Greater Greater Washington

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Streetcar tracks deleted from 11th Street Bridge (for now)

The $300 million 11th Street bridge project won't have streetcar tracks after all, at the insistence of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Instead, it will have structural elements to make it easier to add tracks in the future, but that will cost much more and take many more years.


Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) originally planned to place tracks on the local span of the new 11th Street bridge. This would allow future streetcar service to span the river, like that planned in DC's streetcar plan, without an expensive construction project tearing up the just-completed bridge.

That plan fell apart earlier this year, when officials from FTA told DDOT they can't put the tracks in the project, which uses federal funding.

DDOT spokesperson John Lisle confirmed that the tracks will not be in the project, but noted that it is being made "streetcar ready," so that tracks can be added in the future without major changes to the bridge.

Lisle says that DC will save some money, at least $1.5 million, of the $300 million project for not putting in the tracks, but it will cost more to install the tracks later. DDOT doesn't have figures on how much, exactly, it will cost in the future to add tracks.

Adding them later will also force DDOT to close down lanes on the bridge. Right now, the bridge is being built next to the old bridge, allowing all of the traffic that currently uses the bridge to keep doing so during almost all of the construction. Once the new bridge opens and the old one demolished, a track project will require interfering with existing traffic.

So why couldn't DDOT include the tracks? Environmental review rules, federal officials' interpretations of those rules, and DDOT's eagerness to move quickly all mixed together.

DDOT completed its Environmental Impact Statement for the bridge project in 2006, working with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The "Purpose and Need" of the project, an official statement in any EIS that defines its goals, was to deal with traffic congestion stemming from the "missing link" between the bridge and the Anacostia Freeway to the northeast.

A secondary Purpose and Need was to better connect neighborhoods on each side of the river and to the waterfront itself. The freeway acts as a barrier, and getting across on any motorized vehicle requires getting onto a freeway and then off again. Therefore, DDOT decided to separate freeway and local bridges. The EIS mentioned that the local bridge would be designed for "future transit accommodation."

Is including tracks "accommodation" or not? What is "accommodation"? Is it just building the bridge with the structural capacity to handle streetcar vehicles? The actual slabs to underlie tracks? The underground conduit for power and foundations for catenary poles? All of the infrastructure short of actual service? The EIS doesn't specify.

DDOT originally planned to use mostly local money for the project, but switched to make it mainly federal when the stimulus bill passed. Significant funding became available to projects that were ready to obligate their money within 6 months, and the 11th Street Bridge was one of the few large enough projects ready to go.

People familiar with the conversations between DDOT and federal officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity, say that FHWA had signed off on contracts that included mention of the rails, but in early summer, DDOT tried to change the type of rails in order to comply with Buy America requirements that mandate more expensive, domestic rails. FHWA then brought in FTA, which objected to the project not having gone through even more environmental review.

FHWA ultimately appeared willing to give DDOT permission to include the tracks, according to the people familiar with the discussions, but FTA said no. Ironically, the federal government has subsequently offered waivers to Buy America around rails.

The question here is whether FTA had to make the decision they did, or had leeway. And if they had leeway, should they have used it to let the project move forward?

Already, federal regulations impose greater burdens on transit projects. To get funding, transit projects have to meet complex cost-effectiveness criteria while highway projects do not. The FTA acts at times like it's the Federal Make Transit More Difficult Administration. That's not because they're anti-transit, per se, but simply that they are regulating transit, FHWA is regulating roads, and FTA is the stricter parent.

One of the FTA's added hurdles is a requirement that environmental analyses not "prejudice" their decision for any mode. Local agencies have to study many modes, even ones that seem ridiculous on their face, like heavy rail transit for a project that evidently is best as bus or streetcar, or even considering monorail alongside other modes. Highway projects have no comparable requirement; cities don't have to study whether every new road should be carpool-only, for instance.

