Posts from April 2010
Once again, a lot of winners.
Congratulations to readers MichaelDC, Sam, Kevin, DCRay, Teo, SJE, David G., Fivepercentyak, Dustin, Joshua C., Brawls, William, Boots, Rudi, NipponNate, F. Sheehan, Andy Garin, Sean Robertson, Kwasi Cook, and Graham S. for getting all three answers to this week's What's That?
Fresh from yesterday's interesting Montgomery County Council discussion of the failed car speed tests, I received a leaked copy of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation's proposed replacement.
McDOT will announce the new policy this afternoon. The explanatory memo can be found here.
The new Transportation Policy Area Review will replace the existing Policy Area Mobility Review (PAMR) and Local Area Transportation Review (LATR) tests. These tests, which have been widely criticized, focus on how fast cars move through intersections, blocking development and imposing new infrastructure requirements whenever cars slow down.
These tests may have their places, but not in modern pedestrian-friendly plans. The reason is simple: you can't have a pedestrian-friendly community if cars move fast.
The Council wrestled for months to reconcile a pedestrian-friendly White Flint with its existing car speed tests, a struggle which was resolved only when the Council realized that the answer to congestion was not to move cars faster but to get people out of cars. That works in Arlington County, and it should work even in Montgomery County. That, at least, is the premise of the White Flint Plan.
But there's an aphorism that, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. That's the problem with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, which is tasked with the huge job of handling the County's traffic problems. MCDOT sees everything in automobile terms: Rockville Pike, for example, is a big pipe from NIH and Navy Med in Bethesda to Rockville (oh, by the way, White Flint in between isn't anything at all to worry about, except if it slows cars).
That's why, when faced with a nice opportunity for a park or community facility on the unused SHA land at the northern intersection of Montrose Parkway and Rockville Pike, McDoT gave us a ... surface parking lot. In White Flint. Where we're trying to replace those. To protect the environment. And make a pedestrian-friendly community. I'm sure they had a good reason.
And just so with the new TPAR. The product of a high-powered consultant's report, the proposal to be issued today is fascinating more for what it does NOT do than what it does. There are some good parts of the proposal, mostly dealing with the techniques for measuring and analyzing traffic.
But you hit the real problem on the very first page of the Introduction: transit and travel demand management (getting people out of their cars) are to be considered "separately" (emphasis in original) from arterial roadways and bicycle and pedestrian improvements. See page 3. Um... why?
Maybe that comes from treating roads out of context. That's reinforced by the wide and differing areas which are treated as if they were the same. Downtown Bethesda, with its urban character, access to Metro, and full streets, is in the same transit access zone with Cabin John, with its more suburban or rural vocabulary and NO transit access. Really, only roads matter to McDoT, not transit access, and not transit-orientation. (And, a wiser analyst than I pointed out, the new TPAR means that McDoT can build what it wants, when it wants, without a lot of outside control, as long as a road is in a master plan.)
So, there's a lot of good in the new proposal, but at bottom, this is a continuation of the "car is king" philosophy. Understandable in a department of Transportation, but not really where the County is going. This is more rearranging the deck chairs, rather than a holistic approach to solving a variety of mobility issues.
And it totally ignores the big gorilla coming down on us all: carbon limitation laws that will begin strangling road construction in just a few years. Sustainability (read demand management) will become the main driver in the future, not congestion. Soon what comes out of the tailpipe will become more important than how fast we can move that pipe.
Perhaps this is the wrong place to do that type of overall "quality of life" analysis, but if this TPAR is intended to replace PAMR and LATR, then TPAR will determine our government priorities and spending. Road construction is, and will be important, but the County shouldn't lock into a system which expressly intends to separate transit and demand management from road needs.
This is, again, the same problem the County faced with the White Flint Plan: how do you use these car-oriented tools in a transit-oriented space? The answer is: not very easily.
Wouldn't we be better served, as a County, if we did what the Planning Board tried to do in White Flint: measure a variety of elements which make up "quality of life," rather than just how fast cars move through intersections? Spend as much time on getting drivers out of cars as on moving them through intersections as fast as possible.
The most recent budget proposal from the General Manager makes great strides to reduce service cuts, but as a recent letter from transit advocates argues, the proposed fare increase will still drain away more riders than necessary.
The fare increase instead "follows the politically expedient approach of across-the-board fare increases," the letter argues. Yet 40% of peak riders work for federal agencies and get free transit. Peak trains and many buses are overcrowded while there's plenty of room at other times.
