Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category government

Transit


Montgomery County will build bus rapid transit in four years

After nearly a decade of debate, Montgomery County wants to build a bus rapid transit line in four years, for 20% of the originally estimated cost. While it'll be a better bus service, it may not be so rapid.


Montgomery County could get this, sort of. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Last month, the county announced its plan to build a 14-mile BRT line along Route 29 (also known as Colesville Road and Columbia Pike) from the Silver Spring Transit Center to Burtonsville. It's part of a larger, 80-mile system that's been studied since 2008 and was officially approved in 2013. County Executive Ike Leggett wants to have this line up and running by the end of 2019, an ambitious timeline. The county also says they can do it for $67.2 million, compared to the $350 million county planners previously predicted.

How? Most bus rapid transit systems, like the new Metroway in Northern Virginia, have a separate roadway for buses that gets them out of traffic and provides a shorter, more reliable travel time.

On Route 29, the county envisions running buses on the shoulder between Burtonsville and Tech Road, where it's basically a highway. Further south, as Route 29 becomes more of a main street, the county would turn existing travel lanes into HOV-2 lanes for buses and carpools. For about three miles closer to downtown Silver Spring, buses would run in mixed traffic. This setup allows the county to build the line without widening the road anywhere, which saves on land and construction costs.


Map from Montgomery County.

The line would have other features that can reduce travel time and improve the current bus riding experience. Each of the 17 stations would feel more like a train station, with covered waiting areas, real-time travel info, and fare machines so riders can pay before getting on. At some stoplights, buses would get the green light before other vehicles. Buses would come every six minutes during rush hour, and every 10 minutes the rest of the time.

County officials estimate that 17,000 people will use the service each day by 2020 and 23,000 people will ride it each day in 2040. The line, which would be part of the county's Ride On bus system, would replace express Metrobus routes along Route 29, though existing local bus routes would remain.

Montgomery County would cover half the cost of building the line, while the other half would come from the US Department of Transportation's TIGER grant program for small-scale transportation projects. In addition, the grant would include money for sidewalks, bike lanes, covered bike parking at stations, and 10 bikesharing stations along the corridor. The county will find out if it's won the grant money this fall.

The project could give Montgomery County somewhat better transit now

This plan could bring better bus service to East County, which has been waiting for rapid transit since it was first proposed in 1981. The Metrobus Z-line along Route 29 is one of the region's busiest, with over 11,000 boardings each day, but riders face delays and long waits.

East County lacks the investment that more affluent parts of the county enjoy, and so residents must travel long distances for jobs, shopping, or other amenities. Residents suffer from poor access to economic opportunities: according to the county's grant application, 30% of the area's 47,000 households are "very low income." County officials hope that better transit could support big plans to redevelop White Oak and Burtonsville.

While not having dedicated transit lanes makes this project easy to build, it also makes it hard to provide a fast, reliable transit trip. Enforcing the HOV lanes will be hard, especially south of New Hampshire Avenue where the blocks are short and drivers are constantly turning onto Route 29 from side streets. And without dedicated lanes in congested Four Corners, buses will simply get stuck in traffic with everyone else, discouraging people from riding them.

The route also includes two spurs along Lockwood Drive and Briggs Chaney Road, each of which serves large concentrations of apartments where many transit riders live, but would force buses on huge, time-consuming detours. One possibility is that some buses could go straight up Route 29 while others take the scenic route. But that's basically how the existing bus service on the corridor already works.

This could make the case for rapid transit

This might be a temporary solution. The county and state of Maryland will continue planning a "real" bus rapid transit line that might have its own transitway, but that could take several years.

In the meantime, the county needs to build support for better transit. BRT has broad support across the county, but many residents are still skeptical. Supporters and opponents alike have been confused and frustrated by the lack of information on the county's progress in recent months.

By getting something on the ground now, Montgomery County can show everyone how BRT really works sooner, rather than later. Despite the shorter timeframe, it's important to make sure this service actually improves transit, and that residents actually know what's going on.

Budget


Metro wants to know how you use the system

Have you noticed the orange flyers and collection boxes floating around Metro stations this month? They're part of a passenger survey that WMATA conducts every few years. The results help determine both how much each of our region's jurisdictions pay for Metro and whether or not Metro should make service changes.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Named TravelTrends, WMATA's Metrorail Passenger Survey survey has two primary objectives: To determine how much each jurisdiction (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) needs to pay to subsidize the system, and to help determine whether or not to make changes to rail service.

In addition, the Federal Transit Administration mandates this survey be conducted periodically.

