Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Mary Cheh

Transit


What happened with the streetcar?

Last Tuesday, DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson announced, less than 24 hours before the only vote on DC's budget, that he was proposing slashing funding for the streetcar. The money would pay for, among other things, a package of tax cuts. What does this mean for the streetcar?


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

It's been difficult to answer that question, because Mayor Gray's budget office and the DC Council budget office don't agree. Especially on Tuesday and Wednesday, with little time to understand the change, dueling analyses clouded the picture. It's starting to come into focus, though questions still remain.

There is still funding to build streetcars at a slow pace. And DC could always fund more lines once a few lines get done. But the Gray administration says Mendelson's change may halt exactly the mechanism the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) hopes will get the project to move faster, stop having so many delays, and get out of the mire it's been in: a partnership with a consortium of companies to design, build, operate, and maintain the streetcar.

Does this affect the H Street streetcar?

It doesn't appear so. The first segment of the streetcar will run from behind Union Station, along H Street and Benning Road to Oklahoma Avenue, near the Anacostia River. That is under active construction and will open ... sometime. I'm hearing maybe the end of 2014. That's frustratingly long and disappointing since until the very end of last year Gray was promising it would open in 2013.

DDOT has already done studies to continue the line to the Minnesota Avenue Metro. According to information from Gray spokesperson Pedro Rebeiro, the budget still has funding that would pay for that segment.

What about the rest of the system?

The day of the budget vote, Rebeiro released this side-by-side comparison arguing that the cuts would leave DC about $100 million short of finishing the line from H Street west to K Street downtown and then to Georgetown.

It's worth noting that the K Street part would get a dedicated lane (for streetcars and buses). There has been a fair amount of criticism of streetcars that only run in mixed traffic for their whole length; this would not do that if the "K Street Transitway" gets built.

Why does the Council budget office say the money isn't necessary?

Chairman Phil Mendelson makes a few arguments, but two main ones. One is that the mayor was putting too much money into the streetcar than the budget could sustain. Gray's budget office wanted to basically look at the amount of revenue DC earned in Fiscal Year 2016 and then of whatever goes above that, into the future, one-quarter would go to the streetcar.

Council budget director Jen Budoff says that this is unsustainable, that a lot of that revenue growth is needed just to pay for rising costs in the base budget and within 5 years this financing system would get so big it would cut into the base budget. Gray's budget director Eric Goulet says Budoff is wrong.

Mendelson's second argument, which got a lot of traction with transportation chair Mary Cheh and at-large councilmember David Grosso, is that DDOT hasn't been spending money at nearly the rate this would bring in. It built up a surplus of about $100 million in accounts (or so says Budoff and Cheh's staff; Goulet says that's not real, while the council folks suspect the administration was just trying to hide it).

Mendelson dedicated about $50 million a year to the streetcar, which he argues is enough to keep the program moving forward.

If DDOT isn't spending money very fast, why does it need more now?

Because DDOT wasn't planning to keep on building streetcars the way it had been. Rather, it was going to drop da bomb. I mean, a DBOMa Design, Build, Operate, and Maintain contract.

A number of transportation design, engineering, and construction firms have joined together in several consortia to bid for this contract. DDOT was going to soon narrow the field to about three. Those three would then start an intensive design process to actually work out how they would build the streetcar system on K Street, a north-south line along or near Georgia Avenue, and a line in Anacostia over the river to Buzzard Point where it would connect with the north-south line.

This would include key questions like how to run streetcars without overhead wires. The H Street line will have them and they're now legal outside of viewsheds, but there's no way wires were going to cross the Mall or North Capitol Street or pass by Farragut Square.

The consortia include streetcar makers who have their own wireless technologies, some with batteries, some with a third rail that only activates when the streetcar runs over it, and more.

But these consortia are going to have to sink millions of dollars into just working out the designs and all of the details. That's par for the course in big construction projects (and profits on the other end cover this risk), but they're not going to bid if they think DC might not hire anyone, or will build only a piece and then pull the plug because it doesn't have the money.

The Gray administration says that DC needs this dedicated revenue stream now to persuade bidders that the city is serious, and that they may have to withdraw or at least strongly curtail the DBOM bidding with the current budget. Mary Cheh, who says she doesn't want to see the DBOM go away, is asking whether that's absolutely necessary, or whether DC could still persuade the consortia to bid, then come up with the money once it's actually time to sign a contract.

But Gray argues that it's going to be very hard to come up with the $800 million over 5 years (for the initial 22-mile system) and more (for the rest of the streetcar vision) in the future. DC won't just repeal the tax cuts in a year. Mendelson has spent a lot of the rest of the money on other things, and DC's debt cap limits how much the city can borrow beyond what's in its capital budget.

Who's right?

