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Transit


Columbia Pike streetcar may still get federal funding

Arlington's plans to use federal funding for the Columbia Pike streetcar hit a snag recently, when the project was not accepted into the FTA's Small Starts grant program. Streetcar opponents took this news as a sign that the project is in trouble, but it's not.


Photo by cliff1066™ on Flickr.

The FTA isn't turning down the project permanently. They are requesting changes and suggesting Arlington reapply later this year. Federal rules changed with last year's MAP-21 transportation bill, and so Arlington has to apply under the larger New Starts program instead of Small Starts.

The delay is good, anyway. Another new rule is that once a project is accepted into New Starts, construction has to begin within 2 years. Even if it had won funding this year, Arlington is 3 years away from construction, so next year is the right time to apply in any case.

County Board chairman Walter Tejada confirmed at a board meeting last night that county leaders are still committed to funding and building the streetcar.

It's not really $410 million

Some reports erroneously claim the that FTA turned down the streetcar because it thinks the project will cost $410 million. That's not what happened, explained Arlington transit bureau chief Steven DelGiudice.

The FTA's report on Columbia Pike does cite a $410 million figure, but that isn't for the cost of the streetcar. Instead, it's an insurance figure that shows the worst-case scenario, if everything imaginable were to go wrong. It shows the streetcar cost, plus the cost of other tangential projects nearby, plus a $70 million contingency figure in case of overruns.

What sort of tangential projects? Things like 12th Street in Pentagon City. 12th Street doesn't exist right now. A private developer will build it as part of a skyscraper development, regardless of whether or not there is ever a streetcar.

Once 12th Street is there, it will be a convenient place to put the streetcar. But since Arlington plans to run the streetcar down a street that isn't built yet, FTA's rules say the total has to include all of the street's costs—even though all of the money comes from a developer. FTA assumes that if the development is delayed, the county might have to build the road itself.

The total cost also has to show an insurance contingency for those tangential projects, like 12th Street. Double whammy. FTA also recommended that the county increase its contingency fund from 18 to 35%.

There are a few new costs the FTA identified that will probably increase the budget. They anticipate very heavy ridership on the route, and recommended that the county look at a larger vehicle to meet these capacity demands.

The result is a slightly higher real cost figure, and another paper figure that's way bigger than what the project will actually cost to build. FTA knows it won't really be $410 million. In fact, their cost range says $255 million is just as likely, with the probable cost somewhere in between.

Because the rules of Small Starts require including everything and cap projects at $250 million, the streetcar project has to go under a different program. The Small Starts program is for small, low-cost, particularly easy-to-accomplish projects. Most new rail lines, and many large BRT lines, go through the New Starts program instead.

Since the New Starts program is larger, that also means that the project can get more total dollars of federal funding. The statute allows FTA to provide up to 80% of the funds for a project, but because there are more projects applying than available funding, the federal share is more likely 50%.

The chances of getting New Starts funding are good

According DelGiudice, the FTA's report is very positive for the streetcar and affirms the county's projections.

FTA believes the ridership will be strong, and even suggested Arlington increase the capacity of the streetcar with more cars and a bigger railyard. That shows FTA believes this is a good place for rail transit.

Despite not being accepted into the Small Starts program this year, FTA's report on Columbia Pike is actually very good news and shows the FTA thinks it's a strong project. Arlington can reapply under the larger program, and since they're 3 years away from construction anyway, doing so is not even a delay.

The decision ultimately lies with the County Board to choose whether to apply under New Starts, but if they do, the streetcar project stands a good chance of winning approval next year.

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Transit


Did the FTA have leeway on the 11th Street bridge?

FTA administrator Peter Rogoff and his PR team are disputing Thursday's story on streetcar tracks on the 11th Street bridge. In that article, I wrote, "The question here is whether FTA had to make the decision they did, or had leeway." It's become even more clear that that indeed is the fundamental question.


Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

In an op-ed on the Washington Post's All Opinions are Local, Rogoff makes two main points. First, he says that by federal law, FTA had to stop the tracks once they learned about the issue. And second, echoing the statement his communications team put out on Friday, he says FTA gave DDOT several options for including tracks by redoing or modifying environmental reviews.

The second point is mostly irrelevant; DDOT was too far along in the bridge project to reopen the environmental reviews by the time that happened in July of this year. But the first point is indeed the key question. Rogoff says FTA had no leeway. So far, all of the transportation professionals I have spoken with argue that they did.

