Over 50 speakers packed the Planning Board auditorium in Silver Spring Thursday night to offer comments on Montgomery County's proposed Bus Rapid Transit network. Over more than 3 hours, residents debated the merits of the 10-route, 79-mile system county planners envision.
A slight majority of speakers spoke in favor of the plan, saying BRT could give people a real alternative to driving and support projected population and employment growth. Many speakers highlighted the importance of transit in attracting new residents, particularly young adults who already flock to the county's walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods.
Skeptics of the plan had concerns about taking away space from cars on Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase and Route 29 in Four Corners to give buses dedicated lanes, arguably BRT's most important feature. These corridors already have the county's highest transit ridership and are projected to carry the BRT network's most-used routes.
The Planning Board will discuss the plan and potentially make changes to it during a series of worksessions over the next several weeks. After that, they'll vote on whether to approve it. If it passes, the plan will then go to the County Council later this year for additional public hearings and worksessions and a final vote.
Kelly Blynn of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who live-tweeted the event with myself and Ted Van Houten from the Action Committee for Transit, compiled this summary of the hearing on Storify:
Many major transit systems offer a "service guarantee" policy where riders get a free trip or a refund if there are severe delays, but WMATA's policy is much more limited. After repeated rail delays, some riders are demanding a better deal.
Rockville resident Dave Tucker recently complained to WMATA on Twitter after his train was evacuated due to brake problems. Officials replied that they were "prohibited from providing fare adjustments for delays caused by mechanical problems and other conditions beyond [Metro's] control," Tucker reported, but as a "gesture of goodwill," they gave Tucker two free one-way passes.
WMATA's current "service guarantee" policy falls short of best practices in other cities. During major delays, you can leave from your original station without paying, but only if station agents allow it. Metro should make its policy more flexible.
If you get trapped behind a stalled train for an hour halfway to your destination, you have two options. One is to stay put and hope you get there, all while paying full price. The other is to try and return to your origin, maybe be able to exit without paying, and then try to get to your destination another way.
Plus, are mechanical problems really beyond Metro's control? Only if they're caused by "acts of God" or by customers jamming the doors. More often than not, mechanical failure happens because of insufficient maintenance or sloppy inspections. Those are WMATA's fault, and when they result in delays, customers deserve refunds.
Other major transit systems offer customers a free future trip if they are delayed for a certain length of time. Philadelphia's SEPTA offers a free trip to riders after 50 minutes, while Boston's MBTA will give you a free trip after just 30 minutes.
Transport for London's service guarantee program goes even further, giving refunds to any customer after a 15-minute delay. Arlington resident Samer Farha explained his experiences during a recent trip to London, where he used Oyster card, their equivalent of SmarTrip. According to Farha, when his trip was delayed, Transport for London (TfL) emailed him to apologize. TfL told him the refund would go back on his card the next time he entered the system. Farha could even log in to TfL's website and choose which station he wanted to credit to go to.
With Metro's current state of repair, a 15-minute window might be a little aggressive, but the agency could at least allow customers to request a refund for delays of 30 minutes or more.
Metro should also let customers leave from the station they entered from, without having to wait for officials to declare a "major delay," as long as they leave within 30 minutes. If you bail out because the train is taking too long, what does it matter how long the delay is? You haven't used Metro for transportation, and shouldn't pay anything.
If WMATA has to refund customers when it's at fault, that could give employees and officials alike an incentive to start making the system more reliable. The number of customer refunds could become a performance metric which goes in reports to the WMATA board.
Metro promises its riders a safe, reliable means of transportation, though it doesn't always deliver. A service guarantee would acknowledge that they make mistakes and respect their customers' time and money.
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Starting Monday, Metrorail riders can purchase a "short trip" pass online or at a fare machine and apply it to their SmarTrip cards. It's a big improvement for Metro customers that commute regularly and use Metro on the weekends or for additional trips in the evenings.
The pass costs $35 and is good for one week. It covers all off-peak trips and the first $3.50 of peak trips. If you take a trip costing more than $3.50, the difference comes out of the stored value on your SmarTrip.
Metro already offers SmarTrip passes that give rail riders unlimited rides of any length. Those cost $15 for one day, $57.50 for a week and $230 for 28 days. Those are useful for riders taking longer, more expensive trips. But those who only ride a few stops won't find that pass worthwhile. These new "short trip" passes are much cheaper because they don't cover long trips that riders may not need.
"Short trip" passes were previously available only as a paper farecard. If you took a trip of more than $3.50, you would have to use the Exitfare machine to pay the exact fare when leaving. Putting the pass on a SmarTrip card is much more convenient for riders who take the occasional longer trip, because the faregates can automatically calculate and deduct the extra fare.
