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Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 96

It's time for the ninety-sixth 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

Please have your answers submitted by noon on Thursday. Good luck!

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


In defense of "political theater" for Metro

Jack Evans, DC Councilmember and chair of the WMATA Board, is making noise. He's shouting that Metro needs $25 billion to fix everything that needs fixing. On Friday, members of Congress accused him of "political theater" and "rampant parochialism." But perhaps some theater is just what Metro needs right now?


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

I talk about this issue, and more, with WAMU's Martin di Caro on this week's Metropocalypse podcast and a Facebook Live video we recorded right after the podcast taping. Check it out!

Let's leave aside the irony of two members of the United States House of Representatives decrying "political theater." Gerry Connolly, one of those leveling the attack, is not an unserious person and has done a tremendous amount for our region and for Metro. In fact, on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, he unflaggingly pushed the Silver Line through decades of studies and inaction, and he deserves a lot of credit for it happening.

Connolly was upset specifically because Corbett Price, the other WMATA board voting member from DC, made a provocative suggestion. He posited that if Virginia doesn't step up to fund Metro, perhaps DC should veto the opening of the Silver Line to Dulles and Loudoun County. Needless to say, Connolly isn't happy about this idea.

I don't want Metro to cancel the Silver Line. Price and Evans don't either.

They were saying that Metro is in a crisis, and Virginia didn't seem very eager to fix it. Evans, Price, DC CFO Jeff DeWitt, and others have suggested a regional sales tax to give Metro a reliable funding source. Mostly, that proposal was met with hemming and hawing from both Annapolis and Richmond.

In a nutshell, this is how the discussion has gone:

DC leaders: Hey, the house is on fire! We should put out the fire!
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan: I don't think we should. On second thought, I'm okay with if if Montgomery and Prince George's Counties pay for the firefighting work, but I don't want to.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe: I think our house should demonstrate it can take steps to improve its structural integrity before we put the fire out.

Who's job is it to fix Metro?

The buck stops with nobody. DC, Maryland, and Virginia (a collection of Northern Virginia cities and counties, more specifically) share the governance of Metro, which means no chief executive can take decisive action to fix it, and also no chief executive is personally blamed if it fails.

Riders get angry at Metro for its failures, not at McAuliffe, Hogan, and DC mayor Muriel Bowser for not pushing for fixes.

So, Evans and Price are trying to make people pay attention by being controversial. It's not surprising that's rubbing some other leaders the wrong way, but has something else worked better?

The last two board chairs, Tom Downs and Mort Downey, were not politicians and not loud. They were transit experts who ... um, hired their friend Rich Sarles to run the place for a few years, during which time, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, the system got even worse.

I can understand the impulse to keep politics out of Metro, but we had not-politics and the problem did not improve in any way. So Evans and Price tried to pressure Virginia using the Silver Line. Perhaps that was a good tactic, or perhaps not, but doing nothing was not a good tactic either.

Should the Silver Line be under negotiation?

Their argument about the Silver Line isn't totally crazy. Based on the formula that decides how much various jurisdictions pay for Metro, even though the Silver Line extension is entirely in Virginia, DC and Maryland will pay some of the cost of running it. Starting the Silver Line also, sadly, precipitated a crisis where Metro suddenly couldn't get enough railcars out on the tracks each day.

Still, it's dangerous for one jurisdiction to block new service in another. DC and Maryland do benefit from more people having access to Metro. The board might do one thing to help one jurisdiction this time, and another the next. Metro can only work if DC, Maryland, and Virginia are trying to work together, not at cross purposes. The Congressmembers accused DC's reps of acting parochially, and the board needs less parochialism, not more.

(Connolly should also tell that to Maryland's Michael Goldman, a paragon of parochialism on this board. Goldman suddenly announced that Maryland didn't want to pay its share of the 5A bus to Dulles, for instance. He also stopped Metro from funding required retirement benefits and refused to fund upgrades to power systems to allow more 8-car trains.)

Conflict between jurisdictions is inherent to Metro's structure

Metro is more like urban subway in most of the area inside the Beltway, and mostly a suburban park-and-ride commuter train outside. That could change in Tysons, eventually, and elsewhere, but there aren't a lot of people living outside the Beltway who forego owning a car because Metro makes it easy enough to get places without one.

