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Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has gotten too large and unwieldy to carry out all facets of its mission, says DC Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh has introduced a bill to reorganize transportation-related functions, create some new agencies, and abolish one.

Cheh's proposed reorganization. Image from Councilmember Cheh's office.

Cheh, who chairs the council committee that oversees DDOT, says there is precedent for slicing large agencies into smaller ones. Before 1998, all transportation-related functions were part of the Department of Public Works (DPW).

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was formed that year by splitting off driver and car licensing-related functions. Then, in 2002, DDOT was created. Finally, the District Department of the Environment split from DPW in 2006.

Cheh feels that it's time again for a too-large District agency to split into several. She has proposed a possible set of changes, below. But her staff emphasize that this isn't the only possible approach. More than the specifics, they want to put out one option for discussion, and foster a broad conversation about what to do.

The current version of the bill would make a few significant changes.

Centralize parking functions in one place. Today, three separate agencies handle parking issues. DDOT determines parking rules and posts signs. But officers who work for DPW are the ones who actually write tickets. If someone contests a ticket, it's the DMV that reviews the case.

This creates significant confusion when DDOT policymakers want to solve one problem, but information can get lost when trying to get DPW ticket-writers to focus in that area, and DMV hearing officers might interpret rules entirely differently. The bill would form a new agency, the Department of Parking Management, to handle all of these matters: policy, enforcement, and adjudication.

Establish a new transit authority. Cheh says that DDOT seems unable to really manage transit planning amid all of its other responsibilities, and groups like the Downtown BID have been complaining that DDOT does a poor job of with and coordinating with them about transit.

In many cities, the transit system is its own authority with a separate board. Cheh's bill would create such an authority for DC. That authority would supervise the Circulator and DC Streetcar, and be the point of contact between the District government and WMATA. It would also handle taxicab policy (see below) and "multimodal planning," but Cheh's proposal is not clear on what exactly that means.

To govern this authority, the mayor would appoint four members to a board, including a chair. The directors of DDOT and the Office of Planning, the DC Chief Financial Officer, and the councilmember who oversees transportation would each serve on the board or designate staff members to represent them.

The board would also include the head of DC Surface Transit, a private nonprofit made up of various local Business Improvement Districts, the convention authority Events DC. DC Surface Transit was involved in pushing to launch the original Circulator. The organization now helps market the Circulator, advises DDOT on operations and routes, and is advocating for the streetcar program.

Cheh's staff say that a transit authority, versus just an agency, could also be more transparent about transit planning than DDOT has been, by having a public board with open meetings. Furthermore, they say they have heard feedback that a separate authority could attract higher-caliber people than a mere government agency.

Abolish the Taxicab Commission. The DC Taxicab Commission has an unusual and, many say, dysfunctional structure. It has a board whose members the mayor appoints and the council confirms, but the chairman of the board also manages all of the agency's staff. Under Mayor Fenty, the Taxicab Commission chairman sometimes just ignored the board entirely. The agency has had problems with transparency and more.

Besides, does it make sense for one agency to only consider issues about taxis completely in a vacuum? Taxis are one of many transportation modes. People often choose between taxis, Metro, buses, driving, bicycling, and more. But having a separate agency make taxi policy means there's usually no overarching thought about how to help taxis fill a void other transportation modes leave, or vice versa.

Cheh's proposal would dissolve the Taxicab Commission. Instead, the District Transit Authority would make taxi policy and set taxi regulations, while the DMV would actually handle the day-to-day of registering, inspecting, and licensing the drivers and vehicles, just as it does for other drivers and vehicles now.

Move trees to DDOE. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration handles street tree issues. Cheh's proposal would make this part of the District Department of the Environment, an agency that split off from DPW in 2006 to handle environmental protection, energy, and similar issues.

Cheh says there isn't a good reason for tree management to be part of DDOT. It's originally there because tree boxes are part of the roadway area, but there's also good sense in putting trees with the agency primarily focused on the District's environmental quality.