Therefore, it would be better to raise fares where riders can better afford it and are less likely to abandon transit, and particularly where trains are already filled to capacity. It makes less sense to raise fares where there is already excess capacity and where projections estimate heavy losses in ridership.
Besides just raising revenue, the letter, signed by Allen Greenberg of MetroRiders.Org, Michael Perkins of Greater Greater Washington, and Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, argues for targeting fare policy in ways that achieve four objectives:
- Maximize the number of transit trips for each dollar of operating assistance;
- Maximize use of existing capacity;
- Collect revenue efficiently (e.g., increase SmarTrip use to reduce system costs and operational delays); and
- Maintain jurisdictional and social equity.
- Charge 50¢ for peak-of-the-peak trips (during the busiest 1½ hours in the morning and evening rush) instead of 10¢ as proposed by the General Manager. However, only apply this to rail trips that traverse the congested core. This would encourage peak riders in the busiest areas to ride when trains are a bit less crowded.
- Charge 25¢ for peak-of-the-peak trips on bus during the same time as the peak-of-the-peak rail surcharge. This would avoid riders to shifting from rail to bus and also spread peak bus ridership. To avoid double-charging customers who transfer, increase the transfer discount by 25¢ during the peak-of-the-peak time.
- Increase the differential between cash and SmarTrip on buses beyond the current and small 10¢. This would discourage cash payment and significantly speed boardings.
- Concentrate parking price increases at stations that get filled up and which have waiting lists for Monthly Reserved Parking, rather than simply raising charges across the board by 50¢ per day and $5 for reserved. For example, charge $1.15 more for lots with 100% or higher utilization, 50¢ for lots with utilization rates between 85 and 100%, and zero for less filled lots. Similarly, increase Monthly Reserved Parking by $10 where there are waiting lists, but zero elsewhere.
- Scale back the proposed $4 flat fare for Metrorail after midnight, which creates a strong disincentive for short-range late-night riders to take rail when cabs would be cheaper, especially for large groups. Instead, return to the Catoe proposal to charge the peak rush-hour fare at night.
With the revenue raised from these proposals, WMATA could reduce other fare hikes, including off-peak fares on rail and, especially, bus:
We believe that off-peak fare increases, for rail and bus, should be kept to a minimum, below the levels proposed by the General Manager, as the magnitude of the proposed increases would result in substantial ridership losses per dollar raised during times when there is excess system capacity. Substantially increasing off-peak bus fares, in particular, would hit some of Metro's poorest riders the hardest.Bus fares are increasing by a greater percentage (20%) than rail fares (15%), and long-distance rail fares even less (11%). Like the parking, the bike locker rentals are similarly untargeted. At the very least, Metro should release bike locker utilization rates before and after any increase so we can determine whether that hike is beneficial or harmful.
Some have raised concerns that peak-of-the-peak bus fares would generate arguments between riders and bus drivers. The solution would be to set the SmarTrip-cash differential on bus higher than the peak-of-the-peak charge, so that cash users always pay the same flat rate, SmarTrip users get a discount, and if riding off-peak, SmarTrip users get an even larger discount.
Downtown DC could use more residential units, but the strong demand for downtown office space crowds out most residential development. Could a selective bonus above Washington's height limit for downtown residential units allow for new residents while avoiding a land rush?
Concentrating yet more office space downtown with taller buildings isn't in the region's best interest. More mixed-use neighborhoods are better than an office ghetto surrounded by bedroom communities.
There's also so much available land near downtown in places like Southwest and NoMa that the central office district could easily expand without taller buildings. Also, eliminating the height limit downtown could result in a push to tear down and redevelop too many historic buildings that are culturally valuable.
However, raising the height limit could make Downtown Washington a better neighborhood. It may be the most intensely built part of the region, but it is almost completely commercial. There are so few residential units that vast swaths of downtown are almost completely devoid of people outside the hours of 9-5.
If we want Washington to be a city of mixed-use neighborhoods, then downtown is failing. Even the downtown BID thinks this is a problem.
Getting more residents downtown is hard, however. The parts of downtown most in need of residential development are already built out with office buildings. Also, commercial square footage generally rents at a higher rate than residential square footage, so any developer would choose office over residential if zoning allows. Even if we change the zoning to require new buildings be residential, developers won't be likely to tear down older office buildings and replace them with lower-renting residential ones.
A solution would be to increase the allowable height for residential projects, but not commercial ones.
But by how much? We need to allow some redevelopment of existing buildings, but not too much. We could simply allow residential skyscrapers at unlimited height, but that would defeat the aesthetic reasons for having any height limit at all, and it might lead to the sort of land rush that would wipe out valuable historic structures.