That means, as Metro is constituted now, there will always be some battles between DC, which wants more frequent service and service over more hours, and suburban jurisdictions where longer mid-day waits are less of an issue. There are always going to be budget fights about whether the parking fees should go up when fares do, or not. Or the maximum fare—riders going the longest distance don't pay as much per mile as others. That's either fair or not depending on your point of view.

Most of all, Metro needs all local governments to take Metro's problems very seriously. A lot of experts think it could stop being financially viable within a year if something is not done. The Silver Line should not be canceled, but maybe a bombastic politician who gets headlines (along with a capable manager who's actually fixing problems) could get this issue the attention it needs. Other methods haven't worked any better.

Links


National links: There are downsides to letting the Rust Belt shrink

An economist puts forward a strong argument on why it doesn't make sense to say that we should just let middle-of-the-country places that are struggling economically die off, Donald Trump has named a Secretary of Transportation, and Volvo just finished building the world's longest bus. Read about this, and more, from world of transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Bob Jagendorf on Flickr.

Leaving places behind doesn't pay: When it comes to places that are struggling economically, like Rust Belt cities, most economists would tell you that the solution is to let them shrink and for the people there to go somewhere else where they're more likely to thrive. Some would argue, however, that this is problematic both because it ignores the people who stay in struggling places and because there are wide-ranging benefits of keeping these places alive. (Vox)

The DOT goes back to the future: Donald Trump will nominate Elaine Chao to be the next Secretary of Transportation. She was the DOT's deputy secretary in 1990, and while working in the George W. Bush administration (as the Secretary of Labor), she praised public transit and said we don't necessarily need more highways, though she also fought raising the transit subsidy for Labor Department employees. There's reason to think she'll be pro-ridesharing services (for better or for worse) and pro-coal. (Slate, GovEx, Americans for Tax Reform, Lexington Herald Leader)

A really, really big bus: Volvo has built the world's largest bus. According to the company, the bi-articulated vehicle can carry 300 people and has a length of 98 feet. It was built in Brazil for bus rapid transit projects in the country. (Economic Times Auto)

Amazon is the new Walmart: One of every two dollars spent online goes through Amazon.com, meaning the company has an even bigger effect on the economy than we might have thought. At the local level, Amazon's expansion has meant the extraction of $613 million in subsidies for building new facilities around the country, but those haven't exactly added up to jobs for local economies, as 149,000 retail jobs have been lost in the last 11 years. (Institute for Local Self Reliance)

"Mega regions" in the US: Using data about how we commute, researchers have created new maps of US "mega regions." Mega regions have become a major topic of discussion as separate cities in close proximity to each other become more economically and physically connected. With census tracks and commute data, an algorithm was created to show how the United States has 50 of these regions. (National Geographic)

Quote of the Week

"Here's the hard message for Portland and Seattle and every other city growing like this. If the next 200,000 people come here, and we're planning for us to be a city of 850,000 people ... they're not going to be able to bring their cars and live like we did 20 years ago. In fact, most of us are going to have to drive a lot less. The streets aren't going to get any bigger. They are going to be walking, they are going to be riding their bikes, they are going to be riding the transit system."

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales on the need to put together a new zoning code that allows more people to live in the city. (My Northwest)

Transit


The DC reps on the WMATA board might veto late-night closures

The WMATA Board is nearly ready to move forward with new, shorter late-night hours, and the vote to make them official is in two weeks. But there's another big potential hurdle: DC's representatives on the Board might veto the cuts.


Photo by Tara Severns on Flickr.

Update: As of 10:30 on Friday morning, it looks as though DC will in fact OK the late-night cuts lasting for two years.

On Tuesday, WMATA staff submitted its final proposal for late-night hours to the Board: end service at 11:30 pm Monday through Thursday and 1 am Friday and Saturday and runs between 8 am and 11 pm on Sunday. Moving to this schedule would provide an additional eight hours per week for needed maintenance.

