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67 Congress members to feds: Measure the movement of people, not cars

The federal government hands states about $40 billion a year for transportation, money they can basically spend however they want. The result in many places is a lot of expensive, traffic-inducing highways that get clogged with cars soon after they're finished. Can measuring the effect of all this spending lead to better decisions?

US DOT is developing a metric to assess how well states address congestion. This is a minefield—if the new congestion rule only measures the movement of cars, it's going to entrench 60 years of failed transportation policy. Unfortunately, the first draft of the DOT rule left a lot to be desired.

Reformers have been pushing the agency to revise the rule so it takes a broader, multi-modal view of congestion. Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America reports 19 senators and 48 US representatives have written a letter to US DOT [PDF] demanding a healthier approach.

The Congress members write:

If we focus, as this proposed rule does, on keeping traffic moving at high speeds at all times of day on all types of roads and streets, then the result is easy to predict: states and MPOs will prioritize investments to increase average speeds for cars, at the expense of goals to provide safe, reliable, environmentally sensitive, multi-modal transportation options for all users of the transportation system, despite those goals being stated in federal statute. This singular focus on moving vehicles undermines the progress this Administration has made on multi-modal planning and investments through the TIGER program. Encouraging faster speeds on roadways undermines the safety of roads for all users, as well as the economic vitality of our communities.

The excessive congestion performance measure should be amended to assess people hours of delay and not just vehicles. This change is critical to account for the many non-single occupancy vehicle users, including transit bus riders and bicyclists and pedestrians traveling along the corridor, which provide critical congestion relief and could be undercounted or even penalized under this measure.

The letter also insists that U.S. DOT require state and regional transportation agencies to assess the impact of projects on greenhouse gas emissions.

US DOT is currently accepting comments about the rule change. You can weigh in and help promote a better policy.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.

History


DC Home Rule almost had... the FBI picking the police chief

What if, instead of DC's mayor picking Chief Cathy Lanier to run the city's police department, we had a chief chosen by the FBI, or the Secret Service? Some members of Congress wanted it to be that way when they gave DC home rule in 1973.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Before the Home Rule Act, Congress made all of DC's laws, and the executive branch ultimately reported to the President of the United States, as if DC were another agency of the federal government (basically, it was). But in 1973, Congress set up our current system of an elected mayor and council. Only they balked at giving DC full autonomy.

Some worried that giving up the police power to local officials would let them blockade the Capitol and force Congress to submit to the will of local residents. Others, amazingly, feared that a popularly elected leader representing the people of DC might not actually be in favor of law and order.

This goes back to 1783

Control of the police is, in fact, the reason there is a District of Columbia in the first place. In the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, 400 soldiers of the Continental Army briefly besieged the delegates of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, demanding payment for services during the Revolutionary War.

The Pennsylvania Executive Council, then the executive branch of the Pennsylvania state government, refused to guarantee it would protect the Congress from the protest, so the delegates moved the capital out of Philadelphia. That experience was the reason the Constitution's authors provided for a federal district, to which the federal capital eventually moved in 1800.

Members worry the Mayor would not want order

In 1973, memories of the 1968 riots were still very fresh. The President had used the National Guard to keep peace, and members of Congress worried that without federal control, this might not happen. But why? At least a few members actually worried that the Mayor would actually be unwilling to act.

Congressman Delbert "Del" Latta (R-OH) said,

Another matter that concerns me about this bill is the matter of who is going to take over this police force in times of revolt or revolution or riot, whatever you have, like we had in the city a couple of years ago.

If we have an elected Mayor who is going to be looking to his constituency in the District of Columbia to reelect him the next election, is he going to respond when the city is burning such as we saw from the Capitol steps a few years ago, as readily as if the President of the United States had the authority right now to sign an order and take over the police department of the city? (p.1764)

Rep. Charles "Charlie" Rangel (D-NY, and still in Congress today) said, "One ... rationale, commonly used by persons against home rule is that home rule will result in a drastic increase in the crime rate for the District. ... Opponents of self-determination for the District are implying that the local government of the city, specifically the Mayor and City Council, would act in bad faith. (1723-1724)

Then-Police Chief Jerry Wilson wrote a letter to Congress addressing some of the concerns:

I recognize, as I am sure you do also, that some of the concerns over home rule for the District of Columbia directly relate to fear that local control of the police may result in misuse or nonuse of the police power in a manner adverse to the interests of the city, either as a local community or as the national capital. ...

