Greater Greater Washington

Posts from January 2009

Nadler transit amendment passes on voice vote

The House just approved Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY)'s amendment to add $3 billion in transit capital funding to the stimulus. They approved it on a voice vote instead of a roll call.

According to Nadler's floor speech, 1.5 billion will go to the transit capital formula program, which goes to all states, and 1.5 billion to the new starts program. The AFL-CIO and environmental organizations will "score" this amendment, he said, meaning they'll factor members' votes on this issue into their scorecard ratings for each Representative. Since it was a voice vote, though, we don't know who opposed the amendment, making that impossible.

John Mica (R-FL), ranking member of the Tranportation Committee and the House's leading pro-transit Republican, called this "an amendment we have to support." The Appropriations committee, he said, "took one of the most important parts out: that's the rail and transit." Transit infrastructure creates jobs, he said. "Support the Nadler amendment!"

Transportation Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) added, "we heard very clearly from the major transit agencies in this country. They have options for buses. They have options for railcars that could be exercised within days." Manufacturers can ramp up production and create jobs all across the nation.

Rep. David Dreier Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, "reluctantly" opposed since the amendment didn't cut spending somewhere else. Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the Appropriations Chair, gave the shortest speech: "I urge support to the amendment."

Oregon's Peter DeFazio: "Americans are loving their transit systems to death. There's $160 billion of deferred maintenance on these systems... there are 10,000 options for new buses, buses made in America. They can't be executed because our transit systems don't have the money." Rep. Gene Green (D-TX), mentioned light rail in Houston. "This bill must be a jobs bill. The [Chicago Transit Authority] head ... said she could spend $500 million tomorrow" putting people to work, added Dan Lipinski of Illinois. "Nothing will create more jobs than funding transportation infrastructure," said Staten Island's new Congressman, Democrat Michael McMahon.

Keith Ellison of Minnesota talked about the record transit ridership last year. Dan Maffei (D-NY) relayed recent news that the transit system of his hometown of Syracuse is facing deep cuts.

Nobody other than Dreier Lewis spoke against the amendment.

Update: The House also rejected an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to remove all funding for Amtrak. "In 40 years, Amtrak has not turned a profit, and the federal government has continued to subsidize it." Flake, of course, didn't talk about all the federal subsidy to roads and airports, which he isn't trying to eliminate. Corinne Brown (D-FL), however, made that very point. "There is no form of transportation that pays for itself. None whatsoever. Whether we're talking about rail, airlines, cars, none of that. We subsidize all of that."

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USDOT: it's cold, so forget about that silly transit thing

The US Department of Transportation sent its staff this memo last night:


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

From: Mailrelay, FHWA
Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 5:07 PM
Subject: BROADCAST MESSAGE: Winter Warm-Up Parking Promotion

BROADCAST MESSAGE

TO: All DOT Headquarters Employees and Contractors

FROM: Linda J. Washington
      Assistant Secretary for Administration

SUBJECT: Winter Warm-Up Parking Promotion

We are pleased to announce our "Winter Warm-Up," parking promotions for the months of February and March at the DOT Headquarters parking facility.

Monthly Special

During the months of February and March, the monthly parking rate will be reduced to the special rate of $110.00 per month -- that's only $5.50 per day! Current monthly parking permit holders who have prepaid for February and March will be credited on their next permit purchase. If you do not currently have a DOT parking permit, you must submit an application online at: http://parkapp.dot.gov. The application will be processed through our Parking Office and you will be notified by email of your parking permit pick-up date. Please allow 1-2 days for processing.

10-day Parking Pass

We also are offering a special pre-paid, 10-day parking package at a reduced rate of only $60.00 -- that equates to $6.00 per day.

Both of these special packages may be purchased at the Parking and Transit Benefit Office located in the West Building, ground level, in room W12-190. The hours of operation are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Payment options are cash (exact change only) personal check, or credit card.

Regular daily parking permits will continue to be sold at the rate of $10.00 per day.

If you have any questions concerning this announcement, you may send your questions via email to Parking.transitoffice@dot.gov.

Transit benefit participants are reminded that it is your responsibility to adjust your transit benefit amount any time there is a change to your actual commuting expenses, including temporary parking.

Does USDOT have more unused parking space in its own garage in the winter? They, of all agencies, ought to be pricing their parking space at market rates: just high enough to fill almost all the spaces. After all, they're pushing market pricing for roadways.

Regardless, the implication that it's so cold we need to make parking cheaper is a terrible message from our officials who are supposed to be the experts on transportation.

