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WMATA is considering scrapping the Metroway BRT

Ridership on Metroway, the BRT route that runs from Braddock Road to Pentagon City, has been climbing since the service started in 2014. Yet WMATA is still considering shutting it down to save money. That'd negate years of planning and construction and sour public opinion on transit.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In 2014, WMATA introduced a bus rapid transit (BRT) service called Metroway, whose MW1 line runs between Braddock Road in Alexandria and Crystal City in Arlington. As our region's only BRT, Metroway runs in its own lane parallel to Route 1; its ability to skip traffic makes it a reliable transportation option.

Metroway ridership has been growing since it first opened. WMATA's 9S bus, which it replaced, had a daily ridership of 1,091 in its final year running. But by June 2015, Metroway ridership was at about 1,400 people per day, and as ridership grew, Metroway expanded it's service to the Pentagon City Metro station.

Image from the City of Alexandria.

At the heart of the MW1 route (which remains Metroway's only line) is Potomac Yard, a former 295-acre rail yard, which used to be on EPA's list of hazardous sites but has been growing into a great example of transit-oriented development (TOD) over the past decade. As large apartment buildings in Potomac Yard have gone up, so has the number of people riding Metroway.

In 2016, Metroway saw a roughly 50% increase in ridership over the same months in 2015. In June of 2016, the average daily ridership topped 2,000 for the first time.

Metroway is quite cheap compared to other WMATA concerns

Last week, WMATA released several radical ideas to close the gap between its operating budget and allocated funds for Fiscal Year 2018.Included in a collection of ideas to save $10 million on bus service was eliminating 20 bus routes that WMATA has to subsidize because fares don't cover costs. In Metroway's case, WMATA pays $3.5 million extra per year to run the service, which is nearly three times the amount of money the 20 routes averaged together.

To put that in perspective, WMATA projects a budget gap of $275 million for FY 2018, and that number is likely to grow in the future. While we typically talk about rail in terms of decades and in magnitudes of billions of dollars, BRT offers options for smaller areas at a fraction of the cost-- a $3.5 million compared to hundreds of millions, for example-- and time.

For instance, the Silver Line was part of the original Metro planning during the 1960s, and the construction cost for Phase II alone is $3 billion. The Potomac Yard Metro Station also has roots dating back to the original Metro planning, was in various forms of development beginning in the early 90's, and will be complete in 2020 at an estimated cost of $268 million.

On the other hand, the time between the completing the conceptual design for the Metroway BRT Route and the grand opening was only 41 months at a cost of only $42 million for construction.

Beyond that, Metroway is just getting started. Why cut it off now?

Metroway has a growing ridership, as it serves an area that's growing. In fact, it has far more riders than the other 19 bus lines proposed for elimination, with the average ridership among the others being less than 500 riders per day. Only one other route, Oxon Hill-Fort Washington, has more than 1,000 riders per day.

Also, recent numbers Metro used to evaluate Metroway for its recent budget report were distorted: During SafeTrack surges 3 and 4 in July, anyone transferring from Metro was allowed to ride Metroway for free, which pushed ridership from being over 2,000 paying customers per day down to around 1,300. The next month, though, ridership was back over 2,000.

If Metroway stays around, ridership will grow and Metro will come closer and closer to breaking even on Metroway. With the next wave of development starting to kick off in the north end of Potomac Yard and Oakville Triangle, even more potential riders will have a chance to use the service..

That brings up another point: Metroway has come on board to serve the TOD of Potomac Yard. Eliminating the line would add more congestion to the Route 1 corridor, defeating the purpose of TOD. It could also drive up automobile ownership among residents who relied on the system.

Also, WMATA has already invested in the infrastructure needed to run BRT, and while it was far cheaper than a rail project, it's still a lot to simply throw away. The years of planning and construction are in place, which represent a cost 12 times greater than the annual subsidy, which should decrease as development continues. Shutting down these lanes would be another black eye for WMATA.

Finally, residents' opinion of BRT matters, as other jurisdictions begin to develop their own systems. Montgomery County is planning a 14 mile stretch along Route 29 that is part of a larger 80 mile system. Eliminating this line would sour the public opinion and possibly derail other local jurisdictions from developing their own.

