Greater Greater Washington

Posts from November 2012

The last of fall in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.


Fall colors. Photo by caroline.angelo.


Dupont underpass. Photo by Dan McQuade.


Shopping in Eastern Market. Photo by caroline.angelo.


The corner of L St. and 11th St. Photo by thisisbossi.


A sprinkler celebration. Photo by Caitlin H. Faw.


Tidal basin at dawn. Photo by wolfkann.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Support good parking and zoning policy next week

The District's zoning update and an effort to fix parking policy could have some of the most far-reaching effects on land use and transportation of any government initiatives in many years. That is, assuming enough residents show up to support small but impactful progress against the entrenched opposition to change.

If you live in DC, please come to one or more meetings in the upcoming weeks. If you live in Maryland, there are some events for you too. Virginians, send in events so we have them on the calendar!

Zoning update community meetings: The Office of Planning is holding one meeting in each ward in December and January to present plans to make DC's 1958 zoning code easier to understand, while also better accommodating accessory dwellings, corner stores, and not overbuilding parking.

The 3 December meetings are Saturday, 12/8 from 10 am-noon at 1100 4th St. SW (Waterfront Metro); Tuesday, 12/11 from 6:30-8:30 pm at 421 7th St. NW (Gallery Place or Archives); and Thursday, 12/13 from 6-8 pm at Savoy Elementary, 2400 Shannon Pl. SE (Anacostia Metro).

If you go to one public event this year, please go to one of these. Sign Pro-DC's petition to show your support and receive updates about the meetings.

Parking summit (Tue. 12/4, 6-8:30 pm at 441 4th St NW): DDOT will present the results of their parking town halls, online chat here on Greater Greater Washington, and electronic survey.

Please come and voice your support for sensible parking reforms, such as performance parking, day passes for visitors for a fee, smaller RPP zones and more. The summit will be on the 1st floor of 4414 4th Street, NW (One Judiciary Square) in the 1st floor Old Council Chamber.

Discover Long Branch and the Flower Theatre (Mon. 12/3, 6-9 pm at El Golfo Restaurant): Dan Reed has been working hard to find ways to bring back the Flower Theatre in Silver Spring's Long Branch neighborhood, including a community charrette and report.

Now, they're trying to reach out to more of the community and make people more aware of Long Branch, its businesses, the theater, and the potential in the area. The first "Discover Long Branch" event is Monday at El Golfo Restaurant, 8739 Flower Avenue. Attendees can sample great Latino food, meet a local business owner, and talk with Dan and other supporters of the Flower Theatre project.

Getting transit-oriented development right (Wed. 12/5, 6:30-8:30 pm in New Carrollton): The Coalition for Smarter Growth, the most influential smart growth organization in the DC region, set up a panel discussion on how to make TOD work.

CSG Executive Director Stewart Schwartz, new WMATA planning head Shyam Kannan, and Maryland planning deputy director Chuck Boyd will speak on the panel, with opening remarks by County Councilmember Mel Franklin. Learn how the county can turn its fortunes around and bring development to its Metro stations.

Two-way New Jersey Avenue public meeting (Wed. 12/5, 6-8 pm at Bible Way Temple, 1100 New Jersey Ave. NW): DDOT has plans to change New Jersey Avenue into a 2-way neighborhood street with bike lanes. Project representatives will talk to the community about the plans and answer questions.

Know of a good event for Greater Greater Washington readers that's not listed here? Post it in the comments!

See the Chesapeake's rivers as a transit map

Cartographer Daniel Huffman has an amazing series of transit map-style diagrams. Instead of showing ground transportation, though, these show our systems of rivers. The one for the Chesapeake is fascinating.


Southern half (Maryland and below) of Chesapeake diagram. Images by Daniel Huffman.

Geoff Hatchard pointed these out, which mostly date from 2011 and before. There are tons more for all over North and Central America, showing the Hudson, Mississippi, Colorado, systems off the Great Lakes, and many more.

Looking at this, it's striking how little many of us likely know about our rivers. Sure, if you drive or take a train to Philly or NYC you can't help but notice the Susquehanna, and the Potomac forms a major border between states, but other than going over a short bridge and it forming a county boundary, how much do we really notice the Patuxent? For how many is the Rappahannock little more than half the name of a commuter bus agency? Yet these are major features of our geography and our lives depend on our planet's hydrology.

(There are a number of rivers not on the map, notably including the Anacostia, Occoquan, and everything on the east side of the bay.)

