Posts from October 2009
On Tuesday, Fairfax City heard a request by the developer of Ratcliffe Hall to downscale an already approved development near Old Town from 154 to 114 homes. The developer, Jaguar Homes, is also seeking to add 57 surface parking spaces. While the City Council and Planning Commission haven't formally approved the request, the amendments will likely go through once Jaguar works out a few tweaks. That will continue an unfortunate trend toward fewer rather than more homes being built within walking distance of downtown Fairfax. But this isn't the usual story of anti-neighbors blocking denser urban development.
The new proposal for Ratcliffe Hall is a familiar pod-style subdivision.
Ratcliffe Hall was approved in early 2005 when the economy was humming and the developer saw a strong market for "active adult communities." The development site, a 10-acre forested area along Main Street, lies right between several neighborhoods and Old Town and the County Judicial Center. The site is bisected by a stream. Most neighbors who testified supported the project. Jaguar had already built the pedestrian-oriented Providence Square condominiums in Old Town Fairfax, near Main Street Marketplace. The plan for Ratcliffe Hall was to front Main Street with 36 townhomes and provide 118 condominium units inside a single building on the other side of the stream. Now Jaguar wants to replace the 118 condos with a more conventional townhouse subdivision layout, consisting of 26 townhomes and 52 condo units. They want to replace underground parking with cheaper surface parking.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the city has an opportunity to improve pedestrian and bicycle access. With a few tweaks, the new residences could be better connected to the trail network and Old Town, and the new trail could provide better pedestrian and bicycle access for surrounding neighborhoods. Several city council and planning commission members pressed Jaguar to work with surrounding landowners to ensure that the trails are connected and flow into nearby destinations such as the Post Office. More townhomes will also likely bring a more varied mix of residents, including families.
Still, the proposed changes in both density and design are disappointing. Forty fewer residential units are a lot for a city struggling to add a critical mass of people and patrons to its downtown mix. Two new downtown restaurants have already closed. The new design is very inward-looking, with buildings oriented toward the parking garages and an internal "plaza," instead of encouraging residents toward a shared public space
The house at 412 20th Street, NW, was constructed ca. 1780. It was the only known 18th century building of its type in the District and was still largely intact in 1934 when the National Park Service prepared drawings of the structure. In 1935 it was razed, destroying the last remaining original building from Hamburgh Village. Today, the site of the home is public space south of the southwest corner of 20th and E Streets, NW.
Back in the summer, after an outcry over the high $4 billion price tag for widening I-270, the Montgomery County Council decided to hold off on any decisions until it could get answers to a few little pesky questions. They asked the Maryland State Highway Administration to respond by early September, but SHA took until the end of last week to respond. Despite the long time frame, their answers are a little thin on details.
As Michael Dresser pointed out, they don't explain how much money will have to come from tolls, or how high the tolls will be. They do make clear that federal transportation funds aren't sufficient to pay for the project. Also, the state has maxed out its current transportation debt ceiling with the ICC, requiring the state legislature to raise the debt limit if they want to borrow money for this project.
Despite refusing to talk about tolls, the model seems to assume that there will be high tolls. They say that they don't expect a lot of "induced demand" from the road. That's only possible if the tolls are high enough as to discourage new settlement at the edge of the region. In other words, the tolls would have to be so high that it's not economically worthwhile for people to commute from new subdivisions in Frederick County.
What about ACT's transit alternative? They say they looked a transit alternative, but then rejected it. There isn't any more information about what that alternative was, or why they dropped it. The one reason they give for dropping the all-transit alternative is that it won't make travel faster for truckers or other drivers on 270 between DC and the Midwest. But will building a new road make travel faster for them? If the tolls are really high, and they want to pay the tolls, then maybe. But as we're finding out with the ICC, drivers don't actually want to pay the tolls.
Here's the bottom line. Either the road is too expensive for most people to use, or it will drive sprawl. If it drives sprawl, then it doesn't accomplish the improved mobility . And if the tolls are really high, then it doesn't benefit many people. Either way, the tolls won't pay for the road, so Maryland taxpayers from around the state end up footing the bill for a road that's either just as congested as the old road, or too expensive for most people to use.
Here is a more detailed paraphrased summary of the questions and their answers.
Q: How will you pay for this project?
