Greater Greater Washington

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Tax benefit changes and better options are hurting transit ridership

While Americans took a record number of trips on public transportation last year, ridership numbers in our region are down.


Photo by Bill Couch on Flickr.

There are several potential reasons for the region's dip, but two in particular warrant consideration: changes to commuter tax benefits, and better alternatives to traditional transit.

Nationwide, Americans made 10.75 billion trips by transit in 2014, according to annual ridership statistics released this month by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

That's up from 10.65 billion trips in 2013, with the number of trips outpacing population growth. In a year of low gasoline prices, the increase is welcome news for the transit industry.

But CityLab's Eric Jaffe has advised caution about reading too much into these numbers, pointing out that New York City's transit ridership skews the data, and that overall, bus ridership is down.

Moreover, the Washington metro region's ridership numbers have declined. Apart from the ART Bus in Arlington, our region's use of public transportation declined between 2013 and 2014. The decreases are not dramatic, but they are still worrisome.

Commuter tax benefit changes are hurting ridership

The commuter pre-tax benefit allows participating employees to deduct the cost of their commuting expenses, tax-free, from their paychecks. The transit benefit was reduced, effective January 1, 2014, to a level for transit ($130 maximum per month) that's roughly half that of parking ($250). This made news back in November when TransitCenter released a report pointing out that the federal government is basically subsidizing congestion.

Transit advocates and transportation planners fear the transit reduction because of the potential incentives it creates. Because the transit benefit is so much less than the parking benefit, driving appears to be considerably more attractive in comparison.

In case anyone still doubts that federal tax policy can influence commuting behavior, the news from WMATA isn't good. PlanItMetro has released data showing that the reduction of the transit benefit is at least partially responsible for a decline in Metro ridership in 2014.

WMATA estimates that the lower transit benefit results in 25 percent of its riders running out of SmarTrip benefits before the end of each month. This is 40 percent more than the year prior.


Graph from PlanItMetro.

While some riders replenish the amounts on their SmarTrip cards when their monthly benefits run out, many do not. This explains why Metro ridership in 2014 was higher at the beginning of each month than the end, and why ridership on Metro was down for the year overall.

With its large number of federal workers, our region certainly feels the impact of the reduced transit benefit more than other areas. Organizations such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) have called for immediate action by Congress to restore the transit benefit to a level equal to the parking benefit.

Kelley Coyner, executive director of NVTC, said "Restoring parity for the commuter tax benefit will keep transit riders on Metro, ART, and other transit systems all month long. Now ridership goes down when the benefit runs out. Lower ridership means more congestion and lost revenue to transit."

Two bills in Congress right now, the Transit Tax Parity Act of 2015 (HR 1043, Rep. Holmes-Norton) and the Commuter Parity Act of 2015 (HR 990, Rep. King) would restore parity between the transit and parking benefit permanently.

Some transit riders now have better options

Another potential reason for Washington's lower transit ridership numbers is that our region has more options, notably Capital Bikeshare. As bikesharing stations have proliferated, commuters have another transportation option that's not only being utilized as a connection to bus and rail, but often as a commute mode in its own right.

Public transportation agencies like WMATA, meanwhile, have an improved, holistic, view of transportation these days. Capital Bikeshare, the largest and most successful bikeshare systyem in the US, is no longer considered a competitor to public transit so much as a complement to it.

And although proponents of bikesharing services like to refer to them as "bike transit," ridership numbers are not included in the APTA public transportation data. With 2.8 million trips taken on Capital Bikeshare in 2014 (and increasing), bikeshare trips aren't insubstantial.

According to Paul DeMaio, an Arlington County consultant largely responsible for the creation of Capital Bikeshare, the system has "both pulled trips from Metrorail and Metrobus and helped folks get to rail and bus. With CaBi trips mainly taken in the urban core of the region, bikeshare has assisted slightly in lowering the peak-period crush on Metrorail and Metrobus." In other words, yes DC, your lower transit trips might be for a good reason.

Chris Hamilton, bureau chief of Arlington County Commuter Services, downplays the significance of any regional trends. He said something that's "happening on the ground in that individual place" isn't indicative of what a long-term trend might be. Localities, he added, should only be worried about lower transit ridership if drive-alone rates are increasing.

