Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Malcolm Kenton

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC neighborhood of Bloomingdale. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College, he is a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable transportation, and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGW are his own. 

DC has too few dedicated east-west bike pathways

While DC's bicycling network has grown, there still aren't a lot of crosstown connections. In fact, there are no protected east-west bicycle routes in the whole third of the District north of Florida Avenue. Cyclists need more of these, as well as north-south routes to form a grid of dedicated paths.

Bike lanes around a northern section of DC. Image from Google Maps.

Much of DC's bicycle infrastructure, like trails, dedicated bikeways, and bike lanes concentrates in the downtown core, primarily south of Florida Avenue. DDOT's official bicycle map, last updated in 2011, shows that outside of downtown, most bicycle facilities run north-south.

Unless they are willing to ride on six-lane, shoulder-free roads with fast-moving traffic, cyclists have no way to traverse the northern part of Rock Creek Park, where only a freeway-like portion of Military Road crosses the park.

The same goes for Irving Street and Michigan Avenue, the only direct paths from Columbia Heights to Brookland across the vast acreage of McMillan Reservoir and Sand Filtration Site, the Washington Hospital Center, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

"East-west mobility for bicyclists in the northern neighborhoods of DC can be a significant challenge," said Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) Advocacy Coordinator Greg Billing. "Large campuses, parks, hospitals and cemeteries limit the available east-west connections. The MoveDC plan calls for high quality bicycle facilities from neighborhoods to downtown and better connections between the neighborhoods."

That plan recommends some form of dedicated bikeway along Irving Street, as well as for a cycletrack on Military Road.

A route between Columbia Heights and Brookland would connect two vibrant neighborhoods and serve an area that will gain population as the McMillan site and part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home property redevelop.

Google Maps' bicycle directions from the Columbia Heights Metro to the Brookland-CUA Metro. Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive version.

Currently, both the DDOT map and Google Maps advise cyclists to use Irving Street between Brookland and Columbia Heights. However, between Park Place NW and the Catholic University campus, Irving Street is a busy six-lane near-freeway with no shoulder. Cyclists have to navigate among drivers merging on and off at the massive cloverleaf intersection with North Capitol Street.

However, the right-of-way through this section seems wide enough for DDOT to add a protected cycle track or trail. One possibility is a cycle track in a protected median down the middle of Irving Street, which would avoid dangerous crossings of the off-ramps at the Irving and North Capitol cloverleaf. Another is to have a trail parallel the existing sidewalk on the south side of Irving Street.

Google Maps street view of Irving Street between First and North Capitol Streets NW.

Worsening traffic congestion is a major concern at the McMillan site. The area has infrequent bus service and is far from a Metro station, but improving bicycle access could provide an important alternative to driving, reducing the traffic impact of new development.

Military Road NW across Rock Creek Park is a similar case. Tilden Street and Park Road to the south, and Wise Road, Beach Drive, and Kalmia Road to the north, are more bike-friendly ways to cross the park. But they're far out of the way for neighborhoods on either side.

According to DDOT Bicycle Program Coordinator Mike Goodno, DDOT controls the road itself and a handful of feet on either side. The National Park Service would have to okay any further widening. DDOT has not yet studied whether there is room to add a cycletrack on Military within the right-of-way it controls.

Google Maps Street View of Military Road NW through Rock Creek Park.

The only other connection through Rock Creek Park that is further along in the planning process is the Klingle Trail, which will connect the Rock Creek trail to Woodley Road NW. DDOT completed an Environmental Assessment in 2011.

As activity centers outside the downtown area grow and travel patterns become less centralized, we must enable cyclists and transit users to get across town as easily as drivers. A grid-like, interconnected network of bike routes would make that possible.

After a decade in service, where could the Circulator go next?

As the DC Circulator celebrates its tenth anniversary, planners are weighing options for the system's continued growth. Tuesday evening, they held a public forum at Eastern Market to talk about ways to expand the Circulator and unveiled a new bus paint scheme.

Model Circulator wearing the new "comet" paint scheme parked at Eastern Market. Photo by the author.

Having expanded from two routes to five, the Circulator's core function remains to offer a frequent, reliable, inexpensive link between DC's activity centers and its neighborhoods. Planners are considering 7 possible new routes, which were on display at the forum.

District Department of Transportation officials say the one with the greatest support is a connection between Dupont Circle and U Street, followed by a Dupont Circle-Foggy Bottom link. The proposed "Abe's to Ben's" Circulator between the Mall and U Street could serve both links. The input planners receive will inform the expansion priorities they will recommend this summer.

Image by DDOT.

I see one of Circulator's roles as to fill gaps in the Metrobus network that serve to better connect DC neighborhoods. I, too, cast my top vote for a Dupont-U Street connection, preferably starting by extending the Rosslyn-Georgetown-Dupont route up 18th Street NW and across U Street to Howard University.

My second vote is for an extension of one of the routes currently ending at Union Station north into NoMa, perhaps one way on First Street NE and the other on North Capitol Street. Buses already create congestion near Union Station by using Massachusetts Avenue, E Street, and North Capitol Street as a turnaround. Having a Circulator turn around in NoMa instead helps to alleviate this, while providing bus connectivity to the heart of a rapidly developing area.

It is interesting that DDOT proposes retaking the Convention Center to Southwest route from WMATA, which incorporated it into the Metrobus network in 2011 as Route 74. A DDOT representative explained that, as part of the 70s series, the 74 is considered a "regional" rather than a "local" route, and thus it is cheaper for the District to subsidize as Maryland and Virginia also contribute to it through WMATA's funding formulas.

At the forum, DDOT also debuted a Circulator bus wearing a new exterior paint scheme. Instead of two arcs representing the route map with the names of destinations, the new design has two swooshes that a DDOT representative described as "comets."

