Posts about Mary Cheh
Councilmember Mary Cheh wants to split up the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and reorganize transportation-related functions in the government. Is this a good idea? Many of you responded positively to her proposals around taxis and parking, but worried about splitting transit away from the rest of transportation.
Would such a split create turf battles around how to use each road? Who decides what gets priority for scarce road space and limited funding? These are questions that the plan will have to answer as it evolves, if it's to improve transportation in DC.
Taxi, parking proposals preliminarily popular
The Taxicab Commission seems to serve two roles: deciding policy around how taxis work, and licensing and monitoring taxis. Cheh wants to move the policy and regulatory role into the new District Transit Agency, and move licensing into the Department of Motor Vehicles. Most of you thought that was smart.
For parking, most of our commenters felt it made sense to consolidate the three parking-related functions into one place. Right now, DDOT sets parking policy and rules, DPW writes the tickets, and DMV enforces them. A few people worried about one agency being "judge, jury, and executioner" (according to Cheh, that fear is a reason the functions were split in the past), but most of you feel that with parking functions all in one place, DC will be able to manage parking more adeptly.
But who defines the priorities and plans?
One area that caused the most concern was also an area Cheh's proposal hasn't thoroughly fleshed out: Who decides the purpose of each street, and how to prioritize projects? In short, who plans our transportation network?
Right now, even a unified DDOT does not have a good answer to this question. It has a planning group, which can make lots of long-term and short-term plans, but those planners then have to hand plans over to the engineers, who primarily control the capital budgets and the projects themselves. The engineering group often decides to change or ignore a plan, even one that has gone through a lot of community input.
Also, the bicycle and pedestrian programs are part of planning. You'd think that the bike planners could plan for where a bike facility goes and what type to use, hand it to the engineers. Then they would design the specific details of that project and build it. But as Shane Farthing has documented, that doesn't happen.
Farthing wrote, "In theory, PPSA [the planning group] plans and IMPA [the engineerng group] implements. That, however, assumes that PPSA also has the authority to set the order of priority for IPMA's implementation. It does not." Instead, the planners actually manage most bicycle projects from start to finish.
It's not just bikes. There are no project managers working on implementing bus lanes right now. Meanwhile, there is a whole group of people in IPMA (the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative) dedicated to building bridges and roads around the Anacostia River, so those projects keep happening, even if (as with the Southeast Boulevard) what they design doesn't fit with community desire or the mayor's sustainability plans.
Who decides under Cheh's plan?
A lot of you worried about how this would work in Cheh's new organization. There would now be a "transit" authority that has control over transit, taxi policy, and Capital Bikeshare. Cheh's diagram places "multimodal planning" in this bucket as well.
Would the District Transit Agency decide which streets get a streetcar, a bus lane, a bike lane, a truck route, wider sidewalks, and so on? How does that agency then ensure that the rump DDOT carries out its requests? Which agency prioritizes capital projects, the DTA or DDOT?
If DDOT, then wouldn't DDOT just keep picking and choosing its own priorities and largely ignoring the DTA? If the DTA, is that still really a transit agency, or is it now more of a Transportation Commission and DDOT just a construction department? And then, why not just make DDOT part of DPW or the Department of General Services once more?
If the DTA is still just transit, would you get turf wars between the two about whether to put a transit line or something else on a road? Already, a big obstacle to projects like bus lanes is that WMATA wants to speed up buses, but DDOT might have other ideas for the same roadway, or want to put dollars elsewhere. Will this continue?
Plus, DDOT is an official state Department of Transportation. Every state has to have one, and that's the agency which receives federal money and works with the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration. One agency has to define what goes into the regional Comprehensive Long-Range Plan. If DDOT plays this role, then DDOT is still in the driver's seat about overall transportation priorities, but with less responsibility for "multimodal planning."
Here's what you said
A lot of you worried about this issue.
Abigail Zenner wrote, "I worry about more siloing, turf wars, and not treating all street users equally."
