Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Miles Grant

Miles Grant grew up in Boston riding the Green Line, and has lived in Northern Virginia riding the Orange Line since 2002. Also blogging at The Green Miles, he believes enhancing smart growth makes the DC area not just more environmentally sustainable, but a healthier and more vibrant place to live, work and play. 

Signs you should stop thinking about Smart Growth and enjoy your egg nog

When you see your future mother-in-law's holiday village and think, "Needs more height & density near the train station."

Merry Christmas, everybody.

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Shocking rhetoric from John Townsend and AAA

This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.

Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.

Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.

Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.

The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.

When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."

"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."
We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.

In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.

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Live chat with Matt Yglesias

Please welcome Matt Yglesias, Slate Moneybox economics blogger, author of The Rent Is Too Damn High, and frequent commentator about how regulations limiting development affect cities.

 Live chat with Matt Yglesias(05/23/2012) 
11:51
David Alpert: 
Welcome to our live chat! We're excited to have Matt Yglesias on today and Miles Grant moderating. We'll get started in just a few minutes.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:51 David Alpert
11:54
Miles Grant: 
Thanks, David! Here's my summary of Matt's book setting up today's chat.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:54 Miles Grant
11:55
David Alpert: 
Matt is now here. Welcome, Matt!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:55 David Alpert
11:55
Matthew Yglesias: 
So glad to be here. GGW is an amazing site and a great community.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:55 Matthew Yglesias
11:56
David Alpert: 
Thank you so much! Miles is our moderator today, so I'll turn it over to him. Take it away, Miles!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:56 David Alpert
11:57
Miles Grant: 
Let's start with a few questions that were submitted in advance in the pre-chat post ...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:57 Miles Grant
11:58
[Comment From RobRob: ] 
If we accept the premise that density is desirable, how does building more housing units actually lower rents in practice? Housing is prohibitively expensive in Manhattan and it's also extremely densely populated, for example. Let's say we build more housing in DC's core by removing the height limit and the average rent in the metro area decreases; but rents in the core increase (due to higher demand for density) while the rents on the fringe decrease (due to greater overall supply of housing in the market). Has the policy succeeded because some housing in the overall market is now less expensive? Or has it failed because now the only affordable housing is the housing with the highest transportation cost?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:58 Rob
11:58
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think success and failure are relative concepts...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:58 Matthew Yglesias
11:59
Matthew Yglesias: 
In the scenario you're spelling out, we've hardly solved all of society's problems, but we have created a situation in which more people can afford to live in the region...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:59 Matthew Yglesias
11:59
Matthew Yglesias: 
And even if the cheapest housing continues to be in the places with the highest transportation costs, those costs would still be lower than the current cost of even-further commutes, even-more sprawl, or simply denying people access to the strong labor market and other amenities of greater DC.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:59 Matthew Yglesias
12:02
Miles Grant: 

There seems to be an all or nothing sense to some discussions of density - it's either status quo or Manhattan skyscrapers, density solves everything or it solves nothing. How can we defuse some of that tension?