With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:

  • Its engineering arm, the Infrastructure Project Management Administration (IPMA) that builds and maintains roads, bridges, sidewalks, alleys, and other infrastructure;
  • The Traffic Operations Administration (TOA), which handles traffic lights, streetlights, crossing guards, and road safety;
  • The Public Space Regulation Administration (PSRA), with oversight over sidewalk cafés and other private uses in public space; and
  • Some or all of the Transportation Policy, Planning, and Sustainability Administration (PPSA) which devises long-term and short-term transportation plans, and works with communities to devise proposals to improve transportation. The pedestrian and bicycle programs are part of PPSA today, and PPSA is also handling the moveDC citywide transportation plan.
PPSA encompasses what Cheh probably means by "multimodal transportation planning." According to Cheh's transportation committee director, Drew Newman, they are considering a number options for transportation planning, including keeping it in DDOT, moving it to the new transit agency, or moving it to the Office of Planning.


Cheh and her staff want to have a series of conversations on the various proposals, through some combination of public forums and a smaller working group. Based on that, hey might decide to change their recommendation, maybe reallocate which functions go to which agencies, or even decide that something shouldn't get split out and should stay where it is.

The forums will take place in June and July. Cheh hopes to then have final hearings in September, mark up the bill, and pass it at council sessions in late September and early October so that it can take effect by January. That would mean that the next mayor, whoever it is, would appoint new agency heads under this new system.

Is this a good idea?

What do you think about Cheh's plan? Tomorrow, I'll give some of my own thoughts.


Are sidewalks and bike lanes getting cleared of snow?

4-8 inches of snow fell on the region yesterday, as you are surely aware. That means that all road users, drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists have to navigate snowy streets. Property owners sometimes are diligent about clearing their vehicular paths but not sidewalks. How about this time?

Photo by Katie Yaeger Rotramel on Flickr.

Some businesses and institutions won't have had a chance to clear snow by this morning (BID staff seem to be up and about clearing sidewalks right now in commercial areas, for instance), but let's keep an eye on how they do after they have a fair interval to clear snow today.

If you see a problem area this afternoon or tomorrow morning (or a well-cleared area next to a large institution, city property or federal park you want to single out for praise), take a picture and send it to I'll do a roundup of praise and shame for shoveling.

The National Park Service, embassies, and surface parking lot operators have often left very large areas unshoveled. Sometimes bike lanes don't get plowed even when the adjacent streets do.

DC's snow-clearing agencies, DDOT and DPW, announced this year that unlike in the past, they are going to work to clear the pedestrian ways on facilities like bridges. Those have been a real problem in past snows, and not just the long bridges over rivers or Rock Creek; overpasses like Q Street and Connecticut Avenue, or Massachusetts Avenue or North Capitol Street and so on, are also the city's responsibility. After the much smaller snow earlier this month, indeed the city seems to have cleared those well, or at least for the ones I saw.

After the last snow, when I took our baby for a walk to the Shaw library 2 days later, almost every sidewalk was clear (including around the library), with the notable exception of the entire, long sidewalk around Garrison Elementary. DCPS was on winter break, but it would make sense for the city to coordinate snow removal around all its facilities, since parents and children (and people with disabilities and able-bodied adults) need to walk near schools when school is out just the same.

Another parent struggles to push a stroller on Vermont Avenue, NW on January 4. Photo by the author.

How's it looking out there now?


Mobile GIS could help track little problems around DC

Downtown DC Business Improvement District employees use a hand-held geographic information system (GIS) to track public space problems like broken fire hydrants. Could this technology also help DC government employees, like trash collectors?

BID GIS app. Photo from ESRI.

ESRI, the company that makes the most commonly-used GIS software in the United States, has a quarterly newsletter called ArcNews. The spring issue has a story about a custom program that BID employees use to report issues with the trash cans, park benches, bus shelters, and other public assets in the BID.

The program sounds like a more sophisticated version of the SeeClickFix application that is re-skinned and rebranded as the DC311 app. The 311 app is buggy and could use work to make it more useful, but it's limited in scope and meant for the public to simply report issues, not address the process from start to finish. The application for the BID employees appears to do just that.

I've often watched DC Department of Public Works (DPW) employees in the morning picking up trash in the alley. There are two guys riding on the back of the truck and one driver. Once in the alley, the two employees who jump off the back of the truck methodically empty the supercans into the truck, while the driver slowly trundles the truck down the alley.