The options FTA gave DDOT

Let's start with the 2nd claim, that FTA gave DDOT plenty of options in July. The 3 options, according to Brian Farber, Associate Administrator from the Office of Communications and Congressional Affairs, were:

  1. To reopen the FHWA EIS document and evaluate streetcar for the bridge.
  2. To conduct an expedited FTA EA and evaluate streetcar on the bridge.
  3. To extend the northern terminus of the current Historic Anacostia FTA EA to include the 11th Street bridge, and evaluate streetcar from the Anacostia Metro station to the western terminus of the bridge.
In this July 28 letter, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy tells FTA that they've decided to take the tracks off the project, as a result of a meeting a month earlier where USDOT officials "stated that because streetcar infrastructure was not included in the record of decision for [the EIS], it could not be included as part of the bridge construction."

However, this is all happening while the bridge has long been under construction. Work began in December 2009. According to several people familiar with the bridge project, DDOT at this point faced two unpleasant choices: pull the tracks off the bridge, or start an environmental process that could take years.

Besides the extensive public participation process that would have been required, the bridge EIS had drawn a lawsuit for the way it added cross-river vehicular capacity while claiming it didn't. Personally, I agreed with the opponents and think DDOT made a mistake doing the bridge this way. Adding the "missing link" may well draw vehicle trips through the region off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and into DC.

But that's water under the bridge, as it were, and now that the bridge is half built, it doesn't seem wise of DDOT to reopen all those cans of worms. I'm skeptical it would best "save taxpayer monies in the long run" to delay work while a long EIS occurs, and potentially incur huge penalties from the contractor if the EIS takes very long, as it likely would.

People familiar with the discussions (including additional people beyond those I spoke to for the original story) confirm the basic truth of what I reported. Unfortunately, everyone is very reluctant to be quoted publicly. Transportation professionals will inevitably have to work with federal agencies. They don't want to raise the ire of FTA and imperil other projects.

Did FTA have leeway?

All of the options FTA offered involved not putting the tracks on the bridge until after further environmental review. If FTA really felt they had absolutely no choice, then what they did was best. They stopped DDOT as they had to, but they gave DDOT various (unpalatable) alternatives.

But did they have to? I spoke to several transportation professionals who feel FTA could have let the tracks go forward, or at least let DC finish them with local dollars. Commenter Will P (who is familiar with the situation) agreed, writing:

DC had the ability and planned to pay for the rails on the bridge with local money. What FTA is saying is that if DC chose to put in the rails on the Bridge before their mandated studies, they would then be disqualified from getting federal dollars for segments that would connect to the Bridge.
I've asked FTA's media relations folks to further explain the issue from FTA's standpoint, but they aren't experts on federal law, either, and haven't yet gotten back to me with specifics.

This is an unusual situation because the key decision point is coming not during the early design phases or during bidding, but after the project has long been underway. According to people familiar with the process, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had signed off on project documents which did include the streetcars. These include early construction documents and also "Plans, Specifications & Estimates" (PS&E) reports.

Here's the core of the timeline, as best as I can understand it from talking to numerous people:

  1. DDOT completed an EIS for the bridge that included "accommodation" of transit but was vague about what transit exactly would be included. The EIS won an award from FHWA for its public process.
  2. DDOT prepared to build the project with mostly local dollars. They decided to include tracks to save money in the future on the streetcar network.
  3. DDOT switched to use mostly federal money on the project. They were working with FHWA. The construction documents and intermediate PS&Es signed off on by FHWA included the tracks.
  4. At some point, when DDOT asked to switch the type of tracks to comply with Buy America, people at FHWA realized they should involve FTA and talked to FTA about the tracks.
  5. FTA judged that the tracks hadn't gone through proper process. FHWA then told DDOT they couldn't do the tracks without more review.
  6. FTA suggested 3 options for DDOT to get approval for the tracks, which would have required longer process that could have delayed the entire project and cost more money.
  7. In July, DDOT decided not to pursue those and finish the project without the tracks.
In step 3, DDOT officials apparently believed that they had the necessary federal approvals to go ahead with tracks, since FHWA had signed off on documents. Maybe DDOT should have realized they should go talk to FTA. Maybe they were hoping nobody would notice so they didn't have to. Or maybe they honestly thought everything was fine.

Clearly, if DDOT had gone through some more process years ago, we would all be better off today. DDOT officials admit they probably screwed up, in hindsight. But federal processes are very complex. A agency can go extremely slowly and make absolutely sure they cross every t and dot every i (and still maybe make mistakes), or they can try to move faster and do the best they can. DDOT, from at least Dan Tangherlini through Gabe Klein, was trying to move fast and get a lot done. Somewhere along the way (though before Gabe Klein took over), this happened.

But in June, whatever happened before, we were faced with this situation: One federal agency had been telling DDOT they could go ahead; now another stepped in and said no. Maybe federal law is so unambiguous that the tracks can't possibly go forward, even if FHWA had approved them for months, even with local money, that FTA officials had absolutely no choice. But was it?