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:02 Miles Grant
12:02
Matthew Yglesias: 
Right. I try to avoid mentioning New York when talking about other cities, because it's a unique case in so many ways...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:02 Matthew Yglesias
12:03
Matthew Yglesias: 
In terms of Washington, I think it's important to note that the structures in our CBD are really really really short...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:03 Matthew Yglesias
12:03
Matthew Yglesias: 
Not just shorter than the structures in Manhattan, but shorter than the ones in Richmond and Baltimore and Hartford and all kinds of places...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:03 Matthew Yglesias
12:04
Matthew Yglesias: 
More broadly, there's more to density and compactness than building height. I know people point to Paris and its lack of skyscrapers, which is very true, but Paris is a wildly denser city than DC. We're closer to Fargo than Paris.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:04 Matthew Yglesias
12:05
[Comment From VikVik: ] 
Can you tell us why you think an area like the CBD is a better place to lift the height limit than an underdeveloped area, such as Anacostia or Brentwood?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:05 Vik
12:06
Matthew Yglesias: 
There are a few reasons. First is simply that there are no "neighbors" in the CBD to be annoyed by changes to their views or whatnot in the same way that there are in residential areas so it might be more feasible...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:06 Matthew Yglesias
12:07
Matthew Yglesias: 
Second, is that a CBD is a unique areaMetrorail, MARC, VRE, and the buses are already set up to serve the needs of people trying to commute there and it's walkable from parts of the residential city....
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:07 Matthew Yglesias
12:08
Matthew Yglesias: 
Third is that some of our depressed and outlying areas really need some new investments in terms of infrastructure, which is going to cost money, and that money could be most easily raised by allowing more development where the demand is highest and that's downtown.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Matthew Yglesias
12:08
Miles Grant: 
Thanks for the questions & please keep submitting even if you don't see them pop up right away, we'll get to as many as we can! Here's a big picture one ...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Miles Grant
12:08
[Comment From CharlesCharles: ] 
Matt, I was wondering if you could discuss the importance of regional governance and the problems with fragmented local governments. I know you touch on it occasionally but I was hoping to get your thoughts on it.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Charles
12:09
Matthew Yglesias: 
The basic issue is that state borders in the US were drawn a long time ago for reasons that have nothing to do with present-day realities...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:09 Matthew Yglesias
12:10
Matthew Yglesias: 
Alexandria, DC, and Bethesda are all clearly part of a fairly intergrated metropolitan social and economic landscape that has relative little to do with events on the Eastern Shore and basically nothing to do with Norfolk or southwestern virginia...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:10 Matthew Yglesias
12:11
Matthew Yglesias: 
Unfortunately, it's not obvious to me what can be done about this except that local leaders need to actively try to collaborate, and Virginia politicians in particular need to think more seriously about the fact that Northern Virginia is the growth hub of the state....
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:11 Matthew Yglesias
12:11
Matthew Yglesias: 
We could also try things like extending VRE to Richmond and Charlottseville and getting Amtrak service down to the Norfolk area that might produce better real-world integration....
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:11 Matthew Yglesias
12:12
Matthew Yglesias: 
But the fact is that US federalism is just very poorly designed for the northeast's metropolises and I think we're stuck with it.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:12 Matthew Yglesias
12:13
Miles Grant: 
What are the chances of, say, DC, Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church & Fairfax ever deciding to throw out those old boundaries & form their own state? Could discontent ever go that far?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:13 Miles Grant
12:15
Matthew Yglesias: 
It'd be interesting to see them try. It's unconstitutional to split a state up without the consent of the state government so the odds aren't good. But I favor pie-in-the-sky schemes because you never really know. Maybe some unrelated constitutional crisis will emerge that allows for the redrawing of state boundaries, in which case whoever has the maps drawn up will win.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:15 Matthew Yglesias
12:15
[Comment From DavidDavid: ] 
Isn't the clearest answer for why it makes sense to lift the height limit in the CBD be that there is demand for higher buildings there, as expressed through really really high land prices?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:15 David
12:16
Matthew Yglesias: 
Yes, that's the simple reason! But some people feel that stifling CBD development is a good way to "force" development in under-built areas & I'm trying to lay out why I think that's an unnecessarily costly approach.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:16 Matthew Yglesias
12:16
[Comment From HankHank: ] 
You have mentioned before that you thought the streetcar was a bad investment. For someone that usually favors transit, that surprised me - why do you think it's a bad idea?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:16 Hank
12:17
Matthew Yglesias: 
It's not a "bad idea" per se, but H Street is already served by a pretty good bus, the X-2, that has high ridership and one of the highest farebox recovery rates in the whole system...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:17 Matthew Yglesias
12:18
Matthew Yglesias: 
So if you ask, "what could we do to improve transit on that corridor" the clear answer seems to be to take a lane away from cars or parking so the bus can move faster...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:18 Matthew Yglesias
12:18
Matthew Yglesias: 
If you want to go beyond that an upgrade the bus line to light rail, then so much the better...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:18 Matthew Yglesias
12:19
Matthew Yglesias: 
But spending a lot of money to run a train that'll be stuck in the same traffic snarls as the already-popular bus seems a little perverse to me, especially because we didn't get much upzoning of H Street in the bargain.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:19 Matthew Yglesias
12:20
[Comment From SeanSean: ] 
What do you think are the best practices for urban planning and community input and cooperation? So often, great plans are defeated or watered down bc of a very vocal minority.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:20 Sean
12:20
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think it's important for people to think harder about what the point of community input is...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:20 Matthew Yglesias
12:21
Matthew Yglesias: 
Presumably the idea is that you don't want outsiders who may not understand the situation to run roughshod over existing residents like in some of these urban renewal nightmare stories...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:21 Matthew Yglesias
12:21
Matthew Yglesias: 
