Greater Greater Washington

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In Maryland and Virginia, vote to build transit

Maryland and Virginia are very different places and not ones to cavalierly bunch together. However, we have one post with both sets of endorsements because the most competitive races in both states are more alike than different: a solid candidate with a beneficial vision faces one who would make it a top priority to kill a major transit project.


Anthony Brown and Alan Howze. Images from the candidates' websites.

These races are for governor of Maryland, where we encourage voters to elect Anthony Brown, and Arlington County Board, where Alan Howze is the right choice.

We also endorse Brian Frosh for attorney general. On ballot questions, our contributors did not have a consensus on Maryland's "transportation lockbox" Question 1. The choice is clear to support Fairfax County's bond measure that will help pay for many bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Maryland

Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown (D) hopes to move up to governor. Brown will continue the policies of his predecessor including pushing to build the Purple Line, Baltimore Red Line, and Corridor Cities Transitway busway in the I-270 corridor (and, perhaps, challenge conventional thinking on road design and funding).

Brown also wants to ensure Metro has funding for eight-car trains and other upgrades. His Republican opponent Larry Hogan, meanwhile, has made clear that he wants to halt spending on these transit projects because he thinks they are too expensive... but spend more money on highway projects.

The Purple Line nearly died at the hands of former Republican governor Bob Ehrlich. Hogan wants to follow in the same footsteps. While Brown has maintained a lead in the polls, the race is far from decided. A Hogan win would be a disaster for Maryland's transit plans and we urge voters to show up on November 4 to cast ballots for Brown.

Brian Frosh, the Democratic nominee for Maryland Attorney General, has a more comfortable lead but deserves special praise. He played a major role in keeping the Purple Line alive in 1991 even while most elected officials believed the project was unpopular.

For the "lockbox" Question 1, our contributors were nearly evenly split while many simply suggested making no endorsement. You can read Ashley Robbins' summary for some reasons to vote for it and an understanding of why many will not.

Virginia

Virginia state offices are not on the ballot this year, but an Arlington race is all about transit. Alan Howze is facing John Vihstadt in a rematch for Arlington County Board. Vihstadt won a special election this spring where residents angry about county projects had more incentive to turn out while Howze did not run a particularly dynamic campaign. However, the impact on the future of Arlington could be significant, and we again strongly encourage voters to select Howze.

Howze has a good vision for Arlington including concrete ideas to eliminate deaths on the roadways. Meanwhile, Vihstadt has continued to make opposition to the Columbia Pike streetcar a core issue. He and other opponents have relentlessly attacked the project that the county has justified in study after study while holding up dubious and misleading alternatives.

A dedicated lane has never been an option on Columbia Pike, and studies have demonstrated how rail can carry many more riders than buses possibly could. Nevertheless, opponents keep touting some amorphous idea of "Bus Rapid Transit" which somehow has the benefits of the expensive, gold standard lines but the costs and footprint of a bare-bones line.

It's not persuasive. This is the GamerGate of Arlington politics. The far more believable alternative is that Vihstadt simply does not want to spend much money on transit. Since transit is massively popular in Arlington, one can't win office opposing it; instead, the only hope is to shout "BOONDOGGLE!" over and over.

Arlington has been an exemplar in our region for the transit-focused direction its leaders have steered. It needs board members who will build on that success; Howze will do so.

In Fairfax County, the proposed $100 million transportation bond measure will pay for many bicycle and pedestrian projects in the newly-passed Bicycle Master Plan and other priorities. Fairfax County has taken strong steps to make what's now a very car-dependent county more accessible on foot or bicycle. This is the right decision, and voters should put money behind that effort to see it through.

For DC Council: Elissa Silverman and Robert White

With 15 people on the ballot for two DC Council at-large seats on Tuesday, many voters have little information on this race, which has gotten light press coverage and no independent polling. But an at-large council seat is a very important post. Voters will be able to pick two candidates, and we recommend Elissa Silverman and Robert White.


White and Silverman. Images from the candidates' websites.