Breakfast links: Go the distance


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
Silver Line to Largo requires extra silver: Silver Line trains may not be able to turn around at Stadium-Armory, and will have to go to Largo. This will cost an extra $4.5 million per year and 20-30 extra railcars. (Post)

Spingarn gets historic: The Historic Preservation Review Board named Spingarn High School a historic landmark. It's unclear if the designation will slow down plans for a streetcar barn on the site of the school. (City Paper)

No rentals at St. E's?: Marion Barry is trying to block any rental housing at St. Elizabeths and instead wants any housing to be owner-occupied. He's concerned with Ward 8 having the lowest ratio of homeowners in DC. (Post)

Council committee giveth: A bill that would make it easier for cyclists to sue the motorists who hit them cleared the DC Council Judiciary Committee. The bill guarantees cyclists at least $1000 of damages plus attorney fees if they win. (DCist)

Council committee taketh away: The DC Council's finance and revenue committee approved an $11 million tax break for a Georgia Ave. development that CFO Natwar Gandhi said was unnecessary. (City Paper)

What changed after Rhee?: A new memoir from Michelle Rhee effusively defends her work and praises Adrian Fenty, but under Kaya Henderson, this year's school closings are a lot less contentious than when Rhee ran the show. (City Paper)

Can Amtrak ever satisfy Congress?: Amtrak is reorganizing itself to try to please skeptical House Republicans. What about also loosening outdated FRA rules and letting Amtrak choose its long-distance routes? (Streetsblog)

And...: The SE/SW Freeway and 395 might get higher speed limits. (WTOP) ... How WMATA's costs get allocated to each jurisdiction. (PlanItMetro) ... Trump unveils plans for the Old Post Office. (Post) ... Seattle gets a frequent network bus map. (Human Transit)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Transportation birtherism runs rampant this week

Are changes to parking policy a "war on cars" or a scheme to "force people out of their cars"? That's about as preposterous as saying President Obama wasn't born in Hawaii, but both claims grow from some real underlying angst in parts of the populace.


Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.

In national politics, the 2008 election created a lot of trepidation among some segments of the American populace, about a black president, expanding the role of government, or secularism. Some people capitalized on the fear not by debating the policies but by escalating silly conspiracy theories that advanced some groups' side agenda.

Our local analogue is the "war on cars" meme. The District is experiencing a tectonic demographic shift, especially in age, as many millennials and generation Xers want to live in walkable, urban neighborhoods, buy houses and often raise families in a way relatively rare the generation before.

Newcomers are also more likely to be white than the longtime resident populace, though many of the newer black residents I've talked to have very similar visions and desires for the city and their communities as a lot of white residents.

This shift means that we have different groups of residents who have different ideas about how and whether the District should grow, or what our policies should be on transportation and economic development.

A healthy civic discourse includes debates over this. But it's not constructive when the conversation focuses on conspiracy theories about people's motivations, like the recurrent theme that a new policy is an effort to "force people out of cars." It's especially damaging when people pin this motivation on a policy that sustainable transportation advocates don't even like.

Tim Craig's Washington Post article this weekend, about parking and bike lanes, fanned these flames. The headline said new parking rules are intended to "discourage driving," and led off with a quote from Councilmember Jim Graham: "That is the sign of the future, that discourages car ownership."

It's not clear in what context Graham said this, but the article mainly talks about a program, which Graham pushed, to reserve parking on one side of every street for residents. It makes it sound like this program is part of the so-called "war on cars," and paired with Graham's quote, some bike lane discussion, and other talk about the growing numbers of residents, certainly gave the impression that this was another one of those ideas from the bike lane and coffee shop set.

It wasn't. This one side of the street thing is very simple: it's a political play. Graham's base is residents, not visitors and not employees of businesses. He saw an opportunity to give something to his voters, and he did. That would have been a far better frame for the story, especially from one of the Post's political reporters.

I didn't like this policy when it came up 2½ years ago, and you'd be hard pressed to find any kind of transit or bicycling advocate who was pushing this. It's not necessarily all bad; it basically reallocates limited street space from one group of drivers to another, and that has pros and cons.

But Craig's article certainly pressed on a nerve for the Post's suburban readers, a lot like his 2009 article that made our "10 worst mainstream articles of 2009" list. That, too, played to suburban commuters' fears of a District less deferential to their needs but in a way that likewise really misrepresented the situation; there, a Bethesda resident was complaining about getting a ticket for parking in rush hour lanes, but the people who benefit from those rush hour lanes are primarily the suburban drivers.

Gary Imhoff sees Craig's article as more proof the hipsters are trying to run everyone else out of the city. In a piece entitled "one size fits all," He wrote,

These are people who see their lifestyle, their current lifestyle, as the normal, natural way that everyone should live, and are scornful of anyone who would actually buy provisions for an entire family.
The first commenter, "DC," on the City Paper's bit about it pointed out that it's Imhoff, not any young residents, who seem to want a "one size fits all solution."

