Greater Greater Washington

DC lost out on $22 million by dawdling on bus priority

Back in February of 2010, it looked like projects to cut down on bus delays were imminent. Our region had received federal stimulus grants to make bus service better and reduce delays. But four years later, they still haven't gotten done.


Photo by hamster! on Flickr.

We've been frustrated at how low a priority DDOT seems to place on bus service and projects to streamline it. DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, who oversees transportation, and her staff are similarly "disappointed," "frustrated," and "displeased," according to the committee report on the budget.

The report takes DDOT to task for inaction on the projects. It points out that they were estimated to save $5.6 million a year, so if DDOT had actually completed the projects, it could have saved $22 million by now. (And, with a more significant project like a full bus lane on 16th Street, DC could save even more money.)

The money was part of the TIGER grant program in the federal stimulus package, aimed at getting the economy moving quickly by funding "shovel-ready" projects that could create jobs immediately. For the District, the US Department of Transportation approved funding for some queue jump lanes, real-time bus displays at busy stops, and signal priority, along 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, H Street/Benning Road, Wisconsin Avenue, and along two routes from Potomac River bridges to downtown, 14th Street and 18th/19th Street.

Cheh's report points out that "In 2010, DDOT received $12.3 million in federal TIGER grant funds for bus priority improvements along six transportation corridors in the District. Four years later, little progress has been made and 79% of the funds remain unspent." The report lists these budget figures for each line:

Project NameNumberTotal AllotmentsCurrent BalanceOperating Savings
14th St. Bridge to K St. Bus PriorityAF088$3,717,346$2,526,732$1,000,000
16th St, NW Bus PriorityAF083$565,000$463,060$1,000,000
Georgia Avenue Bus PriorityAF084$3,685,598$3,097,680$300,000
H St./Benning Rd/ Bus PriorityAF085$154,000$153,863$400,000
TR Bridge to K St. Bus PriorityAF087$3,853,057$3,205,962$900,000
Wisconsin Ave. Bus PriorityAF086$345,000$276,018$2,000,000
Total$12,320,001$9,723,315$5,600,000

The idea of a bus lane on 16th Street gets particular attention from Cheh (and DDOT's inaction, particular scorn):

[T]he Committee remains displeased with the absence in the Mayor's proposed budget of identified funding to improve bus travel on 16th Street. Traffic congestion and bus ridership on 16th Street continue to increase. Although signal prioritization and increased parking enforcement may provide temporary assistance, the District must consider all possible options to remedy this issue.

The Committee recommends that DDOT work with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to conduct a comprehensive study regarding the potential implementation of a bus lane on 16th Street and other possible service improvements, such as off-bus fare collection.

In their responses to oversight questions, DDOT officials explained what hadn't been done yet, without really explaining why it has taken so long. For the signal priority, it has taken local governments many years to agree with WMATA on what technology should go on the buses and the signals. DDOT is transferring the real-time screens over to WMATA.

Bus lanes on a few blocks of Georgia Avenue have gotten through design and are starting procurement "late this spring"; the construction will happen over a year after the contract is awarded (which can sometimes take a while), but will definitely happen before fall 2016, the final deadline for spending the money.

Besides spending millions more than necessary on bus operations and forcing riders to spend more time traveling, DDOT could be hurting its chances to get future federal grants by taking so long.

When the first TIGER grants came out, there were rules letting USDOT reallocate money from jurisdictions that didn't spend and create jobs quickly to those that did. Then-DDOT Director Gabe Klein talked about being ready to snap up some of that money. Instead, the agency he once headed has become one of the laggards.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

Comments

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Where did "real-time screens" come from in this article about bus priority?

by Matt C on May 19, 2014 10:12 am • linkreport

It's pathetic and shameful, like everything else regarding transit in this region. These are small things. Low-hanging fruit. If no one can even get on board with this, how are we ever supposed to achieve a vision of real mobility in the DC area?

by LowHeadways on May 19, 2014 10:13 am • linkreport

I suspect Klein was part of the problem here, not part of the solution. There is a bad tendancy to go for new and shiny rather than incremental improvements.