Personally, I feel that apprehension over local control of police power in the District is misplaced. My own sense of this community is the overwhelming majority are responsible citizens who want effective law enforcement just as much as residents do in any other city. If the city of Washington is to be treated substantially as a local community, albeit a special one, rather than a federal enclave, then there is no reason to deprive local citizens of control over that fundamental local service, the police force. (1699)

The bill's authors and other members of Congress also noted that the President would have the authority to take over the police in a true emergency. Rep. Charles Diggs (D-MI) replied to critics, saying, "The committee felt that the President has inherent power to invoke whatever police power is required in case of an emergency. We are prepared to put this in more explicit language." (1764)

A provision specifically emphasizing this power was then part of the committee print of the bill which went to the House floor.

Amendments try to take the police chief appointment away from the Mayor

Some Congressmen were still not satisfied. Ancher Nelsen (R-MN) tried to introduce amendments that would have given other people besides the mayor the power to appoint the police chief.

His first proposal was to set up a Board of Police Commissioners with 3 members: the head of the US Secret Service, the head of the FBI, and the Mayor of the District of Columbia. They would submit 3 candidates for police chief to the President, who would pick among them. (2406)

Nelsen notes there was a Police Board in the 1860s, DC's previous episode of home rule, but it was abolished when Congress took control of the District back.

Rep. Brock Adams (D-WA) pointed out that there are lots of federal police forces to protect the federal interest, such as the Capitol Police, Park Police, Secret Service, FBI and more. This was not the case in 1783, when the Continental Congress did not even control the military during peacetime and depended entirely on state militias.

Stewart McKinney (R-CT) also disagreed with Nelsen, saying, "With regard to the problems we have been having in urban centers a police chief has to be one of the strongest and most compatible figures in the community's relationship." (2409)

This was also not something the White House had asked for, and the House defeated Nelsen's amendment, 132-275 with 27 not voting.

Nelson tried again, this time having the board of 3 commissioners nominate individuals to the Mayor. (2424)

Diggs said, "I would just like to understand from the distinguished ranking minority member of the committee [Nelsen] just what is his rationale behind wanting to have this kind of insulation with respect to the Police Commissioner or Chief of Police for this community." (2425) The House rejected this amendment on a voice vote, and that was the end of the matter. (2426)

However, Congress did limit the District's power over its criminal justice system in other ways, which we'll discuss in coming installments of this series.

All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in Home Rule for the District of Columbia, 1973-1974, Background and Legislative History of H.R. 9056, H.R. 9682, and Related Bills Culminating in the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, Approved December 24, 1973 (Public Law 93-198), Serial No, S-4, US Government Printing Office, December 31, 1974.

This post first ran back in 2012. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

Bicycling


Memorial Bridge fixes could help more than just cars

Arlington Memorial Bridge needs serious repairs, or perhaps even a full replacement, in the next five years. As the National Park Service works to make that happen, there's also a chance to address some surrounding conditions that are hazardous for people on foot and on bike.


Photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.

NPS first sounded the alarm about the bridge last year after an inspection forced emergency repairs that partially closed the bridge, and started a ban on heavy vehicles, like buses, that's still in place today. Now, NPS says those repairs didn't do enough, and that it's inevitable that without $250 million in repairs, the bridge will be too dangerous for automobile travel by 2021.

Northern Virginia's Congressional delegation is on board with funding the effort to fix it, citing the fact that 68,000 people cross the bridge daily. Hopefully, they can convince their colleagues to join them.


Rust underneath the Memorial Bridge. Image from NPS.

The bridge is unsafe for more than just cars

Memorial Bridge bridge itself has wide sidewalks that usually allow enough room for most cyclists and pedestrians to share space. But the routes that connect to the bridge aren't safe for people on foot or bike.

In Virginia, the bridge connects to the George Washington Parkway and its accompanying trail, which is one of the region's most popular. Despite its popularity the trail has some particular challenges, namely that it intersects with the parkway—a limited access, high speed highway—in several places. Drivers are supposed to yield or stop for anyone trying to use the crosswalks, but there have been a number of crashes thanks to people rear-ending cars that were stopped to allow people to cross.


Image from Google Maps.

Issues on the DC side of the bridge stem from a confusing web of roads that force cyclists on their way to the Mall or downtown to either ride in very busy car traffic or on a narrow sidewalk.


One of the crosswalks where few drivers slow down. Image from Google Maps.

NPS has actually known about these issues longer than they have known about the bridge being in disrepair. But the agency has been resistant to do anything to fix them except in small ways where the first priority was not to slow down cars using the parkway.

Here are some ideas for fixing the bridge

NPS is straightening out some parts of the trail near Washington National Airport, where curves snake around a large tree and make it hard to see. The agency is also working to make it so cyclists don't have to travel through a busy parking lot near Teddy Roosevelt Island. But closer to the bridge itself, the trail could still get a lot safer.