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Breakfast links: many ways to be greater

Better architecture through zoning: New York's Zoning Act of 1919 directly begat the "iconic ziggurat" style prewar skyscrapers. That law required a specific envelope to preserve light and air, and those shapes, it turns out, maximize the buildable square footage. Too bad they later replaced that zoning rule with a basic Floor Area Ratio one that encouraged boxes flanked by empty plazas (ergo, Sixth Avenue).


The maximal building under New York's 1919 zoning. From Edge of the West.

Raise the Maryland gas tax? It'd be a great way to fill Maryland's yawning transportation budget chasm, especially with gas prices so low. And it just might be possible, with a little political will. A letter writer from North Potomac explains some of the side benefits.

3 minutes greater: The Examiner featured Greater Greater Washington in its Three-Minute Interview yesterday. It mostly focused on the Metro petition.

Elect our AG: Phil Mendelson introduced a bill to make the AG an elected position. The measure would ensure greater independence from the AG, and also move misdemeanor prosecution to the AG's office instead of the U.S. Attorney. If it passes the Council, Congress would have to pass a corresponding bill.

No representation, no taxation? Rep. Louie Gohmert plans to introduce a bill exempting DC residents from paying federal income tax. After all, if there's no taxation, then it's not taxation without representation. (Puerto Ricans don't pay federal income tax either). Norton, of course, really wants the vote, not the tax exemption. If this were a real choice instead of a publicity stunt, I wonder where DC residents would come down on the question?

And: Tom Toles illustrates Metro's good inaugural work; DC Metrocentric critiques a particularly bad blank wall downtown; and the Montgomery County Council backs the light rail Purple Line, concurring with the Planning Board and County Executive's recommendations.

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Nadler amendment heading to the floor

The House Rules committee cleared Rep. Jerry Nadler's amendment to add $3 billion in transit funding to the stimulus. It'll proceed to the House floor for an up-or-down vote. According to Streetsblog, the floor vote might happen as early as noon today.


Nadler. Photo by UN1SON on Flickr.

If you live in an area that has representation in Congress, call your Congressperson this morning. (Fortunately, Nadler is also working on fixing that for us DC residents). You can reach your Congressperson via the Capitol Switchboard at 202-225-3121 or use this tool to find your rep.

Reps. Peter DeFazio (southwest Oregon), Dan Lipinski (suburban Chicago), Michael McMahon (Staten Island, NY), and Keith Ellison (Minneapolis) are cosponsoring the amendment.

Update: Here's the complete list of amendments today:

  1. Oberstar (MN): Would amend the aviation, highway, rail, and transit priority consideration and "use-it-or-lose-it" provisions to require that 50 percent of the funds be obligated within 90 days. (10 minutes)
  2. Markey (MA): Would require that the Secretary require, as a condition of receiving funding under Title XIII of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, that the demonstration projects utilize Internet-based or other open protocols and standards if available and appropriate, and would require that grants recipients utilize Internet-based or other open protocols and standards. (10 minutes)
  3. Shuster (PA): Would clarify that federal funds received by States under the bill for highway maintenance shall not be used to replace existing funds in place for transportation projects. (10 minutes)
  4. Nadler (NY)/DeFazio (OR)/Ellison (MN)/McMahon (NY)/Lipinski (IL): Would increase transit capital funding by $3 billion. (10 minutes)
  5. Neugebauer (TX): Would strike the appropriations provisions from the bill.(10 minutes)
  6. Waters (CA): Would provide that job training funds may be used for broadband deployment and related activities provided in the bill. (10 minutes)
  7. Flake (AZ): Would strike funding for Amtrak. (10 minutes)
  8. Kissell (NC): Would expand the Berry Amendment Extension Act to include DHS to require the government to purchase uniforms for more than one hundred thousand uniformed employees from U.S. textile and apparel manufacturers. (10 minutes)
  9. Platts (PA)/Van Hollen (MD): Would insert the text of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (H.R. 985 in the 110th Congress) regarding protections for federal employees who report waste, fraud, and abuse. (10 minutes)
  10. Teague (NM): Would require that the Recovery.gov website contain links and other information on how to access job information created at or by entities receiving funding under the bill; including links to local employment agencies, state, local, and other public agencies receiving recovery funds, and private firms contracted to perform work funded by the bill. (10 minutes)
  11. Camp (MI)/Cantor (VA): Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute. Would strike everything after enacting clause and adds income tax rate deductions for bottom two income tax brackets, alternative minimum tax relief, small business deduction, bonus depreciation, small business expensing, expanded carryback of net operating losses, improved home buyer credit, unemployment benefit tax exemption, health insurance premium deduction, repeal of 3 percent withholding requirement for government contractors, extension of unemployment benefits, and a Sense of Congress against tax increases to offset outlays. (60 minutes)
In addition to Nadler's amendment, Oberstar's (requiring 50% of funds "to be obligated within 90 days" is probably good, to ensure this stimulus stimulates. Unrelated to transit, Markey's (for Internet openness) and Platts/Van Hollen's (whistleblower protections) seem good. Obviously Flake's is bad, and I presume has no chance of passing. I hope we get roll call votes on some of these, to get a better count of which reps support transit and which don't.
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Klein aims to build DDOT's credibility

