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Posts from January 2012


Solar Decathlon move a loss for DC, Decathlon, and the US

Last week, the Department of Energy announced the Solar Decathlon would not be held in DC in 2013. The move is a big loss for city of Washington, the National Mall, the Decathlon itself, and even US climate policy.

Say goodbye to this view. Photo by US Dept of Energy.

The Solar Decathlon has been held in DC every time since its inception in 2002. In its first 4 iterations, it occupied a prominent place on the National Mall. Last year's event faced a rockier road in its planning stages, eventually landing in West Potomac Park.

While DOE touted a move as an opportunity to "expand the excitement excitement generated by the competition and encourage participation from new communities," it's hard to think the 2011 planning troubles didn't make the decision just a bit easier.

Last January, the Department of Energy announced the Decathlon would not take place on the Mall as it had the previous four times. Word was the Department of the Interior, home to the inimitable National Park Service, had pressured DOE because of the Decathlon's negative impact on the Mall's otherwise pristine greenery. NPS applauded the move.

Rumors later surfaced that the Decathlon would land at National Harbor, the bastion of sustainability located outside the Beltway, with dismal transit access and no incidental foot traffic.

After protests from competitors, fans and even Congress members, DOE finally settled on West Potomac Park, at least in central DC, though not terribly convenient or visible. As a result, the organizers had to provide a costly shuttle service from the closest metro stations. The permit conditions and the lack of large paths also required they lay down more tile flooring than ever before to protect the park's grass.

Whatever the cause of the westward move, it will be real detriment to Washington, DC and to the vitality of our monumental core. The National Mall, which has been called a failed public space, suffers from a lack of nearby residences and non-museum attractions.

The two weeks of the Solar Decathlon is the only time you can find dwelling units other than the White House in the region's most central, yet least populated Census tract. Since several team members have to live in their houses, the event literally doubles the population.

Most events on the mall last several hours or a day, attracting people for a very specific purpose only to cast them out again as soon as the event is over. People come for the event, not for the place.

The Solar Decathlon turned the National Mall into a destination, a true place with an interesting streetscape. While the hours to go in the houses were limited, people could admire the craftsmanship from outside any time of day. This encouraged lingering, what Jane Jacobs called one of the most important functions of a good public space.

The Decathlon's placemaking ability was apparent this year, despite its less-than-optimal location. West Potomac Park, which is typically only visited by kickballers and 10k runners, felt lively for two weeks.

It was also a great opportunity for residents and visitors of the nation's capital and fastest growing city to see the potential beauty in compact, energy-efficient living. I can attest to this.

During this year's Decathlon, I was right in the middle of the first-time home buying experience. We were feeling the temptation of the "go farther, get more" mindset that fueled the inexorable creep of suburbia. Seeing small, but beautiful and impeccably designed entries emphasized to us what you can do very little space. We came away fascinated, and firmer in our resolve to forgo space in order to find a excellent urban location.

How did the Decathlon end up in Orange County? The City of Irvine and the Orange County Great Park fought for it.

Meanwhile, it's unclear if NPS even submitted a bid. When asked, DOE said it couldn't release a list of applicants or discuss specific bids. I contacted NPS last week to see if they or an associated group had submitted a bid for the Mall. They haven't yet responded.

Of course, given the agency's joy at this year's move from the Mall, it's doubtful they made much effort to keep it here.

Where other regions have entities that fight to bring vibrant events like the Solar Decathlon in, the Washington region does not. Residents here suffer because the Park Service, as a national entity, doesn't actually represent their interests, though they are its most immediate stakeholders.

It's only fair that the Department of Energy spread the love of the Solar Decathlon around the country. But the US loses the ability to truly showcase its commitment to sustainability. Building two dozen passive houses on America's front lawn, blocks from the halls of power, sends a powerful message.

The Solar Decathlon certainly attracts visitors from afar on its own. But it also benefits immensely from being located in a place where there are hundreds of thousands of other travelers who would stop by given the easy opportunity.

Washington, DC is the nation's capital and a huge, international tourist destination. Irvine, California, is a distant suburb of Los Angeles with 215,000 people. Not much of a showcase.

Even in West Potomac Park, with the Washington Monument peeking over the trees on one end, and the Jefferson Memorial rotunda on the other, it was still clear where you were.