One option is to create separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians on popular parts of the trail. NPS could also keep working to remove some of sharp curves and blind corners that are on the trail beyond what is being fixed at the airport. Finally, NPS needs to decide what to do about the crosswalks. If the GW Parkway is going to remain a high speed highway, then crosswalks more appropriate for a city street just won't work. Solutions might include rerouting the trail, slowing down speed limits, or even adding trail overpasses.

For the bridge itself, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) put forth its own idea for removing two car lanes and creating protected bike lanes a while back:


Diagram of a redesigned memorial bridge. Image from WABA.

Cutting the number of car lanes on the bridge would work since congestion there is pretty low. Average speeds at rush hour are higher than the speed limit, and a new bridge wouldn't need six car lanes.

The crux of the Memorial Bridge issue is safety, and that of cyclists and pedestrians shouldn't go ignored. But a safe bridge and surrounding area for them would also mean a safer place for drivers, as deciding to follow the law and share the road would become far less dangerous. Both NPS and leaders in Congress should be concerned about all bridge users.

If a concern for safety is a big reason why NPS is sounding the alarm now then they should also be using this opportunity to fix the persistent hazards that cyclists and pedestrians have faced on the trails around the bridge.

Parking


Roll Call recently made a great point about the Capitol's parking problem

In a recent post about cleaning up after Snowzilla, Roll Call, a blog newspaper that covers Congress, published a graphic showing that if you combined all the parking lots on the Capitol Grounds in need of plowing, they'd cover the National Mall. That's a crazy amount of parking.


Imagine if some of Washington's best locations for parks or buildings were parking lots! You don't have to! It's like that today. Image by Roll Call's Sean McMinn and Jia You.

Acres of surface parking lots surround the Capitol and its accessory buildings, and the question of whether they should even be there has long been a sore spot for those paying attention to land use in the District.

That amount of parking is particularly disheartening when you consider that all of these lots used to be blocks of apartments and offices that were very welcoming to people. The McMillan Commission imagined monumental office buildings surrounding the Capitol. In the 1920s, Congress expanded that vision dramatically, adding the open spaces to the north and buying up the lots to the south for future office buildings.

Now, they're parking lots, or parks on top of parking lots. Here's a map of all the surface parking on the Capitol Grounds:


The Capitol Grounds and the surface parking lots. Graphic by the author, with a map from DC GIS.

Congress gets a lot more parking than the rest of the government

The branch of the government that manages the land, the Architect of the Capitol is holding onto the land for now. It likes providing ample parking spaces for legislators, staff, and employees. The AOC won't say exactly how much parking, but a 2005 master plan allotted 5,800 spaces to the House of Representatives alone. Depending on how much the Senate, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and support staff get, the number is probably far higher.


There are federal rules about how much parking there can be for federal employees. Image from NCPC.

Because Congress writes the rules, they've never been subject to review by the National Capital Planning Commission, which sets the parking regulations. The AOC's independence and access to funding has led to a bad reputation, from architecture critics to Congress itself.

To be fair, the AOC does plan to eventually spruce up their properties. Their 2011 Master Plan aims to eliminate all surface parking lots by 2026. But that master plan is short on details for how they'd do that, and it's not clear whether they'd bring the amount of parking in line with the rest of the Federal Government's limits on parking.

Given the sheer volume of parking at the Capitol complex, along with the possibilities for how we could otherwise use the land, the matter of how to scale it back deserves more thought.

Correction: This post originally referred to Roll Call as 'a blog that covers Congress.' While the article at hand was filed on Roll Call's blog, it's more accurate to call the publication a newspaper. Also, it has been clarified to note that the 5,800 figure for parking spaces is only for people who work at the House of Representatives.

Transit


National links: No more grocery stores

Walmart has turned many towns into high-dry food deserts, Nashville is considering its transit options, and Uber had to get creative to get insurance. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Alison & Orlando Masis on Flickr.

Walmart's small town shuffle: Walmart is closing shop in a number of small towns despite only recently arriving and putting other grocery stores out of business. Residents say the effect is devastating. (Bloomberg)

Music City moving: Nashville's transit authority is working to put forward a plan for developing transit. The most robust possibility would build new light rail, streetcars, and bus lines, and would cost $5.4 billion. The smallest plan, at $800 million, would focus on buses and the existing commuter rail line. (Nashville Tennessean)

Uber insurance: Uber as a ride hailing service might not exist if not for one of its employees convincing insurance agents to cover drivers. There's a lot of grey area in how to insure someone who is waiting for the app to connect them with a customer. (Buzz Feed News)

