Greater Greater Washington

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Public Spaces


Lipstick can help the Tysons pig, a little

Fairfax County is considering dressing up the Silver Line's mammoth concrete pylons with murals. The idea could help animate the otherwise bleak, gray structures.


Mock up of a possible Silver Line mural. Image from the Tysons Partnership.

Ideally the Silver Line would've been underground through Tysons Corner. But federal rules that have since changed prevented that, forcing the Metro line above ground, onto a huge elevated structure.

That wasn't the end of the world, but it did condemn Tysons to some unnecessary ugly.

So why not dress it up? Murals can unquestionably make big gray structures more colorful and interesting. They're easy to implement, don't cost very much, and help a little. There's not much down side.

Murals are, however, still just lipstick on a pig. They don't solve the underlying deadening effect of bare walls. For example the Discovery building mural on Colesville Road in Silver Spring is surely better than bare concrete, but shops & cafes would've been better still.

And Tysons' murals won't be as effective as the one in Silver Spring. Colesville Road is basically urban, basically walkable. The block with the mural is the weakest link on an otherwise lively urban street.

But in Tysons, the Silver Line runs down the middle of Leesburg Pike, one of the most pedestrian-hostile highways in the region. If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape, as opposed to the worst.

So by all means, Fairfax County should absolutely do this. Murals are a great tool to cover any large blank structure. But what Tysons really needs is walkable streets with lively sidewalks.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Government


DC-area transportation is not on track to meet climate change goals

The region's governments area currently reviewing new transportation projects to add to their long-range plan. But the list of projects in the queue, if built, will increase carbon emissions rather than lower them.


Analysis of 2013 Constrained Long Range Plan by TPB staff.

Right now, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) is conducting its annual review of new projects for the Constrained Long Range Plan (CLRP). The CLRP is a comprehensive list of the "regionally significant" transportation projects that TPB member governments realistically believe could be funded over the next few decades.

Projects that Maryland, Virginia, and DC wish to build must go through the CLRP both to be eligible for federal funding, and to go through the federally required air quality conformity process.

While federal air quality rules require the region's transportation projects to meet goals for pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act (Nitrogen Oxide and Volatile Organic Compounds that form ozone, along with particulates (PM2.5)), the TPB does not yet have to regulate carbon dioxide. The transportation projects in the pipeline, if built, would send us far pastthat is, in the opposite direction ofour climate change goals.

In 2008, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) set a goal of reducing CO2 emissions 80% by 2050 below 2005 levels. Several initiatives since then have studied ways the transportation sector, which emits 30% of the region's CO2, could meet the goal. There is the 2010 Region Forward plan, the 2010 "What Would it Take?" report, and the 2014 Regional Transportation Priorities Plan.

Yet so far, the TPB has been reluctant to apply these regional goals to the CLRP because it might mean telling Virginia, Maryland or DC to remove or modify some projects. To what end is MWCOG continuing to develop and adopt these reports and plans, if actually implementing them is apparently off the table?

The 2010 "What Would It Take?" report looked at possible approaches to bridge the emissions reduction gap, and identified several important strategies to meet the region's climate goals for transportation including expanding telecommuting, providing monetary incentives for carpooling, increased transit use through bus priority treatments, expanding bicycle and pedestrian trips, and parking cash-out subsidies for employees who do not drive to work but receive free parking at their workplace.


Graph from MWCOG's 2010 What Would It Take report identifies gap in emissions reductions needed above and beyond federal CAFE standards.

The report relied heavily on the hope that the federal government would push harder for cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles, but recognized that we need to move forward in the meantime to reduce vehicle miles traveled and to dramatically increase trips by walking, cycling, and transit.

Other cities and regions around the world are setting and implementing ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions and we can too. Copenhagen, which has set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2025, expects new fuel types to account for just 18% of its cuts in transportation emissions.

It plans for most of its reductions to come from boosting cycling to account for 50% of all trips, increasing transit ridership by 20%, and optimizing the flow of buses, cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians using improved signalization. Copenhagen also plans to switch its entire public transit fleet to electric vehicles running on clean energy.