Few newer residents care how people from a different generation in a different neighborhood live. Honestly, most hardly give it a second thought. They just want to have some places to live that fit their budgets and are near jobs or transit, and want neighborhood amenities like shops, restaurants, and parks.

The only reason this would be at all threatening to anyone else is because when there weren't so many people in DC, and when a lot of people didn't walk and bicycle from place to place, drivers could have lots of spaces to park and the roads to themselves to drive more quickly.

To sum up, we have a scenario where new people are coming in, don't actually want to remove any amenities from any existing residents, but the very fact of their existence threatens some people economically. Some people respond by latching onto conspiracy theories and forming extreme groups that claim to be for freedom but actually want government rules that maintain the status quo.

Hm, this sounds eerily familiar to some patterns in our national politics over the last 4 years. A letter writer to the Current back in April even said that her dislike of the zoning update (which is actually mostly suggesting loosening some regulations) made her feel kinship with the Tea Party.

It's worth noting who, in Craig's article, most steadfastly refused to pander to any anti-bicycle, anti-transit, or anti-walking sentiment: Pedro Rebeiro, Mayor Gray's spokesperson. No matter how much tumult there's been over bike lanes, the administration has never given it credence.

Commentators would do well to listen to the mayor and stop tolerating transportation birtherism. I have absolutely no objection to everyone who uses a car today continuing to use it just as much as before. New residents are free to make their own choices as well about their transportation modes. Almost nobody wants to force anyone out of any cars.

This is about giving people more choices, strengthening the quality and availability of non-auto modes which our society neglected for many decades, and finding ways to welcome new people in our city, in a way that respects and includes existing residents of all colors and incomes, instead of trying to fight newcomers off or distract from the real issue with silly conspiracy theories.

DDOT may include bikes and pedestrians on Broad Branch

The badly deteriorated Broad Branch Road in northwest Washington could become a more complete street that will accommodate pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers, as part of a much-needed restoration.


Photo from DDOT.

Winding west from Rock Creek to Chevy Chase, the 2-mile-long route does double duty for recreation and commuting. It's necessary link between upper northwest's neighborhoods, Rock Creek Park, and downtown.

Originally a market road for local farmers, most of its current infrastructure dates to the early 20th century. Patchwork fixes have only staved off a century of deterioration. Flooding has undermined the road's substructure, most dramatically in 2011, when the bridge over Soapstone Creek collapsed. Since it needs to replace the roadbed anyway, DDOT has taken the opportunity to update the design for modern uses.


The Broad Branch area. Bike routes appear in blue on the right map. Image from DDOT.

Three constituencies use the road regularly: motorists, cyclists, and joggers. The first has no real difficulty using the road, but the road and its bridges were built for smaller cars going slower. The road, after all, was originally a market path for local farmers.

Cyclists can use the road, but they have to keep to a quick pace. It's not suitable for children, deterring families from using their neighborhood parkland. Finally, there are no real facilities for joggers, let alone walkers, but they have to skirt the roadway to access Soapstone Valley, which feeds Broad Branch.

That means that currently, the Broad Branch only optimally serves motorists, mostly during rush hour. Early community outreach has produced 4 options for an Environmental Assessment. Beyond the no-action alternative, one proposal is to simply rebuild the road, altering it to improve safety and reduce the footprint.

A third alternative would add a sidewalk, while the most substantial would include a full-length bike lane in the uphill direction as well as the sidewalk. All rebuilding options would all include stormwater retention gardens and contextually-appropriate safety walls.



Sample cross-sections of each alternative between 32nd and 27th Streets, NW.



Sample cross-sections of each alternative around Davenport Street, NW.



Sample cross-sections of each alternative south of Brandwine Street, NW.

Of the alternatives, only the fourth takes advantage of the route's potential. A quiet, wooded route with a low grade is ideal for use by cyclists and pedestrians. For commuters, Alternative 4 is ideal. It includes a 4' bike lane in the uphill direction of traffic, but not one downhill.

Given the narrow right-of-way, this option is the best use of space, because cyclists on Broad Branch can often move with traffic going downhill, but only the most athletic can sustain 25mph uphill for two miles.

Making Broad Branch more convenient for cyclists will open up large swaths of upper northwest to sustainable forms of commuting. Residents won't have to huff and puff up the hills and ridges that make Upper Northwest so exhaustingly "upper." Cycling neighbors could practically coast all the way in via the bike path along Rock Creek and comfortably ride home.

