Greater Greater Washington

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Pedestrians


You don't have to push this button to cross the street

If you walk to a corner and see a button to activate the walk signal, you might need to push it. Or you might not. It might only be there to activate a chirping noise for people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.


Connecticut Avenue and N Street in DC. Photo by David Alpert.

Some intersections keep "don't walk" signals lit during both red and green phases of a traffic light unless someone pushes a "beg button"—technically an "actuated pedestrian push button"—before the light turns green.

The sign on the picture above clearly implies that that's what will happen when people wanting to cross the street push the button.

But the button actually has nothing to do with the walk signal. The walk signal comes on whether you press the button or not.

What the button does is turn on a loud chirping noise that speeds up when the walk signal begins. The misleading signs have appeared in large numbers in DC, Montgomery County, and elsewhere over the past year, on local roads and state highways.


Unless you can't see the sign, pushing this button won't help you cross Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Why is this?

Federal guidelines, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), authorize only certain standard signs for pedestrians. Among them are several variants for buttons that control the walk signal, but no sign for buttons that merely activate the audible signal for people with visual impairments.


Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

In downtown Bethesda, chirper buttons have appeared in large numbers over the last half year, all accompanied by the standard sign. Frequent passers-by soon recognized that the sign conveyed a falsehood, and now, few people push the button.

From my observation, it has become more common for people to simply cross streets wherever and whenever they feel safe. The streets seem no less safe.

Highway agencies take great care to ensure that signs meant for drivers are accurate and unambiguous—and doing so helps keep all who use the roads safe. Pedestrians, as these pushbutton signs illustrate, get very different treatment.

By taking such a nonchalant attitude toward those on foot, traffic engineers implicitly recognize something their profession refuses to officially admit: Drivers in the wrong place endanger others, but pedestrians do not.

Development


At a hearing on DC General, opposition runs the gamut from rational to prejudicial

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has a plan to close DC General and put smaller homeless shelters in all eight wards of the city. There's a lot of opposition, ranging from concerns about shelters going up in dangerous places to positions that seem more about keeping poor minorities out of certain parts of the city.


Photo by Kai Hendry on Flickr.

Everyone agrees that the decrepit DC General Family Shelter needs to go; it's notorious for being a place where families and children share space with mold, mice, raccoons, and bats, along with geysering water mains and collapsing, leaky ceilings.

Bowser's plan is to distribute the 250 beds at DC General across sites across the city, each holding a maximum of 50 people. Over 150 citizens, non-profit leaders, and activists packed the Wilson Building for the DC Council's Thursday, March 17th hearing on the shelter plan. There were over 90 public testimonies over 13 hours, a level of engagement that underscores how much emotion and outrage there is on the matter.

At this point, there are two clear camps: Those who have enough concerns about Bowser's plan that they don't think it should move forward, and those who acknowledge it to be imperfect but who think it should.

The plan doesn't have to be perfect, say supporters

Among the supporters was a group organized by the Washington Interfaith Network, including pastors, citizens from across many wards, and former residents of DC General themselves.

"If everyone nitpicks this proposal," said a former DC General resident, "I am concerned that this plan will fall apart, and DC General Family Shelter will still be standing with families living in horrible conditions."

Councilmember Jack Evans shared the same sentiment in his opening remarks, saying "What I don't want to leave here with, what I don't want to happen today, is that we end up doing nothing. And that is a real possibility."

Opponents present factual and "veiled" arguments

Some people, however, aren't sold on the plan. A number of attendees followed a formula that's familiar for development projects of all kinds, raising concerns about mismanaged taxpayer money, a lack of transparency in the process, and worries about the buildings' designs.

One key argument against it comes from Ward 5, where the current proposal location is in an industrial area, surrounded by a bus depot, strip clubs, and no easy-to-access public transit. Residents, advocacy groups, and Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie all seriously questioned placing 50 some families in such a place.

Other arguments also have some legitimacy. Some of the units are surprisingly expensive, and many of the developers getting contracts are largely known Bowser backers.