Seattle implemented its Climate Action Plan in 2008, which sets a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. In order to tackle its transportation emissions, which comprise 40% of the city's footprint, Seattle has set a goal to reduce emissions from passenger vehicles by 82% by 2030, and to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 20% by 2030. It plans on tripling bicycling trips from 2007 levels by 2017, as well as expanding transit capacity.

Bold goals need not be unrealistic. Already today, 50% of all trips in DC happen by walking, bicycling and transit, and while adding 83,000 residents over the past decade, the city saw vehicle registrations decline. The Sustainable DC plan goal for 75% of all trips in the District to be by walking, cycling, or transit by 2032 seems very achievable.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of square feet of development in Arlington's two Metro corridors have helped to shift a majority of trips in those corridors to walking, bicycling, and transit, while not increasing traffic on surrounding local roads. Across the region, 84% of new office construction is within ¼ mile of a Metrorail station, and suburban leaders are embracing transit-oriented development and proposing new transit lines. Not only do these approaches reduce emissions, they offer an alternative to driving in congestion and have been shown to have health and economic benefits.

That's why it's particularly frustrating that the Council of Governments isn't acting to reevaluate the many legacy projects in the region's long-range transportation plan to address climate change. To do so, we need to shift funding to new transit projects, to meet Metro's capacity needs identified in the Momentum Plan, and to support the region's plans for walkable, transit-oriented development.

The state DOTs, which have the most control over the CLRP, also need to start proposing better projects, while many local cities and counties need to better plan their own patterns of growth.

As the forecasted impacts of climate change continue to worsen, our only option is to act. With the EPA moving to regulate carbon dioxide from power plants under the Clean Air Act, it's only a matter of time before it begins to regulate mobile sources.

We should lead, not wait. We should take fully to heart the reports we have prepared together as a region and implement those plans. Take a second to send in a public comment if you want our region's leaders to take the steps needed to cut our transportation emissions.

Architecture


How much will the Eisenhower memorial cost?

How much would Frank Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial cost? A lot, but not more than other similar memorials if you adjust for the rising cost of construction.


The Eisenhower Memorial. Image from NCPC.

At the recent National Capital Planning Commission meeting, the memorial's executive architect, Daniel Feil, stated that the hard costs, including parts and labor, of their design, include the metal tapestries which NCPC disapproved, would be $65-75 million.

Including "soft costs" for items such as construction overhead, insurance, and payments to DDOT for lost parking meter revenue, the budget will likely be about just shy of $100 million, according to the memorial's 2015 Budget Justification document.

There is no evidence for wild cost escalation. The competition announcement expected $55-75M in hard costs, and the announcement of the finalists listed $100M in total cost. The $144M figure that pops up is the expected expenditure of the entire Memorial Commission, 2009-2017.

How does that stack up against other memorials?

Critics have highlighted the cost and size of the memorial relative to comparable projects. Certainly the size can be debated. In fact, the most frequent criticism from the Commission of Fine Arts is that the site is too large, irrespective of the architect.

However, many critics use the wrong price index and don't account for the decreasing availability of highly skilled craftsmen over the years.

Most people know the Consumer Price Index (CPI) as a tool to calculate inflation. CPI follows the prices in a "basket" of consumer goods, but doesn't reflect construction materials. Construction, like all industries where labor can't be outsourced or automated, has seen inflation rise much faster than CPI.

There are, however, construction-specific price indices that calculate costs using a basket of construction goods. The most well-regarded is the Construction Costs Index, published by Engineering News-Record. If we use CCI to compare total cost of construction for major memorials nearby, the results are surprising.

Hist. CostYearIndexCCI estimateCPI estimate
Grant$250,0001922174$13,900,000$3,480,000
Lincoln$3,000,0001922174$167,300,000$40,500,000
Jefferson$3,000,0001943290$100,400,000$39,900,000
T. Roosevelt$1,400,00019671,074$12,600,000$9,800,000
Vietnam$8,400,00019823,825$21,300,000$19,500,000
Korea$18,000,00019955,432$32,100,000$24,900,000
FDR$52,000,00019975,860$86,000,000$74,500,000
WWII$182,000,00020047,109$248,400,000$221,400,000
Pentagon$22,000,00020088,185$26,100,000$23,900,000
MLK$120,000,00020119,053$128,600,000$122,600,000
Eisenhower$99,000,00020179,702$99,000,000$99,000,000
Click on a column header to sort.

