Greater Greater Washington

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Transit


Topic of the week: What's next for WMATA after Sarles?

WMATA General Manager/CEO Richard Sarles will retire in January. Has he left WMATA better off than he left it? What should the agency look for in a successor?

We asked our contributors for their input. Also, I talked about these questions with Jennifer Donelan on Channel 8's NewsTalk Friday:

As I said on the show, I think Sarles provided a stability and a focus on safety that the agency desperately needed to regain confidence from both riders and public officials after the crash. He's put the system back on a solid footing.

Metro has to keep being safe, for sure, but also has different challenges going forward. WMATA needs public support to get the funding it needs for eight-car trains and a new Rosslyn station. It has to win support for roadway changes to improve bus service. All of these require relating to people and working with leaders outside the walls of the Jackson Graham Building.

Winning public support also will require doing more on customer service, including actually beefing up service as well as reducing problems between employees and riders. As Donelan noted in the interview, Sarles is not a highly-visible public figure, and WMATA may need someone who is more comfortable talking to the press and to the public.

Michael Perkins pointed out that many challenges face WMATA. He said tasks over the next decade include:

  • Receive the 7000 series railcars and integrate them into operation
  • Implement the [next generation] electronic fare program
  • Test and integrate [Silver Line] phase 2
  • Plan and sell the region on some sort of core infrastructure improvement
  • Continue to sell the region and riding public on the Metro rebuilding program
  • Implement signaling repairs and upgrades on lines other than the Red Line
  • Manage a substantial capacity upgrade in bus operation (possibly constructing new bus garage sites or expanding existing sites?)
  • Work with jurisdictions to deliver bus route improvements like dedicated lanes, off-vehicle fare payment, or signal priority
  • Operate the 2nd largest heavy rail transit system in the US
  • Operate one of the largest bus systems in the US
  • All while dealing with more than four funding jurisdictions in a widescreen public fishbowl.
Dan Malouff pointed out that while the system has gotten needed repairs, weekend service in particular has really suffered. How can the agency balance these?
Sarles accomplished a lot, but also had some weaknesses. On the one hand, he got Metro's rebuilding on track, and seemingly solved the safety problems that plagued WMATA during John Catoe's time as General Manager. On the other hand, Sarles often seemed more concerned with trains and tracks than with providing good transit service to riders. Thus, transit service and ridership plummeted whenever track work has been necessary, which seems like pretty much all the time except rush hour.

Hopefully Metro's next GM will continue Sarles' great progress on rebuilding and safety, while doing a better job to remember that better customer service is the whole reason rebuilding is important in the first place. WMATA needs a GM who's committed to minimizing disruptions to riders, to putting out the very best transit service practical, and to fully explaining to customers why and when less-than-stellar service is necessary.

Bottom line: Sarles revolutionized Metro's maintenance and safety cultures. The next GM needs to revolutionize its customer service culture.

What skills and priorities do you think WMATA's next head needs?

Budget


More proof gas taxes don't pay for roads

Advocacy groups that think it's a waste of money to build transit or bicycle infrastructure often argue that since gas taxes come from drivers, so should all transportation funding.

This chart from Pew shows where the transportation money comes from; it's not all drivers:


Images from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Basically, the bluish areas are revenues which come specifically from drivers: gas taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls. The greenish ones are other revenues: property taxes, general fund transfers, and other funds.

Some of the gas tax money goes to transit operations as well, but the vast majority doesn't:

Thanks to Matt Yglesias at Vox for pointing out this chart and the report.

Transit


Metro's Richard Sarles announces retirement

WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles announced at today's board meeting that he will retire, effective January, 2015.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The move comes as a surprise, since in 2013 Sarles agreed to a contract extension that would have kept him on the job until 2016. But not too much of a surprise: He's 70 years old and has always said he didn't intend to stay at WMATA long.

Sarles took charge of WMATA in 2010 and oversaw a significant rebuilding and safety-related overhaul of the transit system.

WMATA board chairman Tom Downs says the agency will conduct a nationwide search for Sarles' replacement.

Bicycling


What is "contributory negligence," and why is it such a big danger for cyclists and pedestrians?

Say you are riding along on your bicycle. Your tail light battery dies one evening, and then a texting driver crashes into you. Can you recover your medical costs from the driver?


Photo by Moff on Flickr.

Or, say you are on foot and need to cross a street where the nearest crosswalks are far away. But then a drunk driver speeds by and hits you.

Or, you're biking and get doored. A police officer, confused about the law, incorrectly tickets you for riding too close to parked cars.

