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Posts from January 2010


What's That? #11

It's week #11 of What's That?

Each week I show small close-up photographs of three different well-known places in and around Washington, DC.

The first person to get all three wins recognition of his or her genius when I reveal the answers a few days later.

Post your guesses in the comments. Comments will be hidden until the winner is announced. I'll credit the first person to get each of the three individually as well as the person who first correctly guesses all three.



Scenes of Washington: Winter in Rock Creek Park



Then and Now: Kresge to Jaleo

S. S. KresgeJaleo

The property located at 712 E Street was originally constructed in 1918 by Frank L. Wagner and designed by A. B. Mullet and Company. It was a two-story concrete framed building with brick and terra-cotta clad facades. While the building exhibited the influence of Chicago school architecture during the early part of the 20th century, its low building height emphasized the horizontal rather than the vertical that was typical of Chicago. The grade level of the facade was later remodeled in the Art Moderne style.

The space was occupied by the S. S. Kresge Co. into the early 1970s when the Historic American Building Survey images were taken. Shortly after the survey, construction began on the Metro underneath Seventh Street. By February 1987, the buildings were empty and included in the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation's plans for revitalizing the area. Developers were required to present plans preserving and restoring the facades of three buildings—the Eighth Street and E Street sides of Lansburgh's; the Busch building; and the Kresge building.

Today, Jaleo is in the old S. S. Kresge Co. space, and has been since 1993.

Historic images from Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress.

S. S. Kresge Co.Jaleo


Virginia Board members stand up for openness

Amid the budget debates at the WMATA Board yesterday, three of the Virginia members took an important stand for transparency and public involvement by pushing for early release of the proposed budget.

Mayor Euille. Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

At their last meeting, the Board asked staff to release the budget for all to see at or before yesterday's meeting. But by the time the meeting was underway, the budget was still not out. Chris Zimmerman of Arlington asked why it wasn't in their packets and wasn't posted online.

Staff replied that then-Chairman Jim Graham and presumptive Chairman Peter Benjamin (who was later elected Chairman) asked for the budget to be moved to the executive session for the Board to discuss before public release. Alexandria Mayor William Euille, one of the alternate members, thought that was inappropriate, and said so.

Supevisor Catherine Hudgins, the principal member from Fairfax County, pointed out that the Board had asked for public release. Also, she added, "this is the General Manager's budget," and as such shouldn't go just to the Board but to everyone.

Graham and Benjamin had no objection to releasing the budget, and ordered staff to do so while taking the budget off the executive session agenda. It took until the end of the day, however. One day, in this situation, doesn't make much difference, but it's a remnant of that persistent mentality that the Board should filter budget information before the public sees it.

Had the budget been presented in executive session, the Board might also have discussed their views on the budget in that session. We deserve to hear Board members' views on issues that aren't strictly about legal or personnel matters, which the budget is not.



WMATA releases preliminary budget, gap now $190M

There's no time to rest. Just hours after the WMATA Board approved a resolution to the FY2010 budget, staff released the General Manager's preliminary budget for FY2011, which starts July 1.

Photo by pberry.

According to the report, the recent labor arbitration and a continued decline in revenues have pushed the budget shortfall to almost $190 million, about $15 million more than the previously anticipated shortfall.

As advocates and some Board members requested, the report encompasses more cuts and revenue increases than necessary. That will give riders and the Board a larger menu to choose from. Not everything on this list needs to happen for WMATA to have a balanced budget. However, many ideas that we've discussed here still don't appear on the list.

The report includes:

Subsidy increases ($40 million): Although none of the jurisdictions has yet volunteered to increase its contribution to support WMATA, local transit advocacy groups like Transit First (of which Greater Greater Washington is a member),, Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Sierra Club all called on the local governments to increase their support for WMATA.

Director Chris Zimmerman from Virginia mentioned this need during a board meeting on Thursday, and with the door now open, Metro staff put this into the budget. Still, it'd be a tough sell: It's hard times for all local governments, who are looking to reduce most expenditures, not increase them.