As WMATA continues to face ridership declines from what it calls "poor service quality and high profile disruptions and safety incidents" that plague the rest of their system, it would be foolish to cut this growing asset.


Whether you're traveling from Virginia or Maryland, Capital Bikeshare isn't just for short trips

People often rely on Capital Bikeshare for short, local trips. But not always; lots of times, they use the system to travel a little farther. These graphs show how often people use Capital Bikeshare to go between different groups of stations in the region and where exactly they travel to and from.

A Capital Bikeshare station in Montgomery County. Photo by author.

When Capital Bikeshare first came to our region, the vast majority of stations were in DC and a few were in Arlington. As the system has expanded, so have options for traveling between places.

I wanted to analyze bikeshare trips between counties, cities, and the District, as well as trips within different parts of the same county but still outside of DC. To do this, I divided Montgomery County and Arlington County into what I'm calling geographic clusters: Rockville, Silver Spring/Takoma Park, and Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights for Montgomery County, and North and South Arlington County, with Arlington Boulevard being the dividing line. Then I looked at CaBi trips from between September 2013 and May 2016.

This graph shows how many trips from each of those clusters ended in another one:

All graphs by the author. Click for a larger version.

As you can see, the places closest to DC are the ones from which people take the most trips between clusters; about 36% of trips in North Arlington and 35% of trips in Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights end somewhere else, while only 1% of trips in Rockville end outside of Rockville. Among all the clusters outside of DC, approximately 30% of trips go from one to another.

A closer look shows that most of the trips from one cluster to another are trips to DC, but not all. For instance, 9% of the trips that begin in South Arlington are between clusters but do not end in DC.

Click for a larger version.

This graph shows where, exactly, most bikeshare users go from various clusters:

Click for a larger version.

Further examination of South Arlington shows that approximately 71% of the trips there are local, 20% end in DC, 4.5% end in Alexandria, and 4.5% end in North Arlington. Also notice that nearly 8% of trips starting in Alexandria and 4% of trips in North Arlington end in South Arlington. As an area that is adjacent to clusters that use bicycle share, South Arlington sees more bikeshare activity.

Similar to the dense bikeshare system in DC, bikeshare outside of DC serves mostly local trips. But that doesn't mean bikeshare doesn't have a regional value, as nearly a third of trips system-wide are between clusters. As bikeshare continues to expand in the region, municipalities, especially those near other places with bikeshare, like Mount Rainier, Hyattsville, or Langley Park, would see an increase in ridership if bikeshare users could access the regional system.

This data only shows individual trips and doesn't show the length of time of trips or whether the user has a causal or annual membership. Exploring this information, as well as specific bikeshare travel patterns in more suburban areas, would tell us more about how bikeshare fits in both the local and regional transportation system.


For a day, we're getting a bunch of tiny new parks

Friday, September 16th is Park(ing) Day! Park(ing) Day is an annual, international event where people turn parking spaces into miniature parks for a day, prompting impromptu public gatherings and calling attention to our need for more open spaces.

Landscape architecture firm Oculus' 2013 Park(ing) Day installation in DC. Photo by Aimee Custis on Flickr.

Here's a list of where some of the miniature parks (aka "parklets") will pop up tomorrow:

District parklets

DC's official list of parklets is here. More than 25 locations will serve as pop-up parklets, including locations near Metro stations like NoMa, Dupont Circle, Eastern Market, Gallery Place, McPherson Square, and Shaw-Howard.

A map of where parklets will pop up in DC. Click for an interactive version.

The DC Department of Transportation is hosting a parklet and commuter spa at Farragut North, complete with a reading nook and a professional masseuse.

Several organizations promoting Anacostia River revitalization, including Waterfront Trust, Living Classrooms, Nature Conservancy, Washington Parks and People, and DC UrbanGreens will host a parklet in front of the Wilson Building.

Virginia parklets

Alexandria City will have five parklets throughout Old Town Alexandria, including City Hall and the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center of Virginia Tech.

Arlington will host five parklets, including one at Courthouse Plaza that will feature art by Kate Stewart.

A shot from Park(ing) Day 2013 in Arlington. Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.

Maryland parklets

Montgomery County will host pop-ups in Wheaton, Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Takoma Park. Docs in Progress, a group that teaches documentary filmmaking, will be interviewing residents at its Silver Spring parklet.