On display inside the bus were preliminary drawings by renowned transit vehicle designer Cesar Vergara of an interior for the next generation of Circulator buses. This would make Circulators' interiors more closely resemble those of the newest members of the Metrobus fleet, products of New Flyer.

Preliminary rendering of a proposed interior for new Circulator fleet. Image from Vergara Studio.

DDOT presented a map of the planned National Mall Circulator, which will connect Union Station with the Lincoln Memorial via Madison and Jefferson drives and around the Tidal Basin next spring. The agency sought input on what to include at the stops along this route, like area maps, and lists of nearby attractions, and where one or two-day passes and SmarTrip cards should be sold.

Chart by DDOT.

Circulator's ridership numbers have declined slightly over the past two years compared to the previous two. David Miller, a transportation planner with DDOT contractor Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, speculated on the reasons for the dip and offered these hypotheses:

  • Metrobus's service quality has improved, siphoning off former Circulator riders who once perceived Metrobus as a less attractive service.
  • DC residents, particularly young adults, are gravitating towards more flexible car and bike sharing systems, aided by better bicycling infrastructure, for short trips to see friends or go shopping for which they previously used Circulator.
  • Circulator buses are starting to get shabby. The fleet is 10-14 years old and is just now starting to undergo repainting and reupholstery.
So far, surveys of Circulator riders have only covered demographic information, trip purpose and trip type. They have not asked riders to describe why they chose Circulator over other modes, or why they've chosen other modes over Circulator for other trips.

Results of the last Circulator survey. Image by DDOT.

Despite Circulator's branding as a service that connects shopping, dining, and entertainment destinations, a solid majority of riders use it to get to and from work. The average rider is a young adult with at least a college education making less than $40,000 per year. Most riders use Circulator on all days of the week, with pluralities using it daily, and take it round trip.

DDOT will release a final update of the Transportation Development Plan Summary Report this summer, and will hold another semi-annual forum this fall. Beyond that, aside from the spring 2015 implementation of the National Mall Circulator, there is no timeline for implementing any expansions of the system. Once DDOT comes out with its recommendations based on public input, it will be up to DC citizens to convince the Mayor and Council to fund them.

Proposed MetroExtra bus route would serve all of Rhode Island Avenue in DC

A new MetroExtra bus route could connect the entire Rhode Island Avenue corridor between downtown DC and Mount Rainier for the first time. Unfortunately, there isn't any funding yet.

The proposed MetroExtra G9, based on this map from WMATA. Click for an interactive map.

At a Bloomingdale Civic Association meeting Monday night, WMATA unveiled a proposal for a route that would run along the Rhode Island Avenue corridor from downtown DC to Mount Rainier with a single-seat ride. Today, this can't be done without changing buses at least once, a holdover from DC's original transit system planned and built over 80 years ago.

The proposed MetroExtra route G9 is an outcome of the latest of several studies of major bus corridors, this one encompassing the G8 Metrobus, which runs between Michigan Park and Farragut Square, and the 80s, which run between the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, College Park, and Calverton. (This study does not appear on the Metrobus Studies Website yet.)

The route would make more limited stops than the other bus routes along the corridor, stopping at about every half-mile. It would give residents of Ward 5 and Mount Rainier more frequent and more direct service to downtown, and offer them quicker connections with other major bus routes, such as the 70s, 90s and 80.

Today's bus routes are a legacy of DC's old streetcar

Today, most buses along Rhode Island Avenue follow routes set decades ago, when DC and its travel patterns were very different. A look at the 1958 map of the DC Transit system shows the 82 streetcar line, which went to Branchville (now part of College Park), followed its own right-of-way in Prince George's parallel to the B&O (now CSX) railroad tracks that now host MARC's Camden Line. From there, it turned south off of Rhode Island Avenue onto 4th Street NE, cut through Eckington onto New York Avenue, then south on 5th Street NW into downtown.

Today's P6 bus roughly traces this part of the old streetcar route. There were also E2 and F2 buses that came east on Rhode Island Avenue from downtown: the F2 took 9th Street NW, as does today's G8, and the E2 went around Logan Circle and took 15th Street NW. Both of these buses turned north from Rhode Island Avenue onto 4th Street NE into Edgewood and Brookland, right where the 82 streetcar turned south.

Section of the 1958 DC Transit map showing Rhode Island Ave and 4th St NE. Reprinted map available at the National Capital Trolley Museum.

Today, the G8 and P6 buses do the same thing. But there's still no bus route that continues on Rhode Island Avenue west of 4th Street NE. As a result, those traveling from Mount Rainier or Ward 5 into downtown must either transfer from the 81, 82, 83 or 84 bus to the Red Line, or take the P6 or walk about 1900 feet under the railroad overpass to get the G8 at 4th & Rhode Island NE to continue west.

The G9 route, as proposed, would terminate at Mont Rainier's former streetcar turn-around. WMATA should consider extending it further north into the rapidly developing Hyattsville Arts District, or perhaps to Route 1 and East-West Highway, where the new Whole Foods will go, or even into downtown College Park. This would make it more of a regional connector that, if it ran frequently enough, might attract a few more commuters out of their cars on this congested portion of Route 1.

It is unclear whether the proposed G9 bus would, like currently operating MetroExtra routes, only run during the day on weekdays and possibly Saturdays, or if it would be a more round-the-clock operation. That will likely depend on the level of funding that is available.

But it is good to see WMATA planners thinking outside the box of historical patterns of bus service to come up with a more sensible service along one of DC's major arteries.

Fix it first, then upgrade, says new regional transportation plan

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board approved the draft Regional Transportation Priorities Plan two weeks ago. It advocates a "fix it first" approach that directs resources towards keeping the transportation assets we have in good shape, rather than building massive new facilities that may be costly to maintain.