Probably both are accurate, from the perspective of each side. It does seem that the full concept of hiring a consortium and turning them loose to build a citywide streetcar network is now less likely, or if it does happen, might be smaller in scope. However, not everyone on the council, even those who support building a streetcar system, is entirely comfortable signing off on that just yet.

Mendelson's idea, and that of the Committee of 100, is that DC needs to first plan everything out in great detail, then have public input on the plans, then get council approval, and then it can get funded. This is a common way of doing government projects.

In business, especially in technology, organizations are moving away from this way of doing things. That's because often it takes so long to design things that it delays a project, and once you actually start building, you learn more about what you need. Companies and governments are notoriously bad at figuring out all of the issues beforehandthis was one big factor in the Healthcare.gov fisasco.

Ken Archer epxlained in detail why a design-build process can work better for governments as well as private industry. But it can cut the public and elected officials out of the process somewhat. If the agency is good about getting input along the way, and we can believe they will make good choices as the project proceeds, it can be a big time-saver.

Unfortunately, DDOT has not established this level of credibility in recent years. Far from it. And that meant public understanding was shallow and support was thin, so when Mendelson wanted to take it away and offered something (tax cuts) which had broad appeal, most didn't put up a fight.

Transit


DC lost out on $22 million by dawdling on bus priority

Back in February of 2010, it looked like projects to cut down on bus delays were imminent. Our region had received federal stimulus grants to make bus service better and reduce delays. But four years later, they still haven't gotten done.


Photo by hamster! on Flickr.

We've been frustrated at how low a priority DDOT seems to place on bus service and projects to streamline it. DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, who oversees transportation, and her staff are similarly "disappointed," "frustrated," and "displeased," according to the committee report on the budget.

The report takes DDOT to task for inaction on the projects. It points out that they were estimated to save $5.6 million a year, so if DDOT had actually completed the projects, it could have saved $22 million by now. (And, with a more significant project like a full bus lane on 16th Street, DC could save even more money.)

The money was part of the TIGER grant program in the federal stimulus package, aimed at getting the economy moving quickly by funding "shovel-ready" projects that could create jobs immediately. For the District, the US Department of Transportation approved funding for some queue jump lanes, real-time bus displays at busy stops, and signal priority, along 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, H Street/Benning Road, Wisconsin Avenue, and along two routes from Potomac River bridges to downtown, 14th Street and 18th/19th Street.

Cheh's report points out that "In 2010, DDOT received $12.3 million in federal TIGER grant funds for bus priority improvements along six transportation corridors in the District. Four years later, little progress has been made and 79% of the funds remain unspent." The report lists these budget figures for each line:

Project NameNumberTotal AllotmentsCurrent BalanceOperating Savings
14th St. Bridge to K St. Bus PriorityAF088$3,717,346$2,526,732$1,000,000
16th St, NW Bus PriorityAF083$565,000$463,060$1,000,000
Georgia Avenue Bus PriorityAF084$3,685,598$3,097,680$300,000
H St./Benning Rd/ Bus PriorityAF085$154,000$153,863$400,000
TR Bridge to K St. Bus PriorityAF087$3,853,057$3,205,962$900,000
Wisconsin Ave. Bus PriorityAF086$345,000$276,018$2,000,000
Total$12,320,001$9,723,315$5,600,000

The idea of a bus lane on 16th Street gets particular attention from Cheh (and DDOT's inaction, particular scorn):

[T]he Committee remains displeased with the absence in the Mayor's proposed budget of identified funding to improve bus travel on 16th Street. Traffic congestion and bus ridership on 16th Street continue to increase. Although signal prioritization and increased parking enforcement may provide temporary assistance, the District must consider all possible options to remedy this issue.

The Committee recommends that DDOT work with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to conduct a comprehensive study regarding the potential implementation of a bus lane on 16th Street and other possible service improvements, such as off-bus fare collection.

In their responses to oversight questions, DDOT officials explained what hadn't been done yet, without really explaining why it has taken so long. For the signal priority, it has taken local governments many years to agree with WMATA on what technology should go on the buses and the signals. DDOT is transferring the real-time screens over to WMATA.

Bus lanes on a few blocks of Georgia Avenue have gotten through design and are starting procurement "late this spring"; the construction will happen over a year after the contract is awarded (which can sometimes take a while), but will definitely happen before fall 2016, the final deadline for spending the money.

Besides spending millions more than necessary on bus operations and forcing riders to spend more time traveling, DDOT could be hurting its chances to get future federal grants by taking so long.

When the first TIGER grants came out, there were rules letting USDOT reallocate money from jurisdictions that didn't spend and create jobs quickly to those that did. Then-DDOT Director Gabe Klein talked about being ready to snap up some of that money. Instead, the agency he once headed has become one of the laggards.

