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Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 29

On Tuesday, we posted our twenty-ninth 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 31 guesses. Nine of you got all five correct. Great work, Alex B, Peter K, Murn, DavidDuck, Justin...., coneyraven, Ian, DC Dave, and Cosmo!

Image 1: West Falls Church

The first image shows the north bus loop at West Falls Church. This loop was formerly home to many of the Fairfax Connector routes that served Tysons Corner and other places in northern Fairfax, but today is less important since the Silver Line has opened. The primary clue here is the unique canopy covering the bus platform. 21 of you knew this one.

Image 2

The second image shows an outbound Blue Line train approaching Arlington Cemetery station. In addition to the side platforms, which narrows the list of possible stations significantly, the bucolic setting and the Rosslyn skyline make this obviously Arlington Cemetery. 28 got this one right.

Image 3

The third image depicts the memorial pylon at Metro Center. This granite column is a memorial to fallen Metro employees. It stands in the southern mezzanine, which is an extension of the Shady Grove platform above the Blue/Orange/Silver platform near the sales office. 19 of you correctly guessed Metro Center.

Image 4

This image shows a mirror on the platform at Silver Spring station. Because the platform here is curved, these convex mirrors are in place to allow the operators of inbound trains to see all the doors on the train. Only two stations have these mirrors. Other clues included the distinctive bridge between the MARC platforms and the buildings in the background. 18 knew this was Silver Spring.

Image 5

The final image shows a staircase at Wheaton station. These steps lead down from the southeast corner of Reedie Drive and Georgia Avenue into the mezzanine. The distinctive blue wall is a clue, as is the new residential tower above the Wheaton Safeway, visible in the glare. 14 correctly guessed Wheaton.

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

Without a streetcar, what's next for Columbia Pike, technically and politically?

After a decade of planning, officials in Arlington cancelled the Columbia Pike streetcar this week. If streetcars aren't going to be the answer on there, what might realistically happen instead?

Columbia Pike. Photo by harry_nl on Flickr.

In the wake of the streetcar's cancellation, some have suggested Metrorail, BRT, or light rail. None are likely. The county will probably just end up running articulated ("accordion") buses on Columbia Pike. Voters might be surprised how long that takes, how much it costs, and how little capacity it adds.

It's also time for the anti-streetcar forces to prove that when they claimed they supported better transit, they meant it and weren't just using the issue to divide voters. That means they now have to get involved in finding a solution and making it a reality.

There's tremendous demand for good transit on Columbia Pike. It's already the busiest bus corridor in Virginia, and by 2040 there could be more transit riders on Columbia Pike alone than in the entire Richmond metropolitan area. Doing nothing isn't a viable option.

As we discussed yesterday, Metrorail is (unfortunately) not financially realistic, and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has told Arlington it may not dedicate a lane to transitif even that were politically possible over drivers' inevitable objections.

So what can happen now?

How soon can Arlington beef up bus service?

Unfortunately, large transit projects take years to plan and, if they cost a significant amount, even longer to fund. The funding process is what really held up the Columbia Pike streetcar; Arlington and Fairfax leaders thought they had the money together in the past, like in 2007, when Virginia handed some taxing authority to a regional authority to build transportation. But then courts ruled the plan unconstitutional, and it took more years to get funding together again, culminating in Governor McAuliffe's pledge this year for the state to pick up a significant amount of the tab.

One plan has gone through some detailed studies: the option called "TSM-2" in the streetcar alternatives analysis. That includes running longer articulated buses on Columbia Pike along with larger bus stops, machines to pay the fare before the bus arrives ("off-vehicle fare collection"), and rebranding the buses as MetroExtra or Metroway.

But even that isn't so simple.

First, WMATA doesn't have any bus storage or maintenance yard in Virginia equipped to handle articulated buses. Arlington will have to find land and build that, just as it would have had to do for a streetcar railyard.

Second, Columbia Pike's pavement isn't strong enough to handle the wear and tear of hundreds of articulated bus trips per day. It wouldn't crumble the first week, but before long Arlington will have to reinforce and repave the street, just like it would have had to do for streetcar tracks.