Image from MWCOG.

The plan is a significant victory for smart growth advocates because it doesn't call for building any new highways. Maintaining Metro is the highest-scoring strategy overall. The plan calls for new transit facilities including both streetcar and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, potentially using new express toll lanes on existing highways.

It also recommends capacity improvements like expanding Metro capacity in downtown DC, and focusing growth around existing transportation hubs and employment centers, offering more alternatives to driving. However, it relies on elected officials in local jurisdictions to make it happen.

The plan's supposed to inform future updates to the region's Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan (CLRP), a more specific list of recommended capital investments, including this year's update. The CLRP's existing baseline includes the Silver and Purple lines, the planned DC streetcar network, and Arlington's Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcars.

But first, local governments need to invest in the transportation infrastructure we already have. "The success of all other strategies to improve transportation in our region relies on an existing system that functions properly and is safe," the plan states. That includes Metro trains that run reliably and aren't overcrowded, bus stops that are easy to get to, roads and sidewalks that are smooth, structurally sound bridges, and efficient traffic signals.

Another key aspect of the plan is its focus on the region's activity centers, places like downtown DC or Bethesda that are walkable, bikeable, and well-served by transit. Simply directing more growth to these places can reduce car trips across the region. More people would have the opportunity to live or work there, while those who still chose to live elsewhere would have more options for getting to activity centers.

As MWCOG Principal Transportation Planner John Swanson put it, "We don't just focus on supply-side additions to the system, but also on managing demand."

Creating more activity centers is one of five central long-term strategies of the plan. The others are adding more capacity on the existing transit system, enhancing circulation within activity centers, encouraging BRT and other cost-effective transit services, and more express toll lanes.

At a press event January 15, Swanson emphasized that the Regional Transportation Priorities Plan is part of on ongoing planning process. It "shows why land use matters and why a lot of little decisions like [building better] bus stops matter," Swanson added. "If they aren't accessible and attractive, other work is for naught."

The TPB recommends focusing on "modes that can move more people at lower cost." The plan generally avoids citing specific projects or locations of concern. Rather, it's intended as a guide for state, county, and municipal officials as they determine which transportation projects deserve a share of their limited budgets.

Whether the vision comes true or not will depend on the elected leaders of the member jurisdictions. It will also require restoring citizens' trust in their government, meaning government must demonstrate that it is taking citizen input seriously and is getting the most bang for taxpayers' buck.

Among its other specific suggestions:

  • Local governments should help Metro reach its state of good repair goals outlined in Metro Forward.
  • Give Metro the resources needed to add capacity, including by adding more eight-car trains and increasing pedestrian flow capacity at constrained stations like Union Station.
  • Enhance and expand commuter rail service, primarily by addressing its two biggest constraints: limited capacity at Union Station and over the decrepit Long Bridge, the region's only crossing of the Potomac for commuter, intercity passenger, and freight trains.
  • Make major investments in relatively inexpensive pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. It cites the District's success with new bike lanes and expanding Capital Bikeshare, and says adequate sidewalks and crossing signals are still lacking in much of the region.
  • Alleviate bottlenecks in the highway network by building new on- and off-ramps, extra turn lanes, and adding lanes in limited cases.
  • Grow the network of electric car charging stations to incentivize their use.
  • Make the road network safer and more efficient by such often-overlooked strategies as providing more real-time information to drivers, and by updating existing traffic laws, particularly to offer more protection to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The plan reflects and builds upon the work of the late Ron Kirby, the former MWCOG transportation planning director whose shocking murder in his home two months ago remains unsolved. The document is dedicated in his memory. Kirby chose not to pick sides in the more roads vs. more transit tug-of-war, but he was willing to say we should fix things first.

The TPB's next step is to disseminate the plan to both elected and administrative officials in all member jurisdictions and explain how it works. The plan highlights broad agreement at the regional level, and gives jurisdictions a framework for decision-making.

If it agrees, for example, that maintaining the existing system is the top priority, then its practices should reflect that. Thanks to language in a resolution the TPB adopted on January 15, the RTPP will guide DC, Maryland, and Virginia when they propose projects for inclusion in the CLRP.

"This work fits into a broader picture of what people are asking for," said Todd Turner, TPB member and Bowie city councilmember. "[Once people] see the impact of funding decisions on them, they become more supportive."

Read together with MWCOG's Region Forward plan, its Climate Change Report, and its Activity Centers map, the RTPP should guide the region to a better-managed, more transit-oriented, and more sustainable transportation future.

Redeveloping McMillan is the only way to save it

At a recent public hearing, neighbors of McMillan Sand Filtration Site renewed calls to make it a park. But the only way that can happen is by developing part of it as a neighborhood, and it's up to the DC Council to make it happen.

Rendering of the future McMillan Park. All images from VMP.

Residents filled a June 6 public hearing held by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to oppose plans to sell the derelict 25-acre site to Vision McMillan Partners, who will build homes, shops, offices and a park there. But others, including Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth say it's the best way to bring McMillan back to life.

It would be prohibitively expensive just to make McMillan a park. Since the underground cells are made of unreinforced concrete, they would have to be demolished and rebuilt just to make them safe to enter. Allowing some private development will give the neighborhood new amenities while paying to keep the best of what's already there.

Plan preserves historic structures while creating new park

VMP's plan preserves all 24 of the plant's above-ground structures, including the vine-covered sand silos visible from North Capitol Street, along with 2 of the below-ground filtration cells. 2/3 of the site will remain open space, while the southern third will become an 8-acre public park with a pool, recreation center, and a community center with meeting rooms and an art gallery. VMP promises that this will be "one of the largest and best-designed public park spaces in the District."