Next, consider discounts and even passes for even shorter trips
You can also subscribe online to have the pass automatically renew when the old one is about to expire. For some riders, this is a good option. But since the pass costs the equivalent of 10 rides, it's not such a good deal that you'd want to set it and forget it, which could mean you'd end up buying one even on weeks with work holidays or vacation. I'd like to see a monthly pass with a discount, so that more riders would find it worthwhile to just buy passes automatically even around holidays.
Now that Metro's figured out how to implement a pass where people pay and get trips under a certain amount free, they could even try offering passes with a threshold below $3.50. For example, a pass that costs $100 per month and allows all trips under $2.50 each way for free might be very popular among riders that live in DC.
Give credit for bus transfers
One downside to the "short trip" pass is that it doesn't discount transfers between bus and rail. WMATA representatives have previously said that allowing transfer discounts to pass holders would be like giving discounts on top of discounts.
However, the transfer discount used to be available for pass holders when WMATA used paper transfer slips. When the WMATA Board approved replacing them with SmarTrip tracking, there was no discussion about eliminating the discount as well.
The discount isn't really a "discount," anyway. It's a recognition that a trip that uses bus and rail is really one trip on two modes, and the fare probably shouldn't be the same as two totally separate trips. You don't pay double the rail fare if you transfer between rail lines. In many cities, like New York, a bus plus rail trip costs the same as just one trip alone.
WMATA should restore the transfer discounts for all pass holders, and give riders with a rail pass the same reduced fare on the bus as any rider coming from a rail trip. Similarly, all riders should get the same fare when they transfer from bus to rail, whether or not they have a Metrobus pass.
All in all, "short trip" passes on SmarTrip are a great option, and I expect to subscribe to them in the future.
Montgomery County could do a lot to make walking to school safer and more convenient, and at little cost. All it takes is a few changes to the law, signs and paint, and retiming some traffic signals.
These are the recommendations from the Safe Walk to School campaign, which launched last week. The Action Committee for Transit, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the mother of a high school student killed while walking to school last October, and others started the campaign because walking to and from school in Montgomery County can be hazardous.
In this school year alone, at least 8 kids and one parent have been struck by cars:
- On October 3 (International Walk to School Day), a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old were struck by a car while on the sidewalk on their way to Springbrook High School in Silver Spring.
- On October 31, Christina Morris-Ward, age 15, was struck by a car and killed on the way to Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.
- On December 11, a 9-year-old was struck by a car while in a crosswalk on the way to Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda.
- On February 27, a 3-month-old baby in a stroller was struck by a car while in a marked crosswalk during the walk signal, next to Bethesda Elementary School in Bethesda.
- On March 12, a 16-year-old was struck by a car while in a marked crosswalk next to Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg.
- Also on March 12, an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old, and their mother were struck by a car while on the sidewalk one block from Gaithersburg Elementary School in Gaithersburg.
Unsafe walks to school cost Montgomery County residents millions of dollars a year. Montgomery County Public Schools must provide "hazard busing" for children who live within walking distance of school but can't walk there safely. Parents driving children to and from school adds meaningfully to traffic congestion. Children who don't walk to school experience decreased physical activity and mental well-being. And the air pollution from school-related car trips contributes to asthma and premature deaths.
To make walking to and from school safer for children in Montgomery County, the Safe Walk to School campaign calls on the Montgomery County Department of Transportion (MCDOT) to take the following low-cost but effective steps:
Expand school zones: Amend the county's criteria for school zones to include all county roads within a half-mile radius of a school. This would allow MCDOT to reduce speed limits and increase fines on roads near schools.
Lower speeds and limit unsafe right turns: Change the following rules in the amended school zones and post new signs to inform drivers:
- Establish a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour during school hours, including arrival and dismissal. This could decrease the risk of child pedestrian crashes by up to 70%.
- Double the fines for speeding violations, to motivate drivers to slow down.
- Prohibit right turns on red during school hours to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and drivers at traffic signals.
The engineering cost would be about $350 per sign, including installation. (For comparison, the estimated cost in 2011 of the 1.62-mile Montrose Parkway East project was $120 million. That's equivalent to the cost of roughly 340,000 signs.)
Retime traffic signals: Change traffic signal timing in the amended school zones in the following ways, to make it safer for pedestrians of all ages to cross the street:
- Put in leading pedestrian intervals for traffic signals at intersections where at least one of the roads is an arterial, to allow walkers to get a head start crossing busy streets.
- Use a walking speed of 2.5 feet per second to calculate the minimum pedestrian clearance interval, to give everyone, including children and adults pushing strollers, sufficient time to cross.
