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Posts from September 2010


HSR could get you to Boston in 3 hours, but it's pricey

Yesterday, Amtrak announced plans to create a new, exclusive high-speed rail corridor in the Northeastern United States.

Photo from jimkleeman on Flickr.

The proposal would cost upwards of $117 billion ($40 billion in 2010 dollars) and could be complete by 2040. Trips from Washington to Boston would take only 3 hours.

Amtrak rightly points out that there is almost no better candidate for true, "next-gen" HSR than the Northeast Corridor. But the density in the corridor would also make this easily the most expensive rail project ever undertaken in this country.

The benefits, though, could be phenomenal. In fact, Amtrak expects that the new line could generate an annual surplus of $1 billion (2010 dollars) and could more than triple Amtrak ridership in the NEC from today's level.

Image from Amtrak's report, via The Transport Politic.

Between Washington and New York, the new line would roughly parallel the existing NEC rail alignment. From New Rochelle and Boston, the line would take a new inland alignment, passing through Hartford, but missing Providence.

In the Washington area, Amtrak would need to find a flat, straight alignment connecting Union Station with BWI Airport. Yesterday's report doesn't lay out any specific alignments; those would be set out in engineering and environmental impact reports.

In Baltimore, on the other hand, the new alignment would include an underground station in the heart of downtown. Penn Station is relatively inconvenient to the central business district, and the curving, tunneled alignment into the station is unsuitable to fast trains.

A new six-mile tunnel under the city would include a six four-track station under the Charles Center area. It would allow trains to serve Baltimore (and pass through without stopping) at higher speeds. Trains in the current B&P Tunnels west of Penn Station are limited to 30 mph.

With all of the corridor improvements, Washingtonians could reach midtown Manhattan in slightly over 90 minutes and downtown Boston in 3 hours flat. For service to other major cities in the northeast, other expresses would follow different service patterns and make intermediate stops.

This new corridor—and improved service on the existing NEC due to reduced congestion—could open up new opportunities for transit-oriented development around rail stations, including new ones in city centers.

But, as The Transport Politic points out, there are plenty of reasons not to celebrate just yet.

The Obama Administration has been extremely receptive to rail, but Congress has only allocated $10 billion total to HSR in this country. That's less than 10% 25% of what would be needed to build just this corridor alone, and there are several other HSR corridors in the United States which also deserve funding.

With conservatives gaining steam as the midterm elections approach, the likelihood of a major shift in resources toward HSR looks extremely unlikely.

And while this corridor certainly needs improvement, we already have faster trains than the rest of the country. To some extent, it might be more equitable to build high-speed rail in corridors where trains are much, much slower currently. Could we speed trains in the Northeast for less?

Regardless, this report shows that Amtrak is dedicated to moving America into the 21st century. This proposal is an excellent step to bettering rail service. But it's only one step.

Without dedicated funding for projects like this one, America is destined to have, at best, a piecemeal high-speed rail system.


Breakfast links: In camera

Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.
Cleared for videotaping police: The motorcyclist who videotaped a plainclothes officer pull a gun on him for a traffic stop has been cleared of wiretapping charges. (Baltimore Sun) A Circuit Court judge rejected prosecutors arguments in a case that has drawn national attention. The motorcyclist will appear on today's Kojo Nnamdi show at noon.

Shots, crashes: There was a "chaotic" shooting that turned into a major car crash at 13th and U yesterday. (TBD, everyone else)

DC fairly car-lite: The American Community Survey has released some statistics, including the fact that 35.2% of DC households have no car, versus 8.9% nationally. 44.7% of households have one car. (Housing Complex)

Flashy architecture often has problems: A Chicago museum is suing its architects for a building that won two awards for excellence. That's because the flashy modern architecture that pushes the envelope both gets attention and also often has big flaws because of the untested materials or design principles. We discussed the same issues with the National Gallery's East Wing last year. (WSJ)

Crystal City a go: The Arlington County Board unanimously approved the Crystal City Plan, which calls for greater density, an improved street grid, a streetcar line, and increased building heights. A Vornado VP called it "the epitome of Smart Growth." We reviewed the plan here. (ARLnow, Eric H.)