But at the hearing, some of these concerns seemed closer to having roots in excluding "other" people from living in certain neighborhoods. Many people started statements with something like, "I am not against homeless people moving into my neighborhood, but...," which Councilmember Elissa Silverman referred to as "veiled challenges."

Other opponents left less up for interpretation: "The same problems that are at DC General are going to be moved across the street [from us]," said one witness.


Inside DC General. Photo from Homeless Children's Playtime Project.

In April, the DC Council will vote on how to move forward.

The issue of how to replace DC General has brought about themes and arguments that commonly surface any time a new development with new housing becomes a possibility for a DC neighborhood. Sifting through moral cover and deflections, as well as veiled attempts to keep "those" people out, is all too familiar territory. Those of us working to reshape a city that historically has warehoused people in overcrowded shelters and on blighted, ignored blocks should take note, and prepare for future hearings.

Government


The Wizards practice facility deal should be more transparent

Publicly-funded stadiums are a controversial issue in the District. There were public debates and long, contentious hearings about Nationals Park and the DC United stadium, and public speculation is now turning toward RFK and the future home of the Washington football team. But our latest sports project, a $50 million-plus practice facility for the Wizards, has largely flown under the radar.


Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr.

I introduced legislation called the Wizards Practice Facility Cost Containment Act of 2016 earlier this month to fix that, and to set basic limits on spending. There's a hearing on that bill this Thursday, March 24 starting at 3 pm in the John A. Wilson Building.

Here are the project's details

Events DC, our taxpayer-funded convention and sports authority, has been tasked with building the new practice facility, and is contributing $27 million to the construction. The District government itself is contributing $23 million, and Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards, will put in $5 million in upfront rent payments.

The project will include a practice facility for the Wizards, which will have all the modern bells and whistles the team feels it needs to attract the top talent in the league, from cryosaunas to hydrotherapy pools. The facility will also have a 5,000 seat arena that will be the new home of the Washington Mystics of the WNBA for their 17 home games each year, and that Events DC promises will host smaller concerts and entertainment events.

There's one more detail: Under the current funding agreement, the District, through Events DC, will be on the hook for any and all cost overruns.

Too much would fall on taxpayers

I don't think that is right, given that the primary beneficiary of this facility will be the Wizards franchise, and its owner, Ted Leonsis. I have concerns that taxpayers are funding something that Monumental Sports and Leonsis can do themselves—and teams in other cities have done without taxpayer help—but I am especially focused on the cost overrun issue.

The District has a poor track record delivering capital projects on time and on budget. I don't need to remind Greater Greater Washington readers about the streetcar saga. Our school modernization program routinely goes over budget. Nationals Park was originally presented as a $435 million project, and even conservative estimates today put the final cost for the stadium at almost $700 million. (And that's before we learned last month the stadium will need another $160 million in repairs and upgrades over the next 10 to 15 years.)

If we don't bring a basic level of transparency and accountability to the Wizards project, it could easily grow far beyond our original $50 million investment. I've gotten pushback that given the project is in Ward 8, which has not experienced the private investment and economic renaissance neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River have had in recent years, we should spend whatever it takes. A reckless approach to budgeting will not bring more permanent jobs and development to Ward 8, and, in fact, it could impact the money Events DC has available for important promises it has made in terms of workforce development and community programming.

Because of the funding sources used to finance the project, the project not only doesn't need Council approval in the first place, but its costs could also go above $100 million before Events DC would need to ask the Council for additional funds. I find that troubling, which is why I introduced legislation to limit the District's total contribution to $50 million, including both the city government and Events DC.

Let the DC Council weigh in

My legislation isn't about killing the deal, or about taking investment out of Ward 8. Ward 8 is long overdue for investment, and it's shameful our East of the River communities have been historically left out when it comes to large public projects.

But the District's $23 million contribution for the practice facility comes from the more than $120 million the Council already allocated to rebuild the infrastructure at the St. Elizabeths redevelopment, a project which I wholeheartedly support. It is critical that these funds go toward a plan that will provide the maximum possible benefit to the Ward 8 community.

We usually use our legislative process to iron out big questions of how to spend tens of millions of dollars. We hold hearings, have committee markups, and vote on projects and programs. We also vote every year on our city's budget.

