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Posts from October 2008


Stretching the streetcar saga

Jim Graham and Chairman Gray filed a disapproval resolution to block DDOT's transfer of $20 million to extend, or move, the planned streetcar segment. (It's still not entirely clear if they're extending it or moving it.)

Photo by TheRocketeer on Flickr.

As the Examiner reported this morning, Graham doesn't actually disapprove of the new alignment or this reprogramming. And he's said he's a strong advocate of building streetcars in DC. But at the July 14 hearing he asked DDOT to provide more information about costs, ridership projections, and other information justifying their decision. They haven't, and so Graham is taking advantage of this procedural step to force DDOT to the table. That table will be in the Wilson Building on November 7th, when Graham plans to pick up where the July hearing left off.

The most important thing is that we build some streetcars. DDOT promised more information, and they should provide it. But then we should go ahead and build the damn streetcars. The worst outcome would be for the Council to decide that since we have a budget shortfall, we shouldn't add this $20 million to the streetcars, or worse yet, not build any streetcars at all. That'll set everything back years if not decades. We budgeted some money for them. We even already bought vehicles, which are still in the Czech Republic. Let's put some tracks in the ground and move on to the next set of tracks.


Michael Brown: quality of life for whom?

As most news articles explain, Michael A. Brown has run for many political offices in DC, including mayor (in 2006), Ward 4 Council (in the 2007 special election), and now Council At-Large. The son of former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Michael Brown is the least convincingly a non-Democrat, as he served as Finance Vice-Chair for the DNC and a surrogate speaker for Clinton, Gore, and Kerry's Presidential campaigns. In DC, he's running largely on his work with disadvantaged African-American youth; his name similarity to incumbent Kwame Brown and his resume don't hurt.

Michael A. Brown. Image from his campaign site.

On many issues, Brown seemed reluctant to articulate specific beliefs. He kept talking about sitting down with members of the community to build consensus around what a community wants. That's great, of course, but what if a community doesn't speak with one voice? Most of the time, residents don't all agree, and the most vocal residents may not share the views of the majority.

It took several questions of pushing to get an answer about when, as an elected official, Brown would exercise leadership to make a decision. For example, I said, what about development around Minnesota and Benning, or at the Brookland Metro? Then, Brown admitted, "the interest of the city is important too," and wouldn't leave fallow "major acreage ... where nothing has been done on it for years."

Brown would only push development with great hesitation; even in the "major acreage" cases, he would demand traffic studies and hesitate to do anything that might inconvenience others, saying that "quality of life will be affected if takes you 10 minutes more to get to the grocery store" (by which he means, to drive.)

Likewise, Brown wasn't so confident in a position on inclusionary zoning, where he "would like to learn more" and "doesn't know if it fulfills its purpose." He supports Fenty and Rhee "100%" in their school reform efforts... except, he wants to see more "due process" for firing people. He may be right, but that doesn't sound like 100% to me.

In one area, Brown had no trouble taking a stand (rather than planning to just listen to the community): road capacity. He always came down firmly on the side of more lanes over fewer lanes, more car capacity over less. Without hesitation, Brown would vote to rebuild Klingle Road. Brown's platform extols his work pushing for weekend closures of Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, but when I asked if he'd close the rest of Rock Creek Parkway on weekends, he wasn't sure, saying he "would err on side of how the current system is." And he's absolutely opposed to any weekday restrictions.

Brown does like transit, and wants to expand transit options, including bike-bus lanes. He's a supporter of streetcars. He thinks the Convention Center plans could have had at least a small park, and would restrain a bit the city's enthusiasm for developing every single available parcel to allow a few parks as well.

As for stadiums, Brown thinks the city got a bad deal on baseball. "I studied municipal finance in law school," he said, and "the terms of the deal weren't great." He's like to keep DC United in the city, but doesn't feel the city ought to "be the ones on the hook" to pay for a stadium. "For a city that has one of the worst school systems in America, one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and the highest poverty rate in the world," he said, "to have three stadiums doesn't seem like the right priority."

