Greater Greater Washington

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Let's build a great bike lane for Route 1 in College Park

People who bicycle in College Park were very excited last year when Governor Martin O'Malley announced funding for bicycle and pedestrian improvements on Route 1 in College Park. But the state's new plan for the road just includes basic, painted bicycle lanes. The road needs better bicycle infrastructure to be safe and attractive for cycling.


Rendering of SHA's proposed typical section for Route 1 between College Ave and Greenbelt Road. Drawing by the author.

When the funding was announced last summer, one news report said that the plan called for a "bicycle and pedestrian trail along US 1 from College Avenue to MD-193."

Northern Prince George's county has an excellent bike trail system paralleling Route 1 and Metro's Green Line, but many of the larger roads in the area are hostile to cyclists and pedestrians. Route 1 does not even have continuous sidewalks in many stretches between the University of Maryland and the beltway, and there are no protected bike lanes or cycletracks on any of the larger numbered state roads in the area.

The state's design disappoints

Last week, the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) described a plan for section of Route 1 between College Ave. and Greenbelt Road that would create a narrow five-foot painted bike lane (four feet plus a one foot gutter pan) next to the curb.


A diagram from an SHA newsletter describing the proposed Route 1 cross-section.

Given the bus and delivery truck traffic on Route 1, a narrow bike lane could be hazardous, squeezing cyclists between an 8-inch concrete curb and large vehicles in dense traffic. In addition, buses that are stopped or idling by the curb would force cyclists into the roadway and mixed trafficsomething neither cyclists nor drivers prefer.

The SHA design is unlikely to be popular with either cyclists or drivers. College Park officials asked SHA hard questions about whether the design could include protected bike lanes, but SHA representatives didn't have good answers beyond, essentially, "this is where we usually put bike lanes."

This design decision will make an enormous difference in the long run for College Park's accessibility and business development. Since SHA will be rebuilding the entire roadway, this is once-in-a-generation opportunity for Prince George's County.

Will the bike lanes be part of an urban street design that is welcoming to pedestrians, bikes, and bus riders? Or will they lanes just be a stripe of paint between the curb and a roadway that is designed more like a suburban strip or rural highway?

Why not a cycletrack?

Fortunately, there are much better designs that cities nationwide have used for decades. Some even would allow for a narrower road, meaning Maryland would have to buy less land and do less of the expensive full-depth road reconstruction.

Protected bike lanes, or cycletracks, physically separate between cyclists and vehicle traffic, offering a more comfortable and safer ride.


A protected lane through the MIT campus on Vassar Street, Cambridge, MA. Photo by straightedge217 on Flickr.

Twenty-four states use these lanes, which many cycle advocates call protected bike lanes and others call cycletracks. The District uses cycletracks extensively, and they have coincided with a boom in population and tax revenues for the city.

A Route 1 with such a lane, keeping the same proposed center median, could look something like this:


Drawing by the author.

Cyclists do not have to compete with faster vehicles that can hit or kill them, nor do they have to compete with slower pedestrians on crowded sidewalks (like they do now). This is a win-win for all road users and dramatically improves everyone's safe travel.

A two-way cycletrack might also be an option, especially on the west (University) side of Route 1.

Alternatively, SHA can also follow the lead of many other states by putting in buffered bike lanes. These separate the bike lanes from vehicle traffic within the road using striped or curbed buffers. While not as good as cycletracks or protected lanes, they are far superior to the simple painted lanes in SHA's design.

Although there has limited space in the right-of-way on Route 1, SHA is working on expanding the right-of-way beyond its existing width. This gives College Park a rare opportunity to create enough space to safely accommodate cyclists and pedestrians.

Protected bike lanes will encourage bike commuting to the university and surrounding businesses and will take car traffic off the road. In order to entice people to bicycle, people need to feel safe. Basic painted bike lanes alone will not achieve that.

National Airport will get better, while Dulles will stay decrepit, for now. But there's hope.

Reagan National Airport will get a new concourse and larger screening areas, airport officials announced today. Meanwhile, Dulles International Airport's decrepit United Airlines concourse isn't getting replaced anytime soon. However, there's hope for Dulles to get out of its doldrums.