But this project has almost completely avoided the normal legislative process, and was set to be approved without the Council ever voting on it. There's been no meaningful feasibility study, no cost breakdowns to justify the estimates, and only one public roundtable, held in December before most of the details of the deal had been released.

Contrast that with the process surrounding the DC United stadium, which the Council exhaustively studied through multiple hearings and votes. And, I would point out, Mayor Bowser rightly insisted on a cost-sharing arrangement with DC United in case of overruns.

The legislation I introduced several weeks ago, along with a resolution on the funding agreement, will allow the Council to vote on the project, and will require a conversation about the District's priorities should the project go over budget. This is a basic level of accountability and transparency we should expect of all of our projects, but especially of taxpayer-funded stadiums like this.

Again, those who are interested can attend the hearing this week, on Thursday, March 24 in Room 500 in the John A. Wilson Building. To sign up to testify, contact the Committee of the Whole at (202) 724-8196 or cow@dccouncil.us by 5:00 p.m on March 22.

Transit


The DC Streetcar starts service on Saturday. It took a wild ride to get here.

When DC's H Street and Benning Road streetcar opens on February 27, it'll run on rails that were first installed almost seven years earlier. We've been talking about this project since 2008, with hundreds of posts. The following is a little walk down memory lane to look at everything that's happened.


Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.

Forty years after streetcars vanish, efforts begin to bring them back

Streetcars used to ply DC's streets until 1962. In 1956, following a strike, Congress forced the streetcar's operator to shut down all streetcars and replace them with buses.

But decades later, the Metro was under construction and rail transit was coming back. Metro wouldn't serve all parts of the city, however. A 1997 long-range transportation plan from the Barry administration called for new streetcar lines, including on H Street and Benning Road.

In the early 2000s, the DC government was trying to find a way to get a streetcar system started cheaply. An unused CSX track that runs through Anacostia seemed like a great spot. DC jumped on a Portland streetcar contract in 2004 to purchase three Czech-made cars. But DC couldn't get the rights to use the line, and the cars sat in the Czech Republic, unused.

2008: Anacostia? H Street? Both?

A political fight also was brewing in the DC Council about where to start the streetcar project. A line from Anacostia Metro to Bolling Air Force Base wouldn't have served many people. DDOT agreed to plan a route through Historic Anacostia as well, but many residents were not enthusiastic. Meanwhile, H Street businesses, residents, and Councilmember Tommy Wells were eager for the line on H Street.

DC had recently finished designing several corridors around the city in a program called "Great Streets." H Street and Benning Road, NE was one. Since a streetcar line was in the city's plans, to avoid having to reconstruct the street a second time, the decision was made to install tracks during the project.


Photo by Ralph.

2009: DDOT gets serious about a streetcar, but questions remain

The streetscape program yielded visible progress, but many details of the streetcar itself were not yet worked out. Besides sticking rails in the ground, what exactly was DC going to build? Where would the streetcar turn around? Where would maintenance happen? And what would power the cars?

Gabe Klein, then head of DDOT, decided to make the project a much higher priority, and in late 2009, the administration followed through with a bold vision to build eight lines in all wards of DC. He also moved the three streetcars across the ocean from the Czech Republic.


Phase 1   Phase 2   Phase 3   View larger version (PDF)

At the time, officials estimated the whole system could be built in 7-10 years for a cost of $1.5 billion. Mostly, they planned to put them in mixed traffic rather than dedicated lanes, except for a few segments on Rhode Island Avenue, M Street SE, and K Street NW.

There were already some signs that DDOT wasn't thinking everything through. WMATA sent a letter worrying that the platforms, high enough to roll right onto a streetcar, would be too high to board the X2 buses, which run along the same street. Would they conflict?

Unless you've got power

One of the big questions was how cars would get power. A law prohibited overhead wires in the L'Enfant city, including H Street NE. Some groups were gearing up to oppose the streetcar not based on its function, but based on the aesthetics of having any wires above the street.


Bombardier Primove. Image from Bombardier.