On Monday, Gabe Klein will start his new job as Interim Acting (and, soon, permanent) Director of the District Department of Transportation. He has a tough job. DDOT's public image is very poor, and almost everyone, from progressive transportation advocates on Greater Greater Washington to neighborhood activists focused on their corner's traffic light, are all frustrated with DDOT.


Klein's Facebook picture.

We've seen many bad outcomes from DDOT. At the Fort Totten development we discussed yesterday, DDOT's consultants (outside engineers hired by DDOT) refused to design the intersection of Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue to have a crosswalk on all four sides. The 17th Street Streetscape, like many other streetscape projects, shrunk to a less and less exciting form as neighbors complained about individual elements.

At the same time, we've also seen DDOT fight hard for good transportation policies, like holding the line against anti-walkable curb cuts and gas stations. Some of DDOT's planners have designed terrific improvements to our transportation network, like the giant bulb-outs and contraflow bike lanes at 16th and U. Sometimes they make excellent plans which somehow turn into less when the projects reach implementation, like the reconstruction of Florida and Sherman.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Gabe Klein to discuss his ideas for DDOT. Priority one, he said, is to improve DDOT's customer service. That doesn't necessarily mean doing anything a neighbor asks, but it does mean communicating what DDOT is doing. The agency does quite a lot, he said, and most of it professionally and quickly. But we don't know what they do. We also don't know what they plan to do, or when, as there's no public list of upcoming projects more specific than the very high-level, regional TIP.

By all accounts, Klein understands the need for a transportation policy broader than just moving cars. He signed our petition for a visionary leader. "We need next-generation thinking about transit and development as people issues, [not] car issues," he said. "We also need to give safe streets to pedestrians and cyclists if we want to move people from cars to other modes that are healthier for everyone."

But, Klein cautioned, we shouldn't expect him to turn DC's transportation on its head overnight. DDOT probably won't be taking whole lanes of traffic away from major streets within a year, as NYC did on Broadway. First, Klein explained, he and DDOT must build credibility with the public, the DC Council, and the mayor. He must prove that DDOT can carry out its tasks transparently and effectively. Then, it can begin to plan better transportation that benefits us all.

In DC, where many powerful neighborhood groups weigh in on, and in many cases oppose, any change, that thoughtful, consensus-building approach may well be the best route to make real improvements to transportation.

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JHU Life Sciences Center: show me the transit!

Johns Hopkins University wants to expand and update its Shady Grove Life Sciences Center to meet the needs of the 21st Century. JHU owns the 100-acre Belward Farm in West Gaithersburg, and Montgomery County is developing a plan for the area. It aims to change the campus from its current form as a "sprawling, single-use, auto-oriented area" to a place that can be "more vibrant, dynamic, and walkable with a physical form that is as inspiring as the discoveries that are going on inside the labs and classrooms throughout the area." It could achieve that vision if the planned Corridor Cities Transitway actually reaches the site. If not, it'll be just 100 acres of VMT-inducing office park.


Current Human Genome Sciences buildings. Photo from MNC-PPC.

Johns Hopkins is competing with every other university in the world for top research talent. They believe that the upcoming generation of talent does not want to be in a wind-swept suburban office park. In order to be competitive, their facilities must have a sense of place. Otherwise, a candidate will be happy to go another university that is in a more dynamic, urban environment. The University of Maryland feels similarly.

The neighbors around Belward Farm site are pushing for a more "reasonable" approach. While they echo the usual concerns about reducing density, lowering building heights, and reducing cars and traffic, their tactics are very different from other neighbor opposition like the Kensington Heights townhouses. The neighbors aren't pushing for a moratorium on all development. There is no cynical application to include Belward Farm as a part of the Legacy Open Space Program.