Could they have said, "That's too bad, this one got by. Hey, FHWA, please try to keep an eye out for stuff like this in the future, and DDOT, we're going to ask you to be a little more careful next time. Okay? Let's just do the tracks anyway and we'll all try to do better."

Or, could they have said, "We're sorry, we really don't think that it's legal to use federal money for the tracks, but if you want to use some local money, we'll let this be a 'nonparticipating' part of the project."

That's the question. Rogoff's letter suggests these two options were not available to FTA. Other transportation professionals say they were. This question defines the issue of whether FTA "put up a roadblock" in July, or just acted as they must.

Update: In the Post piece, Rogoff also adds another option, placing removable blocks on the bridge that can be changed to tracks in the future. Rogoff's piece says DDOT declined to pursue any options, including the removable blocks, but DDOT spokesperson John Lisle says the removable blocks are indeed what DDOT is doing as part of making the bridge "streetcar ready."

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Transit


Streetcar tracks deleted from 11th Street Bridge (for now)

The $300 million 11th Street bridge project won't have streetcar tracks after all, at the insistence of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Instead, it will have structural elements to make it easier to add tracks in the future, but that will cost much more and take many more years.


Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) originally planned to place tracks on the local span of the new 11th Street bridge. This would allow future streetcar service to span the river, like that planned in DC's streetcar plan, without an expensive construction project tearing up the just-completed bridge.

That plan fell apart earlier this year, when officials from FTA told DDOT they can't put the tracks in the project, which uses federal funding.

DDOT spokesperson John Lisle confirmed that the tracks will not be in the project, but noted that it is being made "streetcar ready," so that tracks can be added in the future without major changes to the bridge.

Lisle says that DC will save some money, at least $1.5 million, of the $300 million project for not putting in the tracks, but it will cost more to install the tracks later. DDOT doesn't have figures on how much, exactly, it will cost in the future to add tracks.

Adding them later will also force DDOT to close down lanes on the bridge. Right now, the bridge is being built next to the old bridge, allowing all of the traffic that currently uses the bridge to keep doing so during almost all of the construction. Once the new bridge opens and the old one demolished, a track project will require interfering with existing traffic.

So why couldn't DDOT include the tracks? Environmental review rules, federal officials' interpretations of those rules, and DDOT's eagerness to move quickly all mixed together.

DDOT completed its Environmental Impact Statement for the bridge project in 2006, working with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The "Purpose and Need" of the project, an official statement in any EIS that defines its goals, was to deal with traffic congestion stemming from the "missing link" between the bridge and the Anacostia Freeway to the northeast.

A secondary Purpose and Need was to better connect neighborhoods on each side of the river and to the waterfront itself. The freeway acts as a barrier, and getting across on any motorized vehicle requires getting onto a freeway and then off again. Therefore, DDOT decided to separate freeway and local bridges. The EIS mentioned that the local bridge would be designed for "future transit accommodation."

Is including tracks "accommodation" or not? What is "accommodation"? Is it just building the bridge with the structural capacity to handle streetcar vehicles? The actual slabs to underlie tracks? The underground conduit for power and foundations for catenary poles? All of the infrastructure short of actual service? The EIS doesn't specify.

DDOT originally planned to use mostly local money for the project, but switched to make it mainly federal when the stimulus bill passed. Significant funding became available to projects that were ready to obligate their money within 6 months, and the 11th Street Bridge was one of the few large enough projects ready to go.

People familiar with the conversations between DDOT and federal officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity, say that FHWA had signed off on contracts that included mention of the rails, but in early summer, DDOT tried to change the type of rails in order to comply with Buy America requirements that mandate more expensive, domestic rails. FHWA then brought in FTA, which objected to the project not having gone through even more environmental review.

FHWA ultimately appeared willing to give DDOT permission to include the tracks, according to the people familiar with the discussions, but FTA said no. Ironically, the federal government has subsequently offered waivers to Buy America around rails.

The question here is whether FTA had to make the decision they did, or had leeway. And if they had leeway, should they have used it to let the project move forward?

Already, federal regulations impose greater burdens on transit projects. To get funding, transit projects have to meet complex cost-effectiveness criteria while highway projects do not. The FTA acts at times like it's the Federal Make Transit More Difficult Administration. That's not because they're anti-transit, per se, but simply that they are regulating transit, FHWA is regulating roads, and FTA is the stricter parent.

One of the FTA's added hurdles is a requirement that environmental analyses not "prejudice" their decision for any mode. Local agencies have to study many modes, even ones that seem ridiculous on their face, like heavy rail transit for a project that evidently is best as bus or streetcar, or even considering monorail alongside other modes. Highway projects have no comparable requirement; cities don't have to study whether every new road should be carpool-only, for instance.

