Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Government

Here's how funding for the Purple Line will work

The proposed Purple Line light rail will connect Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton, and many places along the way. Yesterday was the deadline for private companies to bid to build and operate the line over the next three decades. In 2013, Matt Johnson wrote this post explaining how the "public-private partnership," or "P3," which is new to the region, will work. We've re-published it below.

Map from MTA Maryland.

A P3 is a partnership between a government agency (in this case, the Maryland Transit Administration) and a private firm (called a "concessionaire") to build and operate an infrastructure project. Many P3s are toll roads, like the new Beltway HOT lanes in Northern Virginia. But transit P3 projects are fairly new to the United States. Currently, the only example in the nation is in Denver, which is using one to build almost 70 miles of rail projects.

The details of the public-private partnership won't be hammered out for some time, so there's still a lot we don't know about what this method of construction and operation will look like. But a recently-published "presolicitation report" from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) tells what they have in mind.

What is a P3?

Essentially, the idea is to leverage private capital and the efficiency of private firms to reduce the public cost of building and operating a project. It also helps the agency by making costs more predictable and assigning risk to the private contractor. MDOT currently estimates that they could save about 20% of the cost of constructing and operating the Purple Line for 30 years by entering into a P3.

While they aren't common in the United States, our neighbors in Canada use them a lot. One notable example is Vancouver's new Canada Line, opened in 2010, though it's not without its criticism.

Where do the savings come from?

In P3s, the cost savings come primarily from two factors: private firms may be more efficient, and risk may be more properly assigned and managed.

One way projects end up wasting money is through "interface problems." For example, a crew comes out to string catenary wire, but they discover that the catenary supports haven't been installed yet. That risk is still there with a P3, but since the contractor has assumed the risk, it's their problem, not the public's.

Meanwhile, the contractor, which is likely to be a major firm, may be able to leverage their other investments to get a good deal on steel. Or they might have a subcontractor who builds railcars, which saves them from having to do a separate procurement.

How will this P3 work?

In a few months, MTA will ask qualified contractors to submit bids to operate the Purple Line. These bids will be very detailed, and MTA will use a "best value" method to pick the contractor, not necessarily picking the cheapest bid.

Each prospective concessionaire will include their estimate for what they can build the Purple Line for, plus what they think it will cost them to operate and maintain the line for 30 years. MTA estimates that the selected contractor will also put in between $400 to $900 million. The agency will put in additional money, as will the federal government, through the New Starts program.

MTA will pay the contractor an annual "availability payment," which equals the contractor's contributions plus the operating costs the contractor estimated in their bid, divided by 35 (5 years of construction, plus 30 years of maintenance). During construction, the contractor will have to take out a performance bond that MTA keeps in case they can't complete the project. If they go out of business after construction is complete, MTA would have to rebid the contract.

Will the concessionaire hike fares or cut service to make a quick buck?

MTA, not the concessionaire, will set the fares, service hours, and train frequency.

The concessionaire wouldn't make money from this, anyway. Like all transit lines in the United States, the Purple Line will not earn enough fare revenue to be profitable. If the contractor can provide their services for less than what was budgeted, they'll keep the difference as (additional) profit. But if they go over budget, they'll lose money.

How will Maryland hold the operator accountable?

MTA will write very detailed requirements in the contract setting performance standards for on-time performance and cleanliness. If the operator can't meet these standards, the MTA could pay them less. That gives the operator a financial incentive to provide good service.

What will the concessionaire be responsible for?

The concessionaire's responsibilities can differ from one P3 to another, but the private firm selected for the Purple Line will be responsible for completing design, building the project, acquiring railcars, and then operating the line for 30 years.

Will the private firm own the line?

No, the state of Maryland will own the Purple Line. After 30 years, the firm operating the line will be responsible for giving it back to the state in a certain pre-specified condition. At that point, the MTA could decide to operate the line on its own or rebid the project to a different firm or even the same firm.

Why is the Purple Line a good choice for a P3?

The Maryland Transit Administration's operations, including local buses, light rail, and subway, are primarily focused in Baltimore, 30 miles from the Purple Line. Because it's so far away, the MTA would likely need a new management and operations structure just for that one line, meaning it would basically stand alone. That makes it a good candidate for a P3, as opposed to the Baltimore Red Line, which interacts with several other MTA services and is much closer to home.