FTA officials objected that putting tracks on the bridge could predjudice the the Environmental Assessment (EA) underway for streetcar service in Anacostia. Even though DC already has a streetcar segment under construction in part of Anacostia and has made a citywide commitment to streetcars, FTA requires them to pretend none of that exists for the purpose of thinking about Anacostia. In the meantime, they're stopping another transit facility from being part of a project.

There are only 5 bridges connecting DC neighborhoods across the Anacostia, and they're each rebuilt once a generation at most. The EIS already considered the provision of transit service, which in any event has only positive environmental consequences for surrounding neighborhoods compared to single-passenger motor vehicle traffic.

Federal officials have substantial leeway within the regulations to help projects move forward more smoothly or put up obstacles. Sadly, in this case those at FTA seem to have chosen the latter. Instead, perhaps FTA should have been excited to see DC's commitment to transit and willingness to put money, including substantial local money, behind it.

Last year, some said that FTA officials were annoyed with DDOT for moving ahead with tracks on H Street, using local money, without involving FTA. This might have contributed to their rejecting DC for an Urban Circulator grant.

Perhaps DDOT could have worked better with its federal partners, and it probably should have involved FTA sooner in the 11th Street bridge project. But the federal agencies also create a disincentive to work with them when they impose even more rules than NEPA, the environmental act that mandates EISes and EAs, really requires.

The Adrian Fenty and Gabe Klein approach was to move forward as quickly as possible and get things done, sometimes with a minimum of process. In some cases, that led to action that might otherwise have gotten mired in years of debate but which are now remarkably successful, like the cycle tracks or Capital Bikeshare. With this bridge, that posture alienated some federal officials.

DDOT should take more care to follow proper process, and its current leadership is taking pains to rebuild relationships with federal partners even though that likely means slowing progress on streetcar and other projects. That's a good strategy. But federal employees should think about the big picture, too. If they slow down projects whose DOTs try to move fast but maybe come off as a little arrogant along the way, the end result is to hurt transit and the residents of cities who need its service today.

Now, before there can be tracks on the bridge, DDOT will have to undergo an environmental review, then find and program the extra money for the construction. 2020 might be an optimistic timeframe at this point, whereas the money was already in hand to build the tracks this year had FTA chosen to be flexible instead of taking the strictest approach.

Meanwhile, DC expects major development around Saint Elizabeth's and elsewhere in Ward 8. Sadly, our ability to better connect this important and growing area to the rest of the city has just lost a decade, thanks to this decision.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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the CHRS and Committee of 100 will love this since they are against new streetcars and the density it will enable

by anon on Oct 6, 2011 10:28 am • linkreport

I'm doubly disappointed because the GGW tweet I saw had me assume it would be good news.

by Canaan on Oct 6, 2011 10:35 am • linkreport

Key here is the definition of "quickly." Years versus decades are the timelines one deals with regarding infrastructure projects.

It's a shame. At least those who are in favor of "process" can rest easy knowing that they'll likely be dead before there is continued progress on things like this. They won't have to worry about these things one way or another.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Oct 6, 2011 10:37 am • linkreport

Ah, the sweet problems of the FEDs controlling all (?) the bridges to your city. I've run into this with snow removal. Key Bridge is US-29, and not a DC city street. Roosevelt is I-66. Perhaps Memorial Bridge and Chain Bridge are probably NPS, 14th St bridges are I-395, 11 St is I-295 (to become I-695), and the (small) NY Ave bridge is US-50 and the WWII bridge is also I-(4)95.

That leaves the bridges carrying S and E Capitol St, PA Ave, and Benning Rd for DC. Or are those federal too?

by Jasper on Oct 6, 2011 10:41 am • linkreport

Sooo short-sighted! :(

by MrTinDC on Oct 6, 2011 10:46 am • linkreport

So does this mean that if the "buy America" waiver had been in place, the FTA never would have been involved?

This is short-sighted Federal government at its worst.

by Andrew on Oct 6, 2011 10:47 am • linkreport

I wonder what the logistics would entail of just doing it anyway with $1.5MM of DC's own funds, "FTA, be damned".