Not any more. Moving the Decathlon around has some merit, but the new location is a true shame. Few think of sustainability when they think about Orange County.


Anacostia loses another 19th century home from neglect

For the past two decades Hannah Hawkins has watched a 120-year-old house gradually deteriorate behind the community center she runs in historic Anacostia. The crumbling home at 2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE will be demolished this spring.

2228 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The Department of Housing and Community Development has owned the home and several adjacent properties since July 2010. DHCD filed for the raze because, as a historic preservation official noted, "all the exterior walls seemed to be leaning and not necessarily in the same direction."

Losing this building will create yet another hole in a historic district which has more than its share of empty lots thanks to demolition by neglect. Developers say it will likely take years before anything is built here, meaning Anacostia residents will have to live with this damaged urban fabric for quite some time.

The Historic Preservation Review Board worried that allowing the raze would encourage other property owners to just let buildings deteriorate and then apply to tear them down rather than spend the money to fix the historic structures. HPRB allowed the process to continue once DHCD created a plan to preserve the other 3 adjacent properties on the "Big K site," 2234, 2238 and 2252 MLK.

DHCD's neighborhood holdings

Anacostia's Historic District has been endangered for decades. Photo by the author.
DHCD currently owns more than a half dozen properties, not including the Big K site, within the Anacostia Historic District, incorporated in the 1970s. It is looking for developers for 4 properties (1201 and 1203 Good Hope Road SE, 1615 V Street SE, and 1326 Valley Place SE).

A 3-story red brick apartment complex at 1700 to 1720 W Street SE is in the process of being sold, and 1648 U Street SE is moving through the Residential Turnkey Initiative, where the District retains ownership of properties during development.

With pressure from residents and the Historic Preservation Review Board, DHCD has "develop[ed] a more strategic approach to acquiring properties in the historic district, which would include a pre-acquisition analysis to determine the scope of work to stabilize a building," according to materials the agency submitted to the HPRB.

In other words, DHCD agrees that it shouldn't buy a building if it can't care for it.

DHCD also announced plans to work with the Historic Preservation Office to create a "pattern book" that "would suggest basic architectural styles that are representative of Anacostia's Historic District." This pattern book would guide developers of vacant lots to "ensure that DHCD-owned property is compatible with the historic district, while still providing opportunities for affordable housing," said Denise Johnson, a former HPRB member hired by DHCD to work on historic preservation issues.

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, which owns vacant properties in Anacostia, Deanwood, Trinidad/Ivy City, and other neighborhoods should also be guided by a similar preservation plan, HPRB members agreed.

Absent from both the community meeting earlier last week and Thursday's hearing was DHCD's Director John Hall. Catherine Buell, Chair of HPRB and a resident of the Anacostia Historic District, asked about Hall's whereabouts. The answer: Hall has to prepare for February budget hearings.

With Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown calling for an investigation into DHCD, Hall should make a conscientious effort to be as accessible and transparent as possible. However, his recent absence hints at problems for an organization that looks to be coming under newfound and needed scrutiny.


Big K lot on the 2200 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Historic Anacostia. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.
When Rosalind Wheeler Styles was growing up at 2228 Nichols Avenue SE in the 1960s she often sat on the front porch watching the activity of the street below.

"You could watch people going into the Safeway, going to the drug store to get an ice cream float, or going to the Curtis Brothers furniture store," said Styles, who remembers an Anacostia long since changed.

Hawkins, whose community center at 2263 Mount View Place SE is across the alley behind the wood frame home, has more immediate memories of the home and its deterioration. The Kushner family, notorious owners of the Big K Liquor store, woefully neglected the property, which was last occupied in the 1970s.

"There was trash everywhere. Homeless men were sleeping on the back porch," said Hawkins, who recalls repeatedly chasing off squatters until a fence was erected around the lot some years ago.

Although not required to notify the lot's conterminous neighbors, the city government has failed to make a good faith effort to contact Hawkins or Dale Richardson, the owner of Astro Motors at 2226 MLK Avenue, about the city's pending plans to demolish 2228.

Until a recent visit from Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry's staff, Hawkins had not heard from city officials and subsequently decried the city's handling of the property as "criminal" at a meeting at DHCD's headquarters, a short walk from the community center.