I asked his three top specific objections to the baseball deal. Number one was bad financing, number three the way DC doesn't control its own ballpark (for example, we can't put a "taxation without representation" sign on it." But number two? Insufficient parking. He'd have built a lot more parking, and at the convention center as well. Brown held up Montgomery County's large, cheap municipal parking garages as an example to emulate, such as on upper Georgia Avenue: "We have the opportunity there to do some heavy municipal parking."

Isn't parking working well around the ballpark, I asked? After all, most people are taking Metro. Wouldn't more parking stop that? I got the sense he'd never really thought about this issue that way. Like many people and politicians, he hadn't considered transportation policy as a tradeoff between more land for parking and more land for housing or retail, or between more car trips and more Metro trips. Instead, he just sees that there could be more parking, and thus concludes there should.

In politics, it's not possible to make everybody happy. We can't solve our development problems by sitting down together, holding hands, and all agreeing. Either the Wisconsin Avenue Giant will happen as is, irritating some people who want less development, or it'll get smaller, upsetting the people who want more housing and vibrant retail at that corner. Building housing at Takoma Metro will please those who can live there, and those who don't want more auto commuters choking North Capitol Street instead, but it'll displease those who want a quieter, lower density neighborhood. Closing roads through a park makes the park more usable for recreation and less for high-speed transportation.

Given that Michael Brown is currently favored to win, I hope we can educate him on these issues. He wants a good quality of life in DC for all residents. At the moment, though, he sees quality of life in terms of the needs of suburban-style auto commuters. That's common in his neighborhood of Chevy Chase DC, but uncommon east of the river (where less than half of people own cars) and in the dense and growing mid-city area, where recreation space is precious and traffic creates pollution, noise and hazards. If he is elected, we should work with Brown to help him see the beyond the classic suburban conception of the city, and if he doesn't, work to replace him. In the meantime, I'm voting for Patrick Mara, who already gets it.


Mark Long: changing the culture how?

When I set out to interview At-Large candidates, I was most hopeful about Mark Long. At least at the start of the campaign, his platform spoke of "getting people out of cars" (though I can't find that on his site any more). Maybe Mark Long would be the Smart Growth candidate?

Mark Long. Photo from the candidate's Web site.

Long is a fourth generation Washingtonian. He worked for Xerox, as a money manager and investment banker for Smith Barney, and currently as an education consultant. Naturally, he has some ideas for education reform. In addition to supporting the Fenty-Rhee efforts, he thinks we can serve special education children better, and cheaper, than we do today.

Long does support mixed-use, walkable development in downtown corridors, like Downtown Ward 7 or on upper Georgia Avenue, where his campaign made its headquarters (though only by accident). When I asked about resident concerns about growth in areas like Ward 7, Long said he understood specific neighborhood concerns, but felt that "we have to operate less out of fear and more out of faith."

Like Mara, Long agrees with the need to grow DC's population and tax base. He's for streetcars, probably, calling them "another shot in the arm for our developing businesses" and saying of existing streetcar proposals, "What I have seen I like." He feels strongly about environmental initiatives like commercial and residential recycling, drives a hybrid, and would like to see tax credits for green building.

More broadly, however, Long wasn't able to effectively articulate his ideas. He kept talking about "changing the culture," but how exactly wasn't so clear. Long spoke extensively about "smoother coordination" with the federal government, reducing "costs in the workflow process" in the DC government, and other business-terminology generalities.

On tougher transportation issues, Long fell back to hedging his answers. He wouldn't take a stand on Klingle, wasn't sure about the idea of narrowing RPP zones to neighborhoods instead of wards, and feels church parking "needs to be at the discretion of officers on a case by case basis".

I spoke to Long weeks ago, and in the interim, he has probably sharpened his rhetorical technique. It was enough to make Dupont ANC Commissioner Jack Jacobson, whom I greatly respect, endorse Long, and at least on specific on policy issues, Mark Long would probably be an improvement over Carol Schwartz. But his less sure understanding of detailed policy issues, coupled with his political inexperience, pose too great an obstacle to winning him a seat on the DC Council.