For a while, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been facing a dilemma. More passengers are using National, while domestic traffic fell at Dulles. Dulles is not just unpopular, but also expensive for the airlines.


Where most people prefer each airport. Image from MWCOG.

A 2013 Council of Governments survey found that National became the preferred airport for flyers in even larger swaths of Prince George's and Northern Virginia than it was in 2011. It's growing, and has been feeling the pinch in crowded waiting areas, parking, and security screening lines.

Changes should fix crowding problems at National

According to a briefing this morning, MWAA will build a new concourse for the regional jet flights. Today, flyers have to take a shuttle bus to these flights, which adds a lot of time and hassle, and the waiting area is crowded. There's a building to the north of the existing concourses that's now MWAA offices; that are will become the new concourse.

The security screening at terminal B/C, which now crams into the three hallways accessing the piers with the gates, will move upstairs to the level with the ticket counters.


Concept plan for the new concourse. Image from MWAA via FlightGlobal.

The airport hit a record 20.4 million passengers in 2013, and MWAA expects it will soon pass 22 million. National is one of the few airports in the nation with legal limits on its airplane traffic. There is a set number of "slots" which let airlines take off or land planes, and a perimeter rule restricts flights to airports more than 1,250 miles away, except for a set of exemptions that Congress has added over the years.

Congress added eight new daily long-distance exemptions in 2012. Four of those, which went to airlines without a lot of flights at the airport already, also added to the number of total slots. When US Airways and American merged, the Department of Justice further required them to give up slots which went to Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America; those airlines are flying larger planes than US Airways had been.

But National has very limited space for new growth. Meanwhile, Dulles domestic flying is caught in something of a spiral: it's less desirable than National, but its facilities also need more work. If people don't fly there, the airport will take in less money, and airlines end up paying more per passenger. That might convince airlines to fly there less, meaning fewer people fly. And so on.

Isn't that just as well?

MWAA frets a lot about this, but urbanists might ask, why is that a problem? National is more convenient for more people and has better transportation access. Why not have more air travel happen near the center of the region?

However, National's runways can't accommodate many more flights than there are today. The airlines could fly more larger planes (like 737s instead of regional jets; there isn't room for widebodies), but there's a limit on bigger gates. And even with the planned changes, there's not a lot of spare space for passengers in the terminals.

Many flights and people are going to have to go to Dulles and BWI, and that means we all should want those airports to have a lot of flights. Dulles has long been a United hub. Most large airlines today fly a "hub-and-spoke" network where they fly almost entirely to and from their hubs. Without a United hub, there wouldn't be flights to a lot of smaller eastern cities from Dulles, since United depends on connecting passengers to fill them.

This summer, some airline analysts even said United should drop the hub. Part of the reason: since it merged with Continental in 2010, United has an even better-performing (though also constrained) hub in Newark.

United hasn't taken that advice, at least not yet, and a lot of people said it's bad advice. But it reminds us that United does have to be successful at Dulles. And if people don't want to fly in and out of Dulles, that creates a problem.

Dulles is more expensive

There is another reason people don't like to use Dulles, and in particular, United's gates there: Their concourse is awful. The C and D gates are in what was originally built to be a "temporary" concourse. It's old, dark, and depressing. The A and B concourse, which serves international flights and other airlines, looks great... except for the little end of A for United regional jets, which is also terrible.


Photo by Kevin Chan on Flickr.

When MWAA built Dulles' new train, it didn't put the station right under the existing concourse, but a short ways away where the permanent one is supposed to go one day. Until that happens, however, you not only have to go from check-in to security to a train to the gate, but have an extra long walk.

United CEO Jeff Smisek has said United is reluctant to expand at Dulles because it is more expensive than other airports. Airports have to be self-sufficient and pay for their facilities and operations through revenue they earn inside the airport (like restaurant concessions) and fees airlines pay. When an airport wants to build new facilities, it has to take on debt that raises the costs for the airlines.

Airlines usually look at this as "cost per emplaned passenger," or CPE. If passengers go up, the overall payment from airlines doesn't change, but the denominator rises, so the CPE is lower. According to MWAA spokesperson Chris Paladino, Dulles' is now about $26, though international carriers pay more and domestic ones (like United) less. The CPE at DCA is around $12 and at BWI under $10.

