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Posts about Barbara Mikulski


7000 series designs sacrifice capacity for vague safety

The team working on the 7000 series, the next generation of Metrorail railcars, has chosen to keep the current "transverse" seating instead of switching to a "longitudinal" arrangement based on unquantifiable safety benefits. In doing so, they've given up the opportunity to substantially increase Metro's capacity as overcrowding gets worse.

Early designs for the 7000 series had two possible seating arrangements under evaluation. The first, transverse seating, is what Metro uses today. The new cars make some specific changes to the current layout, including moving the end doors closer to the center and therefore having more seats at the ends and fewer in the middle. In general, though, it's what we're all used to.

The other option, longitudinal seating, involves a row of seats facing the center on each side. Many transit systems around the world use this seating arrangement. It has the advantage of holding more standees, as there is more open space in the center.

7000-series transverse (left) and longitudinal (right) seating arrangements.

The longitudinal arrangement does sacrifice some seats, though surprisingly not very many. It seats 122 per pair of cars, compared to 126 per pair in the current (transverse) 6000 series, and 130 per pair on the 7000 series in transverse configuration. But it holds more people standing. If trains started using longitudinal seating, the seats would fill up scarcely faster than they do today, but trains wouldn't become crush-loaded as much.

Similarly, Metro decided not to explore having 4 doors per side on each car. Many other systems have 4 doors on cars of this length. New York even has 4 doors on many 60-foot cars, compared to Metro's 75-foot cars. More doors mean the car can load and unload faster, reducing dwell times and keeping trains moving. That increases capacity as well, because the faster each train gets in and out of the busiest stations, the sooner another train can come in and the more trains Metro can run overall.

Why has Metro chosen to forego this opportunity? They say it's because of safety. According to Debo Ogunrinde in a presentation made to the Riders' Advisory Council, the engineers believe there's some safety benefit to transverse seating. Having seats in front of and behind some riders could keep them from sliding into other riders or flying toward the end of the railcar in the event of a crash.

The argument is similar for doors. Fewer doors mean stronger car walls. Of course, the wall strength wasn't the problem in the June 2009 Red Line crash, where the cars telescoped, but there could be crashes where it matters.

That's probably right. But is it worth sacrificing capacity? Consider that overcrowded platforms and escalators present their own safety hazards. And overcrowding is a certainty, while train crashes are hopefully avoidable.

And the more crowded Metro gets, the more people will drive. If they do, they're much less safe. After the crash, BeyondDC calculated that driving Metro is 34 times safer per passenger mile than driving. Is the benefit of transverse seating 34 times greater than longitudinal?

Unfortunately, Metro's engineers don't have (or haven't been willing to share) any sort of quantifiable assessment of the safety value of transverse seating. It's just "some." But we can't tell if it's more of a safety benefit than the safety benefit of less crowded platforms and escalators. And we don't know if it's more of a safety benefit than the benefit of moving a few more people by rail instead of by car.

Mr. Ogunrinde said that Metro felt if there were anything it could do, no matter what, to improve safety, then they would be remiss in skipping it. But is that really true? Why haven't they designed the cars with seatbelts? What about four-point harnesses like on military jets? Airbags? Padded walls? If fewer doors is stronger, why are there still windows on the cars? Why don't the cars have foam peanuts filling their space, which riders can worm their way through? Maybe Metro should run every train at 10 mph?

When the FTA first announced its desire to regulate trainsit safety, I worried that this shortsighted tradeoff is exactly what would happen. Regulators whose sole responsibility is to prevent deaths or injuries in crashes would push transit systems to make changes that reduce the risk of crashes but increase other risks, like crowding and driving. That's what happened when the Federal Railroad Administraton over-regulated commuter and intercity railroads to make cars heavier and therefore slower, harming the overall value of rail passenger service.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff has assured everyone this is not what the FTA would do. He said,

We must remember that, despite WMATA's safety challenges, every Washington area commuter is safer traveling on WMATA than they are traveling on our highways. Thus, we cannot allow any degradation in WMATA's reliability and performance such that commuters opt to abandon Metro in favor of our already congested highways. We must also caution against any proposals that will reduce significantly WMATA's existing capacity, forcing more commuters onto our highways. Any actions or proposals pushing WMATA riders onto our highways simply will degrade safety and worsen congestion in the region.
Hopefully he's right and the FTA will avoid following the FRA's path. But Metro is going ahead and doing the same thing all by themselves. I can understand the viewpoint of the railcar designers as well. If someone is hurt in a crash, people might ask why the railcars weren't designed differently. But if people are hurt in stations, the questions won't revolve around the railcars. And if people die out on the roads, nobody (except maybe us) asks why that person couldn't have been on transit, where they would have been safer.