I know of situations when Virginia counties have "just done it" before on state roads without asking VDOT, b/c the risk of being sued by the state over such insignificant (and often beneficial) "improper" actions is so minimal.

by Joey on Oct 6, 2011 10:52 am • linkreport

Didn't the money that got freed up from NOT doing this bridge allow DC to put down the H st tracks anyway? Or I am getting mixed up?

by charlie on Oct 6, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

@DA your complaints are well taken, but I think you have misplaced where the failure is. This is a leadership issue, that is, if the mayor were truly behind streetcars, it is his job to insure that the city resources are provided to satisfy their regulatory requirements.

by goldfish on Oct 6, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

Our government sucks.

by Phil on Oct 6, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

1.5 million isn't a lot of money. Kind of a shame that after all the talk and debating, we won't have it all.

@Goldfish, gotta agree with you on that. This is a leadership. Had the previous administration slowed down just a bit to ensure due diligence was performed, we may not be where we are today.

Streetcar ready? Sounds like bikeshare ready. We'll install the docking stations now so that they are ready for the actual bikes in the future.

That makes sense.

by HogWash on Oct 6, 2011 11:05 am • linkreport

@goldfish

What difference does it make if the regulatory requirements are completely absurd?

by Alex B. on Oct 6, 2011 11:07 am • linkreport

@Alex -- If the regs are foolish, then it is the Mayor's job to circumvent them -- either legally (a lawsuit) or politically (pinging EHN to start a congressional review). Again, if the mayor really wants streetcars, then it is his job to make it happen, and this is the sort of problem that belongs to the mayor.

by goldfish on Oct 6, 2011 11:11 am • linkreport

I think it's important to remember that when the 11th St Bridge was going through the EIS process, the streetcar project was planned to be funded with all local dollars which would not have triggered FTA review. As funding became more scarce, DDOT made the decision to "federalize" the streetcar project which then triggered the federal regs. By then, the bridge was already under construction. It's unfortunate timing more than anything else.

by Will P on Oct 6, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport

@jasper, Interstates are not federal highways even if they are built with federal money. DDOT (and states) still owns and maintains the interstates in dc. The same goes for US routes.

http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/interstate/faq.htm#question5

by Ron on Oct 6, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

It's unfortunate timing more than anything else.

This is a cop-out. So DC did not have to fund the project they were planning to, and then they whine when the new source of the money steps in with its own rules?

If DC wants streetcars, then DC will have to do its job.

by goldfish on Oct 6, 2011 11:21 am • linkreport

@goldfish

If the regs are foolish, then it is the Mayor's job to circumvent them -- either legally (a lawsuit) or politically (pinging EHN to start a congressional review). Again, if the mayor really wants streetcars, then it is his job to make it happen, and this is the sort of problem that belongs to the mayor.

Sorry, but no.

You can't just bypass federal regulations. This isn't a DC specific problem, these kinds of Federal regulations have strangled transit capital investments at all levels across the country.

If you take the broader view, this is just one more datapoint for a good transit idea in the US that's been derailed by some unintended consequences of federal regulations.

by Alex B. on Oct 6, 2011 11:25 am • linkreport

@Alex B -- if legal or political action does not solve the problem, you implicitly concede that the regs are valid. In which case, it falls on the city to satisfy them.

by goldfish on Oct 6, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

FHWA approved the EIS and signed of on the bridge designs, and a contract. The EIS spoke to accommodating streetcar, the designs and contract explicitly stated that tracks would be installed as part of the bridge project.

Coincidentally, the EIS won a national award (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/eea2009/streamlining.htm). Ironically, this award was given by FHWA.