While insisting that modern wires look much less intrusive than many of the old-fashioned ones in some cities, DDOT promised to look into wireless technology, especially hybrid approaches that could use some off-wire segments along curves (which require more wires) and across important view corridors.

Groups like the Committee of 100 were pushing for a fully wireless approach, but experts said that was not feasible without major extra cost and maintenance headaches, at least not today.

2010: The Great Overhead Wire Battle

To get people excited about the project, in May 2010 DDOT brought the streetcar down to the parking lot that's now CityCenterDC. People could touch the vehicle and climb on board. They could also see two other DDOT vehicles: a newer Circulator bus and a bicycle for the soon-to-be-launched Capital Bikeshare.


Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Opposition from the Committee of 100 and other groups continued. It focused on two streams: first, opposition to overhead wires; and second, an argument that there needed to be more planning before moving ahead. In retrospect, they were absolutely right on the second point, but the first one overshadowed it and unfortunately made the more prescient warnings less credible.

May is the time the DC Council finishes its budget, and many chairs have unveiled a final budget late the night before the deadline for a final vote. At 2 am on May 26, 2010, then-Chairman Vincent Gray, and also a candidate for mayor, cut the streetcar funding in his final budget. We and others sounded the alarm, and residents flooded Gray's office with calls asking to restore the funding. By that afternoon, he had worked out a deal with councilmembers to do just that.

Gray always maintained that his move to cut streetcar funds wasn't an attempt to kill the project outright, but stemmed from a belief that it needed more planning first. At a later campaign town hall, he said, "I support streetcars; let me make that clear. ... We have a commitment" to build out a 37-mile system.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Soon after the budget fight, the council took a step to amend the overhead wire ban to allow wires on H Street (and elsewhere once the council approves a citywide streetcar plan and DDOT studies off-wire options). All councilmembers except Phil Mendelson cosponsored the bill.

As Ken Archer explained to the council, beautiful historic cities like Prague have trams using wires and still maintain their historic charm.


A streetcar wire in Prague. Photo by Isaac Wedlin on Flickr.

The National Capital Planning Commission wasn't so excited about wires. Its chair, Preston Bryant, threatened to ask the federal government to reject grants to DC if the District continued with its efforts, and then followed through on his threat. DC officials called that "bureaucratic blackmail."

The Federal Transit Administration indeed rejected DC's grant application, though sources said NCPC wasn't the reason as the winners had been selected well before Bryant's letter.

Planning and promises

In October 2010, DDOT released a more detailed streetcar plan that said:

  • Service on the H Street/Benning Road line and in Anacostia (to start with, south of the Anacostia Metro) would start in March 2012
  • A train would come every 10 minutes on H Street and every 15 in Anacostia
  • Rides would cost $1
  • There would be a proof-of-payment system instead of paying on board
  • DDOT would buy three more streetcars in addition to the three it already had
In December, Gray, by that time mayor-elect, continued his support for the program in a budget proposal. His transition report, however, sharply criticized DDOT for mismanagement in a number of areas. His first official budget allocated $99 million to streetcars.

Studies continued about how to route the streetcar through Historic Anacostia, but growing numbers of residents raised opposition to the project entirely.


Tracks under construction in Anacostia. Photo by John Fuller.

2011-2012: Setbacks

In April 2011, the completion date for the H Street/Benning Road line slipped to "late 2012." It wasn't the last delay.

The streetcar plan had long called for tracks on the local span of the new 11th Street bridge, then under construction, to get the streetcar over the Anacostia River. But in October 2011, the Federal Transit Administration blocked DDOT from installing tracks on the bridge. According to DDOT sources, the move was fine with the Federal Highway Administration, but FTA suddenly stepped in.


11th Street Bridge construction. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

If it seems ironic that the federal government's transit agency would be the one pushing against transit, it's not a new refrain. Then-FTA administrator (now head of Seattle's transit agency) Peter Rogoff argued FTA had little leeway, but many other transportation professionals privately argued they could have allowed it.

