Greater Greater Washington

Posts by David Cranor

David Cranor is an operations engineer. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and former Texan (where he wrote for the Daily Texan), he's lived in the DC area since 1997. David is a cycling advocate who serves on the Bicycle Advisory Committee for DC.  

Park Service could route cyclists away from White House

E Street NW in front of the White House was closed to traffic after 9/11. While car traffic is banned, bicyclists face barriers to using it as well. A new plan by the National Park Service could push cyclists off the street entirely.


Proposed President's Park South Alternative 3. Image from NPS.

Back in early July, the NPS and the Secret Service held a public open house on the joint-agency President's Park South Project. This project will redesign the park immediately south of the White House, including E Street NW between 15th and 17th streets. E Street was closed after 9/11 and has never been reopened. Unlike Pennsylvania Avenue, which is also closed to car traffic, pedestrians can usually use E Street but not bicyclists, for whom the street is a barrier.

In 2011, the National Capital Planning Commission held a design competition for the park and selected five finalists, some of whom recommended putting bike lanes on E Street. But NCPC's chosen entry proposed keeping the street closed unless security threat conditions change in the future.

NCPC's contest was non-binding, but it "informed" the eventual design process. The four new alternatives NPS and the Secret Service presented at the July meeting are very different from the ones in the NCPC contest.

Alternative 1 is a no-build option. Alternatives 2 and 3 include a bicycle path along the southern edge of E Street, and Alternatives 4 and 5 route bicyclists around the existing perimeter streets, 15th Street, Constitution Avenue, and 17th Street. The latter two do this to create an expanded viewing area south of the existing fence, shown as the shaded purple area on the image below.

I think it would be a shame if this project didn't include a space for a bike path on E Street. I don't see why they can't expand the viewing area and include the bike path, as the two do not seem mutually exclusive. Isn't that what we have on the north side of the White House?

If you'd like to comment to that effect, public comments are being accepted until September 12th at the NPS website. Comment early and often.

A version of this was crossposted at the Washcycle.

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Was Nationals Park worth it for DC?

DC has proposed building a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point with help from public funds. The city already did this for Nationals Park, but did it work? We can find out by doing a cost-benefit analysis.


Photo by rsmdc on Flickr.

Building Nationals Park cost $701.3 million, according to a 2008 estimate. DC contributed $670.3 million, paying $135 million upfront and borrowing another $535 million. In addition, the city spent $82.6 million of federal money on upgrades to the Navy Yard Metro station, South Capitol Street and the Douglass Bridge. That doesn't account for all the costs, but it's the final dollar cost.

In this post, we'll look at money spent on the stadium and how much the Nationals contributed. Later, we'll look at the externalities caused by the stadium and what they mean for DC United.

What the stadium cost

In addition to the costs noted above, the District lost some existing revenue. Of the $670.3 million DC paid for the stadium, $57 million went to buying and cleaning up the land for the stadium. At that price, the land likely generated as much as $200,000-$500,000 in property taxes each year, but now it's been moved off of the property tax roll. Several of the displaced businesses have left town, as did some of the residents there.

There were some additional one time costs that are hard to quantify. The city took the land by eminent domain, which Jim Titus noted carries a social cost. District employees spent time and resources preparing for baseball, not all of which were billed to the stadium.

There are also continuing costs from the stadium and baseball. Paying for the stadium pushed the District to its debt limit, which means the city can't borrow money for anything else, including the new soccer stadium. That's why the District has offered to trade the land for a soccer stadium for the city-owned Reeves Center at 14th & U streets. The games have traffic and parking impacts that would not exist otherwise, and the District often spends tens of thousands of dollars per game for security. The DC Sports and Entertainment Commission must pay $1.5 million every year to maintain and enhance the stadium, and set aside another $5 million for a Contingency Reserve Fund.

Aside for the maintenance fund, none of these other costs have been accounted for. Ignoring those, a conservative estimate is that DC paid $675 million for the stadium, $82 million for transportation upgrades to support it, and another $1.5 million a year for maintenance.

How DC pays for it

DC's budget paid for the $135 million in upfront costs for Nationals Park, but Major League Baseball (MLB) could have paid for this. MLB bought the Expos in 2001 for $120 million and then sold them in 2006 for $450 million, turning a cool profit that would have easily covered this expense. But MLB only kicked in $20 million. The Nationals paid another $11 million.

To pay the bonds it issued to cover the $535 million stadium debt, the city created four sources of revenue: A gross receipts tax on businesses that make more than $5 million a year, a share of the utility taxes paid by every non-residential taxpayer, a 4.25% special sales tax on stadium sales, and rent paid by the Nationals.

The first two are just untargeted taxes on DC businesses, and are thus related to baseball only in that the revenue is dedicated to paying for the stadium. But the sales tax is a user tax on baseball fans and the rent is obviously a direct payment by the Nationals, so those can reasonably be counted as annual baseball contributions.

Unfortunately, when DC reports sales taxes from Nationals Park, they combine the special sales tax with the regular sales tax, which is currently 6% on the same items, and the 10% tax on concessions. Is this fair? All taxpayers pay the regular sales tax and concessions tax, which pay for things like roads, schools, and other things the DC government does. This approach to calculation suggests that baseball doesn't contribute to schools or roads.

