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Maryland plans new station at BWI, and other projects to run more trains

Maryland's Mass Transit Administration is planning upgrades to the Amtrak/MARC station at BWI Airport along with several other projects along the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor within the state. The projects will make Amtrak and MARC trains in the area more reliable as well as allow more trains to pass through the overcrowded rail corridor.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The project will reconfigure the station to have four mainline tracks, each with access to a platform. It will also include a nine-mile fourth track that will run alongside the existing ones, and a new station building with a larger waiting room.

The proposal is currently undergoing an assessment to determine how it would affect the environment. If MTA can get the funds and further environmental review isn't necessary, the final design process could start next year. Even then, though, construction probably wouldn't start until 2017 or 2018 at the earliest.

A lot of people use the BWI station, which isn't built to handle them all

The current BWI Airport rail station is served by Amtrak and MARC trains on the busy Northeast Corridor. On top of being a popular way to get to the airport, the station also gets heavy use from commuters because it has two parking garages with over 3,000 parking spaces.

Existing station. Image from Maryland MTA.

The problem is that the station's layout is inefficient, and it's operating above its designed capacity. The station has two platforms on either side of the three-track Amtrak main line. In order to service the station, trains must be on one of the outside tracks, which reduces operational flexibility.

It can be problematic because even the limited-stop Acela Express trains occasionally stop at BWI. Also, the location of interlockings, where trains can change tracks, means any train serving the BWI station has to run on the outside track for 9 miles, from Odenton to Halethorpe.

Fast trains, like the Acela, share the railroad corridor with slower Northeast Regionals and commuter trains making local stops. If an Acela or Regional needs to stop at BWI, it has to be on the local track, and that can mean getting stuck behind a slower MARC train (or having dispatchers hold the MARC train so the higher-priority Amtrak train can pass it before getting on the local track).

With a four-track station, fast trains on the center tracks won't have to slow down to switch to the local track or mix with commuter trains. That will make it easier for Amtrak to schedule stops for the faster trains. And with fewer conflicts, will allow more MARC trains.

Ridership at the BWI rail station has dwarfed its capacity to handle the crowds. When the station opened in 1980, it was primarily designed to serve the two MARC trains in each direction that operated between Baltimore and Washington. The waiting room only seats 40 people. Today, more than 32,000 passengers use the station each day. Just under 60% of those are MARC riders; the rest are Amtrak customers.

Correction: It appears the 32,000 number, which comes from the Environmental Assessment documentation, was part of a poorly phrased paragraph. The 32,000 passengers referred to count those who use the station and also counts anyone who passes through on a train without boarding or alighting. Sorry for the confusion.

Another constraint is the track arrangement. Right now, the section of track sees 92 Amtrak trains and 56 MARC trains each day. But by 2030, expected service levels will rise to 110 Amtrak trains and 135 MARC trains, an increase of 66% from 148 to 235 trains.

Building a new station

The new station will have four tracks, each with access to a platform. The existing southbound side platform will remain in its current location. The current northbound side platform will be enlarged into a center platform, and a new northbound side platform will be constructed alongside the new fourth track.

Proposed station layout. Image from Maryland MTA.

When completed, the new four-track segment will tie into an existing four-track segment that runs between Halethorpe and West Baltimore. That will mean the corridor will have a 14.5-mile segment of four tracks, greatly increasing operational flexibility and redundancy.

The project's status

The Federal Railroad Administration is leading an environmental assessment (EA) to determine whether the likely impact of the project will require a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or if it can go to design and engineering without that step. The EA is scheduled to be finish this summer.

If the result of the EA is a "Finding of No Significant Impact" (FONSI), the project will be able to proceed directly to engineering and design if funding is available. If an EIS is required, however, that process will probably take about two years to complete. The design phase and the process of selecting a contractor will probably take another two years.

During construction, at least two tracks need to be open to traffic, each with access to a platform. That means it will take three and a half years to complete the project. Certain parts of the project, including the new station building and larger waiting room, should be finished in about two and a half years.

The estimated costs for the project, including nine miles of new track, two new platforms at BWI, and a new station building is approximately $540 million. Funding sources haven't been identified, but will likely be a combination of funding from the federal government, Amtrak, and the state of Maryland.

Other projects are in the works

In addition to the BWI improvements, Maryland, Amtrak, and the Federal Railroad Administration are working on several other projects that will help rehabilitate and expand infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor. Some of these projects have been on Maryland's wish list for several years.