FTA officials objected that putting tracks on the bridge could predjudice the the Environmental Assessment (EA) underway for streetcar service in Anacostia. Even though DC already has a streetcar segment under construction in part of Anacostia and has made a citywide commitment to streetcars, FTA requires them to pretend none of that exists for the purpose of thinking about Anacostia. In the meantime, they're stopping another transit facility from being part of a project.

There are only 5 bridges connecting DC neighborhoods across the Anacostia, and they're each rebuilt once a generation at most. The EIS already considered the provision of transit service, which in any event has only positive environmental consequences for surrounding neighborhoods compared to single-passenger motor vehicle traffic.

Federal officials have substantial leeway within the regulations to help projects move forward more smoothly or put up obstacles. Sadly, in this case those at FTA seem to have chosen the latter. Instead, perhaps FTA should have been excited to see DC's commitment to transit and willingness to put money, including substantial local money, behind it.

Last year, some said that FTA officials were annoyed with DDOT for moving ahead with tracks on H Street, using local money, without involving FTA. This might have contributed to their rejecting DC for an Urban Circulator grant.

Perhaps DDOT could have worked better with its federal partners, and it probably should have involved FTA sooner in the 11th Street bridge project. But the federal agencies also create a disincentive to work with them when they impose even more rules than NEPA, the environmental act that mandates EISes and EAs, really requires.

The Adrian Fenty and Gabe Klein approach was to move forward as quickly as possible and get things done, sometimes with a minimum of process. In some cases, that led to action that might otherwise have gotten mired in years of debate but which are now remarkably successful, like the cycle tracks or Capital Bikeshare. With this bridge, that posture alienated some federal officials.

DDOT should take more care to follow proper process, and its current leadership is taking pains to rebuild relationships with federal partners even though that likely means slowing progress on streetcar and other projects. That's a good strategy. But federal employees should think about the big picture, too. If they slow down projects whose DOTs try to move fast but maybe come off as a little arrogant along the way, the end result is to hurt transit and the residents of cities who need its service today.

Now, before there can be tracks on the bridge, DDOT will have to undergo an environmental review, then find and program the extra money for the construction. 2020 might be an optimistic timeframe at this point, whereas the money was already in hand to build the tracks this year had FTA chosen to be flexible instead of taking the strictest approach.

Meanwhile, DC expects major development around Saint Elizabeth's and elsewhere in Ward 8. Sadly, our ability to better connect this important and growing area to the rest of the city has just lost a decade, thanks to this decision.

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Transit


GGW debates: Build Metro above or below ground at Dulles?

On Wednesday, DC Mayor Vince Gray became the latest public figure to enter the fray over the proposed Metro stop at Dulles Airport. Today, our contributors are weighing in.


Photo by XYZ+T on Flickr.

With costs rising, a vote by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to support an underground station has pitted elected officials against each other over the location of the future stop. And the controversy even thretens to scuttle the second phase of the Silver Line entirely.

MWAA supports an underground station adjacent to the terminal. But others, including Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, are calling for MWAA to choose an elevated station near the north parking garage. This would save about $330 million, but customers would wait for trains on an outdoor platform and would have to take a moving walkway 600 feet farther than the underground option.

Yesterday, Federal Transit Administration Peter Rogoff discussed the issue. He noted that 3 times as many people will use the Tysons stations than Dulles', and that the majority of passengers at Dulles itself will probably be airport workers, based on other airport stations elsewhere. Those are some of the facts that led him and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to push the region to accept the aerial station in order to keep the project moving.

Here's what our contributors have to say about the issue:

Dan Malouff
Anyone else feeling deja vu? Remember when we had to put the Tysons Corner stations above ground in order to secure federal support for the project?

Unfortunately it's looking more and more like the same thing is going on here. If Virginia pulls its support for the project, that's the end of Phase II no matter what MWAA wants. The choice therefore may not be between an above or below ground station, but rather between an above ground station or nothing at all.

As much as I agree that a below ground station would be ideal, we may have to accept that a less ideal station is better than no station at all. The above ground option is simply the best compromise for the greater good. Again.

Jamie Scott
I think the above ground station is a mistake. While 5 minutes of walking doesn't seem like that much time, it could be burdensome for tired travelers coming from longer international flights, disabled and elderly travelers, or travelers with kids.

Anything that makes it easier to use Metro is good. If the Silver Line is the success we all hope it will be, it could drive more flyers out to Dulles. If that indeed happens, the station should be as convenient for folks as possible.

On the other hand, $330 million is a lot. But I am worried that in several years, we'll regret not having a station underground.

Geoff Hatchard
Am I the only person who says, "Sure, let's play brinkmanship, what the hell?"

I mean, I know that if the extension out to Dulles was nixed tomorrow, that money wouldn't suddenly be magically available to build a separated Blue Line in the city the next day. But that's what should happen, if you ask me. Building more and more capacity farther and farther from the center, without bolstering capacity in the core, is just going to lead to problems in the long run.