Proposed site plan of McMillan redevelopment.

The historic buildings will become part of a new neighborhood with about 800 585 apartments and townhouses, half 10% of which will be set aside for families making between 50 and 80% of the area's median income. There will also be street-level, neighborhood-serving retail anchored by a 50,000-square-foot, full-service grocery store. Along Michigan Avenue, there will be taller office buildings with a medical focus, taking advantage of proximity to Washington Hospital Center across the street.

To make this happen, however, the DC Council must decide this fall whether to declare the land as surplus and "dispose" of it. They can do this either by selling it to VMP or granting it as-is to VMP under existing zoning, which wouldn't allow major redevelopment to occur. They could also divide the property and sell off the parts to different owners and under different zoning. They can do all of this in a single set of hearings and votes, and they should to ensure that this process happens as quickly and fairly as possible.

This rendering shows how new and old buildings will coexist at McMillan.

Throughout the summer and fall, the council will hold separate public hearings on whether to surplus McMillan and the details of VMP's plan. Meanwhile, the DC Historic Preservation Review Board is reviewing VMP's plan to redevelop the site with housing, shops, offices and an 8-acre park and will hold hearings about it this month and in September. They've already offered comments about the proposal and will make their recommendations before the end of the year.

Plan will improve stormwater collection, traffic

Groups like Friends of McMillan Park and the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club argued that McMillan is already a public space and should become a public park. However, one DMPED official I spoke to after the hearing said that the city can't afford to do the work necessary to make the site safe for public occupancy. If the District retains ownership, the site would most likely remain decrepit and fenced off indefinitely.

All 24 of the site's historic above-ground structures will be preserved.

Opponents maintain that the site's underground cells are needed to retain stormwater, mitigating the effects of frequent floods in Bloomingdale, which is downstream from McMillan. But DC Water already plans to replace two of the cells with water storage tanks, which will remain after redevelopment. Meanwhile, VMP has also promised to incorporate stormwater retention and buffers into the buildings and landscaping on the site, reducing stormwater runoff.

Another top complaint was traffic. Residents feel that the neighborhood's roads are already quite congested, especially at rush hour, and could not handle the extra trips generated by a major office, retail and residential center on the McMillan site. There is no question that the Washington Hospital Center, the city's largest non-government employer, needs better public transportation service, as it is not located near a Metro station.

Buildings will step down moving south from Michigan Avenue.

VMP plans to build a bus turnaround for shuttles between McMillan and the Brookland Metrorail station, which would operate until a planned streetcar line along Michigan Avenue is built. Moreover, North Capitol Street has been designated a Bus Priority Corridor, meaning that the city intends to make changes to the street design and traffic flows to permit faster and more frequent bus service. The development would also open new through streets across the McMillan site, improving traffic flow and connections within the larger neighborhood.

Ward 5 needs parks, but it needs housing too

Some opponents say that new development should happen elsewhere in Ward 5, like on vacant and abandoned lots along North Capitol Street or Rhode Island Avenue. While not enough resources have been dedicated to encouraging more infill development, there's no reason why that can't happen in combination with the redevelopment of McMillan.

Rendering of the completed McMillan Park.

It is true that Ward 5 needs more and higher-quality parks, recreation facilities, and community centers. But the surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole are growing and are need more affordable housing, as well as more diverse shopping and entertainment opportunities within walking or biking distance or a short transit ride.

VMP's current plan reflects the input of community members gathered over the course of several design charrettes that were open to the public. It satisfies the need for several types of amenities in this part of the city in a balanced way. It combines buildings that are in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods with a large park, and preserves some of the historic filtration cells and all of the silos and brick regulator houses.

We have an opportunity to transform a decrepit former public works site that has been fenced off for over 70 years into a citywide destination: a vibrant and attractive new place to live, work, shop and play that serves many of the needs of residents in this part of DC while incorporating many reminders of its unique history. The Council shouldn't waste any time taking advantage of it, as an opportunity like this won't come again soon.

If you'd like to tell DMPED and the Council to surplus McMillan and allow VMP's plan to happen, you can contact them here. Comments must be received by June 20.

DC Sustainable Energy Utility saves energy and creates jobs

Five years ago, the DC Council created the DC Sustainable Energy Utility to help the city's growing population use less energy. While it hasn't been perfect, DC SEU can help achieve Mayor Gray's goal of cutting the District's energy use in half by 2032.

Photo by Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon on Flickr.

Created by the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 and housed within the District Department of the Environment, DC SEU is dedicated to reducing the District's energy footprint. Residents and business owners directly support DC SEU through a surcharge on their electricity and natural gas bills.

In return. DC SEU will give residents reduced-price compact fluorescent light bulbs, rebates for energy-efficient appliances, or even install better insulation and duct sealing in homes. For commercial and industrial properties, which are the District's largest energy users, DC SEU provides incentives and technical assistance for large-scale commercial properties and offers rebates for energy-efficient commercial equipment and lighting.

While states like Vermont, Ohio, and Delaware have sustainable energy utilities, DC SEU is the only one that measures success in terms of both energy savings and economic development. In 2012, DC SEU served 18,795 households in 2012, 60% of which are low-income, and spent $5.2 million with locally-owned Certified Business Enterprises, or CBEs. DC SEU claims that its customers save almost $3 million annually in energy costs, while its efficiency measures produce lifetime economic benefits of almost $24 million.

However, not everyone is convinced of DC SEU's effectiveness. Employees of the utility's vaunted green jobs program, which was supposed to create 100 new jobs every year, say their work was unproductive and "meaningless." Perhaps more can be done to strengthen the training and future job placement aspects of the jobs offered through DC SEU, but one lone program can't be expected to squelch the District's persistent plague of unemployment.