I don't know if the current political climate allows Metro to design its railcars for the maximum capacity and with the overall transportation safety picture in mind instead of the narrow goal of safest railcars at any operational cost.

Certainly Congress keeps hammering at safety without really analyzing the big picture. Yesterday, a Senate committee approved this year's $150 million federal contribution, but Senator Barbara Mikulski attached conditions that all money be spent on safety and WMATA report quarterly on its progress on safety. The focus on safety is important, but the big picture is more complex than a sound bite.

The Board is supposed to take the broader view. Can they? Is it politically feasible to approve railcars with higher capacity, which will cut down on unsafe overcrowding and reduce reliance on dangerous cars even though some engineers say that transverse seating is safer to some, undetermined and vague degree?

Hopefully they will, asking staff to go back to the longitudinal seating as well as evaluating whether it would bring additional cost to build railcars with 4 doors. Riders in 2030 would be glad they did.

Update: What about articulated cars, where the doors between some cars are replaced with flexible sections creating, in effect, double-length cars or even making the whole train a car? Mr. Ogunrinde said they had rejected that for three reasons.

First, security agencies say it would make things more difficult, perhaps by letting a suspect roam through the train to evade capture. That seems a little dubious. Second, there aren't examples in the US of these working in heavy rail environments. However, there are plenty of examples around the world. But third, and the one that is somewhat persuasive to me, Metro's existing facilities aren't set up to be able to handle articulated cars, making it very costly to switch.


Breakfast links: Whee

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Image from HerrVebah with thanks to haglundc.

It'll be faster, too: Accepting a fiscal reality, Metro will stop trying to repair its down escalators. Instead, the agency will replace the escalators with Playskool™ slides. (Erik W.)

Boo: There's finally an explanation for "ghost buses" in the NextBus system, where buses are listed but don't actually show up: These are actual ghosts of eliminated routes and trips. Riders also report feeling a cold wind when they pass. Thanks to these buses, service on October 31 will be substantially increased. (Michael P.)

Get in the car lane: During his chat today on the Kojo Nnamdi show, DDOT Director Gabe Klein is expected to announce a new DDOT program to restripe all roads for bicyclists. A new 2-person "car program" will start planning a network of special lanes for cars to ensure drivers feel safe. At intersections, the walk signals will always be activated; drivers have to stop and find a small button on the pole to get a green light. The plans do not consider buses. (Matt', Michael P.)

New flock calls for inclusionary wiring: An organization for workforce birds is calling for an inclusionary wiring law that would mandate that 10% of downtown streets include overhead wires. The group's spokesman told the Post, "The burden on families can be severe. Many birds are forced to commute hundreds of thousands of miles each year. That's not right." (Neil)

Stronger preservation: The Historic Preservation Office will manufacture new plastic covers for historic areas. Similar your grandmother's sofa covers, these will guard against pop-ups, pastiche, and vinyl siding and will cost 5¢ each. Regular GGW commenter Lance expressed outrage at the cost. (Neil, Eric F.)

Unacceptable safety record: In a strongly-worded letter, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ), David Vitter (R-LA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) are threatening a federal takeover of the National Mall if pedestrian safety conditions do not improve.

Great new blog: GGW contributors Jaime Fearer and Geoff Hatchard have spun off to launch their own blog, titled Greater Greater Greater Washington. Not to be outdone, Cavan Wilk recently bought the URL for Greatest Greatest Washington, and Matt Johnson and Michael Perkins plann to launch Really Wicked Greater Washington in May. (Steve O.)


It's time for regional leaders to speak up for transit

First, mark your calendars for next Wednesday at 5:30 pm, which is the public hearing on Metro's FY2010 budget gap. It's very important for as many riders as possible to attend and weigh in on the four options, involving varying levels of service cuts, fare increases, and deferring capital dollars from March 1 to June 30.