Cyclists overpay for road space: Since gas taxes tend to pay for interstates and other limited access highways, it turns out cyclists actually subsidize drivers on local streets under most municipal funding schemes. (Grist, Vancouver Sun)

NYC unveils new intercoms: After laying off more than 400 station agents, the New York MTA has fast-tracked the introduction of new intercoms that will be spread throughout the system. The MTA hopes it will help customers get help in the system, particularly during emergencies. (Transportation Nation)

And...: The allegedly drunk driver in the Adams Morgan fatal crash has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter (Crime Scene) ... DDOT has enlisted several consultants and firms to manage the streetcar project ... Takoma Park voters approved a balllot question to allow restaurants to serve alcohol, but will still prohibit liquor stores. (TBD)

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Go to Gray's town halls

Future mayor Vince Gray is holding a set of town halls in each of DC's eight wards over the next few weeks. I strongly encourage DC residents to try to attend one, especially if you didn't support Gray.

Photo by KCIvey on Flickr.

Why? Because this is a great chance to show him the importance of issues that matter to you.

During the campaign, many people worried that Gray would be beholden to certain constituencies that supported him. Maybe those constituencies don't want all the same things you want. Would that force Gray to follow a certain course?

Now is your chance. Gray is listening. He wants to heal divisions between Gray supporters and Fenty supporters and win over the support of skeptical voters. Now is your chance to become one of the people Gray listens to.

But you can only influence future Mayor Gray if you show up. So please show up.

Here are the locations of the town halls:

Truxton Circle (Ward 5): Oct. 5, 6:30 pm at Community Academy Public Charter School, 1400 First St. NW

Tenleytown (Ward 3): Oct. 7, 6 pm at St. Columba's Episcopal Church, 4201 Albermarle St. NW (and then go to the GGW happy hour)

Fort Dupont (Ward 7): Oct. 12, 6:30 pm at Sousa Middle School, 3650 Ely Place SE

Foggy Bottom (Ward 2): Oct. 14, 6:30 pm at School Without Walls, 2130 G St. NW

Columbia Heights (Ward 1): Oct. 19, 6:30 pm at Columbia Heights Youth Center, 1480 Girard St. NW

Barry Farm (Ward 8): Oct. 21, 7 pm at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, 2616 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE

16th Street Heights? (Ward 4): Oct. 26, 6:30 pm at Peoples Congregational Church, 4704 13th St. NW

Hill East (Ward 6): Oct. 27, 6:30 pm at Eastern High School, 1700 East Capitol St. NE


Afternoon links: Bridge over political waters

Ervin flip-flops on bridge: Montgomery Councilmember Valerie Ervin has reversed her position and now supports a million-dollar bridge to connect a parking garage to the new, over-budget Silver Spring library. Residents rightly worry the bridge will decrease street activity. (TBD)

Feel the power of local cyclists: Months after getting into trouble with local cyclists for statements against bike infrastructure, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH) has become the first Republican cosponsor of a complete streets bill. (Bike League)

Crowdsourcing Metro station names: Playing on Metro's notorious station name logorrhoea, TBD asked readers to submit their own station name alternatives. Take the Green Line to "Waterfront/DDOT/1950s Urban Renewal/M St/Ft McNair/Arena Stage/Marinas/Titanic Memorial/kthxbai".

TBD editor has frustrating pedestrian experience: A driver nearly hit a jogger while the jogger had the right of way. The jogger yelled at the driver. Metro-Venture saw the incident. It turns out the jogger was TBD editor Erik Wemple. (TBD)

Artists too rich or too poor: One developer is having trouble selling live-work units dedicated to artists because HUD's income limits are too narrow. (Housing Complex)

Affordable on Columbia Pike: A citizen group along Columbia Pike in Arlington wants to preserve 4,900 affordable rental apartments through 2040. Arlington currently lacks to tools to meet this goal and development along Columbia Pike is picking up. (TBD)

Parking 18% more people in the same space: NYC changed two streets in Park Slope, Brooklyn from fixed-rate to variable-rate parking with a $1.50/hour price ceiling (still a bargain). Parking times decreased 17% and 23%, the total number of unique vehicles parked increased 17% and 18%, and the overall space occupancy stayed the same. With less hunting for parking, traffic volumes decreased 5% and 9% percent. (Streetsblog)

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Metro Board will take up Greenbelt restructuring

On Thursday, Metro's Board of Directors will be taking up the proposed restructuring of Greenbelt bus service.

