Posts from March 2012
The project to build a cycle track on L Street is moving ahead. DDOT sent over their latest plans for the lane, which will give people on bicycles more pleasant and safer-feeling way to travel eastbound from New Hampshire Avenue to 12th Street.
L Street currently has 4 lanes. The cycle track will occupy 1 lane, on the north side, which is the left as you travel down L. The other curb lane, on the right or south side, will allow parking and loading outside rush periods and will be a travel lane during rush.
Where cars can turn left from L, the lane uses the "mixing zone" design, where left-turning cars merge into the bike lane and mix with bikes approaching the intersection. There are also "bike boxes" at each corner, letting cyclists move in front of waiting traffic, such as when they plan to turn right.
The lane will have flexible posts all along the length, to remind drivers not to drive in the lane. As with all of the new bicycle facilities, some people will be confused at first, and there will be some complaints from drivers and/or cyclists.
We've found that while neither is perfect, the 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes now work very well, and have contributed to more and more people biking in DC. DDOT will learn from those, and from the L Street lane. It will make changes to these lanes and future ones.
This lane will only help people ride eastbound. To head west, people have to mix with traffic on M Street or use other routes. DDOT plans a lane on M, though officials have not given a timeframe for that one. Hopefully it can follow soon after L Street.
With this and future lanes, people will feel much more comfortable commuting or running errands downtown by bike, making cycling safer for everyone and reducing the level of car traffic on our roads.
WMATA's MetroAccess paratransit service has become too expensive for both its clients and the governments that fund it, and has suffered from some serious problems with its service. Using more taxis to transport persons with disabilities could decrease costs and improve service quality.
People with certain disabilities qualify for Metro Access service. Riders pay twice the quickest fixed-route transit fare, up to a maximum of $7 per ride. But that doesn't cover the cost of a trip. To cover the rest, the local jurisdiction pays WMATA $45 for each trip.
WMATA will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) on March 31 for new paratransit operators. But if the RFP follows the original proposal, it will make a big mistake: It would restrict taxis to serve no more than 5% of paratransit trips.
MetroAccess is saddled with a poor customer service record. At a town hall meeting this past October, MetroAccess customers complained about poor treatment by drivers and call dispatchers, poor routing, long waits for pick up and drop off, and vehicle breakdowns. On a couple of occasions, clients of Iona Senior Services' Alzheimer's Day Program were dropped off at the wrong location, and it took hours to locate them. WMATA can do better than this, and taxis could help.
MetroAccess head Christian Kent has crafted a plan to fix the quality of MetroAccess service. Instead of having one vendor bid on the whole package of services, as in the previous contract, the RFP lets vendors bid separately to run the call center, the fleet services, and quality assurance.
Most jurisdictions of similar size do the same. Experts I spoke to feel that this is the best approach, especially having a different vendor handle quality assurance from the one(s) actually running the service.
But one piece of the plan does not make sense: decreasing taxi use from 20%, as specified in the old contract, to only 5%.
Research (cited at bottom) is clear that taxi paratransit services can be less costly than standard ADA paratransit:
- In 2005, Arlington County's taxi paratransit cost $20.50 per trip, versus $35 for WMATA.
- San Francisco's taxi paratransit costs $15-$18, versus $40 for Muni paratransit.
- Houston's ADA taxi service per hour is $32.10, versus $42.65 for paratransit van service.
- 50% of jurisdictions surveyed reported taxis saved money for transit agencies.
There are also challenges with using taxis. Some try to defraud the transit service. It's hard to monitor it, and drivers don't have as much training as the van services. Christian Kent cites these as reasons to decrease the amount of taxi use in the system.
Nevertheless, Arlington paratransit manager Steve Yaffe makes a strong case for taxi use. His system uses taxis to provide 50% of its paratransit service. He has demonstrated that the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages.