I'm sure every business would like to dedicate their sales tax to paying off their construction debt, but that isn't how anyone else gets to do things. How much of the total sales tax is the special sales tax? According to Jonah Kerry Keri in his book Baseball Between The Numbers, concession revenue is about 30% the size of ticket revenue and merchandise is about 10%. So, we could estimate the amount of the reported sales tax that is from the special baseball tax only at about 30% of the total sales tax.

In addition, much of this sales tax revenue comes from entertainment spending that would have happened without baseball. This is what economists call the substitution effect. "As sport- and stadium-related activities increase, other spending declines because people substitute spending on sports for other spending," sports economist Brad Humphreys said. "If the stadium simply displaces dollar-for-dollar spending that would have occurred otherwise, there are no net benefits generated."

Rent for the ballpark started at $3.5 million in 2009 and climbed to $5.5 million this year. From now on, rent goes up by a little less than 1.9% per year, which is below the 3.22% average rate of inflation over the last 100 years. That means that rent in real dollars will likely go down.

In addition, the Nationals would pay an extra $1 for every full price ticket sold after the first 2.5 million. So far, that's never happened. Meanwhile, property taxes on a $500 million stadium, which the Nationals don't pay, would total more than $9 million.

The total amount paid in baseball sales tax and rent for 2008-11 averaged $14.2 million, well below the $30 million a year total estimated in 2005 and the $23.5 million estimated in 2008. It would go up to $15.6 million if the Nationals were paying the full $5.5 million rent.

The debt service on Nationals Park costs the District $38 million, meaning that city taxpayers are paying between $22.4 and $23.8 million a year just on the bonds, or $30.8 million if we use only the special baseball tax. And then there's an additional $1.5 million a year in maintenance and more still on security.

Again, the Nationals could pay this. In 2010, the team made $36.6 million dollars in operating income, which means they could pay the additional bonds and the maintenance costs and still have $11.3 million in profit. Even if we use the discounted baseball sales tax and add in security costs, the Nationals would still be able to keep whatever part of $4.3 million they don't need for security. And of course, after 30 years, they would own the stadium outright. But that isn't how the deal was cut.

So far, DC taxpayers have paid $140 million to build and maintain the stadium, $82.6 million for stadium-related transportation upgrades, and another $24-32 million a year to pay off the debt and maintain the stadium. In the next segment, we'll look at the external benefits to see if DC is getting a return on such a large investment.

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Can Eastern Market park become a gathering place?

Barracks Row Main Street is studying ways to redesign the public space around the Eastern Market Metro station. While many neighbors see the potential to make a great gathering place, others don't want anything to change at all.


Councilmember Wells leads a meeting about the park. Photo from Tommy Wells on Flickr.

Architect Amy Weinstein of Esocoff & Associates is leading the Congressionally-funded Eastern Market Metro Park study, which will explore ways "to renew and upgrade" the two trapezoid-shaped public plazas, medians and two smaller triangular plazas on Pennsylvania Avenue SE between 7th and 9th streets. Despite their location between busy Barracks Row and Eastern Market, the spaces are underused and poorly maintained.

Weinstein led another study in 2010 that explored ways to reroute Pennsylvania Avenue around the public space, making it a complete square. But that effort ran into stiff opposition from neighbors and those concerned about the plan's traffic impacts.

The new study will look at function, aesthetics, and the best way to accommodate all modes of transportation, including better pedestrian pathways, the location of the Capitol Bikeshare station and the Metrobus stops in the south plaza, and managing pedestrian/vehicular conflicts. It will also produce detailed designs for a children's play area in the north plaza, and look at an innovative storm water retention system as part of the effort to reduce combined sewer overflows into the Anacostia River.

Planners say that "nothing is off the table," except for consolidating the square by rerouting streets around it.

Will more activity mean more noise, or a better public space?

In July, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells hosted a pair of public meetings to hear about the types of changes residents would like to see around the Metro station. After a brief presentation, we broke into small groups where we discussed our thoughts on the current square and what we would and would not like to see in it in the future.


Aerial photo of the parks today from Google Maps.

My group seemed opposed to any changes at all. They questioned why money was being spent on this, whether it was legal and who this was to help. Some people seemed mainly concerned about stoplight timing, which did not seem to allow for the speedy movement of cars and pedestrians through the area.

They scoffed at the idea that the project had the word "park" in it. "Who said they wanted a park here?" one person asked.

One major concern they voiced focused on the lack of maintenance within the existing plaza. Trees went unwatered, rats were allowed to nest and several items like benches and lights had fallen into disrepair. "Why not fix what we have first?" some asked. For the same reason, group members also opposed any kind of water feature, along with music, food trucks or eating areas, which would produce noise and trash.

Group members seemed resigned to the idea of a children's play area as long as it wouldn't kill any trees, but their primary point was that it should be "a park, not an amusement park." But we did find universal support of better storm water management, lots of trees, more benches and non-polluting lights.

How to embrace space's potential

While many residents place an emphasis on creating a quiet place that is easy to traverse, what the neighborhood really needs is to activate the Eastern Market Metro Park with an emphasis on creating a place for people to play, work, shop, eat, and rest. By making it into a great place, the kind that people wanted to stay in instead of pass through, it would have a greater constituency that could push for better maintenance.