WMATA staff want to restructure Greenbelt's bus service because they feel resources could be used more efficiently. It will result in a reduction in service for some, but an increase in service for others. If the Metro Board approves the changes, they will go into effect in late December.

All of the Metrobus lines in Greenbelt will see changes under the proposal. Prince George's County is also proposing major changes to the TheBus lines in the city, but those changes are part of a different process.

Graphic by author. Underlying map by Google.

Route C2: The biggest change is the truncation of the C2 route. It currently runs from Wheaton to Greenbelt Center (Old Greenbelt).

Under the proposal, it will be cut back to Greenbelt Metro. This line is Greenbelt's most frequent line, and its loss will mean that residents of Old Greenbelt will lose direct one-seat service to the University of Maryland, Langley Park, and eastern Montgomery County.

Route R12: One positive change is the splitting of the R12 into two routes. Currently, the line runs from Deanwood to Greenbelt Metro and then on to Greenbelt Center and New Carrollton. It's an extremely long route, and it suffers severe bunching and scheduling problems.

Under the proposal, the R12 would only run from Deanwood to Greenbelt Metro. It would not serve Greenbelt Center. Instead, that section would be served by a new route, called the G12.

In Greenbelt West, the R12 would continue to serve Beltway Plaza's main entrance. It would also make a longer deviation into Emperian Village (Springhill Lake). The route will be shortened in College Park with a routing to the College Park Metro station via Paint Branch Parkway and River Road.

New route G12: This route is very similar to the current routing of the R12 between Greenbelt Metro and New Carrollton. In Old Greenbelt, the new G12 will have a few slight route alterations, including new service on Lastner Lane in the Boxwood Village neighborhood and service through the University Square apartments off Westway.

In Greenbelt East, the G12 would serve Roosevelt High, following the current route of the R12. The only deviation between Greenbelt and New Carrollton is at Doctors' Hospital, where the G12 will replace the T16/17 service there.

Route T16/17 (G14/16) Currently, the T16/17 runs between Greenbelt Metro and New Carrollton. The buses never run at the same time; the only difference between the two is a rush hour deviation to Goddard Corporate Park (the T17).

The T16 would be replaced by the G16. The rush hour-only T17 would be replaced by the G14, which would have midday service in addition to peak service.

Between Mandan Road and New Carrollton, the routes are identical to the current service except that the G14/16 would not serve Doctors' Hospital or the portion of Good Luck Road between Cipriano Road and the hospital.

In Greenbelt, the G14/16 would not serve Mandan Road or Hanover Parkway, instead, staying on Greenbelt Road to Southway. The route would loop through Old Greenbelt via Southway, Crescent Road, Gardenway, Ridge Road, Westway, and Lakecrest Drive. It would take Greenbelt Road to Cherrywood Lane on its way to the Metro (with a loop through Beltway Plaza).

One positive of this change is later service on the G16 than is currently provided on the T16. Residents of the Lanham and Seabrook areas along the T16/G16 will have service approximately an hour later on weeknights than they do currently.

Timed transfer: Due to citizen requests for neighborhood-to-neighborhood service, WMATA is creating a "timed transfer" at Greenbelt Center (Crescent Road & Gardenway). This location is marked with a circled "T" on the above graphic.

Buses will be scheduled so that a westbound bus on one route arrives at the same time as a westbound bus on the other route. Buses will have a scheduled wait of about 5 minutes to allow for the vagaries of traffic. Eastbound buses will also meet other eastbound buses, but not westbound buses.

This means that someone in the northern part of Old Greenbelt (the G12) will be able to reach Goddard Corporate Park (G14) by transferring at Greenbelt Center. Similarly, someone at Beltway Plaza (G14/16) can reach Roosevelt High or Doctors' Hospital (G12) the same way.