Between West Baltimore and Baltimore Penn Station, the corridor runs through the B&P Tunnels, which were built in 1873 and are badly in need of repair and replacement. The tunnels have a speed limit of 30 miles per hour and the four-track segment has to narrow down to two tracks, creating a bottleneck.

The replacement of these tunnels is currently undergoing the environmental review process and doesn't have funding. If that changes, the project will construct a new two-track tunnel to replace the B&P Tunnels. Once it's complete, the older tunnels will be shuttered for an overhaul and then later returned to service.

Amtrak is also studying the replacement of the Susquehanna River Bridge, which carries trains across the wide river just above its mouth. It was built in 1906 and is also badly in need of repair. The current proposals will replace the two-track span with two two-track spans, enlarging the corridor to four tracks here.

The replacement is not currently funded beyond the study phases, but getting through the environmental process is a necessary step for getting the project to "shovel-ready" status and making it eligible for federal funding.

Two more much-wanted projects do not have funding, even for environmental studies. Amtrak also needs to replace long bridges over the Bush and Gunpowder Rivers north of Baltimore. Maryland applied for federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act several years ago for studies of these bridges, but the request was unsuccessful.

These infrastructure projects are a huge part of ensuring the economic vitality of the Boston-Washington corridor. Currently, Amtrak carries three quarters of the Washington—New York air/rail market, and that share is only growing. Much of the infrastructure in the corridor is now over a century old, and suffers from deferred maintenance.

Amtrak and the commuter railroads, like MARC, that ply the corridor want to increase capacity by running trains more frequently. But without investments in infrastructure, that won't be possible. And in fact, if certain projects, like the Gateway Project in New York and New Jersey, are not completed, capacity may actually be lower than it is now.

How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 52

It's time for the fifty-second installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

This week, all five photos were submitted by reigning champion Peter K. Thanks for the submissions, Peter!

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

The answers will appear on Thursday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

Beyond Metro, there's no big idea for transit in DC anymore

The excellent Housing Complex writer Aaron Wiener is leaving the local reporting scene for a position at Mother Jones. For his valedictory column, he proposes 15 "not-so-modest proposals for how to make DC better." The first three cover transit. So what's the big pie-in-the-sky for transit?

Pie in the sky image from Shutterstock.

First: "Build new Metro lines."

Second: "At the very least, add some infill stations."

Third: "Stop building streetcar lines in mixed traffic."

Unfortunately, building new Metro lines is not really going to happen. Beyond that, this list doesn't give much to be excited about. And that's not Wiener's fault; it's exactly the problem with transit planning and advocacy in the Washington region right now.

More Metro is best

It's absolutely true that, if we're not "constrained by the limits of reality," putting more Metro lines everywhere is indeed the key. (If you're really unconstrained by reality, you just invent teleportation, but if we're suspending fiscal reality but not the laws of physics, Metro is the way to go).

Even despite disinvestment and mismanagement in WMATA, the Metro is a fast way to travel. If it's working, it's often faster than any other mode—when there's a station near where you want to go. More lines and more stations would undoubtedly offer better transportation than nearly any other system.

Unfortunately, Metro lines cost billions of dollars. Many cities and nations in other parts of the world are willing and able to keep building more tunnels for more trains, but not the United States.

What's the next best idea? Surely there is another, somewhat cheaper, somewhat less speedy, but still eminently worthwhile idea ready for an alternative weekly blogger to tout?

There isn't a second-best idea

Well, not really. And Wiener's list demonstrates this. Not because he's not coming up with it—he's a reporter and blogger, not a transportation planner. Rather, there's nothing on the shelf.

(In DC, anyway. In Maryland, the Purple Line continues to be a slam dunk, and will only not happen if the governor is more intent on punishing a part of the state that mostly didn't vote for him instead of making the state more attractive to businesses and workers.)

Infill stations, sure, and there are a few good spots. Besides Potomac Yard in Alexandria, a station already in the planning stages, Wiener points out an opportunity to build a station east of Stadium-Armory next to the former Pepco plant, if and when all of the toxic chemicals under that plant can get cleaned up.

But there aren't many good places where there's much or even any new development potential. So what else?

All there is for us is an exhortation NOT to build something. Don't build a mixed-traffic streetcar.