One thing about TravelTrends is that it's not a survey about your satisfaction with the system. It's more like a census, with the same questions asked each period so WMATA can compare the data. Just like with the federal census, which happens every 10 years, the questions are about you or your habits rather than how you think the government's policies are working out.

According to PlanItMetro, Metro's planning blog, "Your answers to the survey contribute to the data used to support operating and planning activities—it provides us with greater insight into how we can best match service to fit the overall needs of our customers using the system."


Photo by the author.

The (statistically valid) results aid WMATA in determining what each jurisdiction must pay to support Metro. It's one part of a complex formula. Each jurisdiction pays according to its population (adjusted for density), the number of stations it has, and the average weekday number of riders who live in that jurisdiction. This survey is used to figure out the jurisdictional ridership part of the formula.

Staff are handing out the bright orange, pre-stamped surveys at each station through the end of May. You can also fill one out online instead of mailing—just use the code at the bottom of the cover page.

Normally, the survey happens every five years. The last one was in 2012. But WMATA is also required to run the rider study two years after starting new rail service, so the addition of the Silver Line pushed it up (has it really been two years?!!).

As an added bonus, if you complete the survey, you're entered into a drawing to win a $100 SmarTrip card.

Development


DC has way more vacant properties than it thinks

Editor's note: While this post has two authors, it's written from David Sheon's perspective.

The official count of vacant and blighted properties in DC is about 1,200, but in reality, there are likely many more. The reasons for the discrepancy? A number of loopholes in the system for counting these properties, and not enough staff to close them.


This vacant house might look like it's under construction, but it hasn't been touched in years. All photos by the authors.

When I first became an ANC Commissioner, I knocked on every door in my district and asked my constituents what they wanted to see different. Then, I tallied their concerns to see what issues rose to the top. The results surprised me: Issues related to vacant and blighted (which basically means it's a threat to health and safety) houses ranked second on people's list of concerns, after traffic safety.

After being elected, I compiled a list of vacant properties in my neighborhood. In my 12-block district, I found seven clearly vacant homes. In many cases, these houses were literally falling apart, full of garbage (a broken down pick-up truck from a long-abandoned construction project on one) and overgrown weeds. Neighbors confirmed the properties didn't seem to be in probate (when a property is tied up in court because the owner passed away and it isn't clear who now owns it) but had been vacant for years.

These properties aren't only eyesores; they're a threat to public safety. On many, unsecured doors and windows attract crime, but without actual residents in the houses, there fewer eyes on the street. They also deter investment.

Unfortunately, DC's system for identifying these properties, assessing penalties, and putting properties back into productive use is fundamentally broken.

It's hard to get a property officially registered as vacant or blighted

The road to remediating vacant and blighted properties starts with DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). There, the Vacant and Blighted Enforcement (VBE) Unit is tasked with inspecting vacant and blighted properties and then assessing an appropriate tax rate. The idea is to raise taxes on buildings that aren't being put to use as a way to encourage the owners to sell or fix their properties.

For vacant properties, the tax rate is five percent. For vacant and blighted properties, the tax rate is an even higher 10 percent. But this is where things get really tricky, as there are a number of loopholes that prevent these taxes from being assessed.

For example, once a property is identified as vacant, a property owner can get a permit to do work on the house. The property then becomes exempt from the vacant property tax even if no work has been done. For instance, long time neighbors of one vacant property told me they had never even heard a hammer in the vacant house, even though a work permit kept the vacant building tax from applying.

Another loophole involves putting the property up for sale at a price that is several times the fair market value. The "for sale" status will also earn the property owner an exemption. At one property near my house, which was falling apart, the owner listed it for sale with a price as though renovations had been made. In the condition it was in, the price should have been about $300K however he was listing it at nearly $900K. Clearly no one was going to buy it, but this way he avoided vacant building tax.

Owners can also set up anonymous Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs), often named for the property's address, that don't actually tie back to a person. That can make it impossible to go after individual owners to recover taxes owed or penalties assessed to the LLC. One example of this are the properties owned by Insun Hofgard, who WAMU's Martin Austermuhle reported on last year. Most of her properties, including those that remain unfinished and now blight Kennedy Street, are registered under individual LLCs.

Finally, vacant lots are also exempt.

Even when the VBE does identify properties as being vacant, the law requires the unit to reinspect the property every six months and reclassify it as either vacant or vacant and blighted. The VBE is not sufficiently staffed or resourced to handle this task, and properties routinely fall off DCRA's list, even when what got them on it in the first place hasn't changed.

Why would a property owner want to keep a property vacant as long as possible? As long as DC property values are going up, the longer the owner waits, the more profitable it will be.

