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Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 47

On Tuesday, we posted our forty-seventh photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in the Metro system. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, you must have all been out looking for the first 7000 Series train instead of playing whichWMATA, because we only got 12 guesses. Two of you got all five. Great work, Peter K and Justin....!

Image 1: Spring Hill

The first image shows the view from the western entrance bridge to Spring Hill station. The mesh grating and new concrete viaduct make it clear that this is a Silver Line station. The configuration of the roadway, with the tracks in the median rather than off to one side, means that this is either Greensboro or Spring Hill. And you can narrow this down to Spring Hill because the bridge here is lower than the tracks rather than above them, which is the case at Greensboro. Nine of you got it right.

Image 2: Shady Grove

The second image shows the stair/escalator at Shady Grove; the first appearance of this station in the series. I thought this one was fairly obvious. The "next train" indicator means this is an end-of-line station. There are only two such stations with gull I roofs. And only Shady Grove has a staircase sandwiched between two escalators. Ten knew this one.

Image 3: West Hyattsville

The third image shows the south end of West Hyattsville station, viewed from the Northwest Branch Trail. The twin blockhouses that protrude into the top of the image indicate that this is a side platform station. The concrete structure in the foreground is a traction power substation (which provides electric power to the third rail). Few stations have these attached directly to the station (though many have one nearby).

The real clue here is the unique architecture of West Hyattsville (featured in week 8). But the park-like setting was also a clue. Only six of you guessed correctly.

Image 4: Federal Center SW

The fourth image was also a first-time whichWMATA station: Federal Center SW. The distinctive feature here is the green tile surrounding the opening. It accents the building, which houses the entrances to the station. The building itself takes up the entire block surrounded by 3rd Street, D Street, 4th Street, and Virginia Avenue SW. This particular photo shows the alcove housing the elevator. Four people got it right.

Image 5: Forest Glen

The final image proved hardest. Only two people got it right. It shows the Coleridge Drive/Georgia Avenue entrance to the Forest Glen station. The main entrance faces the bus loop and parking lot, but this entrance gives passengers a straight shot to the pedestrian bridges over the Beltway ramps south of the station.

The unique feature here is the metal grating above the staircase. The grating is in place because the staircase can be closed off with an odd curved grate at the top of the stairs. It prevents people from being able to climb down into the station when the gate is closed. It's unique in the system, but if you haven't used Forest Glen you'd probably be hard-pressed to recognize it.

Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next week.

Volunteer tutors aren't the answer to DC's reading crisis

Some observers are pinning their hopes on volunteer tutors as a low-cost way of narrowing the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. But there are limits to what volunteer tutors can do.

Photo of child reading from Shutterstock.

A leading nonprofit tutoring organization deploys minimally trained volunteers to teach reading comprehension as a set of skills. The problem is that to understand what they're reading, kids need background knowledge, not just skills.

A study released last month concluded that Reading Partners, which uses community volunteers to work one-on-one with struggling readers, boosts students' abilities. The program is active in eight states and the District, where it provides tutoring in 16 schools. Fewer than half of DC students score proficient in reading on standardized tests.

Reading Partners, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade, will probably soon be expanding its efforts in DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced that as part of an initiative targeting male students of color, the District will recruit 500 volunteer tutors to work with Reading Partners and several other tutoring nonprofits in DC Public Schools.

Reading Partners is a well-run organization staffed by dedicated individuals. But after spending a year as a Reading Partners tutor and educating myself about reading comprehension, I've concluded that its approach in that area is fundamentally mistaken. The approach assumes that reading comprehension is a skill like hitting a baseball, which you can learn by practicing certain strategies repeatedly. If you practice keeping your eye on the ball over and over, for example, you'll get better at hitting it.

Reading Partners tutors, who receive minimal training, work with students on comprehension skills like "finding the main idea" and "making inferences." At the beginning of each 45-minute session, the tutor picks up a packet containing two or three books at the child's reading level and a worksheet that focuses on the skill of the day.