Meanwhile, critics argue that DC SEU has accomplished little other than self-promotion. There certainly seems to be room for better cooperation between DC SEU and pre-existing community organizations promoting solar power installation. But there's always a learning curve when government takes over tasks previously in the purview of the private sector, no matter how poorly Pepco did at promoting efficiency, especially when Pepco owns the power lines and metering systems.

We'll be able to get a better understanding of what DC SEU has accomplished with newly available data on how much electricity, water, and gas buildings in the District consume. DC has assessed the energy and water use and carbon emissions of every District-owned building every year since 2009, but this is the first year that private owners of commercial buildings larger than 100,000 square feet are required to report their energy and water use to DDOE in compliance with new benchmarking regulation. Next year, the requirement will extend to all commercial and multifamily residential buildings larger than 50,000 square feet.

For the past two years, the DC SEU has provided a Benchmarking Help Center assist owners of large buildings assess and report energy and water use. They have fielded more questions about medical offices and small retail outlets in multifamily apartment buildings and condominiums than expected.

"We walk by these buildings every day, but we don't think about how they operate, how much energy or water they use or what's inside," says Help Center spokesperson John Andreoni. "Through the release of benchmarked and reported data, we'll gain access to this information."

This wealth of public data will increase transparency in the market and provide a more complete picture of DC buildings' energy, water, and carbon footprints than has ever been produced. As more efficiency measures are implemented, we'll be able to see how effective DC SEU actually is.

In most industries, it costs less per unit to produce greater quantities of a product. But with energy, the reverse is true. That's why investing in conservation at the consumer level is the most prudent way for governments to reduce energy use and save users money. Not only is efficiency more effective for ratepayers and taxpayers than building new power plants, even ones using renewable sources, it's also better for the environment.

Armed with more public data, DC SEU will have more information at hand to shrink the District's resource consumption and encourage building owners and managers to embrace energy efficiency. If it achieves measurable success, it will not only trim the city's environmental footprint, but keep costs low for all District ratepayers.

Amtrak shouldn't axe the national network

The Brookings Institution released a report earlier this month on our national passenger rail system, Amtrak. Many news and blog articles about the study took the report to mean that if Amtrak were to get rid of its long-distance trains, the company could provide rail service without taxpayer subsidy.

Photo by Matt Johnson.

That's not actually true, nor is Brookings suggesting getting rid of long-distance trains. The crux of the Brookings report, something that has not been picked up by much of the media, is not that Amtrak should drop the long-distance trains; rather, Brookings wants the states to pick up the tab to operate them. That's not the right policy.

Amtrak operates trains across the United States. In addition to busy urban corridors like the one between Washington and Boston, the railroad also serves growing numbers of riders on corridors like Charlotte-Raleigh and Chicago-Milwaukee. Ridership has increased by over 55% since 1997, outpacing population growth, economic growth, and growth in all other travel modes.

Without long-distance trains, Amtrak is profitable? Not really

The report crunches the numbers on how many riders each route carries, how much it costs to run the trains, and how much revenue they generate. A number of people read the numbers to conclude that if Amtrak cut its 15 longest routes, Amtrak would operate in the black.

But this depends on how you define "in the black" or "operating profit." Cutting those trains would eliminate the need for a federal subsidy, but the states also contribute money for short-distance trains, and Brookings counts that as "revenue," not "subsidy."

The Adirondack, for example, runs between New York City and Montreal, via Albany. The report says that this train has a positive balance of $1.3 million. Amtrak makes a profit on it!

Not really. It costs $13.3 million to operate, and the train earns $7.0 million in revenue. That equals a loss of $6.3 million, but New York state pays Amtrak $7.6 million a year to operate the train. Add that in, and the "balance" ends up being a positive $1.3 million.

All told, the states fund Amtrak to the tune of $190.5 million a year. Counting that but no federal payment, Amtrak would have ended up with a surplus $30.9 million without the long-haul trains.

Even this doesn't mean the short-distance trains can be profitable. The report doesn't include the major cost of capital maintenance on the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor, which passenger revenues will never be sufficient to cover. Projects like the Gateway Tunnel, which will add capacity into Penn Station and new rolling stock to replace aging cars are also capital costs that can't be covered by the operating profit alone.

Amtrak's Adirondack in Westport, NY. Photo by The West End on Flickr.

Coverage or ridership?

One of the biggest problems with Amtrak from a political perspective is that people don't agree about the goal of the railroad. Is Amtrak supposed to make a profit, as conservatives tend to insist? Or is Amtrak supposed to provide a transportation service to much of the nation, as liberals tend to claim?

The Brookings report makes it clear that there really are two Amtraks.

One of the Amtraks is efficiently providing frequent short-haul service within or between metropolitan regions, such as on the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor, Los Angeles-San Diego Surfliner, and Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service. A few services like these can run operating profits, but most still don't even if they're successful.

The other Amtrak provides basic service to other parts of the country. This service was never meant to make money. It was meant to include more states in the system and provide another (or in some cases the only inter-city) transportation alternative to rural communities.

Lawmakers did intend for the company to be profitable, despite evidence that it would not be, but that was changed in 1978 when it became clear that was unlikely to happen.

In this respect, Amtrak is like many transit systems. When Congress created Metro, they assumed it would run self-sufficiently without government support, too, but that didn't happen either. No transportation system, not roads, rails, or aviation, actually makes a profit when you incorporate all of the infrastructure.

Amtrak is a basic system plus extra short-distance services

The way Amtrak was set up is an important part of understanding the current situation.

In 1971, as Amtrak was coming together, a basic system was drawn on a map. This base would provide some minimum level of service across the nation, and be funded initially through federal subsidies and ticket revenue.