What if the driver had a dash-mounted tablet with a program similar to the one the BID workers have? Perhaps he could quickly note things like illegally dumped furniture, potholes, or broken supercan lids.

With a program like the one the BID has, these DPW employees could be an early-warning system for the department, hitting a button to record the location of any of these issues that DPW would have to deal with. It seems like this could be an efficient way to asses problems that the department would need to deal with anyway. The increased workload could be connected to a bonus system of sorts. Drivers that find the most legitimate problems that need to be addressed could receive a commensurate pay increase.

In addition, perhaps some of the features in this program could filter down to the DC311 app in a future update.


Wells would keep Circulator fare, expand CaBi, and more

Tommy Wells would like to keep the Circulator fare at $1, add 40 more Capital Bikeshare stations, hire needed people at DDOT including a parking czar, set up performance parking on H Street, fund green alleys, and more. Increased residential parking fees, including for households with extra vehicles, and some higher fines will pay for these priorities.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

These are some of the recommendations in the draft budget report from the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, which Wells chairs. The committee oversees DDOT, the Department of Public Works, the DMV, WMATA, and a few others, and the report covers budget changes to those programs.

The recommendations include:

Expand CaBi faster. $2 million in capital funding would fund 40 more Capital Bikeshare stations in the core and in more peripheral neighborhoods.

This would add to the 25 already planned and other stations that private developers or federal agencies will pay for. In total, DDOT says this will allow the system to double from its original size within 2 years of the September 2010 launch.

Fund green alleys. Many alleys have crumbling surfaces and greatly need repair, but there hasn't been much money for this in recent years. $1 million would fund a new Green Alleys program, picking some alleys to rebuild with permeable paving, energy-efficient LED lighting, trees, and more.

Keep Circulator fare. Wells is proposing to keep the Circulator fare at $1, rolling back Mayor Gray's proposal to make it $2 cash and $1.50 with SmarTrip. Downtown businesses argued that it would cut ridership substantially, perhaps even reversing all or most of the expected revenue gain. The Circulator is also going east of the river, and some felt it wasn't right for it to finally go there and double in price at the same time.

The funding for this comes partly through use of one-time funds at WMATA, so the Council will have to look at the Circulator fare again next year. Wells wants that to happen once the Council has reviewed and approved DDOT's plans for longer-term Circulator expansion.

Semi-replace 7th Street Circulator. The north-south Circulator is still going away. To partly make up for it, WMATA is creating a 74 bus to travel between I Street NW and the Southwest Waterfront along a route similar to that part of the Circulator's, and extending the V8 bus, which connects Minnesota Avenue to Southwest, along 7th Street to downtown as well.

Hire ward planners, development reviewers, and parking czar. Wells also wants to restore six positions at DDOT which have been vacant for some time. Gray's budget cut most vacant positions entirely. The six positions include three ward planners, for wards 2, 3, and 5. The ward planners made sure that all DDOT projects in a ward fit together well, and provided useful points of contact for the communities involved.

DDOT also needs to staff up its development review department, which looks at planned developments and zoning filings and encourage developers to effectively accommodate pedestrians and bicycles, consider good stormwater management, and include Transportation Demand Management programs. Wells would add 2 positions for this.

The final and most exciting staff position is a parking program manager, or "parking czar." DDOT's parking program has been a tremendous disappointment for years. The performance parking pilot zones didn't see the kind of experimentation that the legislation asked for. Some neighborhoods have wanted performance parking but haven't been able to get it.

DDOT has been mailing out free visitor parking passes in several wards, which leaves large opportunities for abuse. They have promised for years to set up a better system, but haven't. If they can get a good parking program manager, DDOT can finally be the national leader in parking policies they once seemed to be, but got eclipsed by San Francisco and other cities.

Start performance parking on H Street. Wells would create a third performance parking zone, around H Street NE (G to I Streets from 3rd to 15th). Residential streets in the area would become resident-only for one side of the street, as in the other zones, and meters set to achieve 10-20% available spaces.