The child chooses one of the books to read, and the tutor guides the child in practicing the skill. Children come to the reading center twice a week, and often miss regular class time in order to do so.

Because Reading Partners only works with students reading below grade level, a fourth-grader might be reading books on a second-grade level. Some of the books are fiction and some non-fiction, but the focus is on learning skills rather than on the books' content.

The books cover a random variety of subjects, and there's no effort to coordinate them with what children are learning in class. The theory is that once a child gets good at "finding the main idea," she'll be able to find the main idea in whatever text is put in front of her.

Reading comprehension isn't a skill

The problem is that reading comprehension is, in fact, not a skill like hitting a baseball. It's very dependent on how much you already know about the subject you're reading about. To see what it's like to read about something you're unfamiliar with, try parsing this summary of a technical scientific article.

Generally speaking, low-income children start out in school with a lot less background knowledge and vocabulary than more affluent children. That makes it harder for them to understand what they're reading.

So if we want to close the achievement gap, we need to spend time giving low-income kids as much knowledge as we possibly can. Giving them comprehension strategies rather than knowledge in elementary school means that by the time they get to high school, they'll be hopelessly behind.

Why, then, did a study conclude that Reading Partners was able to raise student achievement? It did give students a bump, but the effect was not all that dramatic. As compared to a control group that was getting other kinds of reading help, the Reading Partners group made about one-and-a-half to two months more progress. They also spent about the equivalent of an extra month working on reading, so the additional bump is even smaller than it appears.

And studies have shown that teaching kids reading strategies can boost comprehension, but only up to a point. Kids who get 50 sessions receive no more benefit than kids who get six.

Beyond that, we need to look at how the researchers measured progress. They used an assessment that, like all standardized tests, treats reading comprehension as a skill. Let's say a fourth-grader reading at a second-grade level manages to find the main idea in a third-grade-level text. That counts as progress. But when that student gets to ninth grade and is expected to, say, read a text about the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, will he be able to find the main idea? Only if he acquires a lot of background knowledge in the interim.

Having tutored both elementary and high school students in high-poverty schools, I'm skeptical that he will. I have learned never to assume background knowledge on the part of students. When I've asked the fourth- or fifth-graders I've tutored through Reading Partners to find DC on a map of the United States, they've had no idea where to begin. And the high school students I tutored in the past had huge gaps in their knowledge. Among other things, they had barely heard of the Supreme Court and didn't know the meaning of words like "admirable."

Part of the problem is that many elementary schools focus on skills rather than knowledge. While DCPS elementary schools theoretically focus on knowledge, they apparently aren't using methods that ensure kids will absorb it. And that continues to be a problem in later grades.

Kids want and need knowledge, not just skills

Aside from the fact that a skills-based approach doesn't give students what they need, it's also boring. One student I tutored, who I'll call Keisha, was so resistant to coming to Reading Partners that she would sometimes enter a state of near catatonia, not answering questions or making eye contact. Eventually, she just refused to come.

While levels of enthusiasm vary, I personally know of several kids who were clearly unhappy to be at Reading Partners. And tutoring is unlikely to work if a student isn't motivated.

Meanwhile, kids are hungry for actual knowledge. One boy I tutored wanted to know if you could get poisoned by eating a poisonous snake. Another asked his tutor if a hyena was more like a cat or a dog. These are good questions, and tutors can do their best to answer them. But giving kids that kind of information isn't the purpose of the program.

In any event, kids don't absorb and retain knowledge from hearing random facts once or twice. They need to spend several weeks on a topic, not only reading about it but also listening to their teacher talk about it in a way that may be beyond their reading level but within their ability to comprehend. They should also be writing about it.

Volunteer tutors might be useful in some areas. Math is one possibility. Tutors may also be able to help very young children learn the basic skill of reading, or decoding, as opposed to reading comprehension. Reading Partners also uses volunteers to do that kind of tutoring, and next week I plan to start working with a student who needs that sort of help.