The bike lane and sidewalk will also benefit locals looking for recreation in their own neighborhood. Most of Rock Creek is surrounded by steep escarpments that make access to it difficult and dangerous for residents on either end of the age spectrum. A paved sidewalk on the easy slope of Broad Branch will increase accessibility dramatically for a wide range of abilities. The valley itself would also be more usable to residents, making it more of an amenity than it currently is.

A criticism of alternative 4 is that it encroaches on the streambed and increases the amount of paving along the road. These issues should be addressed with design elements that reduce runoff. Signage at the rain gardens, as well as other sites of interest would provide an opportunity for interpretation of the park, history, and the impact of urbanization. More importantly, by making alternative modes of commuting more convenient, a complete Broad Branch road would reduce automobile pollution.

To make the most impact this project needs to be part of a larger network. The sidewalk bill is one part of this. Any plans should take into consideration the opportunity to calm traffic and improve safety by adding bike lanes on the unnecessarily wide Nevada Avenue, which is the extension of Broad Branch up a former stream valley. The potential of a Broad Branch that serves all uses should not be passed over.

Because the road needs to be so radically rebuilt, the opportunity to make these changes will not come again for many years. It is important that the road meet the ecologically sensitive needs of the population 50 years from now. Rebuilding it as a car-only route would be a serious mistake.

DDOT is interested in hearing from the public. To make that easy, any comments you post here will automatically also go to the project email address.

Which Metro stations are the most balanced?

Ever wondered if any Metro stations come close to having the same number of exits and entries during rush hour? Thanks Metro's newly-public ridership data, we can tell exactly how balanced each station is.

Mornings

During the AM peak period, the most balanced station is Bethesda. Almost exactly the same number of people enter the station as exit. Pentagon, Brookland, King Street, and Mount Vernon Square round out the top five.

On Monday, we looked at stations based on how many riders boarded and exited in the AM peak. Union Station and Pentagon are the only stations that appear on both top 10 lists. This indicates that they are fairly balanced, with people riding to and from them at similar levels. Pentagon is the 2nd most balanced station, and Union Station is number 9.

Metro station balance: AM Peak
RankStationEntriesExitsBalance
1Bethesda3,2783,2691.003
2Pentagon6,4796,9541.07
3Brookland2,0751,9141.08
4King Street2,9862,7121.10
5Mt Vernon Square1,1571,3231.14
6Crystal City4,1054,9121.20
7Tenleytown1,8492,2181.20
8Ballston4,4413,6561.21
9Union Station9,71212,0301.24
10Waterfront1,3341,0151.31
"Balance" is the ratio of entries and exits, dividing the larger number by the smaller number.

Why is balance important? Balance can be an indicator that land use around the station is fairly well mixed.

At Bethesda, for example, many people live near the station, and walk there to get on trains headed downtown (or to other destinations). At the same time, many other commuters are headed to one of the many workplaces around the Bethesda stop.

The measure of balance isn't perfect, though. The #2 most balanced station is Pentagon, which is just about as far from being a livable community as a place can get. Many riders are headed to jobs at the Pentagon. But they're balanced out by a large number of riders changing from bus to rail at the massive bus hub there.

What about the other end of the spectrum? Here are the 10 least-balanced stations.

Metro station balance: AM Peak
RankStationEntriesExitsBalance
77Vienna9,61476812.5
78Branch Avenue4,82838012.7
79Huntington6,29848613.0
80Judiciary Square4866,51513.4
81Farragut North1,23216,75413.6
82Archives3915,59614.3
83Arlington Cemetery2030314.9
84Glenmont4,28023618.1
85Smithsonian3235,93818.4
86Federal Triangle2106,61731.5

Federal Triangle is by far the least balanced. For every 1 person entering the station during the AM peak, 31.5 people are exiting. That's almost twice as lopsided as the 84th and 85th ranked stations, Glenmont and Smithsonian.

Also of note, in the bottom 10 we can find several of the top stations for AM peak boardings and alightings. Vienna (entry #2), is the 10th-least balanced station; Huntington (entry #7) is the 8th least-balanced station. Farragut North, by far the busiest station for exits in the AM peak, is the 6th least-balanced station.

While these stations may have many passengers boarding or exiting in the morning rush, they're far from balanced.


Blue is the proportion of entries. Orange is the proportion of exits.

Overall, the average balance factor for the AM Peak is 5.8. That's the most imbalanced of any of the periods. The station with the balance factor closest to the average is Benning Road, with a balance of 5.8.

PM Peak
On average, the PM Peak period is more balanced than the AM Peak. The average balance factor for the afternoon rush hour is 3.1. The station closest to the average is West Hyattsville, with a balance factor of 3.2.

The imbalances during this period aren't as strong as they are during the morning. This is probably due to some riders from the suburbs coming into the city to attend entertainment venues or sporting events balancing out commuters.

