Posts about DC
Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.
In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.
If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.
When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.
At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.
Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.
But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.
This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.
If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.
Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.
There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.
And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.
New residents of the District are sometimes discouraged from taking part in local politics. However, it's in everyone's interest for more people to get involved, even if they're only here for a short time.
I've had the pleasure of living in DC over the past four years as a student at Georgetown, and I enjoy being involved in the civic life of this great city. Nevertheless, in my work organizing college students through DC Students Speak, I've found that new residents are often marginalized as carpetbaggers who do not understand the issues facing the city.
At a DC Council candidate forum hosted by GGW in 2011, many candidates boasted about being "native Washingtonians," making them more qualified than others for higher office. I can't tell you how many times local political figures told me that college students don't have a right to be involved because we are relatively transient and have not lived in the District long enough.
These arguments bolster the credentials of long-term residents and question the legitimacy of newcomers' opinions. That's a problem considering how many people move to the District each year.
After decades of population loss, the District is adding new residents again. Today, it has about 630,000 people. It's foreseeable that it could go back to its 1950's-era peak of 800,000 residents as more people move here. It's essential that these new Washingtonians are encouraged to get involved in local politics.
The city benefits when relatively transient residents are involved in local politics. As a student organizer, I found time and time again that politicians ignored students' concerns. They didn't know what students wanted because my peers weren't engaged, so they couldn't help them. Moreover, residents from other places can make DC even more dynamic by helping to infuse the city with new and cutting-edge ideas.
Some residents don't have plans to stay here for a long time, like students or young professionals. We shouldn't hold it against them; rather, we should also encourage them to get involved while they're in town. I only got to live here for four years, but during that time I took part in my community through everything from DC Students Speak to tutoring in Petworth.
The only way that DC can truly become a great city is through engaging all members of the community, so they're interested and willing to care about where they live and give back to them in return. In the end, it's in the best interests of all District of Columbia residents to have a more involved citizenry.
We need to move beyond the tired rhetoric of who is or is not a "real Washingtonian." The way to build an even more dynamic District of Columbia by embracing everyone and encouraging them to join our community. After all, if they feel welcome, they might stick around.
Arlington Memorial Bridge opened in 1932, amidst the very depths of the Great Depression. It was a major event in Washington, which drew President Herbert Hoover, the first lady, and the vice president.
This vintage newsreel illustrates the excitement. The newsman is particularly enthusiastic that the bridge is wide enough for "4 cars to pass abreast."
By the way, did you know the bridge doesn't actually go to Arlington? Both sides are totally within the District of Columbia.
It's a common misconception that the boundary between DC and Virginia is the middle of the Potomac. But in fact, the entire river is part of the District. If you are standing on the Virginia shore and step one foot into the river, you have technically crossed into DC.
The Memorial Bridge technically connects mainland DC and Columbia Island. The island is best known for the traffic circle on the far side of the bridge, often-confusing ramps on and off the George Washington Parkway, unsafe pedestrian/bicycle crossings, and Park Police who yell at drivers when they stop for pedestrians.
Since Columbia Island is fully within DC, so is the Memorial Bridge. The actual Virginia boundary is along the much-shorter Esplanade Bridge, between Columbia Island and the Virginia mainland. This also means the GW Parkway and Mount Vernon Trail are partially within DC, since they run through Columbia Island.
Periodic protest organizer Adam Kokesh might benefit from consulting this map. He's trying to lead a July 4th march with guns on DC, but since DC prohibits carrying guns around, including loaded ones, he's now planning to march on the Memorial Bridge up to the District line and meet police there. He might have a hard time, since the District line doesn't cross the Memorial Bridge.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
The District Department of Transportation has long been known for its effective use of social media, particularly Twitter. But more recently, DDOT has fallen short on reaching out to the public online. The DDOT Twiter feed took a particularly bizarre turn this past Monday.
Residents who tweeted DDOT with a request to fix a pothole or a question about a construction project received an unhelpful and somewhat patronizing message: "Thx 4 this Tweet! Service has been requested. Thank you for using DDOT TWITTER. Thank you for being a "Super-Citizen'!"
