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Breakfast links: Too little and too much

Photo by alykat on Flickr.
Too little Metro yesterday: Metro ran few trains and single-tracked on the busy Red and Orange lines on Veterans Day, a full workday for many, leading to massive crowds. ACT says they could and should have run more service. (Post)

Potomac Yard Metro could be pricey: One option for the Potomac Yard Metro station, which would cross the CSX tracks to get closer to the planned development, could cost $275-538 million. Developers prefer a cheaper alternative at $149-293 million. (WBJ) ... Here's a map of the choices.

Leggett says MoCo tapped out: Ike Leggett says Montgomery County can't afford to build the proposed BRT system, or anything else for that matter. Leggett proposes a scaled-down system focusing on areas that are already developed. (Examiner)

Still committed to Route 1 streetcar: Arlington and Alexandria both want to move ahead with a Route 1 streetcar line. Arlington will not apply for federal funding, but Alexandria will seek it. (Examiner)

Bike lines to disappear and reappear: The inauguration means that the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes will be going away temporarily, but that could also give DDOT the opportunity to improve them when it puts the lanes back in. (WABA)

Height limit a "shadow tax"?: Ryan Avent reviews the arguments for and against the height limit (with a shout-out to us). He argues that the height limit is "extraordinarily costly," constituting a "shadow tax" of 22% in 1998 and more today. (The Economist)

And...: DDOT got lots of interest from companies looking to run DC's streetcars. (Railway Age) ... Receding waters reveal still lots to be done to bring New York's subway all the way back from Sandy. (Atlantic Cities)

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Steven Yates grew up in Indiana before moving to DC in 2002 to attend college at American University. He currently lives in Southwest DC.  


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@Steven Yates

The "map" link for the "Potomac Yard Metro could be pricey" blurb is incorrect.

by Nicoli on Nov 13, 2012 8:42 am • linkreport

I've fixed it. My fault on that one. Thanks.

by David Alpert on Nov 13, 2012 8:45 am • linkreport

Too little Metro yesterday

The track work was a disaster on a day like that, but I was not affected, so I won't comment.

Secondly, they should have run more trains, if necessary shorter ones on the blue and yellow lines. Rush hour with 10-15 minute periods between trains? Come on!

Thirdly, as often, the information was horrible. I was not aware of all the track work on Monday. But, the PIDs were ONLY displaying track work info, utterly ignoring arrival time info. Yesterday afternoon, I kept my eyes for about 5 minutes on a PID in Crystal City and the only info I got was on the track work, nothing on the arrival times of the next blue and yellow lines. At some point, a train showed up, but even during the arrival, the PID kept displaying track work notices.

One option for the Potomac Yard Metro station, which would cross the CSX tracks to get closer to the planned development, could cost $275-538 million.
Montgomery County can't afford to build the proposed BRT system

$#%#MF@*^&! Every time, it's the same. They make beautiful plans, but when it comes to implementation, politicians are shocked, SHOCKED that good stuff costs money. First, we got the crappy option at Dulles, and now Alexandria will make the same mistake Fairfax made with Franconia-Springfield, and blow the opportunity to have a metro station in a neighborhood, but instead hide it behind a lot of stuff.

Of course developers want the cheap option. They're footing the bill. Go ask their renters, buyers and customers - you know, the users of the station - what they want.

by Jasper on Nov 13, 2012 8:59 am • linkreport


For Potomac Yard, the more expensive option doesn't seem to actually get you anything in return for the extra cost.

by Alex B. on Nov 13, 2012 9:12 am • linkreport

I took the bus to work (as I usually do) yesterday. The Saturday supplemental service works great - a bit longer wait than usual but the buses were not overly crowded.

It looked from reports like Metro was a complete disaster in the morning. They should obviously run less service than they would on a regular work day, but single tracking and total line closures (between EFC and Clarendon) are ridiculous. 20 minute headways from Shady Grove to Friendship Heights? Even at 1/2 a normal weekday's ridership that isn't going to cut it. That's 1/7 of normal rush hour service.

I think WMATA is even reading their own ridership wrong - they look at the whole day and say "well, these holidays have half the normal ridership, just like a Saturday, so Saturday service will suffice." Except on a holiday work day the trips are clustered around rush hour (especially in the AM rush) rather than spread out during the day.

