The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts from February 2011

Public Spaces

Solar Decathlon to be held in West Potomac Park

DOE and DOI announced today that the 2011 Solar Decathlon will be hosted in West Potomac Park. The event will still be held in late September, as previously scheduled.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

While the park is somewhat less desirable than the originally location on the National Mall, the final location is significantly more accessible than other options which had been proposed, particularly National Harbor in Prince George's County.

The placement is also opportune because it is located just south of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial which is scheduled to open a month before the Solar Decathlon.



Listen: Moving stories about getting around Baltimore

Everybody has a story. Earlier this month, some Baltimoreans got a chance to tell their tales.

Photo by Willamor Media on Flickr.

The Maryland Humanities Council and the Stoop Storytelling Series teamed up for Moving Stories: Getting Around Baltimore, in which Charm City residents volunteered to speak about their experiences getting around the city.

WYPR-FM recorded two of these stories and was kind enough to share them with us. First is Gayle Hefner, an attorney who tells of getting around Baltimore's buses, sidewalks and crosswalks in a wheelchair.

The last storyteller was Jessica Keller, Director of Service Development at MTA. She talks about how she adjusted to the new commute that came along with her new job.

Washington-area residents also have stories to tell. What is the most memorable transportation tale you have about getting around our region?


Lang/Trachtenberg economic development transition pushes archaic transportation approach

I'm working on analyzing the transportation claims in Mayor Gray's transportation transition document. Meanwhile, the economic development document contains some terrible transportation policy recommendations that need no further research.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

That transition team, headed by Chamber of Commerce head Barbara Lang and former GW president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, recommends that DC focus its transportation policy on making it easier for people to drive in and out of the District in order to bring in more jobs.

The transportation section, starting at the bottom of page 6, suggests retiming signals primarily around moving cars in and out, adding reversible lanes, and paying for traffic officers to direct traffic on major routes to Maryland and Virginia. These all represent the wrong approach. Basically, this is a traffic plan that comes from people who don't know much about transportation.

The following words appear nowhere in the document: Metro, bus, transit, bicycle, walk, carpool. There is one sensible recommendation, to better enforce no parking and double parking rules.

Roads in and out and downtown are already very busy, despite a century of public policy around moving vehicles in and out. Parking is scarce and expensive. To grow, DC doesn't need to move more vehicles. It needs to find ways to transport more people without adding more vehicles.

Bus and HOV lanes, for example, would let the same number of vehicles carry more people and provide faster ways in and out of DC for transit riders and sluggers. It would also do so without making dangerous roads, like Connecticut Avenue, even more dangerous for pedestrians.

It's also odd that this transition team thinks that the best way to bring jobs to DC is to move more suburban residents in and out in single passenger vehicles. Maryland and Virginia residents don't pay taxes to DC, and most of the jobs in the District now are government or nonprofit jobs that don't pay taxes either. Why should DC prioritize continuing this status quo?

DC needs more jobs in technology and other intellectual, "creative class" sectors which will attract people who want to live near their jobs. It also needs more jobs which can employ those who live in DC today but haven't been able to find jobs. This plan helps with neither.

This isn't such a surprise from Barbara Lang. She testified at a Council hearing in 2008 that it's not safe for her female employees to take Metro because they occasionally work until 10 or 11 at night. She also didn't know if she provides any SmartBenefits to employees.

It's too bad the DC Chamber of Commerce is instead acting like the Maryland and Virginia Chamber of Commerce. DC needs a business community that believes in the city and in growing the city's strengths, including its relatively low car dependence. The Chamber of Commerce needs a leader who recognizes that, and in the meantime, Gray should put little stock in Lang's ideas fresh from the 1950s.


McDonnell still refusing to push Congress on Metro funding

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell repeatedly dodged questions yesterday about why he isn't lobbying his fellow Republicans to save the funds for Metro's safety repairs. He also showed a surprising ignorance of basic facts like whether WMATA has a permanent General Manager yet, while repeatedly calling for the region to give him power over its decisions.

Photo (of a different radio interview) by Waldo Jaquith on Flickr.

McDonnell appeared on WTOP yesterday morning along with DC Mayor Vincent Gray and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. During one of the segments, interviewer Mark Segraves asked all three about the $150 million federal safety contribution and talk of closing Metro early on weekends.