Assuring sidewalks vs. assuring good sidewalks

At the beginning of 2007, Mary Cheh introduced a bill (cosponsored by Barry, Brown, Wells and even, yes, Schwartz) to require sidewalks be installed on at least one side of a street when it's being reconstructed or resurfaced.

11th and M, SE. Photo by David Alpert.

Yes, there are streets in DC without sidewalks, and sometimes it's even controversial. For example, Ordway Street in Cleveland Park lacked a sidewalk on one side, a particularly glaring omission given that the NCRC nursery school is on the sidewalk-free side. When, recently, the school fought with neighbors over plans to increase enrollment, some opposed adding that sidewalk in the hope that by keeping the area unsafe for kids, it would make it easier to oppose more kids.

Fortunately for the kids, DDOT believes in sidewalks, and put the second one in on Ordway. That might be an argument why we don't really need the Sidewalk Assurance Act of 2007. (Besides, since Ordway already had one sidewalk, this bill wouldn't have applied.) The bill would be really useful, however, if it required not just sidewalks, but pedestrian-friendly ones.

Remember the 17th Street reconstruction, where the intersections with Q and R Streets widen (and the sidewalks narrow) near the corner? If we want a real sidewalk law, it could require DDOT to remove any of those anti-bulb-outs (bulb-ins?) when redoing a street, or provide a written explanation as to why that's impractical. Likewise, we could even require bulb-outs on any corner where the curb lane is used for parking 24-7, or a written explanation why not.

We could have a minimum sidewalk width, with justification needed to build or keep anything narrower. We could require a minimum number of street tree boxes. Really, what we need is a comprehensive set of road standards that contain pedestrian improvements by default, instead of having to push each time to add suitable pedestrian facilities after engineering designs are already partially complete.

Ideally, DDOT would develop a good set of standards themselves, and follow transparent decisionmaking practices to give communities clear explanations when they're not feasible (if the turning radius might have to be larger for emergency vehicles, for example). But we don't have that, and unless we get a visionary leader to run DDOT, perhaps legislation is the only way to fix what ails our street designs.

If you're interested in bringing up this or other sidewalk issues at the hearing, it would be great for Jim Graham to hear from residents. (I'll be in Charleston, South Carolina.) It's at 10 am tomorrow (October 31) in the Wilson Building (1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW), Room 500.


WABA reports progress with MPD

WABA finally got MPD to sit down and talk about bicycle safety and enforcement. As previously reported, MPD had postponed their meeting twice, once with scant explanation, prompting WABA to send a public letter asking for concrete steps to improve officer training, better target enforcement, and collect useful data.

Photo by ImageMD on Flickr.

Recently, WABA finally met with MPD and had a productive conversation. They felt MPD "recognized our concerns and appeared willing to work with WABA and DDOT." The parties agreed on some concrete steps, including:

  • WABA and DDOT will create power point slides to be shown during police roll calls on areas where clarification of District law is needed. Other slides identifying high bike/ped crash areas will also be shown.
  • MPD will coordinate better with DDOT on the upcoming Street Smarts enforcement campaign and improve training of officers working the program;
  • MPD will work with WABA on enforcement stings of the bus and bike lanes in Chinatown and will conduct occasional bike lane double parking ticketing waves;
  • WABA, DDOT and MPD will explore creating a police training video on bike and ped laws;
  • WABA will work with MPD on collecting unreported crash data and other complaints that will be passed along to the Traffic Safety Branch.

The complete list is here.

WABA also circulated a draft Memorandum of Understanding they hope MPD, DDOT, and WABA can jointly sign in the future. It lays out steps for all three groups from "acknowledge the strengths in a collaborative approach to traffic safety throughout the city" to more specifics.

Many cyclists feel that the recent stings against cyclists, like wrong-way riding on New Hampshire Avenue, represent a misguided attempt to improve safety by going out and writing a lot of bicycle tickets for violations that, while against the law, don't represent actual unsafe behavior and unfairly put the burden on cyclists alone.

Several points of the MOU address this issue. It asks MPD to "acknowledge that education and enforcement activities include warnings, citations, referrals, and safety education" and to publicize certain enforcement activities, since telling people the police will be writing tickets often does more to change behavior than just writing them. For its part, of course, the MOU calls on WABA to "encourage all motor vehicle operators, bicycle operators, and pedestrians to
follow all laws for safety" and support education and enforcement efforts from MPD and DDOT.