Currently, the plans call for a Corridor Cities Transitway station on the site in the future. The danger is that this development could still happen without the transit. While Kentlands is a wonderful New Urbanist development, it is missing one key ingredient: transit. Its lack of transit prevents its economic systems from acting more like Bethesda or Silver Spring. Despite its urban form, it functions more like a subdivision bedroom community.

Unlike Bethesda, Silver Spring, Wheaton, Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, Pentagon City, and Ballston, few people come from other communities to patronize the businesses in Kentlands. Consequently, like a local strip mall, it can only support local-serving businesses. Its residents also must drive to work or to regional retail centers, or deal with inconvenient, infrequent bus service. That doesn't mean Kentlands was a bad idea. But its current lack access to quality transit is keeping from reaching its potential as a dynamic, truly sustainable place.

It is very challenging to plan a place that connects with a rail line that is still in the preliminary planning stages. Everyone in our region would lose if the Johns Hopkins University Life Sciences Center expands in a transit-oriented walkable urban form without any transit. And unfortunately, Montgomery County has a history of this occurring, with BRT-oriented development around Olney.

Human scale, walkable urban development is great, but, its place matters. Just as no man is an island, no place is an island. Any new piece of development requires some sort of infrastructure link. Out society now has a decades-old precedent of building the default link in the form of asphalt and rubber. Just like in Olney, without proper planning for a station on the CCT, the Johns Hopkins University Life Sciences Center will be stuck in the same limbo as Kentlands, National Harbor, and Reston Town Center: wasted potential.

Without transit, Johns Hopkins will not get their desired vibrant walkable urban world-class research environment. It will be less desirable for outside investment. Our region will not see as much economic activity as if the Life Sciences Center was directly connected to the National Institutes of Health by rail. More importantly, the development will only increase, rather than reduce, carbon emissions from personal automobile trips to and from the facility.

Ideally, JHU would build right next to NIH at the Medical Center Metro instead of out at the edge of our region's developed area. However, JHU already owns the land on the current site and they already have some facilities there. They're intent on expanding their research facilities, which earn them a lot of money. They currently have a suburban car-dependent office park that could not integrate with transit even if it were available. While this plan is not perfect, it is better than what already exists.

The stakes are high on this project and its connectivity with the CCT. If executed successfully, it will connect our entire region with another world-class life sciences research facility. Our region will gain another regional serving center for economic and social vitality. If it fails, though, we will only have yet another paved over 107-acre parcel, and a lot of unmet potential.

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Voting rights hearing going on now

The House Committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties is holding a hearing right now on the bill to give DC a vote in Congress (and Utah an extra representative at least until the next Census). Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who introduced the stimulus amendment to add transit funding, chairs the committee.
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Morning coffee stimulus: and now there was one (amendment)

DeFazio amendment out: T4A reports that the DeFazio amendment was "required to be withdrawn" for parliamentary reasons. No real word on what those reasons were, but apparently the Rules Committee heard your voices loud and clear.


Photo by quinn.anya on Flickr.

Nadler our best hope: Jerry Nadler's amendment would add $3 billion of transit capital assistance to the House bill. Rep. David Obey, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, could include it in something called a "manager's amendment", which would almost surely guarantee it will pass. Obey and Speaker Nancy Pelosi will decide that.

Today, please call Pelosi's office (202-225-4965) and Obey's office (202-225-3365), and ask them to bring Nadler's amendment to the floor. T4A says, "You can mention that our country's transit systems are crucial for keeping the economy moving. At a time when ridership is spiking, and when millions of people rely on these systems to get to work each day, we need to make sure that the economic recovery package will invest money in the kind of transportation that can help us meet our presssing national goals for reducing emissions and oil dependence."

Senate bill is worse: Details of the Senate version of the stimulus are dribbling out. Transit gets a little less than in the House, but about the same percentage compared to highways. Senate Appropriations will be marking up the bill today

The biggest difference is $5.5 billion in multi-modal "competitive grants" that the Secretary of Transportation can award to state and local governments "for projects that will have a significant impact on the Nation, a metropolitan area, or a region." Projects have to be able to finish within three years.

Most of the stimulus would get spent soon: Remember the controversial CBO report saying much of the stimulus wouldn't get spent until 2011? Turns out that's mostly wrong. The new CBO report is out today, and concludes that two-thirds will get spent within 18 months. As Yglesias says, 100% would be better. For any money that won't start in 2009, there's time to debate its proper spending more carefully.

Republicans leaning no: Many Congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senator John McCain, are claiming they will vote against the stimulus as it is today, wanting more tax cuts instead.

Call Pelosi (202-225-4965) and Obey (202-225-3365) today!

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Dinner links: cheap, plentiful parking spaces are like clean coal

I got a new way to park: WebUrbanist finds "15 Creative, Innovative & Hilarious Parking Solutions", from the giant VW factory cavern to falling into quicksand. Via Planetizen.


Photo via WebUrbanist.

Just say no: Bloomingdale's ANC will consider a curb cut request on First Street, for a row house without alley access. All of the houses in the row have regular stoops; a front garage will seriously defile the house. Yet another reason for some level of historic preservation? Or will the new "no curb cuts" policy nip this one in the bud? Update: the curb cut will connect to the back, not the front, to add only two private spaces while removing one shared public one.

A performance park? A letter writer asks, how about paying for the Mall's needed improvements by charging for parking on Mall roads? (tip: Michael); NPS wants a National Mall iPhone app; Arlington's CommuterPageBlog agrees with GGW on the message we should take away from the inauguration.

And: Another Georgetown corner store might go residential; NYC ponders cab sharing (which DC abolished with meters (tip: Bryan); Prince George's closes inside-the-Beltway schools while building new ones in sprawling greenfield areas.

This page is a mermaid: Bloomingdale, For Now notices clever ads on the Washington Post's "page not found" error pages. It's part of the same ad campaign as the mermaid, alien, and sasquatch posters in the Metro Center station.

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Fort Totten development plans pedestrian street

Earlier this month, DC officials announced another economic development deal to sell an unused parcel of public land for development. This parcel is very close to the Fort Totten Metro station, an area that has seen very little transit-oriented development despite its location on three Metro lines. Based on the publicly-released drawings, the project is working hard to create a walkable place where none exists today.


Rendering from the developers via DCMud. Click to enlarge.

The plan aims to turn a block of Riggs Road NE into a walkable business street. Besides a large grocery store, the drawings show small, individual shops along the street. Brightly striped crosswalks, wide sidewalks, and closely-spaced trees create a welcoming atmosphere. There's even on-street parallel parking on the redesigned Riggs Road.

Right now, the intersection of Riggs and South Dakota Avenue is a high-speed traffic zone, with ramps moving cars between the various roads in wide curves. This plan consolidates the intersection into one four-way intersection. Pedestrians will be able to cross at crosswalks instead of dodging traffic in freeway-like ramps.


Left: the area today (from Google Maps). Right: the proposed development. Click an image to enlarge.

Still, the new intersection, while a huge improvement, retains design elements that prioritize moving large numbers of vehicles over pedestrians. Most of the roads widen as they approach the intersection, to create a full complement of turn lanes. And one of the four crosswalks, along the south edge of South Dakota, is conspicuously absent.

Success or failure at transforming this area could presage how successful we can be at bringing urbanism to existing suburban areas like Tysons Corner, with its large arterials and cloverleaf intersections that planners couldn't remove or reconfigure.

Other elements of the plan may also hinder this area from fully transcending its present pedestrian-unfriendly character. Right in the middle of this walkable retail street is a break in the retail storefronts. Cars can traverse the sidewalk here to access the parking garage in the back of the project, underneath the four residential floors above. There are two other curb cuts for this parking, one on 3rd Street along the south side of the project, and the other on Chillum Place on the north side. Why couldn't all the cars enter and exit from these rear entrances? That would let Riggs, the main walkable street, maintain continuous storefronts and minimize conflicts between vehicles and pedestrians.

Finally, I wonder if we couldn't have broken up this parcel with new neighborhood streets. All of the blocks remain large, and small blocks are one of the most important factors contributing to walkability. The residential developments in the southeast don't appear to front on any streets at all, creating a bit of a "towers in the park" dynamic. And the back of the development is clearly a "back," with just the wall of the parking garage and no street engagement. At the moment, that's not a big deal, since there are only low, warehouse-style buildings across the street. But one day, others might redevelop those parcels, only they'll forever face the back of this development.

Despite these potential flaws, it'll bring major improvements to the area. While Brookland, Takoma, and others have seen development (and development controversies) in their underutilized land around their Metro stations, economic development has thus far passed Fort Totten by. As the only DC transfer station outside downtown, this area lead the city in transit-oriented development, not lag far behind.

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