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Bicycling


We're getting closer to having a bike trail from DC to Baltimore

Last month, a 1.7 mile section of the WB&A Trail opened, bringing the separate parts in Anne Arundel and Prince George's County as close to one another as they've ever been. A few more additions to the trail would mean an uninterrupted bike route from DC to Baltimore.


Image from Google Maps.

The WB&A trail runs from Odenton to Lanham, with a gap at the Patuxent River. There are plans to bridge the river, extend it south to Washington and north to BWI and then onward to Baltimore, which would create a full trail between DC and Baltimore.

When the WB&A was first built, it was a state of the art, electric commuter railroad that ran on three lines connecting Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis and the B&O railroad at Annapolis junction. It operated from 1908 until 1935. Work on the WB&A trail began almost 20 years ago, when the bulk of the Prince George's section from Glen Dale to Bowie was constructed, and planning dates back to the early 1990s.

During the seven years after that first section opened, the trail was extended to the banks of the Patuxent River on the Prince George's side and 5.5 miles of the Anne Arundel section of the trail was built across the town of Odenton.

Work stalled after that, though, leaving a one-mile gap between the two sections of the trail.

The trail is expanding, but there's still a gap to bridge

In recent years, hope for connecting the trails has been rekindled. Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties have resolved the issue about how to close the gap, deciding to go with a detour that was the subject of a lot of debate. While this isn't ideal for trail users, and plans to build on the right-of-way make it worse, it does mean the stalled project is moving forward.

To that effect, this year Prince Geroge's County completed the WB&A Trail Spur, which extends the trail west along the old Race Track Railroad Spur. And last month, Anne Arundel County built the 1.7 mile trail extension. This brought both trails across the river from one another, albeit nearly a mile from where the train used to cross the river.


The newest section of the WB&A Trail along Conway Road in Anne Arundel County. Photo by John Ausema.

The next step is to build a bridge across the Patuxent River. Using a $560,000 state grant, the two counties plan to begin the design phase later this year on a bridge near the location of an old road crossing that disappeared sometime prior to 1945. Once the new bridge is there, the WB&A Trail, as officially planned, will be complete.


1908 Map showing location of old bridge between the railroads

South to Washington, DC

The recently drafted Prince George's County Trails Plan proposes dozens of connections to the WB&A and extensions, most notably extending the trail south along MD-704 all the way to DC's Marvin Gaye Trail and to the Anacostia Tributary Trails via US-50.

Though these routes differ from the ones proposed by WABA in 2015 and fleshed out in 2016, the general idea remains the same, connect the WB&A to Washington, DC and the Anacostia.


Extensions to the WB&A Trail proposed in the PGC trails plan

North to the BWI Trail

Subsequent plans to the original 1990's master plans for the WB&A, South Shore and West County (what the WB&A in Anne Arundel was called at the time it was planned) trails have taken the opportunity to expand and tie into it.

The 1995 West County Trail Master Plan included a sidepath along WB&A Road from the north end of the current trail all the way to the BWI Trail—the loop trail that completely encircles BWI airport. The 2002 Severn Small Area Plan included this same trail, built in four phases. Unfortunately, this trail extension is not included in the county's 2013 Master Plan.


Severn Small Area Plan bicycle and pedestrian map, showing the WB&A trail in red running north-south.

The BWI Connector Trail

In addition to the connection to Washington, the bridge across the Patuxent and the connection to the BWI trail, finally realizing the dream of a Washington to Baltimore bicycle greenway would require one other trail: the BWI Connector (formerly the Light Rail Trail).

This trail would extend the existing Light Rail Trail, which currently runs from the BWI Trail to Maple Avenue in Linthicum Heights, 2.4 miles north to connect it to either Baltimore's Middle Branch or Gwynn Falls Trails. Such a connection was one of the top priority projects in Maryland Trails: A Greener Way To Go, the state's 2009 statewide trail vision.