Another, even bigger hurdle popped up. Since the 2010 plans, DDOT had expected to put the Union Station stop and a maintenance yard under the "Hopscotch Bridge" which carries H Street over the railroad tracks. One property owner didn't want to go along, but DDOT officials kept predicting they could work out all necessary approvals.


Schematic of the maintenance yard (left), 1st Street NE (center), the Union Station stop, and tracks toward H Street (right). Image from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

That didn't happen. Instead, Amtrak rejected the concept because it wanted to use the space for other purposes. (The next year, it released a master plan for Union Station that used that passageway as a concourse.)

By early 2012, there had been procurement problems that meant DC would almost surely not have the 3 extra streetcars promised, meaning not enough to run at 10-minute headways. In mid-2012, Councilmember Marion Barry tried to block another contract for the H Street line.

Mayor Gray's commitment didn't wane, however; he budgeted $237 million over six years to construct multiple streetcar lines.


Spingarn High School in 2009. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Spinning wheels on Spingarn

DDOT had been planning a maintenance facility on the Spingarn High School campus, but that had been a longer-term piece of the puzzle; with the area under the bridge unavailable, this was now blocking further progress.

Nearby residents also asked to designate Spingarn as a historic landmark, forcing any plans to go through far more extensive historic review. Then-DDOT Director Terry Bellamy said this would delay the project further; by now, it was delayed to late 2013 at the earliest.

It also had become clear to many by this time that DDOT's claims were not credible. DDOT had proposed the underpass maintenance yard idea without having buy-in and then couldn't get it. It had planned tracks on the 11th Street Bridge and didn't get those. Now, it hadn't started working on Spingarn nearly far enough ahead of time, and like too many other streetcar pieces, plans for the maintenance facility weren't publicly available at first (and when they were turned out to be meh until later getting better).


One February 2013 design for the Spingarn maintenance facility.

2013: Will it open?

Studies also continued for planning how to extend the line east from Oklahoma Avenue over the Anacostia River and west to Georgetown.

Testing on H Street hadn't even begun, but DDOT officials said that could happen in late 2013. They also started talking about a 22-mile "priority system" of three lines: east-west from Georgetown to Benning Road, from Anacostia to Buzzard Point, and from Buzzard Point to Takoma.


The 22-mile "priority system."

Even though it looked iffy, Mayor Gray kept promising streetcars would run in 2013. He also increased the budget to $400 million to pay for the line to go all the way to Georgetown, build the Anacostia line, and study the other lines in the 22-mile system.

One issue that had been brewing: How to make the area safe for people on bikes. Bicycle wheels can get stuck in streetcar tracks, and for a brief time incorrectly-installed grates even increased the danger. "Bike sneaks" and other design strategies can help cyclists stay safe.


Toronto. Photo by Eric Parker on Flickr.

The most important thing was to give cyclists another way to travel east-west, which DDOT did by designing and building bike lanes so people could ride two ways on G and I streets, parallel to H.

By October, DC officials admitted the streetcar wouldn't run in 2013. Testing would start in December 2013. This was far from the only broken promise by DDOT under Bellamy's leadership, which developed a reputation for being unable to deliver on its commitments.

Streetcar wires started appearing in November and the first vehicle arrived in December.


Photo by DC Streetcar on Flickr.

2014: The public-private partnership that wasn't

The Gray Administration also devised a strategy to significantly speed up construction: Find a contractor who could design, build, operate, and maintain (DBOM) the streetcar. They hoped an organization with more expertise could get things done without all the delays that had come thus far.

Gray proposed a major, ongoing revenue source to fund the succession of lines, by allocating a quarter of new tax revenue that comes in above the base estimate for Fiscal Year 2015. That would have given the program an estimated $800 million over five years.

A team started working on studies for the line on or near Georgia Avenue, and we pushed for dedicated lanes for this line. DDOT had already agreed to build dedicated lanes on K Street.


K Street section through downtown from October 2013. Image from DDOT.

Challengers to Mayor Gray criticized his administration's progress and the repeated delays.

On April Fool's Day 2014, DC had its primary, and Gray lost his bid for renomination. His budget plan also went down the next month, as Chairman Phil Mendelson, again near the deadline (but not in the middle of the night), took much of the money away for tax cuts. He did, however, leave $400 million over five years, which the Gray administration said wasn't even enough to pay for the segment west to Georgetown.