What about a smaller rise? The height limit is currently defined as the width of the street plus 20 feet (for "business streets"). It would be possible to rewrite the regulation to provide a height bonus in exchange for incorporating residential square footage, say 20 additional feet of height in exchange for three floors of residential.
For example, say you own a piece of land on a 90-foot-wide street. You could currently build a 110-foot building with 10 floors of office space. With this suggested bonus, you could instead build a 130-foot building with nine floors of office and three floors of residential.
That would be enough of a windfall for most developers of new buildings to take advantage, but it wouldn't be so much as to encourage redeveloping existing builldings unless the owner was going to redevelop anyway. We wouldn't see wholesale demolition of historic properties, but we would see a substantial residential component in any new buildings.
There's still no reason to allow skyscrapers downtown, or to raise the limit for more offices, but a modest height bonus for residential development along these lines would add people to downtown's streets without significantly altering the city's mid-rise character. It would incrementally improve downtown as a neighborhood, while allowing it to retain its role as regional commercial center.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Northrop Grumman has narrowed down its headquarters search to two locations, one in a walkable and transit-adjacent area of Ballston, and the other in a generic, car-dependent suburban office park off the Beltway in Fairfax County.
Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth is urging Northrop to choose Ballston (PDF):
I am writing to you in my capacity as Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and as a retired Navy Captain with a strong commitment to our national security. I urge you to select a Metro station location for your new headquarters in the Washington DC region.Sarah Krouse asked Grumman about transit in her most recent article:
By selecting a site within ¼ mile of a Metro station, particularly one close to your major clients, you will be making an additional commitment to our national security beyond that which you already fulfill.
With less than 5% of the world's population, the U.S. consumes 25% of the world's oil, with 70% of that going to transportation. Sixty to seventy percent of our oil is imported, much of it from unstable parts of the world. By concentrating development near high capacity transit, you can significantly reduce oil consumed by employees traveling to and from work and meetings.
Combine this efficient location with a LEED-Silver, Gold or Platinum green building and Northrop Grumman will be addressing and reducing the nearly 80% of energy use and CO2 emissions that come from buildings and transportation.
Northrop Grumman is to be commended for already having its government relations office centrally located near Metro in Rosslyn. Metro station locations offer employees more commuting options, including transit, walking and bicycling, saving money while also reducing the region's traffic.
These mixed-use, walkable centers provide convenient access to restaurants and other services. We also urge you to adopt a full range of transportation demand management policies including employee transit incentives, carpooling, parking "cash out," and showers/lockers and racks for bicycle commuters.
When asked about whether proximity to transit would play a big role in the decision, Bush said transit access was "always a consideration," and that he found Northern Virginia "very well situated in terms of transit."However, other signs suggest Northrop doesn't seem to be considering being part of a neighborhood as much of a benefit. In an earlier article, Krouse wrote,
Northrop also is rumored to have requested a reduction, if not elimination, of the retail component of the building, something Arlington is known for pushing along the commercial and transit-oriented Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.Northrop also wants changes to the façade, "changes that could add extra time to an already tight deadline." Krouse writes that real estate sources say they're likely to choose the Fairfax office park and that getting cheap land was always the primary consideration, rather than the amenities of the area.
The company might be wise to think twice. According to a new article in the Harvard Business Review (via Streetsblog), many companies are moving from suburban office parks to mixed-use communities, because that's what their employees want.
Still, even most of the benefits highlighted in the HBR article are more diffuse and long-term, like strengthening the overall city and region to attract a better workforce. In the immediate sense, employers don't directly benefit from reducing car trips or pay for increasing them. Employees benefit through better transit or pay through worse traffic on commutes, but the traffic impact also gets spread out to all other users of the roadways. The companies benefit in the long run, but often make choices based on short-term costs and benefits.
As a result, large employers like Northrop have strong economic incentives to choose sprawling areas with cheaper land, where they don't have to worry about sharing any space with pesky retail and only their employees, the region, and the company's long-term competitiveness lose out.
This dynamic often pits more walkable, inner jurisdictions like DC and Arlington against sprawlier ones like Fairfax, but not always. As Fairfax builds Tysons Corner into a real city, they'll face similar issues within the County. Will Metro be enough of an incentive for corporations to headquarter in Tysons, or will they continue to lean toward the easy yet harmful route of picking the sprawliest office parks?
Tonight is the latest Greater Greater Washington happy hour, this time at Guapo's in Tenleytown.
We'll start at 6:30 pm. Guapo's is 4515 Wisconsin Avenue, on the block to the north of the Metro station. Exit on the east side of Wisconsin, turn around at the top of the escalator, then turn right.
