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CFA doesn't have a say over Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes

Pennsylvania Avenue is a nationally and historically significant street, and the Commission on Fine Arts works to preserve it. But their input has become an obstacle to bicyclists who want to use the street safely. Does CFA legally have as much authority as they say they do?

Photo by philliefan99 on Flickr.

DC officials repeatedly say that they don't have jurisdiction to do what they want on Pennsylvania Avenue because of the CFA. When the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes were first proposed in 2010, the Commission on Fine Arts weighed in on every detail, from striping to paint colors and flexposts, all in the name of preserving the street's aesthetic integrity.

This assertion has been repeated so much that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result, the District Department of Transportation's proposal to install small bike lane separation devices called Zebras along the corridor is already in danger, even before it goes to the CFA September 19th. But CFA's legal mandate shows what their jurisdiction and scope really is, and it doesn't include bike lanes.

The creation of the CFA

An act of Congress established the CFA in 1910. It operates under the legal justification of the Shipstead-Luce Act of 1930, which designates certain areas of the District where they have jurisdiction, including Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, the Capitol and White House grounds, Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo, the National Mall, the Southwest Waterfront, and Fort McNair.

Two pieces of regulation, 45 CFR 2101.1 and 2101.2, define the CFA's relationship with other levels of government and what they have authority to review. The CFA's role is to advise and comment on a wide variety of projects, including proposed public, semi-public and private buildings, signage, monuments, statues, parks, medals, insignia, coins, commemorative works, and questions of art that concern the federal government.

The president appoints each CFA member for a 4-year term without compensation. Members typically come from a design-related background, like architecture, landscape architecture, and the fine arts.

It has no regulatory authority, enforcement mechanism or penalty for not implementing their recommendations. Their influence derives from the political process and their collective expertise in their respective fields. Recently, the CFA has gained attention for their review of a controversial memorial for President Eisenhower, designed by architect Frank Gehry.

Does the CFA really have authority over Pennsylvania Avenue?

DDOT first went to the CFA with a design for the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes in 2010, but before the paint was even dry, DDOT removed the bike lanes and redesigned them in response to driver complaints. CFA never reviewed the new design. And DDOT did not submit a proposal to the CFA for the portion of the 15th Street cycletrack south of the White House, which is also within the CFA's jurisdiction.

The agency also maintains miles of streets within the CFA's jurisdiction, but transportation planners don't go to the CFA to review intersection improvements, street lighting, or pedestrian crossings. Why should DDOT hold bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue to a higher level of scrutiny? After all, this is a transportation and public safety issue, not an architectural issue.

In June, Mayor Gray's office announced that DDOT would work with the CFA to solve the illegal U-turn problem on Pennsylvania Avenue, after a video of a cab making an illegal U-turn and nearly hitting a cyclist appeared on YouTube.

ABC7 reporter Mike Conneen asked Pedro Ribeiro, Gray's spokesperson, if DC should just ignore the CFA and solve the problem themselves. "We don't have the jurisdiction, we can't do that," Ribeiro replied. "You can't break the law. While it may feel good to say 'sure, just put them in,' what would happen is we'd have to tear them back out again."

But according to the Shipstead-Luce Act, DC doesn't have to consult the CFA. It specifies that "a reasonable degree of control should be exercised over the architecture of private or semipublic buildings adjacent to public buildings and grounds of major importance," but only gives the CFA jurisdiction over "any building . . . which is to front or abut" Pennsylvania Avenue. This language clearly excludes the curb-to-curb section of the street itself.

And obviously, the bike lanes are not a building, park, monument, or coin of any kind. Under the CFA's legal mandate, bike lanes along Pennsylvania Avenue are not subject to any CFA review.

There are number of agencies with some authority over Pennsylvania Avenue, but they all oversee separate parts. For instance, the National Park Service has authority over the sidewalk areas. The National Capital Planning Commission has some standing as well, but during a meeting on the future of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, officials admitted DDOT is the sole authority on the avenue itself.

So DDOT isn't submitting their proposal to install Zebras along the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes and improve public safety because it has to, but because it's done so before. Some DDOT staff members know CFA has no control over the bike lanes, but DC leaders seem to like using them as an excuse for inaction.

With strong leadership and political will, DDOT would simply follow good bike lane engineering practices and install the Zebras. After all, they are well within their legal right to do so.

Ryan Sigworth is an urban planner at the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. He bikes or takes public transit to work from his house in Adams Morgan, where he has lived car-free with his wife and cat since 2009. He is a cyclist, urbanist, and smart growth advocate who blogs on his personal blog, The DCyclist. 


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I'd like to hear what Pedro Ribeiro says now.

by SJE on Aug 26, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

The phrase "Two pieces of legislation" should be "Two regulations" (or rules) the CFR is the Code of Federal Regulations.

by Steve S. on Aug 26, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

When will Metropolitan A.M.E. get to weigh in on it?

by David C on Aug 26, 2013 11:14 am • linkreport

@Steve S.

Thanks for the heads-up. I just fixed it.

by dan reed! on Aug 26, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

Good report, but legal jurisdiction issue aside ........

I do wonder if the Zebras will hurt one of the most majestic views in this nation. The aesthetic question is legitimate.

Take national park overlooks or stadiums, for that matter. You can put in much higher barriers to prevent people from falling over, but to what end?

If illegal U-turns are the major problem, is there another way to attack this? Would well positioned traffic cameras help?

by kob on Aug 26, 2013 11:32 am • linkreport

umm tiny dividers called zebras will have minimal impact on the viewshed and the overall experience of the street as compared to the thousands of cars there spewing exhaust and honking their horns every hour of every single day.

by Tom A. on Aug 26, 2013 11:42 am • linkreport

one of the most majestic views in this nation.

This is a gross overstatement. If you ask a million Americans to name the 10 most majestic views in the nation, I think you will hear Penn Ave NW named fewer than one time. It's a street. It's not the Grand Tetons. And how would low barriers "hurt" the view? If you're looking at the pavement, you're doing it wrong.

to what end?

Saving lives.

by David C on Aug 26, 2013 11:44 am • linkreport

While no regulatory requirement, going to CFA is called playing nice in the sand box. Sometimes they can be fickle about projects that require various environmental reviews and their comments can be more (or less) in that kind process and must be addressed which if extensive can be really time (and $$$) consuming.

by Some Ideas on Aug 26, 2013 11:46 am • linkreport

I do wonder if the Zebras will hurt one of the most majestic views in this nation.

I would think that the traffic lights and poles in the middle of the avenue are more of a nuisance/obstruction to the "majestic view" than a 5 inch tall bump in the road.

by 7r3y3r on Aug 26, 2013 11:52 am • linkreport

I'm with the Feds on this one. The proposed "zebra" barriers are just another (in this case, aesthetic) complication to the harebrained idea of putting bike lanes in the center of Pennsylvania Avenue. I get that some wanted them as a "statement", but practicality suggests that they could be put on the side of Constitution Ave. and serve basically the same function.

by Alf on Aug 26, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

@David C

"gross overstatement" -- I didn't consult a poll prior to suggesting this.

Saving lives? Why not put down jersey barriers? For that matter, do we really need to allow traffic on Penn. Ave?

by kob on Aug 26, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

5" bumps in the road disrupt majestic views but a huge WWII monument in the middle of the mall does not?

by SJE on Aug 26, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

The reason the bike lanes are in the middle is because there was already a flat median there, and so they could be added space for cyclists.

do we really need to allow traffic on Penn. Ave?

Good question. Do we?

by David C on Aug 26, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport

What's the definition of "traffic"? If auto's are banned, would be people walking be allowed? People walking is a type of traffic...

by Tina on Aug 26, 2013 12:16 pm • linkreport

While CFA may not have legal authority to prevent changes recommended or implemented by DDOT, they do wield a lot of influence with NCPC, NPS and GSA who do have jurisdiction over many of the street elements, although not necessarily the street infrastructure.

At the May 29 NCPC Pennsylvania Avenue Scoping Meeting, one of the speakers for NCPC noted that while CFA does have some authority, it is limited. That said, the official stated that the NCPC was reluctant to act unilaterally against CFA's actions or opinions. Political will is part of the problem, just that there are still multiple layers of control under the CFA problem.

by Randall M. on Aug 26, 2013 12:16 pm • linkreport

What would be a huge improvement is elevate the bike lanes, and but in some flowers+ trees for shade.

That is where the streetcar ran, right-- which is why it is so wide. Shade is a constant problem in the summer for I find Penn to be the worst.

You'd make the street look nicer and make it better for bikers. I don't think cars traffic would be hurt. Only problem is pedestrians/toursits become an attractive nuisance on the new bike tracks.

by charlie on Aug 26, 2013 12:19 pm • linkreport

^^ This is the problem. Even if CFA legally could do nothing, how does this play out?

- DDOT puts in zebras (or makes another change).
- CFA says we don't like it.
- DDOT says "too bad".
- CFA gets Congress or others to make explicit its authority extends to Penn Ave.
- DDOT now faces greater and explicit constraints.

by ah on Aug 26, 2013 12:21 pm • linkreport

@Alf & DavidC What about a bike signalized cycle track on the north side of Pennsylvania Ave. There's little parking on that side and it solves the u-turns problem.

by Randall M. on Aug 26, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

charlie, I agree. But DDOT can't because the road needs to be left as is for the inaugural parade.

by David C on Aug 26, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

We don't need a total redesign of the bike lanes. They work great besides the u turn problem. Better to just install the zebras and eliminate that issue. The You'll have money to spend on a cycle track elsewhere.

by drumz on Aug 26, 2013 12:35 pm • linkreport

Just getting the flexposts put back in at the intersections has been a big improvement.

by Greenbelt on Aug 26, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

@ ah:CFA gets Congress or others to make explicit its authority extends to Penn Ave

That would mean Congress can get anything done.

Also, even if Congress was functional, the bike lanes would be in long enough for everybody to start protesting if they were taken away. It would lead to another episode of Keep Congress' fingers of our town!

by Jasper on Aug 26, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

CFA review has slowed or killed many projects in the city. The Lincoln memorial was built without their review, but so many agencies bring things to them for a courtesy review because they fear future projects will be held hostage.

by d $ on Aug 26, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

@ Alf

I happened to run into Lon Andersen at the most recent National Night Out event earlier this month, while on my bike with my son in his Weehoo bike trailer. Fun for me, I continued to ask him what AAA has against bikes, and as the conversation descended into silliness, I finally asked him if AAA loves bikes as much as he said, which bike lane in DC does AAA support.

After much hemming and hawing, and because we were having this discussion in front of like 20 people, he stated that AAA supports the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane. So not only are most readers of GGW in favor of the lane, so is AAA.

by fongfong on Aug 26, 2013 1:04 pm • linkreport

@charlie "That is where the streetcar ran, right-- which is why it is so wide."

The street is so wide because L'Enfant planned the ROW that wide...the horsecar then streetcar companies took advantage of it by getting franchises to operate in the wide ROW.

by Some Ideas on Aug 26, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

@Some Ideas

Also, when Penn was closed in front of the White House it drastically cut the traffic volume. Penn went from a major cross-town traffic way to almost a local street. Now, Penn is much too wide for the traffic volumes it supports. In the long run, it should be narrowed to accommodate other modes.

by Ryan Sigworth on Aug 26, 2013 1:22 pm • linkreport

@Ryan -- You're right. It was ~26,000 vehicles/day crossing in front of the White House that was absorbed by Constitution, H, I and K Streets for the most part. Can't remember how many bus lines. Add to that the closure of E Street as well.

What ever goes in needs to be able to be completed removed and replaced every four years for the inauguration. The traffic signals for example are unbolted and removed then replaced the following day.

by Some Ideas on Aug 26, 2013 1:45 pm • linkreport

@Some Ideas

They could always give Penn the Broadway treatment: expand and paint the median (or use the same paving stones that are used in the ex-refuge-islands-turned-bike-ped-war-zones); plop down some flat granite stones for seating; bring in some lawn chairs, tables and umbrellas; and finish up with some pretty potted plants. All of that stuff could be moved for the big parades (and wouldn't affect smaller ones). However, that would also completely destroy that amazing vista of the Treasury Building, and reduce the number of unobstructed views of the Capitol Building to a mere...what?...nine unobstructed views.


If we start using traffic cameras to enforce the law on Penn, then someone will write a WaPo column complaining that the city is using the cameras to make money. Besides, it isn't like there are enough law enforcement eyes on the street in that corridor; we're in this U-turn fix because MPD was writing too few tickets, and the DMV court was ignoring those that were written. Cameras aren't going to change that. The great thing about this zebra plan is that it can be implemented without expecting anyone to enforce any laws, without any chance that the city will make a dime of income, without taking any space from drivers, and without blocking any more than .0000001% of any given viewshed. That's actually a pretty good deal around here!

Or we can just do nothing, and call it a "win-win." That seems to work, too.

by Steven Harrell on Aug 26, 2013 2:30 pm • linkreport

The inauguration happens only every four years. We could install decorative barriers (e.g planters) that would actually improve the view and be even more safe. They can be moved to the side for the inauguration.

by SJE on Aug 26, 2013 4:47 pm • linkreport

L'Enfant and Ellicott drew a ROW for Penn. Ave., but they did not show what went in it. Those lanes can be as wide or as median- or tree-filled as our contemporaries wish them to be.

by Read Scott Martin on Aug 26, 2013 9:24 pm • linkreport

Both the CFA and the National Capital Planning Commission are bodies that ought to be abolished due to the incompetence of the members.

by Rik on Aug 27, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

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