Hawkins chastised city officials as "interlopers" who antagonize residents by imposing their plans on communities not before the fact, but after. "And I don't plan to try to play catch up. If you're not going to knock on my door or call me on the telly then so be it," finished Hawkins.

"That house means a lot to me because it was a refuge for me," said Bill Jackson, who first crept into 2228 MLK in November of 2010 to seek shelter from the streets. Jackson, now in an apartment off Southern Avenue, says the home's demolition "will be a sad day for a lot of people in the neighborhood."


Cafritz project tests Prince George's commitment to TOD

The owners of the Cafritz property in Riverdale Park want a zoning change to build a major mixed-use development on a wooded, 37-acre single-family-zoned property with, at best, mediocre access to transit. If Prince George's County is serious about its commitment to smart growth and development around its 15 Metro stations, it will deny the rezoning.

Boulevard at Cap Centre, a better site for this development. Image from Google Earth

In recent years, Prince George's has repeatedly rezoned low-density sites with poor transit access all around the county, such as the Westphalia and Konterra mega-projects.

The county is desperate to attract high-quality mixed-use development, but all too often, this desperation leads it to act against its own best interests. Each time the county allows a huge project in any arbitrary location, it becomes less likely that the right kind of development will come to the Metro sites.

The Cafritz owners want to build 2 million square feet of mixed-use commercial, residential, and hotel space, including a Whole Foods Market. Building the retail there would make stores less likely to locate at other sites which are closer to transit and already zoned for high-density mixed-use development, like the Boulevard at Capital Centre near the Largo Town Center Metro, University Town Center at Prince George's Plaza, or Arts District Hyattsville.

On February 2, the Prince George's County Planning Board of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) will resume its deliberations over whether to recommend the rezoning to the County Council. The County Council will then hold a second public hearing and receive additional public comments before deciding whether to rezone the property.

Recently, I argued that the Boulevard at Capital Centre is a better location for the Whole Foods and the rest of the project. Alex Block argued, "Metro isn't the be-all and end-all of transit. The [Cafritz] project is a perfectly reasonable infill development site."

The Cafritz property site may indeed be perfectly reasonable for some kind of infill development, such as a suburban residential subdivision of 200 homes with some limited "corner store"-type convenience retail. But 2 million square feet of development, including 995 housing units and more than 370,000 square feet of retail, office, and hotel space, is not a reasonable infill project for that location. That's more than 4 times the size of the current development at the Boulevard at Cap Centre, near a Metro station.

Without excellent existing transit options, this much development will induce a disastrous amount of auto traffic. Even the Planning Board staff says the traffic generated by this proposed development will exceed countywide master plan of transportation vehicle limits for the US-1/East-West Highway area. (See pp. 33-36 of the staff report.)

Meanwhile, the 69-acre Boulevard site can easily accommodate the level of development proposed for Cafritz Property. It's also already zoned for high-density mixed use development. In fact, the county's 2002 General plan designated the Largo Town Center station area as a "Metropolitan Center," suitable for the most intensive "downtown-style" development in the county. The county Revenue Authority owns the Boulevard site, so it could easily facilitate this development.

The Boulevard site is already cleared, so developing there would not require further deforestation and could even improve stormwater treatment by replacing the existing sea of surface parking with buildings and additional trees. The Largo Town Center Metro would absorb more of the travel demand, and deevlopment here would be more consistent with the county's master plan of transportation and with smart growth principles generally.

Besides taking retail and housing demand away from potential Metro sites, the Caftitz project could detract from nearby mixed-use projects already in progress. The brand-new 25-acre Arts District Hyattsville development is just 1 mile south of the Cafritz site. Although construction is still underway on the first phase of that development, the entire project will eventually have 500 housing units and 40,000 SF of commercial space when completed.

Similarly, about 1.3 miles to the west of the Cafritz site, near Prince George's Plaza Metro Station, sits the 56-acre University Town Center development. Construction began in earnest on that site in the 1990s and was really beginning to gain momentum in the mid-2000s, until the economy tanked. Recently, several buildings in that development were foreclosed upon and are being held by Wells Fargo, until the original developer can recover or a new owner is found.

