim turn lane could clear out those spots. Where do you think are the most important places for this?
  • Reroute buses that end at a Metro station. For example, the 80s buses on Rhode Island Avenue almost all end at Rhode Island Avenue Metro. But when the eastern Red Line shuts down, then what? Those buses could go downtown—but will need places to drop off, and bus or HOV lanes (sense a theme?) could ensure they don't spend more time doing so than necessary.
Drop-off zones. If more people carpool and take buses, more curbside space may need to be devoted to letting people load and unload, either from commuter buses that already come in from farther out areas, for carpoolers, and for riders of app services who share rides instead of riding alone.


Proposed late night bus service & map from Metro's April 2016 Metrobus Late Night Service Study.

Improve late night bus service. Metro plans to shut down at midnight instead of 3 am. While the number of people who ride Metro at night has dropped as many people switch to ride-hailing services, it's still important to offer an affordable way for people to get home.

  • Make a late night map. Metro could publish a special map showing late night bus service, especially the routes that take people between Metro stations. Most people don't even know if there's a bus that can take them from nightlife to their neighborhoods.
  • Add late-night service. If some stations get decent late-night traffic but don't have late-night bus service (like more outlying park-and-ride stations), add buses to those spots until 3 am or later.
These general ideas cover a lot of ground, but it's a daunting task for our local transportation departments to identify all the spots which need attention. Many of these ideas will require local DOTs and WMATA to work together, or inter-jurisdictional cooperation between DOTs. But that doesn't meant they can't happen.

Where would you implement these strategies? What other ideas do you have? Give your thoughts in the comments.

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Transit


The feds tell Metro to rearrange its maintenance plans

That SafeTrack plan of maintenance and shutdowns you learned about last week might be out the window, or at least significantly changed. The Federal Transit Administration just instructed Metro to do maintenance on three sections of track before starting on its SafeTrack maintenance plan.


Trash can image from Shutterstock.

In a letter the FTA just sent WMATA, FTA demands that Metro rearrange priorities to first focus on three sections of tracks:

  • Medical Center to Van Ness
  • Potomac Ave to the "D&G junction," where the tracks split toward Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road
  • East Falls Church to Ballston

All of these are among the 15 "surge" shutdowns, but just not scheduled first. The western Red Line segment was slated for single-tracking after 8 pm every day in January and February, 2017. Potomac Avenue to D&G was going to happen in August of this year. And East Falls Church to Ballston was slated for November into December.

As the FTA letter notes, Metro was mainly focusing on the Red Line tunnel from Friendship Heights to Medical Center, but the FTA believes there need to be more repairs between Friendship Heights and Van Ness as well.

A lot of this seems to be a response to the incident last week at Federal Center SW, where an insulator overheated and exploded near the platform. Metro shut down the station, but only once General Manager Paul Wiedefeld got involved personally. The FTA has said in an earlier letter that Metro's Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) wouldn't allow inspectors onto the tracks after that explosion.

Where's the coordination?

There's no doubt that Metro needs to fix its arcing insulators. What happened at Federal Center SW last week was scary. (The fact that some people inside Metro apparently refused to let inspectors on the tracks is another huge issue that we were about to write a post about, but this took precedence.)

However, having Metro spend months devising a plan and then having the FTA suddenly tell them to turn it upside down is not likely a good way to run a railroad. Metro and the FTA have to be working together, coordinating the best and most efficient ways to solve the system's many problems. Since the three areas mentioned are already part of SafeTrack, the FTA and WMATA could have worked together to prioritize the work needing to be done before the plan and this letter came out.

The FTA might need to demand Metro drop everything and obey an urgent directive, but that should be a rare exception, not a first step. The FTA might need to demand Metro be shut down completely, as Secretary Anthony Foxx threatened, but that should be a last resort - basically, ad admission of failure by BOTH Metro and the feds. The policy of dictating requirements to WMATA without similarly offering solutions doesn't seem to be the best way to go.

As WMATA General Manager/CEO Paul Wiedefeld said at his press conference last week, the 15 "surge" shutdowns aren't the extent of the maintenance. Metro is also going to be doing substantial maintenance during nights and weekends by shutting down earlier at night, in addition to making use of the typical overnight time available. As well, track work is not going away once SafeTrack concludes; the system always will need work.


Photo by Stephen Repetski.

Find the person who'll fix it and trust them

We don't know what's the right order to perform maintenance. We're not rail maintenance experts. But back when Metro was looking for a leader and facing problems of maintenance, finance, leadership, reputation, and more, the message from a lot of knowledgeable people was this: Find someone capable of fixing the problem, then hire them, and empower them to take action.

So far, it seems Paul Wiedefeld is that guy. We sure hope so. Since taking over, Wiedefeld has been open and vocal about the system's problems, not shying away from admitting how much work it will entail. It doesn't seem like he's shying away from doing what it will take.

If he proves for some reason he's not that guy, then he has to be replaced with someone who is. But unless and until that happens, the only real way forward is for everyone to work with Wiedefeld and stand behind him.