According to the MTA's Henry Kay, the Purple Line's risk profile is well suited to the private sector. In many cases, there will be tight quarters and traffic management plans. There's lots of risk that those conditions will delay the project or make it more expensive. One overarching contractor can better manage that risk than a public agency with multiple contractors. And if the contractor can't manage the risk well, it's their money, not the state's.

There are other risks, like unpredictable weather or even subway tunneling, which are difficult to manage. Contractors may be reluctant to assume the risks of building the Baltimore Red Line, with its long downtown subway. That makes it a less likely candidate for a P3.

Why consider a P3 for transit at all?

Using a P3 for the Purple Line will allow the MTA to spend a little less up front for the project, allowing Maryland to make better use of its gas tax revenues for projects around the state.

According to the MTA's Executive Director for Transit Development and Delivery Henry Kay, the P3 will be more predictable for MTA. For example, once MTA grants the contract, they'll know exactly how much it will cost to run the line every year for 30 years. If energy costs go up or labor costs go up, the contractor is on the hook. But the state will always pay the same price, unless the contractor fails to meet their performance targets (in which case, Maryland would pay less). That could help keep fares and tax rates in check.

Of course, there are risks in a P3. The contractor could go bankrupt, or they could fail to deliver what they promised. MTA's goal is to provide good transit service, and they need to find a reliable partner who they can hold to the same high standard. Over the next several months, the MTA will release a Request for Proposals and companies will respond, allowing us to get a better understanding of how this P3 might work.

Since public-private partnerships for transit are generally untested in the US, communities and transit agencies across the country will watch the Purple Line to see how well they work. Hopefully, it will set the bar high.

The National Zoo will be open for 1,000 fewer hours in 2016

Starting in 2016, the National Zoo's grounds will be open for three fewer hours per day. Beyond not having as many chances to see the animals, the change means people who use the Zoo to walk and exercise early in the morning or late in the afternoon won't be able to anymore.

Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Year-round, the Zoo will open two hours later and close one hour earlier than it does now. That means it will open at 8 am instead of 6, and close at 5 pm in winter and 7 pm the rest of the year rather than the current 6 pm in winter and 8 pm otherwise. The later opening will allow the animal house buildings to open at 9 am, one hour earlier each day than they are now.

The changed hours are the equivalent of the Zoo shutting its doors 7.5 days a month compared to the current winter schedule.

There's more to the Zoo than animals in buildings. When it's open, residents walk through the grounds for fitness or relaxation before and after work or school. The Zoo grounds provide a direct east-west connection, especially for pedestrians. Also, a section of the Rock Creek Trail runs though the Zoo.

In an email to members earlier this month, the Zoo cited visitor and animal safety as the primary reason for this change, particularly when it gets dark on shorter fall and winter days. Not having the public on the grounds will also allow Zoo staff and vendors "to move freely around the park during early morning hours."

What's unclear, however, is the degree to which new safety measures are actually needed.

The Zoo is great in the early morning and late afternoon

Congress chartered the Zoo for "the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people," and some of its wonderful sights and sounds only happen outside during early morning hours. Visitors can watch the Zoo staff introduce new orangutans to the overhead "O Line" when there aren't many people around, or hear sea lions bark or lions roar.

Nearby resident and Zoo member, Sheila Harrington, describes the value for her family of accessing the grounds prior to the Zoo's planned 8 am opening.

I've been walking in the Zoo early in the morning, before starting work, often 2-3 times a week (unless it's freezing or pouring), for decades. My husband used to visit the gibbons with each of our babies in a Snugli, and bonded with the mother gibbons similarly burdened. When the children were in strollers they rode along on my walks—up and down those hills pushing a stroller is a great workout. It's quiet, mostly without vehicles, and the animals are lively and fascinating. Sometimes I stop to sketch. The Zoo staff are usually working on some interesting tasks. Opening at 8 am would be too late because I need to get to work!

The Zoo is a useful travel route across Rock Creek

The paths and roads that the Zoo maintains also fulfill transportation needs, intended or not. The Zoo's 163 acres are directly adjacent to Rock Creek Park, an area with somewhat limited routes through the parkland.

When the Zoo closes its grounds in the evening, there are two big negative impacts to transportation. First, four Zoo entrance gates close across walking paths and roads that normally allow direct east-west (or west-east) routes into and through the Zoo for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers (yellow marks on the map below). Second, two gates close at the two ends of the north-south Rock Creek Trail within Zoo boundaries (green marks).