There is still oodles of space remaining at UTC for high-density mixed-use residential and commercial development of the type proposed for the Cafritz site, without the need for any zoning changes or clearing of wooded land. Furthermore, UTC is within a half-mile of a Metro station and can accommodate any additional need for high-density retail, residential, and commercial development in the surrounding retail market area, which includes nearby Riverdale Park.

Before authorizing the up-zoning of new greenfield sites like the Cafritz property, the county should insist that developers maximize the development potential at existing Metro stations, such as the Boulevard at Cap Centre or University Town Center, or at existing inner-Beltway mixed use projects like Arts District Hyattsville. If Prince George's County is going to be successful in attracting the type of quality investment and development it says it wants around its Metro stations, its leaders have to be disciplined about following the county's comprehensive land use policies.

The county can't keep approving the wrong type of development in the wrong locations just because a particular property owner or developer wants it. It would be great for the county to gain 2 million square feet of high-quality transit-oriented development, but that needs to happen at the Largo Town Center Metro or one of the other existing Metro station areas in need of such high-intensity development.


New building raises Silver Spring's urban design standard

Former Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey once said, "there are so many bad buildings in Silver Spring, it's a hard place to do good." Yet some architects and developers are trying to do better here.

One of Silver Spring's many examples of poor urban design. Image from Google Maps.

Last month, ground was broken on Eleven55 Ripley, a new residential complex in the Ripley District, located west of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring. With a mix of housing and shops, buildings that engage the street, and thoughtfully-designed public space, it makes an effort to enhance the surrounding neighborhood.

Eleven55 was designed by Georgetown-based architects Shalom Baranes and is being built by national apartment developer Home Properties, who have also teamed up to redevelop the Falkland Chase apartments at East-West Highway and 16th Street. It will have 385 apartments and townhomes, including 49 subsidized units for low-income families as required by law, and 5,500 square feet of ground-floor retail space, about the size of a Red Lobster.

The residential component comes in three parts:

Ripley Street North (Ripley Street at Dixon Avenue)

A 20-story apartment tower with studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units. Home Properties claims it will be the tallest building in Silver Spring, but at 200 feet tall, it's actually just the tallest apartment tower, because there are four taller office buildings in downtown Silver Spring. The tallest building in Montgomery County, meanwhile, will be this 300 foot tall apartment tower in White Flint.

Not everyone will love the sleek, modern design, though one of the commenters on the Just Up the Pike Facebook page called it a "watered-down" version of The Standard Hotel in New York, which is encouraging.

The long strip windows are an interesting break from the typical window-balcony-window rhythm of many residential buildings. It's not totally clear from these images what materials will be used on the building's exterior, but it looks comparable to the metal cladding used on Cityline, a building Shalom Baranes designed in Tenleytown.

Rowhouses (Ripley Street west of Dixon Avenue)

At the tower's base will be 7 row houses with rooftop decks. This is a variation of the "Vancouver point tower," which is basically an apartment tower with townhouses on the bottom. It kills two birds with one stone, providing the density of a high-rise building above while creating a low-rise, human-scaled experience at the street level.

Not only does this put people on the sidewalks, but it gives them something interesting to look at, not just driveways like some other downtown Silver Spring buildings.

Loft Building (Ripley Street at Dixon Avenue)

A 5-story "loft-style" building with apartments and retail space. The Planning Department says this building will be about 80 feet high, suggesting that there will be some nice, tall ceilings inside. I'm not sure if storefront retail would be successful here, as it's currently a little off the beaten path. Improving the site's connections to the surrounding area will be important.

New Site Plan

That's why the project also includes an extension of Dixon Avenue, which currently ends a block north at Bonifant Street. Home Properties will build the portion of the new street that passes through their site. Eventually, Dixon Avenue will continue south to Silver Spring Avenue.

Along with another new street connecting Ripley and Bonifant, Dixon Avenue will connect Eleven55 to the Metro and the rest of downtown Silver Spring. This will require tearing out part of the massive public parking garage on Bonifant or removing it completely, which may not happen for a long time.

Perspective, Proposed Open Space

Finally, the developer will build a quarter-acre pocket park at the with public art commemorating the life and works of environmentalist Rachel Carson, who wrote the book Silent Spring from her house in nearby White Oak.