Seems more like a bait and switch on the part of the Federal government.

by Nunya on Oct 6, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

@goldfish - DC had the ability and planned to pay for the rails on the bridge with local money. What FTA is saying is that if DC chose to put in the rails on the Bridge before their mandated studies, they would then be disqualified from getting federal dollars for segments that would connect to the Bridge.

by Will P on Oct 6, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

@Will P -- so then DC has a choice -- put the rails on the and leave the money on the table, or wait and do the study properly and not have to pay. How much are we talking here?

by goldfish on Oct 6, 2011 11:36 am • linkreport

@Goldfish

if legal or political action does not solve the problem, you implicitly concede that the regs are valid. In which case, it falls on the city to satisfy them.

I'm not saying the regs are invalid, I'm saying they are misguided.

The Feds clearly have the right to regulate these things, and interpret the law in the way that they do. This is not in dispute - it's perfectly valid and legal.

What I'm saying is that their approach is not a good idea. This is not a new statement, either - there is a long history of complaints about the absurdity of some of these federal regs.

by Alex B. on Oct 6, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

@Alex B -- well you can't have it both ways. The city knew, -- or should have known by your point that there is "long history" here -- what would happen when they turn over the funding and control to the Feds. Whining that the "rules are misguided" is just that, whining, and does not get the tracks on the bridge. Satisfy the requirements, dammit.

by goldfish on Oct 6, 2011 11:44 am • linkreport

@Goldfish

Yup, they had a choice. They decided, wisely, that it didn't make sense to make the 600K residents pay for 100% of the cost for a $300 million bridge 11th St Bridge and $1.5 billion streetcar network. If FTA decides to fund streetcar they contribute 50% and FHWA contributes around 80% for highway and bridge projects.

by Will P on Oct 6, 2011 11:45 am • linkreport

@Will P -- Not sure the choice is really that stark. But regardless, if DC first planned to pay for it all, then they got a windfall. So why complain if the DC taxpayers have been relieved of these costs?

by goldfish on Oct 6, 2011 11:52 am • linkreport

OK, I am really confused:

1. Was it the buy america?

2. Or FTA refusing to do a EA in time?

by charlie on Oct 6, 2011 11:52 am • linkreport

@charlie

1) Buy America, if I have this right, is the requirement that federally funded infrastructure projects buy American materials. Here the materials were rails, which just recently it was determined there was no American vendor of streetcar rails.

2) FTA = Federal Transit Administratin; EA = Environmental Assessment

by beans on Oct 6, 2011 12:09 pm • linkreport

"The FTA acts at times like it's the Federal Make Transit More Difficult Administration. That's not because they're anti-transit, per se, but simply that they are regulating transit, FHWA is regulating roads, and FTA is the stricter parent."

I hope this wasn't writte by David Alpert, it's incredibly sloppy. Neither FHWA and FRA regulates roads or transit. FHWA passes some degree of decisionmaking on grants to its state DOTs, which FTA does not do - it makes grants directly to large transit agencies (smaller agencies get funds through their state DOTs)

by aa on Oct 6, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

Groan. Why doesn't DC just sell the cars that were built years ago and declare victory?

by Dan Gamber on Oct 6, 2011 12:17 pm • linkreport

So what you're saying is that if Sen. McCain's amendment to strike Buy American had passed and Sen. Barrasso's amendment to reduce NEPA requirements on stimulus projects had passed, then we'd be getting streetcar tracks? Sounds like it's the fault of Democrats then.

There's a tension between people who want more infrastructure built, and people who want rules that make building that infrastructure more costly and more time-consuming.

I'd love to have out of work people out there building as much infrastructure as possible. Too bad that NEPA, Buy American, and Davis-Bacon makes it really hard to ramp up projects suddenly and cheaply with new employees. Instead you have to go at the same old pace with the same experienced contractors and employees.

by John Thacker on Oct 6, 2011 12:17 pm • linkreport

@Beans, right, but I am stil confused. So FTA did not give a waiver? Or did they hold up the enviornmental assetment?

by charlie on Oct 6, 2011 12:19 pm • linkreport

" To get funding, transit projects have to meet complex cost-effectiveness criteria while highway projects do not. "

This sorta drives me nuts, becaues it's talking about two different kinds of federal transportation money.