So not only is Dulles less desirable for passengers, but it's pricier for airlines. If MWAA built a new concourse for United, it would expect United to foot most of the bill, and that means United would see Dulles as even more expensive than it is.

While Smisek isn't revealing all of United's calculations about what a new concourse might be worth to them, it's not unreasonable for him to worry about that cost on top of all of Dulles' other costs. That means either Dulles stays crummy or it gets even more expensive.

MWAA needs more revenue at Dulles

To lower the CPE, MWAA is trying to create new revenue at Dulles. Paladino, the MWAA spokesperson, said the authority is trying hard to do that, such as bringing in higher-end shopping and better restaurants to Dulles (and National).

MWAA has also been looking at developing some of the land around the airport with hotels and other uses, and pushing ideas for increasing cargo capacity at Dulles.

Unfortunately, this pressure to get more revenue at Dulles leads MWAA to push policies that are destructive for the region as a whole. It and other airport boosters lobby for more north-south highways along the Outer Beltway route so people can drive to Dulles, even though flyers would be a tiny fraction of the traffic on the road. It would mostly fill up with people buying houses in new sprawling subdivisions at the region's fringe which would suddenly become more valuable with a highway.

New agreement will subsidize Dulles with revenue from National

The changes MWAA announced today are part of a proposed agreement with the airlines. If they ratify it, in addition to the changes at National, $300 million of revenue from National will help reduce the debt load at Dulles. Aviation reporter and GGW contributor Ned Russell reports that National's CPE will rise to $14.68 and Dulles' fall to $25.48. That's still a big gap, but a little less than without the shift.

This seems sensible. While it's a good thing more people are using National, it's also not fair for the more desirable airport to have lower costs. The airlines want to fly at National no matter what; higher costs won't deter them. At the very least, MWAA shouldn't be making Dulles less desirable.

The new agreement doesn't include any new concourses at Dulles, Russell said, but if United's CPE can be more equal between the two airports, in a few years it could make economic sense for MWAA and United to agree to invest in that airport.

Mini-circles calm traffic in AU Park but stir opposition

For a year now, drivers and cyclists on 42nd Street NW encountered a traffic calming device that's new to DC: Small traffic circles made out of plastic pylons. Permanent versions will soon replace them. But not all neighbors are pleased.

42nd Street is a popular route through American University Park. It offers a way to reach homes, schools, and a senior center without using busy Wisconsin Avenue. But drivers speed through the area and it was not safe enough for pedestrians, a 2011 study of the area found.

The solution? Mini-circles, a traffic calming device that's common in places such as Seattle, Portland, and Palo Alto, California. These provide a more pleasurable way to slow traffic than a speed bump. They are more effective than stop signs, since drivers may ignore a sign but must slow down to navigate the circle.


Photo by Seattle Department of Transportation on Flickr.

On 42nd Street, DDOT installed two mini-roundabouts a year ago to slow cars but keep the road working as a through route. Warren Street splits a block to the west and meets 42nd in two separate curved intersections where drivers take the turns too fast and often blindly.

American University agreed to pay for the traffic calming as part of negotiations over its most recent campus plan. That will fund more permanent versions, whose construction is scheduled to start on November 19.

Some neighbors say no

When the circles first appeared, some drivers complained of being confused. Sherry Cohen, a resident, said she thought the circles were dangerous.

The data, at least in Seattle, says otherwise: A 1997 study found that crashes dropped 94 percent in areas that got mini-circles. The city found that, "In addition to reducing [crashes], traffic circles have been effective at reducing vehicle speeds but have not significantly reduced traffic volumes."

Recently, Joan Silver, who lives right at the corner of 42nd and Warren, started circulating a petition opposing the permanent circles. She wants a new study to consider instead using stop signs or speed bumps.

Silver complains that the circles "do not satisfactorily or adequately address the range of traffic-related safety issues at the specified location, and ... have generated a number of dangerous conditions in their own right and negative impacts on properties immediately surrounding them."

Matthew Frumin, who chairs the area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission (3E), canvassed the neighborhood after receiving the complaints. In an email to the other commissioners and some of the petitioners, Frumin said that neighbors around the northern circle strongly favored making it permanent.