Protect neighborhood RPP funds. The performance parking pilot zones dedicate most of the revenue raised to local neighborhood improvements, giving residents a stake in the success of performance parking. Gray's budget took this money away to use as general revenue; Wells wants to restore it.

Maintain traffic enforcement officers. The proposal would restore 5 traffic enforcement officers cut in Gray's budget. There are plenty of places where enforcement can make pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers all safer by stopping dangerous behavior. Also, DDOT wants to do more to stop parking in loading zones, bus stops, and handicap placard abuse.

Keep "sweepercam" tickets. Gray's budget eliminated the "sweepercam" system, where street sweeping trucks automatically photograph vehicles illegally blocking sweeping and DPW can send them tickets. Without this, DPW would have to have people manually enforce the sweeping.

Also, as the report points out, the cameras allow DPW not to ticket anyone parked in a sweeping zone after the actual sweeping has finished, whereas if officers did it manually, they wouldn't know and would still ticket those cars. The committee report restores $300,000 for this program.

Create a DDOT enterprise fund. When DDOT lost its "unified fund," it lost some ability to dynamically fund innovations without going through the Council first. Budget staff at that time talked about creating a special fund with some money that can go to such programs. Wells' proposal moves Capital Bikeshare advertising revenue into this fund, along with truck weight fees, multispace meter advertising, car sharing fees, loading zone permit fees, and a few others.

And more. Wells' proposal also funds a "bait bike" where officers place a bike which looks ripe to steal, and watch to catch people who try to steal it. $50,000 will also go to the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation for neighborhood parks. Gray's budget cut the $10,000 annual funding each for the Bicycle Advisory Council and the Pedestrian Advisory Council; Wells is restoring both.


How will Wells and his committee pay for all this?

Errors in the budget. Some money comes from finding mistakes in the budget. For example, Gray's budget office moved a lot of DDOT positions from the capital budget over to the operating budget. That's mainly an accounting issue; the jobs are still there, but some categories of spending went from large amounts to zero and other categories went from zero to big. Upon scrutinizing all of this, Council staff realized that some of the jobs had been moved over twice, leading to double-funding in the budget.

Higher and graduated RPP fees. A big part of the increase comes from a longtime GGW recommendation: increasing RPP fees, especially for households with multiple cars. DC's fees for resident parking permits are remarkably low, at $15/year. Renting any other chunk of space anywhere in the city costs far more. San Francisco charges $98/year, for example.

Under Wells' proposal, RPP fees will increase to $35/year, except for seniors 65 and older who will only pay $25/year. Once the DMV finishes a computer upgrade to support it, additional permits for each household will cost $50/year for the second and $100/year for additional permits beyond that.

Fines for repeat parking offenders. Fines for parking in residential areas beyond the 2 hours allowed, or for parking in resident-only areas, would increase for repeat offenders. The fine now is $30, except $60 around the ballpark during games only. The $30 fines would remain $30 for the 1st and 2nd tickets someone receives in a single calendar year, but become $60 beyond that.

Reciprocity fees. Congressional, military, Presidental appointees, and some others are allowed to have reciprocity permits, getting the benefits of registering cars in DC including RPP permits but without actually becoming DC residents. They pay $10 annually for this, while students have to pay $338 and temporary residents $250. Wells proposes increasing the reciprocity fee to $50.

What's not included

WMATA, fully. Gray's budget slightly increased DC's contributions to WMATA, but DC was still $10.422 million short of the level needed to avoid service cuts. Wells found another $6.265 million, and is asking the Council to consider the other $4.157 million as a council-wide priority in the next phase of the budget process.

Each committee first considers its own budget, and moves around money within that area, raising related revenues if desired to restore programs. Then, the whole Council looks at further cuts or restorations broadly; the remaining WMATA gap will be one of them.

Street sweeping inspectors. Gray's budget cuts the numbers of officers enforcing street sweeping rules. Wells said in this morning's markup that he wanted to increase the numbers, but unlike with the DDOT traffic officers, the CFO wouldn't certify revenue from these officers, so the Council would have to come up with more revenue to restore them.