Ensure he has the best information. Try to persuade him. So far, he's been open to listening to everyone, from governors and federal transportation secretaries to regular riders. But then, once he takes in everyone's ideas, he has to be able to make a call on some of these specific details, like which week to fix which tracks.

The Board of Directors used to micromanage Metro, and this was one of the flaws a lot of people called to fix. Now it looks awfully like the FTA is trying to micromanage it instead. Even if FTA is right and Paul wrong about the relative priority, which isn't at all clear (and the FTA letter doesn't make the case), this just doesn't seem like a recipe for success.

Transit


Metro's shutdown plan deserves our support. Now local governments must step up.

It's sad that Metro has gotten so decrepit that months-long shutdowns and single-tracking are necessary. But they are. And kudos to Metro for admitting this and coming up with a detailed plan to fix it.


Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Honestly, we'd feared the shutdowns would be far worse. This plan seems to concentrate them into as narrow a place as necessary while getting work done where needed (as far as we can tell, anyway).

It's going to be painful for riders, but we'll need to manage, because it's clear that the previous maintenance scheme, of shutdowns just over nights and weekends and bouts of single-tracking, hasn't been working.

As Maryland delegate Marc Korman said on today's NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt, Metro leaders have to make sure the maintenance that gets done, gets done right. The connectors in the Orange/Blue/Silver tunnel through DC, which caught fire earlier this year and forced the day-long total shutdown, had just been supposedly inspected and repaired. Riders are not going to tolerate having their lines shut down and then learning the maintenance wasn't actually done correctly.

Also, the tracks aren't the only problem for Wiedefeld to tackle. Rail cars have been down for maintenance much more often than they should be, forcing Metro to run lower levels of service than promised. These shutdowns won't fix that. But managers may need to focus intensely on one problem at a time, at least until Wiedefeld can replace some of the poorly performing managers and employees, as he's promised to do.

Hopefully, though, the shutdowns will get Metro back to a place where, at the very least, we can be confident in its safety. That's important.


Virginia has a few bus lanes. It needs many more. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Jurisdictions have to help

These shutdowns will affect huge numbers of people. According to Metro's presentation, the closure from NoMa to Fort Totten will affect 108,000 people; East Falls Church to Ballston, 73,000; Eastern Market to Minnesota/Benning, 61,000; and on and on. That is, let's be clear, a lot of people.

If they all drive, it will mean massive gridlock. Many will telework or shift their hours and such, but unlike with the one-day shutdown where a lot of people could stay home for a day, that can't work for weeks or months on end.

Buses can replace some service, but if those buses are just stuck in major gridlock, then there won't be enough buses and little incentive for anyone to take them. There will need to be temporary bus-only or HOV-3/4 lanes.

Many more people will be trying to walk and bike, and many jurisdictions can do much better to make sure people feel safe and are safe on these other modes.

It would have been nice for jurisdictions to have started planning bus lanes and other measures long ago, but the shutdown plan is here now and there's no luxury of time. Some areas have 6-9 months to prepare, while others (like Alexandria and southern Fairfax, or northern Prince George's) will be hit soon.

We can't wait for the typical interminable studies. Just as the region made extraordinary changes for the inauguration, this also calls for unusual measures. Local DOTs should make aggressive plans for temporary bus lanes and then try them out, making changes over time to ensure they work.


Photo by Kevin Harber on Flickr.

We want to hear more about the late night

If ending service at midnight is really necessary, then maybe it's necessary, but we'd like to hear more. Does it have to be system-wide? And if it's going to be permanent, as Metro is considering, then we really want a more thorough analysis of the pros and cons.

Paul Wiedefeld has said that Metro will not open early or late for any special events over the next year. There's some sense to that, but some of these special events, like the Marine Corps Marathon, draw huge crowds with little alternate way for many people to get there. We're worried about what the impact will be.

Fretting about the effects of shutting down Metro in the past has led to Metro needing bigger shutdowns now, and so if it's needed, it's needed. But we think the case has to be made in more detail first.

We'll have more on contributor reactions to the late night issue in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, we're planning to organize residents to push for measures like bus lanes. If you agree or just want to find out more, sign up below.

Keep me informed

Let me know when there are chances to push for bus lanes and other ways to ensure that Metro riders can still get where they need to go during Metro's upcoming maintenance "surges."

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Transit


Fifteen big shutdowns, and many smaller ones, will get Metro repairs on track

The plan is finally here. Metro is launching a plan it calls "SafeTrack" to replace significant portions of the system's rails, fix numerous safety problems, and bring the system closer to a state of good repair. Riders will face weeks-long periods of single-tracking and station shutdowns for the next year.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The Metro system is 40 years old and needs massive repairs. Today, trains run in service 135 to 168 hours each week, leaving little time for comprehensive maintenance. The SafeTrack plan will squeeze in work which would otherwise take three years to do at current rates, including clearing some urgent NTSB safety recommendations by the end of this month and others by the end of summer.

