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Bills in the Virginia General Assembly would hurt and help transit and cyclists

As the Virginia General Assembly session heats up, there's a lot percolating on smart growth and transportation. Key bills on congestion metrics, funding, and bicycle and pedestrian priorities are up this week.


Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.

Congestion metrics

For years, highway advocates and others hostile to transit have tried to make roadway "congestion reduction" metrics the primary way we choose which transportation projects get funding.

HB1470 and HB1915/SB1314 would do just that for the Northern Virginia regional transportation plan, local comprehensive plans, and new transit projects.

If passed, these bills would have serious impacts on Virginia's transportation planning. In effect, when selecting new projects to build, Virginia officials would have to ignore the many benefits of transit for moving more people and building strong communities, and focus solely on how a project affects the capacity of existing highways to carry cars.

Undermining pro-transit jurisdictions

Another bill, HB2170, would merge the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which funds and manages Virginia's portion of Metro, into the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a broader agency that includes more of the outer suburbs, and has a multimodal focus rather than transit-only. Combining them would reduce the voting power of transit-dependent jurisdictions to control transit decision-making.

Funding and oversight

Comprehensive "transportation omnibus" bill HB1887 is receiving a lot of attention because it would partially fill a hole in state transit funding and increase funding for structurally deficient bridges, deteriorating pavement, and local transportation needs. It's a huge bill with a ton of provisions, some good and some bad.

Another bill, HB1886, would reform the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA), establishing new oversight and accountability for public-private partnerships in transportation projects. This is particularly important following debacles like Hampton Roads' Route 460 project, which wasted $300 million in taxpayer funds without having permits in hand.

Bicycling and pedestrian priorities

Delegate Riley Ingram (R) of House District 62 (outside of Richmond) has introduced HB1746, a "mandatory sidepath" bill, which would prohibit bicyclists from riding in the road wherever there's a sidepath or bike lane available. Obviously, this bill would have major negative impacts on the many Northern Virginia cyclists who use bicycles for transportation.

SB781, which would make it legal for cars to cross the double yellow line to pass bicyclists, with the required three foot safety distance, has passed in the Senate and is headed to the House. Another bill, SB882, would make dooring illegal, and would also make it easier for cyclists to be compensated after being injured by dooring.

HB1402/SB952 would make sure local jurisdictions don't lose state funding if they implement road diets, with bike improvements on local streets. Under current law, replacing a car lane with a bike lane reduces a jurisdiction's road funding, because the state funding formula is based on car lane miles.

SB1279 would ban use of any personal communications device while driving, unless that device is hands-free or the vehicle is stopped.

More information

The Virginia Bicycling Federation has an excellent online spreadsheet which they update regularly, detailing the status of bicycling bills this session. And the Coalition for Smarter Growth has a take-action tool to help Virginia residents contact their state legislators to support or oppose these bills.

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A book-of-the-month club for infants and toddlers aims to narrow the achievement gap

A new proposal to send a book a month to every DC child under five could help narrow the yawning literacy gap between poor and higher-income kids, which has its roots well before kindergarten. But ultimately, disadvantaged kids will need a lot more assistance than a book a month to catch up to their more affluent peers.


Photo of family reading from Shutterstock.

Spurred by low achievement among DC's low-income and minority students, Ward 6 DC Councilmember Charles Allen has introduced a bill modeled on similar programs in Tennessee and elsewhere.

Fewer than half of all third-graders scored proficient or advanced on the District's standardized reading test last year, and literacy scores in general have remained stubbornly flat since 2008. Allen and others say that exposing young children to books and language from the beginning of their lives is the key to solving that problem.

In some low-income households, Allen says, "the only book may be a phone book."

Allen got the idea about six months ago, while visiting his brother in Tennessee. Allen's two-year-old niece was "completely thrilled with this book that came in the mail," with her name on the address label.

It was part of a program called Imagination Library, based in Tennessee and founded by singer Dolly Parton. Imagination Library, which began in 1995, now sends monthly books to almost 770,000 children across the country.

DC would have its own local program

DC could have signed up to become part of Imagination Library, but Allen decided it made more sense to start an independent local program, which he's calling Books from Birth. One reason was that he wanted the books to reflect the diversity of DC's population.

Another reason was to involve the DC Public Library, which already has a program designed to get parents to verbally interact more with their children, called Sing, Talk, Read.

The legislation calls for DCPL to appoint a committee to recommend books. DCPL will then choose from the recommendations and send the books out along with information about library programs in each child's neighborhood, including literacy programs targeted at parents.