But that means you actually want to get a valid sample of the population, not just whichever subset of the population happens to have the time and inclination to come to meetings...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:21 Matthew Yglesias
12:22
Matthew Yglesias: 
And you also have to listen to what people are specifically sayingare they bringing new information to light, or are they simply advancing very narrow interests...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:22 Matthew Yglesias
12:22
Matthew Yglesias: 
It's understandable that people who live near McMillan prefer more parks and less new housing at the margin, but that's a tradeoff between a local community benefit and some broader city-wide objectives. It's good to listen to everyone, but that doesn't mean you have to do what they want.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:22 Matthew Yglesias
12:24
Miles Grant: 
There's an assumption that people that are Democratic/progressive must be more open to urban planning solutions, yet DC's as blue as it gets & has extensive restrictions on development & new housing. What's the disconnect?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:24 Miles Grant
12:25
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think you see these restrictions all over the place, because partisan politics is organized around federal issues rather than local ones...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:25 Matthew Yglesias
12:26
Matthew Yglesias: 
But I find it frustrating in particular when progressives don't see the connection between very localized decisions about building permits and broad concerns about climate change and sustainability...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:26 Matthew Yglesias
12:26
Matthew Yglesias: 
I'm also fairly optimistic, however, that a lot of people simply don't understand the issues correctly and that as we debate them information will improve and things will get better...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:26 Matthew Yglesias
12:27
Matthew Yglesias: 
DC in particular also has what's obviously a big social and economic divide around race that's a little bit masked by the fact that almost all its residents are Democrats regardless of income or ethnic background.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:27 Matthew Yglesias
12:27
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
How do you factor geography in your thinking about rent and transportation infrastructure. I live in a large mid-west metro with no geographical barriers to sprawl. How, given the higher unit construction costs of transit in the short term, do you balance the tendency to sprawl with the higher long term costs of that sprawl?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:27 Guest
12:29
Matthew Yglesias: 
Things are different in the midwest, where land is plentiful and sprawl isn't really economically costly...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:29 Matthew Yglesias
12:29
Matthew Yglesias: 
We're talking instead much more about environmental costs that ultimately require national and even global solutions...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:29 Matthew Yglesias
12:30
Matthew Yglesias: 
If we had a reasonable gasoline or carbon tax or cap-and-trade plan or what have you, there'd be much more incentive for midwestern cities to think more seriously about the merits of a more compact urban form.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:30 Matthew Yglesias
12:30
[Comment From Michael PMichael P: ] 
One of the significant criticisms of increasing density is that the increase in population will result in parking or congestion issues. What's a good way to address these concerns?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:30 Michael P
12:32
Matthew Yglesias: 
Well ultimately you need to use pricing to control congestion and parking scarcity issues...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:32 Matthew Yglesias
12:32
Matthew Yglesias: 
But on parking in particular, I think there's a lot of opportunities to just buy off incumbents...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:32 Matthew Yglesias
12:33
Matthew Yglesias: 
We could lock all existing residents in to current parking permit prices, for example, and just mandate a large increase for *future* residents...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:33 Matthew Yglesias
12:33
Miles Grant: 
Buried in today's Post story about improving DC area traffic is that higher gas prices helped cut congestion. What would it take for an increase in the gas tax to overcome political obstacles?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:33 Miles Grant
12:34
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think it would take a change in national fiscal and economic conditions; right now a tax increase could have a really negative short-term impact on employment over and above all the other problems...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:34 Matthew Yglesias
12:34
Matthew Yglesias: 
But at some point we'll either need higher taxes, or big cuts to the kind of Medicare and educational programs that Americans have come to expect and I think the politics of a push for higher gas taxes will improve somewhat.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:34 Matthew Yglesias
12:35
[Comment From Eric H.Eric H.: ] 
Matt, your answers to Michael's questions about parking and traffic misses a point. I NOVA. My neighbors don't want density increases near our neighborhood because they don't want more people speeding through their neighborhoods. How can you buy those people off? It isn't just parking, it is the increase in traffic.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:35 Eric H.
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
Right righttraffic on local streets... I think I dodged that one because I don't have a very good answer...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
It's fundamentally true that denser-build areas have more noise and people and vehicles around and those with strong contrary preferences are going to be annoyed by it....
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
ultimately as a society we need to balance that against other goals and advantages, but you can't please everyone.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:39
[Comment From EricEric: ] 
I really enjoyed the book, Matt. One point I found especially interesting was the idea that typically "liberal" and "conservative" arguments in some ways lead people astray when it comes to urban development issus. To push on this a bit, what kind of strategic advice would you give to advocates of positions aligned with those of GGW? What "sacred cows" of ours should we reconsider? Who are some maybe unlikely allies we might identify and what kinds of arguments are likel to be convincing to them?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:39 Eric
12:39
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think progressives are going to need to learn to love rich greedy real estate developers...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:39 Matthew Yglesias
12:40
Matthew Yglesias: 
Not because rich greedy real estate developers are the greatest people on the planet, but because the fact of the matter is that things get built by businessmen looking to earn a profit...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:40 Matthew Yglesias
12:41
Matthew Yglesias: 
When we want to see more schools built, progressives don't say "well that's just a way for contractors to make more money" but we also recognize that the work is in fact done by contractors who are just looking to make more money...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Matthew Yglesias
12:41
Miles Grant: 