Rather than really answering, McDonnell kept repeating Republican talking points about the need to cut the federal budget. He said he'd told "a couple" of Congresspeople "telephonically" that he'd like the Metro money saved, but he hasn't actively lobbied them or even sent an official letter.

Instead, he continually insisted that he should get a seat on the WMATA Board because he contributes $50 million in matching funds. That's a tiny fraction of what Northern Virginia puts in, and his administration has refused to commit to keeping that going, even if Congress doesn't cut its own contribution.

But maybe it does make sense for the governor to have some involvement in Metro's governance. McDonnell could demonstrate that the request is more than a political power play on his part by speaking up for Metro and showing even a basic understanding of the challenges it faces. When asked about late-night closures, he said:

I think we've got to get the new General Manager in place first. I think we need to have the revisions in the the governance structure that we've all agreed to need to be taken place first and then let that team decide how to reduce funds and make the system operate more safely and more efficiently. But I wouldn't support it now until we've got the leadership changes made.
Someone should tell him that the new already General Manager is in place... and that the governance changes he himself is pushing includes changing the GM to a CEO.

McDonnell wants a voting seat on the Board, but his only response to most issues about problems facing Metro boils down to, "I won't lift a finger to do anything about this important agency until I get the power I want." He and his staff still haven't demonstrated any willingness to deal with Metro's problems or even much of an understanding of the details.

Why should Northern Virginia officials, who do work to solve these problems, do step up with funding, and do know what they're talking about, give up one of their seats for this?

A chief executive needn't know every specific detail about each agency, even one as important as Metro, but O'Malley and Gray both demonstrated a much better awareness.

Here's a complete transcript of the segment, which begins at 29:00 on WTOP's recording:

Segraves: First, on Metro funding. The Republicans in the House have suggested several cuts to trim the federal budget. One of them is on Metro funding: the $150 million a year matching funds that match each of you, your $50 million each. What are your thoughts on that, and what are you doing to try to restore or protect that funding, if you are trying to protect that funding?

McDonnell: First of all, I fully support the Republican House's efforts to try to rein in the federal spending and federal debt. It's an unstainable and immoral level of spending... This is one area where we've relied, since Tom Davis got that bill passed over a decade ago with $150 million coming from the federal government and 50 each from our 3 jurisdictions, we found a good formula to work together on a regional transportation project that actually helps federal workers get into work, so I think there is a nexus there. ... Most of the areas of cuts I think I support. This is one I wish they would continue in place and make the other tough choices, like entitlements, like health care and other things ...

Segraves: Did you talk to the Virginia delegation? Have you been lobbying them to try to restore this funding?
McDonnell: I've advised my congressman that I'd like him to look at some other areas to cut. But I fully spport the fact... that 60 billion is not enough. It's not even close.

Segraves: But some are saying that you're not doing evnoueh. That you could come out and talk not only to your congressman but the entire Virginia delegation and get them involved in this.

McDonnell: Well, I intend to let them know that that is not an area that I would like tham to cut. I've expressed that telephonically to a couple but what I'm more interested in right now is making sure Virginia gets a seat at the table.

Segraves: On the Metro board.

McDonnell: Yeah, absolutely. ... We pay $50 million from the state of Virginia and I have no voice on that board. They're all local...

Segraves: Virginia has a voice.

McDonnell: No, not as a state. We have local government people that have a voice. That's different because we pay $50 million. Governor O'Malley and Mayor Gray are both supportive of this concept. The Washington Board of Trade has come up with a major restructural, governance change. We've all gotten on board with that. Our staffs are working together to implement that. And I think there are many changes that need to be made. So if we're gonna fight for the money, we've gotta have major reforms in the way the place is governed, and I think we're all on board with that because the safety record has not been good.


O'Malley: I support Governor McDonnell's desire and the Greater Washington Board of Trade's desire to reform that governing board at Metro. Maryland recently appointed Michael Barnes to be a Maryland representative. That was my appointment, because Maryland puts a lot of dollars into it. I think the governor should have the same direct responsibility.

Segraves: Metro is thinking about closing early to save money and to do rail work late at night. Are you in favor of Metro reducing their hours?

O'Malley: None of us are in favor of any sorts of service reductions, but tgese are the things we have to do in order to come through these recessionary times, and if they do have to make these reductions I hope they are temporary in nature. That's what the governing board is for. ...