I suspect it would also be effective to use volunteer tutors to meet with kids after school and help them understand what they're supposed to be learning in class—assuming the kids are learning actual content and not just comprehension strategies. That's the kind of tutoring wealthier kids often get. But it's hard to see how you could get minimally trained volunteers to engage in that kind of tutoring on a large enough scale to make a dent in the problem.

Any tutoring program that relies on volunteers would do best to focus on giving young children the basic skills necessary to decode text. And schools and school districts, like DCPS, should ensure that classroom teachers are supplying kids with the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand it.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Why did the pedestrian bridge collapse affect Metro so far away from Greenbelt?

Yesterday afternoon, a construction accident caused the collapse of the pedestrian bridge over the Green Line and CSX/MARC tracks in Berwyn Heights. The debris blocked the line between College Park and Greenbelt, disrupting many commutes. But why were there ripples as far away as Alexandria?

Image from Google street view.

Since the Green Line between College Park and Branch Avenue was unaffected, it's hard to comprehend how the bridge collapse would affect any commuters other than those going to Greenbelt. But if you consider how Metro uses its trains during peak hours, it's clear why the incident had such far-reaching consequences.

There were two major reasons that the collapse affected trips on the Green and Yellow Lines. The first is that Metro's largest rail yard is at Greenbelt. Since the collapse happened during midday, many of the trains that would have soon been heading downtown to collect commuters were trapped there.

The second issue is related to the first. With fewer trains, and because Metro decided to extend all Yellow Line trains to College Park, there simply weren't enough trains to provide the regular headway.

Trains couldn't leave Greenbelt

During rush hours, Metro runs most of the cars in its fleet. But at the end of rush hour, Metro sends many railcars back into the yard.

For example, during rush hours, Metro has about 17 trains in service on the Green Line. But after rush hour ends, the number of trains drops to about 9.

Yesterday, just before 3:00, the bridge collapsed just as Metro was about to transition from a midday to a rush hour schedule. Any trains that were north of the collapse were stuck there, including 60 railcars in the Greenbelt Yard, according to spokesperson Dan Stessel.

Those 60 railcars could have made up 10 6-car trains, which would've been assigned to both the Green and Yellow Lines. Suddenly, though, they were unavailable.

The Green Line also has a rail yard at the southern end at Branch Avenue. The Yellow and Blue lines share the Alexandria Yard, near King Street. But Metro doesn't keep enough cars in those yards to run full service.

Frequency, run time, and the number of trains are all related

Most people probably never think much about all the details that go into scheduling, but there's a basic equation that balances the frequency, run time, and the number of vehicles needed to run a given service.

As discussed above, the bridge collapse reduced the number of available trains. Obviously that will have an impact on the schedule. But the other thing that had an impact was extending the Yellow Line.

Figuring out how many trains (or buses) it takes to run a service is essentially as simple as dividing the cycle time by the desired headway.

For example, during the midday period, the Yellow Line runs from Huntington to Fort Totten. It takes a train 36 minutes to get from Huntington to Fort Totten, and 36 minutes to get back. If we assume a recovery/layover time of three minutes on either end, that gives us a cycle time of 84 minutes. That's how long it takes one train to run the route and be ready to go again.

Now, during this period, the Yellow Line runs every 12 minutes. That's the headway.

If we divide the cycle time (84 minutes) by the desired headway (12 minutes), we discover that we'd need seven trains.

If we change one of those variables, either of the other two (or both) variables must change as well. For example, if we want to double the frequency so we have a train every six minutes, we'd need 14 trains, double what we needed before.

Metro does this exact thing during peak hours. They double the frequency of the Yellow Line. But they also change a different variable: cycle time.

That's because during peak hours, the Yellow Line (not counting rush plus) only runs from Huntington to Mount Vernon Square. The cycle time is shorter (56 minutes), which means it only requires 10 trains to operate (instead of the 14 needed to run to Fort Totten).