Unfortunately, you may not be able to collect any compensation for your smashed-up bike, your broken leg, or the days of work you missed. That's because of a legal doctrine called contributory negligence.

Only four states (Maryland and Virginia among them) and the District of Columbia retain this outdated legal doctrine. Fortunately, a bill in the DC Council aims to correct this in the District, at least for bicyclists. There's a hearing this Monday, September 29.

How does contributory negligence work?

Generally, after a crash between a motorist and a bicyclist or pedestrian, there is an injured bicyclist or pedestrian and an uninjured motorist. The cyclist or pedestrian often will seek compensation for injuries from the motorist and the motorist's insurer.

If everyone involved agrees that the cyclist or pedestrian behaved perfectly and the driver was completely at fault, the cyclist will be able to recover compensation. Unfortunately, such agreement is rare. If the cyclist or pedestrian was at fault to any degree, he or she will not be able to recover compensation for injuries suffered in the crash.

This is true even if the crash was only 1% the cyclist or pedestrian's fault, 99% the driver's fault, and all of the injuries were suffered by the cyclist or pedestrian. For this reason, it is often called the "one percent" rule.

The cyclist or pedestrian is likely out of luck if the insurer or a police officer believes the cyclist or pedestrian was at fault through misunderstanding or misapplying the law. In rare cases, the injured person can find video proof that he was not breaking a law, but if that's not possible, insurers can and generally do treat a ticket from a police officer as evidence enough that the cyclist or pedestrian was at least slightly at fault.

What's being done about it?

DC Councilmember David Grosso recently introduced the "Bicycle and Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2014″ with Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells also co-introducing the bill. It would update DC law to the fairer, more modern Comparative Negligence standard for crashes between drivers and bicyclists. This means if you're in this situation on a bicycle, your compensation would be reduced to the extent that you were responsible for the crash, but not eliminated entirely.

For example: A motorist exiting her vehicle at night opens her driver's side door into the bike lane, striking a cyclist who had no light at night. The motorist's door is not damaged and the motorist is unharmed, but the cyclist suffers a broken arm from the fall and ends up with $1,000 in medical bills.

Under the present contributory negligence standard, the cyclist's failure to have a light would prevent her from any recovering any damages, even though the motorist broke the law by opening her door into traffic.

Under the new bill, the decision-maker (whether judge, jury, or insurance adjuster) would have to determine the proportionate fault of the parties and determine the damages accordingly. So, if the decision-maker finds that the driver opening her door into the bike lane without looking was 75% responsible for the injury and the cyclist's failure to have a light was 25% responsible for the injury, the injured cyclists could recover 75% of her damages, or $750 in this scenario.

Can this bill cover pedestrians as well?

At the moment, the bill as introduced only applies to crashes between drivers and bicyclists. However, pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC has worked with Grosso's staff to write an amendment to the bill to cover pedestrians, which he will introduce in committee.

Have other states changed their negligence standard?

Contributory negligence came to the US from English common law. But over time, many courts or states changed the standard to the fairer comparative one through caselaw or legislation.

Today, 45 states and the federal court system have adopted comparative negligence as a basis for apportioning fault between parties in tort suits. Currently, just four states (including both Maryland and Virginia) and the District of Columbia continue to use contributory negligence as a bar to recovery and access to courts.

Is there any precedent in current law for an exemption such as this?

Yes. Current District of Columbia law extends the additional legal protection of comparative negligence to railroad workers.

Who benefits or loses out if this bill becomes law?

Cyclists and motorists alike benefit from having damages equitably distributed after from a collision. (Pedestrians would as well if the bill expanded to cover them).

Insurance companies, on the other hand, presently do not have to pay for the negligence of the drivers they insure if they hit a cyclist or pedestrian who has been negligent to even the smallest degree. Under a different standard, they would pay.

Contributory negligence is not an economically efficient or fair method for determining compensation after crashes. It does not compensate injured parties who were not primarily responsible for their injuries. It allows the insurers of the primarily negligent party to avoid compensating the injured.

This happened to me! How can I help?

If you or other bicyclists or pedestrians you know have been hit and had an insurance claim reduced or denied, please consider testifying at the hearing Monday, September 29 at 12:30 pm. To sign up to testify, email Nicole Goines at ngoines@dccouncil.us or call 202-724-7808.

Government


"No way." "Absolutely not." Residents react to the Secret Service's idea to restrict more area around the White House

A dangerous man managed to jump the White House fence, run across the lawn, and even get in an unlocked door before being caught on Friday. The Secret Service, with egg on its face, has suggested a few ways to beef up security, including searching anyone even walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Photo by JeromeG111 on Flickr.