Also, let's be clear that FTA's formula funds (the bulk of FTA's budget at around 6 billion), are the same as FHWA's formula funds in that the grantee has much more freedom to choose how to use them. Most transit agencies choose to use their transit formula funds on vehicles and preventative maintenence instead of major capital projects - and instead choose to bid in a very competitive environment for discretionary New Starts capital grant.

by aa on Oct 6, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

@John Thacker:

"So what you're saying is that if Sen. McCain's amendment to strike Buy American had passed and Sen. Barrasso's amendment to reduce NEPA requirements on stimulus projects had passed, then we'd be getting streetcar tracks? Sounds like it's the fault of Democrats then. "

Buy America and Buy American are two different laws. Buy American refers to procurements made by the federal government (for instance, a US government fleet vehicle). Buy America refers to purchases made with FTA and FHWA grant funds.

This may help: http://www.contechsystems.com/latestnews/complying-with-buy-america--buy-american

by aa on Oct 6, 2011 12:28 pm • linkreport

this article is WAY off on what happened and it's a shame that a more careful examination of the sequence of events wasn't considered.

by me on Oct 6, 2011 12:57 pm • linkreport

@me: care to explain how it's WAY off?

by Gray on Oct 6, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

after a second read, there's just too much information about this article that is wrong. the characterization of events, the roles of agencies, and who the players were. wrong.....

by me on Oct 6, 2011 1:06 pm • linkreport

@ Ron:Interstates are not federal highways even if they are built with federal money. DDOT (and states) still owns and maintains the interstates in dc. The same goes for US routes.

That's what I thought. Until I asked DDOT to remove snow of the sidewalks of Key Bridge.

"Thank you for your concerns regarding the snow and ice removal on the Key Bridge. Your concerns are very important to us; however, the District of Columbia does not have jurisdiction in this matter.

We encourage you to share your concerns with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which oversees all operations and policies conducted along Key Bridge."

by Jasper on Oct 6, 2011 1:13 pm • linkreport

@me: Well, I'm glad you chimed in with such informative analysis.

by Gray on Oct 6, 2011 1:35 pm • linkreport

@Gray:
He/she certainly convinced me.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 6, 2011 1:41 pm • linkreport

@m, I can't speak to the in/accuracies. But since you do seem to have a bit more knowledge than layman like me, can you share a couple of substantive thoughts rebutting what DAl is claiming here?

@Charlie, based on my read, it seems as if FTA didn't grant the waiver FWHA "appeared" willing to concede on. It doesn't seem as if an environmental assessment happened at all.

by HogWash on Oct 6, 2011 2:16 pm • linkreport

Sigh.... The streetcar's just another bait-and-switch, and the residents of Anacostia once again get screwed.

This whole project has been messy. Looking at the design, it's not at all certain that the local span will actually connect well to the local street grid; many of the new ramps/overpasses are ridiculously close to ground level on M St, and finally, the project didn't include the removal of the now-even-more-redundant stub at the end of the freeway.

Also, take a look at how little of the EIS has actually been fulfilled. The Anacostia Community Boathouse (which was evicted as part of the construction project) was promised a new site and building adjacent to the bridge, to help foster future development in the area. After that site, (and every single other one along the river) were deemed to be too polluted to support a community space, DDOT selected a parcel 1 mile upriver, spent $5 million cleaning up the site, put up a temporary "tent," and told the boathouse that they'd fulfilled their end of the deal, without actually providing them with a permanent home.

There's also a bike/ped bridge being built down that portion of M St (I think in conjunction with the 11th St Bridge, although I'm not sure) that, for God knows what reason is being built in the style of a *gigantic* freeway overpass, and has been languishing under construction for nearly 2 years with no end in sight, and won't provide an easy connection from Hill East and Pennsylvania Ave. Again. Two years to build an ugly pedestrian bridge.