Neil Flanagan is the host. Look for him upstairs; he'll have a sign and some nametags. There's no set program, so feel free to come by at any time.
Saturday, the Coalition for Smarter Growth is organizing a walking tour of the area around Rhode Island Avenue Metro. Right now, it's "a hodge-podge of industrial and automobile-oriented uses crisscrossed by busy railroad tracks, a commuter arterial road and hilly topography," but DC hopes to turn it into a walkable community with new development, pedestrian bridges over the tracks, and the Metropolitan Branch Trail.
The tour runs from noon-2 pm starting at the Metro station entrance. RSVP here.
The following week, we can hopefully finally get real numbers and facts on streetcar technologies at the streetcar technology forum. That's Thursday, May 6th, 5-7 pm at the Renaissance Hotel, 999 9th St NW.
DDOT has also just announced that they'll be showing off one of DC's streetcars on a temporary track set up in the huge temporary parking lot at City Center DC. It'll be accessible from the corner of 9th and H, NW and open from Wednesday, May 5th to Friday, May 7th from 11 am to 7 pm, and Saturday, May 8th from 11 to 5.
The current embassy is a not-quite-modernist structure at the edge of Rock Creek Park near Peirce Mill. The new structure will be a postmodern Y-shaped landscraper that clings to the site, in a flattened valley.
The architects are Prague-based Chalupa Architekti; it follows the embassies of Sweden, Sierra Leone, and Turkey in a series of high-profile international projects.
This is going to be a really great building for nighttime parties. The designers conceived of a theatrical center for elite receptions that opens completely to a large garden.
I like the circular pods that are scattered inside and out and in between. They refresh the old Modernist idea of dissolving barriers between the interior and exterior, nature and environment, by bringing it back to the original idea of passing volumes through an envelope.
The front (north) façade is a beautiful composition of frosted glass formed into a curtain. From the side of practicality, the east-facing façade of the office wing is fenestrated and shaded reasonably well for actual daylighting instead of a glass sheet.
The architects fell into some contemporary tropes I dislike. Some of the lines are arbitrarily harsh and unanimated. The glass curtain in front ends bluntly at the roof slab. Likewise, the entrance doesn't stand out on a building that already doesn't address the street well.
Admittedly, it is a diplomatic building, so security concerns will cause designers to skew fortress-like and the surrounding neighborhood is hilly and wooded, full of detached mansions like the Hillwood. Given that, maybe disappearing into the environment is the best course here.
The grass roof slips the building into its site. And if it's not near public transit, it is near great bicycle resources. The shady Rock Creek trail is just feet from the entrance. If the Czechs get on the same bike bandwagon as the Danes and install some changing facilities (it's not clear from the published images if they have them), then it could be a pretty forward-thinking building.
Metro needs new railcars soon, but efforts to order new cars have hit a few bumps. MWAA, which is managing the Silver Line project, is objecting to costs, and Maryland's cuts to capital spending could imperil the needed commissioning facility at Greenbelt. If Metro can't buy and commission new cars, the Silver Line might not be able to open in 2013.
MWAA balks on railcar costs
On Thursday, the Washington Post reported on objections about railcar costs by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is building the Silver Line.
Before the line can open, WMATA needs 64 railcars to operate the segment. The first 64 railcars of the 7000 series will be paid for by the MWAA, but purchased by WMATA.
Additionally, Metro is purchasing 300 cars to replace the 1000 series. Because of the size of the order, Metro is getting a bulk discount. The cost for Metro's additional railcars will be about $2.5 million per car.
The rub, as far as the Airports Authority is concerned, is that they're being saddled with the design costs. This means that their cars will average $4 million apiece. Unfortunately, they only budgeted for $3 million per car, and they're balking at the higher cost.
MWAA believes that the design costs should be spread evenly across the entire order, since the 7000-series will benefit the entire rail system and not just the Silver Line.
The Airports Authority says spreading the design costs evenly across the 64 railcars for Tysons, the 300 for 1000-series replacement, and the 64 cars for the Dulles/Loudoun extension would bring the average railcar price to $2.7 million. That would increase the cost to Metro by about $60 million, but would decrease the cost to MWAA by about $166 million.
Officials at MWAA say that unless Metro eliminates the $75 million increase in the overall price of the first 64 cars, they won't okay the purchase.
If MWAA decides to go it alone on the purchase, they probably won't end up getting a better deal, and they will certainly delay the arrival of the cars.
Commissioning facility delayed
Another rough patch for the 7000 series are delays to the Railcar Commissioning Facility. Because of the volume of railcars being purchased and the short timeframe, Metro needs to construct a commissioning facility.