What concerns me most as Governor McDonnell alluded to is the safety record at Metro. We still see a lot of the things that were designed at Metro 40 years ago are now breaking down. Most visibly are those escalators, and these are the things that should concern all of us.

Segraves: Mayor Gray, A lot of those late night riders originate in the District of Columbia, are coming out of bars and whatnot. Do you have an issue with Metro proposing to close early?

Gray: Well, clearly, I don't support the idea of closing Metro early. It's not just entertainment purposes, it connects people to jobs in the region as well. It gets people in and out of the city in a much more efficient fashion.

As far as the cuts to the support for the Metro, we've seen the consequneces of not being able to invest in the ways that we should have. We were the first ones on board, and now of course we all 3 are involved in this, in committing to $50 million a year. About a third of the ridership on Metro is federal workers. So it isn't not just a handout to the region, Frankly, it's supporting the federal presence in the District of Columbia and the surrounding area. And it's a prudent investment. If we want to have the kind of world class Metro system that we've had for years, the investments have to be made. We've made our commitment and now we want the federal governemnt to step up and make theirs.

Segraves: Governor McDonnell, quickly, on Metro closing early?

McDonnell: I think we've got to get the new General Manager in place first. I think we need to have the revisions in the the governance structure that we've all agreed to need to be taken place first
and then let that team decide how to reduce funds and make the system operate more safely and more efficiently. But I wouldn't support it now until we've got the leadership changes made.


Breakfast links: Tackling crime

Photo by freefotouk on Flickr.
Electronic thefts up on Metro: Theft of electronics accounted for 76% of crime on Metro last year, and Metro Police says that number is climbing. In 60% of thefts, devices are literally snatched from unsuspecting customers. (Dr. Gridlock)

To catch a Metro thief: The story of a man and his gang of Metro thieves shows just how difficult it is to catch and prosecute electronics thieves on the Metro. Enforcement of things like eating, drinking and fare-jumping often turn up perpetrators of bigger crimes. (TBD)

Bollards not boutiques for Poplar Point?: There's a new development project proposed for Poplar Point, right near Anacostia Metro. Unfortunately, it's another high-security federal facility for DHS, which is convenient to St. Elizabeth's but will create a big dead zone between Anacostia Metro and any future Poplar Point mixed-use neighborhood. (Housing Complex)

Cab fares won't be capped: Mayor Gray has ordered the $19 fare cap on long-distance cab rides within DC be lifted. The Council voted to change it in October, but then-mayor Adrian Fenty ignored the directive. The change will take 30 days. (Post)

Wells investigating city vehicles: After Kwame Brown's Navigator fiasco, Tommy Wells is asking DPW to review leases on all the city's vehicles used by senior officials, saying, "these are austere times." (WAMU)

Howard County proactive on aggressive driving: Howard County Police proactively engage aggressive drivers even when officers themselves don't witness incidents. The county asks citizens to report incidents and police send the driver a letter. (RPUS)

Maryland considers reckless driving bill: The Maryland House Judiciary Committee will hear from supporters of a bill to create a crime of negligent homicide by vessel or motor vehicle, making it easier to punish drivers who kill a cyclist or pedestrian. (WABA)

And...: Transforming the Verizon Center from one sport to another is a significant undertaking. (TBD) ... DC's Department of Public Works will hold an online chat today about expanded street sweeping. (Dr. Gridlock) ... In honor of George Washington's birthday, fact check some myths about the Washington Monument. (We Love DC)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.


Struck in DC last week: 12 pedestrians, 2 cyclists

Here are some of last week's reported pedestrian and cyclist crashes in the District.

Last week's map. Click for interactive version.

The source for this data is Struck in DC, which has been tracking crashes on Twitter since June 1. While it is not a comprehensive listing of all pedestrian and cyclist incidents, Struck in DC does keep tabs on reports from DC Fire/EMS and other sources.

The goal is to raise awareness of the approximately 8-12 pedestrians struck daily and the room for improvement in data collection of bicycle and pedestrian crashes in the District.

If you know of a crash that wasn't mapped here, report it to Struck in DC. For a tally of Struck in DC crashes we have recorded this year, please view the spreadsheet.


Taxes lowest for DC residents and car-free Virginians

Tax debates often involve arguments about how taxes compare in DC, Maryland, or Virginia. A new report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found DC's to be the lowest in most cases. Virginia residents without cars would also pay low levels of tax.