Of course, the primary reason that WMATA doesn't run to Fort Totten during rush hour is because there's no pocket track there, and trains come too frequently (every 3 minutes) to have Yellow trains turn back on the mainline.

So what about yesterday?

What happened yesterday was a combination of changes to all three variables.

Because several trains were trapped north of the bridge, the number of available trains was lower than usual.

To help alleviate delay to customers headed for Greenbelt, and probably to deal with frequency issues north of Mount Vernon Square, Metro extended many or all (that's not entirely clear) Yellow Line trains to College Park. That lengthened the cycle time to about 96 minutes.

If Metro only had seven trains, a longer a cycle time of 96 minutes, would mean the headway on the line would become 13.7 minutes (instead of the usual six).

An example of how Yellow Line runtime and number of trains affects headway. Graphic by the author.

Now, Metro probably had one or two trains in Alexandria that they were able to put into service, which would shorten that headway a bit. I even saw a report on twitter that the #newtrain was switched over to the Yellow Line during the evening rush hour.

Dan Stessel indicated that other than an initial delay while the damage was being assessed, the Green and Yellow Lines ran close to on time. However I did see many tweets bemoaning extra long waits.

In addition to the changes to rail service, Metro put 20 buses into service to run the bus bridge between College Park and Greenbelt.

Hopefully this helps explain a bit about how the length of a train's round trip, along with how many trains (or buses) there are, affect how frequently they run. These examples are specific to what happened yesterday in Berwyn Heights, but the variables apply to the entire system.

For example, bus lanes and transit signal priority are ways planners try to shorten the cycle time, which allows more frequency with the same number of vehicles.

The Silver Line might change how you bus to Wolf Trap

Wolf Trap is one of the region's premier entertainment venues, and you can take transit to most of its major events. Thanks to the Silver Line, the exact route might change.

Photo by @jbtaylor on Flickr.

Right now, the Fairfax Connector provides bus transportation from the West Falls Church Metro station along along route 480 for events at Wolf Trap's main stage, the Filene Center. The West Falls station is a little over seven miles from Wolf Trap, about a 12-minute drive without traffic.

With the Silver Line up and running, it may make sense to run that connection from the the Spring Hill Metro station. Spring Hill is less than 2.5 miles from Wolf Trap, and the drive can take under five minutes.

Running the Wolf Trap Express from Spring Hill instead of West Falls would require half the number of buses for about the same level of service. That'd save the Fairfax Connector money, and it'd also mean passengers would spend less time on the bus.

Fairfax is open to the change, but it's not in a hurry

In a chat with Dr. Gridlock last year, Fairfax Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny said that a Silver Line connection to Wolf Trap could be an option this year. But the season of events starts in a little over a month, and so far there is no word of a change.

That could be because there's reason to consider keeping service as it is. First, passengers traveling from east of East Falls Church (which is home to the vast majority of the system) would likely not see much of a difference in total travel time. While the current routing means a longer time on the bus, it's almost all on highways, meaning it's about as fast as Metro.

Also, Spring Hill doesn't have the bus facilities or parking that West Falls Church does. Finally, a change like this would require new signs and a public education campaign.

It's unclear whether the benefits of changing the Wolf Trap Express to run from Spring Hill rather than West Falls Church would outweigh the costs. But if they did, it'd be smart to make the change before the start of this year's concert season.