Many of downtown Silver Spring's pocket parks are poorly designed and seldom used, but this one looks pretty good. For starters, placing it at the end of the block allows the new buildings to cozy up to the sidewalk, exactly as buildings in urban neighborhoods are supposed to do.

It's hard to imagine it today, but one day this park will be surrounded by a new Silver Spring Transit Center, several new buildings, and a partially elevated Purple Line. It'll be a valuable green oasis in the midst of the city, ensuring that people will want to use it.

Eleven55 isn't the only cool new building going up in the Ripley District. The Solaire apartments, being built across the street, will have live-work apartments that allow residents to run small businesses from home. At Ripley and Georgia Avenue is the new headquarters of translation company ALC, which placed a striking modern addition above a 1920's-era shop building.

The Ripley District may be a "made-up" neighborhood, but it's shaping up to be a pretty nice place. It's encouraging to see that architects and developers alike are beginning to embrace good urbanism, rather than settling for suburban-style buildings with huge driveways, as was once proposed for this site. Hopefully, Eleven55 will set the standard for new construction in downtown Silver Spring.


Breakfast links: Bring in the dough

Photo by Sharon Drummond on Flickr.
Brown puts tax cuts first: DC's FY 2011 surplus now stands at $240 million. Kwame Brown wants to spend it on tax cuts, but Mayor Gray wants no such thing. (Examiner)

A stop sign for a suburban Walmart: Big box retailers moving into White Flint and other areas inspired three bills in the Montgomery County Council to require a more urban form, like some of DC's Walmarts. (WAMU)

PG's sprawling problem: Overly permissive approval of sprawl development projects and a lack of quality jobs and housing near Metro has Prince George's struggling to meet its own goals for revitalizing its inner-Beltway communities. (Examiner)

Will Metro get fixed?: Will Metro ever stop having all the disruptions like cracked rails? Probably not, but the frequency of problems will gradually decline over time (assuming current repairs are made properly). (Post)

Restoration used to be racist: In the 1940s, efforts to restore Capitol Hill had a definite racist tone, with many people pushing restoration of homes to keep white families in them and opposing public housing which mainly held black residents. (SINM)

No need to watch for bikes, peds in Virginia: A Virginia House subcommittee decided drivers shouldn't be required to use care not to hit pedestrians or cyclists. Republican Barbara Comstock of McLean led the vote to kill a bill set that standard. (FABB)

VA House may cut unions from Silver Line: Comstock also wants to ban agreements requiring union workers for government projects like the Silver Line. Sponsors say it's needed to control costs, while opponents say safety will suffer. (Examiner)

Transportation bill a speeding SUV: Highway lobbying groups are trying to ram the House transportation bill through, and it's on a speedy schedule, with multiple markups this week. The Chamber of Commerce is spending $50,000 on lobbying. (Streetsblog)

And...: Inside the world of taxicab "hack" inspectors. (Post) ... The Connecticut Avenue median will be extended 600 feet this spring. (DCMud) ... Costco breaks ground in Northeast DC. (City Paper)

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Gaston: Move Ward 8 forward, together

I'm Commissioner Darrell Gaston, and I'm currently serving my second term as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 8 and Chairperson of ANC 8B. I'm running for the democratic nomination for DC Council in Ward 8, a seat currently held by Councilmember Marion Barry.

Photo from Darrell Gaston.

As a young man who grew up on welfare, I know we can do better creating a pathway that leads to self-sufficiency. Ward 8 is my home. I'm a product of this community and grew up in public housing. I know the value of home ownership and hard work.

My decision to run is not for fame and fortune, but to be a voice for my community. I am sick and tired of seeing residents routinely taken for granted under the current councilmember.

Ward 8 residents have been disserviced for generations. Barry's policies keep the poor content with the status quo and few services that actually improve their lives. Ward 8 residents are tough, strong, and resilient, and they deserve a real choice in this election. I intend to give them one.

When I was elected Commissioner, many people thought that I couldn't produce change. They said I was too young. We proved them all wrong. Over 100 adults transitioned off of welfare and are now working and becoming homeowners.

We held parents accountable for their children's education by focusing on wraparound services and challenging our neighborhood schools to be creative in finding new avenues to get parents involved. Parents also took advantage of GED classes.