Images from DCFPI.

The study looked at a variety of hypothetical families in three income levels: renters earning $50,000 in annual income, and homeowners earning $100,000 or $200,000. For each case, it totals the likely income, property, and car taxes being paid for singles or married couples without children or with 2 children.

In almost all scenarios, DC's tax burden is the lowest. The major exception is single households making $200,000 without or with children, where taxes are lower in Virginia. For married couples, Virginia's taxes rise above DC's mostly due to the car tax.

A separate DC CFO analysis also studied homeowners earning $50,000, and also found lower taxes in DC than in Maryland and Virginia.

The report assumes each single person owns one car, as do the couples earning $50,000, while the couples of higher incomes own two cars. The car tax ranges from about $550 (in Fairfax) and $600 (in Arlington) for the households making $50,000, up to $1,960 (Fairfax) and $2,150 (Arlington) for the two-car families making $200,000.

That means car-free households would save around $500-2,000, making Virginia cheaper for several of the categories. However, anyone who moves to Virginia for the lower taxes only possible for car-free residents would have to move to the relatively few places in the state where it is feasible to live entirely without any car, even for occasional errands or weekend trips, or where Zipcar is very close by. Owning cheaper cars would also allow Virginia families to save money on taxes.

Naturally, this just compares average households of these sizes. Each individual's tax burden will vary. Living in a less expensive home means lower property taxes, for example. However, that assumes someone can find a less expensive house they are willing to live in.

Property taxes are highest in Prince George's County, even though average home values are lower there. This analysis assumes lower house prices for its hypothetical families in Prince George's County, with the most expensive homes belonging to DC and Arlington residents.

Nevertheless, DC residents pay lower property taxes due to a far lower tax rate and the homestead deduction for those who live in their property. Prince George's, on the other hand, has the highest property tax rate in the region, and with home prices having declined more than elsewhere, many owners are paying taxes on valuations above their actual home price.

The report didn't consider sales taxes, because those vary greatly based on what people buy and where. The Virginia sales tax is one percent lower, but Virginia taxes groceries, while the others don't. Also, many DC residents shop in the suburbs for certain items and many Maryland and Virginia residents buy things in DC.

In tax debates, opponents of raising taxes often claim that wealthy residents will move to Maryland or Virginia to save money. The report doesn't look at much wealthier households, though studies from a recent tax hike in New Jersey suggest that very few rich people move to avoid taxes.

In moderate to upper-income households, moving to Maryland would not save money; moving to Virginia might if the households are willing to live without cars or with very cheap ones.


How will Virginia brand its streetcars?

Arlington is moving forward with streetcar plans for Columbia Pike and Route 1. How might the trains be branded once they start running?

It seems unlikely they'll be branded as Metro. What are the options? I created some potential concepts in Photoshop. These are not official branding proposals, just my own ideas for discussion.

The DC Streetcar will look like a DC Circulator. What about the same for Arlington Transit? ART's wavy green livery is clean and unique. Extended to a streetcar, it might look like this:

That's pretty nice, but unlikely. After all, both the Columbia Pike and Route 1 lines will extend into other jurisdictions. Fairfax and Alexandria might not like their streetcars branded as part of ART.

How about mimicking the DC streetcar, so as to give the impression of a unified regional system? Starting with that paint scheme but substituting the red from DC's flag with blue from Virginia's, a streetcar might look like this:

That could work, but it's certainly not the only option. There's no reason Virginia streetcars need to be branded like anything currently out there. There are endless permutations. Here's another:

In fact, streetcars don't necessarily need special branding at all. The mere fact that they're streetcars may be branding enough. Portland and Seattle each use a variety of solid colors, and it works just fine. Applied to Virginia, that might look something like this:

What do you think?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Virginia Senate kills bad anti-livability, WMATA board bills

The Virginia Senate's finance commmittee killed three bad transportation-related bills, all of which would have transferred decision-making over transportation in Northern Virginia to Richmond and away from the region's counties and cities.

Photo by cabbit on Flickr.

HB2000 would mandate that Governor McDonnell's representative to the Northern Virginia Transpor­tation Commission—currently Thelma Drake, from Virginia Beach—become one of Virginia's two voting members of the WMATA Board.

Supporters repeatedly invoked the Board of Trade and its chairman, Jim Dyke, whose governance report pushed for reducing the local role. Governor McDonnell also reportedly made personal calls to each senator. But opponents pointed out that the state is overstating its financial support for Metro, and that for decades it played virtually no role.