While DDOT always used Twitter to disseminate information and promote transparency, it was its consistently prompt responses to service requests that earned it a stellar reputation among citizens. Mark Bjorge and John Lisle, who ran the feed, displayed a wry sense of humor rarely seen coming from a government communications office.
Bjorge and Lisle both left the agency earlier this year. Since then, tweets to DDOT have been answered slowly, or not at all. When these latest boilerplate tweets started coming out on Monday, the backlash was palpable.
DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez insists that the agency is trying to get back on top of its Twitter game and has no intention of letting its social media presence continue to slide. "Those responses don't represent a new direction we're taking," she says, and went on to state that the automated replies are "not effective" and are "being addressed."
The concerns they've heard have hit home for the agency. "This brings to light the role our followers play when it comes to our communication here," says Hernandez. "They are our eyes and ears, and their feedback is critical."
That's a great outlook, but it's even better when put into practice. Since Twitter has played such a vital role in communication between DDOT and District residents over the past few years, I hoped that the department would recognize the value in bringing on other social media-literate employees after the staff changes took place. Instead, District residents have lost one of the most reliable means of communicating with the city about transportation issues.
Hernandez was unable to say whether Bjorge and Lisle had undergone any special social media training, or what kind of training is being provided to those currently at the feed's helm. She mentioned that DDOT's goal was to have more than just two people running its Twitter account, as questions and requests could be answered faster if there are more hands on deck.
Whatever the method, let's hope that DDOT's social media growing pains end soon. The agency has a great model for how to do social media right
wrote last week about the DC Sustainable Energy Utility's progress toward helping DC residents and businesses save energy. Here is a less sanguine view.
The DC Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) was created with the best of intentions and much fanfare. Unfortunately, after more than $30 million dollars and nearly 3 years, DC SEU has had trouble even changing light bulbs effectively, and is lagging behind successful programs in other states.
Energy-efficiency programs around the country have successfully demonstrated ways to assure that communities invest in saving energy, but DC ranked only 29th among states in energy-efficiency programs in 2012, according to one recent analysis.
That's not great, since many states in the South and Great Plains have terrible records. The District should be a leader, or at least emulate the best programs from around the nation.
For example, in Massachusetts, utilities work with local banks to provide 0% interest loans for homeowners and businesses for energy efficiency. This addresses a common and fundamental impediment to efficiency investments at scale: poor access to capital. The public sector's upfront incentives to the banks make the 0% loans possible, which then leverages significant investment capital from the private sector.
Virginia offers basic and straightforward rebates for commercial building energy audits. These audits identify where a building is inefficient (from HVAC to lighting to operations) and catalyze efficiency investments. Once a commercial building owner sees a facility's inefficiencies, and has information about what investments could pay for themselves in savings, they often make sustainable improvements without further incentives.
SEU isn't meeting its goals
DC residents and businesses pay a small percentage of their electric and gas bills to support DC SEU. As a result, DC SEU raised $17.5 million this year and will raise $20 million next year.
The Vermont Energy Investment Cooperation, or VEIC, won a competitive bid from the District to operate DC SEU. Their contract has been renewed each year, but so far, VEIC is struggling.
In fiscal year 2012, DC SEU met just 2 of 6 performance benchmarks the District set for things like reducing energy or increasing renewable energy generation. Their goal was to reduce citywide electricity use by 45,000 megawatt-hours, but they only saved 21,000.
DC SEU even fell behind on creating green jobs, which is one of its main goals. The organization hired just 41 people in 2012, well below their goal of 53.
DC SEU claims that it saved DC residents and businesses $2.8 million in annualized energy costs, but it received $14 million in funding last year. For a group intended to be a "market catalyst," this return on investment is disappointing.
It also counts spillover effects from its work, like customers who don't participate in their programs but are still working to reduce their energy use. This method of measurement may be an industry standard, but it doesn't really reflect DC SEU's effectiveness.
Is the SEU trying to do what it takes?
Nor does the organization's FY 2013 First Quarter report acknowledge any of DC SEU's past shortcomings or the need for any improvements. While the report calls for "strategic enhancements to [their] programming," there's little description of anything other DC SEU's existing efforts, like their programs to replace light bulbs and seal heating ducts.