In DC and Arlington, that trend has not been seen yet. Arlington County prides itself, in fact, on moving more people without increasing traffic on its arterial roads, largely through employment of transportation demand management techniques that inform and educate citizens about their options.

Hamilton echoed DeMaio's sentiment, saying, "Perhaps in those cases when transit is down a little bit, people are taking advantage of biking, walking, and shared rides more. As long as people continue to use options, like they are in Arlington, that's good for cities."

Cross-posted from Mobility Lab.

A bikeable suburban highway? One Ohio town pulled it off

Wide suburban highways lined with big boxes and strip malls aren't usually places one finds protected bikeways. But Stringtown Road in Grove City, Ohio is such a place. Check it out:


Stringtown Road. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Since a curb protects the bikeway from the road, it's technically a sidepath, a sidewalk that's for bikes instead of pedestrians.

And as you can see in photos from Google Street View, it's nicer than riding in the street with fast-moving cars, but it's still not exactly pleasant.

Huge curb cuts interrupt the bikeway, so cars don't need to slow down much before pulling into the giant parking lots lining the road. There's certainly a risk that careless drivers will turn without watching, and hit people on bikes.

But that's a risk that will exist for any car-oriented highway. At least this one puts the bike lane front and center, just about as visible as it can be.

There are some sidepaths along large roads in the DC area, like Route 50 in Arlington or along Benning Road near RFK, but those aren't commercial highways lined with shops, and their sidepaths aren't right against the curb like Stringtown's. This particular layout is pretty unusual.

As more and more suburban communities evolve to become more multimodal, experiments like this will help everyone around the country understand what works and what doesn't. Grove City is near Columbus, where it's not the only suburb experimenting with urban retrofits.

What do you think? Will this design work? Tell us in the comments.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is going to get longer

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is a popular way to get between Brookland and Union Station on bike or foot, but it'd be even more useful if it went farther north toward Maryland. DDOT just unveiled preliminary plans for making that happen.


Parts of the trail that are under design. All images from DDOT.

People have been waiting almost two decades for DDOT to finish the trail. Last weekend, the agency presented preliminary design plans that detail what the trail, along with the complimentary Prince George's County Connector, will look like between Catholic University, its current end point, and Maryland.

Parts of the trail will be on the road and parts won't. Sometimes it will run through green space and sometimes it will be a side path. Other times it will be jammed, as elegantly as possible, between an in-use trash transfer center and cement plant on one side and an active rail line on the other. Call that a drainage ditch-to-trail conversion. The path will vary from 12 feet wide, which is ideal, to ten.

Here's a tour of what the trail is going to look like

The northern leg will start at the Brookland-CUA Metro. Trail users will pass through a redesigned Catholic University side of the Metro Plaza, and from there they'll use the existing side path, which was built in 1999 and is in purple on the image above, to get to Fort Totten Park and the trash transfer center. At that point, the trail will squeeze between the industrial facilities mentioned above, separated by a concrete retaining wall and a low fence.


Trail between the cement plant and railroad tracks.

Continuing north, the trail will then turn left to go over the Metro tunnel, then sharply right to get back to 1st Place NE. From there, it will continue north, but also meet the Prince George's County Connector to the east and an existing trail to Gallatin Street to the west. At 1st Place, there will be both stairs and a ramp.


Trail map near the Fort Totten Metro.

The Gallatin Street connection to the west will have a better turn radius, a wider and better surface, and a more trail-like feel. The Prince George's Connector will be an on-street route on Gallatin and South Dakota Avenue with a small trail connection from Eastern Avenue to the boundary.


DC trail portion of the Prince George's County Connector.

Heading north, the trail will be a sidepath along the west side of 1st Place NE and then the south side of Riggs Road. There will be no bridge over Riggs, and no trail east of 1st Street on National Parks Service land. Routing the trail through NPS land was considered in the 2004 draft design, but the federal agency ultimately refused to allow it. There will, however, be an improved crossing or Riggs at 1st St and a sidewalk on the east side of 1st Place.


1st Place NE at Riggs Road.