"While they do not think the circles are the only possible solution, they believe even the temporary northern circle has improved traffic conditions considerably," he wrote, "and that in the next phase when the circle takes its new shape and the crosswalk is added, conditions will improve further. If there is not a unanimous consensus around that, there is a very strong and decisive one in favor of the circle." Residents around the southern circle had more mixed views.

Comments on the petition say that the circles confuse some drivers (who even may go around the wrong way) or cause backups. Others complain that the pylons are ugly.

The permanent circles should address the aesthetic complaints. They will have landscaping that will create an attractive focal point for the residential neighborhood.

And fewer drivers will be "confused" as they get used to the circles. In other cities, drivers have not found them confusing or have adjusted. Perhaps a sign could help; some circles have them, though signs are also less attractive.

Trying new designs that have worked elsewhere should be the norm for our neighborhood streets. Hopefully DDOT will continue to experiment with ways to slow traffic down and make streets safer and more pleasant for everyone.

It'll be a rough commute this Veterans Day for people who still have to work

While government workers have the day off for Veterans Day, many people don't. They will face challenges traveling around the region: Metro will temporary suspend service on the Blue Line, and road closures for the Concert for Valor will block driving and bicycling routes along and across the National Mall.


Image from WMATA.

The Concert for Valor, which begins at 7 pm, is expected to draw up to 800,000 people. Corporate sponsors are funding additional Metro trains to handle the crowds for the concert.

Metro plans to operate weekday peak frequencies with more eight-car trains than it normally offers immediately before and after the concert. However, Metro will suspend the Blue Line and replace it with some Yellow Line trains running to Franconia-Springfield. A bus bridge will connect Pentagon and Rosslyn, and a special shuttle service will serve Arlington Cemetery.

The National Park Service, which is managing access to the Mall for the concert, will close Constitution and Independence Avenues and all of the cross streets from 17th Street to 4th Street (except the 9th Street tunnel) starting at 6 am.

"Minor holidays" mean crowded trains

Metro has faced criticism for crowded trains on so-called "minor" holidays during previous years. Metro ridership declines on these holidays, which include Columbus Day, Presidents' Day, and Veterans Day when government offices are closed but many private sector employees remain open, its own data shows. Metro frequently reduced service on these days and scheduled track work. However, that meant long waits and crowded trains and platforms.

The morning commute this Veterans Day will likely look a lot like ones past. All terminal stations will see a train only every 12 minutes, with the Yellow Line replacing the Blue Line at Franconia-Springfield. There is no scheduled track work that could disrupt this schedule.

The evening commute will benefit from the additional trains that are planned for the concert but commuters will have to share trains with the crowds bound for the Mall.

Cyclists have to take long detours

Cyclists will face the biggest issues commuting across the Mall tomorrow. There will be no opportunities to cross the Mall between 3rd Street and 23rd Street. Jefferson and Madison Drives along the Mall, both popular east-west bike routes, will also be closed.

Unlike drivers, cyclists do not have the option of taking the Third Street Tunnel (I-395) or the Southwest Freeway to bypass the closures. People can get to offices located south of Independence Avenue by taking Maine Avenue SW to either 3rd Street or 7th Street SW. However, neither is ideal as there is no contiguous east-west route through the L'Enfant Plaza and Federal Center SW neighborhoods from either street.

Crossing the 14th Street Bridge and getting to or from Virginia from downtown DC will be tough. The bridge approach from East Basin Drive and Ohio Drive SW will be open but access will only be available from 23rd Street or via a roundabout journey through Southwest that includes looping south to Maine Ave SW and returning north. Another option is to bypass the 14th Street bridge entirely and use either the Memorial Bridge or Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.

All of the options for cyclists headed to places like Alexandria and Crystal City from the District are likely to add significant mileage to their journeys, especially those coming from points further north or east of the Mall.

Cyclists are already feeling the impact. 4th Street between Jefferson and Madison had been closed since at least the evening of Tuesday, November 4. Jefferson closed today between 3rd and 4th without any advance notice. This has affected my daily commute along the Mall to the 14th Street Bridge; I could not find any notification of these closures after a Google search.


3rd Street and Madison Drive on November 10. Photo by the author.

Will tomorrow bring chaos?