On Thursday, the Board's Customer Service Subcommittee, which is tasked with sussing out the details before the December 15th full Board vote, said the hours cuts are fine as long as the changes expire in two years, at which point new approval would be required to keep them in place. This came after a few hours of back and forth and arguing about how the cuts would impact low-income and minority riders, as well as how they would hurt businesses, employees, and the region's economy.

Most Board members (emphasis on "most") appear to be ok with either one or two-year cuts as long as there's an expiration date. Metro staff say the programs they need to get done require at least two years to get started.

There won't be any service cuts if DC vetoes them

Generally, once a subcommittee approves something, it's well on its way to Board approval. But that's not so clear here.

Since the late-night closures first became a possibility, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has been a strong opponent, insisting that Metro bring back 3 am weekend closings and return service hours to pre-SafeTrack levels.

On Thursday, WMATA Board Chairman Jack Evans, who is also a member of the DC Council, reinforced the Mayor's stance, saying that even being open to the cuts was a huge compromise from DC. Evans warned the Board that if any new cuts were to be enacted, they would need to be limited to a year or the jurisdiction's Board reps would veto the measure.

If Evans and the DC contingent of WMATA Board members (four of the Board's 16 total members) use their jurisdictional veto power, the Board goes back to the drawing table. The existing service hour reductions that Wiedefeld put in during SafeTrack would eventually expire, and the system might end up going back to its normal service hours—but without the time WMATA staff says it needs to do much-needed preventative maintenance.

Transit


Cell service in tunnels, junking old rail cars, getting finances in order. Here's what's in Metro's Back2Good plan.

On Wednesday, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld unveiled "Back2Good," his road map for getting trains running safely and reliably during 2017. There isn't all that much by way of new information—most of the efforts the plan mentions are already underway—but it does group ongoing projects together so it's easier to understand what Metro is up to and verify that it's making progress.

It's no secret that plenty has happened with Metro since Wiedefeld became the GM/CEO last November: the rail system shut for the snow storm; all trains were halted for a day to check for faulty power cables; there was a derailment; SafeTrack started; the delays continue.

Wednesday's announcement focused on looking into the second year of Wiedefeld's leadership, hoping to build off of the stepping stones put into place during 2016. Back2Good (unrelated to the Matchbox 20 song, I'll note) basically lists out how Metro plans to continue addressing the three key things Wiedefeld has stressed since he first came aboard: passenger safety, the actual service Metro provides, and financial management.

Looking broadly, the new plan looks to be a break from the past and is hopefully a continuation of Wiedefeld's goal of increased transparency. The majority of the goals listed include deadlines or other ways that both Metro and the riding public can monitor and keep track of. Below, there's more detail on the plan for each area along with my take.

Back2Good stresses following through on plans for making the system safer

Wiedefeld's goals for the upcoming year include making the system safer for everybody and try to make sure there aren't any more major issues. One big goal is cutting down red signal overruns, which are when a train enters track it isn't supposed to be on. The plan to do this is to change train software as well as make signal lights brighter.

Another goal included in Back2Good is continuing the effort to bring new cell service into the system's tunnels. That'd mean more than just cell service for passengers who want to watch videos and listen to music (with earbuds, of course) during their commute; it's also a critical life-safety issue so that riders can call for help in emergencies.

Cell service is a long-running issue that includes one bankruptcy, but it looks like Metro is finally going to be able to start installing the cabling needed. Some sections on the Blue/Silver/Orange lines should start being activated throughout 2017.

Another pilot that Metro already announced will have track workers wearing armbands that'll alert them to when trains are nearing so that they can be standing clear of the tracks in time.

The plans and solutions laid out here aren't all new; most of these have been publicized before (the tunnel cell cable installation is a long time coming, for instance). What Back2Good is doing is simply grouping them under the umbrella that is Wiedefeld's second year. The fact that there's a consolidated list of known quantities in the pipele that have staff, project managers, and deadlines bodes well, though.

More reliable service is the best way to bring riders back

If service isn't reliable, riders aren't going to use the system; Metro has seen a ridership decline over the past few years corresponding with less-reliable service than in previous years. Wiedefeld is hoping to begin turning this around in 2017 by focusing on the rail cars - the 1000, 4000, and 7000-series cars, specifically.

Because of previous crashes and incidents with the 1000-series cars, the NTSB recommended they be removed from service as soon as possible; Metro wants to finally be able to finish this process in 2017. However, since the 4000s are so much more unreliable, they want to remove these at the same time, which would do the most to increase train reliability.

In the remaining "legacy" cars (2000s/3000s/5000s/6000s), Metro says it will perform "complete component fixes" on subsystems like the HVAC, propulsion, and brakes, which can cause train delays or offloads. Since the agency will no longer need to belly the 1000s or 4000s ("belly" means only running cars in the middle of trains), they can go back to operating same-series trains, which should in turn help increase reliability. They would operate as the six-car trains, while the 7000s will operate as eight-packs.

GGWash contributor Alex Cox had this to say about the railcar focus:

I'm glad that Metro is placing an emphasis on repair of its rolling stock, since disabled trains cause over half of rider delays. It's high time that the unsafe 1000-series and unreliable 4000-series cars finally be retired.
The goals set out for reliability are certainly doable; Metro is already in the process of removing 1000s from service and could start the 4000s if the NTSB allows it. By making sure shops have the people, training, and equipment needed to fix railcars and targeting the worst-performing subsystems, the 25% reduction in delays should be doable. The other projects listed in the Back2Good plan for cleaning and updating the stations have their own schedules and deadlines and reflect what riders see day in and day out.

Metro's working off the financial baggage

As Mr. Widefeld said in his GM's Plan almost a year ago, "Metro is doing less with more." Back2Good notes plans to cut 1,000 positions at Metro, ensure money dedicated for capital projects is spent as expected (Metro has had an issue with proper project management, so money gets left on the table), and to get a budget approved for the FY2018 year.

Metro finally received an on-time and acceptable financial audit for the past year, after several that were late or which the auditor had objections with. The agency could even be taken off a program in which they have to spend time justifying money spent to the FTA.

Showing that the agency knows how to handle it's money well and is not spending unwisely sends a message to the local jurisdictions that when Metro says it needs money, it really does. It also shows riders the agency is serious about controlling its costs.

There's more focus on riders, and Metro's progress is becoming easier for us to track

Alex, again:

It's nice to see WMATA putting a specific focus on improving the rider experience; most importantly by increasing service reliability, but also through more immediately perceptible changes like cleaner stations and cell phone service in the tunnels.

One of the major criticisms that Metro has faced over the last several years is a lack of transparency and poor communication with the public, but this plan looks to continue the agency's recent trend towards being more open about its problems (especially flagrant safety violations like red signal running) and letting its customers know how it intends to solve them.

In addition to the focus on the rider, the plan sets out goals and deadlines, which the agency and riders can verify later in time, including the promise to "cut delays due to train car issues by 25% in 2017." Through data Metro puts out in the daily service reports and the data given to third-party developers, riders can check to see how the system is running in almost real-time.

The lack of the publicizing specific projects and deadlines is something that I've criticized Metro for in the past, so some of the clarity in this plan is welcome news.

While it's goal isn't to fix every tiny thing that's broken in the Metrorail system, Back2Good should be a step in returning the system to one that's more reliable and more able to fulfill it's main purpose of moving riders from A to B.

Transit


WMATA recommended express bus service along 14th Street NW four years ago. Is it time to make it happen?

The buses that run up and down 14th Street NW are among the most used in the region, but they move slowly and don't come often enough. WMATA suggested adding express service a few years ago, but that has yet to happen.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The 52, 53, 54 run along 14th Street, from Takoma to downtown DC. Many people use the bus to commute from neighborhoods like U Street, Columbia Heights, Petworth, and Brightwood to downtown and back. Approximately 15,000 riders use these buses on a typical weekday, and according to some measures, they're among the most used in DC.

According to data from DC's Office of Planning, a quarter of the new residents who moved into DC in the last five years reside in the area served by the 14th Street buses, and from 2011 to 2015, the number of businesses soared from 7,371 all the way to 13,992. Many of these new residents and business employees don't own cars and rely on transit and other transportation services.