Finally, a lot of planning work will have to re-done. Just how much is not yet clear. At the very least, contracts and design work that had been progressing will cease, and Arlington will have to prepare new contracts and possibly hire new contractors. At the higher end of the scale, it's possible the entire alternatives analysis process that produced the TSM-2 option will have to start anew, with a different set of constraints.

Whatever the specifics turn out to be, it's definitely not a simple matter of buying some buses and calling it a day. It's going to take years.

That likely won't last for long

The Alternatives Analysis estimated that at current growth rates, ridership will outstrip the capacity for articulated buses before long.

There are three likely scenarios here:

  • Columbia Pike will not grow as leaders and residents hope, in which case it will remain depressed relative to the rest of the county and not need more transit ridership. A streetcar might become necessary to jump-start the economy, or voters will keep letting it languish.
  • It will grow, demand will increase again, and we'll be back where we started. Maybe the county will again consider a higher-capacity streetcar, just years later and at an even higher cost.
  • The AA is totally wrong and everything will be hunky-dory with just articulated buses, as Libby Garvey and others have argued. That's worked with voters, but no transit experts have really said it holds water.
What about dedicated lanes?

Several readers have said they believe that transit is just not worthwhile without dedicated lanes. Certainly dedicated lanes are better, but elected officials have to make a judgment about what is politically possible and what is not.

Columbia Pike used to be a state road (and still is in Fairfax). The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) turned it over to Arlington, but with the condition that the number of lanes open to cars not drop below fourand it's a four-lane road.

It's theoretically possible that a transit-friendly governor in Virginia could order VDOT to change this condition and let Arlington dedicate lanes on Columbia Pike. Or maybe in another decade or two, VDOT will come to that decision naturally.

The McAuliffe administration stuck its neck out in support of the streetcar. After Arlington hung them out to dry, will they take even more of a risk to take lanes away from cars?

And what evidence do we have that the voting bloc that would fight against losing any car lanes is smaller than the bloc who opposed spending money?

It's about politics now

All of the above is, essentially, the calculus that folks inside Arlington government are or will be working through. What should they plan for now? What contracts are necessary?

But this project didn't lose because of insufficient planning. It lost because of politics.

Arlington has long operated on the "Arlington Way," where civic leaders and other residents discuss issues calmly in advisory committees, the staff formulate recommendations, the board debates them, and ultimately passes things usually with unanimity.

This works pretty well when residents are willing to trust their elected leaders and county officials. But that system is now dead. The faction opposed to the current board members told voters that the consensus on the county board was a sign of the board not listening to people, and eroded popular trust in the county board and staff.

The county board has no committees. There's just one political party. The executive isn't independent. Everything is set up around the idea that everyone acts together. But a faction that now represents 40% of the board isn't interested in doing it that way (unless they are in charge, maybe).

If the board members just ask the transportation department to devise some options, recommend them to the board, and pick the best one, some people will still be unhappy with whatever happens. There will still be opportunities to blame Mary Hynes, Walter Tejada, and Jay Fisette for not doing it the right way, because there's no perfect way that will satisfy every person.

Transit supporters need to start thinking of this as a political fight and not a transit planning fight.

Streetcar opponents: You won. Now, get something done

Libby Garvey, John Vihstadt, and Peter Rousselot have consistently claimed they are for better mobility on Columbia Pike. They just don't want the streetcar. Well, now the streetcar is gone, so there's no apparent division.

Either they were genuine, in which case they can and will work to make transit better, or they were just using it for political advantage. The trick is to now set things up so that voters will be able to see which it is. (Update: Rousselot, at least, has stated his spending priorities and none of them is transit of any kind on Columbia Pike.)

How about putting Garvey and/or Vihstadt in charge of some sort of committee to analyze transportation on Columbia Pike and recommend solutions? And hold a vote putting the county on record that it does want to ask Virginia for a dedicated lane, and send Garvey down to Richmond to push for it. She sure had nearly boundless energy to meet with state officials to criticize the streetcar; how about doing the same for something that would help Arlington County?

If she succeeds, then that's fantastic! We get better transit. I don't think it'll happen, but I'd love to be proven wrong here. I'd love to be able to praise Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt for making things better instead of just breaking things. Then transit supporters can start seeing them as friends and support their re-election.