Breakfast links: Cut off

Photo by Mark Brady
All falls down: A pedestrian bridge collapsed onto Metro and freight tracks yesterday after a Metro contractor hit the bridge with a rail crane. The debris stopped Metro service to Greenbelt and briefly shut down the MARC Camden Line. The Green Line is back on a normal schedule today. (Post)

Emancipation Day: Today's a DC holiday, which means some holiday travel rules will be in effect, including lane reversals, lifted parking restrictions, and a lunchtime parade that will cause street closures. (Post)

High flying: A new 14-gate concourse is in the works for National Airport. One of the largest changes in the plan involves moving security out toward the Metro, making nearly the entire airport a secure zone. (Flight Global)

Location, location: The waitlist numbers for public and charter schools in the District show an extremely pronounced east-west divide, with waitlists much longer in Northwest, even between schools with comparable test results. (City Paper)

Wage wants: Labor and social justice groups want to put a measure on the ballot to raise DC's minimum wage to $15 an hour, even for tipped workers. (WAMU)

Goodies: Riders on the first 7000 series train were treated to lots of Metro swag. At a cost of $7,000, it's just a sliver of the money spent advertising the Silver Line. The best treat of all? Another new train is coming to the Red Line next month. (Post)

No fly zone: A man landed his gyrocopter in front of the Capitol Building yesterday, prompting a brief lockdown and his arrest. Here's a review of where you can't fly in the DC area. (Post)

And...: Radius rides, like this one from an Alexandria high school, show the public how far a bike can get you. (Mobility Lab) ... Underground bike parks and footfall harvesting are just a couple of these far-out ideas for making cities more sustainable. (The Guardian) ... This coloring book for adults features both famous and fictitious cityscapes and urban scenes. (City Lab)

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Map: When and where Metrorail fares come from

Data fans, rejoice. Now you can see for yourself which Metro stations generate the most farebox revenue when, thanks to a new interactive data visualization released today by PlanItMetro.

Map by PlanItMetro. Click for interactive version.

As you'd expect for a system that serves as many commuters as Metrorail, terminal stations dominate in terms of revenue contribution in the morning, and core stations dominate during evening rush.

Union Station functions as an internal terminal station, since commuter rail and Amtrak connections to Metro are extremely important to the overall ridership and revenue picture.

What other patterns do you notice?

Woonerfs were tactical urbanism before there was "tactical urbanism"

Tactical urbanism is about using low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment to make places better. Mike Lydon, co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short Term Action for Long Term Change, will join us for a book talk on April 21. In advance of the event, we're reprinting a few adapted excerpts from the book. This one explains how the woonerf is a historic inspiration for modern tactical urbanism.

It would be nice to believe that we've discovered some entirely new form of urbanism, but the truth is that the impulse to create temporary or low-cost responses to the challenges of urban life is not new.

Photo by La Citta Vita on Flickr.

Here, we have reframed a set of core placemaking values (temporary, low-cost, flexible, iterative, participatory) found throughout history and updated them for the digital age.

From provisional Roman military encampments, to les bouquinistes illegally selling books along the banks of the Seine in sixteenth-century Paris, to the temporary White City of the Chicago World's Fair of 1892, the hallmarks of Tactical Urbanism have been inscribed in city-building patterns throughout history.

Ultimately, Tactical Urbanism describes the latest response to our basic human instincts: incremental and self-directed action toward increasing social capital, economic opportunity, access to food, safety from natural and human enemies, and general livability.

Human ingenuity aimed at improving urban life knows no profession, sector, or points along a historical timeline. We'll always have unmet needs and unexploited opportunities to enhance urban living. Those who address them directly, creatively, and efficiently will continue to guide us in the twenty-first century.

The woonerf

The Dutch woonerf—a street that accommodates pedestrians, bicyclists, and people recreating, in addition to cars—was first developed by residents who took it upon themselves to slow traffic in their neighborhood.

A woonerf. Photo by Dick van Veen from Tactical Urbanism.

The invention of the Dutch woonerf stands out because unlike many street design innovations from the last 100 years, it did not originate from the profession of traffic engineering but from citizens seeking to slow traffic in their community.

Dutch for "living yard," the woonerf is a residential street where people who are not in cars are given priority over people who are. This is accomplished by using physical design to slow drivers down to a near walking speed so as to not crash into strategically placed trees, bollards, bike racks, and other amenities.