A lot of people will still need to get to work on Veterans Day, but the Metro frequencies, road network, and other transportation infrastructure seem to be set up with the assumption that the only people traveling are going to the concert.

Agencies could do better to plan major events on the Mall on a minor holiday. Metro should ensure that there is frequent enough rail service to keep trains uncrowded and waits reasonable, while NPS should consider the rapidly growing number of bike commuters and provide workable alternative bike routes.

Events roundup: Celebrate our trails, parks, transit, and more

Through trails, transit, or walking, this week is all about greener cities. Celebrate future bike trails, learn about park-oriented development, and figure out how alternative transit can lead to a greener region.


Photo by Kevin Kovaleski

Celebrate our trails: Biking is more popular than ever in the DC area. This Saturday, November 15, join the Washington Area Bike Association and REI for the "Future Trails Celebration" to celebrate the many walking and biking trails that connect our region. Music, food, bike repair, carnival games and more will adorn the grassy field at First and Pierce St NE in NoMa from 11 am to 2 pm. Come join the fun!

After the jump: park-oriented development, biking and walking to a greener region, the purple line, and the road to happiness.

Park oriented-development: We hear a lot about transit-oriented development, but what about park-oriented development? Peter Harnik, Director of the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence and founder of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, will talk about the pros, cons, and dynamics of a "POD movement this Tuesday, November 11 Tuesday, November 18, 5:30-6:30 pm at the American Planning Association, 1030 15 St NW. Sign up here.

Saving the world through transit: Alternative transportation could save our world from rising carbon emissions, if only our regional transportation officials would agree. Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth on Thursday, November 13, for a panel of local and international experts talking about shifting our transportation investments for a greener region and a greener world. The event is at the Sierra Club, 50 F Street NW, floor 8, from 6:30 to 8 pm.

Vibrancy on the Purple Line: Do you live or work near the Purple Line corridor? Do you want to take part in making it a healthy and vibrant neighborhood? The second of two workshops on Monday, November 17, from 4 to 6 7 pm will focus on community and economic development in the region. The Purple Line Corridor Coalition (PLCC) is hosting the event at the Silver Spring Civic Center, 1 Veterans Place Felegy Elementary School in Hyattsville, 6110 Editors Park Drive. RSVP requested.

The road to happiness: On Tuesday, November 18, Fionnula Quinn, transportation engineer at Alta Planning and Design, will look back at the early days of the automobile and its continuing impact on our US highway system. Quinn will share research on the topic along with scenes of the Ford Motor Company's silent film "The Road to Happiness." The talk is 12-1 pm at 1502 Wilson Boulevard #1100, Arlington, VA. RSVP here.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

For one weekend, Georgetown got wider sidewalks

Georgetown widened the sidewalks along M Street for a weekend in mid-October. Temporarily borrowing 47 parking spaces from the street created a comfortable walking experience for thousands of people.


Photo by Sam Kittner for the Georgetown BID.

American, Georgetown, and George Washington universities all held their annual parent and family weekends October 17th-19th. Since these events cause foot traffic to spike along M Street, my organization, the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID), placed barricades that turned street space into pedestrian walkways on M from Wisconsin Avenue to Potomac Street.

The average sidewalk on M Street in Georgetown is only eight feet wide, much narrower than most around the city. Given that we've recorded nearly 4,000 people using the M Street sidewalks during any given hour on busy weekends, that's a problem.


Photo by the author.

In 2013, the Georgetown BID started Georgetown 2028, a community planning process to look at changes the neighborhood will need over the next 15 years if it is to continue to thrive and to enhance what is great about this community. The pedestrian experience is an important theme of the plan.

This isn't the first time Georgetown's sidewalks were temporarily widened: a sidewalk on Wisconsin Avenue added space in both 2013 and 2014 for the Georgetown French Market. That project, though, merely made room for sidewalk vending. October was the first time a sidewalk grew just to add space for pedestrians.

How the sidewalk widening worked

A lot went into making sure both pedestrian and car traffic ran smoothly throughout the weekend. We used steel barricades and some water-filled barriers to block off roadway space.

The change maintained all moving lanes of traffic and the existing bus stop. Where there wasn't an existing curb ramp, we installed temporary aluminum curb ramps to ensure that the space was accessible for people with disabilities or stroller users. We created specialized loading plans for the businesses along M Street that load through their front doors, including four restaurants that need daily food delivery and trash pickup.