In this light, the memorial is within the cost range of similar memorials. These costs don't even take into account major changes in financing, liability, or code requirements. Furthermore, the basket of goods in the CCI reflects material and labor costs for basics like wood, concrete, and steel. It does not include the high-grade finishes and highly-specialized skills required for stonework and bronze.

Where's the money going?

The Memorial Commission declined to provide a detailed cost breakdown, but Daniel Feil said at the meeting that one-third of the memorial's cost is reconstructing the ground. The site currently has a few grass patches and a plaza split by a road. The soils are compacted and a number of utilities run through the site.

In order to bring the soil up to National Park Service's standards for the National Mall, the design relocates utility lines and replaces the first five feet of soil.


Memorial site conditions and utilities. Eisenhower Memorial Commission / Gensler

Often, the most mundane elements of a design are the most costly. As seen in the cost of underground parking, excavation is very expensive and landscaping isn't much cheaper. Any memorial that occupies the right-of-way also requires relocating utilities to construct foundations or avoid ripping up the ground to repair utilities.

Is the cost fair?

As a number of critics have noted, recent memorials have become larger and more landscaped. Kirk Savage, author of Monument Wars, ties this to a greater emphasis on personal experience in a memorial, beginning with the McMillan Plan and escalating with Vietnam and FDR.

At the same time, the construction industry faces very serious problems with its costs. It is one of the few industries to become less efficient since 1970. How they'll reverse this trend is a billion-dollar question.

Both of these issues will remain big problems for our memorial landscape, and continue to dog the Eisenhower Memorial, however it gets built.

Events


Events roundup: All together now

Add your voice to the public involvement process, learn about the history of a DC landmark, and meet fellow transit supporters in Montgomery County at events around the region.


Photo by Megara Tegal on Flickr.

Whose voices do planners hear?: Social media and evolving technologies have allowed a more diverse set of voices to weigh in on the planning process than ever before, but informal comments online often aren't formally recognized by planning agencies. How can planners bridge this communication gap?

The National Capital Planning Commission will host a panel discussion on this issue on Wednesday, April 9, 7-8:30 pm. NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, Cheryl Cort from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards from Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The free event is at NCPC's offices, 401 9th Street, NW, Suite 500. RSVP here.

After the jump: learn about the history of the Washington Coliseum, attend a community drop-in workshop about the Maryland Avenue SW transportation study, and attend a happy hour for rapid transit in Montgomery County.

The forgotten landmark: The Washington Coliseum, formerly Uline Arena, is now used as a parking facility, but once hosted the Beatles' first concert in America. To learn more about the facility's fascinating history, join the District Public Library for the last spring edition of its Know Your Neighborhood series as it presents a screening and panel discussion of filmmaker Jason Hornick's documentary "The Washington Coliseum: The Forgotten Landmark." The screening takes place this Tuesday, April 8, 6:30 pm at the Northeast Branch Library, 330 7th St. NE.

Maryland Ave SW drop-in workshop: DC's Maryland Avenue SW Small Area Plan hopes to knit back together the L'Enfant street grid in the Southwest Federal Center area. The plan calls for building a new Maryland Avenue atop the railroad tracks, between 7th and 12th Streets SW, which will link to existing roads, create new public spaces, and provide new walking, biking, and driving routes.

Following the study, the District Department of Transportation started its own analysis about whether it's possible to build Maryland Avenue and delve into more technical detail. DDOT officials are going to be outside the L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station at 7th & Maryland Avenue SW on Friday, April 11, from 11-1 and again from 4-6 to talk to people about their findings. The rain location is the Marketing Center at L'Enfant Plaza (next to Sandella's).