I recognize the difficulty in finding taxi vendors with sufficient internal controls and oversight over training, maintenance and accounting. Another difficulty with using taxis for this type of service is the dearth of jurisdictional reciprocity privileges for taxis being used to transport people with disabilities. However, new business models are being developed and have been implemented elsewhere to get around these obstacles and provide the necessary level of accountability and service oversight. The Metro Access RFP should not preclude the flexibility to increase future levels of taxi participation.DC disability advocates testified at a January hearing on taxi service, chaired by Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), about the importance of providing more wheelchair-accessible taxis and drivers with training to serve those with disabilities. When I talked to Cheh about the possibility of the MetroAccess RFP reducing the use of taxis, she acknowledged that this appears to move in the wrong direction.
Instead of defining a percentage of taxi use for the system, WMATA should include specific quality standards for taxis. This will give all the jurisdictions the flexibility to improve quality, so that taxis can provide services for Metro Access users. This could lead to lower costs and better quality. 22 senior service providers in the District signed off on this recommendation. We hope Christian Kent listens.
Arndt, J. & Cherrington, L. (2007). The Role of Private-For-Hire Vehicles In Transit In Texas. Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
Burkhardt, J. (2010). Potential Cost Savings from taxi paratransit programs. Institute of Transport Studies (Monash). Social Research in Transport Clearinghouse.
Burkhardt, J., Doherty, J., Rubino, J., Westat, & Yum, J. (2008). A Survey On The Use of Taxis in Paratransit Programs. Easter Seals Project Action. Retrieved from www.projectaction.org
Chapman, Koffman, Pfeiffer, & Weiner (2010). Funding the Public Transportation Needs of an Aging Population. American Public Transportation Association.
DC residents are tired of waking up to read about corporate donors who receive sweetheart deals from our elected officials. We endorse a ballot initiative to ban corporate contributions to political campaigns.
The proposed measure, known as Initiative 70, would bring DC in line with federal law, as well as the laws of 21 states and countless other cities.
Despite the growing momentum behind this initiative, you'll hear lots of excuses in the coming months from incumbent politicians as to why this ban wouldn't work in DC. You can respond to these excuses with your signature.
Volunteers will be out at the precincts for primary election day on April 3, collecting signatures to get this initiative on the November ballot. Signing the petition is as important as any vote you make that day; volunteering to gather signatures would do even more.
Most sitting councilmembers aren't supporting this ballot initiative. Their desperate excuse is that a ban on direct corporate funding of campaigns could push corporate dollars into the shady world of political action committees.
But the council has the authority to regulate those PACs, so that argument rings hollow.
Those councilmembers would actually have you believe that the current system of direct corporate contributions to campaigns is transparent by comparison. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Corporate contributors make a mockery of campaign finance rules by cloning themselves to circumvent contribution limits. Corporate donors bundle checks from each of their corporate subsidiaries, even if those subsidiaries do nothing but write checks to councilmembers.
By giving money through these veiled spinoffs, corporations can give many times more than you or I can give. Is that fair? Should your neighbor be able to contribute 12 times more than you because he owns a business with 11 subsidiaries and you do not?
Often, these corporate contributors are land developers who establish each development as a separate limited liability company (LLC), and bundle checks from each LLC to politicians. Using LLCs is particularly shady, as the identities of their owners is legally not public information.
We can strike at the heart of this culture of pay-to-play in DC government by passing this ballot measure. Doing so would force councilmembers to be more responsive to ordinary citizens in order to finance their campaigns.
As long as our politicians bankroll their campaigns with bundled corporate checks, though, we can forget about regulating PACs or passing any other meaningful campaign finance reform. Just last December, the council voted down several amendments to include campaign finance reform in ethics legislation, by a vote of 12-1.
Dissenting councilmembers claimed they voted no because they wanted to wait to address campaign finance reform separately. We aren't holding our breath. Only 2 members co-introduced a comprehensive reform bill, but just last week the rest of the council found time to support a much narrower campaign finance reform fix, limiting money order contributions to $25.
That's a good step, but other issues are equally pressing. Or is the council only willing to deal with the problem of the day on the front page of the newspapers, and none other?
Our patience has run out. As long as corporate owners can walk to a sitting councilmember and, while discussing a city contract, hand them 12 checks from each LLC they own, residents cannot trust our elected officials.