In addition, while they stand virtually no chance of losing, we hope voters will happily cast ballots for Brianne Nadeau for the council seat in Ward 1, Mary Cheh in Ward 3, Kenyan McDuffie in Ward 5, and Charles Allen in Ward 6. Cheh and McDuffie have been exemplary councilmembers, and Nadeau and Allen are sure to be as well.

There was no consensus to make an endorsement for DC mayor, attorney general, chairman of the council, or delegate and shadow races. Greater Greater Washington contributors do strongly support voting Yes on Initiative 71, marijuana legalization. Our endorsements come from a survey of contributors, with the editorial board making a determination of whether there is strong enough consensus to warrant an endorsement.

Robert White has made it clear that he supports smart growth and progressive transportation measures. His transportation issue page focuses on about improving transit and walkability and recognizes such solutions will help decrease congestion. He also has an intriguing plan to convert underused office and retail space into housing. White supports streetcars and bus lanes, completing the Metropolitan Branch Trail, and much more. He will be an effective councilmember, already gaining the support of GGW allies David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie as well as Yvette Alexander and multiple newspapers.

We previously endorsed Elissa Silverman in the 2013 special election. She is a supporter of transit and a crusader for affordable housing as well as other programs to help less fortunate residents. While she had softer positions on some elements of the zoning update and has called herself "a moderate" on streetcars, there is more to legislating in DC than just parking minimums, and she is on the right side of most issues. With support from DC's progressive organizations and Marion Barry, hopefully Silverman can help bring the city together to move forward in a way that benefits all.

Kishan Putta, a sitting Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and first-time candidate for higher office, also deserves special mention. He has made the 16th Street bus lane a centerpiece of his work both on the ANC and in this campaign. This has helped elevate it to a top city priority and gotten other candidates on the record in favor as well. While he is unlikely to win a seat next Tuesday, his candidacy has been positive and we hope to see him continue to be involved in transit and other issues in the years to come.

The mayoral race between Muriel Bowser, David Catania, and Carol Schwartz has gotten the lion's share of press and voter attention. However, our own process reached no clear enough consensus for an endorsement. We encourage our readers to read our chats with Bowser and Catania and make up their own minds.

On Initiative 71, no contributor voted to oppose the measure. Marijuana has been shown to be less harmful than alcohol, tobacco, and many legal drugs, and most of all, enforcement against it has overwhelmingly harmed communities of color. It's clear that the negative effects of keeping marijuana illegal have far outweighed any benefits, and voters should take the next step with Initiative 71.

We will have posts about Maryland and Virginia as well as some Advisory Neighborhood Commission races over the coming days. Regardless of your views, if you are an eligible voter in DC, please be sure to vote on Tuesday, November 4 or in early voting until Saturday, November 1.

Events roundup: Georgetown and Fairfax

How can communities change while preserving what's important? Learn about these challenges in historic Georgetown and developing Route 1 in Fairfax. Also, learn about transportation financing, water and equity, and Ride On service at upcoming events around the region.


Photo by terratrekking on Flickr.

Change in Georgetown: Moving historic neighbor­hoods into the future can be difficult. Georgetown is trying to do that with its "Georgetown 2028" plan. On Tuesday, November 4, Georgetown BID transportation director Will Handsfield will discuss how the area can continue to develop a thriving commercial district and preserve its historic flair. That's at the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW from 12:30 to 1:30 pm.

Growth and stormwater: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's next tour takes you to Route 1 in Fairfax, where growth will affect the local watersheds. Experts will talk about how Fairfax can add housing, stores, and jobs while preserving water quality. You need to RSVP for the tour, which is 10 am to noon this Saturday, November 1.

Public-private transportation: Curious about how the nation will finance transportation infrastructure? Tonight, Tuesday, October 28, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is hosting David Connolly and Ward McCarragher, both from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, to discuss a new report about how public-private partnerships can fund transportation. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5 pm and the presentation will be 5:30-6:30 at 1666 K Street, NW, 11th floor. Please RSVP.

Ride On more: Montgomery County is planning to increase service on six routes, and will discuss the changes at a public forum Wednesday, October 29, starting at 6:30 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.