Happy hour for rapid transit in Montgomery: Interested in seeing Rapid Transit in Montgomery County? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit at a happy hour next week, on Tuesday, April 15, 6 pm, to hear the latest news about Rapid Transit, how you can get involved, and to connect with fellow allies, volunteers, and supporters.

The event is at the Communities for Transit office, 8630 Fenton Street, Suite 500, in Silver Spring. The event is free but please register here.

Public Spaces


Design competition aims to give DC beautiful and functional play spaces

There is a growing need for children's play spaces in DC, but some think that playgrounds are unsightly and detract from public space. To address this, the Office of Planning (OP) is holding an international competition to design art-based play spaces for underserved neighbor­hoods.


The winner of the Playable10 International Design Competition, a playground in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. The shape incorporates the letters "ATL." Photo by Cynthia Gentry.

This is the first time DC has held such a competition. "We are responding to the increasing number of families living in the District and their desire for more playgrounds," said OP urban designer Thor Nelson. "OP seeks a design that approaches play spaces in an innovative wayplayable art both kids and adults can enjoy."

KaBOOM, a DC-based organization that focuses on increasing kids' access to play, created a map that documents the District's "play deserts," where no play area exists within a half-mile walk of a given neighborhood. Mt. Vernon Triangle, NoMA, and Southwest particularly need play spaces, as more families with kids move there.


Map by KaBOOM.

Play deserts have profound adverse physical, intellectual, social and emotional impacts on children. KaBOOM finds that neighborhoods without a park or playground see 29% more child obesity. Children without a park or playground are five times less likely to be a healthy weight that children with a play space within a half mile.

Furthermore, studies reveal that minority and low-income communities are less likely to have safe places to play and be active, impacting child well-being. Children in poverty are 159% more likely to be deprived of recess; 70% African American and 81% of Hispanic neighborhoods lack recreational facilities; and sidewalks in African-American communities are 38 times more likely to be low quality. As a result, more kids in these communities grow up with obesity and diabetes, in addition to other related health risks.

Ideas about play and playground design have changed dramatically over the years, as litigation in the 1970's and the release of safety guidelines for playgrounds in 1981 pressured designers and engineers to integrate these recommendations into new play sites. Cities and designers were concerned that parents would launch lawsuits as a result of injury their kids' experienced. As a result, rubber mats and wood chips began replacing monkey bars and dirt.

Now playgrounds are safer, but at what cost to kids? Research shows that these risk-averse playgrounds detract from kids' learning. Six kinds of risky play benefit child development: exploring heights, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, speed, and exploring on one's own. When all playgrounds meet the same standards, kids aren't challenged and don't have space to be creative.

However, some playgrounds are going against the conventional wisdom. The Land, in North Wales, UK, is an adventure playground where kids can play with fire and wander on their own. They are supervised by "playworkers," professionals trained to create and manage a play environment for children. Adventure grounds are already being built across the US, such as the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California and The Anarchy Zone/a> in Ithaca, New York. Additionally, the Beauvoir playground, a favorite playground by the National Cathedral in Northwest DC, has lots of interactive and exciting structures for kids of all ages to enjoy.

In these new play spaces, kids experience self-growth and build confidence. In 2010, the Alliance for Childhood published "The Playwork Primer," which explains playwork and outlines how groups are working to establish playwork as a profession in the United States.

While the Playable Art DC competition is not looking for an adventure playground, necessarily, OP encourages applicants to approach playground design with varied lenses, and generate ideas beyond common assumptions. "While concerns of safety and liability are important ones, they do not have to negate creative solutions and enjoyable play spaces," said Nelson.

Interested designers, engineers, and artists can attend an information session tonight, and applications are due on April 24. ArtPlace America awarded OP a grant to fund the winning projects.

Community members will be invited to attend workshops with the designers of the winning projects. The more involved the community in the design of a play space, the more appropriate it will be. "One of the keys to a successful design is communication between community and designer," said Cynthia Gentry, founding director of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play."

This is just the beginning of DC's effort to tackle the community's growing demand for play spaces. Let's get creative and encourage kids to do what they do bestplay and learn through play.