We have the extension to Tysons Corner. Construction on that leg isn't going to stop now. But if the extension to Reston, Herndon, and Dulles doesn't happen, I'm not going to cry about it.

Alex Block
What I want to know is why this particular underground station is so expensive. I get the desire to keep it out of the sightlines of the Saarinen terminal, but the plan calls for a lot of tunneling that seems excessive.

I'd love to see MWAA develop another alternative that involves bringing rail in along one of the existing roadbeds and changing the auto circulation to fit around that, perhaps like the design John Cambron proposed last year. But I fear that's too much of a change at this stage.

I won't cry for Reston and Herndon, either. However, serving Dulles is and should be a major priority. That airport is one of the region's key links to the outside world, and making that connection as seamless as possible is of vital importance to the region.

Cities have always been built around transportation infrastructure hubs, whether that was a great natural port or the confluence of two rivers, or the convergence of several rail lines or highways. Dulles offers a great opportunity, and it's important that the region use this asset well. Dulles might have been a white elephant when first built, but now it has the luxury of spacious runways, excess capacity, and room to grow that other airports do not have.

Ideally, I think we'd also have a direct rail link to downtown as well, but those kinds of improvements can be added later. Metro has considered some options and discussed them on their blog.

Eric Hallstrom
If we were really interested in making the connection to Dulles as seamless as possible, we'd have a direct express rail link to the city.

A ride on the Silver Line isn't terribly long for a simple, direct ride to downtown, leaving regularly. It will be appealing for travelers and tourists. I still think the trip will be too long for many who would otherwise need to change trains. Even those of us that would have to ride from some parts of Arlington would still need to change, and that creates a much longer trip.

When I think of a true airport rail link, I think of the CAT in Vienna. That being said, I still use the blue line in Chicago to get from the airport to town. And that can be a very long ride (the website says it is 45 minutes to downtown, but that seems optimistic).

Cassidy Mullen
I don't see an underground station being a necessity. So long as it is easily accessible, I am all on board. Especially if it gets the desired savings and keeps the project moving forward.

Also, speaking of timing, a friend of mine was recently in Paris and I asked him to time the trip from the airport to Châtelet. Approximate travel time was 50 minutes, which is about the time projected for the trip from Dulles to Metro Center.

According to PlanItMetro, the trip from Metro Center to Dulles will be 52 minutes. I guess my point is not that the extension to Dulles will not be the best it can be, but will be equivalent to other large airport extensions, though some cities have direct connections, like the express line to London's Heathrow Airport.

However, I think since the Dulles connection will be "good" at best, is that more reason to have a less expensive above ground station if none of that money is going to go to making the metro trip any faster? I'm not 100% sure myself.

David Cranor
I'm split in regard to this debate.

On the one hand, I think $300 million is too much for the underground station. What is the interest payment on that each year, like $9M? And how many people will use it per year? It winds up costing like $2-4 per person per trip. Ask people, would you pay $3 to be teleported 5 minutes closer to the gate and I doubt many people would take your offer. So, I'd be against it on that point.

On the other hand, if the choice is between raising the toll on the toll road to build the underground station and not raising the toll and building an above ground station, I'd choose the aerial option. The road, while very expensive, is still probably underpriced and so let's at least put that money to good use - even if not ideal use.

If there was an option to raise the toll on the toll road and use the money to meet some other, highly rated transit need, I would choose that option. But that option is not on the table.

Neil Flanagan
Passenger convenience and comfort should take priority, because we want people to use the mass-transit option.

But from the perspective of aesthetics, the an aboveground station is better. The below ground station would not be one of metro's dramatic vaults, but instead a lower, split-tube station akin to the ones at Wheaton and Forest Glen. From there, passengers still have to go up an escalator, into the basement. The transit riders won't get the sense of arrival and departure that can distract from the drudgeries of air travel.

Train riders can only see a vista from the side of the railcar. An aboveground station would expose those arriving to a broadside of architectural drama that isn't always easy to get. Once off the train, an architecturally interesting station could frame the terminal better, like a smaller echo in a sympathetic style. You'd be able to see the terminal from the platform, and those in the terminal would be able to see the trains arriving and departing.

But there's no guarantee. In the rush to save costs, aesthetics could be a casualty like convenience. Or it could compensate for the longer walk. But you have to be willing to pay for either.

Nolan Treadaway
After believing initially that the few hundred feet length of tunnel was a huge mistake, I've now come around to the fact that probably won't deter many riders.

But I still have big concerns about above ground vs. below ground. I'm sure that waiting outside, exposed to the elements is going to discourage use. Passengers won't want to wait in the DC humid heat or cold winters, as opposed to being underground, in relative comfort.