Please use that pulpit, Senator! Photo by drawsaunders.

Metro has to make tough decisions about how to close its $40 million FY2010 budget gap and to start tackling the $175 million hole for next year and every year thereafter. But the long-term issue isn't just a problem internal to Metro that the WMATA Board has to work out on its own. Our region's leaders need to step up as well and make transit a priority.

Today, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney asks why our leaders are silent as Metro faces big problems. Certainly all governments are facing problems. But we haven't heard much, at least not publicly, from Governors O'Malley and McDonnell, or Mayor Fenty.

Senator Barbara Mikulski spoke loudly about her frustration with Metro's safety record and asked for big changes. That very likely had a lot to do with Catoe's decision to leave. She pushed hard for Metro to get the $150 million a year in federal capital dollars, and will fight for the next $150 million next year, but that's not enough. It would be helpful for Mikulski to keep using her bully pulpit to build Metro up now that she's torn down pieces that perhaps needed some tearing down.

The members of the WMATA Board, of course, talk plenty about the importance of transit, though they also don't say much about the real need for jurisdictions to help out. But I wonder if having some local representatives on the WMATA Board makes other leaders feel less of a need to worry about transit's health.

McCartney notes that CSG has suggested a "regional summit" to discuss Metro. If there is one, Maryland and Virginia's Senators and Governors, Mayor Fenty, Chairman Gray, and others ought to make it a priority to attend and talk about how we can make transit a priority.

Don't forget the hearing: Wednesday, January 27th, 5:30 pm at WMATA HQ, 600 5th St, NW. Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown or Judiciary Square, and 70, 71, 79, 80, D1, D3, D6, P6, X2, Circulator, and other buses.


Next stop: Metro funding

Metro's $300 million in dedicated annual funding is moving quickly toward becoming a reality. Last week, both houses of Congress approved the WMATA Compact Amendments, and according to Councilmember Jim Graham, DC has included its $50 million contribution in the revised budget they approved on Friday. The House and Senate's transportation appropriations bills both contain funding for Metro, meaning the conference committee in September shouldn't affect this, and the Obama administration is expected to approve the bills.

Photo by Millerustad.

Last year, Congress authorized $150 million a year for ten years for Metro, provided DC, Maryland, and Virginia each match it with $50 million each. The three jurisdictions also had to amend the WMATA Compact to add federal voting representatives and some other changes. They made the change, but the Obama Administration's original budget did not include the money. Immediately after last month's Red Line crash, however, Maryland and Virginia Congressional representatives introduced measures to add the funding.

Assuming the budget passes with the $150 million, Maryland and Virginia will have to each find $50 million in their already-tight budgets to match. And then we'll need to lobby Congress and the jurisdictions to maintain that funding into future years.

Metro needs this funding to maintain even our current levels of service. The system is aging, and Metro needs to replace many of its rail cars. While Metro managed to stave off service cuts during the last budget cycle, we've felt the effects of their staff cuts. After the Red Line crash, in particular, many riders have complained of poor communication. Some readers wrote in asking why Metro doesn't deploy platform conductors to help move people down the platform now that trains are pulling all the way to the ends of platforms. One part of the answer: there aren't enough staff left to do that. Even $300 million a year won't keep up with all of Metro's maintenance needs, but it's a big start.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (MD) also added a provision to the Senate bill asking USDOT to "submit legislative recommendations to Congress" on ways to increase their "role in regulating the safety of transit agencies operating heavy rail on fixed guideway." Currently, the FTA cannot regulate transit agencies' safety procedures. Some oversight is appropriate, as long as the FTA doesn't go overboard and require so many safeguards that they impede transit systems' performance. Metro is still many times safer than driving; it can be safer, but if, in our zeal to make it as safe as possible, we make it less useful, more people will just drive, cutting down total safety and hurting transit systems.

Meanwhile, advocates are reporting that Governor O'Malley is expected to announce tomorrow morning the State of Maryland's support for a light rail Purple Line. Fresh from securing money for Metro, the region's Congresspeople can next start pushing for the federal portion of funding for this project. Or, better yet, they should support a better allocation scheme that ends the double standard whereby transit projects must prove their value while highway projects don't, and which gives a higher percentage of federal funding to highway projects than transit projects.