The Pacific Surfliner is a good example of a state partnership that grew out of the base system. In 1971, there were 3 roundtrips between Los Angeles and San Diego. These 3 roundtrips were part of the Amtrak basic system.

By 1976, California wanted more service, so it paid to add a 4th roundtrip. This train was specifically a California-subsidized train, while the other 3 were Amtrak-subsidized trains. Over the next 2 decades, California continued to add trains to the corridor, and Amtrak added 2 more to the basic system.

In 1995, California and Amtrak agreed to end having some individual trains be part of the basic system and others state-subsidized. Instead, California and Amtrak would split the cost of the San Diego-LA service proportionally. At the time, California covered 64% and Amtrak covered 26% 36%. It's now 70%/30%.

This seems like the best approach. Amtrak, in consultation with the US Department of Transportation and the states, and input from stakeholders, including organizations representing passengers, should determine what the basic federal system should look like. If the states want additional service beyond that amount, they can pay for it, perhaps with federal assistance in the form of competitive, merit-based grants.

Several successful services have grown out of arrangements like that, including the Surfliner, the Charlotte-Raleigh Piedmont Service, and the Cascades between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Congress is shifting costs to the states

However, the funding environment is changing.

Under Section 5 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement (PRIIA) Act of 2008, starting in October, California will have to cover 100% of the cost operating deficit of running the LA-San Diego service. That's because all Amtrak routes less than 750 miles in length must become state-supported or be terminated.

The Brookings report supports shifting almost all costs deficits to the states for long-distance Amtrak trains as well.

That's the wrong approach, and would likely mean the end of most of the long-distance trains.

It is difficult to expect all the states served by each of the long-distance trains to support their own routes consistently, much less to agree on schedules, service amenities, and cost allocations. Many states are already facing a huge challenge in coming up with the funding to keep existing short-distance service running under the PRIIA mandate.

Just as governors in Ohio and Wisconsin blocked high-speed rail funding, some states will refuse to pay. Many have no history of supporting train travel at all in the modern era, and have conservative or divided legislatures. Long-distance routes would either have to stop at the state line or run through without stopping within it, neither of which makes for a useful transportation service.

Other states have no history of supporting Amtrak routes financially, and conservative or divided legislatures would make it unlikely that those states would step up to the plate to fund what has so far been a federal commitment.

Right now, several states are having the discussion about whether to keep their short-haul trains. While New York, California and several other states have budgeted the required funds to keep their short-distance trains running in fiscal 2014 (starting October 1, 2013), Pennsylvania could cut its Pittsburgh-Philadelphia/New York train and Indiana could lose the Indianapolis-Chicago Hoosier State unless their citizens convince state lawmakers to appropriate the needed funds

We need a national network

It's important to keep Amtrak's long-distance trains, even though they're not profitable. A recent white paper from the National Association of Railroad Passengers elaborates on many points.

One major reason is that the long-distance trains and shorter ones fit together into a system. They're not completely isolated.

The Southwest Chief might run over 2200 miles across the nation. But many riders are not going all the way from Los Angeles to Chicago. Some are only going between Los Angeles and Flagstaff. Others ride between Albuquerque and Trinidad. And Kansas City to Chicago is a very popular pair of stations on the route.

Brookings seems to think that 400 miles is where passenger rail stops being competitive. And that may be the case. But just because the train goes more than 400 miles doesn't mean that the passenger has to.

From the whitepaper by the National Association of Railroad Passengers and the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association.

For example, the report lists the Bay Area to Sacramento Capitol Corridor as one of the examples of a good corridor. The same corridor is also covered by the Coast Starlight, which continues north of Sacramento and south of the Bay Area.

Further north, the Coast Starlight overlaps with another success story from the report: the Cascades, which runs between Eugene, OR and Vancouver, BC. It provides an additional frequency on both corridors, and connects them with each other and points in between.

Having long-distance trains also creates a market and proves the demand for short-haul trains. One of the 3 profitable routes in the system, informally dubbed the "Lynchburger," only exists because of the longer New Orleans-New York Crescent. People wanting to take that train between Lynchburg and Charlottesville and Washington were having trouble getting a ticket because the Crescent would sell out frequently.

As a result, Virginia decided to pay for a new train to run between Lynchburg and New York/Massachusetts. It's proven to be so popular that it actually covers its costs with ticket sales. And Governor McDonnell has proposed funds to extend the train to Roanoke.

But the Lynchburger probably wouldn't exist if the Crescent hadn't demonstrated the demand. It's also very difficult (though not impossible) to get the host railroads to agree to passenger trains where they don't already run.

There are many other reasons as well. Having a national network also makes possible many operating efficiencies, such as the ability to move equipment to other parts of the system to meet demand, which would otherwise be lost.

Besides, ridership on state-supported short-distance routes has only grown so much because state investment has translated into increased capacity. If a similar investment were made in long-distance trainsmeaning additional frequencies or longer trainstheir ridership would soar as well.

Report is useful for its data, but reaches the wrong conclusions

The Brookings report provides a wealth of insight into Amtrak's operating costs and revenues. But the report is misguided in its suggestion to turn the primary responsibility for the basic national system over to the states.

Passenger rail is an essential component of our transportation network. The 55% increase in ridership since 1997 is an indication that more federal and state investment is needed, not less.

Improving service on the long-distance trains will lead to ridership increases just as improvements to the short-haul trains did. Now is not the time for the federal government to waver in its commitment to passenger rail.

Appreciate our furry ecosystem engineers

The DC area's beaver population has boomed in the past 20 years, and that's a great thing.

Beaver at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Photo by Glyn Lowe Photoworks on Flickr.