Was moving the stops around (for commuter buses) part of the TIGER grants?

DDOT/WMTA also need to put the most frequent destiantion in the "next bus" signs -- the information is there. So you can see how long a bus is taking to Federal triangle, Rosslyn, etc.

by charlie on May 19, 2014 10:13 am • linkreport

@ David

I'm at a loss to understand whether it is DDOT or WAMATA that is to blame. It seems to me while DDOT is dysfunctional, WMATA is unresponsive. Of course, I'd love to learn Bowser was somehow involved in 16th Street getting no love. Any insights?

by Steve Seelig on May 19, 2014 10:22 am • linkreport

@charlie,

I disagree. While Klein did go for new technology. Neither signal priority nor bus information systems are particularly new, and Klein was great at actually getting things done. He had a clear vision for where he wanted the agency to go. Now, the left hand of DDOT doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Actually, it's more like the left hand is working at cross purposes from the right hand. A strong leader, such as Klein, would be welcome at a moment like this. I have a hard time seeing someone like him dither for four years. Bellamy, on the other hand, seemed quite comfortable dithering.

by TransitSnob on May 19, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

I have thought for some time that it's past time to clean house at DDOT. Much as Klein had management challenges, the department has gotten a lot worse. Each assistant director is off doing his/her own thing, without much direction and without being responsive to much of anyone. And with the current drift in the lame duck Gray administration, it may only get worse.

by Alf on May 19, 2014 11:09 am • linkreport

SO frustrating.

At what point (if any) is DC going to have to return the unspent funds to the feds?

by sbc on May 19, 2014 11:10 am • linkreport

16th street was awful this morning. So many people waiting 10-15 minutes to get on a bus. What a shame there is not political will power to make the lanes happen.

by corey on May 19, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

It looks to me like the biggest problem is that any real bus priority improvements involve tradeoffs for which there is a lack of political will. Few will protest arrival/information screens (although potential warnings/objections have been raised about these too in the context of "Georgetown's historic character"), but any real improvement - bus lanes, signal priority, off-board payment - is not uncontroversial.

Bus lanes and signal priority get pushback from the "war on cars" set. Off-board payment is a contentious union politics question: ATU doesn't want their employees confronting passengers, while MTPD doesn't want their officers to be (non-)glorified ticket checkers.

by Dizzy on May 19, 2014 12:49 pm • linkreport

@David

The link to the DDOT response to oversight questions is broken.

by DCer on May 19, 2014 12:54 pm • linkreport

Bowser has a hand in 14th, 16th and GA Ave improvements. She should be asked directly about this.

by William on May 19, 2014 1:00 pm • linkreport

@William, Bowser will simply deflect like she always does.

DDOT and WMATA both share blame. One of these two agencies needs to step up and take ownership of the 16th St project. There's no carrot for WMATA - they gain nothing - so there's no motivation for them to do anything. DDOT just plain doesn't care; they're more than happy to maintain the status quo.

The Cleveland RTA was able to make the Euclid Corridor (HealthLine) BRT project work because CEO Joe Calabrese wanted to leave his legacy on the city and made it personal. He spearheaded the project and shoved it down everyone's throat dispite fierce opposition. I don't advocate this approach but it worked. My point is, someone needs to jump in the driver's seat for this project and advocate. Until then, nothing happens.

by dcmike on May 19, 2014 1:24 pm • linkreport

Those bus lanes on lower Georgia Avenue between Barry Place and Florida Avenue are desperately needed. According to this document they were scheduled to be done years ago.

by jimble on May 19, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

William: Bowser was asked.

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/21986/a-bus-lane-for-16th-street-which-mayoral-candidates-agree/

She said:

I don't know [about the lane], and I've said this before, and I know you had a series on your blog about 16th Street and dedicated bus lanes. There's been really no proposal that's been presented to me about what that would look like for 16th Street.

Let me just say more generally that I think we have to, yes, where it makes sense we should have bus lanes. Where it doesn't make sense, have priority signalization for buses. Anything that will move buses more efficiently will help.