Council At-Large: this Democrat's voting for Mara

I've never voted for a Republican in my life. Of course, growing up in Massachusetts, then living in Northern California, New York City, and Washington DC, there aren't so many Republicans to choose from. I've been a lifelong Democrat and see no way, for any federal office, that I could in good conscience support any Republican, no matter how good, since they will inevitably support the most extreme right-wing leaders.

Patrick Mara. Photo from the candidate's campaign site.

But on Tuesday, I'm going to vote for a Republican for the first time: Patrick Mara, for City Council At-Large.

Mara could have (and perhaps should have) run as an independent. After all, he's not much like today's national Republican leaders at all. Mara supports gay marriage and abortion rights, for example. He's a moderate Republican in the old sense, a disciple of Rhode Island Senator John Chafee. Mara grew up in the Ocean State and came to DC to work for Chafee on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Mara pursued his interest in the environment at DOE and later as a consultant on renewable and clean energy.

Mara doesn't own a car, and hasn't since high school, in fact. He commuted by bicycle from his Columbia Heights home to his energy consulting gig before he started running full-time. Mara believes DC's future rests on raising the population back to the 800,000 we had around 1950 (today, DC has only about 588,000 residents). Quite simply, there's no way we can fit 212,000 more cars (or even half that) in the city. There's not enough room to park them and no more road capacity to move them about. Instead, most of the new residents will have to get around by Metro, bus, walk, or bike.

Mara would like to see more bus service, streetcars, and an expanded Metro within the District. He believes in building more trails, and keeping Klingle Road shut. He supports measures to improve bicycle safety, like the three foot rule in Graham's recent bill. Like all the Council candidates, Mara is not yet sold on performance parking, saying, "We don't want to scare people from coming into the District if they do have cars." Most performance parking advocates don't want to scare people either; performance parking could make it less scary by removing the need to circle for hours. I believe he's more open to this and similar ideas than many of the candidates. In keeping with his fiscal conservatism, Mara does lean toward letting the market decide how much parking to build; his first-hand experience with many of the overbuilt, underused garages in Columbia Heights drive that home.

Education is Mara's top priority. He says he decided to run for Council after mentoring three young children, one east of the Anacostia River where dropout rates reach 50%, and seeing the way our education system is "letting kids down in a big way." Families who don't "win the lottery to go to a charter school" have to either pay huge sums for private school, move to Virginia or Maryland, or suffer under a bad system. He's a strong supporter of Fenty's education reform efforts (as are all the candidates I spoke to).

If we'd heard of a candidate running as an independent or even a Democrat with Mara's "socially liberal, fiscally prudent" values, nobody would have bat an eyelash. As it turns out, that might have given Mara a higher chance of success in the general election. Mara's original game plan was to win the Republican primary (check), then get most of the city's Republicans and enough others to win. Carol Schwartz' quixotic write-in campaign complicates the equation, but it's still anybody's race, though Michael A. Brown is probably the favorite for the second seat (incumbent Democrat Kwame Brown is sure to win reelection).

But Mara really does believe that one day the Republican Party will stop being so ruled by intolerance and hate, and I respect his loyalty. His Republican beliefs center on fiscal issues, like cutting waste in the DC government. Mara opposed last year's paid sick leave bill, which he made the centerpiece of his primary victory. His stance won him many Republican votes, key endorsements, and a lot of money (though he says he's not necessarily against any paid sick leave, just against that bill which passed before enough analysis was done on the effects).

To me, having one candidate with whom I disagree on some bread-and-butter Democratic issues matters little. The Council has eleven Democrats, the maximum number permitted by law. Even if Mara is on the opposite side from me on, say, health care or workplace safety (not that I know how Mara would vote on any particular such measure), if seven of those eleven can't agree on a bill, I'm not sure how good it really is. Besides, we've had a Republican in the past, and a much worse one for transportation, gay rights, and many other issues.

Coming up: My interviews with some of Mara's opponents, Michael A. Brown and Mark Long.