The space today. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

It seems my group was the outlier, because when other groups reported what they had discussed, they strongly supported the idea of an interactive water feature like those at Yards Park or Canal Park. Several suggested adding a stage for live performances and various gatherings. Others mentioned food trucks and more dining tables. One group focused on tying the public space in with the library at 7th and Pennsylvania.

The meeting's organizers are collecting additional comments about what should happen here. In my comments, I suggested that an interactive water feature and playground area in the north plaza was a natural way to attract kids and families. It's also a perfect area for a statue of a local person. In the eastern median, I recommended installing a dog run.

The south plaza should become a space where people will linger. Furniture, like movable chairs, benches, and permanent fixtures like tables with chess boards on top, will help draw people. A low stage for music and events could support programming while doubling as a seating area the rest of the time. The city should allow food trucks to use the parking spaces along D Street.

We should also use the western median to connect Barracks Row and Eastern Market with a brick walkway down the middle and to add spaces for vendor booths on the weekends, creating a stronger connection between the two commercial areas. The smaller triangles could become larger by removing the sections of D Street that separate them and then improved by adding benches, more permeable surface, and rain gardens.

Finally, a mid-block crosswalk across Pennsylvania Avenue with an advanced stop line and even a traffic light will help people cross. People want to walk here, and we should let them do it safely.

Future meetings, design work planned

The meeting's organizers will put a recap of the meeting on their website, but it's not up as of yet. There are also several ways to offer comments, including an interactive map and a suggestion box at Eastern Market, though the deadline is today.

However, there are more public meetings planned for later this summer. Planners hope to complete two alternate master plan concepts for the Eastern Market Metro Park within 6 months.

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New Douglass Bridge could be best bike bridge in DC

Last night, DDOT presented their latest design for the new Frederick Douglass Bridge, where South Capitol Street crosses the Anacostia. While the racetrack ovals proposed for both ends of the bridge have drawn criticism, the bridge itself has the potential to be DC's best for bicyclists.


Bicyclists will get a cycletrack across the new Douglass bridge. All images from DDOT.

On the bridge itself, cyclists will have their own, 10-foot wide, two-way cycletrack, separate from the sidewalk and protected from auto traffic by some sort of barrier. And there will be one on each side of the bridge. Cyclists will get 20 feet of space on this bridge all to themselves, and that's kind of amazing. Pedestrians will get two 8-foot-wide sidewalks and occasional overlooks.


Map of other transportation projects in Near Southeast.

The new bridge will connect to portions of the existing or planned Anacostia Riverwalk Trails (ART). The South Capitol Street bridge and the area west of it constitutes one of the last major parts remaining, along with the Kenilworth Section, for which construction bids are due next week. After that, there's the Virginia Avenue Trail and a trail along 2nd St SE to connect to it.

Once off the bridge, cyclists will find pretty direct connections to the ART on both sides of the river and in both directions. On the east side, they'll also get a direct connection to the forthcoming South Capitol Street Trail.

On the southwest side, cyclists will ride off the cycletrack, onto the large mixing area, and then along the sidepath past the line of trees where they could U-turn down the ramp to the ART. Pedestrians would make a quicker turn to go downstairs to the ART. Or cyclists could continue along the sidepath along South Capitol.

On the northwest side, cyclists could also connect to the trail or follow the sidepath, but this rendering is probably unclear since the Florida Rock development will go in next door.


Rendering of the Douglass Bridge's west side.

On the east side, pedestrians would again connect to the ART via stairs immediately alongside the bridge, but cyclists on the northeast side would ride along the oval and then head north along the Anacostia Drive Connector to connect to the trail near Poplar Point. On the southeast side, cyclists would follow the oval a short distance before turning left right to connect to the ART. Or they could go straight to the South Capitol Street Trail or further up and to the right left to follow Suitland Parkway.


Rendering of the bridge's east side.

Below is a map of the bike network on the west side of the river. The blue lines show 18-foot-wide facilities for cyclists and pedestrians, while the orange lines show 12-foot-wide facilities. The purple lines along Potomac Avenue SW and R Street SW are bike lanes.


Bike network on the bridge's west side.

And on the east side, cyclists can continue north around the oval to Howard Road. There are more renderings at the project website.


Bike network on the bridge's east side.

There was no mention of or drawing showing a bike trail along the old Shepherd Branch rail line, not that I really expected to see that, though I did notice they were planning to buy the ROW under I-295, but that is likely for the streetcar.

There's not much to criticize here, at least from a biking standpoint at least. Some might wish there were more bike lanes for cyclists who don't want to ride on sidewalks, even really, really nice ones; but cyclists will be allowed to ride in the road if they choose.

It's a pretty nice setup though. The whole thing is estimated to cost $622 million using local and federal money. Work could begin in late 2014 and wrap up in 2018.

Cross-posted at the WashCycle.

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M Street cycle track keeps improving, draws church anger

Last night, DDOT representatives held a short presentation on the latest design for the M Street cycle track. They have improved the design further since we last saw it. Meanwhile, angry opponents of the cycle track, including members of a nearby church which may lose some on-street parking, dominated the question and answer period.


Photos by the author showing DDOT materials.