But seems like consensus is building around above ground. I do really like the approach to Dulles by car and look forward to being able to take in via train.

David Alpert
Above versus below ground is one of the most significant decisions, but there are many other design elements that can at least make an aboveground station more or less pleasant. For example, the moving walkway that passengers would use exists today, in a tunnel.

If the station's escalators lead directly to that tunnel, where their bottom ends open right to the corridor, it could mean less work than if riders have to navigate a warren of twisty corridors to get from one to the other.

Similarly, yesterday Rogoff expressed support for walls or other elements that could make the aboveground station less weather-beaten. If MWAA is going to save a lot of money by building the station outdoors, they should at least use a small fraction of that money to make it a good quality aboveground station.

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Bicycling


CaBi coming to Rockville and Shady Grove

People living and working in the Rockville and Shady Grove areas will be able to use 200 Capital Bikeshare bikes on 20 stations next year, thanks to a federal grant which will be formally approved tomorrow.


Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

The bike-sharing program is one of 8 regional projects winning funding under the Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) program from the FTA. JARC funds must go toward improving mobility options for low-income commuters. Annual membership and usage fees will be waived for low-income workers who meet program guidelines.

There is no mention of where stations will go, and that probably hasn't been decided yet, but it is likely to include the Metro/MARC stations as well as high traffic locations such as Montgomery College and Rockville Town Center. A system centered on the two Metro stations with a handful of stations 1 to 4 miles away would allow users to get to traditional transit without having to wait for a bus or pay for parking.

Tomorrow, the National Capital Transportation Planning Board is expected to formally approve the grants. The $1.288 million funding and $688,000 local match for the bikeshare project will cover capital purchases and operating costs for two years. $200,000 of the match is from the City of Rockville.

The Montgomery County DOT applied for the funds, and winners were chosen by a selection committee and staff. Other winning projects include funding the shuttle bus to National Harbor that is filling the gap left by rerouting and shortening hours on the NH-1 bus, gas cards for home care aides serving people far from transit, and a rideshare coordinator for the Dulles corridor.

CaBi is a sensible use of funds to improve mobility for low-income commuters. With its minimal membership fees and an extra subsidy for those who most need it, CaBi can be a great commuting option for those on a budget. One $75 purchase can provide a year's worth of transportation.

The city of Rockville expressed an interest in joining even before CaBi launched. Being so far from the rest of the system, it is unlikely that many people will ride CaBi from Rockville to downtown DC. The investment might have gotten greater network effects if it centered around a place like Silver Spring and DC added more stations on its side of the border.

Though the pilot is going to be small, it can still serve a couple of roles easily. Members can ride from near their homes to the train stations, then take a train to DC and grab another bike for the ride to work—all with one key. It will expand on the bike-sharing assisted commute by making it possible at both ends, just as the Crystal City pod does. And it will increase mobility in Rockville and Shady Grove, making it easier to cover short distances, just as it does now in Arlington and DC.

Also, if a completely separate pod is successful in Rockville, then it could pave the way for other pods in discrete areas. For example, College Park has been suggesting they want to join for some time. If it works in Rockville, it means College Park doesn't have to wait for the tide of bikes to ripple outward.

Cross-posted at The WashCycle.

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Taxis


Wheelchair-accessible cabs increase DC mobility

As of Thursday, DC's residents and visitors with disabilities no longer have to struggle with unreliable Metro elevators or schedule MetroAccess rides 24 hours in advance. Instead, they can take a cab like anybody else.


Photo courtesy of MWCOG

On Thursday morning, MWCOG and the DC Taxi Commission launched rollDC, the District's new accessible cab pilot program. Through a $1 million New Freedom grant from the Federal Transit Administration and a $200,000 match from DCTC, there are now 20 fully wheelchair-accessible Toyota Sienna minivans plying the streets of DC, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All you have to do is call Royal Cab or Yellow Cab of DC and request an accessible cab.

Though the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed two decades ago, taxi cabs were largely exempt from the legislation that required everything from subways to movie theaters to provide a minimum level of accessibility accommodation. While all taxi companies must accommodate those passengers with disabilities who are able to use a regular taxi, including allowing services animals, and requiring drivers to stow mobility devices like walkers and foldable wheelchairs for a customer, the ADA does not require any special accessibility features for all "sedan-type" vehicles.

In 1990, this may have made a significant impact, as the number of people with disabilities using standard, manual wheelchairs was relatively large. Over the past 20 years though, advances in various technologies have increased the availability and usability of powered wheelchairs, which, while improving mobility and independence of the people that use them, have ironically made taxi service less accessible.

As the ADA was written, taxi companies are not required to modify their vehicles to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs until the companies purchased or leased a van or an SUV for its fleet. Once a taxi operator's fleet included at least one non-sedan vehicle, though, ADA requirements for full wheelchair accessibility kick in.