Fare increases ($89.2 million): Continuing the recently approved ten cent fare increase would raise about $35 million. That increase expires at the end of June. WMATA is considering the following increases, all of which have to be approved to raise the required budget amount:

  • Rail: Fares increase about 15% overall. Regular (peak) fares will increase to $1.90-5.00, with a peak surcharge of an additional ten cents during 7:30-9 am and 4:30-6 pm. Reduced (off-peak) fares will increase to $1.55 to $2.70. Passes would increase proportionally, and transfers would be good for only 2 hours instead of 3. This raises $64 million.
  • Bus: Fares increase to $1.50 with a SmarTrip card, or $3.75 for express buses. The 5A and B30 will be $6.00, and transfers will only be good for two hours instead of three. Metro's popular flash bus pass, used by over 20% of riders, will increase from $12.00 to $15.00 per week, becoming equivalent to ten single rides. This raises $23.7 million.
  • Paratransit: Fares increase to $3.00 per ride. WMATA says charging the equivalent fare to rail service was considered. This raises $1.1 million.
  • Other: Bike lockers will cost $200 per year instead of $70 to raise $200,000.
Administrative staff reductions ($16.3 million): More staff cuts, likely from the Information Technology, Financial Services, and Corporate Strategy and Communications departments, though this is not entirely clear. Metro's administrative staff has been the source of two years of budget-balancing reductions.

Rail service cuts ($15.4 million): All the proposed rail service cuts from this past budget round are back, with larger budget impacts because they would be implemented for the whole year. Only $15.4 million out of the proposed $23.4 million in changes has to be approved to meet the budget target:

  • Less frequent trains: Same as previously proposed, 15 minutes between trains during the daytime, as much as 30 minutes at night. This saves $8.5 million.
  • Shorter trains: No 8 car trains during peak, which would save $2.7 million.
  • Shorter hours: Open later on weekdays by half an hour, open later by an hour and up to three hours on weekends. This saves up to $7.7 million.
  • Closed entrances: Close ten station entrances on weekends, close 5 station entrances at 8pm on weekdays. I assume it's the same list as proposed before. $870,000.
  • Closed stations: Metro doesn't explain what exactly they mean, but closing three stations on the weekends could save $100,000.
  • No Yellow Line weekends: On weekends or during late night (after 9:30 pm), operate the Yellow line only as a shuttle between King Street and Huntington, requiring passengers to transfer to the Blue line. Saves $1.32 million.
  • No Yellow Line north of Mt. Vernon Square: Eliminate the Yellow line extension to Fort Totten, all the time. Saves $1.84 million.

Bus service cuts ($18.3 million): This is really too long to list, but it's comprehensive. Trips are eliminated, buses will come less frequently, routes and segments are eliminated, weekend late night service is cut, and bus stops are cut.

Bus stop reduction to five per mile on four lines in DC would save $800,000 per year. Similar bus stop reduction proposals in Virginia and Maryland would save $250,000. WMATA proposed a total of $26.5 million in cuts, of which $18.3 million have to be taken to balance the budget.

MetroAccess service cuts ($10 million): WMATA is considering reducing the service area to the federally-mandated 3/4 mile corridor and the hours of service for that corridor, implementing conditional eligibility for new participants, and charging the equivalent transit fare, which could include rail transit fare for trips that non-participants would typically travel by rail.

What do you think? Next week, we'll post our reactions.


Breakfast links: How to spend federal money

Image by brunoboris.
$8 billion, high-speed: The Obama administration awarded $8 billion for high speed rail, primarily to California, Tampa-Orlando, and the Midwest.

The Washington region got some smaller grants, like $75 million for a third track in Prince William and Stafford Counties and various small projects on the Northeast Corridor. (The Transport Politic,, Scott, Gavin Baker, mcs)

9.6% of trips, 1.2% of money: The Alliance for Biking and Walking released a report on bicycle and pedestrian spending, saying that only 1.2% of federal transportation dollars go to these modes which comprise 9.6% of trips. (Streetsblog Capitol Hill) ... Virginia has the lowest per-capita rate of bike-ped funding in the nation, Maryland 45th. DC had the fourth-highest among cities. (The highest: Atlanta.) WashCycle extracts more details.

Money for less free parking: The California Senate approved financial incentives for cities to reduce free parking and reduce minimum parking requirements. (LA Times, Ben)

Indian freeway turns town square into barrier: India put a 4-lane freeway (with camel lanes) in place of a crowded 2-lane rural road that had also functioned somewhat like a town square. Now people can get to other cities faster and it triggered a new engineering college nearby, but designers didn't accommodate crossing pedestrians, and people cross all the time, leading to many more deaths.