Testing the "Invisible Tunnel"

Steve Offutt has joined the GGW contributing team. He lives in Arlington and has also been contributing to Arlington's county-run CommuterPageBlog. Welcome Steve!

The technology exists to allow Metro riders to transfer between the two Farragut stations and treat them as though they were transferring within the system. Metro should implement this idea immediately, since there is no downside, many riders will save time, and congestion at Metro Center will be reduced.

For background, see my previous posts (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) on CommuterPageBlog.

Recently I had a meeting at American University, which provided me the perfect opportunity to try out the transfer for myself. I was traveling from Arlington, so I got off at Farragut West, walked up 17th Street to Farragut North and then took the red line to Tenleytown. I made the same trip in reverse on the return.

I took a stopwatch with me to see how long it would take. For the initial trip I reached the top of the escalator at exactly the wrong time to cross I St. and had to wait the full light cycle. I waited about 25 seconds to cross K St.  I was standing on the platform at Farragut North 5' 13"; after the doors opened on my train at Farragut West. On the return trip I arrived on the street during the walk signal at K St. but had to wait about 20 seconds at I St.  I was on the platform 4' 10"; from the time the train doors opened at Farragut North.  I did not run. I walked at a normal able-bodied speed. Someone in a hurry could make this transfer faster; if one stands on the escalators, it will take longer.

So what does this mean? In both cases I then had to wait a little bit for the train, so I likely ended up on the same one as I would have had I made the usual transfer at Metro Center. However—particularly on the return trip—had I arrived on the platform just in time to catch a train, that train would almost certainly be one train earlier than what I would have caught at Metro Center.

Based on this one experience, I would guess that a person making this transfer during rush hour will catch the earlier train at least a couple of times a week and possibly as much as half the time if they hustle. During periods with longer periods between trains, one will catch the earlier train less frequently, but it will save a lot more time when it happens.

The bottom line is that the transfer works and many riders will learn how to take advantage of it if it's made available to them. If you work at Metro or know who to contact to help push this forward, please do so. If you're a rider who would avail themselves of the transfer, please contact Metro and request it. I know that Chris Zimmerman has made at least one inquiry about it; perhaps he can continue to pursue this along a faster timeframe than sometime in 2010, if ever. A woman named Cyndi Zieman was recently put in charge of SmarTrip cards. Perhaps she can take a leadership position and make this happen. It's a no brainer; let's build the invisible tunnel!


Cheh, Brown ask to shelve Tenley library PPP

Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Kwame Brown have formally asked Mayor Fenty to stop pursuing a public-private partnership for the Tenley library and the adjacent Janney school. The original idea was a good one: the library is a low-rise building on a major corner that could support housing above, and help fund a better library and expansion for Janney.

Tenley-Janney drawing by Squalish.

Unfortunately, according to activists who supported the general idea of a PPP, the project went fatally off the rails when the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) narrowed the RFP in ways that limited neighborhood options to a bad project or nothing at all. After effective organizing by anti-PPP groups and low enthusiasm by proponents for what had turned into a lousy project, Cheh responded to neighborhood sentiment and chose the latter.

In their letter, Cheh and Brown write that "we believe that [the current LCOR proposal] is fatally flawed." Still, they haven't given up on something better. "We still believe, as we have throughout, that the public interest lies in the comprehensive development of this site. There is an urgent need to have vibrant, mixed-use development along our main corridors and the Tenley Library site, which is located across the street from the subway, ought to be a key part of such development."

How can we have it both ways? Cheh and Brown suggest adding "the structural supports necessary to permit development on top of the Library at a future date," whether "residential, mixed-use, or even an increase in the size of the Library." That maintains some options, though fewer.

Moving the library upstairs to place retail on the ground floor and the library upstairs (as in Rockville) would probably not be practical once a new library is up and running. A future project won't be able to combine improvements to the school and to the library site like this concept by Squalish. Still, it's better than nothing, and the Councilmembers are salvaging a little hope from a bad situation.