We'll just go for a few more minutes, so submit your final questions now ...

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Miles Grant
12:41
Matthew Yglesias: 
By the same token, moving to a more efficient, economically sound and environmentally sustainable use of our scarce urban land requires structures to be built by profit-seeking businessmen.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Matthew Yglesias
12:42
Miles Grant: 
I hope our readers say thanks for your time by reading your book and bookmarking your blog. What's the next topic you think deserves a big exploration - what aren't people talking about that they should be?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:42 Miles Grant
12:43
Matthew Yglesias: 
Thanks! My other passion is monetary policy ... a very different subject, but also one that goes to the core of people's lives in a way that they often don't recognize.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:43 Matthew Yglesias
12:44
Matthew Yglesias: 
Anyways, this has been fun and I hope if people are interested they'll check out the blog andof coursebuy the book!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:44 Matthew Yglesias
12:45
Miles Grant: 

Thanks for joining us, Matt - and thanks for all the great questions!

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:45 Miles Grant
12:46
David Alpert: 
Thanks Matt for joining and Miles for moderating! The archive of the discussion will remain available and please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:46 David Alpert
12:47
 

 
 
 
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Live chat: Matt Yglesias, Wednesday at noon

Are the very policies intended to sustain neighborhoods and preserve affordable housing paradoxically the same ones pushing rents up and families out to the suburbs? That's case Slate Moneybox economics writer Matt Yglesias makes in his e-book, The Rent is Too Damn High.


Photo by SusanAstray on Flickr.

On Wednesday at noon, Matt will join us to discuss the book and we hope you'll help us get things started with your questions in the comments.

"High rent is not a fact of nature," writes Yglesias. "It's a result of bad policy." Height limits, historic preservation and density caps intended to keep neighborhoods quaint, whether imposed overtly by official policy or subtly by zoning officials, act as supply caps driving up prices and imposing gentrification.

The conventional wisdom in community development is to preserve current buildings and fight redevelopment of existing low-cost rental units. But that's exactly what we've been doing for the last decade. Instead, the number of affordable units in DC has been cut in half since 2000. The low-cost housing that remains is often poor quality and far from public transit.

While much of the public debate about DC development policies today centers on the height limit, that's far from the only restriction on growth. Locals governments also impose mandated lot sizes, building setbacks, floor area ratios, and parking minimums that restrict the amount of housing and drive up the cost of building new development.

So what's the solution? Yglesias takes the economist's perspective, targeting supply and demand:

[W]e need to acknowledge that there are only two sustainable ways to reduce the price of housing. One is to lower demand by making a given place a worse place to live. Detroit features high crime, low-quality public services, and a bleak job market. The rent in Detroit is not high. [...] The other way is to increase housing supply.
Opponents of smart growth policies contend the suburbs have grown because of America's desire for a white picket fence and a two-car garage. Yglesias says that through policies that discourage additional housing units from being built in urban cores, we've given families little other choice but to turn their backs on urban cores in search of cheap housing. By easing restrictions on urban housing supply, some of those families could move closer to the core, cutting their commute times and reducing their carbon footprints.

Yglesias resists policy prescriptions, instead closing with a call for those on both ends of the political spectrum to let go of failed policies and take a fresh look at possible solutions. "Many on the Leftstarting with my inspiration, Jimmy McMillanare confused about the relationship between housing affordability, regulation, gentrification, and quality of life over the long term," writes Yglesias. "On the Right, the problem is one of myopia and identity-driven resentment." He also wants our public debate "to better distinguish between the price of land (a speculative investment commodity, like stocks or bonds) and the price of houses (a consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator)."