The woonerf was created when a group of residents in the Dutch city of Delft grew frustrated with the growing problems related to safety, congestion, and pollution as car use increased in their compact and otherwise walkable city.6 The municipality's lack of response inspired a group of neighbors to tear up portions of the pavement on their street in the middle of the night so that cars had to maneuver around the resulting obstruction at low speed.

This citizen-led, bottom-up initiative introduced a new street type to international audiences, one that returned the street to the citizens for playing, walking, and bicycling and did not give the automobile priority.

With little evidence that the intervention disrupted daily life, the municipal government quietly ignored the citizen-led initiative and advocates pursued its formal acceptance. In 1976 the Dutch Parliament passed regulations incorporating the woonerven (plural) into the national street design standards.

Today the woonerf, or a similar form of shared space, is an increasingly accepted traffic-calming measure outside North America, and it is understood by international bodies using standards and engineering practices based on common professional practice.

The international acceptance of the woonerf demonstrates how unsanctioned, grassroots activity can become sanctioned by bodies of government over time.

Read more in chapter 2 of Tactical Urbanism, and RSVP for the talk on April 21.

A trade pact might change local land use decisions in a big way

A key principle of land use in the United States is that homeowners can often veto new buildings on nearby land that other people own. A trade agreement that's currently in the works could have a huge impact on that long-established system of local control.

Hand shake image from Shutterstock.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a trade pact that would change the rules for investments and trade among its signers. It's currently in behind-closed-doors negotiation among 12 countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Singapore. Other countries could join later.

A recently leaked draft of the TPP gives investors from member nations the right to sue when a decision by a local government "interferes with distinct, reasonable investment-backed expectations."

Panels of private lawyers chosen by the investors and the federal government will meet to decide the suits. If the investors win, the federal government must reimburse them for the loss of future profits.

Critics of the TPP argue that it could gut environmental and health regulation. They point to the past history of trade agreements to back up that concern. The TPP's backers, on the other hand, assert that the treaty only bans arbitrary or discriminatory actions.

No matter who turns out to be right about that, the pact is likely to undermine local oversight of land use.

The TPP goes against the spirit of American land use law

Homeowners' power to influence development—what I call "suburban land tenure" in my book Dead Endis an entitlement that most people in the United States take for granted. But it is just the sort of local decision-making the TPP seeks to curb.

Trade treaties aim for decision-making that is stable, predictable, and rational. US land use regulation, on the other hand, bends to meet the often capricious desires of the neighbors. Local officials turn to hard-to-pin-down concepts like "compatibility" and "historic significance" to justify their responsiveness to constituents.

Whatever one thinks of this arrangement, its linguistic evasions are unlikely to satisfy panels of trade lawyers meeting thousands of miles away, under rules that don't even guarantee the local government the right to speak.

Consider this hypothetical case, which is also utterly routine: A foreign landowner proposes a new city building. Neighbors petition for a "historic" designation for the house now standing on the property, and the preservation board approves, blocking new construction. Meanwhile, there are no petitions or designations for nearby houses similar in age and architecture. Is the landowner entitled to compensation?

Or let's say the master plan for an area near a Maryland Metro station calls for 15-story buildings. The zoning allows such tall buildings only if the planning board approves the design; otherwise property owners are limited to three stories. A foreign landowner applies to build a 15-floor building, but neighbors protest against the height of the structures and the planning board cuts the size to nine floors. Will the landowner get the value of the square feet he wasn't allowed to build?

A lot depends on the treaty's details, but we aren't privy to those

It's hard to say exactly how the TPP would affect land use regulation in these and other cases. Wording for the agreement isn't final yet, and that will certainly influence how arbitrators rule in the future. But if Congress gives trade negotiators "fast track" authority, the public will have no say in what follows. Negotiations will stay behind closed doors, and Congress won't be able to change provisions it doesn't like.

Once the pact goes into effect, amendments will require a unanimous agreement from all the countries that signed.