It was also one of five recommendations for a hiker-biker trail network in the 2003 BWI/Linthicum Small Area Plan and was a public recommendation in the Baltimore region's Maximize2040 surface transportation plan, though it's not mentioned in the plan itself.

A complete Washington-Baltimore Greenway could end up looking something like to this:

Four separate projects, all in different stages of planning and development, would have to come together to make this vision happen. But the small section opened last month in Anne Arundel County brings it slightly closer to fruition.

Development


This new law would mean a better count of DC's vacant buildings

DC probably has a lot more vacant and blighted properties than its official count says, largely because of loophopes in the counting system. A bill before the DC Council is aiming to change that.


Residents proposed ideas for ways a long-vacant property could be put to better use. Photo by Myles Smith.

In February, Elissa Silverman introduced the Vacant Property Enforcement Amendment of 2016 to work in tandem with a similar piece of legislation she introduced in 2015. Both would shift the burden of proof from DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to the property owner, meaning it'd be on the owner to show that a buildint isn't vacant rather than on the city to show that it is.

This change would make building owners much more accountable, as well as strengthen DCRA's ability to enforce existing vacant and blighted properties laws.

First, a quick recap of the current situation

Under current law, properties determined that DCRA's Vacant and Blighted Enforcement Unit determines to be vacant are taxed at elevated tax rates of five percent of assessed value if vacant and 10 percent if the property is found to be blighted.

But the process for classifying a property as vacant or blighted and then maintaining the property's classification is onerous; District law states that the Mayor is the only person in the city who has the authority to list a building as blighted, and there are a number of loopholes in the law that allow negligent owners to avoid elevated tax rates.


A vacant building at 824 Kennedy Street NW. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Every six months, DCRA has to reassess the property and determine that it is still vacant and/or blighted. That means that when a building goes onto the list, chances are high that it will revert to the normal non-vacant, non-blighted tax rate even if the owner does nothing at all.

We estimate that there are as many as 5,000 vacant and blighted properties in the District, a number far too large for the small staff of DCRA's Vacant and Blighted Enforcement Unit to keep a handle on.

Silverman's bills do four things:

It reduces from three years to two years the maximum amount of time a vacant property can qualify for an exemption from higher taxes.

  • Currently, property owners can get exemptions from higher tax rates for up the three years by filing for work permits that cost a fraction of the potential tax penalty. In practice, these exemptions can last much longer than three years, as David Sheon and I have documented in a number of cases. There is no requirement that any actual work be done to earn the exemption.

This vacant building at 5112 9th Street has been vacant for three years, but it regularly falls off the list and its owner doesn't get taxed at a higher level consistently. Neighbors complain of loiterers and drug activity on the property.

It shifts the burden of biannual proof that the building is vacant or blighted from being the responsibility of DCRA inspectors and onto homeowners.

  • As the law stands, DCRA has to inspect every one of the 1300 properties on the list plus any new properties every six months. This bill shifts the burden off of DCRA and onto the owners of vacant properties by making them demonstrate with utility bills that the properties are no longer vacant.
It raises fines for failing to register vacant properties or allow DCRA to inspect them.
  • Accepting a fine is often easier and less expensive than registering a property as vacant. This bill reverses those incentives, making it easier for DCRA to maintain accurate lists with up to date information and to take enforcement actions when necessary.
It provides positive incentives by allowing an owner of a vacant property who follows the law and fills the vacancy within a year to receive a rebate of one year of vacant property taxes.
  • There is currently no mechanism for reimbursing owners of vacant and blighted properties who remediate blight and fill vacancies. This law will provide a strong incentive for owners to move quickly and do the right thing.

A vacant building at 615 Jefferson Street NW. Note the stop work order in the window.

The DC Council will take the next steps in July

The Council has scheduled hearings on the proposed legislation for July 14. Hopefully, we'll see the bill brought up for a vote following the hearings.

While this bill does not address all of the loopholes, it does fix the most obvious flaws. We are pleased to see this development, and urge Council to add the additional amendments needed to address the above listed issues.