The trail will run on roads and sidewalks along 1st Street NE until crossing New Hampshire Avenue and heading west on McDonald Place to Blair Road. At Blair Road, the trail will again transition to a side path. Just north of McDonald, the trail will double as access to the Oglethorpe Community Garden, meaning a small bump-out for garden loading and unloading and limited access for vehicles on a 12 foot wide section.


Oglethorpe Community Garden.

North of Peabody, cutting a northbound lane of Blair Road will allow for landscaping and some additional curbside parking. There will also be several improved crosswalks across Blair.


Along Blair Road, narrowed to add parking.

Just north of Tuckerman the trail splits into two six-foot sections for part of a block...


Trail map near Tuckerman.

...before reconnecting into a protected trail (separated by a wall) along a lane-reduced Blair Road.


Blair Road with protected path.

The trail will turn under the railroad tracks at Aspen, and then along the side of Sandy Spring before returning to an on-street route along Maple, Carroll, Ceder and Eastern.


Sandy Spring.

The last piece of the trail is a block-long section on the southeast side of Eastern/Takoma Avenue from Piney Branch to the existing terminus of the Maryland section of the trail along Takoma Avenue.


Connection to Montgomery County.

It's unfortunate that the Riggs Road Bridge could not be included, just as it was disappointing that the Monroe Avenue underpass could not.

It's also unfortunate that the Prince George's County Connector is almost all going to be on-road in DC when there is a suitable green strip there (owned by NPS, of course) that would work well.

DDOT plans to finish this preliminary part of the design process by the end of 2015, and the final design should be complete by the end of 2016.

Cross-posted at TheWashCycle

Northern Virginia has $350 million to spend on transportation. Here's what officials want to build

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) controls a vast budget for transportation projects all over Northern Virginia. Now they're gearing up to build 34 new projects, including new Metro stations, more buses, and wider highways.


Map of project locations from NVTA.

What's NVTA?

NVTA may be the most important infrastructure agency in the Washington area that few people know much about. "The authority," as officials call it (to distinguish it from the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a lobbying organization that favors aggressive highway-building), gives Northern Virginia the ability to raise and spend its own money on its own priorities.

That's the theory, anyway. But the Virginia General Assembly requires NVTA to prioritize projects that reduce road congestion. Before NVTA can fund any projects, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has to run each proposal through a computer model that rates its ability to reduce congestion.

"Congestion reduction" sounds great, but it doesn't work

VDOT's rating system for NVTA projects rewards expansions of the busiest highways, on the assumption that more road capacity will reduce congestion. It's a flawed 20th century metric that ignores decades of real world experience that bigger roads actually make congestion worse.

The VDOT system does not measure things like how a project might benefit safety, or increase accessibility, and doesn't take into consideration how land use changes are driven by infrastructure.

The biggest problem is simply that VDOT's model doesn't know what to do with short distance trips, which are the exact type of trip that transit-oriented development produces more of. So when a transit or pedestrian project makes it possible for thousands of people to walk two blocks instead of drive five miles, the VDOT model doesn't always show that as reducing congestion.

Thus, road expansion projects end up looking good, and other things have trouble competing. Transit does OK if it relieves traffic on a major road, but pedestrian or bike projects are almost impossible.

Many other regions are using broader metrics for measuring transportation performance and congestion mitigation, but Northern Virginia can't because the General Assembly won't let it.

NVTA's proposed project list

NVTA has announced a draft list of 34 projects the agency recommends for funding over the next two years. The list includes 18 road projects and 16 transit projects, totaling about $350 million.

Road projects include widening Route 1, Route 7, Route 28, and Loudoun County Parkway, as well as intersection expansions along Route 50 in the City of Fairfax, new interchanges in Leesburg, and more.

Transit projects include money for the Innovation Center and Potomac Yard Metro stations, a new entrance at Ballston station, VRE platform expansions at Franconia-Springfield, Rippon, and Crystal City, Metrorail power upgrades, and new buses for WMATA, Loudoun, Fairfax, and Fairfax City.

Here's the complete list. Projects that NVTA staff is recommending for construction are highlighted in yellow.

Over the next week NVTA is holding a series of town hall meetings on its project list, and a public hearing in Merrifield on Wednesday, March 25 (tomorrow!), beginning at 6:00 pm.

