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Transit projects are stuck between people who want to spend less money and people who want to spend more

Transit projects in the Washington region are going through a tough period. The Columbia Pike streetcar is dead, the DC streetcar delayed and had its funding cut, and Maryland just elected a governor who's at best skeptical about the Purple Line. Any transit project seems to have many critics. Why all the negativity?

Photo by B Rosen on Flickr.

People who agree with the decision to cancel the project seem to fall into a few groups:

  1. People who want much better transit, like Metrorail. This will cost a lot of money.
  2. People who support buses in dedicated lanes, which VDOT has rejected on Columbia Pike, but where possible (like in DC), also would interfere with drivers.
  3. People who don't want to spend much money on transit and don't want to slow down cars either.
  4. People who were confused.

1. People who want Metrorail instead

Group #1 points out that Metrorail is great transit. So it is. It's also massively, massively expensive. The United States was willing to spend that kind of money in the 1950s and '60s, when our economy was growing rapidly, tax rates were really high, we wanted to compete with the Soviets, and the public supported public investment.

Now, a few big subway projects are still possible, but the federal government does so much less. That means that states, counties, and cities have to put up a lot of money, and elected officials who support it are always vulnerable to challenges from people appealing to those who don't benefit from the project.

On Columbia Pike, we'd be talking billions of dollars. On top of that, the line wouldn't be possible without a separate Blue or Yellow Line in downtown DCthe trains need somewhere to go and there isn't room now.

Bus lane in Santa Monica, not possible on Columbia Pike. Photo by Complete Streets on Flickr.

2. People who want buses in dedicated lanes.

This group says you can build much better transit than mixed-traffic streetcars or slow buses by dedicating a lane to buses or light rail. And that's true! It just takes one little thing: taking space away from drivers. And we know drivers are totally fine with losing lanes as long as a thoughtful study supported it, right?

Critics of streetcars, including the Post editorial board this weekend, have linked over and over to a recent article by Matt Yglesias on Vox headlined, "Meet the worst transit project in America. This was probably the transit story with the most clickbait of a headline, and it's worked.

But it's worth looking at another headline in there, a section header near the bottom, which reads, "To improve transit, smash the car lobby." That's rightMatt Yglesias thinks that all you have to do to make progress on transit is "smash" one of the most powerful constituencies in the nation. Not only is there tremendous campaign funding that flows from road-building and car-selling industries, but it's quite simply a cause that the vast majority of Americans identify with.

3. People who don't support spending on transit

Many people who just don't really care much about better transit. They might be okay with it in the abstract, but don't want to spend much on it. A lot of people don't want tax money to go to infrastructure they won't use, especially in less politically-powerful South Arlington, as this satirical comment highlights.

Buses are somewhat inoffensive because they don't get in the way of drivers or cost that much (relatively); they can even be decent transit, but break down in corridors where ridership grows really large, like Columbia Pike, DC's 16th Street, and others.

In some parts of the country, politicians outright oppose transit. Around here, it's popular enough that leaders don't say they do. But any transit project does have to deal with voters who don't want to spend the money, and it's worse when it also gets flack from transit supporters on all sides who argue their particular transit alternative is better.

4. People who were confused

Peter Rousselot, the political operative behind the anti-streetcar campaign, and the two board members in his coalition, Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt, insist they support good-quality bus transit. But they really want the money to go elsewhere. Instead of outright opposing transit, they have won over many voters by spreading misinformation.

Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, the group Rousselot helped found, continues to claim that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is an alternative to the streetcar. Yet the nation's foremost authority on BRT, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), defines BRT as:

A high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities ... through the provision of dedicated lanes, with busways and iconic stations typically aligned to the center of the road, off-board fare collection, and fast and frequent operations.

Busway requirements for BRT. Image from ITDP.

ITDP's scoring system requires at least 3 km (about 2 miles) of dedicated lanes to even begin to qualify as BRT, and even then a line has to earn points in other categories. Yet AST's page of BRT videos highlights the Snohomish County, WA "Swift" system which has 7 miles of dedicated lanesnot the entire route, to be sure, but a significant portion.