Government


Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has gotten too large and unwieldy to carry out all facets of its mission, says DC Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh has introduced a bill to reorganize transportation-related functions, create some new agencies, and abolish one.


Cheh's proposed reorganization. Image from Councilmember Cheh's office.

Cheh, who chairs the council committee that oversees DDOT, says there is precedent for slicing large agencies into smaller ones. Before 1998, all transportation-related functions were part of the Department of Public Works (DPW).

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was formed that year by splitting off driver and car licensing-related functions. Then, in 2002, DDOT was created. Finally, the District Department of the Environment split from DPW in 2006.

Cheh feels that it's time again for a too-large District agency to split into several. She has proposed a possible set of changes, below. But her staff emphasize that this isn't the only possible approach. More than the specifics, they want to put out one option for discussion, and foster a broad conversation about what to do.

The current version of the bill would make a few significant changes.

Centralize parking functions in one place. Today, three separate agencies handle parking issues. DDOT determines parking rules and posts signs. But officers who work for DPW are the ones who actually write tickets. If someone contests a ticket, it's the DMV that reviews the case.

This creates significant confusion when DDOT policymakers want to solve one problem, but information can get lost when trying to get DPW ticket-writers to focus in that area, and DMV hearing officers might interpret rules entirely differently. The bill would form a new agency, the Department of Parking Management, to handle all of these matters: policy, enforcement, and adjudication.

Establish a new transit authority. Cheh says that DDOT seems unable to really manage transit planning amid all of its other responsibilities, and groups like the Downtown BID have been complaining that DDOT does a poor job of with and coordinating with them about transit.

In many cities, the transit system is its own authority with a separate board. Cheh's bill would create such an authority for DC. That authority would supervise the Circulator and DC Streetcar, and be the point of contact between the District government and WMATA. It would also handle taxicab policy (see below) and "multimodal planning," but Cheh's proposal is not clear on what exactly that means.

To govern this authority, the mayor would appoint four members to a board, including a chair. The directors of DDOT and the Office of Planning, the DC Chief Financial Officer, and the councilmember who oversees transportation would each serve on the board or designate staff members to represent them.

The board would also include the head of DC Surface Transit, a private nonprofit made up of various local Business Improvement Districts, the convention authority Events DC. DC Surface Transit was involved in pushing to launch the original Circulator. The organization now helps market the Circulator, advises DDOT on operations and routes, and is advocating for the streetcar program.

Cheh's staff say that a transit authority, versus just an agency, could also be more transparent about transit planning than DDOT has been, by having a public board with open meetings. Furthermore, they say they have heard feedback that a separate authority could attract higher-caliber people than a mere government agency.

Abolish the Taxicab Commission. The DC Taxicab Commission has an unusual and, many say, dysfunctional structure. It has a board whose members the mayor appoints and the council confirms, but the chairman of the board also manages all of the agency's staff. Under Mayor Fenty, the Taxicab Commission chairman sometimes just ignored the board entirely. The agency has had problems with transparency and more.

Besides, does it make sense for one agency to only consider issues about taxis completely in a vacuum? Taxis are one of many transportation modes. People often choose between taxis, Metro, buses, driving, bicycling, and more. But having a separate agency make taxi policy means there's usually no overarching thought about how to help taxis fill a void other transportation modes leave, or vice versa.

Cheh's proposal would dissolve the Taxicab Commission. Instead, the District Transit Authority would make taxi policy and set taxi regulations, while the DMV would actually handle the day-to-day of registering, inspecting, and licensing the drivers and vehicles, just as it does for other drivers and vehicles now.

Move trees to DDOE. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration handles street tree issues. Cheh's proposal would make this part of the District Department of the Environment, an agency that split off from DPW in 2006 to handle environmental protection, energy, and similar issues.

Cheh says there isn't a good reason for tree management to be part of DDOT. It's originally there because tree boxes are part of the roadway area, but there's also good sense in putting trees with the agency primarily focused on the District's environmental quality.