In our experience, the system is broken

Since 2013, my neighbor and co-author, David Gottfried, has worked to identify vacant and blighted properties and to ask DCRA to classify them as such.

Every six months, David has followed up with DCRA to ask about keeping properties on the list and applying the appropriate penalties. Despite his efforts, the properties on his own list, which were clearly vacant and often unquestionably blighted, just slipped through the cracks. On my end, only three of the seven vacant properties that I identified in my neighborhood were on the city's list.

Simply put, it's very difficult to get a property classified as vacant, or keep it that way. Even when neighbors keep very close watch and follow up diligently with city agencies, DCRA is too often failing to adequately identify vacant properties and penalize their owners. Our experiences lead us to believe that the actual number of vacant and blighted properties is much higher than the 1,200 properties on DCRA's list, and could be as high as 5,000.


Another vacant property. Here, renovations are now underway—it'd be nice if that were the story more often.

Let's give DCRA what it needs to close the loopholes

This is an important issue for the health, safety, and well-being of our communities. It is also an issue of basic fairness. Negligent property owners who degrade our communities and jeopardize our security should face stiff penalties for their actions.

We need to adequately staff and resource the VBE, remove the burden from community members and DCRA to classify and re-classify properties, and place the onus squarely on the property owners by making them show the city that a property is no longer vacant before a property is removed from the list. We also need to pierce the corporate veil afforded negligent homeowners who use LLCs, so that DCRA and relevant agencies can appropriately penalize negligent homeowners.

Some of these fixes are hard and will take time, but with others, a small change in the law could go a long way. A little bit of political will and leadership could go a long way towards making our communities safer, more attractive, and more pleasant places to live.

We'll discuss pending legislation around vacant and blighted properties in an upcoming post.

Poverty


DC's homeless shelter plan just got a makeover

In February, Mayor Bowser put forth a plan to replace DC General with seven smaller family shelters around the District. The DC Council just made some key changes: all of the sites will now be city-owned rather than leased, and a few will be in different locations than first planned.


Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

After Mayor Bowser released her plan, many raised concerns about its expensive leasing agreements with private developers and the suitability of some of the proposed sites. Yesterday, the DC Council unanimously approved a revised plan that targets those concerns. The changes are expected to save DC $165 million. Here they are:

The shelter locations in Wards 3, 5, and 6 will change

Three sites, in Wards 3, 5, and 6, will relocate to city-owned land.

Many criticized the original sites: the Ward 5 location, for example, was too close to a bus depot with bad air quality as well as a strip club, and the Ward 6 location was too close to a party venue.

All three locations would have required zoning variances or exceptions to become shelter sites, but that isn't the case with the new sites.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen both expressed support for the new sites. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who previously opposed the shelter plan, now supports a shelter at either of the two proposed sites for Ward 5. Councilmember Yvette Alexander, however, said she is worried that the changes to the locations will delay the closing of DC General.

The District plans to purchase land for sites in Wards 1 and 4

DC will work with property owners to purchase two of the proposed sites, in Wards 1 and 4. If that doesn't work, DC will acquire the properties through eminent domain.

To fund the purchases, the new plan is to use capital funding originally set aside for the renovation of Ward 4's Coolidge Senior High School. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd said using the school renovation funds places an unfair burden on Ward 4 residents. But Councilmember David Grosso, who is also the Education Committee chair, assured him that the school renovations would still happen on schedule; since the renovations are still in the planning stage, the school wouldn't have been able to use the funding this year anyway.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau added an amendment to the new plan that ensures the property owners of the Ward 1 site pay any back taxes they may owe to DC before the District purchases the property.

Mayor Bowser and Phil Mendelson aren't on the same page

Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May is worried that the new plan could overburden Ward 8 with more shelter units than other wards. She proposed an amendment that clarified the maximum number of units allowed at each site, but it failed after Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he felt the issue could be worked out among the council before the next vote without an amendment.

While many councilmembers praised Mayor Bowser for her initiative and courage on the original shelter plan, Council Chairman Mendelson accused the mayor's office of "obfuscation and misinformation" and a lack of collaboration with the council during this process. Later in the day, Mayor Bowser made it clear that her office and the council are still very far apart on the plan.

What happens next?

"We should all be getting ready to go to happy hour, because we got it done!," said Councilmember Vincent Orange. Not so fast, though. There are still a few more steps before this bill becomes a law.

The DC Council will hold another reading of the bill on May 31. If the council approves the bill then, it goes to the mayor for approval. If she vetoes it, nine councilmembers must support the bill for it to become law. It's possible that a few of the councilmembers with misgivings, many of whom are facing tough reelections, could be swayed by lobbying by Mayor Bowser or her allies to vote against the bill.