Yglesias has faced some pushback in urban development circles. In a reflection of how fast the online news cycle moves, we already have articles asking if the pro-density movement has gone too far, even though at last check DC's height limit remains alive and well.

At a time of political polarization, is it asking too much for liberals predisposed to distrust corporate developers and conservatives prone to distrust government solutions to come out of their corners? What processes in our systems of government and public debate could be better utilized to facilitate the discussion? Can a happy medium be found between opponents of DC's current development restrictions and the skyscrapers feared by their supporters?

Post your questions in the comments, and we'll try to ask as many as we can during the chat. And join us on Wednesday at noon for what should be a very informative discussion.

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Do Arlington candidates only like smart growth in theory?

Every Democratic candidate running for Arlington County Board claims to support smart growth. But when smart growth runs up against single-family homeowners' interests, are they willing to make tough choices? At a recent forum, statements from most candidates weren't promising.

The board has an open seat since Barbara Favola was elected to the state senate in November. Arlington Democrats will select a party nominee (who's almost certain to then win the official special election) at 2 caucuses on Thursday, January 19th and Saturday, January 21.

Wednesday night, the Arlington County Democratic Committee hosted a forum with the candidates. The forum spotlighted the paradoxical views of Arlington Democratic voters: They want candidates to express concern about things like smart growth, affordable housing, and transportation, but may be reluctant to support the density increases, transit projects or higher taxes to pay for affordable housing programs that may actually deliver it.

In opening and closing statements, transportation was either not mentioned at all or waved at in passing. Potential expansions of I-66 or I-395 and Arlington's efforts to fight them weren't mentioned at all. Candidates didn't talk about Metro funding, overcrowding, or congestion.

A question about the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar revealed only one full-fledged supporter in Melissa Bondi, while Peter Fallon, Libby Garvey, Kim Klingler, Terron Sims seemed to know much about the streetcar's price but little about its value.

None of the four spoke of the value of investing in the Pike, cost savings to residents in a car-free diet, high demand for housing on rail, air quality benefits, or the potential for new tax revenue from development encouraged by a streetcar.

But no issue brings out a refusal to make tough choices quite like affordable housing, and it's certainly not limited to this crop of County Board candidates. Arlington single-family homeowners say they're concerned about a lack of affordable housing, but they also would like to see the value of their own home inflate indefinitely. Some are also so concerned about keeping their neighborhood the same that even strip malls get the historic preservation treatment.

Every candidate at the forum professed support for affordable housing, yet every candidate also expressed at least some skepticism about increasing existing density or adding new density in historically low-density areas.

Given that these candidates face an electorate that skews older and single-family homeowner in a low turnout January caucus and March 27 special election, candidates may be downplaying their commitment to smart growth policies now as a matter of politics. But as dense, transit-oriented development moves into new neighborhoods, from the Pike to East Falls Church to Lee Highway, it's disappointing so many County Board candidates appear to be taking the low road.

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Columbia Pike streetcar is a bargain versus new highways

The mainstream press holds transit projects to a higher cost-effectiveness standard than highways, as recent coverage of the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar demonstrates.


Artist's conception of Columbia Pike Streetcar (via ColumbiaPikeVA.us)

In reality, the streetcar is a relative bargain purely on the basis of direct cost per estimated user, not even including the external costs of sprawl and pollution that new and improved highways engender.

Last week, Arlington County raised the streetcar's cost estimate to between $242 million and $261 million, citing "inflation, an increase in the scope of the proposed project, additional engineering requirements, and federal requirements for higher contingency funding and escalation."

The Post, true to form, reported only the higher figure, saying the cost had "jumped." ArlNow.com broke out the caps lock: "DEVELOPINGPike Streetcar Cost Soars."

But focusing only on the cost increase obscures that, on a per-mile or per-user basis, the streetcar still costs much less than other projects:

  • Beltway HOT lanes: $1.4 billion for 14 miles and estimated 66,000 users per day
  • Maryland Intercounty Connector: $2.6 billion for 18 miles and estimated 30,000 users per day
These simple figures don't even include the huge cost to road users of buying, fueling, maintaining, and insuring a car. They also omit the massive air quality, public health, climate change and other costs of vehicle pollution, and the strains on open space and government services that come from the sprawling development this highway building enables.