Allen hopes that pediatricians serving low-income families will reinforce the message that it's important to read to kids, and also help keep track of families as they move around the District.

Allen estimates that the cost will be $30 per child per year. With 41,000 eligible children, that comes to about $1.2 million annually. But the $30 figure is based on Imagination Library's costs. As Allen acknowledges, DC wouldn't be buying books in such large quantities, and it might not get the same volume discounts.

But even if the program ends up costing more, Allen says, "I think it's a sound investment."

Do the program's benefits justify the costs?

Sending free books to children certainly couldn't hurt, and even a couple million dollars a year isn't a huge amount in the scheme of things. But the question is whether that money might be better spent elsewhere.

One way to reduce costs would be to limit the program to low-income families, or at least to families who opt in. But Allen is adamant that the program should be universal and enrollment automatic.

Using a means test would create a stigma, he says. And parents who need the program the most might be the very ones deterred from filling out a form to enroll, in part because of their low literacy skills. (Allen is, however, anticipating that the program will be phased in beginning with younger ages, making the cost of the program $1.5 million over the first five years.)

A larger question is whether programs such as Books from Birth actually work. One study found that entering kindergarteners in the Memphis area who had been enrolled in the local Books from Birth program scored eight points higher on a reading readiness test that had an 86-point scale.

There's other data indicating that the programs have a positive impact on things like how much parents read to their children, but much of it is self-reported or anecdotal. On the other hand, as Allen points out, it may take many years before we know whether a program like this really works.

The 30-million-word gap

Allen ties the impetus for his bill to research published 20 years ago, which has come to be known as the "30-million-word gap" study. "Research shows," Allen said at a recent event, "that preschoolers who have access to books and adults who read to them will have heard 30 million more words at home by the age of four than children who do not."

But the study actually focused on income levels, not books or reading. It estimated that children in families on welfare heard 30 million fewer words than those in high-income families.

True, high-income families are more likely to have both books and parents who read to their children. But the study was looking at verbal interactions rather than reading, and not even just at the number of words children heard. Higher-income families spoke to their children differently, according to the researchers, giving them more praise and encouragement and asking more open-ended questions.

Some cities, most notably Providence, have tried to address the 30-million-word gap through programs that send home visitors to work with low-income parents so that they'll speak more, and more encouragingly, to their kids. Children in Providence are even fitted with devices that record the number of words they hear, and the kind of interactions they're engaged in.

While it's too soon to say whether that kind of home-visiting program will help close the achievement gap, it's clearly a more intensive approach than just sending out bookseven if those books are accompanied by information about library programs.

Allen is aware of the Providence program and describes himself as "a huge fan" of literacy-focused home visiting. He sees the Books from Birth program as a first step in the direction of a comprehensive approach to early literacy that would include home visits.

He may be right to start relatively small. Home visiting programs are not only expensive, they're complicated to design and administer. And sending out books may well begin to prompt the kind of parent-child interactions that home visits could further develop.

With all ten of his colleagues on the DC Council having signed on to co-introduce Allen's Books from Birth bill, it has a good chance of passage. That's fine, and undoubtedly some children will benefit. But no one should be lulled into thinking that this program alone will solve the massive problem it's targeting.

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Where Maryland's big three transit projects stand in Hogan's budget

Maryland governor Larry Hogan's proposed budget includes funding for the state's big three transit projects: the Purple Line, Baltimore Red Line, and Corridor Cities Transitway. But none of the projects appear to be out of the woods yet.


Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

Hogan's 2016 budget includes $312.8 million for the Purple Line, "pending review and reevaluation." Baltimore's Red Line is slated to receive $106.2 million, also pending review and reevaluation.

That's the full amount that MDOT needs for both rail projects in the upcoming fiscal year. The pending review is potentially troublesome, but this budget is adequate to keep these projects alive through at least the next step.

For the Purple Line, that will be assessing private sector bids to help with construction costs.

For the $2.4 billion Purple Line, the Maryland Transit Administration had requested between $350 and $750 million from the state, spread out over several years. The rest of the funding for the project will come from $220 million from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, a $900 million contribution from the federal government, and several hundred million dollars from the private sector.

The Red Line has an estimated cost of $2.9 billion. In addition to the proposed state money, there are also funding commitments from local governments, and $900 million from the federal government. It's not clear yet where the rest of the funding will come from.

Hogan's budget also includes $18.2 million for engineering work on the Corridor Cities Transitway bus rapid transit line in upper Montgomery County. That's less than the total of $100 million needed from the state, but it's possible that it may cover the most immediate costs.