Government


In its attempts to provide affordable housing, DC has struggled to set clear goals

In 2006 and 2012, DC set clear numbers for how many affordable housing units either needed to be built or needed to be preserved by a specific date. In both cases, there wasn't enough data to actually track progress, and the goals fell by the wayside. Today, there still isn't a plan for providing affordable housing for everyone who needs it.

Advocates and District officials often find themselves jumping from crisis to crisis. At Museum Square, for instance, residents are scrambling to prevent landlord Bush Companies from evicting half of Chinatown's remaining ethnically Chinese population, after tenants (and many District officials) were notified of Bush's plans via demolition notices.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute wrote in a 2015 paper, "While there have been some very important successes, the lack of a coordinated, proactive policy for [affordable housing] preservation has led to many missed opportunities, resulting in the loss of whole communities to sale [and] large rent increases."

Meanwhile, too many DC residents don't understand how big the problem of affordable housing is. They hear about crises like Museum Square, but are left to cobble the bigger picture together through disparate facts like "there are over 70,000 families on DC's affordable housing waitlist," or "there are effectively zero market rate units left in DC that are affordable for low-income workers."

Here is an overview of the District's past targets, and some ideas for new ones.

There have been attempts to set clear goals and stick to them

Two-dozen representatives from District agencies, local housing nonprofits, and research organizations helped author a 2006 report that then-mayor Anthony Williams commissioned. At the time, developers were starting to pour money into new projects west of the Anacostia River; DC's housing problem in Wards 1-4 was less that development dollars were scarce, and increasingly that the new projects were raising rents, making it hard for low-income families to stay.

District leaders and the authors of the 2006 report were beginning to realize this, and they set these goals:

  • Produce 55,000 new units by 2020.
  • 19,000 of those units should be affordable (7,600 below 30% of AMI; 5,700 between 30-60% of AMI, and another 5,700 between 60-80% of AMI).
  • In addition, preserve 30,000 currently affordable units.
  • Adopt a local rent supplement program and reach 14,600 households.

Of course, goals don't matter if nobody takes them seriously.

In 2007, Mayor Fenty appointed Leslie Steen as "housing czar" to implement the 2006 plan. She was supposed to cut through red tape and coordinate the many District authorities that touch on affordable housing, including DCHD, DCHFA, DCRA, DMPED, and DCHA. But she ended up being marginalized within the administration, and ultimately resigned in frustration.

In 2007 and 2011, Alice Rivlin wrote two follow-up reports; she praised the District's progress on some fronts, and basically threw up her hands on others; in 2011, nobody had the data to track progress towards the 2006 targets.

Another report was released in 2012 under the auspices of the Grey administration, and laid out these goals:

  • Preserve 8,000 existing affordable units.
  • Produce and preserve 10,000 net new affordable units by 2020 (I couldn't find a detailed AMI breakdown for these 10,000 units).
  • Support development of 3,000 market rate units by 2020.

Grey made a public commitment to reach the "10 by 20" goal, but since 2012 talk of these goals has faded. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development has worked hard to get the District to commit to an investment goal: $100 million a year in the Housing Production Trust Fund. But Mayor Bowser has yet to adopt specific goals for the number of affordable units she wants to preserve and produce.


Mayor Bowser announcing affordable housing initiatives in January of last year. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Setting numerical goals might be worth another look

If we establish another set of city-wide goals, they must be clear, and we must be able to track progress towards them. Such goals could accomplish at least two things:

  • Helping focus our collective efforts. Once we've agreed on a set of targets, we can get creative with solutions. Maybe it's up-zoning some parts of Ward 3; maybe it's strengthened Inclusionary Zoning, maybe it's more preservation and accessory dwelling units. (If we set respectable goals, it'll probably require some combination of all of the above).
  • Having a clear, public goals can help District residents hold their government to account. We could ask, "Why are we missing our targets?" We cannot ask that question now.

Here's an example of a measurable goal, just as food for thought: "The District should have no net loss of affordable units, relative to our current stock and distribution of affordability."

So if we have 40,000 units affordable to people who make below 40% of Area Median Income, we should still have that many in 2030. That's a clear goal, which the public could use to hold their representatives accountable.

An equally clear, less conservative goal might be, "The District should ensure that 30% of its total rental units are affordable to people making below 40% of AMI."

Today we're closer to having the data to track progress towards city-wide goals. The Urban Institute, in conjunction with the DC Preservation Network, has compiled currently available records (you can find a report from December here). The city's trying to improve its own data collection.

Clear goals and stringent data collection have helped the District come close to ending veteran homelessness. As Kristy Greenwalt, head of DC's Interagency Council on Homelessness, told the City Paper, "In the past, there was no systematic approach. We're in a very different place now, so we can actually track what's happening and why."