Build up for cars: As soon as cars came on the scene in cities, residents and businesses needed places to put them. In dense places, people put cars on elevators and stored vertically. These pictures show how that technology evolved from the 1920s to 1970s. (Mashable)

To live and ride in LA: Transit ridership has gone down in Los Angeles by 10% from the high reached in 2006. Officials are wondering how to attract more high-income riders, and whether they should stick with current plans to build more bike and bus-only lanes. (Los Angeles Times)

Cities as testing grounds: Gridlock at the US Capitol and in state houses nationwide has liberal leaders testing new laws and ideas at the municipal level. The hope is that cities will prove certain laws work, which will lead to change at state and federal level. (New York Times)

Quote of the Week: "The government is one group that doesn't get to choose its customers. We want to make it work for everyone." Jennifer Pahlka, who started Code for America to help cities work better with their citizens. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Government


Local (and federal) governments want you to go sledding!

For the first time in recent years, government officials are actually encouraging (or at least tacitly allowing) area residents to have some winter fun on hills that were previously off limits to unsanctioned sledding.


Photo by Stephanie Clifford on Flickr.

Last year, DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton slipped a rider into the federal Omnibus Budget that overturned the 140 year-old ban on sledding on the West Lawn—other activities like throwing Frisbees, to our staff editor's chagrin, remain banned.

Local officials are also trying to bring some semblance of reason to sledding in the region: Montgomery County Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson recently released a list of sanctioned sledding hills in all parts of the county.

Here is a list of sledding hills across the region. Some are sanctioned, others... not so much.

Government officials have long been accused of not letting "kids be kids" and letting liability concerns keep residents from sledding on a number of the area's totally great hills. It came to a head in 2015, when US Capitol Police vigorously enforced a longstanding ban on sledding on Capitol Hill, ending in an odd detente between families with small children and heavily armed officers.

Similar stories were playing out all across the region on local levels, sledders being chased away out of safety or liability concerns, or being worried about property damage (think golf courses).

It's worth noting that these concerns aren't always unfounded, as a local child was severely injured last year while sledding. But strict rules put local authorities in the difficult position of enforcing bans, when many hills were safe in most circumstances.

Sledding is great for communities

Lots of people in more spread out places joke that they only meet their neighbors during snowstorms and power outages, when everyone is outside with a common cause. Shared use recreation, particularly during a time when most residents are home, is a fantastic way to build community and promote neighborhood cohesion in general. Some neighborhoods across the area even close certain streets in snowstorms to allow children to safely sled on them.

From a government policy perspective, this is a "quick win" that provides a tangible benefit at little cost.

"Sometimes it takes so long and it is so hard to get things done or change a policy, so it feels great to be able to do something like this that doesn't require years of study and analysis or figuring out where to find the budget," said Anderson. "I want to make sure everyone knows that we are working to maximize access to parks wherever and whenever we can. In some cases we can't allow access, but I want to look for ways to say yes, not for reasons to keep people out."

This weekend, enjoy those sledding hills, and make a point of getting to know your neighbors while you're out there! You'd be surprised at when that will come in handy.

Feel free to list your favorite sledding spots the comments!

Bicycling


Two Congressmen want to give bikeshare programs more federal money

Federal law doesn't define bikeshare programs as public transportation, which means they aren't eligible for the sustained funding that most transit is. If a new bill becomes a law, that would change.


Photo by Chris Reed on Flickr.

Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Vern Buchanan (R-FL), both members of the Congressional Bike Caucus, introduced the Bikeshare Transit Act last week. The law would make bikeshare eligible for funds dedicated to public transportation, clearing up confusion that both local communities and the Department of Transportation often face when it comes to keeping bikeshare programs up and running.

There are over 50 bikeshare programs in the US, with our very own Capital Bikeshare being the biggest. While many were started with federal money, funding continued operations has been a challenge. The Bikeshare Transit Act will help pay for everything from bike repairs and keeping rebalancing vans on the road to system expansions and new technology.

In addition to defining bikeshare as public transportation, the bill proposes to make bikeshare an eligible project under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which supports surface transportation efforts that work to improve air quality. Since bikes are powered by people and emit no pollution, it makes sense for bikeshare programs to receive CMAQ funding.

The American Planning Association is one of many organizations that support this bill.

"Bikeshare programs are helping communities large and small create new and needed transportation options while also improving local economies and quality of life," said APA President Carol Rhea, FAICP. "Bikeshare has become a proven tool for building stronger, more vibrant, and more resilient communities. APA and the nation's planners applaud the introduction of the bipartisan Bikeshare Transit Act. This legislation will make sure that federal policies and investments recognize what residents and cities already know: that bikeshare works."

Crossposted at American Planning Association's Policy News for Planners.

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