Unfortunately, this has provided a strong disincentive in many places for taxi companies to have any cabs that aren't sedans, which has been the case in DC. This is where the New Freedom program helps. Under this FTA program, states and metro regions receive a designated amount of money each year to provide transportation service or accommodations "above and beyond" what the ADA requires.

Because the economics of the DC taxi market had not made having large minivan or SUV cabs financially attractive enough to also comply with ADA requirements for fully accessible services, MWCOG designated a portion of the Washington region's New Freedom money to start the rollDC program.


Photo courtesy of MWCOG
Under rollDC, MWCOG purchased the modified Sienna vans and solicited two private cab companies, Yellow Cab of DC and Royal Cab, to own and maintain the vehicles. Because loading and unloading a passenger in a wheelchair takes longer than other passenger pick-ups, rollDC will also pay drivers an additional $2 per trip provided to customers in wheelchairs.

This new program has the potential to provide significant, two-fold impact on DC's transportation system. First, it will greatly increase the flexibility and mobility option of the city's residents and visitors who use wheelchairs. This is by far the most important outcome.

Less crucial to the human impact, but intriguing given Metro and DC's current budget crises, rollDC increases the ability of MetroAccess to provide ADA complementary paratransit through contracts with private taxi providers instead of through its costly, standard scheduled service.

Many paratransit providers, inlucluding MetroAccess, already use taxis to provide some service, but frequently this is limited to ambulatory customers who have other types of disabilities. With the introduction of accessible taxi cabs, MetroAccess now has the option to provide rides for nearly any eligible customer through taxi service, either through a voucher program, or through direct contract.

A typical MetroAccess trip with raised-roof or cut-away van costs Metro around $40. Many trips within DC and its immediate surroundings could be easily provided by taxi for a cost savings per trip. Additionally, by instituting a voucher program, MetroAccess could potentially give customers more flexibility than the current 24-hour advance scheduling rules allow.

With only 20 vans on the street, the ability for MetroAccess to realize significant savings through taxi-provided paratransit is still relatively low, but ridership numbers from the test phase run over the last year, indicate that there will likely be demand for more vehicles. In March of this year the vans on the street provided 349 trips.

These new cabs don't benefit people with disabilities alone. The presence of more large cabs increases the viability of group rides, as well as the ability to live in the city without a car, by making it easier to make shopping trips with bulky items. rollDC will improve mobility options for thousands of DC residents and visitors, disabilities or not. And that is an unequivocally good thing.

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Transit


Should the FTA regulate urban transit agencies?

Imagine if Metro had to pay a fine for every safety standard violation. What if Metro officials and operators lost licenses to work in transit if they repeatedly violated safety standards?


Photo by atomicfamily on Flickr.

These ideas could become reality if the FTA gains the ability to regulate public transit agencies. And while many Washingtonians regard this as a no-brainer, there are serious concerns that few are considering in the post-Red Line Crash fear-mongering.

The standard argument in favor of FTA regulation is that regional safety oversight bodies are simply too unprepared and ill-equipped to assure safety on America's transit systems.

These bodies, like the Tri-State Oversight Committee which provides safety oversight of Metro, have little to no staff and no enforcement powers. The DOT oversees safety on Amtrak, so why not subway and light-rail systems too?

While this standard argument is compelling, there has been little engagement with the counterargument to federal oversight of urban transit. Consider the following concerns.

Urban rail is very safe: Subways and light rail are already very safe, safer by far than other modes of transportation that are regulated by the DOT including air travel. One wonders then if improving on an already very low fatality rate should be a priority for federal dollars given the other more dangerous modes regulated by the DOT.

The TOC can be improved easily without federal intervention: The criticism leveled against the TOC is not directed at their competence, but at their lack of enforcement powers and funding. So, instead of building a new federal agency, why not give the TOC enforcement powers and increased funding?

TOC audit was actually better than the FTA audit of Metro: While it received little press attention, the TOC audit released earlier this month was more detailed and actionable than either the NTSB or FTA audits concerning the systemic safety hazards at Metro.

Federal urban rail regulation may be unconstitutional: Federal regulation of urban transit systems may ultimately be overturned by the courts. The Commerce Clause of the Constitution limits federal regulation to interstate commerce, and most urban transit systems don't cross state lines like Metro does.

NTSB previously opposed FTA oversight of urban rail: Every urban transit system is very different, despite appearances to the contrary. Unlike other transit modes regulated by DOT which share a common network, urban transit systems develop independently according to unique needs and constraints. The NTSB argued in the 90s that this was reason enough to support the regional system of safety oversight in place today.