The yellow dots are entrances to east-west paths that cut through the Zoo, and the green dots are entrances to those that run north-south. Base image from Google Maps, with labels from the author.

Whether the four Zoo entrance gates are open affects anyone who wants to travel across the Zoo and Rock Creek at this point. Pedestrians can walk just 0.8 miles to get from the Harvard Street NW bridge through the Zoo to Connecticut Avenue NW. But the walk doubles to 1.5-1.6 miles when the Zoo is closed when they have to walk around to Porter Street NW or Calvert Street NW. The distance similarly doubles for cyclists and drivers when they have to use Calvert or Porter instead of North Road.

When the two trail gates close, pedestrians and cyclists instead need to traverse the Beach Drive tunnel on a narrow sidewalk. (This area will be widened in late 2016 and early 2017 by planned NPS construction.) DDOT, NPS and the Zoo explored closing Rock Creek Trail at night during the Rock Creek Park Multi-Use Trail Environmental Assessment. Trail users want to see it open 24/7, but Zoo insists this is infeasible "in order to maintain ... accreditation by the American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA)."

The November Project DC, a "just show up" fitness group, did its Friday
6:30 am exercises on the Zoo grounds. Photo by tusabeslo on Flickr.

Safety issues? What safety issues?

Zoo users are both surprised and disappointed by the change to fewer open hours. They're also still unsure of what, exactly, the safety issue is because the Zoo did not release the crime or safety data used to support its decision or identify any potential alternatives.

Media coverage on crime at or near the National Zoo has focused on incidents that occurred on three separate Easter Monday events at the Zoo. A shooting in 2000, stabbing in 2011 and shooting in 2014 all occurred in late afternoon between 4 and 6 pm. These events were unfortunate, but they were isolated, and they happened in late April when even the new Zoo hours would mean it'd be open until 7.

Zoo management has historically been great about keeping up a dialog with members, visitors and nearby neighborhoods on an array of issues. But the Zoo hasn't shared any details with the public regarding this decision. Even the announcement only went to members by email and on the public website, not appearing on any of the Zoo's active social media accounts.

Warren Gorlick, a nearby resident, said he wants to know the exact safety concerns that warrant the hours changes.

There is not much we know, however, because the [letter] ... was carefully worded to provide almost no details as to the underlying rationale. It simply mentioned "safety" issues repeatedly, without stating what they were or whether the zoo had considered methods other than restricting public access to the zoo. We have to wonder what is causing this sudden concern about "safety" right now that would result in such a major cutback in public access to this space.
Can Zoo users prompt a change of course?

Zoo users want to understand whether closing the Zoo is the best solution to keep visitors, staff and animals safe, but the Zoo's email is correct in saying the change will "frustrate" some patrons. The closure of Zoo grounds three hours a day represents a significant change in public access to the animals and walking trails. The plan to add one hour of animal house access during hours when the grounds were open anyway doesn't outweigh the overall reduction to grounds access.

What remains to be seen is whether the Zoo will share details behind the safety concerns. There may be other options through sponsorships to support hiring more security staff, partnerships with other law enforcement agencies or even establishing community watch groups. Without more information, we only see the locked gates in the name of keeping visitors safely on the outside.

Photo by Tim Herrick on Flickr.

The Woodley Park Community Association will host Dennis Kelly, the Zoo's director, at its upcoming meeting for a discussion of the Zoo operating hours changes. The meeting is open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm at Stanford University in the Washington Building (2661 Connecticut Ave NW).

DCPS schools put unmotivated students in AP classes. That doesn't work.

An influential education columnist is applauding the DC Public School system's decision to expand Advanced Placement offerings, arguing that any motivated student should be allowed to take the college-level courses. But many high-poverty schools in DC simply assign students to AP classes even if they're not willing to do the work.

Photo from Bigstock.

In September I wrote a post questioning DCPS's decision to require all high schools to offer at least six AP courses this year and eight next year, an increase over the previous minimum of four.

I pointed out that at DC's high-poverty neighborhood high schools—the ones that must take all comers rather than selecting students who apply—70% of the AP tests received the lowest possible score, 1. (The maximum score is 5, and 3 is considered passing.) Did the bottom-level scores mean that many students weren't even trying?