- Have the walk signal appear during every signal cycle during school hours at intersections with traffic signals, without pedestrians having to push a button. This can be done either by putting the signals in pedestrian "recall" during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) or by removing the pedestrian pushbuttons altogether.
- Shorten traffic signals during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) so kids don't have to wait longer than 40 seconds for a walk signal on any leg of an intersection. This would lead more pedestrians to wait for the walk signal to cross.
The engineering cost for retiming the traffic signals would be about $3,500 per intersection. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost to build Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of retiming roughly 34,000 signals.)
Change road markings: Add paint to the pavement in school zones in the following ways:
- Mark all crosswalks with a "ladder" or "zebra" crosswalk, using material embedded with retroreflective glass beads. This increases the visibility of crosswalks, raising driver awareness and encouraging pedestrians to cross at crosswalks.
- Narrow traffic lanes to 10 feet, to reduce vehicle speeds, increase drivers' compliance with the 20 mph speed limits, and reduce the length of pedestrian crossings across traffic lanes.
Ladder crosswalks cost about $300, and lane restriping costs about $1,000 per mile. (For comparison, the estimated $120 million cost of Montrose Parkway East would be equivalent to the cost of roughly 400,000 crosswalks or 120,000 miles of lane restriping.)
The District Department of Transportation has long been known for its effective use of social media, particularly Twitter. But more recently, DDOT has fallen short on reaching out to the public online. The DDOT Twiter feed took a particularly bizarre turn this past Monday.
Residents who tweeted DDOT with a request to fix a pothole or a question about a construction project received an unhelpful and somewhat patronizing message: "Thx 4 this Tweet! Service has been requested. Thank you for using DDOT TWITTER. Thank you for being a "Super-Citizen'!"
While DDOT always used Twitter to disseminate information and promote transparency, it was its consistently prompt responses to service requests that earned it a stellar reputation among citizens. Mark Bjorge and John Lisle, who ran the feed, displayed a wry sense of humor rarely seen coming from a government communications office.
Bjorge and Lisle both left the agency earlier this year. Since then, tweets to DDOT have been answered slowly, or not at all. When these latest boilerplate tweets started coming out on Monday, the backlash was palpable.
DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez insists that the agency is trying to get back on top of its Twitter game and has no intention of letting its social media presence continue to slide. "Those responses don't represent a new direction we're taking," she says, and went on to state that the automated replies are "not effective" and are "being addressed."
The concerns they've heard have hit home for the agency. "This brings to light the role our followers play when it comes to our communication here," says Hernandez. "They are our eyes and ears, and their feedback is critical."
That's a great outlook, but it's even better when put into practice. Since Twitter has played such a vital role in communication between DDOT and District residents over the past few years, I hoped that the department would recognize the value in bringing on other social media-literate employees after the staff changes took place. Instead, District residents have lost one of the most reliable means of communicating with the city about transportation issues.
Hernandez was unable to say whether Bjorge and Lisle had undergone any special social media training, or what kind of training is being provided to those currently at the feed's helm. She mentioned that DDOT's goal was to have more than just two people running its Twitter account, as questions and requests could be answered faster if there are more hands on deck.
Whatever the method, let's hope that DDOT's social media growing pains end soon. The agency has a great model for how to do social media right
Today, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed the transportation funding bill that passed the legislature this year. The governor also announced a list of projects that would get some of the money, including MARC expansion and studies for the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line.
The tax will start this summer, and will help fund transportation projects across the state. The increased tax was a key part of O'Malley's 2013 legislative agenda, and is expected to generate $800 million more for transportation each year.
After the governor signed the bill, his office released a list of "first round" projects that will get some of the increased revenues. This list totals $1.2 billion, but over the first 6 years, the tax should generate $4.4 billion.
Of the $1.2 billion, $650 million (54%) will go to transit. However, a large portion of that funds studies rather than actual construction. Money will go to MARC to add weekend service on the Penn Line and 2 new weekday roundtrips on the Camden Line, and to purchase new locomotives.
Here is the full list.
- $100 million for MARC enhancements, including Penn Line weekend service, 2 new Camden Line weekday roundtrips, and new locomotives.
- $280 million for final design for the Purple Line.
- $170 million for final design for the Red Line in Baltimore.
- $100 million for final design for the Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County.
- $125 million for construction of an interchange between I-270 and Watkins Mill Road in Montgomery County.
- $100 million for construction of an interchange at Kerby Hill Road and Indian Head Highway in Prince George's.
- $49 million for widening US 29 to three lanes from Seneca Drive to MD 175 in Howard County.
- $82 million for construction of an interchange on US 15 at Monocacy Boulevard in Frederick.
- $20 million for design of a new Thomas Johnson Bridge between Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
- $60 million for reconstruction of in interchange at I-695 and Leeds Avenue in Baltimore County.