Mikulski fiddles with car tax credits while transit burns

Maryland state lawmakers re-added a $10 million tax break for car purchases at the final stage of their budget negotiations. Legislators had previously decided to remove the credit to help shore up Maryland's finances until Senator Barbara Mikulski pushed to reinstate it. Mikulski inserted a similar provision into the federal stimulus bill earlier this year.

Unsold cars jam ports around the world. Photo original source unknown.

What could Maryland do with $10 million besides further incentivize people to buy new cars that most of them don't need? With just half that money, they could restore transit cuts in the Washington region and Baltimore. Those cuts threaten to cut off vital service to many residents who don't have alternatives, or will drive many Marylanders to commute by car instead of transit, increasing traffic, pollution and parking problems. DC and most Virginia jurisdictions came up with extra money to stave off most of their proposed cuts to Metro service, but Maryland remains $4.8 million behind. The other half of the $10 million could restore previous cuts or improve service in Baltimore.

Instead of preserving this vital transportation choice, Mikulski is intent on propping up an auto industry that has quite simply overproduced cars for the current economy. Americans would do just fine simply keeping their current cars a little longer. Meanwhile, cutting transit service not only destroys jobs, but harms many residents' ability to get to their jobs.

Tonight, Metro will hold the first two of their six hearings on service cuts, in Hyattsville and Vienna. Transit First! is continuing to call on area jurisdictions, especially Maryland, to avoid service cuts. They held a press event this morning at Prince George's Plaza Metro with County Councilmember Eric Olson and PG ACT's Karren Pope-Onwukwe to highlight the impact of the cuts, which hit Prince George's hardest.

Mikulski made an early name for herself in politics by opposing freeways that would have cut through Baltimore and destroyed historic neighborhoods. Sadly, like many freeway warriors of her era, she doesn't realize that the ever-expanding freeways outside Baltimore hurt that city's vitality almost as much as bulldozing a neighborhood, by driving development ever outward and removing jobs from downtown. Nor does she see how other governmental policies, like tax subsidies for car ownership, put cities at a disadvantage by drawing potential riders away from transit and forcing even more service cuts.

The Baltimore-Washington area is one of our nation's greatest metropolitan regions, including some of the best transit systems in the nation and a wide range of walkable, transit-oriented communities in and around two major cities. It's too bad Maryland's senior Senator seems intent on dismantling her state's existing advantages through her policy priorities. Her legacy may well be to bring about the very same form of destruction to Maryland's communities she fought to stop a generation ago.


How good is Congress' word on Metro funding?

If you were selling a house, and had agreed on a price with the buyer, would you decide to simply transfer the house to the buyer before they'd even signed a contract or put down a deposit? If your realtor told you that you have to give the buyer the house, because if not they might decide not to buy, you'd tell the realtor to take a hike and find a new realtor. Some of Maryland's House and Senate members, however, are in essence asking DC, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, and Northern Virginia to do just that with Metro funding and seats on the WMATA Board.

Photo by RangerRick on Flickr.

Last year, WMATA's jurisdictions and Congress struck a deal. The federal government would contribute $150 million a year over ten years to Metro's capital and maintenance needs. In exchange, the three jurisdictions would match it, $50 million a year from each of DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Also, the feds would receive two seats on the WMATA Board of Directors.

To implement this change, each of DC, Maryland, and Virginia must amend the WMATA Compact. The federal law authorizing this (all the way at the bottom) says,

No amounts may be provided to the Transit Authority pursuant to the authorization under this section until the Transit Authority notifies the Secretary of Transportation that each of the following amendments to the Compact ... have taken effect:

(1)(A) An amendment requiring that all payments by the local signatory governments ... for the purpose of matching any Federal funds ... are made from amounts derived from dedicated funding sources. ...

(2) An amendment establishing an Office of the Inspector General of the Transit Authority.

(3) An amendment expanding the Board of Directors of the Transit Authority to include 4 additional Directors appointed by the Administrator of General Services, of whom 2 shall be nonvoting and 2 shall be voting, and requiring one of the voting members so appointed to be a regular passenger and customer of the bus or rail service of the Transit Authority.