Links


Breakfast links: Raising the rent


Photo by Craig Sunter on Flickr.
More rent than income: Incomes for DC residents have gone up 33% over the last 34 years, but that doesn't keep up with a corresponding 86% increase in rent. Rents have increased much more than inflation, and across the US nearly half of renters are considered "cost-burdened." (DCist)

Space > preservation: Alexandria is tearing down its historic Ramsey Homes, and will build 52 mixed-income apartments in their place. Removing all existing homes, versus keeping one for historic preservation, will create more open space for residents. (Post)

SafeTrack solution?: You might be able to take an express bus from Franconia-Springfield to Pentagon during the next SafeTrack surge. The Yellow and Blue Lines will shut down from National Airport to Braddock Road from July 5 -11. (Post)

Make way for drones: Flying drones can't make deliveries in DC because it's a no-fly zone. But starting this fall, DC will allow companies to test sidewalk drones to make deliveries. No other US city has permitted sidewalk drone testing. (Urban Turf)

Blame for the blaze: Monday night's electrical fire at the Gallery Place Metro happened because a loose rail fastener led to electrical arching. Metro has sent the equipment off for lab testing. (WTOP)

I-66 expansion, go: Virginia has the Feds' green light to expand I-66 outside of the Beltway. That means HOV lanes, new commuter lots for ride sharing, high frequency bus service, and express toll lanes by 2020. (WTOP)

Baltimore ships that: Bigger ships can now pass through the Panama Canal, and Baltimore is one of only 3 east coast ports that can handle the biggest among them. That could mean new jobs are on the horizon. (WTOP)

Maryland's fork in the road: With the economy pushing cities to be more dense, Maryland's cities must decide how to best meet the demands of residents young and old. Some will prosper, and it's quite possible some will collapse. (VA Pilot)

Walmart's new use: Nationwide, big box stores are becoming obsolete. But some places are turning the buildings into schools, churches, and office spaces. The 99% Invisible podcase goes in-depth on "ghost boxes." (99% Invisible)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Bicycling


DC Council postpones fixing an injustice to pedestrians and cyclists because Kenyan McDuffie's dog ate his homework

I'm on vacation in Copenhagen, but am writing a post anyway )using a Danish keyboard where the punctuation is all in a different place= because I'm sufficiently annoyed at Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. He seems to have just read a very important bill to protect people walking and bicycling at the very last minute, then asked for an extension because it didn't say what he thought it did.


DC's contributory negligence debate wouldn't happen here in Copenhagen. Photo by the author.

A quick history here. Bicycle riders have been talking about the unjust "contributory negligence" rule for years. This rule says that if someone is even 1% at fault for a crash, he or she can recover nothing from the insurer of, say, a driver who hits and seriously injures him or her.

Two years ago, Tommy Wells (ward 6) was chairing the committee with jurisdiction to change the rule, and he tried a bill to change to "comparative negligence," where you can recover in proportion to your fault (if you're 25% at fault, you could recover up to 75% of your injuries). But Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) opposed the bill, as did trial lawyers, because it would interfere with another legal doctrine called "joint and several liability." You can learn more about this here.

But suffice to say, there were two possible ways to fix the problem, and the one Wells was promoting didn't have political support. Cheh promised to write a bill that fixed her concern, and she then introduced it the following year, in January 2015, along with Jack Evans (ward 2), David Grosso (at large), Anita Bonds (at large), and Charles Allen (ward 6 and Wells' successor).

Here's a chart by David Cranor explaining the difference between the two bills, in terms of how much a victim can recover based on his or her fault under current law, the 2014 bill, and the current bill.


Here, the X axis is for how much the cyclist was at fault, and the Y is for how much the driver has to pay. The red line shows how the law works today, the green one explains a 2014 bill that didn't pass, and the purple and blue ones show Kenyan McDuffie and Mary Cheh's proposals, respectively. Graph by David Cranor.