Hyattsville will host four parklets, including an evening parklet from 6 pm to 8 pm at the City Municipal Building, which will have lawn games, food, beer, and live music.

Help us crowdsource PARK(ing) Day 2016

If you know of a parklet we've missed or if you see a parklet tomorrow, let us know in the comments. Share any photos of parklets and add them to the Greater Greater Washington Flickr pool or tweet it (#parkingday) and tag us (@ggwash). We'll post photos in a roundup next week.


How housing vouchers work, explained

Millions of Americans struggle to pay their rent each month. With rents rising and incomes stagnating, paying rent is the largest monthly expenditure for many families.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Across the country, over 20 million households—more than four out of 10 renters—are rent-burdened, meaning they pay at least 30 percent of their income on rent. The share of rent-burdened households is even higher among low-income renters.

The government helps some of these low-income households pay their rent by providing vouchers through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8.

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program is the largest federal program to subsidize low-income renters.

Across the country, nearly 2.2 million households receive housing vouchers to subsidize their rent. In DC, the voucher program provides assistance to 13,000 families.

There are two types of housing vouchers. Project-based vouchers are tied to a specific apartment and used by the family living there. When that family moves, the voucher stays with the unit, rather than moving with the family. Tenant-based vouchers, on the other hand, are given to a specific family. The family keeps the voucher when they move.

Because they are much more common, this explainer focuses on tenant-based vouchers in the District.

Photo by Tax Credits on Flickr.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program works by limiting the amount of their income that low-income families pay toward rent.

Voucher holders pay 30 percent of their income toward rent for an apartment on the private market. The federal government pays the rest of the rent directly to the landlord.

To be eligible to use a voucher, families typically must earn less than 50 percent of the median income in the place where they live (officially called Area Median Income, or AMI). In the Washington region, that's about $50,000 for a family of four. However, most voucher holders in the region earn less than 30 percent AMI, or about $30,000.

After securing a voucher, families are required to find an apartment—or "lease up"—within sixty days. While they search for housing like anyone else in the city, their rent must fall within the Fair Market Rent (FMR) guidelines established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the District, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,623. Households using a voucher can rent any apartment at (or below) that threshold.

While voucher holders are permitted to search for apartments throughout the region, in practice, they are much more likely to find affordable housing in just a handful of neighborhoods. Few apartments in wealthy neighborhoods, like Georgetown, are inexpensive enough to meet HUD guidelines, while most apartments in low-income neighborhoods, like Deanwood, rent for below the market average.

While families mostly search for housing in the region, their vouchers are portable. If a family moves from Washington, DC to Mississippi, for example, they can take their voucher with them. Critically, housing vouchers do not expire. Households can continue to use their voucher as long as they remain eligible for the program and abide by program rules.

Local public housing authorities (PHAs) distribute housing vouchers through lotteries.

In DC, the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) runs the city's voucher program. There are other public housing authorities in the region, including the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of Prince George's County, which also administer housing vouchers.

Photo by Bill Dickinson on Flickr.

With guidance from HUD, PHAs often prioritize certain types of households in distributing vouchers. For example, a PHA can give priority to homeless households, families living in extreme poverty, or those displaced by substandard housing conditions. In DC, the housing authority gives preference to homeless families above other households needing assistance.

To distribute the limited supply of vouchers, PHAs create waitlists for eligible families. This can be an open waitlist, where families join at any time, or a closed waitlist, where the housing authority opens the waitlist for limit periods of time. At the moment, the voucher waitlist in DC is closed.

Although new vouchers are rarely allocated by Congress, vouchers do become available when existing families leave the program. PHAs use the waitlist to select new voucher holders, either by holding a voucher lottery or simply selecting the next applicant on the list.

Housing voucher programs were created in the 1970s with the dual goals of de-concentrating poverty and empowering families to pick their own neighborhood.

Until the 1970s, nearly all federal housing assistance was provided through public housing developments. However, policymakers realized that these developments concentrated poor families in certain neighborhoods. They also contributed to racial segregation in cities.

The first voucher programs were proposed in 1970 and formalized through the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The Act amended Section 8 of the National Housing Act of 1937 to create the voucher program. As a result, the program became known as Section 8 vouchers. In 1998, Congress passed the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, which formally changed the program name to the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Housing Choice vouchers and Section 8 vouchers refer to the same program, but Housing Choice vouchers are the preferred (and correct) terminology.