Social equity and water: Georgetown's Urban and Regional Planning program's weekly lecture series is talking about "big investments in big cities." On Monday, November 3 at 5:30 pm, George Hawkins, the general manager of DC Water, will discuss how infrastructure also affects social equity. The talk is at Georgetown's SCS building at 640 Massachusetts Ave, NW. RSVP here.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Vision Zero won't be easy

Both Muriel Bowser and David Catania say they support the idea of "Vision Zero" and the end of traffic deaths and injuries in the District of Columbia. It's an admirable position, but will either be willing to make the unpopular decisions to see it through?


Image from Transportation Alternatives via Streetsblog.

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law a new, slower 25 mph speed limit. Nick Paumgarten bemoaned the new limit in The New Yorker, saying it "demonize[s] speed" and suggesting that it contradicts the true, fast-paced nature that is essential to life in New York and to the livelihoods of working New Yorkers, who have to drive through the city for their jobs.

Paumgarten concluded with a quotation from a crane rigger who said, "I'd say it's time to give the city back to the cars." On the other hand, Paumgarten also acknowledged the safety issue here, saying, "Fourteen children were killed by drivers last year. You won't find a citizen who didn't wish that this number were zero."

In response, Brooklyn Spoke's Doug Gordon wrote, "Of course not. But what you will find are a lot of people who don't want to do anything that could make that wish come true."

I believe that both Bowser and Catania support safer streets. Endorsing Vision Zero is a good first step. But safer streets won't come from slogans alone. They require dedicated effort in the face of sustained opposition and an entrenched status quo.

Vision Zero will require spending political capital (in addition to real capital and public money) and could mean lowering speed limits, removing parking spaces, or reducing of travel lanes. Any of these could alienate supporters and anger allies.

Vision Zero, like all other major policy initiatives, won't just happen because we say we want it to happen. A long-term, genuine commitment to Vision Zero could require some unpopular choices. Will either be willing to make them?

No, DC is not abandoning plans for most streetcar lines

If you read the headlines in the Post and WAMU today, you might come away thinking that the DC government has decided not to try to build a streetcar line on Georgia Avenue or from Anacostia to Buzzard Point. But that would be wrong.


Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

What's going on?

What happened yesterday is the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced three finalists for its contract to design, build, operate, and maintain streetcar lines. Earlier this year, DDOT had planned for that contract to encompass all of the 22-mile streetcar system: an east-west line from Benning Road to Georgetown, a north-south line from Southwest to Takoma or Silver Spring, and a line from Anacostia to Southwest.

To make that possible, the mayor's office had asked the DC Council to essentially set aside all of the money for the entire system right now.

While they insisted, vehemently, that they still support the streetcar system, the Council dedided they just weren't ready to give it all of the money today. Therefore, this current bidding process can only legally encompass the lines which are in the six-year capital planthe east-west line and the part of the Anacostia line from Bolling to the foot of the 11th Street Bridge.

The news stories have, accurately, reported that the current funding only lets the system grow to about 8.2 miles. Unfortunately, some of them also gave them impression that DC has "cut" the program. It's going to happen slower, definitely, but that might not even be all bad.

It's not really a surprise the council didn't boost streetcar funding

Let's say you want to start a company and are going to venture capital investors. You put together a rough business plan and they give you some seed money to hire some people. Then a few years go by, during which time your prototype gets delayed and you don't talk to your customers. You then come back to investors asking for much more money, but your business plan still isn't more detailed despite your promises to flesh it out. Would the investors fund you?

Even with crazy money in tech sometimes, it would be pretty tough. And it's understandable that DC councilmembers balked at the mayor's funding request. They continued authorizing about $600 million at a time when the starter line on H Street has been delayed and officials have given vague or no answers to questions. The mayor was asking for a very large amount of extra money, and politically, it just didn't fly.

Since Terry Bellamy took over at the start of the Gray Administration and Carl Jackson came from Greenville, SC to run the transit programs, DDOT went mostly silent on the streetcar. There were a few required environmental study meetings, sure, but the agency basically stopped collaborating with groups like the Sierra Club or local BIDs, which it had done under Gabe Klein and Scott Kubly.