During the presentation, DDOT tried to explain the reasoning for the cycle track, how it would work and how it would benefit people. Jim Sebastian, Mike Goodno and Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe showed preliminary data from the ongoing L Street study that showed that over the last 6 months since the cycle-track was installed, biking on L Street was up 41% (560 cyclists during the 8 hours of rush hour, up from 396).

Over the same period bicycle and pedestrian crashes on L Street were both down a trivial amount. Meanwhile, travel time by car had increased by only 1 minute across the length of the cycletrack in the morning and by no measurable amount in the afternoon commute (using data after construction on Connecticut Avenue was complete).

They also discussed results of the completed 15th Street cycle-track showing that biking increased and that while crashes rose too, it was not by as much as biking.

Experience with L Street helps improve M Street design

They talked about lessons they learned on L street and how that influenced design on M. For example, the cycle-track will be narrower, with parking and loading zones adjacent to it. They'll put in more flexposts. And they're using a new "Yield to Bikes" sign.

Parking and loading would change very little. To deal with what lost parking there would be, they plan to take back some unused diplomatic parking spaces and replace some missing parking meters, as well as add better signage.

The schedule is to continue evaluating L Street until August and then install the tracks before the end of the summer. That process would take 3 weeks and be done in phases.

Other design features include the cycle-track diversion onto Rhode Island Avenue that may have a concrete barrier to protect cyclists from traffic.

Left turning cyclists can stop in queue areas within intersections to make a two-light turn.

The drawings included other design changes like a raised cycle track at a bus stop where the track passes behind the stop.

Angry audience comments almost derail the meeting

Before DDOT could discuss these things, the meeting got very heated. At one point, Zimbabwe threatened to end the meeting if people continued to be disrespectful with one another.

It started with a woman who asked why DDOT was going ahead with the M Street lane if the L street study wasn't complete. M Street, she was told, is a complement to L, so any study of L is incomplete without M. Originally they were to be built simultaneously.

But she was clearly opposed to the project regardless, she said with exasperation that "L didn't work," claiming that no one ever used it (despite the presentation she just saw showing that there were several hundred users each rush hour) and that traffic was a disaster. Why were we spending money on bike lanes when libraries are closing? She called the design confusing and asked who this lane is for.

But that was just the appetizer. Many members and leaders of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church were there and they were not happy about the cycle track or the way DDOT had informed them about it.

"When slaves built our church, they were not thinking about bike lanes," is how the first comment started.

There were many criticisms, some of them contradictory. No one rides on M Street. Senior citizens won't be able to cross the street to get to church because cyclists never yield to pedestrians (only a problem if people actually do bike on M). Senior citizens rely on the church for transportation. Other M Street businesses are not pleased either. The bike lane on the north side will block funeral access. "What percentage of taxpayer money is going to this?"

When asked if this was a done deal, Zimbabwe said it was and it wasn't. That there was going to be a cycle track on M, but what it would look like was still negotiable. Speakers proceeded to throw the "done deal" comment, which wasn't his wording, back at him several times. But he stuck to his guns. When asked if the debate was over, he said "for this street, yes." When asked if the 1500 block could be left out of the plans, he said that it would have too negative an impact on people trying to bike the road.

But the biggest issues were that the church would lose its angled parking on Sundays (which took them 3 years to get) and that no one talked to them about it until the day before.

A pastor for the church talked about the church's 175 year history, 87 of those years at this location. She noted that this church is tied to the struggles of the African-American people, so to not hear about something like this until after it was a "done deal" is very disturbing and insulting. The church had been offered $1 million to move out of the city in the past, but they had made a commitment to stay. Many of their members had moved to the counties but still made an effort to come to church here. "Is DC becoming a church-unfriendly place?" she asked.

On the first issue, DDOT created several alternatives for Sundays that would still allow 30-50 parking spaces, even one with angled parking and several that allowed parking in the cycletrack (which would shift in between two lanes of car parking) and promised to work on it with the church.

On the second issue, Jim Sebastian apologized and noted that he had met with church staff at the church in 2011. At least one person accused him of lying. Sebastian said he could pull the phone and email logs if needed. He also noted that they had started this process in 2009 with public meetings, and that DDOT staff have met with ANC's, BIDs, groups and individuals. He said they tried to reach the church, a comment that brought scoffs from the church's members.

I'll add that anyone on M Street who didn't know about this has not been paying attention. While I don't expect anyone to have read the 2005 Bicycle Master Plan, the addition of a cycle track on M Street has been reported in the Washington Post many times. In fact it's been mentioned in numerous news outlets on many many occasions over many years. DDOT has had meetings and press releases. It's not been kept a secret. That no one in the church had ever heard about it until this week seems incredible.

Zimbabwe tried to address all the concerns. The M Street lane would have better signage. DC does not intend to be church-unfriendly. There is no "rush" to complete this, but DDOT wants to make people safe now, not later. They're willing to work with the church to resolve its issues.

He could have mentioned that in many cases funding for bike lanes can't be moved over to libraries.

When one woman talked about how important biking was for our future, someone asked her "Do you expect senior citizens to bike." "Yes," I thought, "many already do now." In fact many senior citizens in the church had prefaced their comments with "I'm a cyclist."

Another speaker, opposed to the bike lane, asked "Who wants this?" and many hands shot up followed by applause.

"We're not taking a vote here or pitting one side against another," Zimbabwe said.