By giving households an opportunity to pick their own apartment, rather than living in public housing, policymakers expect vouchers to lead people to improved housing units in better neighborhoods. Voucher holders can move away from communities of concentrated poverty and live in high-quality housing.

Photo by anaxila on Flickr.

There is substantial evidence that when low-income families move into mixed-income neighborhoods, they do benefit. For example, people are often healthier and safer in these high opportunity neighborhoods. Children attend better schools and more regularly interact with middle-class neighbors.

However, critics argue that the benefits of the voucher program are overstated. Voucher holders typically cannot move to wealthy neighborhoods because the rents are too high. Many landlords refuse to accept housing vouchers. And even when they do move into a high-opportunity neighborhood, low-income households often find it difficult to stay there.

Perhaps most importantly, critics of the voucher programs note that housing assistance is not an entitlement. Unlike other government assistance programs, like Medicaid or TANF, most eligible households do not receive a voucher. In fact, only one-quarter of households who are eligible for a voucher actually receive one.


At the King Street Metro, parking is out and a pedestrian plaza is in

At Alexandria's King Street—Old Town Metro station, there's a whole lot of space dedicated to cars and buses and not much for people on foot. But the station's parking lot will soon become a pedestrian plaza with wider sidewalks and more parking for bikes.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Today, when you come out of the Metro at King Street, you walk into a parking lot with 30 spaces and six bus bays. Contributor Gray Kimbrough noted that that's a lot of space devoted to cars, but also that the station is tough for walking around:

The station has Old Town in its name, but it's not at all obvious how to walk out of the station in the direction of Old Town. And all of the roads around the station seem to share the problem of missing or inconveniently placed crosswalks.
Joanne Pierce added:
The parking lot is not proportional. There is not enough parking to make it worthwhile for commuters but because it's a popular drop off/pick up spot (which Metro apparently never intended to be the case) there are more moving vehicles during rush hour, creating congestion and lots of pedestrians have to avoid the cars and the buses. There are no stop signs for the cars, either.

There are two station exits but one is much more heavily used. If I recall correctly, there isn't a tourist-friendly map outside of the other exit, nor are there signs telling tourists where they should go from the other exit. This means more tourists are using the main gates and then cross the parking lot to reach King Street or cross the bus lane to get on the King Street bus trolley that shuttles riders directly to the waterfront.

I myself will add that when you're coming up King Street, it is not immediately evident how to access the station entrance. I often find going to the north entrance, which is not immediately obvious to pedestrians, is often easier.

A plan to replace the parking lot with a pedestrian plaza and to add four new bus bays to the existing six could be the first step toward the station becoming more walkable, and it gained approval last week.

The reconfigured plaza will make it easier to get to the station by walking as well as accommodate WMATA's plans to increase bus service in the area. WMATA has also said there will be more bike parking, but there aren't yet any details beyond that.

Planned layout of the new bus and pedestrian plaza in front of the King St station. Image from the city of Alexandria.

The project will cost $11.7 million, and has been planned since at least 2012.

A public hearing is planned for the fall with final approval expected by the end of the year, WMATA board documents show.

The current King St station plaza includes 30 parking spaces and six bus bays. Photo from WMATA.

More improvements are coming to the King Street station

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is also working on improved access to the King Street station. Design is more than halfway done on a new pedestrian tunnel linking Alexandria Union Station and the adjacent Metro station, a Northern Virginia Transportation Authority project update from July shows.

The planned pedestrian tunnel from Alexandria Union Station to the King St Metro station. Image from VRE.

The authority awarded VRE a $1.3 million grant for the tunnel in 2014, however, the agency has yet to identify funding for the balance of the roughly $11.3 million project.

The tunnel is currently scheduled to open by the end of 2017.


Virginia's commuter rail service may become more of a transit system

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE), a commuter rail system with a large coverage area but somewhat infrequent service, is considering both running trains more frequently and adding new stations, but funding constraints may force a choice between the two. More trains, more often would make VRE more like a transit system, with regular service throughout the day rather than just at rush hour.

A VRE train at the Woodbridge station. Image from VRE.