It doesn't end with this list

NVTA is also developing a long-term regional plan to guide decisions from 2018 on.

NVTA's last long-term plan, TransAction 2040, is an aspirational list of projects that was developed before the agency had any funding. Now that it has money, NVTA is developing a more structured framework to determine how to prioritize funds.

Building the new regional plan will take two years, and there should be many opportunities for citizens to engage in it. A critical issue will be how NVTA and VDOT choose to measure "congestion reduction" and the cost-effectiveness of projects, and to what extent they will take into account the benefits of shifting more single-occupant car trips to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit ones.

Watch for news on the next TransAction plan later in 2015.

A safer route to school is coming for Clarksburg kids and parents

In a win for parents, an intersection adjacent to a northern Montgomery County elementary school is getting a traffic signal and marked crosswalks.


Intersection of Snowden Farm Parkway and Grand Elm Street. Image from Google Streetview.

Today, Snowden Farm Parkway in Clarksburg is four lanes wide and has a speed limit of 40 mph. Kids who need to get to Wilson Wims Elementary School from the other side of Snowden Farm have two options for getting to school: take a circuitous bus route, or make a dangerous crossing on foot. Thankfully, that's about to change.

In a recent letter, acting Montgomery County transportation director Al Roshdieh said his agency will install the signal, along with marked crosswalks, audible pedestrian warnings, and countdown timers, by the start of next school year.

When MCDOT resisted their first request, parents kept pushing

Families living on one side of Snowden Farm Parkway in Clarksburg have been working for two years to win a safer way for their children to walk across Snowden Farm to Wilson Wims. They put in a request for crosswalks and a signal two years ago, at which time the Montgomery County Department of Transportation said no.

Parents then launched an advocacy campaign, and last October teamed with the Coalition for Smarter Growth to circulate a petition that promoted a safer crossing. MCDOT reversed its initial decision earlier this month.

"We're glad to see that persistence and dedication can succeed in making an intersection safe before bad something happens," said Seenu Suvarna, a Wilson Wims parent and a leader in the effort.


An aerial shot of the Snowden Farm Parkway and Grand Elm Street. Image from Google Maps.

MCDOT should also monitor the area and consider further steps, like lowering the school zone's high speed limit. Traffic is actually pretty low in this area, so it may also make sense to cut Snowden Farm Parkway from four lanes to two, with a turn lane in the middle.

Similar changes should happen near other area schools

Clarksburg's original master plan called for a pedestrian and transit-oriented community. Making the crossing at Wilson Wims safer is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, it leads to safer crossings at other schools.

Families at Clarksburg Elementary School face an issue similar to the one at Wilson Wims. Kids and parents in Gateway Commons, across Stringtown Road at Observation Drive, do not have a direct crossing. But so far, MCDOT officials have said that other signals are too close to that location, and that perhaps they'll add one when Observation Drive is complete.


The intersection of Stringtown Road and Observation Drive. There's no crosswalk or signal for getting to Clarksburg Elementary, which is on the north side of the street. Image from Google Maps.

But kids' safety is at stake. Combine that with how good walking to school is for individual health, the community, and the environment, and there's an obvious question: why wait?

Proposal to slash Arlington's bike program would be a huge mistake

Officials in Arlington are considering deep cuts to the county's bike and pedestrian program. If the cuts go through, many fewer bike lane or trail projects in Arlington would be able to move forward.


Crashed bicycle image from Shutterstock.

What's at stake

The cuts are one of the options county manager Barbara Donnellan presented to the county board last month, as part of the board's planning for next year's budget.

If the board approves the cuts, Arlington's fund for constructing bike/ped improvements would take a direct $800,000 hit, and indirectly lose additional future state or federal grant money. One of the county's two bike planners would also lose their job.

$800,000 is a drop in the bucket for overall Arlington transportation spending, which gets over a hundred million dollars per year. But it's crucial for the small bike/pedestrian program, which functions with relatively little funding.

Much of the funding for new bike or pedestrian projects in Arlington actually comes from outside grants, like the federal Transportation Alternatives Program. But most outside grants require recipients to put up a local match in order to receive grant funding. And this pot of $800,000 is often what Arlington's accountants use to match grants for bike and pedestrian projects.