The committee report also touches on some other topics which aren't line items in the budget, but which have budgetary implications. It asks DDOT to organize a task force to look at long-term transportation funding as gas taxes decline; to try to implement Circulator expansions even sooner than proposed; to add more efficient streetlights; and more. DDOT has also promised to conduct a transportation study on M Street SE/SW.

For DPW, the committee asks them to aggressively push fleet sharing, especially to replace older vehicles; to come up with a strategy to increase recycling; and to publish more information on costs that Wells has been asking for.

The committee had its markup session scheduled for 10 am, but as of this writing didn't have enough Councilmembers present to make up a quorum. Assuming it passes the markup, this will get agglomerated with the budget reports from the other committees.

The full Council will then take up the WMATA funding issue and other larger priorities from other areas. Issues outside of transportation, like the proposed income tax increase for people making over $200,000 and cuts to human services, will be debated at the full Council level.


Fleet share can save DC more money

DC can kill two political birds with one stone: Save money, and respond to public frustration about official vehicles, by aggressively replacing most government vehicles with fleet sharing.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

At the Council hearing on SUVgate on March 7, DPW Director Bill Howland said that if he had a "magic wand," he would take away almost all dedicated agency vehicles and replace them with fleet share.

How does DPW's fleet share work? Basically, it's Zipcar for DC employees. Actually, that's exactly what it is, since it's run by Zipcar. DC pays $115-125 per vehicle, per month, and Zipcar manages each vehicle's use. Government employees have a special reservation system, and special cards to unlock the vehicles.

In 2008 and 2009, DC replaced 360 individual vehicles with just 58 shared vehicles. DC saved about $1 million a year by doing this.

Let's give Howland his magic wand. Ask DPW to review its inventory of official vehicles and identify each one that has to remain dedicated to one person or agency. DPW should release a report to the Council and the public about each one, with an explanation of why it needs to be a dedicated vehicle.

Then, for all the others, switch them out for fleet share. Even if just 2 dedicated vehicles turn into 1 fleet share vehicle, it saves money. Plus, since Zipcar has a certain amount of fixed cost to run its systems, it ought to be able to give DC a bit better of a rate per car for the next few hundred fleet share vehicles.

Some DC government agencies, where one facility is far from others, might not lend themselves to fleet share. But DC has been consolidating many agencies into a number of buildings around the District, most of which are also right by Metro stations.

By reducing the numbers of vehicles the District owns, it would also cut down on parking needs. At buildings where part of the garage is commercial, like at the Reeves Center, each space not being used by DC means another space that can be rented out to others daily or monthly, saving even more money.

Plus, why not let the general public rent out fleet share vehicles on weekends? DC has a bunch of fleet share vehicles in the garage at the Reeves Center, for instance, of which very few are probably used on weekends. Meanwhile, there's plenty of weekend demand at 14th and U, perhaps more than on weekdays.

The Reeves Center garage is already open to the public as well. Let most but not all DC fleet share vehicles turn into regular Zipcars just for the weekend. DC could run this as a pilot at the Reeves Center, the most obvious spot, to figure out how well this works and whether it's worth expanding to other facilities.

This year is the ideal time to do this. There's tremendous voter outrage over the existing official vehicles. Howland, Mayor Gray, and the DC Council would find plenty of public support for any effort to reduce the size of the District's fleet and save money.


DDOT reminding property owners to shovel sidewalks

As DC prepares for some snow tonight, DDOT and DPW are taking clear steps to remind property owners that they are legally required to shovel sidewalks.

From the press release:

There may also be enough snow to shovel and residents and businesses are reminded they should be prepared to clear the walkways adjacent to their properties, as required by District law. To encourage compliance, DDOT and DPW are launching a public awareness campaign called "Is your sidewalk shoveled?" The campaign's simple message is driven home on a poster by the image of a mother pushing a baby stroller in the street adjacent to a snow covered sidewalk.

"It is our responsibility to make sure the roadways are treated, plowed and passable," said DDOT's Interim Director Terry Bellamy, "But many people moving around the city are on foot, and we need every property owner to pitch in to ensure the sidewalks are as safe and clear as the streets."