If this is all the District wanted to do to improve energy efficiency, there was no need to create a new organization. It could have given the job to PEPCO and Washington Gas, which are perfectly capable of doing this kind of work. Meanwhile, DC SEU admits that natural gas consumption has actually increased due to their focus on replacing incandescent light bulbs with high-efficiency bulbs. The new bulbs give off less heat, which means that in the colder months, customers actually use more heating gas to hear their homes and businesses (but save energy in the summer on cooling.)
DC SEU wasn't even trying to balance the modest impact of the lighting upgrades with other programs to reduce heating loads. They spent just $700,000 of the $2 million allocated for natural gas-related programs. Whether this is simply poor management, misplaced priorities, or both, this is clearly not a good sign.
What can be done?
DC SEU needs help. They aren't meeting their goals and they aren't fulfilling their legal obligation to District ratepayers. Meanwhile, the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), which manages the organization, has done little oversight. A lot of the relevant staff has turned over at DDOE. Plus, that agency's main expertise is not in "big data" or the economics of financial leverage in the ways necessary to push the SEU toward bolder thinking and better results.
There's already a strong market for compact fluorescents (and an emerging one for the the even newer LED bulbs). The amount of savings from bulbs is small compared to commercial space, which uses a vastly disproportionate share of energy. With incentives to focus on the greatest possible value, the SEU could do more with, for instance, energy audits for commercial space.
Mayor Gray's sustainability plan puts forward an exciting and laudable vision for the District. It would be a shame if DC SEU doesn't play a key role in making it a reality.
Last night, DDOT representatives held a short presentation on the latest design for the M Street cycle track. They have improved the design further since we last saw it. Meanwhile, angry opponents of the cycle track, including members of a nearby church which may lose some on-street parking, dominated the question and answer period.
During the presentation, DDOT tried to explain the reasoning for the cycle track, how it would work and how it would benefit people. Jim Sebastian, Mike Goodno and Associate Director Sam Zimbabwe showed preliminary data from the ongoing L Street study that showed that over the last 6 months since the cycle-track was installed, biking on L Street was up 41% (560 cyclists during the 8 hours of rush hour, up from 396).
Over the same period bicycle and pedestrian crashes on L Street were both down a trivial amount. Meanwhile, travel time by car had increased by only 1 minute across the length of the cycletrack in the morning and by no measurable amount in the afternoon commute (using data after construction on Connecticut Avenue was complete).
They also discussed results of the completed 15th Street cycle-track showing that biking increased and that while crashes rose too, it was not by as much as biking.
Experience with L Street helps improve M Street design
They talked about lessons they learned on L street and how that influenced design on M. For example, the cycle-track will be narrower, with parking and loading zones adjacent to it. They'll put in more flexposts. And they're using a new "Yield to Bikes" sign.
Parking and loading would change very little. To deal with what lost parking there would be, they plan to take back some unused diplomatic parking spaces and replace some missing parking meters, as well as add better signage.
The schedule is to continue evaluating L Street until August and then install the tracks before the end of the summer. That process would take 3 weeks and be done in phases.
Other design features include the cycle-track diversion onto Rhode Island Avenue that may have a concrete barrier to protect cyclists from traffic.
Left turning cyclists can stop in queue areas within intersections to make a two-light turn.
The drawings included other design changes like a raised cycle track at a bus stop where the track passes behind the stop.
Angry audience comments almost derail the meeting
Before DDOT could discuss these things, the meeting got very heated. At one point, Zimbabwe threatened to end the meeting if people continued to be disrespectful with one another.
It started with a woman who asked why DDOT was going ahead with the M Street lane if the L street study wasn't complete. M Street, she was told, is a complement to L, so any study of L is incomplete without M. Originally they were to be built simultaneously.
But she was clearly opposed to the project regardless, she said with exasperation that "L didn't work," claiming that no one ever used it (despite the presentation she just saw showing that there were several hundred users each rush hour) and that traffic was a disaster. Why were we spending money on bike lanes when libraries are closing? She called the design confusing and asked who this lane is for.
But that was just the appetizer. Many members and leaders of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church were there and they were not happy about the cycle track or the way DDOT had informed them about it.