Metro station balance: PM Peak
RankStationEntriesExitsBalance
1Brookland2,2102,2361.01
2National Airport1,8421,7811.03
3Tenleytown2,6532,5641.03
4Shaw1,4681,4091.04
5Bethesda3,7233,9141.05
6Pentagon6,5136,0821.07
7Dupont Circle6,7606,2821.08
8Navy Yard3,9454,2691.08
9Union Station12,56411,5881.08
10Ballston3,9964,4811.12

While the order moves around a bit, 6 of the top 10 morning peak stations also appear on the top 10 most-balanced PM peak stations. The stations in both top 10s are: Bethesda, Pentagon, Brookland, Tenleytown, Ballston, and Union Station.

Metro station balance: PM Peak
RankStationEntriesExitsBalance
77Shady Grove1,4578,3205.7
78Vienna1,4668,4815.8
79Huntington8835,4276.1
80Glenmont5633,6596.5
81Landover2041,3696.7
82Judiciary Square5,7787867.3
83Branch Avenue5804,3797.5
84Morgan Blvd1961,5587.9
85Federal Center SW4,2295118.3
86Federal Triangle6,6677848.5

Similarly, 6 stations from the bottom 10 AM peak stations are on the afternoon peak bottom 10. In both periods, Federal Triangle is the 86th most-balanced station, the bottom rank. However, it's a good deal more balanced in the PM peak than it was during the morning rush.

The other 5 stations appearing in both bottom 10 lists are: Vienna, Branch Avenue, Huntington, Judiciary Square, and Glenmont.

Midday

The midday period is not as polarized as the peak periods. In fact, the midday period is the most balanced period, with an average balance factor of 1.2. The closest station to the average balance factor is Morgan Boulevard, with a factor of 1.2.

The least-balanced station, Smithsonian, has twice as many exits as entries during this period. That's a far cry from the 31-fold difference at Federal Triangle during the morning peak.

This makes a good deal of sense, too. With the peak periods, people tend to be making complementary trips in the opposite peak. But in the midday period, many of those trips happen in both directions during the same period.

For example, someone running to lunch might take the train from Farragut North to Union Station and back, with the return trip balancing the first. A commuter on the other hand, might go from Vienna to McPherson Square in the morning, wouldn't return until the PM peak.

Metro station balance: Midday
RankStationEntriesExitsBalance
1King Street1,7981,8181.01
2Tenleytown1,5811,6141.02
3Federal Center SW1,1911,1601.03
4Arlington Cemetery9389741.04
5Eastern Market1,3491,2991.04
6Clarendon7907441.06
7Friendship Heights2,2142,0761.07
8Pentagon City3,5323,7821.07
9Judiciary Square2,0432,1891.07
10Dupont Circle3,7764,0551.07

The least balanced midday stations aren't that imbalanced.

Metro station balance: Midday
RankStationEntriesExitsBalance
77Farragut North4,3085,8671.36
78Archives1,6522,2811.38
79West Hyattsville8786341.38
80Gallery Place4,4206,1521.39
81Dunn Loring9616871.40
82Metro Center5,0047,0851.42
83Takoma1,3249221.44
84Twinbrook9556571.45
85Grosvenor9395961.58
86Smithsonian2,5165,1362.04

Evenings

Evenings are not as balanced as middays, but they are more balanced than either peak period.

The average balance factor for the evening period is 2.8. Capitol South, with a balance factor of 2.8, is the closest to the average balance factor.

Metro station balance: Evening
RankStationEntriesExitsBalance
1Pentagon City2,5192,5131.003
2Tenleytown1,0191,0441.02
3Waterfront6857081.03
4U Street1,7071,7791.04
5Mt Vernon Square6466741.04
6Bethesda1,5131,6241.07
7Friendship Heights1,2631,4341.14
8Eastern Market9421,0871.15
9King Street1,1191,3191.18
10Clarendon8331,0031.20

The least balanced evening stations range from a balance factor of 4.8 to 8.9. However, Arlington Cemetery station is at the bottom at least partially due to the station's early closure, and the fact that the Cemetery, the only thing within walking distance of the station, closes early, too.

Metro station balance: Evening
RankStationEntriesExitsBalance
77Judiciary Square8141704.8
78Metro Center5,8971,2114.9
79Huntington3151,5735.0
80Glenmont2301,2095.3
81Archives1,4342645.4
82Farragut West3,8757075.5
83Shady Grove4282,3505.5
84Farragut North4,5237755.8
85Federal Triangle1,1351288.8
86Arlington Cemetery159188.9

What are your thoughts about the station balance numbers?