For these reasons, I would strongly oppose FTA regulation of Metro and other urban transit agencies if not for one prominent benefit that would result from FTA regulation:

FTA can balance NTSB: While the NTSB serves a valuable role in transportation safety, they are an exclusively reactive organization by statute. Unfortunately, the political pressure to implement any and all NTSB recommendations is overwhelming. This undermines attempts to create a proactive safety organization.

The USDOT, which requires transportation providers to take a more proactive approach to safety, balances the NTSB in the transport modes that it regulates. This balance will never be provided by the TOC or other regional safety oversight bodies.

I am honestly on the fence on this critical issue. While the answer to this issue seems obvious to many, I suspect that the damning of all things Metro since the Red Line Crash is undermining the healthy debate that this issue deserves.

The Obama administration supports a bill that would give the FTA this power, but Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has put a hold on the bill in the Senate for many of the reasons listed here, as well as the lack of offsetting spending cuts or taxes in the legislation.

What do you think? Should the FTA regulate urban transit agencies?

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Transit


New Jersey says no to FTA money. What would you build?

It was reported yesterday that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, is expected to kill the ARC Tunnel project. The tunnel would double rail capacity under the Hudson River, and would allow more trains to enter Manhattan each day.


Photo by Rrrodrigo on Flickr.

Christie, it seems, plans to take the state's share of the project and devote it to building roads. This means that New Jersey will lose some $3 billion in federal funding for the project while furthering its sprawl. That money will end up going to other transit projects in other cities.

If the governor does indeed cancel the project, it will be a big loss for the region, and for the Northeast as a whole.

Currently, the only railroad access from New Jersey into Manhattan is through the North River Tunnels, each with one track, which were built in 1910 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. This bottleneck means that all Amtrak and NJ Transit trains operating along the Northeast Corridor into Penn Station fight for space in the tunnels, which are operating at about 100% capacity.

While the ARC Project isn't perfect, it's still an essential project. New Hudson River tunnels will need to be built eventually, and it's unfortunate that the taxpayers of New Jersey are losing out on this opportunity for a federal partnership.

But without the local match, those federal dollars will go elsewhere. While there's no indication that a project in this region would be likely to receive this funding, it is an interesting thought exercise to wonder what we could do with $3 billion.

Considering that we'd need a local match of at least $3 billion, that would mean $6 billion in funding for transit projects in our region. I asked the contributors what they'd spend that on. Here are some of the ideas they suggested (ordered by overall cost):

Metro capital upgrades: WMATA estimates $11 billion in unfunded capital needs over the next decade. Spending this money toward keeping Metro in a state of good repair would be an excellent use of these funds, even if maintenance isn't as "sexy" as a shiny new rail extension.

Separated Blue Line: With congestion on the rise in the Blue/Orange subway, it's only a matter of time before we'll need a separated Blue Line in Downtown DC. Some estimates show this project costing upwards of $6 billion.


Image by David Alpert.

DC Streetcars: At about $25 million per mile, $6 billion could build about 240 miles of streetcar. That would certainly finish off DC's planned 37-mile system and those planned in Northern Virginia, with plenty of room for expansion.


Image from NCPC.
Washington freight bypass: NCPC studied ideas to reroute freight rail traffic around the Washington region. These concepts are estimated to cost between $3.2 and $5.3 billion, depending on the alternative. A freight bypass would speed commuter and inter-city trains (and add capacity). It would also move hazardous rail cargoes outside of the central business district.

MARC investment and expansion: In September 2007, Governor O'Malley put forth a plan to quadruple MARC capacity by 2035. Doing so would cost about $3.8 billion, with the majority ($2.9 billion) going toward the Penn Line. It would include through-running of MARC trains into Northern Virginia by 2020. But the recession has meant the plan is unfunded.

Baltimore-Washington Maglev: In 2002, this project was estimated to cost $3.2 billion. It would provide a very high-speed link between Washington, BWI Airport, and Baltimore.

100% 8-car operation: It would cost about $600 million to buy enough railcars to allow the system to operate all 8-car trains during peak periods. This is essential to increasing capacity on the system.

Metro station pedestrian connections: With congestion at the downtown transfer stations growing, many have called for connections between the Farraguts (around $72M) and between Metro Center and Gallery Place (around $100M). Both of those could be constructed for well under $6 billion.


Image from DDOT.
K Street Transitway: In February, DC was turned down for a TIGER grant to fund this project. The $140 million busway would've increased travel speeds and added improved stops for many of the buses serving Downtown DC. Whenever it's constructed, it will also be home to the K Street streetcar line.

Water taxi docking stations: With water taxis starting to troll the Potomac between Alexandria, National Harbor, and the Waterfront, one wonders if money couldn't be spent to build stations along the Potomac to encourage small-scale ferry service between Virginia and Washington.

If we could get New Jersey's transit money, what would you suggest we spend it on?

Update, October 7: Governor Christie has officially killed the ARC Tunnel.

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