Mendelson disputed that allegation, and battling budget analysts left many confused about what, exactly, was still being funded. But the bigger problem was that DDOT had lost much of its credibility on the streetcar program from all of these delays, broken promises, and cover-ups over setbacks. Residents who had excitedly defended the program in 2010 were not ready to stick up for it in 2014.


A Gray administration graphic criticizing cuts.

Soon after, it became clear even opening in 2014 was unlikely, though the Gray Administration, as it had in 2013, kept promising service by the end of 2014.

"Simulated service," where the streetcars run as if they're really operating with passengers to ensure they are safe, started in the fall. There was just barely enough time to launch service before New Year's Day if the fire department signed off on the safety plans quickly. It didn't.


"Simulated service" in January 2015. Photo by Dan Malouff.

2015: Reboot

A new administration brought in new leadership. Leif Dormsjo, the new head of DDOT, said he'd stop making promises until they could actually keep them. In fact, Dormsjo said he wasn't totally certain the line would ever open.

He brought in a team of experts from the American Public Transportation Association to evaluate the line. Their report concluded that it could indeed open, and Mayor Bowser promised to finish the line from Georgetown to either Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro.

Oh, remember wires? The ones on H Street weren't destroying the neighborhood, but DDOT did start planning for wireless operation across major intersections with state avenues, the Mall, and so on.

APTA's report identified 33 fixes to make to the streetcar line, and DDOT got going on those. By July, it had finished 12. Dormsjo brought in a team of experts who had actually launched streetcars in other cities to get this project over the finish line.


Workers modify the 19th Street station following the APTA review. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We didn't hear a lot about the streetcar in late 2015, but DDOT was working on fixing remaining problems with the line. Officials were also trying to get the fire department to sign off on safety plans.

2016: It's time

DDOT restarted "simulated service" at the end of 2015 and even announced the streetcar would close during the "Snowzilla" storm, in part to show safety officials how the line would handle a storm like this. The fire department ultimately gave its consent to open the line, and now it's scheduled to open on February 27.


Photo by Fototak on Flickr.

This will be the first time most people will be able to get on a DC Streetcar since May 2010 and the first time they can while the vehicle is in motion. There have been a lot of claims about the streetcar, pro and con, and riding it will finally give people a chance to decide based on real experience.

After that, DC will have to decide what to do about the other proposed lines and studies. DDOT will have to finish studies about extending the H Street/Benning Road line east and west, and decide what to do with the studies in limbo in Anacostia and Georgia Avenue.

One thing is for sure: It'll be great to have this sordid saga of delays and broken promises in the past.

Development


DC has a program to help first-timers buy a house, and it may start giving more aid

DC has a program for helping people buy houses, but the money it awards doesn't line up with how much houses in the city actually cost. The program might start awarding more money soon.


Photo by C.E. Kent on Flickr.

Programs to support first-time home buyers help spur economic security and neighborhood stability across the US. In Washington, the Home Purchase Assistance Program has been the key tool for the District to support first-time homebuyers.

On January 7th, the DC Council held a hearing to consider raising the maximum amount applicants can receive, from $50,000 to $80,000.


The proposed increase in loan amount would increase HPAP buyers' purchase power and give them access to more homes on the market. The figures below are based on 38% front end ratio (the proportion of monthy income that would go to the full cost of the mortgage) and a 5.5% interest rate, so maximum purchase prices could be higher. Tables from the Housing Advocacy Team.

HPAP helps people jump one of home buying's biggest hurdles

When someone buys a house, they take out a regular mortgage loan from a traditional bank for the bulk of the home price. HPAP augments that money by providing what's known as a "second trust loan." HPAP money can also go toward a down payment, and the program offers an additional $4,000 to help with closing costs.

The actual amount that the borrower is eligible for is based on their income, with lower income households eligible for more assistance. Those receiving the highest loan amounts make 50% of the area median income or less. Participating owners receive both pre- and post-homebuyer education, and they pay back the second trust loan with zero interest starting in the fifth year of their mortgage.