The DC Council passed a bill first. Written by Councilmember Jim Graham, it amends the compact to include the three items above. It also specifies that, if the federal government does not actually pony up the promised $150 million, then the federal representatives don't get to participate on the Board. If everyone follows through on the deal, everyone gets what was promised. If not, the feds don't get a vote. If you're selling your house and the buyer discovers they can't get a mortgage, you don't still have to give them the house anyway.

The danger comes because the federal bill only "authorizes" funding. It doesn't "appropriate" the funding. Congress could very well never actually pay anything, or pay much less than promised. But meanwhile, local taxpayers would lose influence over Metro operations. The board seats represent some, perhaps small, amount of leverage. Giving seats away without more of a guarantee of funding tosses that leverage away.

Delegate Adam Ebbin of Arlington introduced an identical bill, but then suddenly substituted a different version. That version simply adds federal representatives with no strings attached. (Both texts are here; click on the "HB2596" tab for the original, and the "HB2596H1" tab for the substitute.) According to sources familiar with the process, Maryland's elected officials persuaded Virginia to make the switch. Barbara Mikulski, Ben Cardin, and were involved, but my sources say the primary pressure came from Congressman Steny Hoyer, House Majority Leader and representative of College Park, Bowie and Southern Maryland.

Those pushing for a "clean" bill argue, my sources say, that Congress might not follow through if the bill includes any conditions on the federal representation. It turns out that the concept of a deal, where both parties have to follow through or the deal is off, isn't the typical way the House and Senate Appropriations Committees operate. Local leaders have been working for years to build support for this deal, they say; let's not do anything to screw it up. However, if something else screws it up anyway, we've just given up some local autonomy for nothing.

The no-strings substitute bill has passed Virginia's House. Update: and now, the Virginia legislature just substituted back the DC version again. If something does pass at this point, most likely it will add federal representatives unconditionally. the no-strings version passes, we'll have to hold local officials' feet to the fire. If Hoyer, Mikulski, Cardin, Warner, Webb and the rest get the bill they want, they'd better push hard, and fast, to get the full $150 million appropriation for Metro this year, and keep it coming each year for the full ten.


Breakfast links: Barbaras behaving badly, and other Capitol drama

Bond(age) and Crap(o): Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) plans to introduce two more amendments to strip transit funding from the stimulus and give it to highways. One would eliminate the high-speed rail corridor program entirely. The other, cosponsored by Senators Boxer (yes, Boxer again), Baucus, Cochran, Voinovich, Bayh, Brownback and Crapo, would cut all the money in the "supplementary transportation grants", a pot of money that could go to new projects in roads or transit, and dedicate it completely to highways.

Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

What Maryland needs is more cars: As JTS pointed out, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski added an amendment to spend $11 billion on tax deductions for car purchases. Of course, she didn't add any tax deductions for transit rides. If you live in Maryland, call Mikulski at (202) 224-4654 to ask her to stop furthering our society's subsidy of driving over transit, and to oppose the Boxer and Bond amendments to remove transit funding and highway funding. If you live in Virginia, please call Jim Webb at (202) 228-5185.

How about tall brown bollards with leaves? According to the Hill Rag, the Architect of the Capitol plans to cut down ten 14-year-old elm trees to line 2nd Street NE with bollards. The ANC and bloomingdale, for now wonder why they can't simply use the trees as bollards and put bollards in the gaps.

Rahm's illegal rental: Rahm Emanuel's basement apartment on Capitol Hill isn't a legal unit. The home, owned by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, doesn't have a Certificate of Occupancy for a second apartment. This is a dumb scandal. Unofficial basement apartments are common, and DC law should encourage them.

Needed: ice enforcers: The DC Council passed a law requiring drivers to clear ice off their cars. If they don't, it tends to slide off and hit other people and cars. At least for now, police will only be able to give drivers a warning. Cary Silverman points out that we already don't enforce the law requiring property owners to clear their sidewalks, which also carries no fine.

And: Denser, connected street grids are safer (tip: Michael); Toronto guerrilla artists modified the signs from "No Bicycles" rush hours (with a big red circle with a slash) to a green "Bicycles Allowed" except rush hours (via WashCycle; GigaOm's Mathew Ingram tells everyone looking for big payouts from Google, from newspapers to WMATA, that Google Is Not Your Sugar Daddy (tip: John).

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