VRE's Fredericksburg Line, which uses CSX railroad tracks, carries commuters north from Spotsylvania County on a route parallel to I-95. The Manassas Line, which uses Norfolk Southern tracks, brings commuters to Union Station from Broad Run, which ends next to the Manassas airport, and is an alternative to commuting on I-66.

The VRE Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Project began in July 2015, with a proposal to build 11 miles of track and three new rail stations to extend the commuter rail service west to Haymarket. Environmental analysis and preliminary design are supposed to be completed in 2017, with service starting in 2022.

Map made using ArcGIS Online.

VRE is planning to add more trains to carry additional passengers during rush hours, as well as offer service in the middle of the day. VRE plans to add three new trains to the Manassas Line at rush hour, raising the total from eight to 11 (a total of 22 trips/day). A 10-car train can carry up to 1,000 people.

Running trains more frequently could mean more service

VRE is also considering adding service in the middle of the day from Manassas to Alexandria, starting the conversion of VRE from a commuter rail system to a transit system. The proposed Off Peak Shuttle would add seven additional trains each way between morning/evening rush hours. There would be a headway (gap between trains) of approximately an hour, bringing the total number of daily trips to 36.

Image from VRE.

Off-peak shuttle trains would terminate at Alexandria, where passengers could catch Metro to get into DC. The new service would add customers to Metro's Blue and Yellow lines outside of rush hours.

Outside of rush hours, VRE trains would not go further than Alexandria due to existing congestion on the CSX Railroad; the stretch of tracks between Manassas and Alexandria is a dead-end stub for Norfolk Southern, meaning the tracks don't see as much traffic as the CSX ones.

Map made using ArcGIS Online.

Building more tracks could also mean serving different locations

VRE has packed its proposal to expand service with plans to build new track and stations. The Fredericksburg Line was recently extended south to Spotsylvania County, and since 2002 VRE has been looking at extending its Manassas Line building an extension 11 miles west to Haymarket, near where I-66 crosses through Bull Run Mountain.

Among all of the options its considering, VRE's preference is to build the extension with three new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket. The existing Broad Run station would be closed and a new railyard would be constructed west of Haymarket, perhaps in Fauquier County.

Map of the proposed extension and station locations. Image from VRE.

The extension to Haymarket would cost $468 million. When Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) prioritized projects for the 2017-2022 Six-Year Improvement Program on June 13, 2016, the benefit/cost ratio was not high enough to justify funding.

The CTB uses what's called the "Smart Scale" analytical process (previously known as the "HB2" process) to prioritize transportation projects, and VRE staff called their proposal the "best project not to get funded this cycle."

Funding for the proposed expansion will be problematic. VRE claims it does not intend to rely upon local funding for construction, but 50% of current operations costs are subsidized by local jurisdictions.

VRE anticipates Federal/state grants would fund one-time capital costs for building track and buying new locomotives and railcars. The counties/cities in Northern Virginia would have to find the revenue in local budgets to fund the extra $4-5 million in annual operating costs not covered by customer fares.

Another option: Expanding by adding a station at Godwin Road

At the start of the analysis required to obtain federal funding, VRE identified expanding via Godwin Road as alternative to the three new stations. That would mean replacing the existing Broad Run Station with a new end-of-line station 1.5 miles to the northeast at Godwin Road, creating space for railyard expansion.

The Godwin Road option would also mean VRE could run more trains at rush hour and during the day, as the Broad Run railyard could support the extra service.

Map made using ArcGIS Online.

The proposed extension to Haymarket, compared to the Godwin Road alternative, would cost $250-350 million more for construction and $9 million more annually for operations. I believe, however, that it would remove only 100 more cars/day from I-66 in 2025 and only 300 cars/day in 2040. The project's justification in the Smart Scale process was based on claims for increased economic development, since congestion relief on I-66 would be so minimal.

Chart from VRE.

Funding for passenger rail is limited, and it is obvious that funding better maintenance for Metro will be a higher priority that any VRE expansion. Asking federal, state, and local officials to spend $500 million more by the year 2040 than the Godwin Road alternative, just to reduce 300 cars/day on I-66, will be difficult when so many rail projects are seeking funding.

For more details, see the Prince William Conservation Alliance blog.

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