No, Banning corporate contributions to campaigns is not sufficient to reform campaign finance. Yes, it will still be possible for PACs to influence DC Council legislation.
But Initiative 70 will make it a lot harder for corporations to buy votes, and will send a clear message to the Council that continued campaign finance reform, including PAC regulation, can be delayed no longer.
Sign a petition when you vote on April 3rd, or even better, volunteer for DC Public Trust and help collect signatures.
This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, written by one or more contributors. Active contributors and editors voted on endorsements, and any endorsement reflects a strong majority or greater in favor of endorsing the initiative.
Montgomery County just spent millions to build a new parking garage in Silver Spring. Just one block away, another garage is so underused that the county wants to hand half of it over to the Discovery Channel for pennies on the dollar.
The 592-space Kennett Street garage in south Silver Spring sits mostly empty. Montgomery's Leggett administration has just proposed leasing 300 of its spaces to Discovery for the cable company's nearby offices. The proposed deal would give Discovery exclusive use of the spaces for 13 years at an annual rate of $240,000, or just $800 per space per year.
Only a few weeks ago, a 152-space public garage opened around the corner on 13th Street. The cost of this garage is difficult to estimate because it was part of a package deal that also built affordable housing, but a garage under a similar mixed use project in Bethesda cost $64,000 per space.
The $800 per space per year that Discovery would pay won't even cover the interest on a $64,000 parking space.
So many things are wrong with this deal that it's hard to list them all. It's an unnecessary giveaway to a prosperous private company that has already received millions from the county. 300 parking spaces currently open to the public will be fenced off and unavailable to others. And everyone will suffer from the traffic and pollution that subsidized employee parking creates.
Meanwhile, neighbors who park in the Kennett Street garage are upset because they will soon be charged double what Discovery would pay.
Public parking is out of control in Montgomery County. It's heavily subsidized by taxpayers; the bonds sold to build garages in Silver Spring are paid off out of the county's general fund. Yet the county went to the expense of building a new parking garage when an existing garage one block away is full of empty spaces.
When Montgomery can't find anything better to do with its garages than give them away, it's a strong signal that it's time to stop building new ones. In a county desperately short of affordable housing for people, affordable housing for automobiles does not deserve to be a priority. Parking should pay for itself in Bethesda and Silver Spring.
Anacostia isn't the only place in DC with "abandominiums." Canvassing 13th Street NW in Columbia Heights for information on a forgotten murder, I found an unlocked front door to the Warner Apartments, one of DC's most historic abandominiums.
Within minutes a friend and I were on the roof of this Colonial Revival-style apartment building on the 2600 block of 13th Street NW. We looked over a neighborhood that, in less than 10 years, has been transformed from one of the deepest gang and crew-affiliated areas of the nation's capital to a landing pad for DC's newest arrivals.
Formerly known as the Alden, Babcock, and Calvert Apartments, completed in the 1920s, the Warner Apartments at 2618-2622 13th Street NW were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
In late 1987, the Warner was the first of a dozen renovated apartment buildings to be completed as part of the city's "$15 million plan to reclaim vacant, privately owned, disintegrating apartment buildings and turn them into housing for low-income District residents," according to the Washington Post in November of that year. "By the time the last group of tenants left four years ago, a succession of landlords, tenants and city authorities had managed to reduce the once-graceful red-brick structure in Columbia Heights to an uninhabitable mess," said the article.
In February 1987 developer Joseph G. Kisha, in partnership with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), acquired a "Rental Rehabilitation Loan Program Leasehold Deed of Trust, wherein the parties acknowledged" Kisha's "indebtedness to the District of Columbia government for a $220,000 interest free loan to finance the purchase and rehabilitation of the housing accommodation as rental units for low to moderate income," according to records of the Office of the Tenant Advocate.
On October 28, 1987, Kisha closed on the property for $413,872. Of that total, $176,220 came from the Rental Rehabilitation Loan Program, $159,000 from the Land Acquisition for Development Opportunities Program, and a guarantee of a forthcoming $78,652 from DHCD.