The streetcar's mere $261 million price tag, by contrast, covers a 5-mile segment to be used by an estimated 26,000 riders per day.

Instead of further straining public resources by feeding sprawl, the Columbia Pike Streetcar is expected to help revive an existing commercial corridor, contributing positively to Arlington County's balance sheet over time as new development produces tax revenue while adding minimal costs to county services. "County officials believe that by 2040, 3,900 residences and 2.2 million square feet of commercial development, with 7,000 new jobs, will be added," reports the Post.

Yes, $261 million is a heavy lift at a time of economic uncertainty, but a generation ago, so was Metrorail. "Lots of people were vehemently against an infrastructure investment of that magnitude at that timeespecially when the decision was made to move it off I-66 and put it underground, which cost that much more," Arlington County Board Member Jay Fisette told me in an interview. "If any community should be able to point to a historical experience of why this kind of investment is worth it for economic impact, quality of life and community planning value, it's Arlington."

More broadly, the Columbia Pike Streetcar is part of the region's next generation of transportation, along with Maryland's Purple Line and a mix of new and revived DC lines. Streetcars are cheaper and have a smaller footprint than Metro's existing heavy rail, while enticing more riders than buses.

County officials say they're hoping to get word on a federal funding commitment to the streetcar in 2012, which would put it on pace for a 2014 groundbreaking and a 2016 opening. From there, extensions to Falls Church or Alexandria are possible.

"The community has endorsed this for years," said Fisette. "As we continue to refine this project and bring it towards the finish line, I'm confident it will be good for Columbia Pike, our economy, our quality of life, and for beginning the next generation of regional rail."

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Will VDOT be creative with the I-66 corridor?

The Virginia Department of Transportation is currently studying transportation in the I-66 corridor inside the Beltway. A public hearing in Arlington on Wednesday will be a critical chance to weigh in on the smartest investments.


Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

This study could lead to just about any mobility improvement: light rail on Route 50, tolls, bus lanes, changes to the HOV structure, or more Capital Bikeshare stations.

But especially given Governor McDonnell's heavy emphasis on in new and wider roads, smart growth advocates should be keeping a particularly close eye on the results, as it could set the stage for a new push to widen I-66 through Arlington.

The whole reason VDOT is doing this study comes from a battle in early 2009. VDOT wanted to widen I-66 in some places, but advocates argued they needed to analyze other options instead of just assuming widening was the answer. Arlington and Fairfax members of the TPB briefly blocked the project, and agreed to let it proceed on the condition VDOT do this study.

Will they truly be open to more creative multimodal options, or simply got through the motions only to reach a predetermined conclusion that more road capacity is the only answer?


Map from VDOT defining the I-66 corridor inside the Beltway.

The study's mission is to "identify a range of multimodal and corridor management solutions (operational, transit, bike, pedestrian, and highway) that can be implemented to reduce highway and transit congestion and improve overall mobility within the I-66 corridor, between I-495 and the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge."

One thing that jumps out on the map is that while the corridor has three major east-west roadways, it has just one dedicated bike trail. VDOT doesn't step outside its of its roads-first mentality too often, so Wednesday's meeting will be a good opportunity to send them a message.

I-66 Multimodal Study Open House & Presentation
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011
6-8 pm (presentation begins at 6:30 pm)
Arlington County Board Room
2100 Clarendon Blvd, Arlington
If you can't make the meeting, you can still read about the study and send comments to info@I66multimodalstudy.com.
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Can Falls Church ban parties endorsing local candidates?

Virginia state law prohibits ballots from listing partisan affiliation for local elections. The Falls Church City Council wants to go a step further, banning political parties from endorsing candidates in city races altogether. Can they do this, and with extremely limited public input?


Photo by yakfur on Flickr.

In the wake of two major shakeups to Falls Church city politics, the City Council is set to vote tonight on amendments to the city charter that were just drawn up at the council work session a week ago.

Under the amendments, candidates for the city who are nominated by political party primary or convention will not be listed at all on the ballot. Candidates can only be nominated by petition, the way non-party candidates get on the ballot today.

The amendments warn against not just the evils of partisan elections, but of partisan candidates.

Why the rush to change the charter? Under Virginia's Dillon's Rule system, the changes need Virginia General Assembly approval, so the city council wants to get the amendments into its legislative package in time for the next General Assembly session in January.