A: We don't know. The federal money Maryland will get in the future isn't enough to pay for this project. We'll need other sources, but don't know what or how much.
Q: How much of the money will be "discretionary" funds that the state could use for other purposes instead, if it chose?
A: We don't know yet.
Q: Can federal highway money be "flexed" to transit projects instead? What about transit on a highway?
A: Except for a few small exceptions, yes. Some categories require approval from USDOT, some don't.
Q: We think the currently proposed transportation bill in Congress allows states to keep flexing funds to transit. Is that right?
A: We don't want to answer any questions about bills that aren't law yet.
Q: Can the state use federal "highway trust fund" money for transit instead of highways if it wants?
A: Not as the programs operate now. FHWA "highway trust fund" money can't go to transit; you have to use FTA money for that. Congress has to allow that money to go to transit if it wants to let states choose between the two.
Q: How much will the state pay in interest on the bonds it will have to sell for this project?
A: We don't know how much money would be in bonds, so we can't say. However, the state has already hit its debt ceiling with the bonds it sold for the ICC, and can't sell more under current state law.
Q: What do you think about ACT's transit alternative?
A: We don't have time to analyze it, but it doesn't benefit the truckers driving on I-270 which is one of the groups that the freeway project will aid.
Q: How long will it take to study this?
A: We already looked at an all-transit alternative, but took it out because it didn't really decrease VMT on I-270. If we looked at this alternative, we'd have to start the EIS over.
Q: How long will it take to study the effect of the Gaithersburg West and Germantown plans?
A: Not very long. We just plug them into the model and hit go. We already looked at this in a preliminary way and it will increase traffic on I-270 somewhat.
Q: Do you want to add lanes on I-270 south of Shady Grove?
A: We're working on that study now.
Q: What is the cost of bus service on I-270 and how much service would we get? How does that compare to the MARC improvement?
A: Buses will run every 15 minutes and carry about 2,900-3,400 people per day for a cost of $6-9 million. Improving MARC would cost $531 million and quadruple capacity to 26,000 people per day, but our model estimates about 15,500 riders. MARC reaches farther than this project, all the way to West Virginia.
Q: Your EIS says that there will be less pollution with the new lanes than without. Did that account for induced demand?
A: Our model doesn't figure there will be very much induced demand.
Q: Can you add an option for two reversible lanes, as some have suggested?
A: Sure, but we have to pick a preferred alternative from among the existing options first, and can then look at this.
Q: It looks like, since most of the traffic is in the peak direction, two reversible lanes are just as good as four new lanes with two in each direction. Is that right?
A: Yeah, it looks like you're right, but we have to rerun the numbers using new forecasts.
Should a local, DC-based business pay higher tax rates than a branch of a national retailer?
Of course, the answer is no. But that is precisely what has been happening. National corporations can employ complicated tax-avoidance strategies to artificially shift profits they earn in DC to places with lower taxes or no taxes at all. That gives them a distinct and unfair advantage over local DC businesses.
Last summer, the District approved an important reform to its corporate income tax, known as "combined reporting." Economists and tax experts agree that this is the most comprehensive way to stop corporations from abusing tax shelters. DC's Chief Financial Officer has concluded the law, which goes into effect in 2011, will raise $20 million in revenue annually.
Combined reporting addresses this practice by combining the profits from the parent company and its fully-owned subsidiaries for state income tax purposes. To determine the amount of corporate tax, there is a formula based on the percentage of business operations in that state compared to activity in other states.
Not surprisingly, combined reporting often faces business opposition. The DC Chamber of Commerce and the Council on State Taxation, a trade association of multistate corporations, have attacked the law, as well as individual corporations such as Verizon, Pfizer, and Home Depot.
A new DCFPI policy brief explains why combined reporting is good tax policy. First, it levels the tax-paying field between national and local companies. Without combined reporting, large national and multinationals have a tax advantage by shifting profits earned in DC to states with lower taxes, or no taxes at all. While small businesses and local companies that operate only in DC have to pay their fair share of taxes, larger corporations often don't.
Of the 45 states with a corporate income tax, 23 already have combined reporting. Sixteen have operated with combined reporting for more than 20 years, including California and Illinois. Studies suggest that combined reporting has not affected their economic competitiveness.
Current status of combined reporting.