But relative to how many people would use them, the 14th Street buses are slow and don't run frequently enough. They stop quite often—at every corner during some stretches. For example, if a rider gets on the 54 at Buchanan Street NW and off at I Street downtown, it takes 26 stops. By contrast, that's three times more stops than than the S9 buses, the express buses that run down 16th Street. More anecdotally, a neighbor of mine recently waited over 20 minutes for a bus during rush hour.


Image from WMATA.

Buses also get caught in snarled traffic on the stretch of 14th Street next to the mall where Target and Best Buy are. In this area, buses don't have signal priority and lots of people double park without penalty.

Slow moving busses and not enough of them are especially acute problems right now because Beach Drive is closed. Many Upper Northwest residents can't use Rock Creek Parkway as a commuting route and this has pushed many more riders onto the bus.

Also, as a result of the problems with the 14th Street buses, many who live along 14th actually go out of their way to use the buses along 16th. That just leads to packed buses and overcrowding on those lines. Improving 14th street bus service would benefit those riding the the S1, S2, S4, S9, 70 and 79 by lessening crowding on 16th and Georgia express buses which would also reduce clustering.

WMATA recommended express bus service on 14th

These issues aren't new—WMATA actually teamed with DDOT to study 14th Street buses in 2011 and 2012. One of the biggest conclusions was that the corridor needs express service. Express busses run the same route as local buses but stop at fewer stops. By skipping stops, they are able to move faster. In exchange for walking one or two extra blocks to the stop, riders can get where they are headed much more quickly.

The study included a rider survey, rider focus groups (I participated in one of those), and a series of public meetings. The study team also gathered data from interviews with Metrobus operators and subsequent interviews to discuss potential service proposals and preliminary recommendations.

The study concluded that express bus service on the 14th Street line (it called express service "limited-stop bus service") would benefit riders:

The advantages to this proposal are that this service would not only enhance route capacity, but would also improve service frequencies at bus stops served by the limited stop service (service frequency at local-only stops would not be impacted). It would also reduce travel times for passengers able to utilize the bus stops that would be served by the limited stop service. The primary disadvantage is that this proposal would likely incur additional operating costs.
WMATA also recommended lengthening the 53 Route to terminate at G street (it currently ends at McPherson Square), running more service north of Colorado Avenue NW, and extending service to the Waterfront area, as well as giving riders better information, doing more to enforce parking restrictions, using articulated buses and training bus operators specifically for the lines they drive.

The key recommendation for express service is discussed in detail beginning on page 33 of here.

According to the report, making these changes would be relatively inexpensive (about $1.25 million). The report also says they could generate more DC tax revenue in increased commerce than they'd cost to fund. These buses are needed for longtime residents and new residents alike. This would be a huge (and cheap) win for DC.

Though improving this line with more, better service was a good idea in 2012, it's an exceptionally good idea now. Express buses along 14th Street would mean more people could travel the important corridor by bus.

More specifically, it'd mean more frequent service at key stops and shorter travel times for riders, smaller headways, and better quality. This would be a huge boon to those commuting or traveling longer distances (such as to Walter Reed). If the service proved successful, even more resources could go toward it over time.

The city as a whole would benefit from an investment in better bus service along 14th Street, as it'd lead to better employment opportunities for people seeking jobs, less traffic congestion on important north-south streets, and a broadening tax base.



Transit


Metro now has an official plan for getting better in 2017. It's called Back2Good.

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has released the agency's plans for fixing its safety, reliability, and finance issues in 2017. Metro is calling the plan "Back2Good."


Wiedefeld at the National Press Club. Photo by Adam Tuss on Twitter.

Speaking at the National Press Club this afternoon, Wiedefeld outlined the plan. Highlights of the initiatives include:

  • Preventing near misses by reducing red signal overruns.
  • Completing work on schedule for installing the public radio system and activating cellular service in the tunnels as work is completed.
  • Reducing delays and offloads from track defects and railcar failures by 25% in 2017, through means including accelerating the retirement of the oldest and most unreliable cars, commissioning 50 new trains, implementing targeted repair campaigns of defective components on the legacy fleet, and rebalancing the rail yards to avoid missing terminal dispatches.
  • Power washing, scrubbing, and polishing all 91 stations annually instead of every four years.
  • Further reducing expenses by eliminating a total of 1,000 positions.
  • Balancing the budget and securing regional governance and funding solutions.
Read the full details in Back2Good white paper released by WMATA here. What do you think of Back2Good? Tell us in the comments.