The Corridor Cities Transitway hasn't been as much of a lightning rod as the two rail lines, so it would be more of a surprise if Hogan targeted it for cuts.

What happens next?

Hogan campaigned on a platform of reducing government spending and building roads instead of transit, so this news is a blessing for transit supporters. But the Purple and Red lines aren't done deals yet.

For the Purple Line, it's likely that Hogan is waiting to see the bids for a public-private partnership to build and run the project. Maryland wants the private partner to provide between $500 and $900 million, but if the bid is too low and the state has to provide more money than Hogan's budgeted, then the Purple Line may be in trouble. The bids are due March 12.

If Hogan does decide to pull the plug on the Purple Line (or the Red Line) before those projects get underway, the amount he's budgeted in FY 2016 would go unspent, and the MTA budget would likely be lower in future fiscal years as a result.

Hogan's actions could prompt the state legislature to allow Montgomery and Prince George's counties to tax themselves to help pay for the Purple Line. However, Montgomery County had already envisioned taxing districts as a way to pay for its proposed bus rapid transit network, and voters may be unwilling to accept a tax increase large enough to pay for two big transit projects at the same time.

The governor's budget also includes money for maintaining existing transit systems. WMATA would get $238.2 million for its capital improvements program, while the Maryland Transit Administration would receive $101 million for upgrades to Baltimore's transit system, including refurbished light rail cars, new buses, and a new bus facility.

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Bus stops around DC are getting real-time arrival displays

If you ride the bus on 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, H Street/Benning Road, Wisconsin Avenue, or Pennsylvania Avenue in DC, it may already be easier to know when your bus is coming. New real-time screens have already appeared on 37 bus stops, and more are coming.


Photo by Reginald Bazile on Twitter used with permission.

The District Department of Transportation is installing these screens in bus shelters on these high-ridership bus corridors. According to Sam Zimbabwe of DDOT, they are part of an initial order of 56, and the agency hopes to have 120 by March.


One of the new signs. Photo from PoPville used with permission.

The money comes from a federal TIGER grant, part of the 2009 stimulus bill. The Washington region won a grant in 2010 to improve bus service.

Many of the projects then stalled for years, and there still isn't new signal priority, where signals adapt to help keep the buses moving, beyond the limited one that had already existed on Georgia Avenue. But it's great to see these screens, which should make riding the bus much less of a mystery.

Not everyone has a smartphone, and not everyone who does knows how to pull up the real-time info. Research shows that people even perceive the wait to be shorter when they have the information than when they don't.

Have you used any of the signs yet?

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BREAKING: Hogan gives the Purple and Baltimore Red lines a momentary reprieve

New Maryland governor Larry Hogan will include some funding for the Purple Line and Baltimore's Red Line in the state's budget, though the fate of both projects remains unclear.

Both the $2.4 billion Purple Line, a proposed light rail line between Bethesda in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George's County, and the $2.6 billion Red Line light rail, which would connect Woodlawn in Baltimore County and Bayview in Baltimore City, are ready to start construction this year.

The state would only have to provide a small portion of the total cost, roughly between $300 and $700 million for each line. Each project already has funding commitments from local jurisdictions and the federal government, while the Purple Line would also receive funding from a public-private partnership.

Until the formal budget release tomorrow, we won't know how much funding Hogan has set aside for either project. He could provide enough money for each project to move ahead as they are, or request additional study or cost-cutting. That could imperil the federal government's $1.8 billion commitment for both projects, which would be distributed to other projects in other states if Maryland doesn't take the money, as well as the private funding.

Hogan, a Republican who beat Democrat and former lieutenant governor Anthony Brown in an upset election last fall, vowed in his campaign to reduce government spending to close the state's budget shortfall. While he said he would not make a decision on either the Purple or Red lines before taking office, he previously expressed a preference for building roads over transit and focusing on the state's rural areas.

Also included in the governor's budget is $30 million for a new regional medical center in Prince George's County, at Largo Town Center Metro. Hogan also proposed cutting in half a formula that provides additional funding to school systems with a high cost of education, called GCEI, which would specifically affect Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

We'll provide more details as they come.

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What went wrong with Metro's emergency response?

Last Monday's Metro incident left one person dead and many hospitalized. While the National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that the smoke came from an electrical arcing event, there's still a lot we don't know about why passengers trapped in the tunnel couldn't get out more quickly.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Initial reports indicate that while Train 302's operator and DC Fire and EMS (DCFEMS) followed established protocols, poor communication within Metro and between Metro and DCFEMS caused the slow evacuation. Additionally, issues with the ventilation system may have worsened the smoke.