DC planners and leaders have not teed up any better solutions. Bus lanes and dedicated streetcar lanes (Wiener mentions the possibility of a dedicated lane on Georgia Avenue) could offer a way to move people quickly and smoothly around the city, but we're very far from being able to make that a reality, and we're moving at a snail's pace.

A study of lanes on H and I Streets foundered amid interagency squabbling between DDOT and WMATA. A study for 16th Street is actually underway, but only after multiple earlier studies in prior years. At best, it seems we can hope DDOT could design something this year, build it a couple of years from now, test it, then maybe slowly start studying some more lanes by Muriel Bowser's second term or the next mayor's first.

There are existing plans for dedicated transit lanes on K Street, but there's no longer enough money in the latest budget to actually build them. These dedicated K Street lanes, by the way, have been rarely mentioned in news stories criticizing streetcars (Wiener's list included).

The MoveDC plan lays out a network of 47 miles of "high-capacity transit" including 25 miles of dedicated lanes, but little idea of how to build those, when, or how to pay for it.

Arlington has canceled its transit vision, which grew out of years of public processes and compromise. Maryland may as well. Beyond finishing the Silver Line, the region may soon be left with no big transit ideas. And as the political climates have shifted in all of these jurisdictions, there also seems to be little appetite right now to make any new big plans.

Wiener brings up many of other excellent ideas as well. Foster some creative architecture in the District. Spread homeless shelters out around the city so every area can be a part of the solution. Buy vacant or blighted property now, when it's cheap, to build affordable housing later. Don't build football stadiums. Get rid of parking minimum requirements in new buildings.

The next Housing Complex writer will surely continue talking about all of these issues. DC leaders need to give him or her, and residents across the city and region, something to get excited about instead of a choice between the practically impossible and the undesirable.

"Expressing" trains helps Metro recover from delays

"This train will not service Brookland." If you've ever ridden Metro during a delay, you've probably heard some variation of these words. That's because Metro is "expressing" your train, meaning it's skipping stops to recover.

Graphic by the author.

We recently discussed "schedule adjustments" as a way Metro tries to mitigate delays. While schedule adjustments keep headways more even, which both guards against overcrowding and bunching as well as mitigates waits for people ahead of delayed trains, skipping stations allows the delayed train(s) to catch up.

Small windows of time can make a systemwide difference

Skipping a station can save a train about a minute. Every minute counts, both for minimizing overall delays in the system and keeping delays from creeping into the opposite direction.

In the graphic above, if the delayed train were 11 minutes behind and ran express through, say, NoMa and Brookland, it'd make up two minutes on its way to Fort Totten. It would also increase the gap from the train behind from one minute to three minutes.

This technique is also used to cut delays down during unscheduled single-tracking. We explained that use last year.

When they reach the end of a line, most trains turn and run in the opposite direction. There is generally a scheduled layover (called "recovery time") that lasts between half of the headway and the full headway.

That means a train with a scheduled layover of six minutes has that amount of time before it needs to return inbound. If it's 10 minutes late, it's going to be delayed in the other direction even if it turns around and leaves immediately when it reaches the end of the line.

What about passengers whose stations get skipped?

Of course, the cost of skipping stations is that passengers who want to board or alight at the skipped station have to wait for the next train, which can cost them a few minutes.

Most of the time, though, trains are stacked up behind the delayed train, and when that's the case the extra wait is only a minute or two. While it's inconvenient for passengers who need to get off at one of the stops their train is skipping to disembark and then take the next train, the actual delay is rarely huge.

Metro usually only skips more lightly used stations. I've been riding the northern end of the Green Line daily since 2007. When train operators are told to skip stops there, it's almost always West Hyattsville and/or College Park. They almost never skip Prince George's Plaza because so many more people use it than the other two. They don't skip Fort Totten because it's a transfer station, and Greenbelt can't be skipped because it's the terminal.

Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 51

On Tuesday, we posted our fifty-first photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in the Metro system. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 19 guesses. Five of you got all five. Great work, Peter K, Patrick, MZEBE, Mr. Johnson, and Justin....!

Image 1: Tysons Corner

The first image shows the lower level entrance at Tysons Corner station. Most of you were able to immediately recognize that this was a Silver Line station based on the newness, the signage, and the design finishes. But the only station that has a "spiral" staircase like this is Tysons Corner.

Several of you guessed McLean and Spring Hill because they have mezzanines below the tracks, and the arrangement here clearly directs passengers up to trains. But while Tysons Corner's mezzanine is above the tracks, there is an entrance underneath, which is a unique arrangement in the system. Riders entering here go up two levels (with an escalator landing (featured in week 20) to the mezzanine and then back down to trains.