Challenge BikeArlington: If you commute to or from Arlington by car, foot, or transit, BikeArlington wants to try to bike it faster for the "Bike Vs." challenge. Send them your commute details and see how their time stacks up against yours. (CommuterPageBlog)

3-foot passing closer to passing: It lost the Careless Driving misdemeanor and a rule against passing too closely, but the bill expanding the bicycle passing distance to 3 feet made it out of committee and is heading to the Senate floor. (VA Bicycling Federation)

Urbanist Republican(s) for Planning Board: Montgomery County has narrowed the field to five for the open Republican seat on the Planning Board. Friends of White Flint want Ken Hurdle, who has a strong commitment to New Urbanism. (Post, FLOG)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Superblocks near Metro, Part 1: Prince George's

Sprawl development comes with many impersonal, mobility-limiting, traffic inducing accouterments. Seven lane roads, grass berms, curb cuts, enormous setbacks, corporate drive-thru fast food restaurants, strip malls... the list is long and ugly. But perhaps the most basic symptom of poorly thought-out suburban planning is in the street grid: the superblock.

Superblocks in Montreal. Photo by Joel Mann.

Superblocks destroy the permeability of the street networks, force large amounts of traffic onto arterial highways and virtually destroying the pedestrian environment. They breed excessive setbacks, and are often fronted by the omnipresent berm. Many of them house big box stores. They are often served by wide culs-de-sac that lead to acres of surface parking. And there are a surprising number of them adjacent to Metro.

When superblocks are present near Metro stations, they are veritable barriers to safe and consistent access. Though they may contain inroads, by definition the do not contain a tangible public route through them. This forces circuitous routes to the station or unsafe cut-throughs that may not be safe or legal.

I expected to find them in Prince George's County. It is known for poor development around train stations. I did not expect to find them strung along entire routes, almost like an anti-transit-oriented development. But along the Orange and Blue Lines, such is the case.

The maps below show all the self-contained superblocks within approximately one mile of Metro stations.

View Superblocks PG Orange in a larger map.

View Superblocks PG Blue in a larger map.

I suppose one should not expect much better from an area that considers a concrete plant a wise use of real estate near an underused mass transit station.

The Green Line is no better. On the south side, the spaces between many of the stations are nothing but giant superblocks. A cul-de-sac neighborhood pod here, a shopping center pod there, all the while a failed opportunity to lay a continuous permeable street grid with coherent approaches to the stations, not to mention connecting residents to shopping to jobs.

Prince George's County is not exactly known for its pedestrian safety, either. With a lack of safe approaches to stations, pedestrians are forced along roads like Branch Avenue, Silver Hill Road, and Auth Road, which have little design considerations for pedestrians. Here's a look at southern leg of the Green Line:

View Superblocks PG Green South in a larger map.

The northern leg of the Green Line goes through many older communities in Hyattsville and College Park. Yet areas around the stations tend to be suburban blobs that neither embrace nor compliment the adjacent neighborhoods, which are traditionally laid out communities that have been there for over 100 years.

West Hyattsville is a veritable blank slate, with little development of any kind occurring near the station. Prince George's Plaza still has a giant mall encased in parking hallmarking a long list of poor land use by the station. College Park, which is a larger regional transit center, has experienced little more than cookie-cutter office box development near the station. "Greenbelt" serves a relatively low density North College Park neighborhood and a surface parking lot suitable for landing military aircraft, but it has little coherent connection to the City of Greenbelt.

Instead of a string of pearls for TOD, it appears that the areas around Metro stations are pock marks on otherwise neatly planned areas, a truly absurd reversal of what you might normally expect in transit oriented areas:

View Superblocks PG Green in a larger map.

Infill construction along the existing Metro stations could profoundly affect the local economy. Breaking up the superblocks, tearing out the parking lots and cheap monolithic building complexes and replacing them with integrated communities with permeable street and pedestrian connections can make more economical use of the existing high-demand land, attracting jobs and residents.

Jobs and residents mean a greater tax base, which could go toward improving county schools, fighting crime, or cleaning up pollution. Until then, Prince George's will continue to have some of the lowest ridership amongst its Metro stations, high pedestrian death rates, and lower property values than other areas near Metro.


Board approves no service cuts

The WMATA Board just approved a FY2010 budget plan much like Option 4, with no service increases reductions and an across-the-board fare surcharge of 10¢.

Arlington's Chris Zimmerman created a resolution that modified Option 4 based on what he and other members heard last night. Among them was a directive to make more administrative cuts in lieu of some use of capital dollars.

Jim Graham spoke against the resolution, arguing that using some capital dollars would not take away from needed preventative maintenance, but ultimately allowed it to proceed without using the veto.

The resolution was not posted online during the meeting. I'll update with the details once it's available.

After the vote, Zimmerman also took a step that many of us had been urging: he publicly called for individual jurisdictions to try to increase their contributions. They all are facing tight budgets and deep cuts in many areas, he agreed, but argued that the possibility of increasing subsidies needs to be on the agenda as jurisdictions set their budgets. He'll make sure it's on Arlington's.