Unfortunately, it seems the City Council is putting that deadline ahead of opportunity for public input. This is an especially unfortunate move after voters just dealt the council a harsh rebuke in this month's election.

Voters rejected City Council efforts to keep city elections in May, passing a referendum to move city elections to November by a stunningly large 2-to-1 margin. Referendum opponents warned voters a move to November could make city elections more partisan, but voters ignored those arguments.

Then, just days later, the civic organization Citizens for a Better City (CBC) announced it would no longer endorse local political candidates. As the Falls Church News-Press editorialized, the changes left a sudden void:

So now, there is a flattened and broadened political landscape: no direction and twice the voters. One could call that a more "purely democratic" environment, but it may advisable to revisit Plato's "The Republic" for a poignant critique of the shortcomings, or, better, short livelihood, of "pure democracies."

The CBC may have thought it could dictate by its action a newly-leveled political environment, but its withdrawal will likely encourage other groups, or the formation of other groups, to fill the vacuum. No wish to mandate that future elections be non-partisan, for example, can prevent the exercise of First Amendment rights to the contrary.

A new dictate seems precisely what the city council is proposing. Rather than regrouping, reassessing, and gathering public input, leaders are rushing ahead under deadline pressure on proposed amendments that may or may not reflect the desires of current voters, never mind future ones.

What's more, it's not clear if any of the proposed amendments are either constitutional or enforceable. Can the City Council decide which groups of voters can or cannot publicly endorse political candidates? What if a party doesn't formally endorse, but does a mailing without a candidate's approval or knowledge? Would that candidate be thrown off the ballot anyway?

What about donations? Many city council and school board members have donated to political candidates. For example, Council Member Lawrence Webb, whose name is on the amendments, donated $100 to Democratic Delegate Charniele Herring's campaign in 2009. Under the amendments, would it be enough for Webb to swear off Democratic references on campaign literature? Or would he have to swear off all Democratic affiliations and donations for the duration of his term?

Just weeks after voters settled Falls Church's biggest electoral controversy, will the City Council open a new one? We may find out tonight.

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Nationals Park falling behind in green standings

When Nationals Park opened, it was the first LEED-certified ballpark in Major League Baseball, achieving the "Silver" standard. Four seasons later, the once-groundbreaking green ballpark is in danger of being bumped out of the top tier of sports venues.


Photo by The Ardvaark on Flickr.

With Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann on the field and Bryce Harper on the way, the Nationals have dramatically upgraded their on-field product. Nats Park amenities have been spruced up as well, with an expanded scoreboard pavilion and new food stands like Shake Shack.

But in a new video by CSN Washington, the Nats are touting the same green features as when the park opened in 2008:

From green roofs to efficient lighting to water filtration to the bicycle valet, the Nationals' efforts are all valuablebut they're no longer cutting edge. In the years since Nats Park opened, the Minnesota Twins have opened Target Field, also LEED Silver certified. Then the Pittsburgh Penguins raised the bar further, opening a LEED Gold certified arena.

And all of those stadiums have been outdone by a college facility. The University of Florida's Heavener Football Complex is LEED platinum-certified, the highest possible rating.

So how can the Nats get back to a leadership position?

Renewable energy. If the Boston Red Sox can put solar panels on Fenway Park, there's no reason why the Nats can't have some as well. Even the Washington Redskins, whose owner is no friend of the environment and who manage to screw up almost everything else, have installed a sizable solar array at FedEx Field.

Put the players out front. Nationals pitcher Collin Balester is part of Players for the Planet, speaking out on the need for recycling & climate action. Why not include him in these clips along with the front office staff?

Tear down the awful parking garages. Not only are they eyesores that block views of the Capitol, not only do they sit empty most of the time, but they encourage driving to a park that's next to one Metro stop and a 15 minute walk from several others. Imagine how much revenue the Nats could recapture from The Bullpen across the street by turning the garage space into an inviting area to eat, drink, shop and socialize. Yes, DC paid tens of millions of dollars to build the garagesbut letting the mistake stand won't get that money back.

Get serious about reducing fans' trash. Nats Park only recycles plastic bottles and aluminum cans, while the District's municipal recycling service takes all kinds of plastics, as well as glass, aluminum and paper. The red-helmeted recycle bins aren't marked well enough as such, and trash is often discarded in them. The Nats should also require their vendors to use only biodegradable food packaging.