Update: The number of correct answers was inadvertently deleted during editing. Thirteen people guessed correctly on this clue.

Image 2: Dunn Loring

This picture shows the platform at Dunn Loring. The main clue here is the bridge in the distance. It's a ramp that carries traffic from the northbound HOT lanes on I-495 to the westbound HOV lane on I-66. It passes over the Orange Line just east of the platform. Because of the ramp, the wall on the left is much taller than the wall on the right side. It also slopes down along with the ramp.

Even without the added height for the ramp, the walls at Dunn Loring and East Falls Church are much higher than the platform walls at other stations, mainly to block out the noise from traffic along I-66. Fifteen of you got this one correct.

Image 3: Rhode Island Avenue

The third image shows the bridge from the north side of Rhode Island Avenue to the eponymous station. The bridge crosses the street on a slope, and is directly underneath the platform. The rounded fencing gives it a distinctive shape. The circular ramp where the bridge lands on the north side was featured in week 44. Fourteen of you figured this one out.

Image 4: Anacostia

For the fourth image, you needed to reflect on things to find the answer. There were two main clues. First, since this is clearly a subway station (given the lighting), it has to be Anacostia, because that's the only underground station that has straight walls next to the tracks. The rest of the underground stations have vaulted walls.

But the primary clue is the ceiling, which is reflected at top left and top center. Anacostia has a unique ceiling with small semicircular mini-vaults running perpendicular to the tracks. It's one of the unique stations in the system, and we featured it in week 7, week 8, and week 21. Fourteen of you reflected correctly.

Image 5: Shady Grove

The final image shows the eastern entrance to Shady Grove. The watercourse here, Crabbs Branch, runs through a small greensward between the north parking garage and the east bus loop, and it seems to come straight out of the eastern entrance. It's not the only waterway near a Metro entrance, but it's probably the most obvious one. If you didn't recognize it, it's also clearly visible on aerial images.

At far left, you can just see a stairwell for the north garage. Only five of you (the same five that got all five) figured this one out. Better luck next time!

Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next week.

Mary Cheh's annual joke budget memo mocks the streetcar, endless transportation studies, and more

Each year, as the DC Council considers the District's budget, Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff issue fake recommendations that satirize recent news. This year's poke even sharper fun than usual at a number of issues around transportation, Eleanor Holmes Norton's parking, the Vince Gray prosecution, and many others.

Bookshelf image from Shutterstock.

On the streetcar, for instance, they "suggest,"

Transfer $500,000 million from the District Department of Transportation to the Commission on Arts and Humanities. This transfer will be used for an innovative, progressive, and transformative production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
That wasn't even the harshest cut at DDOT, though. As we prepared to talk to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, a lot of you suggested questions about DDOT's apparent habit of conducting a study, then conducting another one a couple of years later, and so on.

This has been a particular source of ire for Capitol Hill residents who have been waiting years for traffic calming on Maryland Avenue, or supporters of a bus lane who wonder why there has to be another study this year to implement a bus lane that was the subject of at least two earlier studies. Commenter Jimmy, for instance, wrote:

Some of us actually refer to his agency as DDOTS (District Department of Transportation Studies). While some study is necessary to avoid ready-fire-aim debacles like the streetcar, use of "further study" (on bike lanes, bus lanes, bus signal priority, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move more cars faster or provide more parking for private automobiles) has clearly become a delaying tactic. What can be done about this? How can we move forward on things that have already been studied to death?
Cheh and her staff feel your pain. Their budget "recommendation":
Transfer $1.5 million from the Department of General Services—what's another million and a half, anyway—to the District Department of Transportation to conduct a study. It has recently come to the Committee's attention that DDOT has had issues in implementing previously conducted studies. Despite extensive work being done to study traffic calming measures on Maryland Avenue, the agency is about to initiate another study. Additionally, despite conducting a study in 2013 on a 16th Street Bus Lane, DDOT will shortly begin a new study on the topic.

To assist in reducing redundant redundancies, the Committee recommends that the funds be used for DDOT to study these studies. This endeavor will help keep the agency busy because the Committee has no doubt that two years from now they will scrap the study on studies and conduct a new study that studies the study on studies in a rather studious manner.


Eleanor Holmes Norton does not get off lightly. A video surfaced in March showing the Congresswoman trying to park between two other cars and somehow managing to end up diagonally in her space. Cheh and her staff "propose" a new Eleanor Holmes Norton Office of Parking and Driving to provide free taxi service for elected officials.

And speaking of federal activities, remember how US Attorney Ron Machen was looking into alleged campaign finance misdeeds from the 2010 Vincent Gray mayoral campaign? Machen charged a number of Gray staffers, but never seemed to find any evidence linking the mayor himself. Yet Machen, in an unusual step for a prosecutor, publicly said "there's there there," saying in essence that he was sure Gray was involved.

Gray lost the primary election, in large part because many people believed Machen, but nothing has happened since. Cheh and her staff caustically "suggest" funding a dictionary and a map for the US Attorney's Office so it can "determine where exactly is the there."

Other biting critiques in the memo include:

  • A recommendation about the DC Board of Elections printed entirely upside-down, a reference to the upside-down DC flag on the 2014 voter guide which BOE first pretended was intentional, then admitted had been a mistake.
  • That upside-down proposal suggests a primary date based on the lunar calendar to "enhance voter turnout and continue to make elections a part of the news cycle." DC had shifted its primary from September to April due to federal laws about getting absentee ballots to servicemembers overseas. But the turnout in 2014 hit record lows, so the council moved it back.
  • A budget allocation to make space for "all of Mayor Bowser's former staff and campaign aides" on the council. Bowser staffers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May won the two recent special elections, in Wards 4 and 8 respectively. Todd said he would be independent of Bowser and even, while campaigning, opposed her controversial DC Jail healthcare contract which Bowser had been pushing; days after winning, he decided he would support his former boss after all.
  • A new job training program for councilmembers forced out of office due to corruption.
  • Body cameras for councilmembers whose footage will be televised on a reality show, "Keeping Up with the Kouncilmembers."
  • A staffer to submit "all office supply orders" to Congress, given that Congress is so eager to get involved in DC's local affairs.
Cheh and her staff conclude with a suggestion that if you don't find her memo funny, you "participate in some recently-legalized activities" (i.e. smoke marijuana) and then you will "find it to be, like, totally the funniest thing ever."

"Schedule adjustments" can help cut Metro delays

If you've ridden Metro for any length of time you've probably experienced a "schedule adjustment," where the train holds for a minute or two at a station. Why does Metro do that?

Graphic by the author.

The basic answer is that your train has gotten too close to the train ahead of it or the following train has gotten too far behind. Schedule adjustments are a way that Metro keeps headways (the time between trains) consistent. And that's important because not having an even headway can lead to "bunching." Also, uneven headways can lead to customers getting stuck waiting for the delayed train.


Bunching is when a vehicle doesn't come for a long time and then several show up at once. The basic cause of bunching is that one bus or train gets slowed down for some reason, and that initial delay means that every stop down the line has more customers waiting to board than usual. That leads to longer dwell times at each stop.

Buses are particularly susceptible to bunching because all boarding happens through the front door, people have to pay when they board, aisles are narrow, and they can get stuck in traffic. Buses that get delayed fall behind, lengthening dwell times for riders waiting for the bus while also shortening the headway until the next bus, which now has fewer passengers to pick up.

The uneven passenger loads that come from bunching are hard on transit. One way that Metro curbs bunching on the rail system is by holding trains for schedule adjustments when they're getting too close to the preceding train.

In the center of the graphic above, you can see that the train running early is just one minute behind the preceding train. But the train behind is lagging by a minute because of the additional loading. So instead of a three minute gap between trains, it's doubled here to six minutes.

If Metro were to hold the early train by one minute, it would then be two minutes behind the preceding train and five minutes ahead of the following train, which is closer to the scheduled headway.

Shortening delays

Metro also uses schedule adjustments to help when there's a delay behind the one it's holding.

For example, let's say you're on a Glenmont-bound Red Line train approaching Fort Totten. The operator announces that due to a disabled train at Judiciary Square, you'll be holding three minutes at Fort Totten. You're probably wondering how a delay behind you can mean your train needs to wait.

Doing this allows Metro to mitigate the delay for people who've yet to board your train. Yes, everyone on your train will be delayed three minutes. But by holding the train, Metro allows the people who arrive at Fort Totten (and any downstream station) during the three minute hold to board. Without the schedule adjustment, those people would be stuck waiting for the originally delayed train to arrive, which could be quite a while.