Breakfast links: Warnings of trouble


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Shuster gets transportation chair: Bill Shuster (R-PA) will chair the House Transportation Committee. He supports high-speed rail, but only privatized and in the Northeast Corridor, and wants more focus on highways and less on bike paths. (Streetsblog)

WMATA warned on cell service timeline: Mobile carriers warned WMATA a year ago that it wasn't on track for cell service in the tunnels by its federal deadline. Carriers also complained that safety escorts were insufficient and often late. (Examiner)

Transportation, housing add up: Washington families spend 72% of their income on housing and transportation combined, one of the highest rates in the nation. (WTOP)

U-turn on Penn, pay $100: Mayor Gray established an emergency rule yesterday to firmly prohibit U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes (which DDOT is also now repainting. Violations come with a $100 fine. (WTOP)

On the Riverfront: The Capitol Riverfront has seen a dramatic revitalization in recent years. Now people who lived in low-income housing that was torn down are starting to move back in to much-improved units. (City Paper)

Arlington may go private: Arlington may have a private contractor design, build, and run its planned streetcar system. A private company is more likely to get the Crystal City segment as the Columbia Pike streetcar is seeking Federal funding. (ARLnow)

SW buys a screen: Southwest DC will use some of its performance parking revenue for a real-time screen that will show when nearby buses and trains are to arrive, numbers of CaBi bikes in the area, and nearby arts performances. (SWTLQTC)

Fewer will be WorkingSocial: LivingSocial will lay off 400 employees nationwide, but will DC's recent tax break deal, which requires them to maintain 1,000 employees in DC, stave off many DC layoffs? (WBJ, City Paper)

What if feds had fewer offices?: What if many federal government workers started telecommuting, and GSA cut down on the number of rented offices far from transit? The Office of Planning looked at this scenario with an animation. (OPinions)

And...: Arlington may get an electric cab company. (Post) ... DC is seeking a contractor to help visualize how taller buildings would look. (WBJ) ... The EPA names the country's best smart growth projects (none in Washington). (Atlantic Cities)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Local regulations make new housing more costly

This is the third in a 5-part series about how the Washington metropolitan area can provide housing options for its growing workforce. Read part 1 and part 2.

Obtaining local government approval of a development plan is often a complex, costly, and time consuming process. It is no wonder that new housing units in the Washington area are increasingly unaffordable for households below the Area Median Income (AMI).


Photo by Keith Williamson on Flickr.

The full approvals process can easily add $30,000-$50,000 to the cost of a new single-family unit, and $10,000-$20,000 to a multi-family unit. In certain locations and under certain circumstances, the cost can be considerably higher than that.

Almost all new housing development approvals come after a lengthy review process culminating in a public hearing. This initial process starts with the property owner paying application fees. Governments and/or residents then ask for formal proffers, negotiated contributions, and special conditions, each of which have their own cost, before giving final approval.

The land development approvals process that then unfolds adds more application, review, and inspection fees, as well as fees that are highly particular to individual jurisdictions. Applying for building construction permits also involves additional application and review fees and costs. Taken together, the layers of development review add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a finished housing unit.

The table below identifies commonly-used categories of fees and costs encountered during stages of development approvals. They are based on a survey of 15 Washington-area jurisdictions, and in depth case studies in Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County, VA.

Fees and Costs commonly applied during housing development application and approval
Washington area jurisdictions, and case studies in Montgomery and Fairfax Counties
Fee or cost itemWhat it isCost per market-rate unit
Development review application feesFees for staff review of applications such as Preliminary Plan, Project Plan, Site Plan, Subdivision, Map Amend­ment, Special Exception, Development Special Use Permit, RezoningSingle-family or townhouse: $1,000-10,000; multifamily: $500-$1,000
Impact tax (Maryland)School and Transportation fees applied per unit regardless of impact$10,325 to $25,800 for a townhouse
Proffers (Virginia)Fees calculated to assess against the project its share of the cost of needed public facilities such as roads, schools, police and fire services. Must be voluntarily proffered in Virginia.$11,500 (MF) to $59,500 (SF)
Impact tax (Montgomery County Growth Policy)Payments directly related to marginal cost of school and transportation capacitySingle-family: $0 to $1,500; Multi-family: $0 to $2,900. Note: figures could be considerably higher if roads or schools are at or near capacity.
Moderately-priced dwelling units/affordable and workforce housingUnits provided at reduced sales prices or rental rates for households in defined income ranges. In Montgomery Co. 12.5% of each new residential project must be MPDUsForegone income from providing "affordable" new housing units in Maryland ranges from $20,900 to $37,300 per market rate unit in a project
Professional feesThere is an expected base of legal, archi­tec­tural and engineering services. In many cases this base is exceeded with special studies and community meetings that take the time of these professionals$250 to $17,500 per market rate unit
Special conditionsCost of meeting streetscape standards, tree cover, noise restrictions, recreation, bicycle paths and bike racks, etc.$700 to $3,000
Land development applicationsFees to apply for site plan and related permits post public hearings$400-$6,200
Building permit applicationsApplication, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing feesSingle-family or townhouse: $400-$2,350; multifamily: $1,600
Review and inspectionFees to cover inspections during land development and building constructionVaries
Water and sewerAvailability and connection chargesAvailability: $2,000 to $5,100; Connection: up to $18,000
Figures in the right-hand column are based on a July 1, 2011 baseline for fees and proffers, and specific case studies of projects in the development review pipeline.