Goal setting alone can't build or preserve housing, and planning isn't execution. But without precise goals, it's hard to know if we're falling down or making progress—ensuring that new people can move to DC, existing residents can stay, and low-income people can live close to good jobs, schools, and public amenities. A comprehensive, strategic solution to our housing crisis begins with knowing what it would mean to win.

Development


When housing mixes rich and poor, it's not instant harmony

To make cities inclusive for everyone, individual neighborhoods need to welcome people of many incomes. Unfortunately, that's not always an easy task. A recent panel discussed some obstacles to this important goal, such as how mixing rich and poor can create unexpected conflict.


Photo by Culture:Subculture Photography on Flickr.

The promise of mixed income

Mixed-income development aims to combine housing for low-income people with market rate units for higher earners. Part of the idea is that the wealthier neighbors create a higher tax base for an area, and their purchasing power attracts more retail and other services. That means more stores, parks, and jobs for everyone, including low-income neighbors. It's an attractive idea, for sure.

Plus, recent studies by Raj Chetty and Eric Chyn show that low-income children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods make more money throughout life—16%, in Chyn's study—than those in entirely low-income areas. Keeping poverty concentrated is a recipe for more poverty, while mixed-income could show a way out.

There are many examples of mixed-income buildings across DC. One, the Jefferson at Marketplace development, is near where I live in Shaw. Not too long ago, the Kelsey Gardens complex sat on the same block, offering 54 units of Section 8 affordable housing to low-income residents.

When redevelopment planning began, Kelsey Gardens residents were able to use their collective rights under DC's Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) law to buy the building and negotiate to preserve their 54 units within the 281-unit final building.

A lot of people feel that this must be the model for how to ensure opportunity for everyone. A city can't just be diverse in its mix of people across the city if individual neighborhoods are highly segregated.


Photo by the author.

But... combining two extremes can lead to problems

There are challenges, however. Having people who can afford $4,000 rents living in the same hallway as some of the poorest residents can lead to clashes, panelists pointed out at the Urban Land Institute's recent Real Estate Trends conference.

For example, wealthy residents might call the police on teenage sons and daughters of low-income neighbors as they gather with friends. Adrianne Todman, executive director of the DC Housing Authority, said that she and her office too often have to deal with such conflicts, with both wealthy and low-income neighbors blaming and maneuvering against the other.

At one particular development Todman cited, it took years before the residents "finally accepted that no one was going anywhere," she said.

Derek Hyra, a professor at American University, said that this is evidence of "micro-segregation." He has researched how even seemingly diverse areas turn out to be entirely segregated on closer inspection, and have all of the conflicts that come with such segregation.

This also causes "political displacement," Hyra said, where within buildings, decision-making power about amenities and services is often unbalanced toward higher-income tenants. Neighborhood-wide, newcomers get elected onto Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and through their influence begin to shift the makeup of the neighborhood towards their own interests and incomes.

The panelists don't think the answer is to give up on mixed-income; rather, there are ways to make it work. Hyra said this kind of growth "must be done in a way that minimizes displacement and encourages meaningful social interactions among race and class." Vicki Davis, president of Urban Atlantic Development, added that developers need to think about how to "focus on integration and production in balance."

After a while, people do get to know their neighbors and build relationships. They overcome these obstacles, as Todman pointed out has happened in her agency's buildings. It's just that this takes time, and as Hyra mentioned, the building managers can take steps to help this process along.

One possible solution: The middle class

One suggestion from the panel was to incorporate middle-income residents into mixed-income buildings. Rather than simply force two dramatically different income groups together, the interests and needs of the middle would form a bridge between the two. Davis also mentioned how younger and middle income people often place higher value on diversity and are more interested in inclusive communities.

The problem is this mix is just not showing up—at least not yet. The obstacle, the panelists said, is economic. The profit on luxury units makes it worthwhile to build a large building on expensive land, while there are tax subsidies and other government programs pushing low-income units. But that leaves out middle-income households.

Some "affordable housing," such as that built under DC's Inclusionary Zoning law, is "workforce" housing, such as for people making 80% of the Area Median Income. This is good and needed, but as many activists point out, IZ units are only useful for the middle class and leave the lowest-income households out entirely.

In the end, because of the our current policies and economics, we get luxury + deeply affordable, or luxury + middle income. Rarely if ever do we see luxury + middle income + deeply affordable.

Cities and counties in our region and around the nation will continue to experiment with the best way to build truly mixed-income communities. The benefits are clear; making it work will take practice and creativity.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC