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Sustainability


Sustainability can save WMATA money, if it's a priority

Organizations of all types are talking about being "greener," partly because it's the right thing to do, but also because it can save money. Amid regular budget shortfalls, WMATA can benefit from every cost savings, and is considering a number of sustainability projects.


Pilot test of new platform lights. Image from WMATA.

Tomorrow, the WMATA Board will hear about the agency's sustainability initiatives. Sustainability could make a big difference in the budget.

According to a November memo to the Board, more efficient lighting in parking garages could save $1.5 million per year. Doing the same for stations and tunnels could save $5-8 million per year. New lights also generate more light and need less maintenance than the old.

Lighting isn't the only way that being green could help get rid of the red ink and improve operations at the same time.

Many escalators around the world stop when they're not being used, and have more efficient motors than Metro's aging escalators. Solar panels or solar laminates could cover the roofs of Metro railyards, maintenance facilities, and garages.

Other transit agencies have trained operators to accelerate and brake more fuel-efficiently. Many have installed tire pressure gauges that actively and constantly communicate tire air pressure data to the maintenance facilities. That lets them keep buses at optimum tire pressure and fuel efficiency, which saves significant fuel. Fuel is a very large cost item in Metro's budget, especially with fuel prices rising.

WMATA already has set a standard to make new facilities LEED Silver, like the Shepherd's Parkway bus garage under construction. Its new buses are cleaner and more efficient than the old, and the 7000 series railcars use LED lights, regenerative braking to get energy back like hybrid cars do, better HVAC systems and a design that reduces the need for some polluting processes to clean them.

Sustainability faces obstacles

It's often difficult for transit agencies to energetically adopt sustainability programs. Some agency staff think of transit as intrinsically pro-sustainable, compared to other modes of travel, so they might not feel that sustainability is the higest priority. There can be resistance from the rank and file to newfangled, ivory tower ideas that don't recognize the rough reality of engineering and operations.

Transit agencies also, perhaps understandably, end up prioritizing the day-to-day crisis management over strategic programs. At the moment, WMATA's the overwhelming emphasis is on system safety and renewal capital projects. That means that "soft," "green" projects can find it hard to compete for the capital funds available, even when there's a powerful economic business case behind them.

Another obstacle is the relationship between labor and management. Many sustainability programs might involve changes to people's job responsibilities, which means that management has to negotiate for a change rather than simply establishing and implementing the program.

For example, if WMATA monitored the fuel efficiency performance of each bus driver to help them save fuel, would the union oppose this as another form of management breathing down workers' necks? Would WMATA be able to reward employees that saved the most fuel and money?

Even for non-union workers, transit agencies lack many of the tools private sector companies have to reward individual initiative. A private sector employee responsible for annual cost savings might get a bonus as a result, in a transit agency that same employee might simply get an employee appreciation mention in a weekly newsletter. Weighed against the possibility that any given sustainability initiative might "rock the boat" for bosses or colleagues, a public pat on the back doesn't offer enough to outweigh the possible headaches.

Sustainability initiatives that come from one department might create savings in another department. But the department that initiated the program might not benefit from the savings, reducing the incentive. Also, divisions within public or private sector organizations often covet the size of their respective budgets and the control that spending authority gives.

A department which saves money might view this as reducing "their budget" instead of looking at the benefit to the agency's bottom line. The affected department could well resent the sustainability initiative and the employees elsewhere in the organization who pushed the idea through.

Making sustainability happen takes leadership from the top

Despite all these barriers, it's more important than ever that WMATA take a strong leadership role in sustainability, backed up by strong management policy and action. In a budget season when the agency is asking for substantial fare and subsidy increases, the public needs to hear that WMATA is taking every possible action to provide transit services more cost-effectively (not to mention more safely and reliably).

WMATA is also entering negotiations with its labor unions for the next round of labor contracts. It's critical that the issues of efficiency and productivity be on the table in a central, pivotal way. It's not unreasonable for labor to ask for wage increases; it's completely unreasonable to ask for such increases without also committing to improving productivity and efficiency in quantifiable ways.

WMATA management could start most sustainability initiatives without any Board action. Richard Sarles and his management team could unilaterally adopt many measures and communicate the values described here. But, perhaps for many of the reasons listed above, Metro's management has not yet made sustainability the visible issue it could and should be. That means they need support, and pressure, from the region and the board.

To date, only 2 WMATA Board members have expressed much interest in sustainability: Tom Downs and Mary Hynes. They should both be commended for trying to make this issue a priority for the agency, and hopefully they will continue to do so. Their colleagues should join them in pressing for more sustainability, productivity, and efficiency.

Sustainability


Nationals Park falling behind in green standings

When Nationals Park opened, it was the first LEED-certified ballpark in Major League Baseball, achieving the "Silver" standard. Four seasons later, the once-groundbreaking green ballpark is in danger of being bumped out of the top tier of sports venues.


Photo by The Ardvaark on Flickr.

With Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann on the field and Bryce Harper on the way, the Nationals have dramatically upgraded their on-field product. Nats Park amenities have been spruced up as well, with an expanded scoreboard pavilion and new food stands like Shake Shack.

But in a new video by CSN Washington, the Nats are touting the same green features as when the park opened in 2008:

From green roofs to efficient lighting to water filtration to the bicycle valet, the Nationals' efforts are all valuablebut they're no longer cutting edge. In the years since Nats Park opened, the Minnesota Twins have opened Target Field, also LEED Silver certified. Then the Pittsburgh Penguins raised the bar further, opening a LEED Gold certified arena.

And all of those stadiums have been outdone by a college facility. The University of Florida's Heavener Football Complex is LEED platinum-certified, the highest possible rating.

So how can the Nats get back to a leadership position?

Renewable energy. If the Boston Red Sox can put solar panels on Fenway Park, there's no reason why the Nats can't have some as well. Even the Washington Redskins, whose owner is no friend of the environment and who manage to screw up almost everything else, have installed a sizable solar array at FedEx Field.

Put the players out front. Nationals pitcher Collin Balester is part of Players for the Planet, speaking out on the need for recycling & climate action. Why not include him in these clips along with the front office staff?

Tear down the awful parking garages. Not only are they eyesores that block views of the Capitol, not only do they sit empty most of the time, but they encourage driving to a park that's next to one Metro stop and a 15 minute walk from several others. Imagine how much revenue the Nats could recapture from The Bullpen across the street by turning the garage space into an inviting area to eat, drink, shop and socialize. Yes, DC paid tens of millions of dollars to build the garagesbut letting the mistake stand won't get that money back.

Get serious about reducing fans' trash. Nats Park only recycles plastic bottles and aluminum cans, while the District's municipal recycling service takes all kinds of plastics, as well as glass, aluminum and paper. The red-helmeted recycle bins aren't marked well enough as such, and trash is often discarded in them. The Nats should also require their vendors to use only biodegradable food packaging.

Stop selling ads on everything to polluters. It's not quite in the same league as Pittsburgh's "green" arena selling its naming rights to a polluting coal company. But the Exxon Mobil-sponsored left field wall billboard, Exxon Mobil-sponsored 7th inning stretch, Exxon Mobil-sponsored organic cotton hat, and Exxon Mobil-sponsored stadium replica really distract from the Nats' efforts to show they care about the environment & public health.

Finally, how's this for a headline: "Nationals Sign Local Environmental Blogger as Left-Handed Reliever"! Think about it, Mike Rizzo.

Sustainability


Arlington gets a green house

As architecture and construction become more and more green, residential buildings that significantly reduce energy use and incorporate other environmentally friendly features will hopefully become more common in our urban areas. One builder in Arlington has created an innovative and effective green home in a residential neighborhood in the Westover neighborhood.

Builder Patty Shields of Metro Green Home built the home shown here. It is the first home in Virginia to receive a LEED Platinum certification from the US Green Building Council (USGBC).

This home was built on an odd-shaped lot that had not previously been built on. Due to its unusual triangular shape and small size, it required zoning waivers for setbacks and other requirements. As part of the overall project, Ms. Shields renovated the farmhouse next door, also incorporating significant green practices in order to gain approval from the county to develop this lot.

This house incorporates a modern architectural palette, which is in contrast with the ubiquitous colonials surrounding it. Roger Lewis of the Washington Post recently wrote an article discussing modern architecture for residential construction, which is generally avoided for a number of reasons, particularly risk aversion to change. In this case, I believe the builder has been sensitive to the community, created a more modern home while pushing the envelope a little toward integrating more modern ideas into traditional neighborhoods.

More significantly, Ms. Shields took a holistic approach towards the sustainability aspects of the house, incorporating better design, materials, systems and components in from the very beginning (for details and lots of photos, see her web site). The home is also located in a walkable neighborhood one block from a bus line that serves Metrorail and about a 20-minute walk to the East Falls Church metro stop.

The earlier in the process sustainability is brought in, the more effective and less expensive it is to incorporate. Intelligently designed green construction can cost very little extra or sometimes no more than traditional building, and energy cost savings virtually always swamp any additional costs. Getting local governments to put more muscle into residential construction programs could be a very effective way to make environmental progress.

Arlington has developed a Green Home Choice program to try to encourage builders to incorporate more sustainable practices in their new homes. However, it offers very little incentive: the only real one (and minor at that) is front-of-the-line plan review. Everything else is just informational or promotional.

Commercial buildings, on the other hand, can receive significant density increases by meeting LEED certification levels. That said, Arlington's web site claims that they are reviewing the Green Home Choice program.

Montgomery County has taken a different tack. In 2008 they passed legislation that would require all new homes built in the County, starting this year, to meet ENERGY STAR requirements. However, the County Energy Code has not been updated to reflect this, nor does the County's Department of Environmental Protection mention it on their web site.

DC also incorporated new energy codes in January of this year, but has no specific residential construction program. Nor do Fairfax, Loudoun or Prince George's Counties, as far as I can tell. New construction is down due to the current economic conditions. That might make this the best time to develop effective new building programs, so that they are in place and operating when new construction picks back up.

The home featured here, at 5803 16th St. N. in Arlington, sold last July for $1,175,000.

Development


Gaithersbungle, part 4: Why emulate Tysons' existing road network?

In the first three parts of this series (1, 2, 3), we discussed the folly of spending $4 billion to widen I-270 instead of focusing development in denser areas and beefing up MARC to better serve the 270 corridor with existing infrastructure.


Tysons' present and Montgomery's future? Photo by teejayhanton.

Much of the pressure to widen 270 comes from planned development in Gaithersburg West, an area of unincorporated former farmland just outside the City of Rockville and the City of Gaithersburg that developers are eagerly turning into suburban office parks. The Planning Board has devised a Master Plan that makes all of the right noises toward building walkable, transit-oriented places, but then creates the infrastructure of sprawl. At the time when Tysons is trying to evolve away from a model of big superblocks and huge interchanges, Montgomery planners are designing something that looks much more like the Tysons of yesterday than the Tysons of tomorrow.

The plan notes that the area "looks and functions like a conventional office park with single-purpose clusters separated by wide highways and surrounded by parking lots. This model ensured auto-dependence while discouraging walking. There is so little variety of uses in the LSC today that employees often drive to lunch spots." To improve the area, planners call for concentrating development around the planned Corridor Cities Transitway stations with mixed-use zoning, and adding a local grid of streets. The sections without CCT stations won't get any additional density. They suggest a bikeway network and pedestrian treatments on many roads.

That sounds good. But upon closer examination, it appears that rather than turning low-density office parks into walkable mixed-use areas, it would turn them into slightly less low density, still mostly auto-dependent areas. The plan would perpetuate the land use of clusters (though not quite as single-purpose) surrounded by wide highways that discourage walking. Planning staff may be trying to make the best of a bad situation, but they then created a plan that only reinforces many of the problems.

Except in a few small areas, the additional streets still won't create the small blocks necessary for walkable development. The three sections with proposed development, Belward, LSC West, and LSC Central will only have 64 street intersections across almost a square mile of land. LEED-ND requires 150 intersections per square mile for any certified development, and requires 400 intersections per square mile for the highest scores.


Proposed street grid in LSC Central. Compare these blocks to those of the Fallsgrove townhouse neighborhood to the southeast.

Nor are the intersections concentrated into a few small, walkable areas. The LSC West area, the smallest in land areas, would get a dense street grid, but the other areas spread their streets out fairly evenly, creating huge superblocks which will force people to walk long distances or, more likely, drive.

Despite the plan's repeated references to building places not dependent on cars, it also recommends significant road widenings and new interchanges that will divide the area with traffic sewers hostile to pedestrians. The plan includes five new grade-separated interchanges and would widen Key West Avenue into ten lanes plus a "wide landscaped median," including "eight through travel lanes ... and a separate curb lane that can serve as a through lane for transit vehicles and a right turn lane for other vehicles during peak periods." This is wider than many freeways, and if we let cars use the transit lane to turn, transit vehicles won't even get to move particularly fast. While the County is trying to convert Rockville Pike into a walkable boulevard down at White Flint, this plan pushes the area's boulevards in the opposite direction.


Proposed street network for Gaithersburg West. Circles represent grade-separated interchanges; solid circles are existing, dashed circles proposed.

Tysons Corner is trying to transform itself into a walkable urban area, but is hampered by its preexisting auto infrastructure. Many planners wish VDOT weren't so insistent on widening Route 7 to move even more automobiles, and the huge existing interchanges where Route 123 meets Route 7 and the Beltway create insurmountable barriers to truly integrating the walkable places together. Tysons is stuck with these, at least until VDOT changes its outlook substantially. But Gaithersburg West doesn't have them today, and yet Montgomery planners recommend instituting just what Fairfax planners wish they could remove.

Over the last decade, Smart Growth advocates have been very successful in many ways. Many people, including most leaders, now agree that multimodal transportation is good, as is transit-oriented development. Pedestrians and bicycles are important. However, often the rhetoric exceeds the reality. Leaders talk the talk of Smart Growth, but then design the same bad plans we've seen for 50 years.

The Gaithersburg West Master Plan looks like a bad 1950s vision of the future sprinkled with some Smart Growth verbiage. It'll separate traffic out to a small number of wide expressways with grade-separated interchanges. It designs a few roads near the centers of activity for pedestrians, but forces them to walk long distances around huge blocks. It claims to prioritize transit-oriented development, yet designs infrastructure for enormous increases in single-passenger vehicle use.

Next, we'll look at the allocation of density across the site, and the alignment of the Corridor Cities Transitway.

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Government


Arlington Democrats to select delegate on June 9th

After serving since 2004, Delegate Al Eisenberg is retiring. Thanks to Mr. Eisenberg for representing my district these past five years in Richmond. His staff was responsive to my questions and concerns during legislative sessions, and for the most part I agreed with his votes and proposed legislation. Five Democrats are competing in a primary for his seat. No Republicans have filed to run, so this primary will determine the winner. These elections typically draw very low turnout, around 2,000-5,000 votes compared to 10,000 to 25,000 for a general election.

If you're a Virginia Democrat, please remember to go vote on June 9th. There's also a three-way race for the Democratic nomination for Governor, between Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe. The 47th District stretches from the East Falls Church Metro station, all the way down to Columbia Pike, over to Ballston and Virginia Square stations.

I sent questionnaires about transit to all of the delegate candidates for the 47th District. Miles Grant and Alan Howze responded. I'm still waiting to hear from Patrick Hope, Adam Parkhomenko, and Andres Tobar, the other candidates.