A restaurant/bar owner on M Street said that the street is already girdlocked (despite DDOT data presented earlier saying otherwise) and that eliminating a traffic lane was going to be a disaster for drivers and for his business. "I did find one friend who rides a bike and he says he'll never use it," he added, while noting that gridlock causes pollution and that snow removal is a problem as well. "Every merchant on M Street is concerned and in disbelief about this."

Zimbabwe pointed out that this is to get new riders to use bikes. Many tried to point to data in NYC showing that cycle tracks are good for business. One person thanked DDOT for putting the cycle track on L and opening her eyes to all the great businesses there.

A Georgetown ANC member took the opportunity to berate DDOT for not doing something about all the unsafe cyclists disregarding traffic laws. "It's a miracle that no one has been hurt," he noted, without realizing he was contradicting his whole position.

Finally, someone asked, "can't bike lanes go in AND angled parking be kept? Why does it have to be either/or?"

Zimbabwe promised to find a way to address the parking needs of church goers.

And they do have a plan for that. Below you can see Sunday parking on the bike lane as one alternative.

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Cyclists are special and do have their own rules

Sarah Goodyear of the Atlantic has an article for Bike to Work Week entitled "Cyclists Aren't 'Special', and They Shouldn't Play by Their Own Rules." The thesis seems to be that now that cycling is mainstream, cyclists need to behave better.


Photo by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious on Flickr.

I would argue that whether or not cycling is mainstream you need to ride safely and courteously. In fact, an increase or decrease in cycling mode share shouldn't change the way you ride one iota.

Goodyear is asking cyclists to become footdroppers and thinks that more enforcement of cycling laws is what is needed for cycling to "get to the next level." I disagree which is easy to do since Goodyear offers no evidence, no data and no defense of her position. It appears to be 100% emotion-based opinion.

When I look at great cycling cities in Europe it doesn't appear to me that there is some point where increased enforcement is needed to keep growth going. Growth is fueled by better designed streets, laws that protect cyclists, and increasing the costs of driving. If anything, what I've read about Amsterdam and Copenhagen is that they don't tolerate the kinds of bad driving that are considered normal here. I don't read about ticketing blitzes.

She makes the point that many cyclists are rude or ride dangerously and that she'd like to see such behavior ticketed. I have no problem with ticketing dangerous behavior - though if we're really going to focus on the MOST dangerous behavior, that will rarely mean ticketing cyclists. And if law enforcement were to blitz cyclsits, it would likely not be for their most dangerous behavior (riding at night without lights or too fast on the sidewalk or against traffic) but rather not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign during a charity ride or at some out-of-the way intersection.

Writing about wrong-way cycling she adds,

It makes all of us look terrible and it's a real hazard. Same goes for blowing through a stop sign or red light, or blocking the crosswalk when you're impatiently waiting for the light to change. Not to mention shouting at pedestrians to get out of the way when they are crossing legally. I saw someone yell at an old lady the other day.
I again assert that few cyclists actually "blow through" stop signs and lights. Yes, cyclists run them - even Goodyear - but not blowing through them.

She sees herself as an ambassador. But does anyone see themselves as a pedestrian ambassador when walking or as a driving ambassador when driving? No. Biking is not foreign, and maybe to "get to the next level" we need to stop presenting it as though it is. It is funny that she sees it this way, that she has to behave hyper-legally and as a role model only to follow it up with.

You're going to have to give up your identity as a special person who does some special activity known as cycling.

You're not so special any longer.

Ok, if I'm not so special any longer, then how come I have to behave differently - squeaky clean - than everyone else?

I agree that cyclists should be safe and courteous (because I think EVERYONE should be), but not that they need to be hyper-legal in the hope that it will soothe everyone else. Because it won't. And it won't take cycling to the next level.

What will help is changing the law where it currently doesn't make sense, such as with the Idaho Stop - exactly the kind of "Special Treatment" and "own rules" that Goodyear seems to be arguing against. What will help is treating cycling as special by creating special facilities to help them get around - like bi-directional cycletracks on one-way streets or cycle-tracks. What will help is bike sharing, on street bike parking, unique zoning regulations related to bike parking, special commuter benefits for bike commuters, etc...

We're going to have to treat cyclists better and let them play by their own rules if we want to "get ot the next level."

Is it fair if bikers get benefits when motorists don't? Nope. You know what else isn't fair? Everything. Deal with it.

Cross-posted at the WashCycle.

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Driving still a historical bargain after Maryland gas tax hike

There is much hand-wringing over the proposed Maryland gas sales tax, but when you adjust for inflation and look at the costs to drivers per mile, the taxes the government collects on gas will still remain very near their historical low.


Photo by johnwilliamsphd on Flickr.

We charge a gas tax, ostensibly to pay for transportation, that you pay based on how much driving you do. But because of increased fuel efficiency in cars and an unwillingness to tie the tax to inflation, the tax is not consistent per mile of driving every year.

In fact, after an initial increase in the gasoline tax's first years in Maryland, the tax was consistently above $0.03 per mile (all values in 2009 dollars) for 50 years. In the 1970's however, rapid increases in fuel efficiency and inflation rates cut that in half by 1981. It would never go above $0.025 again. This year, the tax is lower than it's been in 90 years: $0.01233.

But wait, there's more to this bargain: the federal gas tax this year is below a penny per mile for only the 8th time in history.