What I've been very impressed with over the last several years is we got express bus service on 16th Street and on Georgia Avenue. The success of that MetroExtra bus has been tremendous. So give it a special bus, give it limited stops, you make it more comfortable and convenient, and guess what? People will ride the bus.

Now imagine if they can also get there faster. So I think that wherever possible, we need to prioritize bus travel across the city. We know in many ways it's more efficient. We can't put a Metro stop everywhere. We can't put a streetcar everywhere. But we can look at the changes in demand and react pretty quickly with bus service. ... I'm very committed to making sure we have high-quality bus service in DC.

dcmike: WMATA really wants to do a bus lane. They have been pushing the idea with local leaders, on PlanItMetro, and more. They did a study which recommended it. But they have no power to force DC to do it, so they can't do much more.

by David Alpert on May 19, 2014 1:31 pm • linkreport

Can we bring transparency to this both from trying to get something in WaPo and also perhaps a website showing next steps so we know who to pressure to get this to move forward. H/I and K both seem stuck and we need to move this forward. I applaud CSG's petition / campaign on this but I'm not sure how much affect it's having. Let's bring where this is getting stuck to light.

by GP Steve on May 19, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport

Blaming Klein is odd, seeing as how he left DDOT only 10 months after the TIGER grant was announced. When was the money even obligated to DC?

by David C on May 19, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport

@ DC Mike who wrote "Bowser will simply deflect like she always does."

Indeed. I am reminded of her "stand" on DC public education, "Alice Deal [middle school] for everyone." Whatever that means.

Bowser's campaign slogan should be "Platitudes to the People!"

by Jasper2 on May 19, 2014 3:18 pm • linkreport

@Dave Alpert,

As a rider, a transit nerd, and even something of a Metro insider, I can't agree that WMATA really wants to do it. Or at least, they're not giving the perception they do. Has Richard Sarles made any public statements in favor of it? IIRC when it came up at Del. Norton's round table meeting, he brushed it aside. If WMATA really wanted to get it done, it would cost them next to nothing to post flyers in the S buses and in trains asking the public to get involved in a grassroots effort.

by dcmike on May 19, 2014 3:39 pm • linkreport

@dcmike

Good point. Two questions:
1) Is WMATA allowed to publicly lobby local governments essentially?
2) Even if it is allowed, would the local governments be annoyed at WMATA for doing it and thus WMATA may not want to piss them off?

by GP Steve on May 19, 2014 4:29 pm • linkreport

WMATA seems to want dedicated lanes on 16th Street and elsewhere in the region. I've seen WMATA respond on Twitter (see the bus account) along the lines of "we control the service but not the lanes," and have this listed on their Momentum site. This was a reply to me one time when I got frustrated and tweeted about delays and crowds on the S buses. I think WMATA cannot publicly shame DDOT as that may get them in trouble.

I'm not sure how much more clear WMATA can be about wanting dedicated bus lanes along 16th Street. I keep asking DDOT about any sort of plan but never get a reply. What's candidate Bowser's plan for transit on 16th and Georgia Ave? At least Mary Cheh seems to get it and is starting to publicly make noise about this.

by Transport. on May 20, 2014 12:32 am • linkreport

Here's another place where DDOT is incredibly behind: the 14th St. streetscaping project, which among other things would add bus bulb-outs (and after the light, no less). The report came out FOUR YEARS AGO. So where the hell is any progress?

by LowHeadways on May 20, 2014 10:26 am • linkreport

the problem is 14th street has been a disasterous construction zone all along this cooridor with new aparmtents and office building, construction is tearing up roads blocking off one lane for blocks. Maybe once things settle down they can actually build these bulbs. They would be very beneficial for speeding up that route (which currently moves at a snails pace). They also need to consolidate stops, far to many, people need to learn how to walk an extra block.

by corey on May 20, 2014 12:03 pm • linkreport

Corey No they don't need to close stops - that's an unnecessary service reduction. When there's nobody at a stop, the bus isn't slowed down, only when someone needs a ride or the bus is stopping to let someone off. I'm sure most who can know how to talk further, but maybe they can't or won't walk extra blocks. As transit users, they're probably already walking more than most who drive.