It's a sign that our region's waterways, having suffered from decades of channelization, pollution, neglect and mismanagement, are starting to regain their ecological health, though much work remains to be done.

The industrious creatures' presence brings challenges when their work conflicts with human activity, but beavers, which biologists recognize as a keystone species, benefit the environment far more than many people realize.

There are many tools for coexisting with beavers and the other creatures their ponds attract, even in highly developed areas. The alternatives to coexistence tend to be inhumane, ineffectual and shortsighted.

The beaver, North America's largest native semiaquatic rodent, is often misunderstood and greatly under-appreciated. Yes, they do cut down trees and build dams that can flood parts of low-lying areas. But these activities bring a host of benefits for ecosystem health, biodiversity, other wildlife, and for water quality, erosion abatement, flood control, and even act as carbon sinks that take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

Beavers abounded throughout North America prior to Europeans' arrival, and they were almost certainly abundant in our region, which boasted a great deal of marshland and a plethora of streams, some of which humans have built over or removed by human activity.

Beavers were hunted and trapped nearly to extinction by the turn of the 20th century, mainly for their fur. But one of the greatest success stories of the modern wildlife conservation ethic has seen the industrious rodents return to almost all of their historic range.

At the same time, efforts to allow native vegetation to grow along stream beds in urban and suburban areas to improve water quality has recreated attractive habitat for beavers. They have come to inhabit creeks and streams in urban and suburban areas across the US, where their activity has at times come into conflict with human desires.

Sign at Lake Artemesia in College Park. Photos by the author.

Nature's engineers now inhabit a number of waterways in our region, including Rock Creek, the Anacostia River and its tributaries (including Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens), Lake Artemesia in College Park, Roaches Run Pond in Arlington, and Lake Accotink in Springfield, just to name a few.

Stories of trouble stemming from beavers' handiwork have appeared with regularity in the Washington-area press in the past two decades. In some cases, such as when beavers felled some of the beloved cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in 1999, trapping and removal of the beavers is unavoidable (luckily, this particular colony was able to be relocated to a more favorable site in the area). But in others, humans have harassed or killed beavers and destroyed their dams for no good reason.

One such incident occurred in Hyattsville's Magruder Park (located, aptly enough, on Beaver Dam Park Road) in the spring of 2011. One or more beavers dammed up the small stream draining into the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia on the park's west end, creating a small pond, which also covered a small portion of the adjacent parking lot. This did not seem to present a significant inconvenience to park visitors, and park managers cut a hole in the dam in attempt to let some water drain while retaining the beavers. But sadly, the dam was found broken up one morning in April along with the carcass of its architect.

This beaver-created pond still stands at Magruder Park in Hyattsville. Photo by the author.

The trouble with exterminating beavers is that, as long as the habitat in question remains reasonably healthy, other beavers are likely to come to the same spot. Each year, beaver parents evict their one or two-year-old offspring from their lodge and they go in search of new homes. And no matter how many times humans destroy a beaver dam, beavers will keep rebuilding it.

So in places like Magruder Park, unless park managers were to remove all the vegetation around the stream and keep the area clearwhich would be undesirableto keep removing beavers each time they show up is to fight a losing, and ecologically foolish, battle.

It is far better for people to learn to coexist with their wild neighbors. In cases where flooding or high water levels are the issue, several devices exist to regulate water levels while leaving beaver dams intact and tricking beavers so that they do not seek to raise the water level.

Trees can be protected by wrapping their trunks in cylindrical cages, and a low fence will keep beavers away from a particular group of trees. Beavers tend to fell fast-growing tree species that have little commercial value, and this culling makes room for more, bushier growth the next spring, restoring a more diverse mix of flora to the wetland area over time. Beavers largely subsist on seaweed, clover, and land and aquatic plants other than trees.

Beaver ponds attract and sustain other wetland-dependent creaturessuch as turtles, herons, otters, ducks, and many types of birds and fish. They also do a good job of retaining stormwater runoff, allowing pollutants to settle out before the water moves downstream. Beavers have also become a unique cultural asset to cities and towns: they are local celebrities in places like the Bronx River in New York and Chicago's Lincoln Park.

But perhaps the best-known "downtown beaver" success story comes from Martinez, California, a Bay Area city that rehabilitated part of the creek that runs through the center of town. When a beaver colony established itself there in 2008, the local government threatened to have them removed. But citizens' organization Worth a Dam rose to the creatures' defense, and the city has come to celebrate its newfound furry, feathered and finned denizens, which have even attracted visitors from around the country and overseas (many of whom arrive on Amtrak).

The challenge of coming to terms with beavers in urban areas is a microcosm for the necessary large-scale work of reconciling human needs and desires with the natural systems that sustain all life. In our region, we can and should find ways to allow, and even help, beavers to do what they do best: maintain healthy wetlands. In return, we will enjoy cleaner water, better regulated stream flows, less severe flash floods, and the chance to interact with a wide array of wild creatures.

Bigger park, taller buildings on tap for McMillan site

DC Water will temporarily use two former water filtration cells in the McMillan Sand Filtration Site to store excess rainwater and mitigate flooding in neighborhoods like Bloomingdale beginning in spring 2014. That decision forces Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) to redraw its plans to transform the site into a mixed-use neighborhood.

Rendering of redesigned park space at the south end of McMillan. Image from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

The previous plan called for new rowhouses on the south end of the site to extend the character of the existing neighborhoods. A park in the middle would have separated the townhouses from denser mixed-use towers on the north end.

Instead, VMP will now construct a larger park on the south end, build new rowhouses in the middle, make the buildings on the north end a bit taller, and construct more roads through the development.

VMP's next step is to design the buildings themselves. They will hold a community meeting about preliminary building designs on Saturday, April 20, 10 am-noon at a location to be announced.

