The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Breakfast links: Have plans, need money

Photo by Jake Wasdin on Flickr.
Region brimming with streetcar projects: There are a number of streetcar and light rail proposals in the region all potentially vying for limited federal funds. Also, leaders haven't really figured out how, if at all, the systems will interconnect, taking a parochial approach that represents "the antithesis of the Metro system." (Examiner)

Virginia needs rail money: Virginia needs $629 million to achieve its rail plans, including higher-speed service to Richmond and running the new Amtrak service to Richmond and Lynchburg. The state's Department of Rail and Public Transit also must anticipate the 2013 shift of Amtrak operating costs to the states, when Virginia will have to support 6 of 13 daily trains. (Examiner)

Fenty wants to surplus Franklin School: The outgoing mayor last week introduced a resolution to the Council to surplus the 150-year-old Franklin School building on Franklin Square, so that the city can sell it off to be redeveloped. Councilmember Cheh will get to consider whether to take the Fenty Administration's recommendation in the new year. (WBJ, Steven Glazerman)

Shaw Library draws accolades: The Wall Street Journal has named the new Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library one of the best buildings of 2010 in a year when the recession has prompted all but the most prominent architects to vie for even the smallest commissions for civic buildings. (WSJ)

Affordable housing saves more than money: Arlington's affordable housing program has allowed more people to live near their jobs, also reducing families' commute costs and durations, cutting congestion and pollution. (Under One Roof)

Frederick bridges in great shape: Frederick County has an excellent bridge maintenance record, as one of a select few counties to have an in-house inspection team. The inspectors reveal that the term "structurally deficient" is not as meaningful as many infrastructure doom-sayers make it out to be. (The Frederick News-Post Online)

Big box retail moving into cities: NPR takes a look at the growing trend of big box retailers trying out smaller stores in urban areas. The new Walmart in Fairfax on Route 1 is a first step in this move—a "middle-ground" store less than half the size of a normal Supercenter sporting a reduced inventory.

From ballpark to snow park: The Cleveland Indians have built a small winter amusement park inside their stadium, hoping to draw fans in the off season. Sports teams around the country are watching carefully, contemplating similar strategies. (NYT, Rob Pitingolo)

And...: The DC region dodged the brunt of the winter storm while the rest of the northeast and mid-Atlantic got pummeled. Trave delays still abound. (TBD) ... Virginia will add 15 new historic landmarks, including several in the greater DC area, to its Landmark Register. (WAMU) ... New FHA rules could make buying or selling a condo both more complicated and more expensive. (WTOP)

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Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 


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I don't see fare collection or rolling stock compatibility being an issue on the various streetcar/light rail lines. The lines will likely use the regional Smartrip fare collection system, fares may vary on the lines.

All will be run on standard gauge track drawing 750 Volts DC from overhead centenary / trolley wire. from what I gather all the line will use low floor vehicles of the same width. The only issue might be current draw as the light rail cars for the Purple and Columbia Pike lines will likely require more amperage then the cars DC has procured, also the DC system is configured for single car operation.

The $64.00 question is, will any of the lines be physically connected to one another? None of the plans I have seen show physical connection between the lines.

by Sand Box Johnca on Dec 27, 2010 9:36 am • linkreport

There are other problems with separate operation of streetcars. Needless duplication of maintenance facilities. Duplication of administrative functions.

by Ben Ross on Dec 27, 2010 9:51 am • linkreport

@Ben Ross

In this case, the duplication of maintenance facilities will be necessary because the rolling stock will be physically and mechanically different.

by Sand Box John on Dec 27, 2010 10:04 am • linkreport

Surely the different vehicles can be maintained in the same bays in the same building. It is surely easier to train someone who knows how to maintain one kind of streetcar to maintain another, than to train someone who spends the rest of their time on bus maintenance. For some light maintenance, it won't be worth moving the cars to a separate facility, but what about heavy maintenance?

by Ben Ross on Dec 27, 2010 10:10 am • linkreport

It's not imperative for the streetcar projects in the different jurisdictions to connect to each other. I've ridden the streetcars in mixed traffic Portland and Seattle. They are slow and more pedestrian accelerators and economic development tools than long distance commuter trains. We have metro and express buses for long distance. The longer the streetcar lines are the less likely they will to maintain the headways they need to be effective pedestrian circulators. I think 2-4 miles in a dense area with lots of traffic lights is probably the sweetspot in terms of length. If the streetcars outside the district connect neighborhoods to metro in almost all cases that's good enough - no need to connect directly to the District streetcars.