Maybe if they read their own planning blog they might get an idea:

by MLD on Nov 13, 2012 9:15 am • linkreport

I'll give WMATA this on the track work: replacing interlockings (which is what they were doing on the Orange line) requires a shut down of at least 72 hours. If you're going to have that overlap into a Monday, it might as well be one where fewer people are going to work.

That said, offsetting such track work with more frequent service is a no brainer.

by Alex B. on Nov 13, 2012 9:20 am • linkreport

I'm glad Avent took on the aesthetic argument. I was thinking yesterday about the aesthetics and sunlight question and its so variable (i.e. you can acheive the same sunlight effects with shorter buildings on narrower streets) that its seems preposterous that it is a main factor in how we decide on height for the entire city. The same goes for the actual design of a building. There are good and bad examples of every size of building. Why then are we using that as a blanket policy for the entire city?

In that sense we can preserve the aesthetic and environmental qualities of many areas in DC without a height limit because in the end that's not what actually makes the city nice.

by drumz on Nov 13, 2012 9:22 am • linkreport


Totally agree with you on the Potomac Yards station. The USA seems to altogether too often go with the cheapest option, and not the best option. Once this station construction starts, we are stuck with it. Much like we are stuck with suboptimal stations in the median on RT 7 in Tysons.

Please Alexandria, get this one right. Create another vibrant neighborhood that will thrive for decades...

by Kyle-W on Nov 13, 2012 9:46 am • linkreport

Alex B:For Potomac Yard, the more expensive option doesn't seem to actually get you anything in return for the extra cost.

It does. It gets a station that's on Potomac Ave, instead of one hidden behind the rail tracks. That means less bridges and escalators to cross, and less walking in the station. Same argument as in Dulles. Convenience matters. Maybe not to you as a healthy person, but it does to the elderly, handicapped, and parents with kids. Cheapskating now will save a few bucks now, but cost irritation and inconvenience forever.

Speaking of the developers in Potomac Yards. Can someone explain why the buildings there are only 4 floors high? Yes I know more would mandate elevators, but if you're building a metro station there, why not go much higher? It would make it easier for developers to spread the cost over more people.

by Jasper on Nov 13, 2012 9:49 am • linkreport

I've been indifferent about changing the height act, but man, those potential tax revenues are enticing! We could use that to build out the streetcar system, or a blue line (separated), etc.

The possibilities!

by H Street LL on Nov 13, 2012 9:58 am • linkreport

It gets a station that's on Potomac Ave, instead of one hidden behind the rail tracks. That means less bridges and escalators to cross, and less walking in the station.

Not really, however.

In the vertical dimension, riders would still need to go up from grade to a station mezzanine and then down to access the platforms.

Horizontally, you're talking about an extra 200-300 feet of walking for riders in order to potentially save $400 million.

It would be one thing if the alternative on the other side of the tracks put the station in the heart of the developable land there, but it does not - the station entrances would more or less be in exactly the same places as the ped bridges in the other alternatives.

Nobody likes a cheapskate, true. But nobody likes blind spending without a measure of cost-effectiveness, either.

by Alex B. on Nov 13, 2012 10:00 am • linkreport

Alex: Wouldn't D be elevated? That means depending how it's designed, people could go in on the ground floor and through faregates there, then up to platforms, meaning just 1 escalator instead of 2.

by David Alpert on Nov 13, 2012 10:03 am • linkreport

You've got to think a developer has some idea of the impact of a slightly less convenient station design on their tenants, shoppers, etc, and what the capitalized utility value is worth.

Maybe theres some element of user benefit that the developer cannot capture - its not surprising that they would not want to pay for it. Who does then? The City of Alexandria? Is it better for them to spend an extra couple of hundred million to get the Alt D, or to spend that money on more dedicated transitways around the City, say?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 10:15 am • linkreport

Wouldn't D be elevated? That means depending how it's designed, people could go in on the ground floor and through faregates there, then up to platforms, meaning just 1 escalator instead of 2.

Yes, it would. Is that worth $400 million?

Most Metro stations require two bits of vertical circulation - street to mezzanine, mezzanine to platform.

If you were going to spend the loads of extra money to get the Metro tracks to flyover the CSX tracks, you'd think you'd at least want to get your money's worth and position the station in a way that maximizes the stuff within its walkshed. However, due to the challenges of re-connecting the Alt D station back to the existing tracks near National Airport, you can't really do that.