The two agencies will promote the campaign on their web and social media sites and make the information and materials available to local residents, businesses, BIDs, bloggers and media outlets to help spread the message. DDOT also plans to post the campaign poster on bus shelters in the city later this winter.

This is an important step. At last night's meeting of the Pedestrian Advisory Council, DDOT's George Branyan noted that during last year's storms, many business owners expressed surprise when he told them the law requires shoveling sidewalks.

Awareness is one of several steps necessary to ensure people can navigate sidewalks on foot. DC also needs fines for violators, and resources to help people unable to shovel, like businesses willing to do it for a fee and volunteer help for poorer and elderly residents or nonprofits. DDOT has started encouraging people to form neighborhood shoveling teams like we did last year; organizing these more formally would be a great step for ANCs to take.


Let's replace Cash-for-Trash with Pay-as-you-Throw

Does it seem fair that some households produce up to a dozen trash bags per week while their neighbors, who pay the same taxes, produce few if any trash bags but plenty of recycling and sometimes compost?

Fort Worth PAYT cans and bags.

That's what happens in all Washington-area municipalities, but more than 7,000 municipalities nationwide covering 25% of the population have rejected this "cash-for-trash" subsidy in favor of "pay-as-you-throw" (PAYT).

In DC the situation is even more unfair. Because private haulers collect waste from buildings with more than 3 residential units, while the city collects waste from all other residential dwellings, apartment and condo residents subsidize waste collection for everyone else. Gas, water and electricity are paid by usage. Trash collection costs should be as well.

How does PAYT work? The city bills you monthly for trash collection based on the size and number of trash cans you request. In addition, you can buy city-approved trash bags, or stickers that you can affix to your own trash bags, at local stores and use them if your can is full. Curbside collectors only pick up trash from city cans and bags, or bags with city stickers on them. And taxes can go down now that collection and disposal pay for themselves.

PAYT has been demonstrated across the country. Fort Worth charges monthly rates of $12.75 for a 32-gallon can, $17.75 for a 64-gallon can, $22.75 for a 96-gallon can, and $3 per city-approved bag to use when your can is full. San Jose, CA also does this, and has saved $4 million while more than doubling its recyclables. So does Seattle. This is what Frederick County plans to try in an upcoming PAYT pilot. In fact, 3 out of 10 large cities use PAYT. Why doesn't DC?

A third-party assessment of DC's tax structure commissioned by the CFO recommended PAYT, but former District Department of the Environment Director George Hawkins said in a GGW livechat that "We have looked at this issue, but are not currently thinking of moving to a pay-as-you-throw program until we have improved our core recycling program." So we don't want to increase recycling? The EPA says that "PAYT is the single most effective single action that can increase recycling and diversion" and PAYT programs have existed since the 70s (Spokane was the first in 1944). What are we waiting for exactly?

3 can sizes in Seattle.
The only concerns raised about PAYT, other than by those under the delusion that curbside collection is free, are about increases in illegal dumping and the ability of the poor to pay for collection. But PAYT communities report that illegal dumping is more fear than reality, and any increases last for 3 months or less. Furthermore, PAYT gives the poor control over their spending on trash collection, instead of taxing them to subsidize trash collection for large houses. That's why PAYT is often called SAYT (Save-as-you-Throw).

The current budget crises are a great opportunity for DPW to adopt PAYT. If DPW is simply lacking the money or the will to implement a monthly billing system, then it should retain the current can collection system, but charge for city-approved bags or stickers that are sold at local stores to be used when your can is full. Non-approved bags or bags without stickers would either be ignored or collected with a fine imposed on the offender.

Simply by charging for bags or stickers to be used for overflow trash, we would expect to see an increase in recycling and a reduction in waste, as well as greater use of cans resulting in less blight and fewer rodents. If it was successful, the proceeds could pay for the billing system to place monthly fees on cans of different size. Trash collection would then be self-sustaining such that apartment and condo residents no longer subsidize everyone else's trash collection, as everyone's taxes would be reduced accordingly.

What do you think? DDOE has a new Director, Christophe Tulou. Contact him and DPW Director Howland, or the DPW and Environment directors in your municipality, to let them know how you feel about PAYT.

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