A video entitled "Does Bus Rapid Transit need a dedicated lane?" does not, at any point, answer that question. Instead, it just gives some advantages of regular, standard buses. ITDP's older 2012 standard didn't absolutely require dedicated lanes, but those were worth a lot of points; to get something to qualify as "BRT" without them would mean gold-plating every other aspect of the line, like the "million dollar super-stops" which AST roundly criticized as also too expensive.

The misinformation worked. Many residents now have said they look forward to Arlington speeding up the Crystal City streetcar (which is dead, too), or building Metro (without understanding the cost), or planning of the shiny Bus Rapid Transit systems AST has been talking about (which are, once again, not possible).

As Brian McEntee put it:

This is the dilemma that leaders face. They'd love to build Metro, but don't have the money. They'd love to dedicate a lane, but can't "smash the car lobby" as easily as Yglesias would like. And if they propose a streetcar which is less expensive but slower than Metro and doesn't take a lane, someone will shout "boondoggle" and call to kill the project without a viable alternative to actually improve transportation or reduce car trips.

What is next? We'll look at that in an upcoming post.

Breakfast links: Sports, sports everywhere

Photo by bamalibrarylady on Flickr.
Bowser for soccer, not swap: Muriel Bowser promised to pass a soccer stadium deal this year, but using city funds instead of swapping the Reeves Center. Bowser also said she wants to bring the Olympics to DC. (City Paper)

Empty penthouse promise?: The amended Height Act gives DC authority to change its regulations to allow taller, habitable penthouses, but the Zoning Commission might not take action any time soon. Developers, the solar industry, and residents all wanted to changes to new penthouse rules proposed by the Office of Planning. (WBJ)

MNCPPC on the move: Montgomery County's planning department and other agencies will move to Wheaton. Developers will build a new headquarters and acquire the current planning building in Silver Spring. (Gazette)

A flood of flood protection need: It could cost over $430 million to protect homes threatened by coastal flooding in Virginia. It would also take hundreds of years to reach all the homeowners who have asked for help at current funding levels. (Post)

When to go for turkey: What are the best and worst times to drive for the Thanksgiving holiday? Traffic data shows that Tuesday evening has the most traffic. (City Paper)

Inclusionary zoning lags: New regulations aim to fix problems with DC's Inclusionary Zoning policy. It's created few units so far, partly because of the reccession, bureaucratic snafus, and developers using loopholes to get out of the requirement. (City Paper)

Not forfeit: "Civil asset forfeiture," a widely-criticized practice that lets police seize property from people not convicted of a crime, will get strong new limits under a bill the DC Council passed yesterday. But it won't happen until 2018 because the police have made plans to use the money they raise until then. (Post)

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DC will force property owners to shovel sidewalks, with higher fines for bigger and commercial buildings

Property owners might actually face enforceable fines for not shoveling their snow in the winter one year from now. Councilmember Mary Cheh was able to win over some nervous colleagues and won passage of a bill after amending it to give small residential property owners lighter fines and exempt seniors and people with disabilities.

Photo by David Alpert.

The DC Council gave its first-reading final approval to the bill today. The law already requires property owners to shovel snow within eight hours of the end of a snowfall, but the District was not able to enforce that since it had to prosecute anyone who didn't do that. The bill authorizes a regular fine for property owners who don't clear snow.

Some councilmembers worried that forcing seniors to shovel would put a difficult burden on them, and that fines could disproportionately hurt poor homeowners who can't easily afford to pay. I'd previously argued that it made sense to focus efforts on the real bad actors, like the large condo buildings on corners or full-block parking lots.

The new version of the bill, with Cheh's modifications, sets up stricter rules for "commercial" property owners than "residential" ones. "Commercial" owners would face a fine of $125 for the first offense, $250 for the second, and $500 after that. "Residential" owners can get at most a $25 fine, whether for the first or tenth infraction.

Also, "residential" property owners have to get a warning first, and then can only be ticketed if the sidewalk is still not clear 24 hours later. In almost all cases, this means that "residential" property owners won't get any tickets, though the warning would likely spur action, so the bill still could have a positive effect. "Residential" property owners who are 65 or or older or have disabilities also are exempt.