Yeah. Sounds like DDOT fulfilled their end of the deal. Everybody's getting screwed thanks to this project. It was a great chance/opportunity to reinvent the area, and they blew it.

by andrew on Oct 6, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

@andrew: the bike/ped bridge you refer to is not part of the 11th St Bridge...it's part of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.

by Froggie on Oct 6, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

*not part of the 11th St Bridge PROJECT. It's a completely separate project.

by Froggie on Oct 6, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

Ah. Got it. I just assumed that they got a special deal on concrete viaducts or somesuch...

by andrew on Oct 6, 2011 3:45 pm • linkreport

Ah, look to the north, not far from here... Charm City and the Mayor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer. FTA would not let them build the starter line because they didn't like the ridership projection. Willy Don effectively (if not actually) told them shove it, we'll build it with our own money. And the new line justified the ridership forecast that allowed them to double track and extend the line.

FTA is a PIA with all the rules and regs as described in the article.

If DDOT can allocate specifically local money to the rail installation they might be able to do it...but where the $$$

by Some Ideas on Oct 6, 2011 6:53 pm • linkreport

@ andrew:The streetcar's just another bait-and-switch, and the residents of Anacostia once again get screwed.

I am not sure. Can you be screwed if you're skeptical?

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/9834/ddot-creates-10-anacostia-streetcar-alignment-options-but-many-residents-still-skeptical/

In this barely-led city, (unfortunately) nothing happens without relentless efficient arm-twisting lobbying. Skeptical people tend to not do that. And (half of the) people in Anacostia keep re-electing the same bozo as their Ward CM, and he ain't getting anything else done than complaining about the ghetto he lives in when asked why his unregistered car has a half-attached bumper hanging to it.

by Jasper on Oct 6, 2011 8:22 pm • linkreport

Much of this article is accurate, but there was no stimulus money involved. DDOT did nothing wrong in this case and had full clearance from FHWA. This is classic bureaucratic warfare of the worst type from career service people having a pissing match at the expense of people with no vote.. What's so sad, is this was easily, I mean very easily overcomeable if Mayor Gray was willing to pick up the phone and make some calls. He refused because it was a way to placate Mr. Barry and others that don't want the streetcar east of the river. Mr. Gray is progressive in public, but the opposite behind closed doors. Our previous Mayor would have had this quashed and no one would have known.

by BonzaixDDOT on Oct 6, 2011 10:19 pm • linkreport

I agree with Bonzaix. Gray likes setbacks to the streetcar program that can't fall fully on his shoulders. That will justify him not advancing any new phases of the streetcar as he can point to so many open issues. I'm very certain the K Street segment of the streetcar, which is the next logical expansion beyond the two segments that have been ongoing for a decade, will never move an inch forward under Gray.

by Jason on Oct 7, 2011 7:57 am • linkreport

It may very well be quicker and cheaper to build a seperate bridge for the streetcars.

by ceefer66 on Oct 7, 2011 9:46 am • linkreport

"If it isn't broke, you're not trying hard enough."-Red Green

This describes the DC powers that be.

O. Roy Chalk, where are you?

by Gomer Jones on Oct 10, 2011 7:01 pm • linkreport

so many people have misperceptions as to who the agencies are that are involved, and how they interact with one another, that it's too hard to set things straight on this blog. fhwa has total ownership over the 11th street project and because the EIS never says squat about transit, how could FTA be involved? i did a simple search through the EIS and didn't see where any of it mentions transit. and can fta have authority over a project anyways since they're a grant organization? i dont' think so.

by luck on Oct 10, 2011 8:29 pm • linkreport

here's another question that no one has asked on this. where is the termini on the other side of the 11th street bridge? everyone is up in arms about rail not being laid, but if it terminated at the other side of the 11th st bridge with no logical termini, what the heck is the point? have more track like what is already laid on h street? i mean, what's the point of laying rail if it goes nowhere? we've seen how well the h street rail project is functioning. go streetcar!

by luck on Oct 10, 2011 8:32 pm • linkreport

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