Eastbound buses won't meet westbound buses or vice versa. That means that someone in the northern part of Old Greenbelt can no longer reach Beltway Plaza with a single-seat ride or with a timed transfer.

However, buses on the G12/14/16 will all be interlined. A G12 will leave New Carrollton and travel to Greenbelt Metro, where it will wait approximately 10 minutes and then become a G14/16 to return to New Carrollton.

Metro planners say that a rider traveling from the northern part of Old Greenbelt on the G12 will be permitted to remain onboard the bus at Greenbelt Metro and then travel to Beltway Plaza (or anywhere else) on the route of the G14/16. Although that may or may not be quicker than transferring at a different location, depending on the time of day and individual circumstance.

Why restructure?

Changes to bus service have been very controversial in the community this year. It was first proposed as part of Metro's systemwide bus and rail cuts proposed last spring during the budget crisis. The Metro Board took all service cuts off the table before approving the budget for this fiscal year.

The alterations to Greenbelt's bus service are coming back up at the request of the City and Prince George's County. The alterations should cost about the same that current bus service costs, but will benefit Metro mainly by reducing delays and bunching.

The City Council supported the changes mainly because they feared that if changes were not made, Greenbelt would be at the top of the list for service reductions during the next budget cycle, which will likely be just as bleak in 2011.

As a Greenbelt resident and daily bus rider, I have mixed feelings about these changes. I'm happy with the splitting of the R12, for instance, because the bus line is currently very unreliable. But I regret that we're losing the C2, which comes as frequently as every 15 minutes during rush.

I'm also disappointed that WMATA is unable to provide later evening service and Sunday service. Currently, the last bus to leave for Greenbelt Center is the R12 leaving Greenbelt Metro at 9:59p on weeknights. That is unacceptably early for those of us who rely on transit, and it's a serious impediment in getting people to try transit. Hopefully Metro's next changes in Greenbelt will be the provision of later and more frequent service.

Public Spaces

"Mosquito" gone from Gallery Place?

Reader Amin writes,

Not sure if this indicates a long-term change, but as I was taking the escalator down to the Metro today at 7th and H at Gallery Place, I heard classical music pumping through speakers. And over the last week or two, I haven't heard the "mosquito" in the evenings. Maybe the owners of Gallery Place have quietly listened to criticism and switched their anti-loitering tactics.
Mayeb they listened to Jamie, Rich, Penn Quarter Urbanist, and JJJJ, all of whom suggested that. Have you noticed?


Southwest might not have as big an impact as you hope

On Monday morning Southwest Airlines announced its intent to acquire AirTran Airways. The deal won't be approved for some time, but when it is, the new combined company will likely impact air travel in Greater Washington.

From Paul Nicholson on Flickr.

The big question is when Washingtonians will finally be able to catch a Southwest flight out of National Airport, and whether a Southwest presence will bring down historically high fares at DCA.

Southwest's biggest presence in the region is at Baltimore-Washington International, where the airline currently occupies 20 gates with 43 non-stop routes and 172 daily departures. Measured by number of departures, BWI is the 4th busiest in the Southwest system.

On the other side of town, since 2006 Southwest has operated what the company refers to as a "boutique operation" out of Dulles International. Today they occupy 2 gates with 2 non-stop routes and 8 daily departures.

What might Southwest service out of National look like?

AirTran currently has 2 gates in Terminal A with 4 non-stop routes and about a dozen daily departures. Even if Southwest maintained that level of service, it would only be a fraction of the business they do out of BWI. Southwest would likely select a few strategic city-pairs for service out of DCA, so many Washingtonians hoping for an inexpensive one-seat flight home to wherever they're from will probably be out of luck.

More interesting is what might happen up in Maryland. BWI is both a top market for Southwest and a secondary hub for AirTran.

While the two airlines directly compete on only about a half-dozen routes, there's legitimate fear that eliminating that competition could push fares higher. In a rare twist of events, expanded Southwest service could have the opposite effect that it historically has had. Only time will tell if Southwest's revenue management team thinks they can successfully pull off higher fares.