Even after the TPP passes, it will take years for the legal issues to play out. What will happen then if foreign landowners are winning large financial payments from the federal government? Will foreign developers refuse all compromise with local zoning boards, knowing that rejection wins them the same profits as approval? Will the federal government interfere with local zoning decisions that could provoke a large payout? Will domestic builders demand the same rights as foreigners?

You don't have to be a fan of current land use practice to object to this transfer of power. All too often, zoning laws empower affluent minorities at the expense of the larger community. They outlaw the lively urban neighborhoods that more and more Americans want to live in.

The cure for these ills is more democracy, not less. Land use regulators should answer to the entire electorate, not to small groups of influential landowners and not to unaccountable tribunals that put the interests of big money ahead of the common good.

Montgomery backtracks on a sprawl-inducing highway

After a decade-long process, it looked like Montgomery County was pushing ahead with a new highway through streams and wetlands at the edge of the county's built-up areas. But last week, county officials announced they don't support the road project after all.

Image from TAME.

In March, the county Department of Transportation issued a report recommending a new limited-access highway, around the edge of developed areas. The road, designated M-83, would approximately parallel I-270 and MD-355 but farther east, connecting the east side of Clarksburg to the current Midcounty Highway, Route 124.

This dismayed advocates who had been asking the county instead to study ways to better connect to Clarksburg with transit and fixes to local roads. Last week, DOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh put out a statement essentially repudiating the DOT's earlier recommendation:

The County Executive does not support building this road, he did not recommend the preferred alternative, nor was it an option that I as MCDOT acting director recommended. Further, there is no funding proposed for the project in the County's capital budget.

The study, "Draft Preferred Alternative/Conceptual Mitigation Report" (PA/CM) was conducted before the Route 355 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system was in the master plan, and therefore it was not considered as one of the alternatives. If BRT is considered, I believe the results of the PA/CM study and its recommended alternative could be significantly different. I strongly endorse this reassessment.

During my three months as MCDOT Acting Director, I continue to look for ways to promote a broader view of mobility in Montgomery County that is not necessarily wedded to building more roads. Taking a fresh look at various M-83 options, including the Route 355 BRT, is an important step in my vision for this department.

The council pushes M-83 out of limbo

In 1964, before the Clean Water Act had passed, Montgomery planners drew a future highway on maps to the east of MD 355. The road ran through wetlands and stream valleys to complete a "ladder and rung" network of arterial roads that would facilitate development in upcounty Montgomery. Since then, Midcounty Highway, also known as M-83, has been the subject of battles for over 50 years.

In its most recent chapter, the Montgomery County Council asked the county DOT in 2004 to study whether the highway, with its impacts to wetlands and streams, would be legal under modern environmental laws. Last year, DOT officials said they would complete the study in March of 2014, but were then silent about their progress for the rest of the year.

On March 2nd, the council's Transportation and Environment Committee surprised MCDOT leadership by asking about the study. Members suggested that, if it was complete, it should go to federal regulators for a decision one way or the other. It appears that Council transportation staffer Glenn Orlin learned that the study had been finished for some time, and suggested that the committee ask for some resolution on the issue.

"If we're not going to build it, we should take it out of the master plan", he said in the committee session. "My understanding is that the report was done last summer and has not been sent to the feds. However you feel about the project, it's delaying a resolution."

Chair Roger Berliner said, "It's no secret I'm not a big fan of this project. I'm even less a fan of ambiguity and being in limbo." The committee members, while harboring different opinions about the project, all agreed that MCDOT should make the study public and send it to regulators. Berliner and fellow committee member Tom Hucker, along with a majority of council members, now publicly oppose to the project, while Nancy Floreen, the third member of the committee, supports it.

The county suggests a destructive option, then backs away

After getting the prod from the council, the DOT issued its report and recommended Alternative 9A, the original alignment from the 1960s master plan. At $350 million, it is the most expensive of the six alternatives analyzed, a price tag that doesn't include environmental mitigation to compensate for the wetlands, floodplains, and forests it would damage.