Miles' experience comes from his blog "The Green Miles" and groups like Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment. His strong suit is definitely the environment. He's got Greater Greater Washington in his blogroll, and he appears to be running his largely self-financed campaign on a shoestring. Miles has pledged to keep his campaign carbon neutral, and states publicly how he is minimizing his impact through using recycled materials and reusing things as much as possible. He updates regularly on Twitter (@milesgrant), and responds to questions fairly quickly. He seems the candidate most comfortable personally with Web 2.0 technology.

Alan comes to the campaign an experienced political director for Governor Warner, and liason to the House and Senate Delegations. He's worked closely with the Democratic leadership in Richmond. His environmental credentials are no less sterling than Miles'. He started his university's first comprehensive recycling program, and is a member of the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. He worked directly with the Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources, and is starting a home energy audit business. He lives with his wife and two children in the Westover area. He is a regular bicycle commuter.

Both Grant and Howze are supportive of the Columbia Pike streetcar project, and both acknowledge that the local residents are apprehensive about the changes the project will bring. Grant states that the issues can be managed, while Howze more specifically states that the County Board should address some of those issues. While Grant expressed support for other transportation improvements like Lee Highway and a Beltway metro (in the very long term), Howze did not mention any additional transit lines in his response.

Both candidates stated that BRT was a valuable option, but only Grant specifically mentioned the development advantage with rail transit: "Would a business set up shop on the Pike because there's a rapid bus as opposed to a regular bus"? Howze mentioned that there was no one right answer and the mode decision would have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

Howze had a much stronger response to a question about how to raise more money for transit, being able to cite his experience working for Governor Warner, and passing legislation through the General Assembly. Grant is basically only able to say that he'll make the case that blocking transit funding is blocking economic growth. It may be true, but it might not be enough to convince the house GOP, which has until now blocked any new general taxes for transit.

Both candidates gave similar responses to a question about how we make sure transportation funding goes where it's most effective, essentially committing to striving to get Northern Virginia its fair share, but other than that neither candidate's answer really stood out. Grant cited the need for a "radically different set of policies", and Howze cited his experience working at a statewide level.

Both candidates oppose widening I-66, citing that increasing highway capacity will just encourage more use. They both support increasing transit capabilities as a tool for reducing highway congestion. Grant more directly mentioned affordable housing as a method of reducing congestion, mentioning that he'd prefer making it easier for a teacher to live in Arlington as opposed to commuting from Warrenton.

Both candidates were for allowing localities to require building standards similar to LEED, and for allowing localities broader powers to address their local concerns. I think both candidates pointed out difficulties with LEED but were supportive of LEED's intent. As part of his training to be an energy auditor, Howze has studied for the LEED certification.

Both candidates support an increase in the gas tax. Grant supports if the money is carefully appropriated, with a concern that the tax revenue could be sent to other parts of the state. When asked whether fixed-cost fees like licensing and titling were preferable, Grant said that he preferred mileage-based fees because they affect the occasional driver less than the daily long-haul commuter. Howze brought up a great point that any fees or taxes need to be stable so that the Commonwealth can raise bonds against them.

I'm split between the two of them. Both candidates have been responsive to questions, understand Northern Virginia's transportation issues, and understand the link between good transit and land use. It's unfortunate that you're only allowed to pick one, I'd prefer a ranked choice voting system or some system that allowed me to vote for more than one. If other candidates respond to my questions I'll try to pass that information along.

I'm not making an endorsement, other than to say that either Grant or Howze are clearly bright individuals with the experience they need for the office. As Northern Virginia Democrats, they have similar views on transportation, taxes, public finance and social issues. Mr. Howze appears to bring more directly applicable experience to the office, having worked for Virginia public officials, while Mr. Grant appears to have a better feel for the many interlinked topics when it comes to planning, land use, transportation and the environment. At this point, I'm going to vote for one of the two, I'm just not sure which.

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