Fortunately, this doesn't let the 50-unit condo building off the hook. There's an important reason "residential" and "commercial" terms were in quotation marks above: Under DC laws, a building with more than three dwelling units is technically a "commercial" building even though people reside in it. A 4-unit condo, for instance, doesn't get city trash pickup, but instead contracts with a private hauling company. That's because DPW residential trash collection only applies to "residential" buildings.

Cheh's staff confirmed that the same definitions should apply here.

Of course, this doesn't do anything about sidewalks next to land controlled by the National Park Service, embassies, or some other big offenders. For its part, the DC government has been better in recent years about clearing bridges and sidewalks next to schools and city parks, but can still do better as well.

Muriel Bower, Marion Barry, and Jim Graham voted against the bill. Anita Bonds and Yvette Alexander also expressed concerns about the impact on seniors, but got on board after an amendment by David Catania to make it easier for them to get the exemption. Nobody will get a fine until October of 2015, and in the meantime, Bowser's administration will have to write rules implementing the law.

Do you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 29

It's time for the twenty-ninth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are five photos of the Washington Metro system. Can you identify the station depicted in each picture?

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

The answers will appear on Thursday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

Update: The answers are here.

BREAKING: Arlington cancels the Columbia Pike streetcar

Following John Vihstadt's strong win in last week's election, a race that revolved largely around the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington officials have voted to stop work on planning or contracts for the project.

Photo by brittgow on Flickr.

The Post quotes County Board chairman Jay Fisette saying,

We believed that a streetcar system would provide the economic stimulation and the placemaking that would keep Arlington competitive for years to come. But we cannot ignore the political realities.

On November 4, Arlingtonians went to the polls. They rejected the candidate who supported streetcar. ... We were caught flatfooted. We did not effectively make the case [for the line].

It's not immediately clear if the door is open for some version of the project to move forward in the future. It's also not clear whether Arlington can shift to any other transit project the $65 million that Virginia had committed to the streetcar.

Update 1: Michael Perkins and Chris Slatt point out that we "reported" this in April 2013 as an April Fool's joke. In the joke post, we said that Arlingtonians for Sensible Transportation, leader Peter Rousselot, and county board member Libby Garvey, all of whom have insisted they support high-quality Bus Rapid Transit, suddenly start criticizing bus plans as also "too expensive."

If the county board now proposes spending money on bus transit on Columbia Pike, we might have the chance to see whether this comes true; hopefully, these folks are being genuine and will support other transit investments. It's important to understand, as always, that the state of Virginia will still not allow a dedicated lane on Columbia Pike.

The common school lottery website is better than ever, but you may not want to rush to use it

This year the common school lottery, My School DC, will provide families with a centralized waiting list and an interactive map to help them locate schools. The lottery opens December 15th, but families new to the school system may want to hold off entering it until the future of the new boundary plan is settled.

Photo from My School DC.

DC launched the common lottery last year. Families only need to enter the lottery if they want to attend a DC Public School they're not zoned for, a selective DCPS school, a DCPS preschool program, or a participating charter school. They submit an application ranking up to 12 choices, and an algorithm matches them with one of their choices, waitlisting them at any school they ranked higher.

After surveying and speaking with parents across the District this summer, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education decided to incorporate several new features into this year's lottery.

One of those is a tool that helps families find schools that meet their needs. A user can enter her address and see a map of schools that can be filtered by distance, grade level, or type of program. If, for example, you want a dual-language school for a 6th-grader within a mile of your home, you can search for that.

Once you have a list of schools that meet your criteria, you can follow links to find more information, including open house dates, school profiles, and school equity reports

Right now, you can search for your zoned neighborhood schools. But the map will show results based on the new school boundaries adopted by Mayor Vincent Gray in August, and Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser has said she will not adopt that plan in its entirety. That could affect who enters the lottery, because some families may decide they're not happy with their new zoned school and enter the lottery as a result.

Bowser's plans aren't clear

It's not clear how extensive Bowser's changes to the school zoning plan will be. Before the election earlier this month, she called for restarting the entire boundary overhaul process, which went on for many months. More recently she said she only plans some tweaks, but didn't provide details.

As Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith pointed out in a recent interview, the boundary changes won't affect the majority of DCPS students anytime soon. Most changes will arrive in phases, and in the 2015-16 school year the new boundaries will affect only those students who are new to the system.