Maryland and Virginia approach land use regulation quite differently, and each jurisdiction's charter gives it different authorities. Individual cities and counties set their own fee schedules, create their own methodologies to evaluate the adequacy of public facilities, determine their public priorities, calculate the specific impacts of proposed development projects on their budgets, and make requests for developer contributions.

Thus, the fees developers pay in the course of obtaining development approvals vary considerably, both in the types of fees and contributions, and in the amounts requested. Some jurisdictions, particularly those that continue to have large undeveloped areas or are relatively un-urbanized, use a formal proffer or impact fee system to provide basic infrastructure and core services.

In recent years, several jurisdictions have moved to a system of negotiated conditions. The development project offers to provide or pay for a large number of items not tied to specific impacts, but rather defined as "community benefits." This system has the unfortunate effect of being unquantifiable up-front, as the specific items negotiated evolve in the course of the review of the project concept, application details, and citizen reaction to the proposal.

Residents even sometimes make requests at the final moments of the approval process, during the public hearing before the jurisdiction's governing body. Developers working under this system often plead for an alternative that gives them more certainty and predictability. Some even prefer the large proffer numbers in rural or exurban counties over the ad hoc layers of requests unrelated to the project they encounter in the more urban jurisdictions.

Sample negotiated conditions with a cost impact
Dedication of right of way
Road frontage improvements
Access restrictions
Maximum number of units
Maximum square footage
Streetscape improvements
Utility undergrounding
Transportation management plan
Bicycle racks
Bus shelters
Traffic lights
Traffic calming measures
Pedestrian crossings
Stormwater management
Landscaping
Noise attenuation
On-site recreational facilities
Design specifications (materials, elevation details)
Energy efficiency
LEED or Earthcraft certification
Specialized lighting fixture designs
Restrictions on type of signage
Data wiring in each unit
Green roof/green building standards
Public art
Universal design for handicapped accessibility

Complexity adds to the cost of obtaining approvals

In addition to the direct expenses associated with the various permitting processes, obtaining development approvals is complex and risky. Completing the process often involves multiple overlapping and sequential approval steps, several community meetings to obtain public input, dealing with multiple agencies at different levels of government, and rounds of refinement or revision.

Approvals are generally very specific, and frequently rely on a proffered development plan that spells out the minute details of the project, including specific elevations and building materials. A minor change can trigger a need to go back through the process to amend previous approvals.

Timeframes for approval may be as long as 3-4 years

The layered and complex public development process means it often takes a very long time to gain full approval and start construction on a residential project. It is not unusual for a proposed development project to take 3 to 4 years to go from concept, through rezoning and associated approvals, to land development review, and finally to building permit review and approval.

This extended timeframe has its own costs. The attorneys, architects, and engineers must work with local staffs, prepare countless revisions, and explain the project in the course of community meetings (which can be large meetings covering an entire neighborhood, or be highly focused meetings involving as few as one or two particularly interested citizens). All charge their time to the project, burdening it with unpredictable extra costs.

An additional consequence is that if the timeframe is extended too far, the project risks missing its window of opportunity for market demand. For example, the last condominium building approved just before a downturn in demand for a condo product is likely to never get off the ground.

Housing costs more than it should, and we are having trouble producing units of the right type at the right locations

Costs are highest, complexity is at its peak, and timeframes are the longest in exactly the areas where many argue we need new housing units the mostin activity centers near transit. Land use plans and zoning have not evolved, but instead are frequently still redolent of greenfield development.

As a result, developers of urban mixed use projects or multi-family buildings of more than a few stories have to seek a rezoning (and in some jurisdictions, a master plan or comprehensive plan amendment). The rezoning then triggers a cascade of fees, proffers, public input cycles, and time delays. Housing affordable to people below the median income then becomes a casualty of the process.