Eliminating combined reporting, as groups such as the Chamber of Commerce are lobbying to do, would create a $20 million budget gap in FY 2012 and beyond. Recent budget deliberations in the District have focused on the need to promote long-term fiscal stability in the face of the recession. Getting rid of combined reporting would require cutting local services or raising other local taxes, while keeping taxes low for large national corporations.
Mayor Fenty and the DC Council made the right move to join 23 other states which use combined reporting. They need to remain steadfast in their decision.
On Monday night, Prince George's County voted on its transportation master plan update, including a recommendation to extend the Green Line to Fort Meade.
The master plan calls for creating, extending, or widening several highways throughout the county, greenfield development outside the Beltway, and some other Cold War-era fixes to Prince George's transportation problems. The county's ample highways have been described to me by my coworkers as "the only thing worth visiting in Prince George's County". As a resident, I disagree wholeheartedly, but it is hard to dispute that many people use the B-W Parkway, I-95, US-50, MD-4, MD-5, and Indian Head Highway as through routes to get to "nicer" exurban communities in Howard, Anne Arundel, and Charles County.
The plan does, however, propose many transit improvements. Most notably, at least for Laurel residents like me, is the Green Line extension proposed through Beltsville, Laurel, and on to Fort Meade. The county's proposal for this extension doesn't cater directly to greenfield development like older proposals for the extension that followed I-95 to MD-32 on a circuitous route through southeastern Columbia en route to BWI. The route shown below follows the CSX corridor in Prince George's County, as indicated in the master plan. If the Green Line is extended to Fort Meade, it would probably look a lot like this:
View Green Line Extension in a larger map.
Here's a possible list of stations:
- Beltsville (Baltimore Avenue and Powder Mill Road)
- Muirkirk/Konterra (Baltimore Avenue at Muirkirk Road)
- Laurel Lakes (Cherry Lane between Baltimore Avenue and MD 197)
- Laurel (Main Street at First Street)
- Savage/Annapolis Junction (Brock Bridge Road at Dorsey Run Road)
- National Business Park (MD 32 and National Business Pkwy)
- National Security Agency (MD 32 and Canine Road)
- Fort Meade Main Gate (MD 32 and Mapes Road)
- Odenton Town Center (Odenton Road and Morgan Drive)
Fort Meade is the largest job center in the state of Maryland, and it is currently unserved by transit. A Green Line extension would enable reverse commutes from Washington, DC and the Route 1 corridor while facilitating transit-oriented development along Route 1.
Servicing Fort Meade also would meet some of the transportation challenges presented by BRAC's relocation of 5,700 jobs to Fort Meade. Metro access to the base's facilities would eliminate the need for massive highway widening around this job center. The existing transit on the corridor, the MARC Camden Line, suffers from poor service because it shares tracks with the CSX freight trains, does not serve Fort Meade, and has not induced any TOD. This alignment would most likely overcome those shortcomings and better integrate northeastern Prince George's County into the urban fabric of the DC metropolitan area.
Cross-posted on Imagine, DC.
New features won't be coming to SmarTrip this year after all, except for the new "bins" for SmartBenefits. In a press release announcing the SmartBenefits change, Metro added this item:
Due to the importance of complying with the federal IRS mandate, Metro has had to delay additional upgrades to make bus and rail passes available on the SmarTrip® card and to allow customers to add value to their SmarTrip® cards online. These features will be implemented by fall 2010. They originally were expected to be in place by the end of 2009.In addition to these features, the SmarTrip upgrade was going to give Metro the flexibility to add new fare tiers, like "peak of the peak" pricing, if they chose, or to give SmarTrip users a discount on Metrorail as they have on bus. With this delay, Metro won't be able to even consider these and other potential fare adjustments. They can't consider "all you can eat" pricing like New York's. They can't build the "invisible tunnel" to allow free transfers between Farragut North and West.
Some RAC members tried to get Metro to give a presentation on the SmarTrip delays, but it never happened. I'm going to start pushing on this some more. Why do upgrades for SmartBenefits preclude other upgrades? Typically, with computer systems, you can include multiple new features in one. What's different here? What happened to the contract already awarded for the delayed upgrades? And why have these SmarTrip upgrades been delayed so many years already?