I also think if we pause to make streetcars into a regional project rather than a jurisdictional one the district streetcar project will lose the little momentum it has right now. Too many chefs can spoil the broth.

by Paul on Dec 27, 2010 10:13 am • linkreport

@Ben Ross

Not necessarily, lifts in bays must be compatible. The DC cars are 3 truck articulated units. Maryland and Virginia will likely procure something bigger.

Skilled employees can be shared, however that will depend on union affiliation. Remember Virginia is a right to work state.

One must remember, the primary reason why WMATA didn't go with articulated units for the 7000 procurement is they would be incompatible with their existing maintenance facilities.

by Sand Box John on Dec 27, 2010 10:35 am • linkreport

Regionalism in transit is a good idea, but it died when WMATA's costs got so high that local jurisdictions found it more economical to run their own bus systems.  The recent thread in this space about the sub-optimization of bus service in Greenbelt highlights one aspect of the resulting problems, and the fragmentation of light rail and street car proposals is another.  Welcome to the transportation Balkans. 

Could it be fixed?  Sure it could, and with fresh faces coming to its board and a general consensus that things could be better than they are this might even be an excellent time to do it -- but who wants to take on the task of restructuring the agency? 

by intermodal commuter on Dec 27, 2010 10:45 am • linkreport

"Affordable housing saves more than money..."

Yeah, for the people lucky enough to get the apartments. For everyone else, it means higher housing prices and longer commutes because they're priced out of the neighborhood. I'd like to see some more critical coverage (or, at least, coverage that tries to look at both sides) of inclusionary zoning at GGW. The commenters seem to understand the economics of it much better than the posters, unfortunately.

by Stephen Smith on Dec 27, 2010 10:48 am • linkreport

RE: Bridges

It amuses me how engineers have been trying to clarify that "functionally obsolete" and "structurally deficient" are not nearly as woeful as the media the politics have made them out to be, yet even infrastructure-oriented blogs regularly seem to forget that :)

...And here's to hoping I can make it back to DC today! It's white-out here in Rhode Island.

by Bossi on Dec 27, 2010 11:14 am • linkreport

@Stephen Smith - The economics are more complicated than you suggest. You can't apply the simple textbook supply-demand curves, because the cost of land, which is a major component of the cost of housing in desirable urban locations, is (1) dependent on government regulation and (2) dependent - overwhelmingly - on the prestige of the location. Neither of these is a physical quantity, but rather they depend on human preferences expressed in the marketplace and at the ballot box. The result is that you get feedback loops.

For example, suppose you own a piece of land that you use to operate a neighborhod jewelry store. Tiffany's and Cartier open up across the street. You face more competition, but the value of your land goes up, not down.

It's the inverse with affordable housing rules. By spreading affordable housing everywhere, they prevent the wealthy from isolating themselves in high-priced islands and hold down the prestige-value. This occurs in several ways, such as: (1) The land simply isn't as prestigious because some people who live there work for a living. (2) Reserving some building space for non-wealthy residents forces the wealthy to spread out over a larger land area, increasing the supply of high-prestige land. (3) The people who want affordable housing constitute a political force in favor of more density, changing government regulations so as to increase supply (or forestalling a change that decreases supply).

Yes, there are also ways in which affordable housing requirements can reduce the supply of the market-rate housing, but you can't just assert that the net effect is reduction. (And you certainly can't assert that the cost is borne by new residents rather than by previous landowners.) You need to look at the specifics of any housing market - DC is very different from Detroit.

by Ben Ross on Dec 27, 2010 11:16 am • linkreport


I understand the economics, thank you. The article simply says that those living in affordable housing also tend to live closer to their work than they did before moving. Nothing debatable there.