So, is Alt D worth it? That's a lot of money to spend in order to save one escalator ride and a 250 foot walk (e.g. less than half the distance of a Metro platform).

What about this: Instead of one $500m infill station, you built two infill stations, each in the $150-200m range. Build this one at Alt B, build another one up near Four Mile Run.

by Alex B. on Nov 13, 2012 10:22 am • linkreport

So now the laissez-faire types are trying to say zoning and planning is a "shadow tax"? What about the give-aways to private industry of free or cheap land and no taxes and public bond financing? And the cost of new infrastructure the citizens bear. Corporate welfare is a tax residents here pay a lot more of.

I think we've had a couple elections now where the entitled generation that grew up under Reagan has been shown to be an aberration. But they love to come up with new theories on why their freedoms are burdened by government.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 13, 2012 10:23 am • linkreport

Analyzing the economic cost of a regulation is a standard economic tool - its got nothing to do with entitled generations, or Reagan - its something that was done under Clinton, and is done under Obama. It also does not imply either that a given regulation is a bad thing, or that subsidies to businesses are a good thing. That said, I havent read the study Avent cites, and I can't vouch for it.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 10:29 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity; there is a vast difference between a economic regulatory analysis and a shadow tax.

If I didn't know better, I'd say I smell some Koch.

by charlie on Nov 13, 2012 10:35 am • linkreport

The paper Avent cites provides little support that the height limit creates a 22% "tax". The underlying paper suggests that there's an overall "regulatory" tax of 22% in DC, but the focus is on land use restrictions generally (including public space availability). Moreover, as that article explains, the focus is on home ownership costs, not office space, and the effects on those costs from land use regulation (including zoning).

Avent implicitly acknowledges this when he states "It represents a sigificant transfer of income from renters to homeowners", and then elides that into a business expense.

That said, even *that* proposition isn't supported. Rather, the proposition that may be supported is that land use regulations transfer wealth to property owners by artificially increasing the value of their property. But that's a transfer at the expense of anyone not holding property at the time those land use regulations are implemented, which could be renters or could be new homeowners who pay inflated property costs. Of course, even those homeowners eventually benefit if new land use regulations further inflate the value of property.

Bottom line: There is no support from this paper that the height limit creates a 22% increase in anything.

by ah on Nov 13, 2012 10:44 am • linkreport

@Alex B.
Environmental conditions are driving the Potomac Yard Metro options. It is not technically feasible to build another station closer to Four Mile Run due to the changes in elevation required. The only possible option west of the CSX tracks is option D. The preliminary environmental impact study (EIS) eliminated all variants of option C so they came up with option D as the only alternative. It is possible that the final EIS will eliminate the remaining A, B, or D. It is too early to say, but it is possible that only D will make it through. Then Alexandria has a tough choice - is it really worth half a billion dollars for a Metro station?

by movement on Nov 13, 2012 10:47 am • linkreport

charlie - Words are words. If there is a substantial economic cost to height limits/zoning regs etc that exceeds the aesthetic benefits, thats interesting. Whether you call it a shadow tax, or not doesnt matter much to me. I guess calling it a net welfare loss etc, wont make much sense to noneconomists

Ah - good points - the fact that it referenced zoning in general, and not the height limit, was a concern (which I did not mention above). There is a lot of confusion about which limit is actually constraining. To really do a CBA on the height limit, we would need to focus on it and clarify our assumptions - what exactly is the change - relax all over downtown, at select locations downtown, at Poplar Point, etc. Each will have a different CBA - and assumptions about other regs like FAR limits will matter. Thats the problem with a journalist/blogger like Avent - he wants to do econ analysis, but is constrained by the analysis already available.

OTOH, at this point, all thats been suggested is to STUDY the height limits. It seems like doing a CBA would be a good idea - but even that is not the next step - first clarifying the alternative approaches to relaxing the height limit must be done.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

It is not technically feasible to build another station closer to Four Mile Run due to the changes in elevation required.

To be clear, I was not talking about another station west of the tracks near Four Mile Run, but another station east of the tracks at Four Mile Run.

e.g. build two east-of-CSX stations for the price of one west-of-CSX station.

by Alex B. on Nov 13, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport


My understanding is that two stations are not possible. One station at Potomac yards is what is possible.