As many people bring up, the Rush hour bus priority lanes can be done with paint and signs. Get back to basics in the plan, it could mean it's implementation. Mission creep destroys good transit planning.

by asffa on May 21, 2014 8:54 am • linkreport

So why can't the Rush Hour bus priority lane be implemented with the 9.17 million in the budget?
Are there things that can be trimmed out that would save the project?

by asffa on May 21, 2014 8:58 am • linkreport

So why can't the Rush Hour bus priority lane be implemented with the 9.17 million in the budget?

Because that's not what the grants are for - see the chart. The federal government doesn't just let you take their money and then spend it on whatever you want, you have to spend it on the projects you presented in your grant application.

by MLD on May 21, 2014 9:03 am • linkreport

MLD The grantors and the grantees can sign off on alterations to the project after mutual agreement, there's just lots of forms to be filled out and signed off on, etc.
Some of the millions already been spent - what on?

by asffa on May 21, 2014 9:08 am • linkreport

no asffa, Tiger grants dont work that way. Their is a specific process with an app deadline, general planning, enviro, and engineering criteria, and, uniquely for this kind of thing, a benefit cost review process by USDOT economists. After that the projects that meet all criteria are reviewed by senior USDOT officials. There are many more applicants than there are grants, and if someone tried to repurpose a grant, the cities whose grants were denied would protest (or sue) and rightly so.

No, if you don't use it for what you said, you need to go to the back of the line. OR get a special bill through congress authorizing the money. Good luck, delegate Norton.

by KnowsAboutTigerGrants on May 21, 2014 9:18 am • linkreport

Where are going to be these Georgia Avenue bus lanes you mention? I don't think they've adequately polled the local public about this.

by asffa on May 21, 2014 9:18 am • linkreport

@asffa: Ironically, if they could just put in bus bulbs, stop consolidation would become much less necessary.

But as it is, every time a bus has to stop for someone - which tends to be roughly every block, especially in a mixed use area like 14th Street or Georgia Ave with lots of destinations and origins - it has to decelerate, pull out of traffic and onto the bus pad (assuming nothing is blocking it already), come to a stop, open the doors, often kneel the bus, close the doors, probably wait for the light to turn from red to green, accelerate again, and by this point it's at the next block and has to do it all over again. And none of that is even taking into account the possibility of several or many riders boarding/deboarding at a given stop, which adds even more dwell time.

It's not unreasonable to space stops every two blocks (and position them AFTER the &*!#%&@$ lights). And especially until the 14th St. streetscaping happens, if it ever does, it would make a significant difference.

by LowHeadways on May 21, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

Every extra bus stop costs the bus 30 seconds minimum. That's basically the time cost from decelerating, stopping, and getting back into traffic. It doesn't include time for people getting on. So stopping more frequently for fewer passengers is bad and slows the bus down a lot, costing more to provide service, and slower service means fewer people will ride.

Bus bulbs create some savings and actually help ALL traffic move faster along a corridor (SFMTA found this when they implemented them).

European and Canadian agencies have figured these things out. Average stop spacing for European buses is something like every 1000 feet compared to more like 400 feet for U.S. buses.

by MLD on May 21, 2014 11:14 am • linkreport

MLD Europe and Canada aren't DC.
Typically the complaint people have on 16th street is they can't get onto buses since they're so crowded, not complaints that they pick up and stop too near their destination.

by asffa on May 21, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

Dear KnowsAboutTigerGrants - I'll trust you about this.
Then it's unfortunately that some portion of DDOT dropped the ball on their responsibility once they got the money or that they put too much expensive nonsense in their proposal

by asffa on May 21, 2014 11:40 am • linkreport

@asffa
Speed of service equals ability to make more runs in the same amount of time. This means more frequency and therefore more capacity. I've said this to you many times.

The bus could be WAY more convenient if it stopped every 10 feet, wouldn't that be even better? Or would there be tradeoffs involved?

by MLD on May 21, 2014 11:46 am • linkreport

MLD I think believing that reducing stops makes for much better bus service is premature under the circumstances on 16th street.

by asffa on May 21, 2014 3:41 pm • linkreport

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