We didn't want to encourage drivers to simply circle the neighborhood looking for a free street space. To lessen the impact of removing 47 parking spaces during one of the area's busiest weekends, we arranged discount parking rates at nearby garages and posted signs telling drivers about them. We also made the northbound Circulator free so that people could park in garages on K Street and ride up the sometimes steep hill to the retail stores on M.


Photos by the author.

How well did it work?

After the weekend, we compared how many people walked along M Street to the average over four weekends. The data comes from automated counters which don't cover the expanded pedestrian area. Even still, the total pedestrian traffic rose by 9.8%, yet the overall sidewalk congestion on M Street was lower than usual.

As for parking, the 47 spaces that disappeared for the sidewalk widening were replaced three-fold by available spaces in the garages. The garage at 3307 M Street reported 56% more cars than average entering their lot on Saturday the 18th.

We think those numbers, coupled with the feedback we've received, makes it fair to call the M Street sidewalk widening a success.

"I walked through the sidewalk closure area along M today on the north side," wrote Eileen McCarthy, a DC Pedestrian Advisory Council member. "It certainly does help to relieve sidewalk congestion."

"I believe any effort to make M street more pedestrian friendly will provide for a more enjoyable experience for tourists and shoppers," added Thomas, a Georgetown visitor. "That was certainly my experience this past weekend. I can recall in recent visits to Georgetown that it was a challenge to navigate the sidewalks without being overly crowded by others. I am happy with the expanded sidewalk, and hope this measure becomes a permanent feature."

Finally, Jamie Scott, Georgetown University's assistant director of community engagement, wrote us to say, "the parking deals during Parents Weekend were very popular. ... Our garage attendants had the information, and when the garages filled up on Friday, they directed guests to the garages in Georgetown."


Photo by Sam Kittner for the Georgetown BID.

Let's do it again!

The BID is currently evaluating all facets of the experience, but early feedback from residents and businesses is to do more of these types of widenings on weekends when conditions warrant. We will be meeting with our community partners to get their views and ensure we get these projects right on all the details.

For example, we learned that we need to make it easier for people to load things like small furniture pieces into a car or taxi. A 36-inch high fence makes that very challenging.

We at the Georgetown BID appreciate the District Department of Transportation (DDOT)'s willingness to work with us to try a new way of managing our sidewalks. Support for this type of project is critical if we're going to develop better ways to use our limited public space. It's an experiment we're glad we got to try.

Council postpones contributory negligence bill to next week

A DC Council committee unanimously agreed to postpone until November 12 a vote on the bill to reform contributory negligence.

Mary Cheh had said she wanted to speak more with trial lawyer representatives to ensure the bill doesn't harm joint and several liability. It's important now that the conversation happen in the next week so Cheh can make up her mind.

Hopefully she can find a way to fix the bill to her satisfaction and get on board. WABA has promised to make this a cornerstone of a new scorecard, and it would be a shame for Cheh to get on the (cycle)track for a low score since she is not a foe of bicycling.

That still leaves Anita Bonds, who according to commenter Greg Billing "suggested adding provisions requiring lights, helmets, and such"; and Jack Evans and Muriel Bowser, who haven't taken a position and weren't at today's session, as well. Pedestrians, cyclists, and other residents who want to see fairer treatment for victims in crashes can contact members of the committee to push them on the issue.

Does Maryland's statewide planning make big projects harder to build?

Despite years of work and broad community support to build the Purple Line, Maryland's new Republican governor-elect may kill the project. Does Maryland's heavily centralized state-level planning make it particularly susceptible to shifts like this one?


Plan image from Shutterstock.

Most US states delegate transit planning to regional or municipal agencies rather than doing it at the state level. But Maryland is unusual. It's geographically small and dominated by urban areas, and it has a history of governors interested in planning. So the state handles much more planning than usual, especially for transit.

That can be a mixed blessing.

When things go well, it means Maryland directs a lot more resources toward transit than most states. But it also means transit projects in Maryland are inherently more vulnerable to outside politics.