Public Spaces


Should there be a new indoor pool in the Logan Circle area?

Instead of a parking garage, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR)-owned land near 14th and S Streets, NW in DC could serve a recreational purpose. DPR seems to think so: its map of where the city needs pools seems to point right at this spot.


Wilson Aquatic Center. Image from DC DPR.

Now the agency may have a chance to follow through, as its budget will likely include funding for a study and community engagement around how to use this land for recreation, whether as a new indoor pool or something else.

DPR put out a "vision framework" in March which lays out specifically where there is the greatest need for parks, rec centers, pools, and playing fields. Maps show how wide an area each type of facility serves, and suggests general locations for new facilities.

For pools, DPR set a general goal of having a "splash pad" within 1 mile of every resident, an outdoor pool within 1½ miles, and an indoor pool within 2 miles.


Image from DC DPR.

The residents who are farther than this from an outdoor pool are in Upper Northwest, which has the greatest dearth of outdoor pools. Mary Cheh, whose committee oversees parks and recreation, funded an outdoor pool for that area, most of which she also represents.

DPR's map also suggests DC needs about six new "splash pads" in the northeast and southeast quadrants, three east of the river and three west. And as for indoor pools, DPR's plan says there are enough, except for in one area: the middle part of the city centered around 14th Street.


Image from DC DPR.

The locations of the asterisks showing needed facilities aren't supposed to be exact, but that yellow star looks like it's right around 14th and Q. It so happens that DPR has a large parcel of land just two blocks from that spot, a parcel which has plenty of room for an indoor pool and other recreation.

This is the spot where some area businesses have been suggesting a public parking garage, which would be a bad investment for the city. Should it instead get a pool or other recreational use? Is that what DPR has in mind?


Image from Bing Maps.

Cheh is intrigued, and allocated some money in her budget proposal for DPR to study what kind of recreational use could be appropriate here.

Square 238, located on S Street, NW, between 13th and 14th Streets, NW, is used by DPR as a parking lot and for maintenance and storage purposes. This location is precisely where DPR has identified a need for an indoor aquatic facility and other recreation needs.

Although some have proposed this site for a municipal parking garage, the Committee believes that this parcel is ripe for a new recreation facility. Therefore, the Committee recommends allotting $500,000 to engage the community in a design process to consider potential recreation uses for this site.

This parcel was also proposed as part of a possible land swap for a DC United stadium, but that deal is looking less and less likely with the Gray mayoralty heading into the sunset and substantial skepticism from councilmembers including Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser.

Is recreation the right use here? If so, should it be a pool? There are a lot more children (and a lot of other people) in the general vicinity of this spot than there once were. On the other hand, there are two private pools very close by which the public can access (for a fee): the DC JCC at 16th and Q and the new Anthony Bowen YMCA at 13th and W.

What do you think should go here?

Budget


Cheh funds 11th Street Bridge Park, trees and recreation for Ivy City, and an Upper Northwest pool

Transportation chair Mary Cheh has released her serious budget proposals today, and has added funding to design and build a park on the piers of the old 11th Street Bridge, give the neglected Ivy City neighborhood new trees and a recreation center, and more.


Artist's rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park.

Tomorrow, Cheh will propose that her committee amend Mayor Gray's proposed transportation capital budget to add $2 million to design the bridge park in Fiscal Year 2015, followed by $12.5 million across FY2016 and FY2017 to build it. That will cover half the cost; bridge supporters plan to raise the other half from private sources.

Under Cheh's plan, $300,000 will go to fix up streetscapes at Eastern Market, while $1 million over two years will pay to extend Ivy City's sidewalks and include treeboxes. That neighborhood, in an industrial part of the city, has no tree boxes on most of its streets, and therefore no street trees.

Instead of a tour bus parking lot, as the Gray administration proposed last year, Cheh's budget will fund a recreation center on that site (which costs almost $9 million). Rec centers in Chevy Chase, Edgewood, Hardy (in Foxhall Village) and Hillcrest get more money as well, as does the Therapeutic Recreation Center in Ward 7's Randle Circle.

The budget includes $500,000 to finish design for Franklin Square (but funding to actually help build the new park is yet to come in the future).

Roads will also get more money: repaving and repairs to roadways get a boost of $321,000 for each of the eight wards in FY2015. That's in addition to the mayor's capital budget which gave each ward's road projects about $5.2 million over six years. Ward 8 also got an extra $1.3 million from Gray, and Cheh's amendment moves it from the operating budget to the capital budget.

Finally, Cheh is funding a new outdoor pool to go somewhere in Ward 3, which residents have been campaigning for. Critics note that Ward 3 has one of the top public indoor swimming facilities in the city, at Wilson High School, but proponents say that indoor swimming isn't the same, and besides, the ward should have more pools.