At the end of the day, Southwest's acquisition of AirTran might not have as big an impact on air travel in Washington as many are hoping. And while Southwest's arrival at DCA will be welcome by many travelers, it will hardly be a sizable operation.


Ask Metro: Broken PIDs, bus fareboxes, and bikes

As Metro's infrastructure continues to age, broken elements have become a fact of life for riders. We asked Metro about a few of the issues cropping up from maintenance headaches.

Photo by the author.

Many riders have noticed that the PIDs (the signs showing train arrivals) are increasingly out of sync with trains, often showing "BRD" for a few minutes after a train leaves, or 3 minutes until the next train as one pulls in.

Last week, I encountered an even bigger problem. The PIDs at Gallery Place showed trains 1, 4, and 6 minutes from now, a rush hour arrangement, even at 9:54 pm, and the numbers never changed. I was able to get correct information on my phone (thanks to wireless working down in the station), at least.

Spokesperson Ron Holzer said,

We are aware of the latency problem with the PIDS and are working to find a solution. It appears the issue is with messages backing up in the PIDS server. The prediction model is still accurate and it seems the API programs are not experiencing the latency that the actual signs are.

Fortunately, this isn't a safety issue; the signaling system knows where the trains are, it's just the PIDs system that's having trouble. Unfortunately, that's not making things very convenient for riders.

Metro had originally hoped to replace the PIDs with new screens, called "The Metro Channel" that would have shown arrival times and other information including advertising. The ads would have paid for the new system. Unfortunately, the ad market collapsed with the economy, and Metro can no longer fund such a system through ad revenues.

Reader Jamie S. writes:

After reading the post about improving the 90s bus line, I visited the Metrobus Studies sites and read the improvements on some of the lines. It got me thinking about the bus fare machines and what happens when those machines aren't working, and the driver simply waves the riders on. Does he communicate with supervisors as soon as the problem is identified? Does Metro take the bus out of service? Is it repaired? It seems that in the wake of fare increases and the potential elimination of negative SmarTrip balances, this should be a problem Metro should address to avoid losing fares.
Doug Karas says:
When the bus operator realizes the farebox is broken, they radio to [control] who gives direction on what to do. Typically, the bus is instructed to continue the route where it is then switched out with another bus with a working farebox.

No repairs are made in the field due to safety issues and customer perception that workers are handling cash. Farebox techs do all repairs at the divisions. ... Our goal is that all fare boxes are repaired within 24 hours. Most are repaired in 8-12 hours.

Finally, Jonathan Z. asks:
I was getting on the College Park metro yesterday (Labor Day) with my bike. After getting yelled at immediately upon entry by the station manager because my wheels weren't on the ground, I was yelled at again (and threatened with a $50 ticket no less) because the station manager thought I was going to use the escalator. I was planning on using the stairs, since waiting for the elevator seemed pointless when there was no one else around, but of course the station manager was having none of that and demanded that I use the elevator.

Besides the arbitrary enforcement of the rules (I do concede they are the rules, but completely unnecessary to enforce them with such rigor in a sparsely inhabited station on Labor Day), it got me thinking: what if there was an elevator outage? Hypothetically, are bikers expected to call for the shuttle service? Are they even equipped with bike racks? I wonder how many more disgruntled Metro employees I would have had to deal with if that were the case.

Doug replied that the station manager could have let the cyclist use the escalator or stairs if the elevator were out and it were safe. The rules are designed for safety. If its wheels are on the ground and the owner is holding it, it's not much of a risk to other riders, whereas if it's on an elevator or escalator, the owner could drop it and it could fall onto others.

Doug added,

If the someone is on a bike, the elevator is out, and the station manager determines they shouldn't use the escalator or stairs, it would make more sense for them to ride their bike to the next station, than to wait for a shuttle. If, in fact, a person couldn't ride to the next station, all of our Metrobuses have bike racks.
It might be nice if Metro gave station managers some more discretion to let people use the escalators if nobody else is on them, for example, though that might also lead to more people trying to argue with the station manager. I've brought my bike on short escalators, like mezzanine to platform ones, at low traffic times and never been hassled, maybe just because the station manager didn't see.