Many bloggers and just about every Washington Post columnist weighed in on this idea. And unlike with most issues in Washington, they spoke with a unified voice: "No way."

Unfortunately, this is one area in which residents (and columnists) have virtually no say. Still, we can all hope that the sharp rebukes from the pen convince someone at the White House to think twice before further damaging the public realm in a desperate quest to fix what was clearly a failure inside the existing perimeter and inside the Secret Service itself.

Petula Dvorak points out that the Secret Service screwed up, by not following its own procedures which could have stopped this threat.

The big danger, as Dvorak explains, is that people whose sole job is to think about security naturally will gravitate toward the most restrictive security measures. It's up to other people with a broader view to say no.

The security gurus think they might want to keep people off the sidewalks around the nation's most famous residence. Or maybe screen tourists a block away from the White House. They want to Anschluss even more public space to expand The Perimeter around 1600 Pennsylvania, amping up the fear and paranoia that already pervade the heart of our nation.

Given their druthers, of course, the security mafia would close downtown Washington entirely. Tourists could watch a slick "Inside the White House" video clip (in HD) at Reagan National Airport and pose in front of a cardboard cutout of the White House. Same thing for the Capitol and the Supreme Court.

The Capitol and Supreme Court are two other buildings where public access has diminished greatly in recent years, as Phillip Kennicott notes:
The closure of the front doors of the Supreme Court greatly confuses the architectural experience of the building, especially the short axis between the entrance and the courtroom itselfa powerful enactment of our right to appeal unjust laws to the judiciary.

The closure of the West Terrace of the Capitol denies residents and visitors the most accessible and dramatic view of Pierre L'Enfant's basic plan of the city, its axial relation between the legal and executive branch, the monumental dramatization of the Civil War and reunification, and the passion for civil rights embodied in the Mall.

Dana Milbank explains that one likely cause of the Secret Service's mistakes was budget cuts which have left the agency understaffed to carry out its vital mission.

Milbank also criticizes White House spokespeople for saying they're leaving the decision about what to do entirely up to the Secret Service. Decisions about First Amendment rights, public space, and the image our country projects to the world should involve more stakeholders.

But the Secret Service, which proposed closing Pennsylvania Avenue in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, doesn't exist to protect constitutional rights; left to its own devices, it would install an iron dome over the White House. Few would object to discreet changes to boost security. But it's another matter to impose sweeping new restrictions because of the latest in a long line of fence-jumpers. (One earlier this month wore a Pikachu hat and carried a Pokemon doll.)
The Post editorial board agrees:
Surely there is a way to secure the safety of the first family without closing more streets and fencing off more sidewalks. It is not just the convenience of DC residents and visitors that is at stake. It is the character of American governmentstill meant, the last time we checked, to be of, by and for the people.
[T]he Secret Service always will push for the most restrictive security measures. The District has learned the consequences of this the hard way, as Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW have been closed to traffic and once-public spaces have become private parking lots.
Most writers have focused, understandably, on the broader meaning of a closure for democracy. The White House is such a symbol of that democracy and of America's openness. Still, Pennsylvania Avenue and the other roads around Lafayette Park also serve other mobility purposes despite being closed to motor vehicles.

The 15th Street cycletrack runs along Jackson Place and Pennsylvania, and Penn is a great east-west path for cycling that avoids other congested east-west roads. Checkpoints would essentially shut down these uses as well.

Aaron Wiener gives the local point of view:

District residents have a different kind of concern, one that's both more pedestrian and more fundamental: It's annoying when federal government concerns make it harder for them to walk around their town.

Downtown office workers accustomed to strolling to M.E. Swing for a cup of coffee that doesn't say "Starbucks" or "Peet's" could find themselves needing to take a lengthy detour or else face lines and bag checks en route. Same with people working west of the White House who commute on the 14th Street bus.

Do these inconveniences compare with a safety threat to the president? Of course not. But they do give Washingtonians who may already feel shut out by the government a sense that their city isn't truly theirs.

Tim Krepp, a candidate for Delegate to the US House of Representatives in November's general election, talked about both the national and local issues:
I'm not blind to the security threat. I once was my ship's Force Protection Officer in the Navy and was responsible for coordinating our physical security when in port. It's a difficult and demanding job, where success is measured by the absence of failure. I'm sympathetic to those who are responsible for security on a level several orders of magnitude greater that I had to handle.