Cheh's proposal also will fund some Ward 3 school and library projects: the Cleveland Park library, Palisades Library, Murch Elementary and Watkins Elementary renovations, and also the Capitol View library in Ward 7. It's not unusual for each ward councilmember to pop a few ward-based projects into their respective committees' budgets.

Where does this money come from?

A lot of the money comes from the South Capitol Street Bridge project. It current includes a swing span so that ships can access the Washington Navy Yard, but that was only opened 4 times in the last 8 years.

The Coast Guard has reportedly told DDOT that it is probably fine with not replacing the swing span. And, according to Cheh's committee director Drew Newman, they feel that if the federal government really wants a swing span anyway, then federal money should fund it. (DC is building the South Capitol bridge with local dollars, not federal transportation funds.) The change will save up to $140 million.

Cheh is also moving some streetcar money to later years, because DDOT has built up a surplus of almost $100 million in its streetcar accounts, and won't need some money in the capital plan until later on, according to Cheh's staff's analysis.

Circulator fares freeze, and commuter rail gets a plan

In the operating budget, not much is changing from Mayor Gray's very pro-transit budget. Cheh will freeze Circulator fares at their current level of $1 for at least one year, so that DDOT can engage with the public about whether the fares have to rise.

Another $500,000 will pay to create a Comprehensive Rail Plan. DC does not control MARC, VRE, Amtrak, or CSX, but there needs to be a unified plan about how to help grow commuter rail service in, out, and through DC. The tracks and stations at Union Station, L'Enfant Plaza, and the Long Bridge over the Potomac will need changes to make this possible, and since those facilities are in DC, the District can play a leadership role. The Committee of 100's Monte Edwards has been lobbying for planning around commuter rail, and he's absolutely right. Cheh agrees.

The Committee on Transportation and the Environment will hold its mark-up tomorrow. The other members, David Grosso, Kenyan McDuffie, Jim Graham, and Tommy Wells, could seek to introduce other amendments as well, though typically these budget proposals already reflect requests and negotiations between the councilmembers.

Government


Cheh proposes hoverboard lanes and a Palisades stadium

DC may hire a dedicated person to help drivers read stop signs, build hoverboard lanes, and place the DC United stadium atop the Palisades Safeway, under budget recommendations from DC Councilmember and transportation chair Mary Cheh. As you might guess, these are a joke.


Photo by Debbie Goard on Flickr.

April Fool's Day was six weeks ago, but today is the day for joviality from Cheh and her staff, who put out an annual joke budget memo as council committees are making their serious budget recommendations.

The stop sign reader, the memo says, also will help people decipher parking signs:

Residents and tourists will be pleased to have a government employee stand next to them, read the sign, look back at the individual, look back at the sign, look at the location of the car in question, look back at the sign, shrug their shoulders, and exclaim, "hell if I know."
DC needs hoverboard lanes, Cheh says, because as we know from Back to the Future, Part II, hoverboards exist in 2015 and therefore they are going to be invented soon.
Hoverboard lanes will be placed between sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Opponents may argue that these lanes will only fuel the war on cars. This Committee stands by its position that there is no war on cars; however, as a
precautionary measure, an additional $175,000 will be allocated to the Department of Public Works to assist in the clean-up after D.C. Transit Judgment Day: the day when vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists engage in an all-out war to determine the District's policy going forward. Fortunately, some of us will have hoverboards to help us escape the battle.
Cheh has a great plan to get DC United a stadium without having to swap land for the Reeves Center: put it at the Palisades Safeway. For background, Safeway wants to build a new store with housing on top, and a lot of neighbors oppose housing for the usual reasons.

Cheh says this is a perfect solution:

Providing the Safeway with a grass roof will help the company obtain LEED certification. Moreover, residents will not need to be concerned about increased traffic or loud noise becauselet's face itwho really goes to D.C. United games.
Instead of the proposed Rosslyn-Georgetown gondola, Cheh wants to fund a zip line. She has great suggestions to deal with the school lottery: a Harry Potter-style "sorting hat," or alternately, a "Hunger Games" style fight at RFK stadium.

Read the whole thing.

Taxis


Cheh's DDOT reorganization: Who makes the plans and sets the priorities for transportation?

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.


Photo by JK Keller on Flickr.

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."

MLD wrote:

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 entrenchedDDOT 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 priorityDDOT'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.

fonfong echoed the same concern.
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.

Government


Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:

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

Process

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.

Roads


DDOT removes traffic calming on Wisconsin Avenue

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.


New left-turn lanes in Glover Park. Photo from DDOT.

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.

Pedestrians


ANC 3B throws in the towel on Wisconsin Avenue median

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.


New left turn lane in Glover Park Photo from DDOT

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.

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