Wasting no time, the next day Kisha filed a Claim of Exemption Form with the Rental Accommodation and Conversion Division within the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, asserting that the apartments were "exempt from the rent control provision of the Rental Housing Act because the rental units were owned or subsidized by the District government."
Along with the city subsidized mortgage, Kisha argued that the property was additionally exempt from rent control because in 1984, when his company first expressed interest in its purchase, it was vacant and had been vacant up until the time he requested the exemption from rent control. The city agreed and approved his exemption. All 44 of the Warner's renovated units would go to low-income residents receiving federal rental assistance.
According to the November 1987 Post article, Kisha had concerns that "not enough attention ha[d] been directed at the time when the initial rent subsidies expire." He told the Post he and his business partner planned to own the Warner for fifteen years, but when the rent subsidies ran out, he was quoted as saying, "I don't know what happens then."
Fast forward to August 2006, less than twenty years after the Warner Apartments reopened, Kisha and his 2620 Limited Partnership was petitioned by the 2620 13th Street NW Tenants Association, who alleged that the Rental Housing Act of 1985 had been violated. Rents increased even though the units did not comply with housing regulations, tenants received "substantially" reduced services, and, the association argued, the property was not registered with the Rental Accommodation and Conversion Division.
Kisha sought to have the case dismissed with prejudice on the grounds that the Association's complaints were based on the rent stabilization provision of the Rental Housing Act, from which the Warner was exempted.
In late July 2009 Wanda R. Tucker, an Administrative Law Judge, issued a Final Order in the nearly three year old dispute. The Tenant Association's petition was "dismissed with prejudice," meaning the Tenant Association would be barred from bringing a future action on the same claim.
By December 2010 only four units remained occupied. Following the protocol of the 1980 Rental Housing Conversion and Sale Act, the remaining tenants were given the opportunity to purchase all three buildings. The asking price was $5,050,000. The tenants were prohibited from waiving their right to receive the Offer of Sale while their failure to purchase the buildings ensured their eventual eviction.
Last December the 2620 Limited Partnership sold the three buildings and got their money. New York-based Aria Partners, LLC, purchased the property for $5,018,000, a price representing more than $114,000 per unit. In press releases Aria pledged to "substantially renovate the building[s] to [their] historic standard while preserving 20% of the units as affordable."
Inside building "A"
Upon entering building "A," (2618 13th Street NW) a friend and I were greeted by two fire extinguishers coated in a thick layer of dust. Some loose construction materials lay in the corner of the vestibule. I step up the stairs into the hallway, a door to units on my right and left.
I shout out, "Uptown reporter in here!" The sound ricochets through the stairwell, down to the basement and up to the fourth floor.
I don't hear anything or anyone, neither does my friend. A solitary light bulb, in a no frills hallway chandelier overhead, gleams through the desolate dwelling.
The door on the left is unlocked, opening into a unit with three windows that overlook 13th Street NW. To the right is the intersection with Euclid Street NW. "There goes MPD," says my friend, "Rickey," as the police cruise south on 13th Street NW.
"Rickey," in his early 50's, grew up on nearby Sherman Avenue NW. He has fond neighborhood memories of "just trying to stay alive despite my best efforts not to." Although he now lives "on that southside" his "heart is always with the uptown."
He says, "I might be too street to tweet but I'm up on the only news that really matters; that corner news of what's happening now."
Rickey claims "everyone knows you've always been able to get high here whether it's vacant or when they got people. This place has never really been run right; it's always been a problem."
As we walk through the hallways and creep into deserted units, we're careful to watch our steps on the wood floors going to pieces. The non-bearing walls have all been knocked down, and drywall accumulates in piles in many of the units.
With scant evidence of squatters on the first and second floor, we discover verification on a third floor unit overlooking 13th Street that someone has been here within the past week. "Yep. If I was still getting high this is right where I'd do it. That's what they were doing," says Rickey.
There are a couple different newspapers scattered about from the same day last week, some cigar guts, and discarded wrappers for Black & Milds and cigarillos, used to roll up weed.