That means if this cut goes though, it's not really just an $800,000 dip. It's actually a much larger cut that could force Arlington to turn down or stop applying for hundreds of thousands of outside dollars, putting a halt to ongoing projects, and stopping new ones from ever getting started.


If these cuts go forward, Arlington may not be able to accept future grants for more Capital Bikeshare. Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.

And this $800,000 cut would be on top of $400,000 that county leaders moved off the program last year, and never replaced. It appears when Arlington needs money, the bike/ped program is one of the first places officials look.

That's quite the bait and switch on Arlington taxpayers. The county board originally approved generating the revenue for this pot of money as a dedicated funding stream for bike and pedestrian projects. But now that money is rolling in, it isn't as dedicated as the board originally promised.

All of that comes out of the budget for physical infrastructure. But losing one of the two bike planner positions is a gigantic problem too.

The planners are the grease that make the rest of the bike/ped program roll. With half its staff capacity gone, there wouldn't be enough time in the day for Arlington's remaining bike planner to keep every project moving, even those that remain fully funded. For example, Arlington's robust bike and pedestrian count program costs little to operate, but takes a lot of time. It would probably have to be scaled back, if not eliminated entirely.

The single remaining planner wouldn't be able to apply for as many outside grants, wouldn't be able to influence the design of as many road projects, and wouldn't be able to take part in as many regional studies. This move wouldn't just slow existing projects, it would reduce the number of future projects in the pipeline, for years to come.

This isn't a done deal yet

The good news is county manager Barbara Donnellan's proposed draft budget does not actually include these cuts. If that draft budget sails through, the bike program remains whole and there's no problem.

The bad news is that in order to keep its options open, the county board instructed Donnellan to prepare a back up plan. The back up plan would cut the budget in order to reduce Arlington's property tax rate.

That back up plan is the problem. If adopted, it would cut $4 million out of Arlington's $1.1 billion budget. Those cuts would fall disproportionately on the county's highly successful bicycle program.

For the second year in a row, when the county needs money, officials look to swipe it from bikes.

Arlingtonians feel betrayed, and aren't taking it sitting down

Arlington has a long and successful history of progressive transportation planning, but it sure hasn't felt that way lately.

This move comes only months after the county board canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, a decision that just two years ago seemed so unlikely that Greater Greater Washington published an April Fool's joke about it.

Gillian Burgess, the chair of Arlington's bicycle advisory committee, sent a letter to the county board opposing the cuts, and said to WAMU "This is incredibly pennywise and pound foolish."

But it's not just the decisions themselves that have the community up in arms. It's also the way Arlington officials planned them.

In a fiery letter to the county manager, the chair of Arlington's pedestrian advisory committee (and GGW contributor) Dennis Jaffe faults Donnellan for developing the cuts in a vacuum, without learning how drastically they would damage the program.

Says Jaffe, "No input—none—was sought from anyone in the transportation office with substantial working knowledge of the bike/ped program. Would a sports team owner cut a team member without input from the manager and coaches?"

Add your voice to oppose these cuts

On March 24 the county board will hold a workshop on the transportation budget from 2:30 to 5:00 pm, followed by a public hearing at 7:00 pm. The meetings will take place in room 307 of 2100 Clarendon Boulevard. If you wish to speak at the public hearing, use this form to sign up. The sign up period ends at 5:00 pm today, so don't wait until the last minute.

You can also email the county board at countyboard@arlingtonva.us.

To follow this story as it unfolds, visit Jaffe's new website, ArlingtonBikesAndWalks.org.

Review says H Street Streetcar will be able to open

An outside review of the H Street Streetcar found no fatal flaws in the project that would prevent it from opening.


Photo by the author.

The American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) peer review of the streetcar on "whether there's a pathway to passenger service" is in, and the answer is yes, the streetcar can open.

In its letter to DDOT, APTA recommends a list of additional training and new procedures for the streetcar, but none appear to be major problems. The list includes more training for maintenance staff, reviewing operations and maintenance procedures, and augmenting DDOT staff with more experienced personnel.

DDOT is now analyzing the results and establishing a schedule to complete the recommendations. There is still no opening date for streetcar passenger service, but it appears likely that question is now one of "when" rather than "if."

Here is APTA's full letter to DDOT.

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