But if a dedicated lane can't happen, articulated buses turn out to cost almost as much as the streetcar, and they're still too crowded, then voters should blame them, not Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada who tried to do something and got shot down.

Transit projects are stuck between people who want to spend less money and people who want to spend more

Transit projects in the Washington region are going through a tough period. The Columbia Pike streetcar is dead, the DC streetcar delayed and had its funding cut, and Maryland just elected a governor who's at best skeptical about the Purple Line. Any transit project seems to have many critics. Why all the negativity?

Photo by B Rosen on Flickr.

People who agree with the decision to cancel the project seem to fall into a few groups:

  1. People who want much better transit, like Metrorail. This will cost a lot of money.
  2. People who support buses in dedicated lanes, which VDOT has rejected on Columbia Pike, but where possible (like in DC), also would interfere with drivers.
  3. People who don't want to spend much money on transit and don't want to slow down cars either.
  4. People who were confused.

1. People who want Metrorail instead

Group #1 points out that Metrorail is great transit. So it is. It's also massively, massively expensive. The United States was willing to spend that kind of money in the 1950s and '60s, when our economy was growing rapidly, tax rates were really high, we wanted to compete with the Soviets, and the public supported public investment.

Now, a few big subway projects are still possible, but the federal government does so much less. That means that states, counties, and cities have to put up a lot of money, and elected officials who support it are always vulnerable to challenges from people appealing to those who don't benefit from the project.

On Columbia Pike, we'd be talking billions of dollars. On top of that, the line wouldn't be possible without a separate Blue or Yellow Line in downtown DCthe trains need somewhere to go and there isn't room now.

Bus lane in Santa Monica, not possible on Columbia Pike. Photo by Complete Streets on Flickr.

2. People who want buses in dedicated lanes.

This group says you can build much better transit than mixed-traffic streetcars or slow buses by dedicating a lane to buses or light rail. And that's true! It just takes one little thing: taking space away from drivers. And we know drivers are totally fine with losing lanes as long as a thoughtful study supported it, right?

Critics of streetcars, including the Post editorial board this weekend, have linked over and over to a recent article by Matt Yglesias on Vox headlined, "Meet the worst transit project in America. This was probably the transit story with the most clickbait of a headline, and it's worked.

But it's worth looking at another headline in there, a section header near the bottom, which reads, "To improve transit, smash the car lobby." That's rightMatt Yglesias thinks that all you have to do to make progress on transit is "smash" one of the most powerful constituencies in the nation. Not only is there tremendous campaign funding that flows from road-building and car-selling industries, but it's quite simply a cause that the vast majority of Americans identify with.

3. People who don't support spending on transit

Many people who just don't really care much about better transit. They might be okay with it in the abstract, but don't want to spend much on it. A lot of people don't want tax money to go to infrastructure they won't use, especially in less politically-powerful South Arlington, as this satirical comment highlights.

Buses are somewhat inoffensive because they don't get in the way of drivers or cost that much (relatively); they can even be decent transit, but break down in corridors where ridership grows really large, like Columbia Pike, DC's 16th Street, and others.

In some parts of the country, politicians outright oppose transit. Around here, it's popular enough that leaders don't say they do. But any transit project does have to deal with voters who don't want to spend the money, and it's worse when it also gets flack from transit supporters on all sides who argue their particular transit alternative is better.

4. People who were confused

Peter Rousselot, the political operative behind the anti-streetcar campaign, and the two board members in his coalition, Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt, insist they support good-quality bus transit. But they really want the money to go elsewhere. Instead of outright opposing transit, they have won over many voters by spreading misinformation.

Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, the group Rousselot helped found, continues to claim that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is an alternative to the streetcar. Yet the nation's foremost authority on BRT, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), defines BRT as:

A high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities ... through the provision of dedicated lanes, with busways and iconic stations typically aligned to the center of the road, off-board fare collection, and fast and frequent operations.

Busway requirements for BRT. Image from ITDP.

ITDP's scoring system requires at least 3 km (about 2 miles) of dedicated lanes to even begin to qualify as BRT, and even then a line has to earn points in other categories. Yet AST's page of BRT videos highlights the Snohomish County, WA "Swift" system which has 7 miles of dedicated lanesnot the entire route, to be sure, but a significant portion.

A video entitled "Does Bus Rapid Transit need a dedicated lane?" does not, at any point, answer that question. Instead, it just gives some advantages of regular, standard buses. ITDP's older 2012 standard didn't absolutely require dedicated lanes, but those were worth a lot of points; to get something to qualify as "BRT" without them would mean gold-plating every other aspect of the line, like the "million dollar super-stops" which AST roundly criticized as also too expensive.

The misinformation worked. Many residents now have said they look forward to Arlington speeding up the Crystal City streetcar (which is dead, too), or building Metro (without understanding the cost), or planning of the shiny Bus Rapid Transit systems AST has been talking about (which are, once again, not possible).

As Brian McEntee put it:

This is the dilemma that leaders face. They'd love to build Metro, but don't have the money. They'd love to dedicate a lane, but can't "smash the car lobby" as easily as Yglesias would like. And if they propose a streetcar which is less expensive but slower than Metro and doesn't take a lane, someone will shout "boondoggle" and call to kill the project without a viable alternative to actually improve transportation or reduce car trips.

What is next? We'll look at that in an upcoming post.

Do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 29

It's time for the twenty-ninth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are five photos of the Washington Metro system. Can you identify the station depicted in each 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.

BREAKING: Arlington cancels the Columbia Pike streetcar

Following John Vihstadt's strong win in last week's election, a race that revolved largely around the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington officials have voted to stop work on planning or contracts for the project.

Photo by brittgow on Flickr.

The Post quotes County Board chairman Jay Fisette saying,

We believed that a streetcar system would provide the economic stimulation and the placemaking that would keep Arlington competitive for years to come. But we cannot ignore the political realities.

On November 4, Arlingtonians went to the polls. They rejected the candidate who supported streetcar. ... We were caught flatfooted. We did not effectively make the case [for the line].

It's not immediately clear if the door is open for some version of the project to move forward in the future. It's also not clear whether Arlington can shift to any other transit project the $65 million that Virginia had committed to the streetcar.

Update 1: Michael Perkins and Chris Slatt point out that we "reported" this in April 2013 as an April Fool's joke. In the joke post, we said that Arlingtonians for Sensible Transportation, leader Peter Rousselot, and county board member Libby Garvey, all of whom have insisted they support high-quality Bus Rapid Transit, suddenly start criticizing bus plans as also "too expensive."

If the county board now proposes spending money on bus transit on Columbia Pike, we might have the chance to see whether this comes true; hopefully, these folks are being genuine and will support other transit investments. It's important to understand, as always, that the state of Virginia will still not allow a dedicated lane on Columbia Pike.

Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 28

On Tuesday, we posted our twenty-eighth 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 24 guesses. Only one person got all five correct, though. Great work, Peter K!

Image 1: NoMa

The first image was clearly the easiest, garnering 23 correct guesses (one person didn't guess on it). From the photo, you can tell that the canopy is clearly of the "Gull II" variety, and since the next train is going to Glenmont, you know it has to be on the Red Line. The only Gull II station on the Red Line is NoMa.

Image 2: McLean

The second image shows McLean station. We got 16 correct answers to this clue. From the canopy supports on either side of the image, most of you were able to narrow this down to one of the "Tysons Peak" stations. You can also just barely make out the text on the sign with the Silver Line's end points. (Everyone who guessed guessed a station on the Silver Line).

While several of you guessed Spring Hill, which is this station's twin, the view of the buildings in the distance proves this is McLean.

Image 3: Forest Glen

This image of Forest Glen proved a little harder, getting only 13 correct guesses. There's not much context here, but the primary clue is the sign that says "elevators to exit." There are only three elevator-only primary exits in the system, so this had to be one of those stations. The shape of the vault (visible at left) and the lighting should narrow it down to Forest Glen.

Image 4: Takoma

Only six people correctly guessed Takoma for the fourth image. This hallway leads to the platform elevator and is in a different location than the primary (escalator) mezzanine. The reason this entrance exists is because the first phase of Metro (the stations that opened between 1976 and 1978) were designed without elevators. Later, the designs were changed to incorporate elevators, but that resulted in many of those stations having elevators in odd locations. Takoma (opened in 1978) is one of those stations.

Image 5: Southern Avenue

The final image shows station art at Southern Avenue. We actually featured this same art installation in Week 4, though from a different vantage point. Only three of you knew that this was Southern Avenue.

Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next week on our new day: Tuesday.

Veterans Day closures: No "commutemageddon," and even some perks for those not working

Though roads closed and the Blue Line stopped running on Veterans Day, crowding and waits for commuters weren't as bad as some had feared. For people who had the day off, the closures even created an impromptu "open streets" event on car-free avenues. But many details, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists, came as a surprise.

Car-free Independence Avenue. Photo by Joe in DC on Flickr.

The Concert for Valor did attract large crowds to the National Mall, but they were nowhere near the 800,000 people that concert organizers initially predicted. Immediately beforehand, they lowered the estimate to closer to 250,000.

"Our initial indications are everything went very smoothly," said National Park Service (NPS) spokesperson Mike Litterst. NPS was responsible for managing and coordinating road closures and security for the concert with other agencies.

Streets closed at 6 am for a 7 pm event

Thirteen hours before the concert began, all of the streets closed around the mall, including long stretches of Constitution and Independence Avenues and everything from 3rd to 17th Streets as far north as Pennsylvania Avenue and as far south as Maine Avenue. Commenters on our pre-Veterans Day post about the changes asked why the closures could not have begun after the morning rush.

"In general… closure time for the streets is a decision jointly made by all of the participating public safety and law enforcement agencies for safety and security reasons," said Litterst. "It allows the secure area to be properly and diligently swept and secured prior to the concertgoers entering. It is a security plan and process that has been refined over numerous large-scale events in and around the Mall over the years, including Independence Day, inaugurations, and large-scale races, such as the Marine Corps Marathon."

Cyclists, walkers, and joggers, however, enjoyed the car-free spaces. Throughout the day, photos and videos of people enjoying a nearly empty Constitution Avenue emerged.

"That was pretty fun. Let's close down Constitution more often," said Rob Pitingolo, who shot a video of the car-free boulevard.

But actually crossing the Mall was more difficult. Anyone entering the area between Jefferson and Madison Drives, 17th Street, and the Capitol had to pass through security checks, and those only opened at 10 am.

Metro served 40% more riders than last Veterans Day

Metrorail trains carried about 523,000 passengers on Veterans Day, says spokesperson Dan Stessel. Last year, when there was no large event, roughly 375,000 people rode Metro.

Personally, I noticed slightly more people than usual on my morning and evening commutes on Metro from Shaw to Braddock Road. Despite fewer trains and no Blue Line, my experience was better than on previous "minor" holidays when scheduled track work and crowded transfer stations made the inconveniences of reduced schedules even worse.

Light crowds on the Yellow Line heading into DC at Pentagon at about 5:30 pm. Photo by the author.

"From our perspective, the day went really well," said Stessel. "Service levels were appropriate to meet ridership demand at all hours of the day, and we believe we struck an appropriate balance between the needs of regular commuters with those heading to the Concert for Valor."

Greater Greater Washington readers asked why Metro didn't keep the Blue Line open until later in the day. Metro also banned bikes all day.

"No doubt, the service changes were in place to handle crowds that, in the end, were not as large as the Park Service permit," said Stessel. "We make no apologies for this. We have to plan for the worst and hope for the best."

What could be better next time?

Some of the details of the street closures and service changes got lost in the media blitz before the event. For example, NPS and the press could have more clearly communicated that Constitution and Independence Avenues would be free of cars and open to pedestrians and cyclists. Most news reports focused on the effect on drivers.

Also, NPS could work to minimize the impact on cyclists. While drivers could still use the 3rd Street (I-395) and 9th Street tunnels to cross the Mall, cyclists couldn't. They had to cross either east of 3rd or west of 17th. NPS could designate corridors, perhaps along one of the streets at the edge of the security cordon, for riders to cross the Mall. Many, myself included, would have taken advantage of these.

How well do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 28

It's time for the twenty-eighth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are five photos of the Washington Metro system. Can you identify the station depicted in each 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.

Note: From now on, the whichWMATA clue post will appear on Tuesday with answers on Thursday.

Update: The answers are here.

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