Saving for a down payment is often the greatest barrier to owning a home. Many people already pay high monthly costs in rent and could afford the monthly cost of a mortgage and upkeep, but cannot also save tens of thousands of dollars towards a downpayment. In fact, according to the real estate website Trulia, it is 27% cheaper to buy in DC than it is to rent. Having a significant downpayment also lowers interest rates and monthly mortgage costs for the length of the loan.

A greater award amount would help buyers in a tougher market

Over the last decade, the maximum amount of money that HPAP awards a buyer has fluctuated greatly. That variation hasn't been based on housing prices, but rather DC's budget and spending pressures.

In 2008, the award amount was capped at $70,000. But when the recession hit, federal and local resources shrank, and the award amount dipped to $40,000 per purchase. While that rose to $50,000 in 2014, that jump paled in comparison to the rapid increase in the cost of buying a home here.

With HPAP's limits being what they currently are, most low-to-moderate income buyers could only afford homes under $300,000. According to Zillow, the median home price in DC right now is $502,600, and on average, between 2012 and 2014 there was 4.7 percent reduction in the number of condos and homes affordable to most HPAP borrowers.

MANNA, a nonprofit that has helped DC residents purchase homes for decades, crunched some of the numbers and put them into to charts:


As purchase prices have increased, the number of houses at prices affordable to HPAP buyers has dropped.

Should the DC Council increase HPAP's maximum award amount, houses in the $300,000-$400,000 range would be available to a lot more prospective buyers.

Thursday's hearing demonstrated wide interest in changing the award amount. Housing and Community Development Committee Chair Anita Bonds chaired the hearing and was joined by Councilmembers Nadeau and Silverman. All of the public testimony supported the increase, and Polly Donaldson, the Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which manages the program, expressed interest in increasing the award amount.

Roads


Proposed rules aim to get serious about road safety in DC

The DC government has committed to "Vision Zero," a goal of eliminating all road deaths. A detailed plan from the Bowser Administration will come out Wednesday, but in the meantime, legislators have been putting forth their own proposals for laws around safety.


Photo by Jonathan Warner on Flickr.

Four bills in the DC Council about road safety proposals were the subject of a hearing on December 8. Here's a rundown of what they will do.

Enhanced Penalties for Distracted Driving Amendment Act of 2015

This bill, introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson, would increase fines for people who repeatedly engage in distracted driving. Anyone with three violations within eighteen months would get his or her driver's license suspensded and points on the license.

Today, first-time violators who purchase a hands-free device do not face any fines; the bill would end that waiver.

Speakers at the hearing were broadly supportive. Many asked whether or not it went far enough. Both the District's Bicycle Advisory Council and Washington Area Bicyclist Association expressed interest in expanding a ban on driving while using a hands-free phone device (it's illegal for all road users to use a handheld phone). That ban now applies to school bus drivers and novice drivers; witnesses suggested adding drivers in school zones and construction zones, or preferably all drivers at all times.

Others asked that the bill include more provisions for education about distracted driving. (Disclosure: I am acting chair of the Bicycle Advisory Council and testified on its behalf for this bill.)

Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act of 2015

Earlier this year, Mary Cheh, chair of the council's transportation committee, convened a working group of advocates to discuss potential changes to the law around road safety. The group reached consensus on a number of changes, which are in this bill. Some of the key provisions would:

  • Require the government to regularly publish data on crashes, sidewalk closures, citizen petitions for for traffic calming measures, dangerous intersections, and moving violations.
  • Instruct the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to create Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Areas (at least one per ward) with no right turns on red, lower speed limis, and more human and camera enforcement.
  • Let cyclists slow down and yield rather than stop fully at stop signs.
  • Write a Complete Streets policy into law. (DDOT has one today, but just as a directive of the DDOT Director which can be revoked at any time.)
  • Create a curriculum on safe cycling and walking for schools; require taxi and other for-hire drivers to go through training on bicycle and pedestrian safety.
  • Apply the laws for motor vehicle insurance to bicycle insurance, and allow bicycle insurance providers to require policyholders to register their bikes.
  • Impose larger fines on repeat violators (up to five times the fine for a fourth offense) for violations including speeding, blocking a crosswalk, and illegal stopping or standing including in a bike lane (sorry UPS!)
  • Allow aggressive driving citations for drivers who commit three or more or a set of violations (like speeding or improper lane changes). This which carries a penalty of $200 and 2 points and mandatory driver education.
  • Forbid using a phone in the car when not moving.
  • Require side under-run guards, reflective blind spot warning stickers, and either blind spot mirrors or cameras on all heavy-duty vehicles registered in DC. This is currently the law for District-owned vehicles.
  • Create a Major Crash Review Task Force to review major crashes and recommend changes to reduce the number of them.
You can read a complete list of changes here.

Much of the discussion for this bill focused on the fact that it does not lower the speed on residential streets, a proposal which the working group discussed but didn't reach consensus on. WABA had several proposals for ways the bill could go farther to create safer streets.

Some witnesses opposed pieces of the law. Several were uneasy about letting cyclists yield at stop signs.

The Metropolitan Police Department's representative argued that the law was primarily about convenience and might, in an urban environment, lead to more crashes. In response, Councilmember Elissa Silverman asked if there was any evidence that it might lead to more crashes, and MPD conceded that there was none. Mary Cheh cited a recent study showing that crashes dropped 13% in Boise following the passage of a similar law in Idaho.

Insurance industry representatives said that this law would need to be coupled with a dedicated education effort. One witness from the insurance industry also objected to regulating bicycle insurance.

Vision Zero Act of 2015

This bill comes from Mayor Bowser and is a companion to the forthcoming Vision Zero plan. Like the Safety Act, it would also mandate a Complete Streets system. Like the Distracted Driving Act, it would increase fines and add points for distracted driving violations.

In addition, it would enhance penalties for operating all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes on District roads and require ignition interlock devices for repeat DUI offenders and high blood alcohol content (BAC) first-time offenders.

While supportive, WRAP, MADD and AAA all suggested that the bill instead require interlock devices for all DUI offenders, as 25 states do now.

Regulatory changes

In addition to the legislative changes mention above, both Cheh's working group report and the Vision Zero action plan recommended regulatory changes, some of which have been addressed by proposed rules that the Bowser administration proposed Friday.

These rules would:

  • Require side underrun guards for certain vehicles.
  • Require drivers to clear damaged but operational vehicles from the travel lanes.
  • Require drivers to yield to buses merging into traffic.
  • Designate certain streets as neighborhood slow zones with a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour (and near high-risk areas like playgrounds, as low as 15 mph).
  • Add points for several offenses such as overtaking another vehicle stopped at a crosswalk or intersection for a pedestrian.
  • Increase fines for infractions such as driving more than 30 mph over the speed limit (including possible jail time), running a stop sign, driving on the sidewalk, unsafely opening a door into traffic, or striking a cyclist.
  • Break the violation for parking in a bike lane into two categories, one for commercial vehicles and one for non-commercial vehicles, and raise the fine from $65 to $300 and $200 respectively.
Since these changes are coming in regulations from the Bowser administration and not a bill in the DC Council, there is some conflict about whether the increased fines will be effective, and whether they're even allowed.

Mary Cheh told the Washington Post she wanted to make sure "the mayor has authority" to raise the fines and asked, "Is there data that supports that this is something that will deter people from speeding? Otherwise people would think this is just a money raiser."

What else could be done?

In addition to formal changes to the law and regulations, the working group recommends other steps District agencies could take to improve safety. Some of these recommendations include:

  • A universal street-safety education program for all elementary school students (which has already gone into effect).
  • More automated cameras for enforcement.
  • Greater "no right turn on red" restrictions in bike and pedestrian priority areas.
  • Distributing more free bicycle lights.
  • Equipping large District-owned vehicles with audible turn warnings.
  • Providing more information about bicyclist insurance.
After becoming a campaign issue in the last mayoral election, District leaders have been busy this year, through multiple efforts, in working towards that goal.
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