If we're going to look at how effective and efficient both Metro and DCFEMS were in responding, it helps to have context for what an emergency response for this kind of situation should look like.

Emergency response took far longer than it should have

Metro's procedures require that a train operator immediately report smoke or fire in the trackbed to the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). When this happens, ROCC is responsible for calling the fire department, which generally starts the process of getting emergency responders to the scene.

Fires along the Metro tracks are usually caused by the third rail, which provides the electrical power needed to move the train. Accordingly, Metro policy dictates that the ROCC shut off third rail power as soon as possible. However, Metro's procedures do allow for ROCC to leave power on long enough to allow the train to retreat back to the previous station (if the operator is able to stop short of the smoke) or continue to the next station (if the train has already passed the smoke).

It appears that Metro may have left the third rail energized for so long because Train 302's operator was trying, in vain, to return to L'Enfant Plaza

In addition to the workers at the control center, firefighters have the ability to manually disable power to the third rail by pressing a button on the blue light emergency trip stations, which are located every 800 feet along the tracks. But before firefighters can actually enter the trackbed, DCFEMS requires firefighters to get confirmation from the ROCC that the power actually has gone off.

Firefighters arrived at L'Enfant Plaza at 3:31 pm, nine minutes after Metro called to report heavy smoke in the station. By that time, the train had already been stuck in the tunnel for approximately 16 minutes. Another 13 minutes elapsed before ROCC confirmed that third rail power was off, though it appears rescue personnel entered the tunnel before that happened.

Communication was ineffective

Metro's emergency response procedures require ROCC to coordinate all activities with a designated commander (usually Metro Transit Police) at the station. This designated commander must then coordinate with the fire department on the scene.

DCFEMS reports that their traditional radios were not working inside the station or tunnel, which made it difficult to communicate information about the location of the disabled train, the need for more help, and the status of third rail power. And while in this clip, the train operator is clearly in communications with ROCC, it does not seem that the ROCC was able to communicate with anyone at L'Enfant Plaza. These communication failures likely slowed and limited the effectiveness of the emergency response.

The train operator didn't evacuate the train immediately

Because the train operator was able to stop the train short of the smoke, Metro's procedures called for him to retreat back to L'Enfant.

Since the tunnels can be dangerous places, it's obvious why Metro wants evacuation, especially without rescuers on scene, to be a last resort. But if retreating is not an option, train operators can evacuate passengers into the tunnel after receiving authorization from the ROCC; they don't have to wait on firefighters to arrive.

Several videos have captured audio of the train operator assuring passengers that he would return the train to the L'Enfant Plaza platform, where they could alight. But that wasn't an option because another train that couldn't move (possibly because the train operator had evacuated the station) was already on the platform. And even if the other train hadn't been there, it's possible that a lack of third rail power or passengers leaving the train on their own would have prevented an attempt to return to the station.

Firefighters eventually evacuated those who didn't self-evacuate though the tunnel. Metro Transit Police reported via Twitter that evacuations were complete an hour and 30 minutes after the first reports of smoke.

One firefighter has speculated that more people didn't leave the train cars on their own because the emergency door releases on the 3000-series cars are hidden.

Measures to clear the tunnel of smoke either didn't follow protocol or didn't work

ROCC didn't cut power to the part of the third rail where the arcing event occurred until 35 minutes after the train was stranded in the tunnel. During this time, the arcing continued, and continued to generate smoke. If ROCC had cut third rail power shortly after the train became stuck, it's possible that there would have been much less smoke since the arcing would have stopped.

Only a minute after the train operator stopped the train in the tunnel, ROCC did activate Metro's exhaust fans, which can clear smoke inside of a station or tunnels. But these fans may not have been functioning properly when responders first arrived at the scene.

Nobody could have prevented harm altogether, but Metro has a lot of room for improvement

It's unlikely that any response would have gotten riders out unscathed. Even passengers who quickly evacuated from the platform at L'Enfant Plaza had to be treated for smoke inhalation. But Metro's response likely depended too much on getting the train back to L'Enfant Plaza even when it became obvious that that strategy was becoming futile.

It will likely be six months to a year before NTSB officials release their findings on last Monday's incident (though they did release a preliminary report). On Saturday, Mayor Muriel Bowser released an initial report on DCFEMS's response.

It's already clear that Metro could have done better. Hopefully, new procedures and better safety training will come out of this tragedy. But it's a shame that this wasn't prevented in the first place.

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