Transit


This map shows where the most bus riders live and how close they are to Metro

High population densities are generally considered necessary for frequent and direct bus service. However, not all dense populations have high bus ridership. I recently created a map of the population density of people who commute to work by bus in the DC area.


This map shows the density of people in the region who reported that the longest part of their commute was by bus. The green regions around Metro stations are half-mile walksheds. The darker the red color in the census tract, the more people there take the bus.

To create the map, I used the Census's 2014 American Community Survey's data on how many people in each census block group reported that they made the longest part of their commute to work by bus. It's important to recognize some limitations to this data: in particular, it completely excludes non-working individuals who still make many or most trips by bus. Furthermore, it excludes anyone who uses a bus to get to a Metro station that's too far to walk, and then uses Metrorail for a longer trip to their job.

In addition to the ACS data, I plotted half-mile walksheds around Metrorail stations, using a GIS shapefile provided by WMATA's PlanItMetro blog back in 2014 (unfortunately, this shapefile predates the Silver Line and so doesn't have walksheds for those stations). These walksheds allow us to compare areas of high bus ridership to the areas in which residents have a reasonably short walk to a Metro station.

In some places, lots of people take the bus even though they live near Metrorail

It is interesting to note that some of the highest bus-rider densities in the area are in DC's Mid-City, the neighborhoods from Shaw to Petworth that are in the vicinity of Green and Yellow Line stations. It is likely that these area's proximity to downtown and the fact that they are served by very frequent bus routes (the 14th Street, 16th Street, and Georgia Avenue lines) makes the bus a more convenient, as well as cheaper, alternative to Metrorail.


Chart by Dan Henebery.

But more predictably, most big groups of bus riders don't live near Metrorail

Unsurprisingly, the high density of bus riders along the Silver Spring-to-downtown Metrobus lines continues north of the Georgia Avenue-Petworth station, where the corridor is not served by rail. As can be seen in the above chart, the 14th Street and 16th Street lines are Metro's busiest bus lines, and the Georgia Avenue line is its fifth-busiest.

Other than in Mid-City, though, the areas of highest bus rider density tend to be in corridors that are not well served by Metrorail. Within the District, high densities of bus riders can be found along the H Street-Benning Road line—Metro's third-highest-ridership bus line—in the largest area of the original L'Enfant City without Metrorail service.

Like bus riders in the northern Georgia Avenue/14th Street corridor, many of the bus riders East of the River live in areas not well served by Metrorail. A cluster of bus-riders on Massachusetts Avenue in the vicinity of American University is also some distance from Metro stations. The lack of major bus routes in this area suggests to me that they are mostly students riding university shuttles.

Outside of the District, lower population densities, a less transit-friendly built environment, and less-frequent bus service naturally leads to lower population densities of bus riders. However, high densities of bus riders are found along the Columbia Pike corridor in southern Arlington County, which has been the site of proposed rail lines since the original laying-out of Metro.

The Langley Park area, at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard on the border between Prince George's and Montgomery Counties is also home to a large cluster of bus riders. Metro's sixth-highest-ridership bus route, the circumfrential Greenbelt-Twinbrook line, runs along University Boulevard in this area, which is also served by a number of other Metrobus and RideOn bus routes. The new Takoma-Langley Transit Center, serving these routes, is scheduled to open at the University Boulevard/New Hampshire Avenue intersection in the next several months, and the area is also slated to be home to several Purple Line stations.

It is interesting to note that the White Oak/Calverton area, at the intersection of Columbia Pike and New Hampshire Avenue in eastern Montgomery County, is home to perhaps the highest density of bus riders outside the Beltway. This area is also an employment center, with the FDA's White Oak research campus on the site of the old Navy Surface Warfare Center.

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