The proposed tax increase could "add 20 cents" to a gallon of gas, but that wouldn't even double the tax per mile of driving. In 2016, the year the tax would fully phase in, the tax per mile would be only $0.02113. This would be the highest rate since 1978, but well below the historic high of $0.04684 per mile. And also below the historic average of $0.02759. (Note: After publishing, numbers in this paragraph were modified to address a transcription error)

The chart below combines the Maryland state gas tax per year, the inflation rate according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and average US fleet efficiency per year from M. Sivak and B. Schoettle.

For future years it assumes a worst-case tax increase, expected inflation, and fuel efficiency increasing each year at the same pace as the preceding 10 years. The final assumption is likely a conservative estimate due to new CAFE standards set to go in effect by 2017. Furthermore, the tax would look even cheaper, compared to historic averages, for those who drive cars as opposed to light trucks because the fuel efficiency of cars has increased faster.


Maryland gas tax over time. Graphs by the author.

The federal tax is far below its average as well.


Federal gas tax over time.

So while the increase in the gasoline tax might seem large per gallon, the tax drivers pay per mile is still an incredible bargain compared to what drivers paid as recently as the 1990's. Claims that Maryland is "pricing middle-class families, and certainly the working-class poor, out of" the state are clearly overblown.

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Near Southeast rebirth started before the Nats came along

With the Nationals boasting the best record in the Major League, and the Near Southeast neighborhood coming alive, journalists and smart-growth bloggers alike are again claiming the stadium begot the neighborhood's transformation. But the neighborhood's development history tells us the situation is more complex.


Photo by tramod on Flickr.

The media hammered the storyline of the stadium as neighborhood savior back when the recession brought development to a halt. But now the trope is popping up as fast as cranes on the DC skyline. Even Jim Graham said "it's clear that if that stadium hadn't been built, you wouldn't have all this development."

Exaggerations like that are just plain wrong. The transformation of Near Southeast began years earlier. New federal and District policies opened land for development, the District's political leadership changed, and the Green Line was completed, connecting Navy Yard to Maryland suburbs. When the stadium site was announced in 2004, neighborhood development was well underway.

Near SE planning started long before Nats

As neighborhood blog JDLand has meticulously documented, the neighborhood's transformation began in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The District cleared blighted property and the Federal government decided to make the vacant land it owned available for development. In 1996, the District demolished the Ellen Wilson housing project under a Hope VI grant.

Two years later, the last of the Capper high-rises and the old Washington Star building were both closed, and parts of Capper demolished in 2000. In that same year, Congress passed the Southeast Federal Center Public-Private Development Act of 2000, allowing the GSA to begin negotiations with private developers to develop 55 acres of the Southeast Federal Center.

Over the same time period, the national and local government were making deals. In the late '90s, the Navy awarded a contract to build five new buildings in the Navy Yard as part of the NAVSEA Headquarters Project, the Marines inked a deal to build the Marine Bachelor Enlisted Quarters on the Capper footprint, and Federal and District agencies that controlled land along the Anacostia signed an agreement to develop the ambitious Anacostia Waterfront Initiative.

After a long delay, the GSA finalized deals to bring a new Department of Transportation Headquarters and the massive Yards mixed-use development to the Southeast Federal Center. Around that time, HUD awarded DC a $35 million grant to build more than 1500 new housing units at the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg project sites, filling most of the area between M Street and the Southeast Freeway from 2nd to 7th Street.

In 2003, the District released the South Capitol Gateway and Corridor Improvement Study, which called for fundamentally redesigning South Capitol Street as a neighborhood boulevard and replacing the Douglass Bridge; and the Council approved funding for Capitol Hill Towera combined Courtyard by Marriott hotel and 344-unit apartment that would open in 2006. Finally, in early 2004, planning began on Canal Park.

Cranes were up when the Nats came to town

Prior to the announcement of the baseball stadium, construction was well under way. In 2002, two large office buildings on M Street opened and 4,100 NAVSEA employees started work at the Navy Yard. In 2003 the Federal Gateway building opened and the next year the Marine Barracks.

Maritime Plaza opened its two office buildings in 2001 and 2003. And developers and officials were negotiating or planning other projects, like the WASA site, Half Street, 20M, Florida Rock and Diamond Teague Park, during this time as well.

It was only after all of this had occurred, that District selected the area for the baseball stadium and even later, in a very close vote, that they financed the stadium. It would be another 14 months before the Council passed the lease agreement that would make construction of the baseball stadium possible. In fact, the vast majority of projectsby value, acre or numberin the area had their start before the stadium site was finalized.

More than just real estate deals

Political leadership played a important part in revitalization as well. The election of Anthony Williams as Mayor in 1998 ended the Barry era, and instilled confidence in the business community that investment in DC was safe. The Williams administration spearheaded the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative and worked hard to create an development-friendly environment.

The Federal Government assisted in 1997 with the DC First Time Home Buyer Tax Credit and again in 2001 when Congress dissolved the Financial Control Board. As Garance Franke-Ruta wrote in a recent piece in the Atlantic, "[t]he tax credit had a dramatic impact in encouraging moderate and middle-income people to put down roots in DC, especially younger, college-educated white people, and invest their sweat equity in fixing up rundown housing stock."