Splitting off transit, bikeshare and multimodal planning and making that a separate agency on the level with DDOT could lead to problems. First, it can make each side more entrenchedfonfong echoed the same concern.
— DDOT will now be "roads and highways." You'll have one agency making the plans and another agency tasked with putting those plans in place. Which plans will get priority — DDOT's or the "multimodal" plans?
There is also a big benefit to be gained from having the agency that controls the streets and the agency that plans for transit be the same thing. Especially with how transit-focused the city should be, the transit agency shouldn't have to go begging to the roads people to get plans implemented.
Also, if you are going to create an independent board, go whole-hog and just make it a transportation board in charge of the whole thing.
Having the bike/transit stuff in a place different than roadway stuff seems to be a recipe to repeat the same dynamic. I'd prefer that it not take an act of Congress, or in this case the new Authority's board, to force the road folks to implement new infrastructure changes.jeff said, "Given how difficult it has been for the multimodal planners to coordinate their efforts with other divisions within DDOT I imagine that moving them to a different agency is going to simply make that worse."
Jasper wrote, "The problem with breaking up a large institution is that you break up the complexity of scale with walls that people will hide behind, causing conflicts between the different agencies. See the issues with parking. "
BTA said, "Separating cars from "everything else transportation" is only going to further the disconnect in planning for multimodal systems."
What could work?
A lot of you were skeptical about splitting up transportation, but it's not a foregone conclusion that a transit agency wouldn't work. However, at the very least, there needs to be a very clear answer about who sets priorities.
Another possibility, Cheh's staff say, is putting planning into the Office of Planning. That could strengthen that agency, or it could create even more seams between agencies. One obstacle: OP is right now under economic development, making its planning still subordinate to other objectives. Fixing that is possible and even desirable, but would require a larger-scale reorganization (and multiple council committees).
Cheh's staff say that they are hoping the public input process and working group meetings deal with these kinds of questions. That's fine, as long as there is a clear answer by the end, or they are willing to lengthen the process until this is firmly resolved. If transit splits off but this problem isn't fixed, then transportation planning in DC could get much worse, not better.
This is an issue that needs fixing, regardless. A conversation about reorganization can present a great chance to solve this problem. Maybe reorganization would also spur actual change in a way that wouldn't otherwise. But this part of the reorganization can only be worthwhile if we know the new structure will create a clearer chain of command from plans to action.
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, 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.
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.
In January, the District Department of Transportation replaced two lanes on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park with a painted median and turn lane to calm traffic. But due to pressure from residents and local elected officials, DDOT will end their year-long trial and return the street to six lanes.
DDOT created the median between 35th and Garfield streets NW to draw attention to the commercial strip and give pedestrians a safer way to cross the street. But after complaints from drivers and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the agency already removed part of the median in May.
Since DC received federal funds for this project, it must comply with federal lane width guidelines. Putting the original six lanes back would violate those guidelines, meaning the city will have to do so with its own funds.
Residents say they want pedestrian safety, but not at drivers' expense
The Glover Park ANC originally supported DDOT's plan, but reversed its position after conducting an informal online survey in October that said most Glover Park residents support a return to six traffic lanes. Just 300 of Glover Park's 10,000 residents completed the survey, but Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh agreed with the ANC's position.
Opponents claim the traffic calming has added to travel times, with anecdotal accounts citing times twice as long as the previous configuration. DDOT's official report indicates that average northbound drive times have increased by two minutes. Opponents have criticized this figure as only reflecting rush hour times and suggest that other times of day have been heavily affected as well.
Some business owners claimed a drop in customers because of difficulties driving to their locations. However, several new restaurants opened or will open in the corridor during the past year, including Sprig and Sprout, Arcuri, Einstein Bagels, and Jimmy John's. Meanwhile, Rocklands BBQ, whose owner signed a letter from local businesses saying they were getting fewer customers, recently announced that it will double in size.
At a recent community roundtable on the changes, Cheh and Glover Park ANC Chair Brian Cohen said very clearly that they did not want to change the lanes back without doing some pedestrian safety improvements to the area. Most residents testified in support of returning the street to six lanes, and some residents were open to speed cameras and HAWK lights, but little else.