This facility is expected to cost $60 million, and will be located at the Greenbelt Rail Yard. It will include a 2.25 mile test track between Greenbelt and College Park. It will allow WMATA to process 16-20 new railcars per month and will eliminate the need to single-track revenue trains while cars are being tested. The test track will run along the west side of the Green Line from Greenbelt Yard to Paint Branch Creek, just north of College Park Station. No new land will be needed for the commissioning facility or the test track.
Unfortunately, due to the inability or unwillingness of Maryland to commit to a new capital funding program, Metro is deferring the Commissioning Facility and other projects. This will severely hamper the ability of Metro to test and accept new railcars, and inconveniences passengers.
Without the facility, Metro will only be able to accept 8-12 railcars per month and riders on the Green Line will face single-tracking for long periods, although not at rush hour. With the facility, Metro said they could accept the full order of 748 7000 series cars in 5 years. Without it, only half as many cars can be accepted per month. That could mean that it would take a decade to commission the new fleet.
Delays due to the lack of a commissioning facility will keep new railcars from riding the rails. It will delay new cars for the Tysons extension and it will delay replacement of the aging 1000 series cars.
Delays could threaten Silver Line
Time is running short to order the new 7000 series cars for the Tysons extension of the Metro. Without fleet expansion, the line may not be able to open.
The railcars take time to manufacture and be tested. The 4 prototype cars are expected to arrive in Greenbelt in December 2012. The remaining 60 cars for Tysons are expected to begin arriving in Summer 2013. Without a commissioning facility, Metro will only be able to process 8-12 cars per month. Best case scenario (12 cars per month) means the 60 cars will be ready in November. Of course, Metro's own schedule doesn't call for the base order of 64 cars to be complete until April 2014.
With the Silver Line expected to open in December 2013, any delays could mean that not enough cars will be ready. The line can probably open with fewer than the full compliment of railcars initially, because it will take time for demand to increase, but the fleet does need to increase to some degree initially in order to keep from cannibalizing service on other lines.
Delays could crop up because of manufacturing or acceptance delays, or especially if WMAA goes it alone on the railcars. And that worst-case scenario could mean that even if the rail line is finished, opening could be delayed until enough railcars are made available.
This happened in Atlanta. The initial MARTA segment was supposed to open in December 1978, but the lack of railcars, which were delayed at the manufacturer, pushed the start of service back to June 1979. Even then, service was limited to only a few hours each day, with no weekend service.
This is the real threat facing the Silver Line. The region cannot afford to defer projects like the Commissioning Facility, nor can it afford squabbling over funding. All three of the jurisdictions need to step up to the plate and fund Metro.
And Metro needs to smooth feathers with MWAA. This hiccup over costs needs to be worked out as soon as possible. While the Silver Line has a contingency fund, this dispute is really about the equity of the bill, not the amount. And Maryland needs to fully fund Metro so that as new cars arrive in the area, they can be put into service with all haste.
An editorial in today's Washington Post warns that the O'Malley Administration's withdrawal of capital support is putting Metro "on a slippery slope."
[Th]e $1.46 billion budget that Mr. Sarles has proposed for the fiscal year starting in July would meet current maintenance needs partly by raiding $30 million from the pot of money that's supposed to pay for upgraded trains, buses, equipment and facilities.
Granted, that's just 5 percent of annual capital spending. But for a transit agency whose infrastructure is as aging and accident-prone as Metro's, it's a foolish move and creates a budgetary hole that will be difficult to fill in the future.
Mr. Sarles was apparently led to this budgetary gimmickry mainly by foot-dragging by one of Metro's funding partners, the state of Maryland. Virginia and the District have indicated that they're prepared to find additional funds so that Metro needn't raid its capital budget. ... It's troubling that Maryland won't dig slightly deeper to safeguard Metro's future. ...
It's equally disturbing that Maryland appears to be edging away from its promise to meet Metro's long-term infrastructure needs, which are estimated at $11 billion over the next decade. ... In its latest projections, Metro slashed its capital budget for the next six years by almost 10 percent, to about $4.6 billion, making it increasingly unlikely that it will reach the 10-year, $11 billion target for modernizing the system.
Metro, sorry to say, is on a slippery slope, and Maryland is pushing it downhill.
- Community stories show the shift to a walkable lifestyle
- Young kids try to assault me while biking
- Focus transportation on downtown or neighborhoods?
- Some are pushing to limit sidewalk cycling
- Where is downtown Prince George's County?
- Metro bag searches aren't always optional
- Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners