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Cheh's DDOT reorganization: Who makes the plans and sets the priorities for transportation?

Councilmember Mary Cheh wants to split up the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and reorganize transportation-related functions in the government. Is this a good idea? Many of you responded positively to her proposals around taxis and parking, but worried about splitting transit away from the rest of transportation.

Photo by JK Keller on Flickr.

Would such a split create turf battles around how to use each road? Who decides what gets priority for scarce road space and limited funding? These are questions that the plan will have to answer as it evolves, if it's to improve transportation in DC.

Taxi, parking proposals preliminarily popular

The Taxicab Commission seems to serve two roles: deciding policy around how taxis work, and licensing and monitoring taxis. Cheh wants to move the policy and regulatory role into the new District Transit Agency, and move licensing into the Department of Motor Vehicles. Most of you thought that was smart.

For parking, most of our commenters felt it made sense to consolidate the three parking-related functions into one place. Right now, DDOT sets parking policy and rules, DPW writes the tickets, and DMV enforces them. A few people worried about one agency being "judge, jury, and executioner" (according to Cheh, that fear is a reason the functions were split in the past), but most of you feel that with parking functions all in one place, DC will be able to manage parking more adeptly.

But who defines the priorities and plans?

One area that caused the most concern was also an area Cheh's proposal hasn't thoroughly fleshed out: Who decides the purpose of each street, and how to prioritize projects? In short, who plans our transportation network?

Right now, even a unified DDOT does not have a good answer to this question. It has a planning group, which can make lots of long-term and short-term plans, but those planners then have to hand plans over to the engineers, who primarily control the capital budgets and the projects themselves. The engineering group often decides to change or ignore a plan, even one that has gone through a lot of community input.

Also, the bicycle and pedestrian programs are part of planning. You'd think that the bike planners could plan for where a bike facility goes and what type to use, hand it to the engineers. Then they would design the specific details of that project and build it. But as Shane Farthing has documented, that doesn't happen.

Farthing wrote, "In theory, PPSA [the planning group] plans and IMPA [the engineerng group] implements. That, however, assumes that PPSA also has the authority to set the order of priority for IPMA's implementation. It does not." Instead, the planners actually manage most bicycle projects from start to finish.

It's not just bikes. There are no project managers working on implementing bus lanes right now. Meanwhile, there is a whole group of people in IPMA (the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative) dedicated to building bridges and roads around the Anacostia River, so those projects keep happening, even if (as with the Southeast Boulevard) what they design doesn't fit with community desire or the mayor's sustainability plans.

Who decides under Cheh's plan?

A lot of you worried about how this would work in Cheh's new organization. There would now be a "transit" authority that has control over transit, taxi policy, and Capital Bikeshare. Cheh's diagram places "multimodal planning" in this bucket as well.

Would the District Transit Agency decide which streets get a streetcar, a bus lane, a bike lane, a truck route, wider sidewalks, and so on? How does that agency then ensure that the rump DDOT carries out its requests? Which agency prioritizes capital projects, the DTA or DDOT?

If DDOT, then wouldn't DDOT just keep picking and choosing its own priorities and largely ignoring the DTA? If the DTA, is that still really a transit agency, or is it now more of a Transportation Commission and DDOT just a construction department? And then, why not just make DDOT part of DPW or the Department of General Services once more?

If the DTA is still just transit, would you get turf wars between the two about whether to put a transit line or something else on a road? Already, a big obstacle to projects like bus lanes is that WMATA wants to speed up buses, but DDOT might have other ideas for the same roadway, or want to put dollars elsewhere. Will this continue?

Plus, DDOT is an official state Department of Transportation. Every state has to have one, and that's the agency which receives federal money and works with the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration. One agency has to define what goes into the regional Comprehensive Long-Range Plan. If DDOT plays this role, then DDOT is still in the driver's seat about overall transportation priorities, but with less responsibility for "multimodal planning."

Here's what you said

A lot of you worried about this issue.

Abigail Zenner wrote, "I worry about more siloing, turf wars, and not treating all street users equally."

MLD wrote:

Splitting off transit, bikeshare and multimodal planning and making that a separate agency on the level with DDOT could lead to problems. First, it can make each side more entrenched—DDOT will now be "roads and highways." You'll have one agency making the plans and another agency tasked with putting those plans in place. Which plans will get priority—DDOT's or the "multimodal" plans?

There is also a big benefit to be gained from having the agency that controls the streets and the agency that plans for transit be the same thing. Especially with how transit-focused the city should be, the transit agency shouldn't have to go begging to the roads people to get plans implemented.

Also, if you are going to create an independent board, go whole-hog and just make it a transportation board in charge of the whole thing.

fonfong echoed the same concern.
Having the bike/transit stuff in a place different than roadway stuff seems to be a recipe to repeat the same dynamic. I'd prefer that it not take an act of Congress, or in this case the new Authority's board, to force the road folks to implement new infrastructure changes.
jeff said, "Given how difficult it has been for the multimodal planners to coordinate their efforts with other divisions within DDOT I imagine that moving them to a different agency is going to simply make that worse."

Jasper wrote, "The problem with breaking up a large institution is that you break up the complexity of scale with walls that people will hide behind, causing conflicts between the different agencies. See the issues with parking. "

BTA said, "Separating cars from "everything else transportation" is only going to further the disconnect in planning for multimodal systems."

What could work?

A lot of you were skeptical about splitting up transportation, but it's not a foregone conclusion that a transit agency wouldn't work. However, at the very least, there needs to be a very clear answer about who sets priorities.

Another possibility, Cheh's staff say, is putting planning into the Office of Planning. That could strengthen that agency, or it could create even more seams between agencies. One obstacle: OP is right now under economic development, making its planning still subordinate to other objectives. Fixing that is possible and even desirable, but would require a larger-scale reorganization (and multiple council committees).

Cheh's staff say that they are hoping the public input process and working group meetings deal with these kinds of questions. That's fine, as long as there is a clear answer by the end, or they are willing to lengthen the process until this is firmly resolved. If transit splits off but this problem isn't fixed, then transportation planning in DC could get much worse, not better.

This is an issue that needs fixing, regardless. A conversation about reorganization can present a great chance to solve this problem. Maybe reorganization would also spur actual change in a way that wouldn't otherwise. But this part of the reorganization can only be worthwhile if we know the new structure will create a clearer chain of command from plans to action.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Ultimately, strong leadership and clear priorities would be the solution. However, DDOT has been lacking in this, forever.

by Andrew on Apr 10, 2014 10:44 am • linkreport

I favor Cheh's reorganization, except that all three of the resulting organizations should be part of the District's Department of Transportation. Good managers who understand policy should head up each agency, while DDOT should be headed by good policy visionaries who know good managers when they see them, but are not necessarily great managers themselves (Gable Klein?).

by JimT on Apr 10, 2014 10:56 am • linkreport

Echoing Andrew and Jim: we'd not be having this discussion if there had been strong DDOT leadership over the past several years.

by fongfong on Apr 10, 2014 10:58 am • linkreport

Taxis are first and foremost public transportation even if secondarily they are a private business. It makes a lot of sense for their oversight to be done with city transportation planning. Taking transit away from DDOT and making them the department of cars seems short-sighted and possibly even a bit punitive though I don't know what the personal politics are.

by BTA on Apr 10, 2014 11:15 am • linkreport

Separate them if that makes them work more smoothly, but have one set of priorities and have all departments work towards that goal. That goal should be a sustainable environment that minimizes the use of the automobile and increases walking, biking, and transit. Education, trash, and many other functions of government ought to be coordinated to re-inforce this goal. Leaving this place better than we found it.

by Thayer-D on Apr 10, 2014 11:17 am • linkreport

Creating new agencies doesn't necessarily eliminate the culture.

The District needs a DDOT with strong leadership, someone willing and allowed to take a few risks. DDOT leadership may have actually been competent but they also seemed hindered by politics. They didn't know how to navigate within our communities and help build, well, bridges between them.

Lastly, the silos within DDOT need to come down. It doesn't mean gutting the agency but it does mean that planners and engineers understand the urban multimodal vision that many residents hope for. That requires a new way of doing things.

by Randall M. on Apr 10, 2014 11:55 am • linkreport

Are all the setbacks in recent years (Streetcar & M street cycletracks come to mind) a result of the leadership, or the mixed messages from the pols and their constituents? It seems to me that during the Fenty administration a lot of the work got done because Fenty really pushed it, and the "War on Cars" rhetoric hadn't become a mainstream mantra. Once Gray got in he sounded "all in" with multi-modal and a commitment to transit but now that the Great Pushback surrounding bike lanes and now bus lanes has started, DDOT has stalled. I realize this might sound self-evident but the leadership would have to pick sides instead of riding the fence, waiting to see who "wins". Someone is going to lose in some way...not sure breaking up DDOT will be able to overcome this indecisiveness. I would hope that the leadership would fall into the camp of transit and multi-modal, but with Bowser as mayor I doubt that will happen.

by dc denizen on Apr 10, 2014 2:01 pm • linkreport

For the last 10-15 years DC has been moving faster and further on transportation than any city in the country. Part of it is leadership, but a huge part is structure.

DC has the ideal set up, a state and city dot all in one. I could see rolling parking enforcement into DDOT, but breaking it up seems to invite unintended consequences.

by Scott on Apr 10, 2014 8:31 pm • linkreport

I don't buy into the "war on cars" rhetoric. While I do not necessarily agree that the way to encourage carpooling and other transportation is to keep constraining parking, I applaud that DDOT has done with the circulator, bike sharing and lanes, etc,

It concerns me that DDOT, OP and the DC public schools apparently never talk with one another. The Deputy Mayor for Education proposals would move from a generally neighborhood based model with walkabile schools to one that is more and more dependent on more students getting to school by car. Yet another reason to be critical of these proposals,

by Alf on Apr 11, 2014 10:25 am • linkreport

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