DDOT Director Terry Bellamy noted in his testimony that it is difficult to both keep vehicles moving and build in safety measures. He also said that Wisconsin Avenue is too narrow for six lanes, as it is only 55 feet wide in the Glover Park commercial district.
Compromise proposal would remove just one lane
At the roundtable, Georgetown resident and GGW contributor Ken Archer offered a compromise plan, which would return one of the traffic lanes, but make them narrower, providing room for a northbound bike lane and rush-hour dedicated bus lane.
Archer argued that congestion will only get worse, pointing to residential developments all along Wisconsin. The only solution, he said, is to get drivers out of their cars. Cheh said that DDOT should consider Archer's plan for the long term, but in the short term all traffic lanes should be returned.
Political pressure on DDOT appears to work
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh first called a hearing in May as a response to concerns from Massachusetts Heights residents about the painted median between Calvert and Garfield streets. Though this section of Wisconsin Avenue was the site of multiple pedestrian strikes, DDOT removed part of the median within weeks of the May hearing. DDOT has yet to release any empirical data supporting their decision.
The hearing this month was a response to continued demands to remove the median south of Calvert. And like the first hearing, DDOT agreed afterwards to undo its lane configuration with no empirical data supporting their decision.
This experience shows that DDOT is being particularly vulnerable to political pressure. It sets a precedent for opponents of other progressive transportation initiatives, particularly in Ward 3, where Cheh opposed converting the Cleveland Park service lane to a sidewalk. And it bodes well for opponents of the new bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue, who can only come away emboldened by DDOT's eagerness to placate many of their neighbors on Wisconsin.
After a survey that says residents don't want traffic calming on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B will support returning the street to six lanes.
The District is working on a new streetscape that includes measures to discourage speeding and increase pedestrian safety. But ANC 3B commissioner Brian Cohen, a longtime supporter of the project, said at a meeting last night that it will oppose the median at a December 4 public hearing. Most of the 300 responses to a constituent survey favored returning to the six-lane configuration, he said.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh first called a hearing in May as a response to concerns from Massachusetts Heights residents about a painted median that replaced one of the through lanes on Wisconsin between Calvert and Garfield streets. Councilmember Jack Evans was vocally opposed to the median, saying it created more traffic congestion as he drove his children to and from school.
The District Department of Transportation created the median to draw attention to the commercial strip, give pedestrians a safer way to cross the street and planned to keep it for a one-year trial. Though this section of Wisconsin Avenue was the site of multiple pedestrian strikes, DDOT removed the median after about six months. DDOT has yet to release any empirical data supporting their decision.
In addition to the lane configuration, the survey also solicited opinions on installing alternative traffic calming measures such as a HAWK light or speed cameras. ANC3B did not disclose the specific survey results on this question, but indicated that the results on these survey items were less definitive and suggested the community is more divided on such measures.
Commissioners explained that the wider sidewalks, streetlights, and aesthetic improvements will remain in place. There is still enough room to keep the wider sidewalks along with a six-lane street. The few residents in attendance at last night's meeting voiced their agreement with the ANC, and repeated their frustration with the slow traffic between 35th Street and Calvert Street.
The commissioners also noted that they have repeatedly complained about delivery trucks impeding the flow of traffic. and will work on pressing new rules for nighttime deliveries. Despite all the ideas residents floated from removing parked cars and ticketing delivery trucks, there was a perception that it was not working.
"I wanted it to work, but no matter what fixes we tried, it didn't," said Commissioner Jackie Blumenthal. "What did work are the sidewalks, the streetlights, and especially the new intersection at 37th and Tunlaw."
It's likely that the lanes will return to their previous form. However, there remains strong support to some kind of traffic calming measures to protect people crossing the street.
The Wisconsin Avenue streetscape has exposed DDOT as being particularly vulnerable to political pressure. It sets a precedent for opponents of other progressive transportation initiatives, particularly in Ward 3. Opponents of the brand-new bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue can only come away emboldened by DDOT's eagerness to placate many of the same people on Wisconsin.