- $44 million for BRAC-related construction near Aberdeen Proving Ground.
- $54 million for construction of a new interchage on US 301 at MD 304 on the Eastern Shore.
wrote last week about the DC Sustainable Energy Utility's progress toward helping DC residents and businesses save energy. Here is a less sanguine view.
The DC Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) was created with the best of intentions and much fanfare. Unfortunately, after more than $30 million dollars and nearly 3 years, DC SEU has had trouble even changing light bulbs effectively, and is lagging behind successful programs in other states.
Energy-efficiency programs around the country have successfully demonstrated ways to assure that communities invest in saving energy, but DC ranked only 29th among states in energy-efficiency programs in 2012, according to one recent analysis.
That's not great, since many states in the South and Great Plains have terrible records. The District should be a leader, or at least emulate the best programs from around the nation.
For example, in Massachusetts, utilities work with local banks to provide 0% interest loans for homeowners and businesses for energy efficiency. This addresses a common and fundamental impediment to efficiency investments at scale: poor access to capital. The public sector's upfront incentives to the banks make the 0% loans possible, which then leverages significant investment capital from the private sector.
Virginia offers basic and straightforward rebates for commercial building energy audits. These audits identify where a building is inefficient (from HVAC to lighting to operations) and catalyze efficiency investments. Once a commercial building owner sees a facility's inefficiencies, and has information about what investments could pay for themselves in savings, they often make sustainable improvements without further incentives.
SEU isn't meeting its goals
DC residents and businesses pay a small percentage of their electric and gas bills to support DC SEU. As a result, DC SEU raised $17.5 million this year and will raise $20 million next year.
The Vermont Energy Investment Cooperation, or VEIC, won a competitive bid from the District to operate DC SEU. Their contract has been renewed each year, but so far, VEIC is struggling.
In fiscal year 2012, DC SEU met just 2 of 6 performance benchmarks the District set for things like reducing energy or increasing renewable energy generation. Their goal was to reduce citywide electricity use by 45,000 megawatt-hours, but they only saved 21,000.
DC SEU even fell behind on creating green jobs, which is one of its main goals. The organization hired just 41 people in 2012, well below their goal of 53.
DC SEU claims that it saved DC residents and businesses $2.8 million in annualized energy costs, but it received $14 million in funding last year. For a group intended to be a "market catalyst," this return on investment is disappointing.
It also counts spillover effects from its work, like customers who don't participate in their programs but are still working to reduce their energy use. This method of measurement may be an industry standard, but it doesn't really reflect DC SEU's effectiveness.
Is the SEU trying to do what it takes?
Nor does the organization's FY 2013 First Quarter report acknowledge any of DC SEU's past shortcomings or the need for any improvements. While the report calls for "strategic enhancements to [their] programming," there's little description of anything other DC SEU's existing efforts, like their programs to replace light bulbs and seal heating ducts.
If this is all the District wanted to do to improve energy efficiency, there was no need to create a new organization. It could have given the job to PEPCO and Washington Gas, which are perfectly capable of doing this kind of work. Meanwhile, DC SEU admits that natural gas consumption has actually increased due to their focus on replacing incandescent light bulbs with high-efficiency bulbs. The new bulbs give off less heat, which means that in the colder months, customers actually use more heating gas to hear their homes and businesses (but save energy in the summer on cooling.)
DC SEU wasn't even trying to balance the modest impact of the lighting upgrades with other programs to reduce heating loads. They spent just $700,000 of the $2 million allocated for natural gas-related programs. Whether this is simply poor management, misplaced priorities, or both, this is clearly not a good sign.
What can be done?
DC SEU needs help. They aren't meeting their goals and they aren't fulfilling their legal obligation to District ratepayers. Meanwhile, the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), which manages the organization, has done little oversight. A lot of the relevant staff has turned over at DDOE. Plus, that agency's main expertise is not in "big data" or the economics of financial leverage in the ways necessary to push the SEU toward bolder thinking and better results.
There's already a strong market for compact fluorescents (and an emerging one for the the even newer LED bulbs). The amount of savings from bulbs is small compared to commercial space, which uses a vastly disproportionate share of energy. With incentives to focus on the greatest possible value, the SEU could do more with, for instance, energy audits for commercial space.
Mayor Gray's sustainability plan puts forward an exciting and laudable vision for the District. It would be a shame if DC SEU doesn't play a key role in making it a reality.
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- PG planners propose bold new smart growth future
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by Frank IBC on Breakfast links: Economic development
by aces on Bikeshare and better health go together
by Tom Coumaris on Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
by Dan from Beltsville on Prince George's County struggles to get trails right