We repaved 60% of our streets and replaced 40% of our sidewalks. Zoning changes helped fix vacant properties and converted them to affordable housing. We helped unemployed residents find work and mentored young people.

In the past 7 years under this councilmember, we have moved backward. Unemployment has doubled to over 30%. We added 16,000 new families to TANF, and 26,000 families now received food stamps.

This is not progress or success and our ward deserves better. I believe in helping people get on their feet, but we need to encourage our residents with opportunities to become successful, rather than dependent.

There is no better social program then a good paying job with benefits, and when elected, my top priority will be getting Ward 8 working again. The potential we have in Ward 8 is undeniable. If DC can build baseball stadiums and give millions to Marriott to build hotels, then we can invest in putting our 17,000 unemployed residents to work.

Under my leadership as ANC chair, we led the fight in getting people working again. We were creative by holding neighborhood businesses accountable to hire locally. When Giant food wanted a liquor license, we mandated that they not only hire community residents, but train them continuously so that our residents can build their skills in this ever-changing workforce. Guess what? They did.

Under the Barry leadership, this government has made it too easy for people to get public assistance and harder to get a job. We will change that! We have made a career out of telling people what they want to hear and not what they need to hear. What is missing in Ward 8 is a public servant who will stand on their morals and values and character.

During campaign season you see people you never saw before. It's easy to talk now with the cameras and lights glaring, but where were many of these same people when we had our neighborhood cleanups, rallies, and organized for jobs.

For me, this race is about a better Ward 8. I was born and raised here, and I owe it to my community to give back, to make sure that children and families now have a better shot than when I was coming up.

It's time to create opportunity, by focusing on rebuilding our communities. Join me, because together we can move Ward 8 forward. If you stand or walk in Ward 8, you see the potential of our waterfront destination at Poplar Point. You see a ward where schools are being renovated, potholes are being refilled, police officers are walking the beat keeping our communities safe, and amenities are being brought to Ward 8.

You see that the future of Ward 8 is in front of us. We are the backbone of DC, from historic Anacostia to Congress Heights, from Garfield to Washington Highlands, and from Knox Hill to Bellevue, history lives here. Our best days lie ahead, and that is why when we stand together, the possibilities of what we can achieve are endless. Will you help us?

Learn more at
Communicate at or 202-656-4043
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Darrell Gaston is a candidate for the DC Council from Ward 8. The views in this article are his and do not necessarily represent those of Greater Greater Washington. We invite all candidates running for the DC Council to share their views with our community, but reserve the right to edit posts to fit our content and format rules. If you are a candidate and would like to submit an article, please contact


Montgomery DOT roadblocks thwart popular BRT plan

A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network could bring major transportation improvements to Montgomery County. But instead of pushing to advance the project as soon as possible, county transportation officials have thrown up obstacles and mired the project in unnecessary delays.

BRT on converted travel lanes in downtown Cleveland. Image from Wikimedia.

Montgomery County's roadways are filled to capacity with single-passenger vehicles. To help Montgomery residents and workers get where they need to go, the county is considering an ambitious, and popular, 150-mile BRT network.

Unfortunately, while publicly embracing this idea, the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) is unwilling to do what must be done to make it succeed. Asked to find a few places where buses could be moved faster right now, MCDOT refused, saying that it had to do a study first, and then didn't start the study. MCDOT officials also insisted that planners weigh BRT against a preposterous assumption that every single car on the road is a 4-person carpool.

BRT could move far more people more quickly using the existing roadway space. The simple fact is that a bus-only lane can carry far more people than a general traffic lane, as long as bus service on that lane is fairly frequent. In the built-up business and residential districts along the county's busiest bus corridors, the only way to make room for BRT is to convert existing travel lanes into bus-only lanes.

Elsewhere, BRT will stop along major 6-lane arterials, at intersections which often have multiple turn lanes. There too, it's best to put the busway on existing lanes. Widening these roadways to add new lanes could defeat the intent of the transit plan to create walkable spaces, since 10-lane suburban highways are rarely welcoming to people on foot.