But if Bowser changes the boundaries after the lottery starts, those people will have submitted applications on the basis of information that is no longer valid. To ensure the lottery assigns people where they really want to go, most likely Bowser will need to restart itwhich could require everyone who has already entered it to resubmit an application.

Smith said she hasn't spoken with Bowser about her intentions. She added that, based on last year's data, "by the time the new administration comes in, we expect that several thousand students will have applied." But she acknowledged that figure could be lower this year because of uncertainty about the future of the boundary plan.

Still, if Bowser plans to change the boundaries, the only way to avoid restarting the lottery would be for her or another DC councilmember to introduce emergency legislation before the lottery opens on December 15, since there's no longer enough time to enact legislation in the usual way. And there is only one opportunity left to do that: at the DC Council's legislative meeting on December 2.

If that happens, and if the emergency legislation gets the nine votes it needs to pass, the lottery would presumably go forward using the old boundaries.

Families trying to choose among the many school options available in DC may want to attend a District-wide school fair called Edfest, to be held at the DC Armory this Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm. More than 180 DCPS and charter schools will be there, and activities will include health screenings, a story time for kids, and an introduction to the My School DC school finder tool.

A central waiting list and more charter participation

Another new feature of the lottery this year will be a centralized waiting list. Rather than having to call individual schools repeatedly to find out where they stand, parents will simply be able to log into the My School DC website or call the lottery hotline at 202-888-6336.

The lottery will also include more charter schools this year. Last year, a dozen or so charters opted to continue to accept applications and run a lottery as individual schools rather than participate in the common lottery.

This year, Smith said, the only charters that have chosen not to participate in the common lottery are those that serve adults; two residential programs; and Ideal Academy, Roots, Tree of Life, and Latin-American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB). Washington Yu Ying, a highly sought-after Mandarin-immersion school, sat out the common lottery last year but has decided to participate this year.

No reason to enter lottery early

There is no advantage to entering the lottery early, according to Sujata Bhat, executive director of My School DC. And once a family applies, they can make changes and resubmit the application anytime before the deadline without any penalty.

The deadline for the high school application lottery, which includes applications to selective DCPS high schools, is February 2. For preschool through 8th grade, the deadline is March 2.

"We do tell people they should probably avoid applying on day one, because the site tends to be slow," Smith said. "After that it's really up to families to decide when they want to apply. They can start the process, then come back and finish it."

And given the uncertainty about DCPS boundaries and whether a new lottery will be necessary, families might want to wait and see exactly what Mayor-elect Bowser has in mind before entering the lottery at all.

Breakfast links: Transit moves

Photo by chrismar on Flickr.
Blame the feds: Is the federal government to blame for traffic congestion? A study says it offers too many incentives to drivers and not enough to transit users. Even AAA agrees the disparity in parking and transit benefits has likely worsened congestion. (WTOP)

Museum returns to Metro: After just two years at National Harbor, the National Children's Museum will move back to DC. The institution wants to be near Metro and needs additional space to serve more children. (Post)

Long commutes, low incomes: The Post expands further on Ben Ross's analysis finding many low-income commuters take long rides on the Silver line to jobs in Tysons Corner. High rents keep such workers from actually moving near work.

Oh, frack: Under pressure from energy companies, the Forest Service will allow some fracking on national forest land including the George Washington forest in Virginia. The practice might pollute DC's drinking water. (WTOP, Post)

Show me the money: Dueling economic analyses predict the economic benefit of a stadium. Profitability seems to hinge almost entirely on one hotel near the stadium which could bring $70 million in tax revenue, or not. (City Paper)

High school heights: DC's schools budget will focus on high school improvements next year. A panel of high school students from across DC met with Kaya Henderson to ask for a variety of improvements including career programs, elective courses, sex education, and solutions for overcrowding. (Post)

Dallas does transit: A high-speed rail line will go to downtown Dallas rather than ending outside the core, spurring the city to invest in extensive local transit system improvements, including a new light rail alignment and streetcar expansion. (CityLab)

And...: Ted Leonsis says a Wizards training facility would be good for the neighborhood. (City Paper) ... The Spy Museum could go to L'Enfant Plaza. (Post)

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Events roundup: Road to happy events

There's something for everyone in our events lineup this week. Look back at our transit history, grab a drink with Coalition for Smarter Growth, learn about transit development in Arlington, or sign up for January's TransportationCamp!