Regarding making it more convenient, it is not just easier for the people who already would have used it, it is within walking distance for more people, so more people will use it.

by Kyle-W on Nov 13, 2012 11:11 am • linkreport

Even if another station at nearby is not possible, there are lots of potential transit improvements on City of Alex's agenda - notably the CCPY transitway and its conversion to street car, and a variety of other transitways around the city.

And maybe someday an infill metro station on the blue line, between King Street and Van Dorn to serve the Eisenhower valley better?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity; words -- yes they are just words. Until you start to believe in them -- like "taxes" and "market" and "socialism" rather than the reality.

As a general rule, don't take economics lessons from philosophy majors, and don't take philosophy lessons from economics majors.

by charlie on Nov 13, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

As a general rule, don't take economics lessons from philosophy majors, and don't take philosophy lessons from economics majors.

You seem to be confusing Matt Yglesias (a philosophy major) with Ryan Avent (with a grad degree from LSE).

by Alex B. on Nov 13, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

@Jasper - Believe it or not, 4-story high buildings (and the resultant density) in Potomac Yard is a victory for "density" there.

When Potomac Yard (note no "s" on the end. Judy Lowe would be so proud of me.) was first planned 10 or so years ago, it was much lower density than is being built. It's been a real struggle to get Alexandria (and I mean people as well as gov't) to stop thinking it's a semi-rural suburb way out in the sticks. Progress has been made and more progress will come. Sadly, it comes so very slowly.

I do have faith though that things will change. I was in a presentation by Terry Holzheimer (Arlington Economic Development) a few years back where he talked about how Rosslyn was built in the '70's and how it is being rebuilt now - 40 years later. Potomac Yard is being built now so in about 40 years we might have an opportunity to fix the mistakes we make today.

by Density on Nov 13, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

drumz: I'm glad Avent took on the aesthetic argument.

To the contrary, he did not take on the aesthetic argument. He acknowledged that it should be considered, and that it was arbitrary. But he did not delve into the thinking behind it, nor why aesthetics were a fundamental aspect of the height restrictions, that are outside of economics.

I was thinking yesterday about the aesthetics and sunlight question and its so variable (i.e. you can acheive the same sunlight effects with shorter buildings on narrower streets)...

The height regulation is:

The law restricts buildings to 20 feet taller than the adjacent street, up to a maximum of 90 feet on residential streets, 130 feet on commercial streets, and 160 feet on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown.
Street width is indeed accounted for. Why? To make the street "room" gracious and proportional (sorry I am not an architect; @Thayer-D can express this better than I) and to ensure the street gets sunlight. These are the rather simple aesthetic considerations that Avent did NOT address.

To rely only on economics to determine height, is like making medical decisions based on your retirement planning.

by goldfish on Nov 13, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

@ Density: Thanks for your answer. Staggering idiocy though. Why not build a good neighborhood now that can stay for 100 years? I guess America's throw away culture is still very alive. They're building there from crappy wood, so hopefully the buildings will fall apart faster.

by Jasper on Nov 13, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

Alt D barely brings the station closer to the action. I was for it initially but I think B will be sufficient. Just build the dang thing already!

by NikolasM on Nov 13, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

Ok, and relying solely on the aesthetic argument is the same as some other analogy I could make up.

I'm still trying to figure out a height limit is supposed to automatically give us more beautiful buildings anyway.

Re: sunlight (again),
Right, that's the regulation in DC but A. why is that the magic number and B. why is it the determining factor anyway when clearly all over the world it hasn't been, especially when the main place that its actually a factor is downtown which is overwhelmingly commercial and assumed that anyone who lives downtown knows what they're getting into beforehand.

So like Avent said, let's consider these aesthetic considerations.

A. The height limit was created 100 years in response to one building.
B. The height limit only affects a building's height and doesn't guarantee good design otherwise. Meanwhile their are plenty of examples of beautiful and ugly taller buildings as well.
C. There is an example of sunlight and shadows. I don't know of any studies that try to quantify the aspects of downtown shadows in some way. There are studies about sunlight in general but in a specific urban context who knows.

However, there are literally hundreds of cities accross the world where the FAR of a buildings is much higher and while the sunlight issue does come up it apparently doesn't become an overriding concern, considering that stuff still gets built. Why (and should) DC be unique in that regard? Moreover, you can get the same effect with smaller buildings on narrower streets. What is qualitatively different about that if the amount of sunlight is the same.