With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:

  • Its engineering arm, the Infrastructure Project Management Administration (IPMA) that builds and maintains roads, bridges, sidewalks, alleys, and other infrastructure;
  • The Traffic Operations Administration (TOA), which handles traffic lights, streetlights, crossing guards, and road safety;
  • The Public Space Regulation Administration (PSRA), with oversight over sidewalk cafés and other private uses in public space; and
  • Some or all of the Transportation Policy, Planning, and Sustainability Administration (PPSA) which devises long-term and short-term transportation plans, and works with communities to devise proposals to improve transportation. The pedestrian and bicycle programs are part of PPSA today, and PPSA is also handling the moveDC citywide transportation plan.
PPSA encompasses what Cheh probably means by "multimodal transportation planning." According to Cheh's transportation committee director, Drew Newman, they are considering a number options for transportation planning, including keeping it in DDOT, moving it to the new transit agency, or moving it to the Office of Planning.

Process

Cheh and her staff want to have a series of conversations on the various proposals, through some combination of public forums and a smaller working group. Based on that, hey might decide to change their recommendation, maybe reallocate which functions go to which agencies, or even decide that something shouldn't get split out and should stay where it is.

The forums will take place in June and July. Cheh hopes to then have final hearings in September, mark up the bill, and pass it at council sessions in late September and early October so that it can take effect by January. That would mean that the next mayor, whoever it is, would appoint new agency heads under this new system.

Is this a good idea?

What do you think about Cheh's plan? Tomorrow, I'll give some of my own thoughts.

Pedestrians


"Dave Thomas Circle" could get fixes or disappear entirely

A new study of pedestrian and bicycle safety along Florida Avenue NE is suggesting changes to the "virtual" traffic circle at New York and Florida Avenues. In the long run, that "circle" and the nearby Wendy's could become a simpler intersection and green space.


The current "circle" and short-term fixes. Images from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) created the "virtual circle" arrangement as an "interim solution" in 2010 to deal with this difficult intersection. It was very difficult to navigate on foot or bike, and which had seen some very serious crashes.

The circle pattern routes traffic heading eastbound on Florida counter-clockwise along First and O Streets. It got the nickname "Dave Thomas Circle" because that triangle circumnavigates a Wendy's, and to play off the name for Thomas Circle. Wendy's also has many driveways connecting to the surrounding roads, and Eckington Place NE joins the tangle of roads here as well.

Since DDOT set up the "circle," the severity and number of crashes has gone down, said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT's planning head who is overseeing the study. However, many people find it confusing and it takes up a lot of space.

Once, some suggested an interchange

At the time this pattern was conceived, DDOT studies recommended building a new overpass or tunnel so New York Avenue traffic could bypass the intersection. Some plans suggested extending the I-395 tunnel from its current terminus near 4th Street NW past Florida Avenue.


Image from the 2006 DDOT study.

But a 2006 NCPC study raised concerns about new tunnels or bridges. NCPC worried about how new large-scale auto infrastructure would create an even larger pedestrian barrier in the nascent NoMa neighborhood and between other adjacent areas. Since then, DDOT has largely dropped the idea of tunneling as a solution.

What could replace the circle?

The Florida study proposes some options to simplify the intersection. They would eliminate some turns, delete the block of O Street that's now part of the "circle," and either eliminate the block of First Street or reroute it to connect to Eckington Place NE.


2 options to replace the "circle."

Florida and New York Avenues would get a bit wider to make room for turning lanes instead of the "jughandles" of the old design. Adding this right-of-way would almost certainly mean the city would have to take the Wendy's by eminent domain. But that could make the intersection significantly better for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike.

It would also open up some land for green space or other uses. The National Capital Planning Commission has long envisioned this intersection as a potential future memorial site. In 2001 they named it as one of their top 20 "Prime Sites" in the region in the Memorials and Museums Master Plan.

In addition to the longer-term proposals, later this year DDOT will make minor modifications to tweak how this intersection works. That includes changing which lanes get used for which types of turns, striping bike lanes, and adding new signs.

One change will widen the turn radius at some key spots so that the 90s buses can traverse the circle. When DDOT set up the circle arrangement, Metro discovered its buses couldn't fit, and had to reroute them onto North Capitol Street, adding minutes of extra time for every rider.

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