Photo by arbyreed

The road to happiness: On Tuesday, November 18, Fionnula Quinn, transportation engineer at Alta Planning and Design, will take a look back at the early days of the automobile and its continuing impact. Quinn will share research on the topic and scenes of the Ford Motor Company silent film "The Road to Happiness" from 12 to 1 pm at 1502 Wilson Boulevard #1100, Arlington. RSVP here

CSG happy hour: Coalition for Smarter Growth is hosting a fall happy hour this Wednesday, November 19. The team has been working hard in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, so if you'd like to catch up on victories from 2014, look ahead to 2015, or ask a burning policy question, head to Jojo's Restaurant and Bar at 1518 U Street NW from 6 to 8 pm. Please RSVP.

Wilson boulevard open house: You can discuss transportation projects along Wilson Boulevard in Arlington with county staff at an open house this Thursday, November 20, at the Arlington Traditional School, 855 North Edison Street, from 7 to 9 pm.

Improve Kennedy Street: Also on Thursday, residents around Kennedy Street in DC will hear about and discuss plans to redo the streetscape. The meeting starts at 6:30 pm at Emery Recreation Center, 5701 Georgia Ave NW.

TransportationCamp DC: Mark your calendar for the annual "unconference" for transportation professionals, interested aficionados like many Greater Greater Washington readers, coders, and others. It's on Saturday, January 10 (just before the massive, and more structured, Transportation Research Board conference) at GMU in Arlington, and is now open for registration.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at


Can you help us revamp our servers and software?

You may have noticed that Greater Greater Washington has been sporadically inaccessible over the last week or so. Unfortunately, our server and dated code running the site are starting to fall over. It's probably time (or past time) to switch over to a new platform.

Photo by purdman1 on Flickr.

To do that, we will need help from our readers with experience in this area. Right now, the site runs on code I wrote myself many years ago, on a pair of Unix servers whose mysql and other software is getting pretty out of date. We've been talking for some time about just switching to a modern blog platform on a more full-service host, though that's not the only option.

Do you have expertise with installing, maintaining, and/or theming WordPress or other blog platforms, with Unix and/or mysql system administration, or other technical aspects of keeping a blog running? If you can help out either by just participating in some conference calls to talk through the issues or, even better, roll up your sleeves to help get some of it done, please email



Breakfast links: Next stop?

Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.
Surface rail is on shaky ground: As the H Street streetcar nears launch, the Post editorial board wants DC to pause further plans. The recent election has also put rail plans in danger in Virginia and Maryland.

Will Reeves remain?: Some DC councilmembers do not support swapping the Reeves Center for land for a new stadium. DC could borrow instead; with streetcar cuts, there is more space under the city's debt cap. (Post)

Reverends for rain gardens: In exchange for lower stormwater runoff fees, some pastors in the Prince George's are putting in rain gardens and preaching sustainability. Getting churches on-board can help the county meet runoff reduction targets. (Post)

Take down a parking lot: A new plan for the Westbard area of Bethesda could see 50-foot buildings, a restored stream, and potentially a library that would replace parking and auto shops. (Bethesda Now)

Busboys to Anacostia: Busboys and Poets has signed a lease along Martin Luther King Avenue, SE, Anacostia's main street. The announcement is a victory for residents lacking jobs and services. (City Paper, CHOTR)

Cycletracks safer for peds: New York streets with cycletracks have reduced pedestrian injuries 12% to 52%, a study found. Shorter crossings, protected turns, and less weaving by cars are some of the reasons why. (Streetsblog)

Bell tolls for toll roads: Many public private partnership toll roads have gone bankrupt. Some explanations include optimistic traffic projections and government funding, which insulates the investors who would otherwise be checking for risk. (Bacon's Rebellion)

And...: Tysons retailers will offer discounts and delivery to encourage shoppers to Metro there. (WBJ) ... A proposed Peace Corps memorial near the Capitol draws opposition for destroying trees. (WBJ) ... When blocking fire hydrants is part of the job. (PoPville)

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