Under the Northeast Boundary Neighborhood Protection Project, developed by the Mayor's Task Force on the Prevention of Flooding, DC Water will store excess rainwater runoff in the two cells as a temporary remedy for flooding. In the long run, DC Water's Clean Rivers Project will build large underground sewers to store water by around 2022. When that is done, the two cells will be drained and will become available for use, potentially as unique public spaces.

The now larger park along Channing Street NW will feature an open grassy lawn. One of the filtration cells to store excess runoff will be underneath part of the park. The other cell lies at the site's northeast corner, and the original development plans already called for retaining it.

Rendering of the newly-designed park space, seen from North Capitol Street at Channing Street NW. Image from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

At the east end, next to the park's main entrance on North Capitol Street, will be a small pond that echoes the now-underground Tiber Creek which once flowed across the site. The pond will also serve as a reservoir for the site's stormwater runoff, allowing pollutants to settle out of it before it enters the combined sewer system.

Next to the pond will be an amphitheater and a community center with a green roof. The west end will feature a sculpture garden and plaza, with a spray jet fountain and smaller park spaces between the two, alongside the open grassy area. A tree-lined "Olmstead Walk" will surround the entire development, including the park.

Vision McMillan Partners' new planned layout for the site.

The office and residential buildings with ground-floor retail on the north end will be fewer than under the original plan (5 instead of 9), but taller. Instead of being in a stand-alone building, the "premium" grocery store will be on the ground floor of a 6-story apartment building.

The plan won't set back the buildings along North Capitol Street as far as under the original plan. Much of the office space will remain devoted to medical offices.

There will be less public space in the non-park areas of the site. The North Service Court (one of the two rows of original sand towers and regulator houses that sit on the site today) will feature wider sidewalks, but there will also be more through roads. Douglas and Evarts Streets will extend across the site (Douglas using the South Service Court as its median), a new Middle Street NW will use the North Service Court as its median, and a new Half Street NW will run north-south from Michigan Avenue down to Douglas Street.

The new plan integrates affordable housing throughout the development, instead of having a particular apartment building dedicated to affordable senior housing.

Should streetcar go to Minnesota Ave or Benning Rd Metro?

Once the initial H Street segment opens (now estimated for early 2014 at the earliest), the next step for DC's streetcar system is to extend the line east across the Anacostia River. DDOT will present the options in a report this month, but major decisions remain, such as whether to end the line at Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro stations (or both).

H Street streetcar platform between 5th & 6th Streets NE. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

DDOT staff and AECOM consultants told the approximately 50 attendees at a Nov. 27 public meeting that the government is focused on completing a streetcar line linking Ward 7 to Georgetown via H Street by 2025.

Its moniker, the "One City Line," references Mayor Vincent Gray's campaign slogan, which has become an official slogan of the District government. A study on the Union Station-Georgetown segment of the line will begin next year.

Having held the final public hearings as part of the study's final concept development phase, the study team will release its final report next month, which will be followed by the environmental impact review process.

Among the decisions left to be made is whether the Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro station will be the line's (initial) eastern terminus, or if streetcars will serve both stations. The final report will present options for either terminus, but not both simultaneously. DDOT staff acknowledged that if the community put significant pressure on the DC Council to pursue having the streetcar serve both stations, that would be possible.

The other key unresolved question is whether streetcars will run alongside the curb or in the road's median as they continue east along Benning Road. The main disadvantage of curbside running is that it takes away on-street parking spaces, but median running means either widening the road or taking travel lanes away from motor vehicles.

Options for streetcar track placement at Minnesota Avenue Metro. Yellow indicates proposed streetcar platform locations; turn-around track shown in purple. Image from DDOT/

At either Metro station, both streetcar tracks will merge into one and extend briefly onto off-street right-of-way to allow streetcars to pause for several minutes and reverse direction. To be determined is whether this terminal track will be in the median of Minnesota Avenue or between the road and the Metro tracks (if Minnesota Avenue is chosen as the terminus), or in the median of East Capitol Street versus into the small parking lot next to the Benning Road Metro entrance escalator.

Options for streetcar track placement at Benning Road Metro. Image from DDOT/

Keeping the proposed streetcar configuration at Minnesota Avenue would mean taking at least one travel lane from the avenue. That would turn it from a 4-lane road with only a double yellow line in the middle to a 3-lane road, 2 regular lanes plus a center turn lane or a reversible lane like the one on Connecticut Avenue.

The study determined, however, that streetcar operation would not worsen existing traffic congestion at the Minnesota-Benning intersection, which is already over its designed capacity.

At Benning, having the terminus in the small Metro parking lot would allow streetcars going both directions to serve one platform and provide more convenient access to Metro, but would make it more difficult and expensive to extend the line farther east in the future. Having the terminal station and turn-around track in East Capitol Street's median, on the other hand, would make it simple to continue the line east to Capitol Heights Metro.

The study found there to be a "huge" demand for transit in the Benning Road corridor. The X bus line is overcrowded, and there are now more employment opportunities and activity centers in Ward 7, the Minnesota-Benning intersection being one of them. DDOT is also doing a lot of work on pedestrian safety around this intersection and along the block of Minnesota Avenue leading to the Metro station.

During the first round of public hearings, community members told DDOT they wanted to see bus and streetcar service integrated so that they don't duplicate each other. They also wanted more efforts at placemaking along the corridor, such as public art.

It will be possible to build streetcar tracks across the twin-span bridge that carries Benning Road across I-295 and the CSX railroad tracks, but it will require raising the entire road surface to the height of the tracks above the undergirding, or building new undergirding lower than the existing. There is enough room to do this while maintaining required highway and railroad clearances.

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