Kenyan McDuffie was now chairing the committee with jurisdiction, and nothing happened for over a year. The committee then marked up the bill on April 21, 2016. The committee report endorses the bill, saying:

The Committee finds, based on the testimony, significant risk of injury, and national trend, that the District of Columbia law should institute a modified comparative negligence standard for bicyclists and pedestrians in the District. Therefore, the Committee recommends that the Council enacts Bill 21-0004, the "Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2016."
Suddenly, the bill is in crisis

Monday night (Copenhagen time, anyway), Martin Di Caro broke the news that McDuffie was suddenly concerned about the language of the bill. David Cranor breaks down McDuffie's apparent concern, which is that someone 10% at fault might be able to recover more than 90%. McDuffie wants the purple line in the graph above, where the recovery slopes down to 50% and is zero after that.

But the sloped-line approach failed two years ago. Suddenly it seems we're back where we were then, with some councilmembers willing to support one solution, some wanting another, and not enough for a single solution.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association says it supports either approach, but is insistent that one of them be enacted. I might not be seeing everything, being in Denmark let alone not privy to conversations between McDuffie and Cheh, but it sure seems like McDuffie, after sitting on the bill for 15 months, suddenly read it for the first time very recently, realized it said something different than what his own committee report endorsed, and got cold feet.

The council has now postponed debate on the bill for two weeks, until July 12.


Photo by the author.

McDuffie needs to get this solved in two weeks

One of my elementary school teachers had a sign with the old phrase, "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." This is like the student who procrastinates on an assignment until the last minute, then needs an extension. Only McDuffie is a very smart professional legislator with extensive legal experience and staff who also have law degrees.

But fine, McDuffie got his extension. It will mean cyclists and pedestrians are in jeopardy for two months more, because the council can't take a second vote until September thanks to its August recess, but they've been waiting years for a fix.

If McDuffie decides to go along with Cheh's approach, great. If he can convince her and a majority of the council to go with another solution palatable to WABA, that's also fine. But what won't be fine is if two weeks pass (during which time there's a holiday, by the way) and then the council is still not ready to move forward. Two years ago, the bill got delayed two weeks also, and instead of then passing, it was delayed more and more and ultimately almost two years.

If that happens because McDuffie wasn't paying attention, this will all be on him, under the "you break it, you buy it" doctrine. It would reflect very poorly on him. Fortunately, he has several ways out of looking bad—just get some dmn bill passed )where the heck is the asterisk on this keyboard=, either Cheh's version or something else that has seven votes.

To stay up to date on how this unfolds, fill out the form below. Meanwhile, I'll go back to walking the streets of Copenhagen, where Danish law places the presumption of fault on the driver in any crash. Hey, how about amending the bill to say THAT instead?



Photography


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 86

It's time for the eighty-sixth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?


Image 1


Image 2


Image 3


Image 4


Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun.

Please note: We have a slightly earlier deadline this week. Please be sure to have your answers in by 9 am on Thursday.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


748 MetroGreater ideas and counting! What's yours?

Riders across the region have submitted more than 700 ideas to make Metro greater. You can read a few of them below. What's your MetroGreater idea?

Last week, Greater Greater Washington launched MetroGreater, a crowdsourcing site for riders to submit their ideas for small, quick fixes Metro can make to improve the rider experience on rail, bus, or paratransit. Through July 15th, the public can submit and comment on others' ideas. Then, a jury will review the ideas and the public will get to vote among the finalists to pick a winner.

In less than one week we've gotten 748 ideas! Most of them are responsive to the key criteria: that ideas be achievable by Metro for under $100,000 in under six months and not impair safety or violate any laws.

Metro rail art

Several ideas involve art installations in Metro tunnels and stations. Michael thinks art will help keep conductors alert and engaged. Kristin shares research which shows positive effects of subway art on riders' experience. From encouraging tourists to visit lesser-frequented stations by featuring local artists' work to keeping conductors and passengers more engaged, many people think adding art will making riding Metro greater.


Photo by Megan Wong on Flickr.