Furthermore, there's not a difference in level of understanding, I think, as much as a difference in values which inform that understanding.

I'm sure we'd be happy to post (or cross-post) anything you'd like to add to the affordable housing/IZ debate.

by Erik Weber on Dec 27, 2010 11:21 am • linkreport

Bully for Frederick County for actually taking care and looking at their bridges!

The piece-meal streetcar system seems destined for financial disaster because of their inability to work with other systems. I'd agree WMATA is not a good model for getting various jurisdictions to work together, however the inability to share people, rolling stock, maintenance, and back office functions is going to make these public functions too expensive.

That is the real government waste -- the multiple levels. Why does Arlington County (or Falls Church) have a police force instead of contracting with Fairfax?

Or be a Herbert Hoover and force interoperability onto public entities. SmartTrip has been a great example of that.

by charlie on Dec 27, 2010 11:42 am • linkreport

@Sand Box

DC received a temporary exception for the first leg. The permanent propulsion method for the DC system won't be overhead wires. But it very well could be overhead wires for other cities in the area because they lack a federal interest to protect them.

by Lance on Dec 27, 2010 2:25 pm • linkreport

Why does Arlington County (or Falls Church) have a police force instead of contracting with Fairfax?

Short answer: Virginia state law.

Longer answer: Arlington County is an obvious's a separate county altogether. Falls Church, meanwhile, is an independent city, and Virginia state law requires independent cities to provide all the services that a county normally provides.

by Froggie on Dec 27, 2010 5:28 pm • linkreport


The poles for the Anacostia line look permanent to me. The 3 streetcars DC has will only run at speed drawing power from an overhead power distribution system. The majority of the miles in the DC streetcar system are outside of the overhead wire restriction area.

by Sand Box John on Dec 27, 2010 9:18 pm • linkreport

Pretty sure the wires on H St are going to be permanent.....

(Also, I'm sure that other cities have maintained streetcar fleets of varying size and manufacture. How do they deal with it? I know Portland had some growing pains, as their initial plan to maintain the streetcars in the same shops as their LRVs turned out to be extraordinarily inconvenient and costly. How do the guys in Europe do it?)

Despite all of our misgivings about Metro, I don't think that anybody would agree that a "parochial" approach to Light Rail will benefit anyone in the long-term. Residents shouldn't have to "learn" a dozen different bus/rail systems. Having separate networks will be to everybody's detriment.

by andrew on Dec 28, 2010 1:09 am • linkreport


They do it using all purpose heavy lifting equipment. Turnkey operations tend to have heavy lifting equipment that is specifically designed for the rolling stock procured.

by Sand Box John on Dec 28, 2010 8:10 am • linkreport

Good Lord Charlie, you are pondering why two different COUNTIES don't share a police force?? Lets put this in some perspective by comparing to other places. In Pennsylvania, Allegheny County has, I believe, 127 separate municipalities. The majority of these have their own police force, though in many cases some of the smaller ones share a 911 dispatcher service. If your house is burglarized or your car stolen, the first responder will be from your local police department. That department may or may not share information with the surrounding communities.
While there can be some advantage to having small local governments where everybody knows your name, I really think the system in VA and MD where the county is, for most people, their local government, works better in most cases.

by rextrex on Dec 29, 2010 5:56 pm • linkreport


>>>Short answer: Virginia state law.<<<

I'm not familiar w/ Virginia's laws, but does the law actually specify that each County/Municipality must provide it's *own* staffed service; or just that it needs to provide police service?

If the latter, I'd think the a county could conceivably contract with another county, just as municipalities in PA or NJ contract with each other to share services or how some MD municipalities contract service from their respective county.

Not that I necessarily agree with the concept of county/county contracting, but legally it might be possible.

by Bossi on Dec 29, 2010 6:02 pm • linkreport

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