Maryland's centralized system is designed under the assumption that Democrats will always control the state government, and therefore planning priorities won't change very much from election to election. Were that actually the case, the system would work pretty well.

But recent history shows Maryland is not nearly as safe as Democrats might hope. With Larry Hogan's election, two out of the last three Maryland governors have been Republicans with much different transportation concerns.

Of course, it's completely proper for political victors to have their own priorities. We live in a representative democracy, and we want it that way.

But shifting priorities are a big problem for any large infrastructure projects that take more than one governor's time in office to complete. It takes at least 10 years to plan and build something like a light rail line, or a new highway, and if every new governor starts over, the project never gets done.

Thus, large infrastructure projects like the Purple Line, Baltimore's light rail, and even highways like the ICC wallow in uncertainty for decades, shifting back and forth as one governor's pet project and another governor's whipping post.


Maryland's spent literally half a century debating and re-debating whether or not to build the ICC highway. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

While many states centralize their planning for highways, so much money automatically flows towards highway expansion that a lot of big road projects inevitably sail through without becoming political issues. Since transit rarely has dedicated funding for long term expansion, transit projects are more likely to become politicized.

And although this problem can happen anywhere, Maryland's particular system centralizing transit planning under the governor's office seems to make it par for the course.

When regional or local agencies control more of the planning, they're less susceptible to the whims of any individual election.

For example on the southern side of the Potomac, where Virginia kept Silver Line planning alive through multiple Democrat and Republican governors, but only managed to actually build it after the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority took over ownership of the project from the state in 2007. After that, the state was involved but not the leader, making the project less of a target for governors or legislators.

Is there a best of both worlds?

The benefit to statewide planning is statewide resources. The Maryland Department of Transportation is much more willing to spend its own money on transit than almost any other state DOT.

While Fairfax County and MWAA had to increase local commercial property taxes and tolls in the Dulles Corridor to build the Silver Line, MDOT leadership meant Montgomery and Prince George's weren't supposed to need such schemes for the Purple Line.

Could we find a way to preserve access to the state's financial resources without putting urban transportation projects at the mercy of voters on the Eastern Shore? Maybe.

Virginia offers a compelling model, with its regional planning agencies like the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. NVTA makes decisions and receives funding at the metropolitan level, and is governed by a relatively stable board rather than one single politician.

Naturally the NVTA system has trade-offs too. For example, NVTA has independent funding streams but doesn't get to allocate VDOT money. And NVTA is ultimately under jurisdiction of the Virginia General Assembly, which can impose its will any time.

No system is ever perfect, and Maryland wouldn't have to copy Virginia directly. But something similar in concept might work, especially if it combined regional decision-making with state funding.

Don't mistake Maryland's problem as a criticism of planning in general

One common trope among some sprawl apologists and highway lobbyists is that central planning is inherently bad. For them, "central planning" is a code word that really means smart growth and transit planning in general.

Maryland's reliance on statewide rather than regional-level planning does not prove those pundits right. Without government planning no large infrastructure projects would be possible at all.

Maryland has a specific problem with how it implements its planning, which leaders in the state can practically address without throwing the planning baby out with the bathwater.

Perhaps it's time to begin that conversation.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

The bicycle and pedestrian "contributory negligence" bill is in trouble. Here's why.

A bill will come to a vote today to reform DC's "contributory negligence" rule, which often prevents an injured bicyclist or pedestrian from getting compensation. But sponsors said yesterday it's unlikely to pass, in large part because of concerns from trial lawyers about its impact on high-dollar cases.


Photo by Rosario Esquivel on Flickr.

"Trial lawyers" bring lawsuits to help people recover money after car crashes, job injuries, employment discrimination, defective products, and more. They are often derided as "ambulance chasers" and the like. But lawsuits when people's rights are violated or negligence has caused harm are also an important force keeping companies from ignoring safety problems or violating the law.

The trial lawyers are also well-organized and active in lobbying, locally through the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan DC. According to Councilmember Tommy Wells, the TLA has been pushing councilmembers not to move forward with the bill. So has the insurance industry.

The Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary will "mark up" the bill today. Wells, who chairs the committee, supports the bill. David Grosso (at large) was the primary author, but he is not a member of the committee. Besides Wells, the committee includes councilmembers Jack Evans (ward 2), Mary Cheh (ward 3), Muriel Bowser (ward 4), and Anita Bonds (at large).