SmartTrip reloads on Metrobus

In an effort to speed up bus service, Eric thinks there should be a minimum requirement for how much people can reload onto their SmartTrip cards while aboard a bus. He thinks that instituting a minimum reload of $5, $10, or even $20, would reduce the number of reloads per person and improve overall bus travel time. Jess, however, disagrees. Dominic suggests testing out pre-payment on busy bus routes to address the delays caused by onboard reloads.

More seating on rail and bus

Dan and Victoria think we need more seating at Metro rail stations. Mathew suggests stronger language on priority seating signs.

Quick fixes for people with disabilities

Diana suggests printing color words on Metro signs so people with colorblindness can navigate better, while Shelby recommends having a light flash on the exit side of the train as it pulls into a station to help deaf passengers.


Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Popular suggestions

A few ideas seem to be quite popular. At quick glance, the most common suggestions have to do with improving lighting in Metro rail stations, helping people understand the "stand right, walk left" escalator etiquette, and enforcing the no eating or drinking rules.

What do you think of these ideas? Remember, you can submit and comment on others' ideas at metrogreater.org through July 15th.

Development


Nobody wants these school buses in their backyard. But moving them is worth it.

Montgomery County wants to move a school bus lot away from the Shady Grove Metro station to make room for new houses there, but residents of other neighborhoods don't want the buses in their backyards. But the move is worth it if it means more people can live walking distance to the train.


The Shady Grove bus depot across from new townhouses being built. All photos by the author.

This week, the Montgomery County Council could vote not to sell off a school bus depot on Crabbs Branch Way in Rockville, next to the Shady Grove station. Montgomery County Public Schools has outgrown the lot, and the county wants to move it to make room for a new neighborhood around the Metro station that would have 700 new homes, parks, a school, and a library.

The move is part of a decade-long effort that County Executive Ike Leggett calls the Smart Growth Initiative. Until recently, the Shady Grove Metro station was surrounded by government warehouses and depots storing everything from Ride On buses to school cafeteria food. The county's been able to move nearly all of the facilities, many of them to a new site in Montgomery Village. In their place, construction has already begun on an adjacent, 1500-home neighborhood, called Westside at Shady Grove.

The school bus depot needs to stay near Rockville, since its 400 buses serve schools in that area. But neighbors fought attempts to move the buses to a nearby school, an empty parking lot at the school system headquarters, and a gravel lot in a historically-black, working-class neighborhood. At each location, neighbors have raised concerns about traffic, pollution, or reduced property values.

Naturally, councilmembers are nervous about proposing to move the buses anywhere else. Councilmember Marc Elrich has suggested that the best option may be to keep the buses where they are.

But even if the depot stays, the county still has to find more space to store buses. And in an urbanizing county, those buses are likely to go in somebody's backyard.

Councilmember Craig Rice notes that there are already school bus depots next to houses in Glenmont and Clarksburg, and those residents haven't had any problems with them.

Jamison Adcock, one of the bus lot opponents, told me on Twitter that existing communities' needs should come first. But what about people who want to live here but can't afford to because there aren't enough homes to meet the demand, driving up house prices? Or what about people who either can't or don't drive and would like to live near a Metro station? The county is responsible for their needs too.

Moving the bus depot has serious benefits for the county and the people who could live on that land. There are only thirteen Metro stations in or next to Montgomery County, and they represent some of the most valuable land around. We know that lots of people want to live near a Metro station, and that people who already do are way more likely to use transit and have lower transportation costs.

It's increasingly expensive to live near Metro because the demand outstrips the supply of homes near Metro stations. So if the county's going to build new homes, we should prioritize putting them there.


This is a better use of land next to a Metro station than a bus lot.

Meanwhile, there are roads all over the county, and the trucks that carry things to and from the county's warehouses can go pretty much anywhere there's a road. That's why ten years ago, county leaders decided that it made more sense to put homes near the Metro, and warehouses and bus depots somewhere else.

That won't make everybody happy, but it's the right thing to do.