The mayor convened a task force chaired by City Administrator Allen Lew which included many business leaders. The business community was willing to talk about special taxing districts to help pay for the streetcar, but Lew ultimately decided not to even try a "value capture" system and instead just dedicated 25% of future new tax revenue to the streetcar.

At the same time, the government basically spent all of 2013 lying to the public about how the streetcar would open that year while everyoneat lower levels, anywayknew it wouldn't. Promises that DC would lay out detailed plans for things like where streetcar storage and maintenance yards would go went unfulfilled and questions about how it would work without overhead wires across the Mall and key viewsheds remain unanswered and unstudied (but studies are now beginning).

So, four years has gone by since the height of streetcar enthusiasm. In all that time, few detailed emerged, promises were repeatedly broken, and ties with allies atrophied.

The council said, give us a plan

Many councilmembers said, publicly and privately, that they still want to see the entire streetcar system built. The two leading mayoral candidates support the plan at least to a significant degree; both point to failures and mistakes along the way, which indeed happened.

But councilmembers, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, and also people in the budget office, say they just want more detailed plans. They want DDOT to do more legwork and answer more questions before they'll hand over a blank check. I don't entirely blame them.

Unfortunately, some in the Gray administration responded to the cuts by essentially saying, "okay, you didn't give us the money, so that's it for most of the lines." That's misleading. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the transportation committee, told the Post that the Gray team is being "childish" and not working with others. "You don't take your marbles and go home," Cheh said.

Sure, the cuts make things harder. Sometimes transportation projects can be a chicken-and-egg situation where you can't know every single thing up front. The plans for the Metrorail system shifted between when construction started and when it ended (delaying the Green Line by years), for example. "Design-build" can be a more economical and faster way to get transportation projects built, but it also involves hiring your contractor before you have every detail laid out perfectly.

People who are more skeptical of the streetcar, like Phil Mendelson, are less tolerant of gaps in the plan which can get filled in during the design-build process; they don't trust the team to fill the gaps well. Planning everything and then building it is slower and more expensive, and it becomes even more expensive when you go back and make changes along the way.

We can't know every single detail now. DDOT and its contractor partners will learn from the mistakes of H Street as well as the (hopefully smaller) ones that come in the early stages of lines still scheduled to be built. The same thing happens with the road network, Metro, bike lanes, and any other large transportation facility.

Still, there also needs to be a role for the public in correcting the course along the way. Under Terry Bellamy, DDOT did not show a willingness to meaningfully involve others in streetcar discussions, which compounded mistakes. We do need to see how H Street works and then ask questions about how to do better on the next lines. We need to get answers, too.

Make it work now

The streetcar program will be good for DC. In some corridors, it will add capacity. It will drive higher transit ridership and connect communities. In some places, it will help kick-start economic development as well. It will have some bugs and then they will get worked out.

The most important thing is to build the full east-west line, and build it to its great potential. It's already definitely going to have dedicated lanes on K Street, which will make it avoid the worst of the traffic. It also needs lanes, signal priority, and other features around Georgetown, Mount Vernon Square, and North Capitol Street to make it a speedy and attractive mode of travel. The streetcar needs to work well both operationally and for riders.

If it does, then public support for more lines will only grow, and the council will put money behind the rest of the lines. Already, Bellamy's successor Matt Brown and Sam Zimbabwe, who is handling Jackson's former duties, are steering the streetcar back toward the right track.

The lines are not "cut." They're just going to come later. It would have been a lot better if they could be built sooner, but with all of the mistakes during the Bellamy years, we lost that chance. It's not the last chance, though.

"Subway driver" is the most unusually common job in Maryland

Live in Maryland and operate a train? You're not alone. A graphic from Business Insider, which has been going around the web for a few months, shows the job that is most out of proportion in each state.

While it's no surprise the job on the map for DC is political scientists and Texas is petroleum engineers, would you have guessed Maryland's would be "subway drivers"?


Graphic from Business Insider. Click for the full image.