Our earlier articles discussed how much housing, and the types of housing, the region needs. It will become increasingly difficult to produce the necessary numbers of multi-family units, rentals, less expensive units, and smaller units at activity center locations. The local government regulatory process is one factor that contributes to the mismatch between what the region needs and what can actually be built.

The detailed studies of Montgomery County, MD and Fairfax County, VA are available on the Center for Regional Analysis website.

Next in this series: What stands in the way of meeting the region's housing needs?

Time to overhaul Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act

Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) lacks adequate safeguards to protect the public interest as the state spends billions of taxpayer dollars and imposes decades of substantial tolls imposed, according to a new analysis.


Photo by VaDOT on Flickr.

The PPTA can be an innovative tool, allowing private entities to partner with the state or localities on transportation projects, and Virginia has been a national leader in pursuing public-private partnerships. Yet the report details how the PPTA has centralized decision-making, limited information given to the public, and often resulted in deals that allow private entities to earn high returns with little risks.

The report was prepared for the Southern Environmental Law Center by Jim Regimbal, a consultant with Fiscal Analytics, Ltd. and a former staff member to Virginia's Senate Finance Committee who has over 30 years of experience in state policy analysis.

It examines the PPTA's history and process, and highlights two recent projects for in-depth analysis: the I-495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia and the Downtown Tunnel/Midtown Tunnel/MLK Extension in Hampton Roads. The study also analyzes the substantial policy issues the Act raises and offers recommendations for reform.

The PPTA authorizes private entities to build, maintain and/or operate "qualifying transportation facilities" under an agreement with state or local entities such as the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). The intent was to reduce the up-front costs to government by attracting private sources of funding and to tap into private sector creativity and efficiency through competitive bidding to speed and improve building projects.

Since it was enacted in 1995, only four PPTA projects have been completed (Route 288 and Route 895/Pocahontas Parkway around Richmond, Route 199 around Williamsburg, and the new Beltway express lanes). Another 17 projects are partially completed or currently under construction, under contract, or under consideration.

The PPTA has expanded far beyond the General Assembly's original intent to supplement the traditional transportation improvements process. It is now the major method for constructing large new projects, and it concentrates decision-making in the Governor's office with little effective oversight.

Moreover, as the report notes, it "has evolved into a process in which large private-sector construction consortiums propose design/build/operate projects funded using as much state/federal funding and taxpayer-subsidized debt as can be negotiated with the state, coupled with toll revenues that are as secure and protected as possible."

There are significant differences between the PPTA agreements made between the Commonwealth and private entities. The I-495 Express Lanes project, for example, increases transportation capacity while still leaving existing toll-free transportation choices in place for the public. This agreement does not contain any "non-compete" clauses that limit future transportation improvements, although it does have a troubling provision that could increase taxpayer liability or dissuade high occupancy vehicle (HOV) use. The private partner is taking on true demand risk in return for its investment.

In contrast, the Downtown Tunnel/Midtown Tunnel/MLK project expands an existing free facility already once paid for and currently maintained by the state, but with no viable travel alternative for the public. There is little rationale for the amount of state subsidy provided and the contract allows for automatic toll escalation and penalties for creating competing transportation alternatives.

In another project, the proposed $1.4 billion new Route 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk, the state plans to provide $1.1 billion public in direct subsidies (tolls will cover the rest) to build a destructive highway that will parallel an existing, relatively uncongested route. This project is a much lower transportation priority than many others throughout the state, yet it is slated to receive the highest subsidy.

The report recommends a number of reforms to the PPTA, including:

  • Providing more information to the public (including the cost-benefit analysis), and requiring a public hearing at least 30 days prior to signing a comprehensive agreement;
  • Increasing the role of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and other oversight boards, by requiring it to evaluate and approve a proposed comprehensive agreement before it can be approved, and giving the Board greater independence by limiting the ability of the Governor to remove members without cause;
  • Creating a greater role for the legislature in the process, such as requiring the findings of the cost-benefit analysis to be provided to the General Assembly prior to initiating a PPTA procurement process to ensure that the assumptions contained in the analysis can stand up to public scrutiny, and by requiring the Assembly to approve subsidy levels (particularly debt) and the use of toll facilities;
  • Ensuring greater competition by requiring more bidders; and
  • Adding conditions for prioritizing state PPTA subsidies.
These solutions will help ensure that the PPTA process is good at producing public benefits for as low a price as possible.

Recent PPTA deals show why the current debate over transportation funding needs to focus on ensuring that taxpayer funds are spent wiselyand not just on raising more revenues for transportation. The legislature needs to improve the PPTA before the state signs additional agreements or authorizes any additional funds for public-private transportation projects if we are to promote smarter transportation investments and adequately protect our communities and environment.

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