"When slaves built our church, they were not thinking about bike lanes," is how the first comment started.
There were many criticisms, some of them contradictory. No one rides on M Street. Senior citizens won't be able to cross the street to get to church because cyclists never yield to pedestrians (only a problem if people actually do bike on M). Senior citizens rely on the church for transportation. Other M Street businesses are not pleased either. The bike lane on the north side will block funeral access. "What percentage of taxpayer money is going to this?"
When asked if this was a done deal, Zimbabwe said it was and it wasn't. That there was going to be a cycle track on M, but what it would look like was still negotiable. Speakers proceeded to throw the "done deal" comment, which wasn't his wording, back at him several times. But he stuck to his guns. When asked if the debate was over, he said "for this street, yes." When asked if the 1500 block could be left out of the plans, he said that it would have too negative an impact on people trying to bike the road.
But the biggest issues were that the church would lose its angled parking on Sundays (which took them 3 years to get) and that no one talked to them about it until the day before.
A pastor for the church talked about the church's 175 year history, 87 of those years at this location. She noted that this church is tied to the struggles of the African-American people, so to not hear about something like this until after it was a "done deal" is very disturbing and insulting. The church had been offered $1 million to move out of the city in the past, but they had made a commitment to stay. Many of their members had moved to the counties but still made an effort to come to church here. "Is DC becoming a church-unfriendly place?" she asked.
On the first issue, DDOT created several alternatives for Sundays that would still allow 30-50 parking spaces, even one with angled parking and several that allowed parking in the cycletrack (which would shift in between two lanes of car parking) and promised to work on it with the church.
On the second issue, Jim Sebastian apologized and noted that he had met with church staff at the church in 2011. At least one person accused him of lying. Sebastian said he could pull the phone and email logs if needed. He also noted that they had started this process in 2009 with public meetings, and that DDOT staff have met with ANC's, BIDs, groups and individuals. He said they tried to reach the church, a comment that brought scoffs from the church's members.
I'll add that anyone on M Street who didn't know about this has not been paying attention. While I don't expect anyone to have read the 2005 Bicycle Master Plan, the addition of a cycle track on M Street has been reported in the Washington Post many times. In fact it's been mentioned in numerous news outlets on many many occasions over many years. DDOT has had meetings and press releases. It's not been kept a secret. That no one in the church had ever heard about it until this week seems incredible.
Zimbabwe tried to address all the concerns. The M Street lane would have better signage. DC does not intend to be church-unfriendly. There is no "rush" to complete this, but DDOT wants to make people safe now, not later. They're willing to work with the church to resolve its issues.
He could have mentioned that in many cases funding for bike lanes can't be moved over to libraries.
When one woman talked about how important biking was for our future, someone asked her "Do you expect senior citizens to bike." "Yes," I thought, "many already do now." In fact many senior citizens in the church had prefaced their comments with "I'm a cyclist."
Another speaker, opposed to the bike lane, asked "Who wants this?" and many hands shot up followed by applause.
"We're not taking a vote here or pitting one side against another," Zimbabwe said.
A restaurant/bar owner on M Street said that the street is already girdlocked (despite DDOT data presented earlier saying otherwise) and that eliminating a traffic lane was going to be a disaster for drivers and for his business. "I did find one friend who rides a bike and he says he'll never use it," he added, while noting that gridlock causes pollution and that snow removal is a problem as well. "Every merchant on M Street is concerned and in disbelief about this."
Zimbabwe pointed out that this is to get new riders to use bikes. Many tried to point to data in NYC showing that cycle tracks are good for business. One person thanked DDOT for putting the cycle track on L and opening her eyes to all the great businesses there.
A Georgetown ANC member took the opportunity to berate DDOT for not doing something about all the unsafe cyclists disregarding traffic laws. "It's a miracle that no one has been hurt," he noted, without realizing he was contradicting his whole position.
Finally, someone asked, "can't bike lanes go in AND angled parking be kept? Why does it have to be either/or?"
Zimbabwe promised to find a way to address the parking needs of church goers.
And they do have a plan for that. Below you can see Sunday parking on the bike lane as one alternative.
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