There are however practical issues for the District at stake here. Pennsylvania Avenue is a major east-west route for commuting cyclists, and a bag check would add a significant delay between downtown and Foggy Bottom ... For tour groups, there is a limited amount of motor coach drop off/pick up space, so any bag check or further delay on to what is a simple photo-op stop would add to the already not-insignificant problem of coaches circling around downtown, waiting to pick up their group.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the incumbent delegate, also said in a statement, "It is important to keep Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and the surrounding area, including Lafayette Park, Pennsylvania Avenue, 17th Street and 15th Street, as accessible to the public as possible." She also pointed out that she opposed permanently closing Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street to traffic.

Krepp goes on to sum it up nicely:

We have to look at [these proposals] comprehensively, to take stock of what it means to be America's capital. Do we want to stand with courage and openness or do we give in to fear? If elected, I want to push to do exactly that, to bring our dozens of law enforcement agencies to the table to rethink some of the decisions we've made to "secure" the capital. But for now, on the issue of requiring bag checks or otherwise infringing on the public space of Pennsylvania Avenue, I'll just say this: no.

Absolutely not.

On this, it seems, we all agreewith the possible exception of the only people who will actually decide.

Development


DC sells valuable land, but loses interest in using it to create affordable housing

Since 2000, the District has generally required that when it sells publicly-owned land, part of the deal include new affordable housing for lower-income residents. But more recently, that commitment has waned. A bill in the DC Council could rejuvenate it by requiring affordable housing in city land development deals.


Design for the winning 5th and I building. Image from the developers.

The trend of weakening the city's commitment to affordable housing reached a new level last May, when the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) picked a proposal to develop a city-owned half acre at 5th & I Streets NW.

While the bidders who proposed housing offered some affordable housing in the new building, the winning proposal by Peebles Corp. and the Walker Group put a hotel, condos, and a dog spa in the Mount Vernon Triangle while offering to build affordable housing somewhere elseperhaps at a site it owns in Anacostia, about 3 miles away.

DC needs affordable housing, and there are good reasons to build it inside developments on public land instead of far away. Mixed-income communities are valuable to a city that wants to be diverse and inclusive. Mixed-income neighborhoods give people of different backgrounds better access to jobs, transit, schools, and other amenities. These communities build opportunity for less affluent people.

Mixed-income neighborhoods also ensure that as central city neighborhoods get more valuable, not just the wealthiest people benefit. They encourage people to interact with neighbors with varying income levels, and help transportation like bicycling or streetcars, which run shorter distances, to not be only services for higher-income people.

While most traditional tools for creating affordable housing add new units in higher-poverty areas, DC's land dispositions and inclusionary zoning policies are creating affordable housing in stronger real estate markets such as Columbia Heights, and even Chevy Chase.

When the DC government sells surplus parcels of public land for private development, it traditionally asks that at least some of the new housing built be affordable. Mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty sought and built substantial amounts of affordable housing in city-owned parcels like City Vista at 5th & K Streets NW or the new housing around the Columbia Heights Metro station. Unfortunately, the Gray administration has generally asked for far less affordability in public land deals.

The Peebles/Walker proposal represented yet another step away from the goal of mixed-income communities.

There's still time to revisit this poor decision, and fix the longer-term problem of the city's faltering commitment to affordable housing in public land deals. The DC Council will need to approve the 5th and I deal. Economic Development committee chair Muriel Bowser and her colleagues on the council should reconsider this deal.

And if it approves the pending bill, the council will set a clear policy that future land dispositions need a substantial amount of affordable housing on site. That bill, introduced by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, will require that any deal include 20-30% of its housing at an affordable level for low-income households.

For rental units, that means households earning between 30% and 50% of Area Median Income, or just under $30,000-$50,000 per year for a family of three. Units could be sold to owners earning between 50% and 80% AMI, or just under $50,000-$78,000 per year for a family of three.

The bill, and an action by the council to reject the 5th and I proposal, would restore DC's commitment to affordable housing and not waste the rare opportunities to get a project that promotes mixed-income communities when DC sells off land.

Politics


DC mayoral candidates' debate tonight at AU

Tonight at 7 pm, NBC4's Tom Sherwood will moderate the DC mayoral candidates' debate at American University. WAMU's Patrick Madden and Kavitha Cardoza, and the Post's Clinton Yates will join him as panelists.

The debate will be livestreamed tonight; come back to this post to watch the livestream.

Sherwood reached out to Greater Greater Washington for questions. We suggested asking candidates about their position on the MoveDC plan. Who are you supporting, and what do you want to know from the candidates? Tell us in the comments, and tweet it with the hashtag #AUDebate.

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