"To a lot of folks this place is too hot," Rickey says as we look down to the street below. "All these new people walking around, acting like ain't nothing wrong in the world. You better watch your back if you dip in here, these people will call the police on you quick, fast, and in a hurry."
Rickey pulls out a cigarette, lights it, and laments, "You know when I was coming up, yeah, there was a lot of guns and knives, and all those drugs around but it was different. The way it feels now, it doesn't feel real anymore."
A metal grate blocks the stairwell to the roof, but it's not locked. We pass boxes full of binders chronicling years' worth of work orders as we walk up the staircase.
We're now on the roof. I snap a quick picture. We head back downstairs but not before Rickey, with a fresh cigarette dangling from his mouth, says, "I know some folks in the market for an abandominium, I'll make sure to spread the word if they don't know already."
More and better traffic enforcement is key to reducing pedestrian crashes along our main streets. Last week, Mayor Gray announced that he is giving the green light to a new set of traffic cameras which MPD has been trying to buy for over a year. This is great news for DC pedestrians.
Older folks are at particular risk in crossing our streets, such as Connecticut Avenue, because speed kills. A driver traveling 30 mph who hits a pedestrian is only 45% likely to kill that person, but at just 10 mph faster, the odds jump to 85%. For seniors, the risk is even greater.
Seniors feel very vulnerable crossing the street, because drivers don't wait for them to cross when making right- and left-hand turns. And, of course, there are those cars that blast through red lights. In fact, most pedestrians hit by drivers are struck when in the crosswalk and crossing legally with the light.
Pedestrians will welcome any measures to slow down cars, make drivers stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, and clear the box so that parents crossing the street to take their small children to their preschool don't have thread their way through the cars blocking the intersection and the crosswalks.
Lisa Sutter, head of photo enforcement for DC's Metropolitan Police Department, first presented her photo enforcement program to the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council in December or 2010. I thought Santa had delivered the absolute best Christmas presents. The new cameras will catch violators not stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks, speeding through red and green lights, and blocking the box.
Ms. Sutter has the proof. She collects data on how her cameras affect driver behavior.
Cameras work. Drivers slow down and stop going through red lights. Plus, revenues drop over time.
Many of the complaints against cameras, such as those from AAA, say that the measure is just a play for revenue. But it is not really a good revenue source once drivers learn and begin to follow the law. Maybe new cameras would help plug a budget gap this year, but DC will not be able to count on a lot of revenue over time. What they can count in is safer streets.
Look at Connecticut Avenue north of Chevy Chase Circle. The cars go the speed limit. As a pedestrian who has had many near misses, I am all for it. And I drive a car, as well.
Besides, we all want safer streets, and we need to invest the resources to get there. If an effective method pays for itself and provides funding for more expansion, should we not support it?
Each pedestrian killed costs $3.84 million (in 2005 dollars) from losing wages and productivity, medical expenses, motor vehicle damage and employers' insurance costs. A pedestrian injury costs $52,900 (also in 2005 dollars, according to the National Safety Bureau.)
Aren't these fines a small price to pay to reduce crashes?
ANCs 3C and 3F passed a resolution in favor of photo enforcement, and other ANC's across the city are considering similar actions. It is time to view the risk of bodily harm from the traffic violations on our streets as we do the risk from crime. In fact, the risk is greater.
In their report of Traffic Safety in the New Millennium, the International Association of Chiefs of Police wrote, "More people are killed and injured and the economic losses to society are greater from traffic crashes than that from crime."
It's long past time to install more traffic cameras and make our streets safer. Mayor Gray took the right step, and the DC Council should approve the program as part of this year's budget.
Once the economic juggernaut of suburbia, enclosed malls are slowly dying all across America. The Washington region is no exception.
This map shows 31 enclosed malls in the DC area, color-coded by status: green for malls that are still open, and red for malls that are closed or in the process of closing.
The 31 malls on the map range from small local ones like Fair City in Fairfax, to gargantuan super-regional ones like Tysons Corner. The only requirement to be on the map is that malls contain a common interior hallway lined with several shops.