Breakfast links: More security

Photo by Photo Phiend on Flickr.
Naval Observatory getting more security: NCPC approved plans to install a 10-foot security fence and additional security checkpoints around Vice President Joe Biden's residential compound at the Naval Observatory. (WTOP, Gavin)

CaBi's the latest example: Capital Bikeshare gets some more publicity as the latest incarnation of web-enhanced collaborative consumption services. (NY Times)

Foreclosures down, short sales up: As area foreclosures have dropped, short sales, when a house is sold for less than is owed on the mortgage, have escalated. One Manassas house, selling for $400k in the boom, is now listed at $250k. (Post, Eric Fidler)

More credit card meters: 1200 more credit card-accepting parking meters will be installed around the District throughout October, Gabe Klein said on Friday. He also committed to expand pay-by-phone citywide by the end of 2010. (TBD, d.ish)

Putting Twitter to good use: FixWMATA has been collecting complaints about "hot cars" all summer via Twitter. The final report, out yesterday, includes some intriguing stats about which cars are most reliably hot.

Southwest gets closer to National: Southwest Airlines staged a "protest" outside the Rosslyn Metro yesterday morning just as they announced acquisition of AirTran. AirTran currently holds several landing slots at DCA, leading some to speculate meaning that Southwest will start service to National Airport soon. (ARLnow, DCist, Rob Pitingolo)

Windshield perspective for couch potatoes: Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek picks apart the windshield perspective behind two current commercials.

Masdar on the rise: Abu Dhabi's experiment in sustainability, Masdar City, opened its first section last week, housing primarily professors and students of a sustainability-oriented research institute. (Time) ... The NY Times sees it as both "daring and noxious."

And...: NYC bicyclists talk about the pros and cons of bike lanes (The Atlantic) ... Chinese HSR is on track (Financial Times) ... Who should be the next Mall food vendor? (The Internationalist)

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Afternoon links: Waterfront and beyond

Photo by Kevin H. on Flickr.
'Boat people' in DC: Gangplank Marina on the SW waterfront is one of America's largest houseboat communities. Residents are worried that a tsunami of SW redevelopment will wash them away. (Post)

Longing for a SE/SW Boulevard: The SE/SW Freeway in DC eases the drive to Virginia but severely hurts livability in the DC neighborhoods it passes through. TBD astutely notes that Congress would likely attempt to scuttle any attempt to transform the freeway into a boulevard, as was done in San Francisco.

Buses on Roadeo Drive: Metro hosted its annual bus "Roadeo" in which drivers test their driving skills and mechanics their repair skills. It's a good way to honor skilled employees and encourage excellence. Congratulations to William Morgan, Locksly McKenzie and Truck Hoang in repairs and Joseph Bazemore in driving. (Post)

The new highway lobby: The 2030 Group, run by wealthy suburban developers, is advocating for, you guessed it, more outer-suburban highways. However, they also advocate for a dedicated revenue source for Metro. (Post)

Budget creativity in New York transit: Following bus and subway service cuts, New York is allowing private transit buses to replace lost routes, but not everyone thinks this is a good idea ... NYC has also installed 10"-by-10" screens on the 42nd Street shuttle, and PATH trains already contain monitors that show ads and service updates. (NYT)

Pricing not so bad after all: Research shows that congestion pricing in Stockholm became more popular after people experienced its noticeable reduction in commute times. Perhaps DC residents will demand citywide performance parking once we see how it frees up street spaces? (The Bellows via Market Urbanism)

Obama expresses low opinion of DCPS: President Obama said DCPS doesn't measure up to Sidwell Friends, the pricey private school his daughters attend. DC's public schools "are struggling," he said. The president said this months after he let the DC school vouchers program lapse. (Post)

And...: Gov. McDonnell has restored voting rights to more felons than either of his predecessors (Post) ... Area universities are embedding professors into student dorms. Expect a slew of peer-reviewed papers on the physics of keg-stands (Post) ... Though we discourage needless sprawl, it can look quite stunning from the sky. (Streetsblog)

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