Update: Here is the summary of rider input at the hearing:

  • Support for Option #1: less than 1%
  • Support for Option #2: 1%
  • Support for Option #3: 3.5%
  • Support for Option #4: 21.2%
  • General opposition to modifying service: 54.6%
  • General support for increasing fares: 55.7%
  • Increasing fares 5 or 10 cents: 5.1%
  • Increasing fares above 10 cents: 6.3%
  • Support for using Metro's capital funds sparingly to close the gap: 18.2%
  • Opposition to using any capital funds to close the gap: 6.2%
  • Speculation that proposed modifications to service will cause people to abandon Metro: 17.5%
  • Opposition to changing rail headways or shortening trains: 15.9%
  • Opposition to reducing rail service hours: 17.8%
  • Support for closing certain rail station mezzanines: 3%
  • Opposition to closing certain rail station mezzanines: 8%
  • Opposition to changing bus headways: 5%
  • Opposition to reducing the number of bus stops: 2.6%


Is MoCo DOT stacking the BRAC deck for an underpass?

The Montgomery DOT is kicking off a NEPA study of the Medical Center Metro area, and at a meeting last week, officials insisted that all options are on the table, including underpasses, overpasses, elevators, pedestrian-only crossings, pedestrian and vehicle crossings, and more.

Photo by eddie.welker.

The end goal is to modify the Rockville Pike/MD 355 area between NIH and Navy Med (soon to be Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) to accommodate the influx of new workers from BRAC.

It's good to see the County clearly focus on improving access for pedestrians, cyclists, and riders of all modes of transit. But despite officials' insistence that they're open to all options, they continue to sound attached to the idea of building a roadway underpass with a sidewalk, and the wording of the Purpose and Need statement seems to presume that conclusion.

Here's a recap of the tortured saga: Metro conducted a study with Montgomery County's blessing about improving access from Navy Med to the Medical Center Metro station across the street. The alternatives looked at a pedestrian underpass and/or a new elevator entrance on the Navy side. The idea was to use a TIGER grant, BRAC money, or other money to let the thousands of workers who take Metro to Navy Med exit on the Navy Med side instead of having to cross over Rockville Pike.

At the very last minute, once the TIGER application was almost complete, Montgomery County representatives to TPB suddenly changed the wording to "multimodal underpass," which foreclosed the possibility of building elevators with TIGER money. They also included a proprietary design from Clark Construction, which ACT member Richard Hoye managed to obtain, which showed a 4-lane interchange-like set of roads with a sidewalk for pedestrians. ACT further discovered that Clark's submission was part of a larger proposal to build Beltway off-ramps directly through the Navy property, a concept that the Navy didn't like at all.

At a public meeting last week, Montgomery DOT head Arthur Holmes, deputy Edgar Gonzalez, and BRAC Coordinator Phil Alperson insisted that this was never the plan, and therefore it's not a "secret plan" as we charged. The Clark proposal was unsolicited, they explained, and they just included it in the TIGER application to increase the chances of getting the grant. Specifically regarding the offramp portion of the proposal-not-plan, they say that the County has rejected this possibility and is not pursuing it.

That's great to hear. However, officials still seem to have made up their minds to build an underpass rather than a direct entrance to the Metro station.

Any NEPA study starts with a Purpose and Need, and the way those are worded strongly influences the outcome. If the purpose of an intersection study is to "facilitate vehicle traffic," you're likely to end up with a different project than "facilitate pedestrian, bicycle, transit and single-passenger vehicle access" or something.

This study's draft Purpose and Need does not focus on moving vehicles. That's great, though it also spends a lot of time talking about how the pedestrians crossing the road slow down vehicles.

The draft Purpose and Need also builds in assumptions, such as that people need to cross MD-355. It reads:

The purpose of the MD 355/Rockville Pike Crossing project is to improve the movement of the traveling public between the west and east sides of MD 355/Rockville Pike at its intersection with South Wood Road and South Drive in Bethesda, Maryland. This transportation project is intended to: (1) enhance/improve access to mass transit facilities; and (2) improve the mobility and safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency and transit vehicles crossing MD 355/Rockville Pike in Bethesda, Maryland.
There's a lot that's good about this Purpose and Need. It emphasizes access to transit, and the mobility and safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit vehicles.

However, it does assume that crossing the Pike is the objective. Why, necessarily, is that the objective? Let's say that one option were a personal helicopter system that would bring workers from set launch pads near their homes right to Navy Med. Many of those workers come from east of Rockville Pike, meaning they never have to "cross" the road. This study, however, would not weigh that option very highly because it doesn't help people "cross."

We have such a system. It's not personal helicopters, but it's a fast system that whisks people from many places across the region right to the doorstep of the facility. It's called Metrorail. And if people arrive via Metrorail and can get out of the train on the Navy Med side, they don't need to cross anything.

In an email, County Executive Ike Leggett wrote, "After BRAC there will be 6,700 pedestrian and cyclist [sic] crossing the Pike every day." That's only true if all of the Metrorail riders have to cross the Pike at all. With the elevator entrance, the study predicted that only 1,320 people would still cross, less than the number who cross today.

Gonzalez noted at the meeting that not everyone takes Metrorail. Some people arrive by Ride On or Metrobus, for example, and those buses do stop on the west side of the Pike. That's true, and an underpass might increase their safety. However, a Metrorail entrance would also increase safety. The current Metro station has poor fire evacuation facilities, and the east side entrance would have included fire stairs along with the high-speed elevators able to evacuate people in case of fire.

A good study needs to weigh all of the safety implications of options whether or not they get people to "cross" the Pike. If an option separates traffic and pedestrians but encourages more people to drive, pushes some people to cross the street at-grade anyway, and doesn't improve evacuation from the Metro station, is it really safer in the broader sense, or just safer on paper for the small numbers of users that you're studying while ignoring the greater implications of any change?

The unsolicited not-a-plan from Clark would have required Metro riders to walk far out of the way, along a more circuitous route than they do today when they cross the street. This study might come up with a much more direct connection. It could even demonstrate that such a connection is superior to the Metro elevator entrance.

However, with the current Purpose and Need, the study will inevitably recommend grade separation whether or not that's best. The County should amend the Purpose and Need to remove references to "crossing" 355 and replace them with something like "accessing jobs on either side of 355."

It should include something about maximizing the available capacity on existing transit infrastructure by providing transit riders (bus and rail) with the shortest possible paths between transit and jobs. And any evaluation of safety should, at the very least, consider the safety implications of fire egress from the existing station, the safety effects from attracting more vs. fewer rail and bus riders, and the likelihood that some people will cross the street at-grade if the underpass requires walking farther than the direct crossing.

Montgomery officials say they are really open-minded. Now is a great opportunity to show that they are and to move beyond the secrecy, finger-pointing, and accusations of lying that have been flying back and forth by making this study a real, honest evaluation of the best way to get people to their jobs, by any mode, on either side of 355.


Riders pack efficient hearing to push for Option 4

Over 170 riders gave their opinions of the WMATA FY2010 budget at last night's hearing. Almost all argued against service cuts, and among those who picked one of the four options, they overwhelmingly recommended Option 4, the 10¢ 4-month fare hike.

Image by iMetro.

Many noted the difficult choice Metro faces; both the Examiner and WAMU quoted Rodney Green, who analogized the situation to a hero in an action movie where the villain makes him chose between cutting off an arm or putting out an eye. (WAMU also quoted me on the dangers of the "death spiral.")

A number loudly called for the resignation of Metro's management and/or Board, often to applause from the audience. But for every rider voicing their understandable frustration with exhortations that would be counterproductive, another gave considered and constructive input.

The large number of riders was no surprise, but more unexpected was Metro's efficient handling of the huge crowds packing WMATA HQ, which no room large enough for all the people, and the speedy conduct of the hearing.

The line outside. Photo by iMetro.
When I arrived, a few minutes late, there was a long line out the door to get through security. Metro staff were telling us the Board room was full, and they weren't sure whether everyone would get into the building. But a few minutes later, they said an overflow room was set up with a live video feed of the main Board room hearing.

Metro split up the speakers into two rooms, with about half the Board members in each, and quickly moved through the speakers limiting everyone to two minutes. As the main rooms cleared, they invited people waiting in the overflow rooms to move. Metro staff were everywhere with large, prominent name tags, directing traffic.

They took speakers in the order they checked in, rather than the order they signed up. While I'd signed up early and was about #15 on the list, I got speaking number 50 out of about 70 speakers signed up in advance. Everyone who didn't sign up got to go after the registered speakers. I assumed that, with 49 people scheduled before me, I'd be waiting until about 10:30 for the hearing which began a bit after 5:30, but to my surprise, I spoke at 7:15. By 7:30 the other of the two rooms, which was moving even faster, had completely finished their speaker list.

The Board will debate the budget at their meeting today. It starts at 11, but with the budget late on the agenda, it might be well into the afternoon before we know more.

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