Links


Breakfast links: Metro fire(d)


Photo by Victoria Pickering on Flickr.
Fire in the hole: A track fire shut down the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station for nearly an hour during evening rush yesterday. The fire department said smoldering debris was the culprit. (Post)

Lots of layoffs for Metro: WMATA will cut 500 jobs in the coming months. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld says the positions, including some vacant ones, are no longer necessary for Metro's mission. (DCist)

Blame it on mode share shift: Metro points to the rise of teleworking, biking, and walking to explain the 5 to 8% decrease in ridership since 2009. Although the region has added a lot of jobs, more people seem to be working closer to home. (WAMU)

Renters' rights for Montgomery: Renters could soon have more rights in Montgomery County. The county council is working on a bill that would increase county property inspections and standardize lease terms. (WTOP)

DNC on board for DC statehood?: Statehood advocates may have the Democratic National Committee on board. A draft of the national platform shows support for DC statehood. (DCist)

Virginia is for pensioners: Arlington came in first on a list of best places to retire, ranking highly on low crime, walkability, culture, and low taxes. (DCist)

Housing or hotel?: Airbnb and similar services consume 10% of available housing in New York City, according to one study. The study also found that more than 55% of listings are illegal. (Guardian)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

Bicycling


DC's harmful traffic law needs to go, one way or another

If a driver hits you while you're walking or biking in DC, the law makes it almost impossible to collect from the driver's insurance. A bill to fix that is suddenly in jeopardy just hours before a scheduled vote. Please ask the DC Council to move it forward.

As of now, DC's "contributory negligence" law says that if a person on foot or bike who is involved in a crash is even one percent at fault for what happened, they can't collect any damages. The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Amendment Act of 2015, which is scheduled for a vote today, would let people collect damages as long as they were less than 50% at fault.

Today, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie plans to introduce an amendment that would change exactly how much a person could collect, using a "comparative negligence" standard that basically means that a person's claim to damages would be proportional to their fault in the crash. It looks as though Councilmember Mary Cheh would oppose the bill if it includes McDuffie's amendment.

Efforts to end contributory negligence, which really does have harmful effects, have been going on for years. There are credible arguments for both McDuffie's and Cheh's positions on how to word the new law, but we need to pass one or the other.

With or without the amendment, the proposed bill will improve the rights of pedestrians, cyclists and other non-motorized road users on DC's streets. That is very much needed, especially as the number of people who use our streets for something other than driving continues to swell.

Update: Councilmember McDuffie moved for the Council to vote on the bill on July 12, and his motion passed.

This morning, 75 people sent 450 letters to Councilmembers urging them to do away with contributory negligence, one way or another. Thank you for your efforts, and look for more from Greater Greater Washington on how pass the bill as the vote nears.

Bicycling


N Street NW has new bike lanes

If you've biked down N Street just north of Thomas Circle recently, your ride may have been more convenient than it used to be thanks to new contraflow lanes. Even though the lanes only stretch two blocks on either side of 14th street, they provide valuable new options for travelling east-west in this part of downtown.


Image from Google Maps.

Previously, these two blocks only allowed for one way traffic heading towards 14th street. The new lanes make two connections possible:

1.Cyclists can go east on the 1300 block of N, making for a straight shot connection from 14th Street to the NoMa metro. Even though most of N doesn't have painted lanes, the low amount of vehicle traffic allows for a relatively low-stress connection between two important parts of the city core.


The new contraflow lanes, looking east along N Street NW. Photo by Matt Friedman.

2.Being able to go west on the 1400 block of N allows for an easier connection to the M Street protected bikeway, which currently ends on the western side of where Massachusetts Avenue meets Thomas Circle. Before, biking from 14th and N to the M Street bikeway required navigating Thomas Circle.


Looking west along N Street. Photo by Matt Friedman.

N Street joins a handful of other contraflow lanes that have been popping up around the city, like those on G and I Streets NE.

This relatively quick and easy project shows that DC hasn't yet run out of "low-hanging fruit" for places to install bicycle infrastructure. These contraflow lanes are fairly non-disruptive to both parking and car traffic.

What other streets might be ripe for this treatment?

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