Some, like Pentagon City, are chugging along as healthily as ever. Others, like Seven Corners Center, have been gone for years. Overall, more than 40% of the dots are red.
The reasons malls have closed vary as much as the malls themselves. Some closed because they were housed in cheap buildings that simply reached the end of their intended lifespans, while others couldn't compete with the mixed-use town center developments that have become common in recent years.
Geography seems to be unimportant in whether a mall lives or dies. Red dots permeate all corners of the map, regardless of the wealth of the jurisdiction.
One thing that does seem to make a difference is size. Larger malls that draw from a wider area generally seem more likely to thrive than smaller ones. As the years go by and even more green dots turn to red, it's likely the last hold outs will be the biggest and most famous.
Is this map comprehensive? Did I miss any malls? Let me know in the comments.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
On Saturday, the Environmental Matters committee of the Maryland House of Delegates voted down a measure that would have let Prince George's County create a 5¢ bag fee, similar to those in Montgomery and DC.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the bill narrowly passed a vote by the county delegation, and advocates thought they had cleared the biggest hurdle. Local bills with support from the delegation usually sail through the rest of the way as a courtesy. It was case of counting our chickens before they hatched, perhaps, but the road this bill took was far from typical.
Saturday's vote was 12 to 11 in support but, with 24 members on the committee, we needed 13 yeas to move forward. A quick look at the vote count shows that, surprisingly, Montgomery County Delegate Jim Gilchrist, a friend of the environment, voted no.
According to other members of the committee, Gilchrist incorrectly thought the measure had failed in the delegation vote, so he thought he was supporting the wishes of the county by voting against it.
However, we also know that committee chairwoman Maggie McIntosh had concerns about the bill's ability to pass on the floor of the House. THe House has considered a tremendous number of new taxes and fees this session, and just last week approved raising income taxes.
McIntosh feared "fee fatigue" would doom the bill even though it would only indirectly create a new fee. McIntosh voted last in the committee vote, and there is no guarantee that she would have voted yea if hers had been the 13th and deciding vote.
Along with Councilmember Mary Lehman, the bill's champion on the Council, County Executive Rushern Baker personally worked hard to support the bill. Just Friday he released a press release reaffirming the need for the bill. As Baker is himself a former delegate, the committee warmly received his testimony during last week's hearing and he regularly reached out to leadership to check the bill's status and reinforce it as an executive priority.
The outcome likely would have been different had the delegation vote not been so close. It passed with the minimum 12 votes, with 9 opposed (two were absent). As DC experienced during its attempt to pass a container deposit in the 1980s, the industry opposition successfully couched the issue in racial and socioeconomic terms. They specifically appealed to central and south county residents in their tactics, relying on robocalls to mislead constituents and flood delegate offices with comments, and running ads on predominantly African-American radio stations and in newspapers.
These tactics prompted Delegate Veronica Turner, a co-sponsor of the statewide version of the bag fee, to switch positions, because she believed her constituents were vehemently opposed.
In response, advocates supporting the bill canvassed grocery store parking lots in Turner's district in Oxon Hill, and collected more than 300 signatures over a couple of weekends. They reported that shoppers were extremely supportive of the proposal once they learned that it was intended to reduce litter and create a fund for environmental restoration.
Turner was reportedly open to reversing her position, but she then fell ill and was hospitalized, and has since missed the rest of the legislative session. Her absence prevented a delegation subcommittee from giving the bill a favorable report, leading to the impression that the bill had died in February. (Perhaps this is the vote Gilchrist was remembering.)
Delegate Barbara Frush, who introduced the bill in the House, has faith that the county will eventually have a bag fee. The delegation leadership will change next year as part of the state's redistricting, potentially putting a stronger ally in the chairmanship.
In addition, the county has extensive environmental obligations, including reducing trash in the Anacostia River and dramatically improving stormwater management, and a bag fee would address both. While the county cannot enact a fee this year, other options are still on the table. The problems aren't going to go away on their own.
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