It's clear that DDOT is willing to make significant decisions on highly politicized issues while offering no empirical support. It's a sobering reminder of the need to be vocal in support of progressive transportation projects, even after they're built.
Despite having endorsed bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue in July, ANC 3D will consider a draft resolution asking the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to delay installing the lanes at its meeting tonight.
Rendering of proposed bike lane on New Mexico Avenue from WABA.
New Mexico Avenue forms one of the few street connections between American University and the neighborhoods of Glover Park and Wesley Heights. The resolution, drafted by ANC 3D Commissioner Michael Gold, argues that DDOT shouldn't build bike lanes "until the completion of a formal analysis and impact study" of the surrounding transportation network which the ANC and neighborhood groups can review.
On Monday, DDOT announced that it plans to complete installing the lanes this week and posted photos outlining where they will go. DDOT has worked with the community to change the proposed design so that it would not take away any parking places.
ANC 3D voted 5-4 in favor of the bike lanes, but commissioner Tom Smith, who opposes them, happened to not be in town for the July meeting. He's marshaled those constituents who previously expressed opposition to the lane's installation to once again re-litigate the decision via email messages to the ANC supporting the resolution, which was introduced without proper notice to the community in an effort to reduce supporter outcry. Cycling advocates only found out about it yesterday.
This bike lane is an important connection in Ward 3, and if you support it, there are a few things you can do:
- Let Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh know that you support the New Mexico Avenue bike lane. Cheh is head of the council's Transportation Committee and has previously indicated her strong support for Ward 3 bike infrastructure. Ask her to have your back on getting this lane installed and to reach out to DDOT to make sure it keeps with its installation schedule. You can call her office at (202) 724-8062 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- You can also remind the five ANC members who voted in favor of the prior resolution, Stu Ross, W. Philip Thomas, Rory Slatko, Penny Pagano, and Joe Wisniewski, that you and the community still supports the bike lanes. You can find their email addresses at the ANC 3D website.
Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.
In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.
If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.
When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.
At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.
Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.
But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.
This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.
If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.
Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.
There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.
And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.
Purple Line gets first sponsor: Maryland has a transportation funding bill, but to help get the Purple Line moving, MDOT has signed a deal with Six Flags Corporation to sponsor the Purple Line. The new roller coaster design will include a loop-the-loop at Columbia Country Club and feature significantly higher speeds, reducing travel time.
New tax plan for Virginia: Governor Bob McDonnell proposes eliminating the state sales tax. He would make up the revenue by a 50% tax on hybrid or electric cars, organic produce, reusable grocery bags, and bicycle inner tube replacements. Observers now consider him a shoo-in for the 2016 GOP Presidential primary.
Congestion solved: The Texas Transportation Institute found that lost jobs from sequestration improved congestion. "Therefore, the logical policy for transportation must be further job loss," said Tim Lomax. Plus, Stockton, "foreclosure capital of the world," has the nation's lowest congestion, making it a clear model to emulate.
Where's the birth certificate?: Donald Trump is offering a reward for anyone who can prove DC Councilmember McDuffie isn't a "native Washingtonian." Stronghold resident McDuffie owns the house he was raised in and says he was born here, but no incontrovertible proof was immediately available after a 5-minute Google search.
Metro becoming more self-service: As part of its efforts to create a more "self-service" system in the Momentum plan, Metro will replaces all escalators with stairs and convert trains and buses to a Flintstone's-style power system.
Examiner will keep going: The Washington Examiner has reversed course and will continue its current publishing format. "Once we saw how upset our editorial style made David Alpert, we figured we were doing our job and had to continue," said editor Stefan Schmitt. The paper will, however, still fire Kytja Weir and Liz Essley, as both sometimes had positive things to say about transit.
Cheh apologizes: After weeks of speculation and inquiries from the local press, Mary Cheh relented and issued a letter of apology for her completely legal campaign fundraising activities. "DC residents have come to expect so much more of their elected officials," said DC voter Amy Zoneger.
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