Tenleytown ANC candidate Jonathan Bender wrote on the neighborhood email list that "One would hope DPMED learned from this experience that hoarding information and excluding public input is, to understate, unwise." Some DC agencies, sadly, seem to lurch from not speaking to the public at all (and risking uninformed decisions) to listening too much and making hasty changes to projects based on momentary resident feedback.

Good decisionmakers communicate plans clearly, listen thoroughly to all input, then make a reasoned decision with the totality of evidence. DMPED's failure in this case has squandered a great opportunity to improve one of our underutilized Metro-accessible corridors. Hopefully the city won't squander the next opportunity so lightly.


Breakfast links: Scratching poison ivy in Maryland

ICC's eviler cousin: Have you ever heard of the CCC? That's another freeway Maryland is busy building in Charles County to destroy the natural beauty of its southern region. Imagine, DC writes, "building highways to alleviate traffic is like scratching poison Ivy to get rid of the irritation."

Photo by bankbryan on Flickr.

From airport to sprawl: Hyde Airport in Clinton, MD will close, to be replaced with more houses and stores nowhere near transit, continuing Prince George's pattern of having no particular development plan as they rapidly convert their county into auto-dependent suburban sprawl.

More vanilla in our chocolate: Rob Goodspeed crunches the census numbers and concludes that if trends continue, DC will stop being majority-black in 2014. Ryan Avent thinks the bigger news is that the population growth in Wards 1, 2, and 6 will change ward boundaries in 2010 and move political power from the edges into the center.

Please reread the definition of "news": A remarkably unhelpful Gazette article reports on excited reactions by the Takoma Park City Council to improvements in New Hampshire Avenue. Only problem is, the article completely fails to say anything about the actual improvements. Meanwhile, WTOP announces that DC may use eminent domain in Southeast Washington. How about including where? (City Desk does).

Plus: Might a Trader Joe's be coming to 14th and U? Infosnack analyzes the ballpark performance parking pilot's flaws and makes suggestions; No deal is in the works with Columbia Country Club.


Would I-66 widening increase accidents? VDOT doesn't know

Commenter Geof Gee posted a summary of last night's meeting on widening I-66 in three spots by adding lanes between entry and exit ramps. Geof describes himself as guided by "practical considerations" and is "not inherently against increasing auto capacity," but nonetheless came to the conclusion that the project is a bad idea, even by the standards of VDOT's own engineers. The problem, Geof thinks, is that traffic modeling technology is too primitive:

Las Vegas widening gone wrong. Photo by Roadsidepictures on Flickr.
There is nothing preventing drivers from leaving the through lane to move up in the queue in the third/auxillary lane and re-entering the through lane later in the process. My understanding of queuing theory suggests that this type of interaction would increase travel times through the corridor as well as increase the variability of travel speeds.

From a conversation with the traffic operations researcher at the meeting, the simulations still predict that the net effect of giving drivers for space for merging is still positive... [but] there are a few serious problems. These models fail to consider a change in an accident rate due to the increased number of merges/aggressive driving. ...

Moreover, a greater number of accidents increases the variance of travel times primarily by increasing its skewness. Consequently, even if the net average travel times decrease, it appears to me that a commuter is more likely to be screwed with a really long commute. If you ask, "What is the probability—with its 95% confidence interval—that net travel times decrease?" the answer is that there is none and that the science has not progressed to that point.

Long story short, I think that calling the project—at least for Phase 1 and 3—an "improvement" is an overstatement of simulation's veracity.

So far we have three major problems with this project:
  • Induced demand: There is a good chance that the added capacity will create new auto trips, adding more traffic. We don't know for sure, but this is the usual effect of freeway projects.
  • Environmental laws: As Michael P wrote, VDOT is saying this will have no impact because it's "just" a weave lane. However, this is an extraordinarily long such lane, and the law requires changes which could create induced demand to go through the full analysis.
  • Modeling limitations: As Geof explained, the lane might not even accomplish its purpose of moving more cars.
Sounds like a good set of reasons not to spend a lot of money widening this freeway. As Geof concludes, "Given the local opposition to the project and less expensive alternatives that are better understood—this was the traffic operations guy's language—it appears to me that the project is a bad bet and almost certainly not a huge improvement."
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