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, a longtime proponent of AP expansion, has now responded to my post by arguing, as he has in the past, that students benefit from AP classes regardless of whether they pass the test.

Mathews' views are important. He publishes an annual ranking of high schools across the country, based on the number of AP tests given at a school, that has largely fueled the recent rapid expansion of AP courses across the country.

Mathews and I agree that any student willing to work hard should be able to take an AP course or something like it. But Mathews believes the problem is that schools are keeping motivated students out of AP classes because they don't have top grades or haven't met certain prerequisites. That was the case when Mathews first started writing about AP classes 30 years ago, and he says it's still true in many schools today.

But that's not the problem in DC. Instead, most high-poverty high schools here appear to be putting students into AP classes who haven't chosen to be there. Those students aren't getting anything out of the courses because they're unwilling to do the necessary work. And the motivated students often don't get the support they need because the size of the class is too large to allow that to happen.

Most AP teachers don't have the leverage to exclude unmotivated students

After Mathews expressed interest in writing something about my post, I put him in touch with David Tansey, who teaches AP Statistics at Dunbar High School, a high-poverty DCPS school. In 2013, 94% of the AP exams given at Dunbar received a score of 1.

In his column, Mathews focused on Tansey's ability to limit his class to motivated students, using that example to bolster his arguments for AP expansion. When Tansey decided last year that he would teach an AP class for the first time, he recruited selected students, told them this year's course would require hard work, and gave them a letter their parents needed to sign before they could enroll.

But Mathews overlooked the fact that what Tansey did was highly unusual. Tansey is in his seventh year at Dunbar, which makes him one of the most senior teachers there, and he consistently gets high ratings under DCPS's teacher evaluation system. The vast majority of AP teachers in schools like Dunbar don't have the leverage to convince school administrators to limit their classes to motivated students, he told me.

Instead, Tansey said, administrators simply tell some students, "You're taking AP," whether the students want to or not. Perhaps it's the only class that fits with a student's schedule, or the other possible options are too crowded. And administrators may assume students who make As or Bs at their schools can handle AP-level work.

But that's not the case. An AP course is supposed to cover a year of college-level work. But even high-achieving students at a school like Dunbar may be behind grade level, so they might have to first cover a year's worth of high-school-level material before tackling AP material—all in the course of one year. That's a huge lift.

Even motivated students at high-poverty schools often need intensive support to do AP-level work, ideally in small classes. But at the same time that DCPS has told high-poverty schools to expand AP offerings, it hasn't given them money to hire more teachers. So schools are under more pressure than ever to increase the size of AP classes, to prevent other classes from getting too big.

Teachers can and do "dumb down" AP classes

The crux of Mathews' pro-AP argument is that teachers can't dumb down AP classes because "outside experts," not the teachers themselves, grade the final exams. Although he acknowledges in his column that "a few AP teachers" commit "malpractice" by going easy on kids, he assumes the vast majority grade quizzes and essays on the same tough scale the outside experts will apply on the final AP exam.

But Tansey says that what Mathews assumes is a rare occurrence is actually common practice in high-poverty schools. Kids at schools like Dunbar, he says, have been "battered by failure." If you apply AP-level standards to quizzes and give students Fs, they may just stop trying. And even students' grades on the final AP exam, he says, aren't that important to them because they arrive after the course is over.

Still, Tansey says that with a couple of exceptions, the 21 students in his AP class this year are working hard and getting more out of the experience than they would in a regular math class. So, even though he's just now beginning to introduce AP-level material, Tansey's experience seems to support at least part of Mathews' hypothesis: motivated students will benefit from a more rigorous class.

But that doesn't mean it has to be an AP class. As Tansey said in an email to Mathews that I was copied on, "'Offer more APs!' is the wrong call. 'Offer challenging courses, like AP courses, that students have to choose to accept the rigor of' is a better call."

That's a comment Mathews chose to ignore—as he chose to ignore the general thrust of Tansey's critique. Perhaps that's understandable: since writing a book in 1987 about Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles teacher who worked wonders with low-income students in AP math, Mathews has built a career on waving the "AP-For-All" banner.

But DCPS officials, at least, should pause and consider whether simply mandating more AP courses in high-poverty schools, without providing funds for additional teachers, will actually benefit students. As Tansey suggests, a more sensible goal would be to match all students with classes they actually want to be in—even if it's auto repair or carpentry rather than AP Statistics.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Support Us