Schedule adjustments also keep there from being too many people who need to board the first train to come through after the wait. Because it's been a while since the last train, the first train following the gap is often too crowded to board, which means it dwells at each station longer than usual, creating more delays. The downstream schedule adjustment clears some of those passengers off the platform ahead of the gap.

In the graphic above, you can see what it might look like without a schedule adjustment, where the last train before the gap is still three minutes behind the preceding train. But there's an eleven minute gap behind it.

With a schedule adjustment of, say, three minutes, the spacing between those trains would go from three and 11 to six and eight, which is much closer to the desired interval.

Metro can also "express" the lagging train to further reduce the gap, but that's a topic for another day.

Schedule adjustments aren't always pleasant, especially if you're already on the train. But they do help keep passengers who've yet to arrive on the platform from facing a long wait. In more serious delays, schedule adjustments can make a lot of sense. They're one tool that Metro uses to try and keep trains evenly spaced.

How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 51

It's time for the fifty-first installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

The answers will appear on Thursday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

Update: The answers are here.

Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is blessed with over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap to visit. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.

The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens, a collection of gardens in and around many of the museums on the National Mall that counterbalance the dark halls of fossils and spacecraft.

The Smithsonian Gardens are comprised of 12 distinct spaces. They range from the Victory Garden, a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Museum of American History, to the contemporary Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

You can get to all of the Smithsonian gardens by Metrorail and bus, and they're all free. A lot of them also host regular tours and other educational programming. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden's tour, which is hosted by a horitculturist every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October, is one of the best.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall is the US Botanic Garden, a great place to enjoy native plants. In warm months, there is nothing more stunning than the blazing yellow-orange Amsonia with the National Museum of the American Indian in the background, and the glass conservatory is my place to get away from the long, dull gray of winter.

Mark your calendar: the Botanic Garden is open on both Christmas and New Year's Day, and it hosts a holiday garden railroad display.

Because the Architect of the Capitol runs the Botanic Garden rather than it being part of the Smithsonian, it can close unexpectedly, like when it hosts fundraisers for legislators. Make sure to check before you visit!

The US Botanic Garden.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If crowds aren't your thing, check out the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk the mile there, but the H6 and the 80 buses get you even closer.

The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays around Easter, but there are stunning roses in late May and early June, and later in the summer there are tropical gardens that even feature a few palm trees.

Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but it was infrequent and eventually ceased service a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance.

The National Arboretum.

Among the Arboretum's unique collections are the sun-filled Gotelli Dwarf Conifer Collection (dwarf being a very relative term) and Fern Valley, which is shady and full of ephemeral woodland wildflowersin the early spring. Also, the National Herb Garden includes hundreds of species of herbs and visiting is a scent-filled, interactive experience.

The Arboretum is run by the US Department of Agriculture, and in recent years it has been more about research than public outreach and education. But the new director, Dr. Richard Olsen, comes from a horticultural background rather than an administrative one, and local gardeners hope that means a change of focus.

The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is open every day of the year except Christmas. Recently, it was closed three days a week because of sequestration, but that didn't last thanks to fundraising by Friends of the National Arboretum.

The Arboretum's grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the metro to Deanwood and walk over.

Once there, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself. A former waterlily nursery now a national park, this is the true hidden oasis of the city.

The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

The Aquatic Gardens are also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though, as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct midday sun. The best time to see them is during July and August.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. To get there, take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.

The Bishop's Close.

The secluded, walled garden is downhill from the south-facing side of the Cathedral, giving it a great view of the building. The garden itself is sunny and bright, which helps the roses and English-style perennial borders grow, but there are also some shady, quiet spots.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, local parks systems run Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, both of which are free to enter. Reaching either by transit takes a combination of Metrorail and bus, but they're both worth it if you're looking for an afternoon outside of the city. Of course, better access by transit would make these gardens even more valuable to their surrounding communities.

Green Springs Garden.

There's a lot more to gardens in DC than a once per year trip to see the cherry blossoms bloom. DC Gardens, a new local nonprofit, sprung up this spring to help spread the word about the city's great public gardens to both tourists and residents. On DCGardens' website, you'll find month to month calendars for lots of our public gardens, along with listings for events, festivals, and activities going on at each.

This post originally said the US Botanic Garden closes unexpectedly to host fundraisers for legislators. In fact, the Garden doesn't allow fundraisers of any kind.

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