It actually makes sense. In addition to Metro trains, Maryland has the Baltimore Subway, Light Rail, and MARC train. That's a lot more transit per capita than most states.

This map uses a Bureau of Labor Statistics measure called "location quotient." That's how frequent the job is in one area (say, 8.3 people per 10,000 jobs) divided by its frequency nationwide. The map shows the job with at least 1,000 workers in each state with the highest location quotient.

Transportation-related careers stand out in a few other states as well. The careers on the map for Alaska, Louisiana, Maine, and Florida all involve navigating waterways. South Carolina gets tire builders, and Washington has a lot of workers who build airplanes. Finally, Vermont has a lot of people maintaining its highways compared to other states.

A move to strengthen affordable housing runs into political obstacles

The Gray Administration has had a poor track record of building affordable housing when selling public land. Kenyan McDuffie is trying to set a higher bar, but Gray is trying to gut the bill by proposing a giant loophole that would render the bill virtually toothless. Will Muriel Bowser hold firm or let the loophole in?


Photo by Travis on Flickr.

What's this bill about?

When DC does a deal to develop public land, it's typically required that the project include affordable housing for low-income residents. Mayor Gray, however, has pushed for much less affordable housing than his predecessors Adrian Fenty or Anthony Williams did.

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) wants to enshrine a threshold into law. Under his bill, 20-30% of rental housing (more near transit, less elsewhere) would have to go to people making 30-50% of Area Median Income, or about $30,000-50,000 for a family of three. If the building is condos, they could go to people making 50-80% AMI or approximately $50-78,000 for a family of three.

Sometimes that level of affordability isn't feasible. If a piece of public land isn't worth so much, maybe nobody can afford to build there if they have to provide that much affordable housing. Accordingly, McDuffie's bill allows for DC's independent CFO to evaluate the deal and determine if there needs to be a waiver.

What is the loophole?

Gray, however, is proposing cutting out the CFO. The Gray administration wants the mayor's office to decide when there needs to be a waiver instead of involving the CFO.

But this means that the mayor could essentially ignore the law at will. And if he or she does that, the whole process will be a black box to the public, just like it is today, which is one of the main things the McDuffie bill fixes.

In current land deals, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development gets a number of proposals for developing a piece of public land, then picks one without explaining why. Often that decision goes against the wishes of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or other local leaders, and while officials shouldn't have to always go with the ANC's recommendation, it's often a big mystery why they chose something else.

We don't know if one of the proposals yielded more public money than another, or if the mayor's office thinks one's amenities are better than another's. And we don't know if and when the mayor is giving up affordable housing without good cause.

Deputy Mayor Jeffrey Miller says the requirement could lead to less affordable housing, rather than more, if the land value doesn't support the required housing. But this is why the CFO (or the Council, for that matter) can grant a waiver.

Miller also says the requirement could get in the way of providing other amenities like libraries or parks. But this is in some sense the whole point: DC needs to commit to actually building affordable housing. Other amenities are important, too, but if there isn't a way for lower-income residents to live in the neighborhood, then building other amenities only boosts the value of more expensive areas without addressing inequality.

Where's Muriel Bowser?

Bowser, who looks likely to become the next mayor, supported the bill in committee, but suddenly seems open to what she calls "administrative tweaks" to the bill. Advocates fear she is going to opt for this loophole big enough to swallow the whole bill.

Certainly, if she is mayor, she might prefer to have free rein. Gray sounded like he's pushing that idea when he said, "As a mayor, obviously, I would not be ecstatic about having legislation that ties the ability of the executive to function, as a general proposition ... I realize the huge importance of being able to have flexibility to get things done."

But the whole reason councilmembers are voting for this bill is because the mayor hasn't done what they think is necessary or appropriate. Bowser would only appreciate the value of a loophole if she's interested in exploiting it at times the CFO wouldn't let her. If she did that, she'd be breaking promises to create affordable housing.

There's no good reason for her to water down the bill. It would only send a message that maybe the public can't trust her commitments on affordable housing. Since she surely means to follow through on her promises, she should keep the loophole out.

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