So strong was the change, that in 2002 the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate (AFIRE) named Washington, DC the top city in the US and the world for real estate investment, only a decade after being known as the "Murder Capital of the World."

Better transit brought more people, more investment

Another major catalyst was the completion of WMATA's Green Line. Until 1999, Navy Yard was the end penultimate station on a stub line that only served a handful of stations, all in central DC. That year, it was extended south of the river and into Prince George's County in 2001 making the area more easily accessible, particularly to suburban workers.

A study of neighborhoods along the Green Line from Navy Yard to Petworth showed that during the 2000s, the area added more young people, more multi-family units, and more jobs than either the Rosslyn-Balston corridor or the Northwest DC Red Line Corridor. The baseball stadium can't be viewed as the catalyst for the whole corridor, but the Metro line can be.

While development deals and transit improvements played large parts, Near Southeast also benefited from more general forces at work. As the new millennium began, Washington was experiencing a regional boom. Several areas went through a massive redevelopment from 1997-2007 including Gallery Place, Near SE, U Street, Barracks Row, Columbia Heights, and Rosslyn-Ballston. The pattern of development in those areas, over that time period, looks very similar.

At the same time, DC and its neighborhoods benefited from a general return to cities. Not only has DC's population been growing since the 2000 census, but "28 of the nation's biggest metropolitan counties grew faster from April 2010 to July 2011 than the rest of the nation as a whole."

Sites adjacent to the stadium still empty

If Councilmember Graham's assertion that "we wouldn't have all this development" were true, we'd expect to see development start closer to the stadium after it was built and radiate away from there over time. But mapping out the development, what we see is that almost every lot next to the stadium remains undeveloped.


Development sites in Near Southeast. Blue=pre-stadium, orange=during stadium finalization, purple=after stadium; shaded=under construction or completed; solid=cleared or planned only

The area east of the Metro station seems to be the core of the transformation, with later work building off of that. Only one property that abuts the stadium, the Camden South Capitol condos, has been developed in the 8 years since the stadium site was announced. You have to look across M Street to find any other post-stadium development, and those 5 properties are as linked to the pre-stadium development as they are to the stadium itself.

No stadium can be just as good

Thanks to New York's failed bid for this summer's Olympics, we also have a recent answer to the question of what happens when a stadium isn't built. The answer is development.

When New York City lost the 2012 Olympics to London, the city revamped its proposed stadium site to create Hudson Yards. This development has so much potential, the New York Times wrote "the Olympic bid's defeat may have been one of the best things to happen for the city's growth in recent memory."

There is no doubt that Nats stadium, by pumping $1 billion into the neighborhood and using eminent domain to consolidate property, may have sped up the Near Southeast revitalization. In time, it may even prove to bring additional development of the area.

But the evidence so far is that, at best, it hasn't been a drag on the process that was already in place. Near Southeast was a neighborhood on its way when the Nationals were still playing in Montreal.

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To save the Eisenhower Memorial, we may need to move it

Construction on the proposed Eisenhower Memorial in southwest Washington has stalled amid criticism of the current design. Critics have challenged specific elements of the design, but few have questioned whether we're putting the memorial in the right place. Could we better honor President Eisenhower by moving his memorial somewhere else?


Current Eisenhower Memorial design on proposed site. Image via DCmud.

The proposed Eisenhower Memorial, along Maryland Avenue between 4th and 6th Streets SW, has been a lightning rod for dissent. Criticism centers on the metal tapestries designed to create a "roofless" structure and shield the site from nearby buildings. The memorial's design dispute has gotten so serious that the House may cut funding for the project later this year.

The current site

Congress required that President Eisenhower's Memorial be located to maximize prominence, public access, and availability; ensure thematic appropriateness to Eisenhower's memory; and be feasible while avoiding undue controversy. The chosen site happens to satisfy each of these needs, but not particularly well.

The planned location, to be named Eisenhower Square, is not without symbolism. Placed between the Department of Education and the National Air and Space Museum, the site was designed to create a connection with two agencies that were established during his presidency, the Department of Education and NASA.

But the non-controversial location and symbolism may be illusory. First, the site's lack of controversy mostly reflects the fact that the site is currently an urban dead space with limited development options and a lack of a cohesive neighborhood to protest. This seems a poorly justified reason to choose a certain site.

Secondly, neither the Department of Education nor NASA serves as a key element of President Eisenhower's legacy or the reason for which he's being honored. Few would put the creation of the Department of Education or NASA at the top of Ike's list of achievements, which includes leading the Allied forces in Europe during WWII, ending the Korean War, creating the Interstate Highway System, laying the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement through desegregation of the government and two key Civil Rights laws, and articulating the "Domino System" that defined the Cold War as well as the threat of undue political influence by the "military-industrial complex."

Moreover, even this thematic justification for the location may not make sense in a few years. Departments and agencies frequently move, and while it is likely that the Air and Space Museum (which is not a part of NASA) is there to stay, the Department of Education could move or even consolidated with another agency.

Surely another consideration was proximity to the Mall and to a steady stream of visitors. But where is the value is having a lot of people visit an uninspiring memorial? The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial is far from the crowds and can only be accessed by foot from Virginia, but its sense of solitude is an enhancement to the memorial. Foot traffic should drive our decisions about where to put dry cleaners, not memorials.