In contrast to his agency's position, County Executive Leggett has said he is against the road: shortly after the release of the study, a spokesperson for the County Executive told the Washington Post that Leggett "opposes the road project because of its cost."

Throughout the study, it has been clear that the those in charge were building up arguments towards 9A. But more recently, top leaders who were most focused on building roads have left. Their replacements are already backing away from the controversial project.

WTOP reporter Ari Ashe tweeted recently that MCDOT Acting Director Al Roshdieh told him he was against M-83, and that it was "over." After I mentioned the M-83 report in a list of cautionary notes about whether the DOT was really reforming, DOT spokesperson Esther Bowring called to say that Roshdieh considers the 9A option "dead."

"If we don't do this, we need to do something else"

During the March 2nd committee meeting, Councilmember Floreen said, "If we don't do this, we need to do something else." Many residents in Clarksburg rightly feel that the county made and broke many promises, including to build retail and provide good transportation. Development in Clarksburg was initially supposed to coincide with transit service, but the transit has not materialized.

However, this road is not the answer. It will only make new sprawl development, including up in Frederick and Carroll Counties, even more desirable, leading people to live there and work in Rockville, Bethesda, or DC, be dependent on cars, and clog the roads further for commuting and shopping.

The better solution for all upcounty residents is to build the transit that was promised in the first place. Berliner and many advocates have recommended building the study's Alternative 2, a package of small widenings to congested intersections as well as new sidewalks and bike paths, and Alternative 5, which would widen MD-355—but using the new lanes as dedicated lanes for BRT rather than new car capacity.

Left: Alternative 9. Right: Alternative 5.

Bowring said that county officials are meeting next week to discuss next steps to reexamine the county's recommendations and start moving toward, or at least seriously studying, the transit options that many residents are pushing for.

To fully put the idea of a new highway to rest, the county would have to remove it from the master plan. The decision to do that would be up to the county council, Berliner said, and the council could ask the planning department to be involved if it wished.

Unless something changes, the Army Corps of Engineers will go ahead and evaluate Alternative 9A. Some may be hoping the corps just tells Montgomery County it can't build the road; that would forestall a local political battle between those who still want a new highway and the majority of the county council that doesn't.

Either way, this 50-year battle is far from over.

Breakfast links: Something old, something new

Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.
The 7k's debut: Riders greeted the new Metro trains with excitement and delight. Commuters liked the color scheme and found the cars "sexy." One rider worried that there aren't enough seats and that the floor could get slippery. (Post)

Free range saga continues: The Meitiv parents plan to pursue "all legal remedies" against Montgomery County after their children were held by the County for more than five hours on Sunday. (Post)

Million dollar city: Last year, 18% of homes in DC sold for more than one million dollars, compared to 10% in 2010. The new data also shows that apartment vacancies have shot up from 4.4% in 2012 to 6.4% in 2014. (City Paper)

Arlington declining: Vacancy rates increased and employment decreased in Arlington from 2013 to 2014, but officials remain optimistic. They cite millions of new square footage of development in the pipeline, and cheaper office costs than DC. (ArlNow)

Foot stomping: The NIH's director told the Montgomery County Council that NIH needs more parking because employees can't afford housing nearby. He also complained that the NCPC's parking ratio decision was surprising and unilateral. (BethesdaNow)

I'm a uniter: A new plan for Union Station could unify communities on either sides of the tracks. The plan would develop the area over the station's 20 tracks and bring in mixed use development. (NYT, Randy)

Glow in the dark: Everyone's been talking about Volvo's glow in the dark spray paint for cyclists. Instead of mandatory helmet laws and paint, it might be better to make drivers stop hitting them. (Post)

Driverless trains: As the Red Line returns to automatic control, new research shows that automatic operation systems save on labor costs. Automated lines are more reliable, and headways are more regular. (CityLab)

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