Fairfax Supervisor Cathy Hudgins, the current WMATA Board chair, came to Richmond to testify against the bill. She said that Northern Virginia governments are willing to give the state government some involvement in WMATA governance, but not at the expense of diminishing their own role. She asked the legislature to let the current process of discussion and negotiation within the WMATA Board and NVTC continue to a resolution.

None of the senators brought up the fact that Governor McDonnell has still sent no letter to Congress about the $150 million capital appropriation for needed repairs that's on the chopping block, but that's a great argument against writing it into law that he must get power over WMATA.

Chairman Charles Colgan (D-Manassas) was the only Democrat to support the bill; four of the five Republicans, none from Northern Virginia, also voted for it, and two were not present.

NVTC can still give a seat to Drake if they choose; the benefit of having NVTC decide to do it instead of the legislature mandating it is that NVTC could reverse course if the governor decides to cut back on the already-meager state financial support.

The Senate panel also killed the two "anti-livability" bills, which would essentially override regional transportation planning and enshrine six-Beltways booster Bob Chase's own transportation priorities into law.

They would have required VDOT to rank projects (HB1998) and prioritize funding (HB1999) based on just two factors: what moves traffic faster, and what aids evacuation in case of a disaster.

The evacuation argument is a common canard used to push road-building, but the fact is that no realistic amount of roads will let everyone in the DC region drive at the same time. As Senator Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington) pointed out, DC's own disaster plans recognize that, and don't call for mass evacuation.

Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria representatives lobbied against HB1999, arguing that these transportation priorities should instead come from the existing processes through regional bodies that already make these decisions. The panel agreed on a party-line vote despite pressure from groups like the Price William Chamber of Commerce and the Apartment and Office Building Association.

Responding to questions from Senator Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), Finance Committee staff judged that HB1998 would have cost up to $5 million, and so no senator even made a motion to pass that bill.

News out of the legislature wasn't as good for bicycling, as the House rejected a number of bicycle bills including one to give Charlottesville permission to put contraflow bicycle lanes on one-way streets where the traffic and police departments feel it's appropriate.

The bill to require passing cyclists with three feet of space also died, as did a number of bills to limit cell phone use while driving.


Breakfast links: Failures of leadership

Photo by on Flickr.
Will mayor, council face austerity?: With DC residents on the hook for so many Lincoln Navigators, when it comes time to close the budget gap, will leaders cut some of their own perks while slashing services? ... Kwame Brown now says he wants to return his Navigator. (DCist, 14th & You, WAMU)

MWAA has board problems, too: The airports authority has its own governance problems, including at least one absentee member; Rep. Frank Wolf has asked for the GAO to audit MWAA. (Post, Examiner)

Straighter is not safer: It turns out the straight section of the Beltway are the most dangerous. Keep that in mind next time a highway department says it wants to straighten a road "to be safer." (Examiner)

ICC opens officially, real opening delayed: Governor Martin O'Malley and USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood opened the first segement of the ICC, hailing it as Maryland's greenest highway. Due to weather, the new highway won't be open to drivers until Wednesday. (WUSA, WAMU)

Alexandria unsure on new schools: Citing current overcrowding and anticipated growth, Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman wants to build 4 new elementary schools. The City Manager only budgeted half of Sherman's request, though. (WAMU)

Fairfax considers more mixed-use in Tysons: Developer Cityline Partners has filed and Fairfax County has accepted an application to rezone 40 acres near the future Tysons East metro station to allow mixed-use residential, office and hotel space. (DCmud)

Where should WeBike?: WeBike, the bike sharing system that doesn't use stations and launched at UMD last year is trying to decide where to go next and whether to charge fees for usage. (Business Rx)

DC will hurt if fed shuts down: Rank-and-file federal employees and the small businesses that rely on them may be in trouble if Congress doesn't reach an agreement this week on a spending bill and forces the federal government to shut down. (WUSA)

And...: Megabus is adding more buses to Philly, and dropping the White Marsh stop on many of its NYC-bound buses. (Dr. Gridlock) ... Transportation Nation's audio documentary Back of the Bus about race, inequality and transit is now available online or for download. ... Much like DC, even in a strong real estate market, San Francisco still struggles to improve blighted sections. (Post)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.
Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City