The weak justification for the current site and its controversy leads to the inevitable question: Could we get a better design at a better location?

Where else could it go?

DC has plenty of sites to build new memorials. Through the Commemorative Works Acts, Congress created a Memorial Task Force that identified more than 100 locations in 2001 in the DC area suitable for a memorial. The proposed Eisenhower Memorial site made their list of 20 "prime locations." [See the list and map on pages 20-21 of the Task Force's report]

In light of the current controversy, it may be time to start looking at the remaining 19.

Other locations identified by the Task Force might be more appropriate than the current site. Perhaps the South Capitol Street terminus at the Anacostia River, just south of the baseball stadium or the 10th Street Overlook would be fitting. Both are near highways, for which Ike is well known, and the first is soon to be redeveloped and within a very short distance of a pair of military bases. The site on Columbia Island, near Arlington Cemetery and not far from Fort Myer where Eisenhower twice lived, would also be fitting.

Other sites not on the list would also be suitable. Since the Task Force report came out, the Awakening has moved from the southern tip of Hains Point. This site would be a beautiful location for a memorial and one that's within sight of the Army War College that Ike attended in the 1920s. The soon-to-be-redeveloped Southwest Waterfront also presents opportunities.

While historically we have chosen sites within the nation's capital as most worthy of our national attention, a location outside of DC might better honor President Eisenhower. Gettysburg was Eisenhower's home after World War II and where he chose to retire. Because of its prominence within American history, it is well visited and thus can easily meet the 3 requirements of the law authorizing the memorial.

Some might be concerned that a monument to a President in close proximity to the battlefield would detract from the significance of the battle and the address that followed it. But at the same time, Gettysburg would seem a particularly poignant location for a memorial to one of our country's most decorated soldiers.

Eisenhower was a great leader, and he is worthy of a great memorial. If this site constrains his memorial to the point of making it a failure, perhaps the smart thing to do is to start over with a new site.

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Do DC's cycletracks work well? DDOT has some conclusions

DDOT officials have said they are waiting to build the L Street cycletrack until they finished a study about the city's 2 existing cycletracks, on 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Yesterday, they posted an executive summary of the study, though right now the site isn't responding; perhaps too many people are trying to get a look?


Photo by SLO County Bicycle Coalition on Flickr.

David C. summarized some of the key findings. The 2 cycletracks increased cycling on their streets enor­mous­ly, and took cycling off the sidewalk. Crashes increased, but not as much as volume, meaning that each individual cyclist became statistically safer.

Many riders aren't following red lights in many cases. Sometimes the red light timing works very poorly for cyclists riding through, which encourages more crossing against the light. At the corner of 16th and U, where they also studied the new bike boxes and signal, drivers aren't properly obeying the lights either.

David's summary is below.

16th Street/U Street New Hampshire

  • Motor vehicle intersection [Level of Service (LOS)] remained the same before and after the bicycle facilities were installed.
  • Fewer than 20% of cyclists are using the bike box and bike signal as intended to cross the intersection.
  • 82% of cyclists are stopping in the crosswalk instead of the bike box as intended. Though the bike box may still be effective at giving separation as only 15% of cars are stopping in it.
  • 13% of Cyclists using the bike signal encounter motor vehicles who are running the red, but are able to navigate through.
  • There was 1 more bicycle crash (5 vs. 4) at the intersection in the year after the installation than before.
Pennsylvania Ave cycletrack
  • Bicycle volume doubled after the cycletrack was installed.
  • Arterial LOS was similar for motor vehicles on Pennsylvania Avenue before and after the bicycle facilities were installed.
  • Danish Bicycle LOS and Bicycle Environmental Quality Index (BEQI) analyses all show significantly improved operations for cyclists with the median bike facilities.
  • Signal timing for bicycles generally works well between 10th Street and 15th Street, but results in large delays to cyclists between 3rd Street and 9th Street.
  • Bike crashes went up 80% after the bike lanes went in (so, not as much as bike traffic went up).
    An average of 42 percent of cyclists arriving on a red signal violated the signal.
  • Most cyclists stopping at red lights stop in the crosswalk or median area rather than behind the white stop bar.
15th Street cycletrack
  • After the two-way cycle track was installed, there was a 205 percent increase in bicycle volumes (from before conditions) between P Street and Church Street during the p.m. peak hour, and there was a 272 percent increase in bicyclist volumes (from before conditions) between T Street and Swann Street during the p.m. peak hour
  • Motor vehicle counts show that volumes are up a little bit on 15th Street before and after the bicycle facilities were installed.
  • Motor vehicle LOS was basically the same after the cycletrack was installed.
  • Bicyclists experience less delay on 15th Street between lower E Street and I Street than between I Street and U Street.
  • The number or crashes again grew, but not as fast as the number of cyclists did (so crash per cyclist went down).
  • There are potential issues with the existing design, which uses the pedestrian signal to control cyclist movements.
  • Over 40 percent of cyclists were observed running red lights.
  • There are now fewer cyclists on the sidewalk.
DDOT is hosting a public meeting on Thursday, May 3, to present more details of the study and discuss the proposed L Street cycletrack from 25th to 12th Streets, NW. The meeting is at the Reeves Center, at the corner of 14th and U, in the 2nd floor community room.

A version of this article was originally posted at TheWashCycle.

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