Martin di Caro reported that Cheh does not support the bill as written now, and she likely represents the swing vote at today's committee hearing. This surprised many cycle advocates, as she co-introduced the bill in July with Grosso and Wells and has been a strong supporter of bicycling as chair of the transportation committee. I spoke to her to understand why she feels this way.

Why are trial lawyers against the bill?

You might ask, wait a minute. This bill is supposed to help cyclists and pedestrians recover if they are injured. And trial lawyers are the people who bring those lawsuits. So why are they against this?

It's because of a legal doctrine known as "joint and several liability." As Wells explained it, if you're hit by a driver who has no money, but someone else who was negligent in some way (maybe the brakes manufacturer, if the brakes failed, for example), you can also go after that party. And even if most of the fault isn't with them, you could recover all of the medical costs from the deeper-pocketed entity.

The trial lawyers really like this provision, because they are really interested in the big cases that can mean a lot of money, both for their clients and for them. Cheh also said she wants to keep it, and noted that in the 45 states which don't have contributory negligence, often they also don't have joint and several liability.

Can the bill protect joint and several liability?

The original bill did not explicitly protect joint and several liability. In response to the concerns, Wells says, he and Grosso modified it.

When the victim is not at fault even the slightest amount, then under the revised bill, joint and several liability will still apply as it does now; if the victim is partly at fault, he or she can still recover from others in proportion to their fault.

However, Cheh said, that still can harm a plaintiff. Let's say a pedestrian was 10% at fault, a deep-pocketed party 20% at fault, and the judgment-proof driver 70%. This bill would still restrict the deep-pocketed party to covering 20% of the injured person's medical bills, compensation for lost work, and other costs.

The root problem is that trial lawyers are concerned with the less common but very large dollar value cases, which are important. But, Washington Area Bicyclist Association head Shane Farthing says, there are the far more numerous, small cases where a cyclists or pedestrian gets an insurance claim denied under contributory negligence even if the victim's liability is extremely minor or just a police officer's misinterpretation of the law.

Cheh retorts that if insurance companies are improperly denying claims, maybe the solution is a different law that deals with that case. But there's no guarantee there is a good way to deal with that. Meanwhile, this bill which could do some good has had a committee hearing and is ready for a vote.

To be technical, the contributory negligence doctrine has other facets (like "last clear chance") which can make it not applicable if a case gets to a lawsuit. Most don't, however, because victims can't get a trial lawyer to take their case.

It's ironic that the trial lawyers are opposing a bill that's necessary to help people whose cases the trial lawyers won't take. Perhaps what we need is a some sort of bill requiring licensed DC personal injury lawyers to take a certain number of smaller bike or pedestrian injury cases. Their desire to do something about this problem might deepen very quickly in that case.

Can the bill still move forward?

Cheh also says that Wells promised to convene a discussion including her, the trial lawyers' representative, and bicycle advocates to work it out. Wells said she misunderstood, and he only volunteered to talk to the TLA about the new language to try to preserve joint and several liability.

A discussion among those parties makes sense. Maybe there is a better way to ensure the bill can satisfy trial lawyers. Or maybe not, but if they're going to be completely intransigent, that close-mindedness could convince uncertain members like Cheh to move forward anyway.

However, it's disappointing that this conversation couldn't have happened during the four months since this bill was introduced. It's almost the end of the session, and there is little time for much more deliberation.

Grosso promised to try again next year if necessary, but Wells won't be chairing the committee any more. Unless Grosso gets it, there's no guarantee its next chair will want to bring the bill to a votePhil Mendelson never did in all the years he ran that committee.

Councilmembers could vote to move it out of committee, then work to see if there are tweaks to make at the first or second reading before the full council. Wells, Grosso, WABA, and others don't think any more is necessary, but the trial lawyers certainly have the clout to get in more fixes if there really are any worth making.

Meanwhile, cyclists and pedestrians are getting hurt and running into a legal brick wall (or should it be car fender?) They deserve relief now, not a vague hope of something years down the road.

Update: The vote has been postponed one week to give supporters time to win over more votes. This will give Cheh a chance to have the meeting she wanted.

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