Stop selling ads on everything to polluters. It's not quite in the same league as Pittsburgh's "green" arena selling its naming rights to a polluting coal company. But the Exxon Mobil-sponsored left field wall billboard, Exxon Mobil-sponsored 7th inning stretch, Exxon Mobil-sponsored organic cotton hat, and Exxon Mobil-sponsored stadium replica really distract from the Nats' efforts to show they care about the environment & public health.

Finally, how's this for a headline: "Nationals Sign Local Environmental Blogger as Left-Handed Reliever"! Think about it, Mike Rizzo.

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Is Falls Church going in circles on transit?

Falls Church will discuss the possibility of building a streetcar on Tuesday. But this same city recently canceled its bus service, GEORGE, for lack of ridership. Why would a streetcar succeed where the bus failed?


GEORGE routes. Image from City of Falls Church.

City leaders now seem ready to up the ante on transit without facing the lessons of GEORGE. It didn't fail because Falls Church doesn't need transit; rather, its routing didn't efficiently serve the areas where the most likely riders live or work. Nor are city leaders willing to focus more development in those areas to build the ridership to support transit.

Falls Church ran the GEORGE bus from 2002-2010 in two long loops anchored at the East and West Falls Church Metro stations (neither of which is actually located within the boundaries of Falls Church). The winding paths looked more like scenic tour bus paths than quick transit routes.

For example, GEORGE riders rightly wondered why the trip from EFC to the State Theateronly a 15 minute walkinvolved a leisurely 14-minute loop through Falls Church neighborhoods. This was GEORGE's fatal flaw. Its routes were designed to serve political purposes.

GEORGE wasn't primarily designed to get the most commuters to Metro as fast as possible or to deliver customers to downtown businesses. Instead, it meandered down the streets of as many Falls Church homeowners as possible to convince them their tax dollars were being well spent, whether or not those streets wanted or needed transit.

One omission is particularly revealing. During peak hours, the EFC loop didn't go all the way to Wilson Boulevard, instead turning right on the residential road of Roosevelt Street. That forced an extra walk to the retail shops at Eden Center and the large apartment and condo buildings of The Madison and Roosevelt Towers, whose patrons and residents were GEORGE's ideal customers.

By targeting low-density, car-reliant neighborhoods, GEORGE was also competing against Falls Church's heavily-subsidized incentives to drive. Falls Church and its neighbors have made big investments of land and infrastructure to provide taxpayer-underwritten parking at both EFC and WFC. Why wait for and pay for the bus if there's free or discount parking waiting at the Metro stop?

Rather than facing up to GEORGE's issues and seeking to streamline service, city leaders pulled the plug.

"Nobody did the market research to see if it was viable," Charles Langalis, a member of the city's Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation told TBD last year. "It was recommended that the city go to work on a marketing plan, some promotional work for GEORGE, but that never materialized, either."

Now with neighboring Arlington moving forward with plans to build a streetcar down Columbia Pike, a discussion on Tuesday will ask whether Falls Church should make a similar move:

The Falls Church Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of Falls Church will co-sponsor a luncheon discussion Tuesday November 15 on proposals for developing trolley-car transportation in the city. The event will occur from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm at the Italian Café, 7161 Lee Highway.

Panelists will include Steven Del Giudice, chief of the Arlington County Transportation Transit Bureau, Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder and former Falls Church City Council Member Dan Maller. Panelists will review basic information about trolley plans as well as routing options and potential benefits to the city.

Even though they're neighbors who even share a court system, Arlington and Falls Church couldn't be more different when it comes to development and transportation choices. Arlington's population has grown 36% since 1980 by focusing dense residential development around transit, and several new developments have already sprung up down Columbia Pike in advance of the streetcar.

But Falls Church's firm opposition to development has limited its population growth to just 18% since 1980. Even near its neighboring Metro stations, single-family homes and low buildings with large surface parking lots remain the dominant features. On Broad Street downtown, apartments are rare and one-floor retail dominates. Exactly where is there enough density for a trolley?

And even if new density were to spring up tomorrow, would Falls Church's single-family homeowners be willing to let their leaders invest tax dollars to help apartment and condo dwellers? After all, if Falls Church residents would rather sit alone in their cars, angry that traffic remains so bad but happy their tax dollars aren't being wasted on that stupid bus anymore, how are those same people going to be convinced to back a more expensive trolley?

It's loopy.

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