On Sunday, the Washington Post endorsed candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates. In District 48, which covers the northernmost sections of Arlington, Rosslyn and Clarendon, and Crystal City and its surrounding neighborhoods, Republican Aaron Ringel is challenging incumbent Democrat Bob Brink. The Post decided to endorse Ringel based on one issue alone:
Robert H. Brink, the Democratic incumbent, has held this seat for a decade, and in that time he's barely faced a serious challenge. This year he has one in the form of Republican Aaron Ringel, a bright young combat veteran of the war in Iraq who works for a defense contractor. Mr. Brink is a competent legislator but he has opposed widening Interstate 66. That wins points with some homeowners who'd be directly affected but does little for the tens of thousands of commuters who suffer that road daily. Mr. Ringel takes a broader regional view of that issue.In other words, the Fairfax County editors of the Post want Arlington's officials to put their interests ahead of the people who actually live in the district. This isn't a small group of NIMBYs; Arlingtonians feel very strongly, and have since the 1970s. The Post, on the other hand, hasn't ever seen a highway project it didn't like (or, in fairness, a transit project).
In unrelated news, the Washington Post's circulation dropped 6.4 percent in the last six months.
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett's isn't giving up on proposals for an anti-urban skybridge connecting the Silver Spring library to a parking garage.
This past weekend, Leggett unveiled concept sketches for the new library at Wayne Avenue and Fenton Street. It strongly evokes images of "an open book," along with large glass windows said to represent "the openness of government" and limestone similar to that in other Silver Spring buildings. A coffee shop and art gallery will line the ground floor, with artist studios above, followed by three stories of library. Two more floors on top will contain community meeting space and some county offices.
The design also leaves room for a future bridge across Wayne Avenue to the adjacent parking garage. Original plans contained the bridge, but urbanists protested that this costly endeavor would only draw pedestrian traffic off the surface streets, encouraging faster traffic and road designs hostile to those who wish to cross at ground level.
Existing Silver Spring plans prohibited bridges, and the Montgomery County Council voted to sustain that plan, with only Councilmember George Leventhal (at-large) voting for the bridge. Instead, to accommodate persons with disabilities, the library will contain a small amount of handicapped parking on site. Nevertheless, Leggett hasn't given up on the opportunity to put cars above pedestrians by building the bridge, and Duchy Trachtenberg might be wavering on the issue.
In his letter to the County Council this summer (large PDF), Leggett insisted that "accessibility and sustainability" drove his recommendation:
The primary rationale is not one solely of safety; it is primarily one of accessibility and sustainability. The use of the existing underutilized parking garage is a "green" decision which saves the use of materials and taxpayer dollars which would have been otherwise needed to provide new on-site parking for the library. The disadvantage of utilizing the existing garage is the greatly increased travel path to the library for many patronsIt's funny Leggett should mention a "greatly increased travel path." That's exactly what county DOT staff would create with their secret vehicular underpass at the Medical Center Metro that forces pedestrians to walk over 100 feet out of the way, just to facilitate greater car volume in and out of the NIH and future Walter Need National Military Medical Center site. The direct Metro station entrance would have added both accessibility and sustainability, but apparently speeding up cars is more important.
— including, but not limited to, the elderly and disabled. The bridge is being proposed to address this concern.
Leggett's and his staff view transportation through the lens of the driver. Sure, Montgomery is a suburban county with a lot of drivers, but it also has fantastic walkable places and some of the best transit of any suburban jurisdiction in the nation. But Leggett sees auto-oriented development as natural and walkable development as dangerous. He views the proper role of streets as carrying as many cars as possible above all, with the needs of pedestrians and transit secondary.
As with Gaithersburg West versus White Flint, Leggett cleverly ties in themes of sustainability, "Smart Growth," and more to justify suburban development patterns and oppose urban ones. His PR staff are remarkably defensive about it, too, saying I "just don't get it." It's Leggett who seems not to get it. He doesn't seem like a stupid man, but is listening too much to traditionalist transportation officials who can rattle off Level of Service letter grades but, despite some terrific examples in their county, don't recognize the value of walkable places designing around people and transit instead of driving above all.
- Young kids try to assault me while biking
- Metro bag searches aren't always optional
- Focus transportation on downtown or neighborhoods?
- Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners
- Redeveloping McMillan is the only way to save it
- DDOT agrees to repave 15th Street cycle track
- Vienna Metro town center won't have a town center