When the actual shutdowns will happen

There will be 15 work "surges." Some involve shutting segments of the system down entirely for a week or two. Others involve continuous single-tracking for multiple weeks (as much as 44 days), which means single-tracking even during rush hours.

WhenWhereColor(s)What
June 4-19Franconia to Van DornBlueSingle-tracking
June 20-July 3Greenbelt to College ParkGreenSingle-tracking
July 5 @ 10 pm - July 12Nat'l Airport to Braddock RoadBlue/YellowFull shutdown
July 12-19Nat'l Airport to Pentagon CityBlue/YellowFull shutdown
July 20-31Greenbelt to College ParkGreenSingle-tracking
August 1-8Takoma to Silver SpringRedSingle-tracking
August 9-19Shady Grove to TwinbrookRedSingle-tracking
Aug. 20-Sept. 6Eastern Market to Minnesota Ave/Benning RdYl/Or/BlFull shutdown
Sept. 9-Oct. 21Vienna to West Falls ChurchOrangeSingle-tracking
Oct. 9-Nov. 2NoMa to Fort TottenRedFull shutdown
November 2-12W. Falls Ch. to E. Falls Ch.OrangeSingle-tracking
Nov. 12-Dec. 5East Falls Church to BallstonOrange/SilverSingle-tracking
December 6-24Pentagon to RosslynBlueFull shutdown
Jan. 2-March 7Friendship Heights to Medical CenterRedSingle-tracking after 8 pm
March 6-14W. Falls Ch. to E. Falls Ch.OrangeSingle-tracking
April 16-May 8Braddock Road to Huntington/Van Dorn St.Blue/YellowSingle-tracking

These "surges" will affect riders beyond these zones. Outside the single-tracking or shutdown areas, the capacity of each line will still be reduced, so there will be fewer trains on any lines that run across that segment. You can see a detailed list of affected sections in the full presentation.

The "surges" also aren't the only piece. Metro will shut down at midnight instead of 3 am on weekends, and will do more work at nights. Right now, when a segment is shut down for a night, that starts at 10 pm or midnight; now, it will start at 8 pm, like on the Friendship Heights to Medical Center segment in early 2017.

Metro will stop doing maintenance during July 4, the Presidential inauguration in January, and next year's cherry blossom season, but nothing else. Even if there's a street festival or other special event in an area scheduled for maintenance, Metro will stick to its maintenance schedule.


Photo by Hannah Rosen on Flickr.

Why such long windows?

Shutting down a piece of track for weeks is the only way to do some maintenance that WMATA has never done since it opened. Metro will completely replace rails, ballast, and the substructure which the rails lay on top of.

A significant number of the wooden rail ties in the system are original from when the system opened. Some have been replaced here and there as they deteriorated too much, but the new program means the agency will be able to replace large numbers of the ties as well as fasteners, rail, and other track equipment.


WMATA prime mover. Image from WMATA.

The only way to fully rebuild a section of rail is to keep trains off it for a long time, which is why single-tracking would have to last for weeks.

Other maintenance will address NTSB findings that the "boots" on the power-supplying third rail aren't always properly fastened and that watertight seals need replacing.

How people can get around in the meantime

Metro plans to have a dedicated fleet of up to around 40-50 buses once the track work starts, in order to help move passengers around closure and single-tracking areas, to minimize impact on surrounding roads. Even still, passengers will certainly see delays.

Dedicated traffic control officers, dedicated bus lanes, and other changes to the traffic pattern could help keep the buses moving. Those are up to the state, county, and city departments of transportation. Metro will depend on jurisdictions to step up, said Barbara Richardson, Metro's chief of external relations, "because we need to think creative and differently about how to move people throughout the region."

What Wiedefeld announced today is just the draft plan. He's releasing it to the board, the local DOTs, and the public for input. He'll finalize it next week, and maintenance will start in June.


Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

In the long run

After the year, the system will be in better shape, but that doesn't mean no more shutdowns, said WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel. Riders got used to having no single-tracking and no shutdowns when it was brand new, but that's because the necessary maintenance wasn't being done.

What exactly the maintenance plan will look like beyond a year isn't certain, said Stessel, but riders shouldn't expect no shutdowns at all.

Addendum: Answers to a few of your questions

We'll try to post more information as we get it to various questions.

Several people asked why these shutdowns are mostly on above-ground segments. According to Stessel, they will indeed be doing considerable maintenance in the tunnels, but those are mostly tasks that can be done during weekend shutdowns and overnights.

The jobs that can't be done in a night or a weekend are the much bigger jobs such as the rail tie replacements. To fully tear down and rebuild a section of track is a bigger job. And rail ties are only in above-ground sections because the tunnels don't have ties; instead, the rails are attached directly to the concrete.

Rail ties are important to keep rails off the ground for drainage reasons, and (except in the part of the western Red Line in Maryland where there have been water problems) there shouldn't be water in the tunnels.

Riders on underground sections aren't spared pain in this plan; their lines will be running low levels of service when nearby sections are single-tracking or shut down.

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