Converting lanes will not be easy. Traffic planners will need to use some trial and error to find the best configuration. If there is to be any hope of meeting the ambitious schedule that BRT proponents have laid out, the county needs to start quickly.

The learning process can start now. Montgomery can benefit now by designating a few short sections of bus lane right away. Even if full BRT is not running yet, there are many existing buses, often running at high frequency. WMATA's Priority Corridor Network Plan has already identified some good locations.

The County Council recognizes this need. Last April, then-Council President Valerie Ervin and all three Transportation and Environment Committee members (Roger Berliner, Hans Riemer, and Nancy Floreen) asked for immediate action to give buses higher priority at intersections. They also requested—"separately," they emphasized—a longer-range study of passenger throughput on the roads.

Unfortunately, MCDOT, which trumpets its support for BRT sometime in the future, expressed no interest in doing anything now. In an August reply, MCDOT Director Art Holmes said that nothing could be done to speed up buses until the passenger throughput study was complete. Nine months after the County Council letter, that study still has yet to begin.

While MCDOT stonewalled, the county Planning Board began its own work on the BRT plan. Staffer Larry Cole looked at the throughput issue and found that converting a car lane to BRT adds almost as much passenger capacity as building expensive new lanes.

MCDOT planning chief Edgar Gonzalez then emailed Cole insisting that he redo the calculation with the assumption that each car carries 4 people. Cole found, of course, that roads would carry a lot more people if each car had a driver and three passengers.

Four people per private car is clearly an absurd assumption. If the county could impose an HOV-4 rule on all its highways, there would be no need for BRT nor any other road project because traffic congestion would disappear instantly.

This is not an isolated incident. Gonzalez has a long and disappointing track record on transit matters. He tried to pass off a highway interchange as a pedestrian underpass. His consultants claimed that it will take 7 years to design a new Metro entrance in Bethesda. His department asserted that adding bus lanes and bike lanes would make Rockville Pike less friendly to pedestrians than it is now.

These current and past actions from MCDOT officials make it hard to avoid the conclusion that MCDOT is interested in moving cars, not people. While DC and Arlington have taken significant steps to treat pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders more equally, MCDOT zealously hews to a cars-only mindset for its roads.

It's long past time for the department to change its approach to issues and follow the examples of sound transportation planning set by its counterparts in the District and Arlington.


House transportation bill is "a march of horribles"

The House's five-year transportation bill is slated for release on Tuesday. Based on an early summary, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act looks like a return to 1950s-style transportation policy. It is particularly unkind to transit and bike/ped programs, and to cities in general.

Highways 'n' pipelines: The cover page to the House transportation bill brochure. Image from Politico.

The bill's overarching themes, again in the absence of official language, seem to be:

  • Funneling as much money as possible to highways
  • Giving even more power to spend that money to state DOTs, not cities and metro regions
  • Shortening the environmental review process
  • Eliminating programs "that do not have a federal interest," which apparently includes all dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian programs
  • Doing away with discretionary transit programs, which would spell the end for the very successful TIGER
  • Augmenting gas tax revenue with a yet-unspecified revenue stream from oil and gas drilling

One example the summary gives of a project not in the federal interest is the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, which distributed four $25 million grants "to demonstrate how improved walking and bicycling networks can increase rates of walking and bicycling." One of those grants went to Minneapolis, which is making great strides in promoting biking and walking. If reauthorized at current levels, NTPP would account for 0.04 percent of the bill's total appropriations.

The "flexibility" afforded states to minimize spending on bike/ped and transit, as well as the bill's reliance on oil drilling, have advocates outraged. The Sierra Club's Jesse Prentice-Dunn told Streetsblog that the bill represents "a significant step backwards for safe biking and walking."

"Americans are looking for transportation choices that can conveniently get them where they need to go without polluting the planet," Prentice-Dunn said. "Today more than 12 percent of trips are made by foot or bike, yet less than 2 percent of our nation's transportation funding goes towards biking and pedestrian infrastructure.

According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking, bike commuting increased 57 percent between 2000 and 2009. Instead of increasing investment in transportation options that Americans want, the House bill appears to funnel more dollars towards roads, further deepening our addiction to oil."

The bill would also cut Amtrak's operating subsidy by 25 percent in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, would keep existing lanes on the interstate highway system toll-free, and would allow states to use up to 15 percent of their total highway funds to capitalize state infrastructure banks (currently the maximum is 10 percent).

Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Streetsblog that the bill "looks uninspiring at best, giving states a lot of authority without a lot of accountability."

"The language about curtailing environmental reviews is alarming, but it's probably the tip of the iceberg compared to what we'd see in the bill itself. It's a march of horribles... and they'll go much further than the Senate in eliminating environmentally beneficial programs," Lovaas said. "I can't help but conclude that the house Republican leadership has hijacked the transportation bill and shattered the idea of bipartisanship in transportation policy making."

The new date for the full bill's unveiling is Tuesday, January 31.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.


Breakfast links: Transportation funding

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Transit funding rules change: USDOT wants to change regulations to scrap the ridiculous rules that force transit in highway medians and other "cost-saving" measures that create worse projects. Access to affordable housing and other community factors will also play a role. (Slate, BusinessWeek)

Tough road for bill: Governor O'Malley wants to introduce a transportation bill in the upcoming 90-day session, but could face strong opposition to his proposal to raise the gas tax 10 cents per gallon. (Post)

Blame placed on wear: WMATA is blaming premature wear and not human error for a friction ring falling off a Metro train last month. Now officials will try to figure out why the part wore out so quickly. (Examiner)

Metro fights union: WMATA is fighting an aribitration decision giving pay raises to its white-collar union workers and limiting its number of contractors. The agency recently lost a similar battle against the ATU. (Examiner)

Lots of money, little housing: Peaceholics squandered $4.6 million of city money on 3 housing projects as contractors took advantage of the group's inexperience. Then the Department of Housing and Community Development spent even more on contractors who still failed to deliver. (Post)

Fix Clarendon: Arlington plans to redo the major intersection of Wilson, Clarendon, and Washington Boulevards in Clarendon, adding more sidewalk space and removing slip lanes. They're looking for public feedback through a survey. (Miles Grant)

No BRAC here?: A new round of BRAC could spare the DC area as what bases remain are too important to the Pentagon's mission. On the other hand, at one point the closing of Walter Reed was unthinkable. (WBJ)

And...: Mayor Gray announces 5 more HRPB nominees. (City Paper) ... Arlington could soon make money off its new water treatment plant. (ARLnow) ... Why do businesses keep closing in Hyattsville? (Patch) ... US Park Police tase a man at OccupyDC. (Post)

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Weekend links: Next time will be better

Photo by Halans on Flickr.
A mea culpa for the meltdown: WMATA has no excuses, only apologies and acknowledgment that Thursday's metro meltdown should never have happened. The reported cause was the failure of an uninterruptable power supply, shutting down all communications systems other than radio. (TBD)

Streetcars gone 50 years: 50 years ago today, the DC streetcar took its last trip. The next trip could be summer 2013, if the new streetcar stays on schedule. At least one man who saw the last trip as a kid plans to attend and bring his small child. (Post)

Condemn me: At least some owners of properties to be condemned by the Purple Line want their homes taken, as they'd rather move elsewhere than live with a wider street. Others are in a "bunker mentality," implying PR landmines lie ahead. (City Paper)

DC statehood gets mixed reception: Mayor Gray and several DC Councilmembers argued DC statehood in front of a New Hampshire House committee, only to see the supporting resolution voted down. The bill will still be reported to the floor. (DCist)

No more spending: The DC Council doesn't want to spend the unexpected $42 million surplus discovered this year until 2013. Mayor Gray wants to spend the money on this year's shortfalls, including a $21 million school deficit. (Post)

The health effects of urban design: Sprawl makes us fatter, sicker, and lowers our life expectancy. This is the subject of a new PBS documentary series, Designing Healthy Communities, which will look at connections between cities and health. (Streetsblog)

The great art of the train: From the London Underground to Chicago's El, transit advertising of the 1920s was nothing short of an art form, pushing speed and the natural world just a train away. What would WMATA have advertised? (Salon)

And...: Capital City Diner in Trinidad will close, partly due to a Denny's opening nearby. (DCist) ... Kojo analyzes the corporate contributions to recent DC candidates. (WAMU) ... Some neighbors don't want more 1-bedrooms for 20-somethings. (UrbanTurf)

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