D. A lot of people like the view of a low slung city (comparing it to Paris and what not). That's fine and it should be considered but since many viewsheds in DC are protected, basically that there has been a case made for subsidizing a certain view. Should this really be the case carte blanche across the city?

by drumz on Nov 13, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

@AlexB; not at all. Avent is making a rhetoircal and aesthetic argument; Senor Yglesias is making the economic ones.

I strongly suspect the arguments will disapper once the parking lots and housing projects near city vista are removed. Or developed.

by charlie on Nov 13, 2012 12:12 pm • linkreport

I had to work yesterday and the Orange line was horrible. With the buses and single tracking I don't see why they could not have just had some buses from Clarendon to Vienna/other far out stations or atleast express buses between Clarendon to East Falls Church skipping Ballston and Virginia Square for those traveling toward the end. They did it on the Green Line earlier this year.

How many trains were they running between Vienna and East Falls Church with the 20 minute waits for trains it seemed like they were running one train. That 20 minutes was enough time for the train from East Falls Church to reach Vienna and back.

by kk on Nov 13, 2012 12:14 pm • linkreport

@drumz: I'm still trying to figure out a height limit is supposed to automatically give us more beautiful buildings anyway.

Your are looking this backward: height restrictions are for the street, not the buildings. It is based on where people are when they are NOT in a building. Accordingly this is exclusively a public consideration. It has nothing to do with the beauty of the buildings.

It is arbitrary. In some situations a line MUST be drawn somewhere, even though WHERE it is drawn is arbitrary. Political boundaries are arbitrary, but they are still necessary.

by goldfish on Nov 13, 2012 12:49 pm • linkreport


actually the case Avent is making is neither an economic case, nor a philosophical one. Its a policy case, and it takes as given (rightly or wrongly) the result of the 1998 economic study, and implicitly assumes a philosophical approach to making policy decisions.

using the study, he determines the cost per person. Then he suggests that if hardly any individuals find the benefits of the height limit to be worth that cost, the height limit is a bad idea.

While I recognize there are philosophical critiques to CBA in general, I find it difficult to believe that anyone seriosly involed in this discussion considers costs and benefits an inappropriate way to look at this - we are not talking about torture, childrens deaths, or a holy site. And if there are some - well those of us who think CBA is appropriate, including me, didnt need to learn that from Avent OR Yglesias. I certainly did not.

To me the weak aspect of Avents post is his reliance on a 1998 study that was not in fact a cost analysis of height limits.

I would suggest that is one thing the study task force can do, AFTER they clarify the scenarios for study.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 1:13 pm • linkreport


If its arbitrary, does that not suggest the need for periodic restudy? The task force could look at sunlight implications of, say, allowing 10% greater height at select locations, with step back rules. Maybe calculate how many additional minutes of shade that means for how many feet of street. It would also be interesting to see how that varied by season - in summer additional shade is not always a bad thing.

That would be a logical companion to a study of economic implications of a change.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

@AWitC: the height limit, like a political boundaries, is immune to study. It is settled by war.

by goldfish on Nov 13, 2012 1:51 pm • linkreport

Basically what Walker said. Many things are arbitrary true but does that mean they need to be set in stone. Especially for something like the height of a building?

And I get that its for when people are on the street, my question then is, why is DC so different when cities all over aren't the same way? You may say that it helps make the city unique but I don't think the fundamental reasons why people visit DC (Museums, political reasons, events and such) will change if the buildings are allowed to be taller.

by drumz on Nov 13, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport

@goldfish - LOL!

Excellent approach.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

@goldfish: quite a few political boundaries have changed over the past 100 years; in fact, war is what we get when political boundaries are a little too arbitrary.

Anyway, if we're concerned about sunlight for people when they are NOT in buildings, as you suggest, why can't we build taller in places where people don't spend a lot of time outdoors? Like downtown. Pennsylvania Avenue gives us lots of sunlight, but no particular reason to be outside. I'd rather have a shady canyon of activity than the sunny desert we have now.

I kinda like our flat city-- it makes for great approaches from the South-- and, if it hadn't been for our height restrictions, I'm not sure we would have been able to avoid the phenomenal cosmic parking, itty-bitty downtown problem that plagues so many American cities... but I'm up for at least studying the alternatives.

by Steven Harrell on Nov 13, 2012 8:52 pm • linkreport

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