On WMATA Board, Bellamy can improve bus service
Mayor Gray has nominated DDOT Director Terry Bellamy to be an alternate member of the WMATA Board. This could be a chance to finally advance the many stalled proposals for making DC's bus service better for riders and save money at the same time
Bellamy will be filling the seat vacated when Tony Giancola switched from being a District representative to a federal one. The last time a DDOT director served on the board was Emeka Moneme, who resigned from both posts in 2008.
Madam Chairman and members of the Council,
Appointing DDOT Director Terry Bellamy to the WMATA Board of Directors represents a very significant opportunity. There are many such opportunities, such as to work with you to push WMATA to correct its stifling and longstanding stance of secrecy toward riders and simply to make sure needed repairs are on track, but specifically having the DDOT director on the board is a chance to bring DDOT and WMATA closer and foster greater coordination between these agencies.
Each controls an enormous share of the transportation infrastructure that our residents depend on every day, yet the two agencies often do not work in harmony as much as needed to move transportation forward.
By far the greatest opportunity to improve transportation for District residents lies in our bus service. DC spends over $190 million per year in public operating dollars on our bus service. That is about 3½ times the amount we spend on Metrorail, and is more than double DDOT's operating budget.
Bus delays from traffic swell this cost and cause pain to our residents. For example, I recently received this email from a reader who will soon be moving to the Wisconsin Avenue area:
My wife took a bus going from Federal Triangle over to Wisconsin Ave for an appointment but also near our future new home. She became stuck in traffic on I St and is now cursing the bus. What is the outlook for the H & I bus lanes?This type of question is far from unusual. Residents rich and poor, black and white, in outer low-density areas and inner high-density ones all struggle with bus delay if they aren't fortunate enough to have both home and work close to a Metrorail station.
With the volume of buses that use that route, it really should be a priority. Anything that can be done to help speed up the process? My wife was spoiled by few stop Metrorail commutes and the bus is a big adjustment for her.
There is an enormous amount DC could be doing to reduce the costs of bus travel while improving speed and reliability for our bus riders:
- Allow appropriate turning movements for buses to help them get through congestion
- Create queue hopper lanes that help buses bypass traffic waiting at signals
- Enforce illegal parking that prevents buses from making turns or bus stops
- Locate bus stops in ways that allow buses and customers to use them more efficiently
- Create bus lanes where practical
- Implement traffic signal priority
- Improve the accessibility of bus stops so that fewer riders are dependent upon, or beholden to, costly and unreliable MetroAccess service
- Remove on-street parking where the benefits outweigh the costs.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution. These divisions work for Director Bellamy. He can bring these issues from WMATA and ensure that DDOT prioritizes implementing them.
Here are a few examples:
- WMATA was implementing bus priority on the 70s lines at the same time DDOT was planning the 7th Street streetscape. However, there was no coordination on signal technology needs.
- The 90s line study proposed bus enhancements along U street, but DDOT paid no attention to these recommendations while they simultaneously designed streetscape enhancements on U Street. Meanwhile, efficiency recommendations for 8th Street go almost completely unnoticed.
- A study about the potential for bus lanes on H and I Streets downtown was supposed to be complete in March, but still remains months from completion, with no clear path to implementation thereafter. Short segments H and I are where many of DC's most heavily used bus lines bogged down in commuter traffic wasting hours and ruining bus reliability.
I have spoken over several years with officials at both WMATA and DDOT. I repeatedly hear from WMATA that they are not finding the support at DDOT to implement their recommendations, and hear from folks at DDOT that they don't feel WMATA is ready to support DDOT or understands the constraints DDOT must labor under.
I am sure both groups of people are right. It is often difficult for two agencies to coordinate closely, especially when the agencies answer to different masters. I am sure many people at DDOT find it simply less work to tackle projects that don't require calling the Jackson Graham building, and those at WMATA have less trouble simply solving problems they can handle without going to New Jersey Avenue.
But this is necessary. Bus service is our best chance to save money and improve mobility for the residents of the District. We're not going to build any new Metrorail lines in the near future, and while streetcars will bring meaningful economic development, they will not be a speedy ride across town. But our bus service can and should be a desirable mode of travel for all.
There is no big megaproject to undertake that will fundamentally revamp bus service. Improving this mode of travel requires making many small and medium-sized fixes over many years that build up in the aggregate. The same applied to bicycle lanes, and tireless staff worked for years to gradually build up more and more lanes. DDOT needs to start now to put in one bus improvement at a time, then another, and another.
Right now, that is not yet happening, which costs DC millions of dollars and makes bus riders suffer, often at the expense of commuters from Maryland and Virginia who we often end up prioritizing despite clear policies at DDOT, and statements from this council, to the contrary.
The time is now. Montgomery County yesterday released their proposal for building 160 miles of a new bus Rapid Transit System, mostly on dedicated lanes. The Council, with your support Madam Chairman, just created a special fund for bus enhancements beginning in FY13, which could raise several million dollars per year if DDOT moves swiftly to implement performance parking in the downtown area.
With Director Bellamy on the WMATA Board, I am hopeful that this state of affairs can change. We will have a single person who can instruct his staff in DDOT meetings to advance bus improvements, and then head over to WMATA and push the staff there to uphold their end of whatever is necessary.
I hope you will ask Director Bellamy questions such as these:
- Do you agree that bus efficiency must get much higher priority from the department?
- Will your participation at WMATA represent a turning point to get long-awaited, significant progress going on these bus projects?
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