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Posts about Mary Hynes


What does "Smart Growth 2.0" mean for Arlington?

In discussing the state of the county, Arlington County Board chair Mary Hynes recently called on residents to help "chart a new course" to plan for the future. Hynes says we need a "2nd generation of Smart Growth," and ArlNow called Hynes' vision Smart Growth 2.0. What do you think Arlington's priorities should be?

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

Arlington officials will soon unveil a new county transportation plan, prioritizing transit improvements between Crystal City, Columbia Pike and Rosslyn. What, exactly, will be in that plan is still unclear.

In her State of the County address last Friday, Hynes said increased competition, strained resources and little remaining developable space demand that we update how we approach transportation and development.

"Those incredible ups that we had are not going to come Arlington's way again," Hynes said. "I challenge each of you to be part of the solution."

A lot of challenges are coming Arlington's way

Arlington's 2009 Master Transportation Plan projects that our population and workforce, along with our demand for transit, will increase significantly by 2030. The plan recommends substantial investments in transit, along with mixed-use and transit-oriented development that works to make alternatives to driving, like biking and walking, more feasible.

Arlington defines Primary Transit Network as operating daily at least every 15 minutes, for at least 18 hours. Data from Arlington's 2009 Master Transportation Plan.

Since last year's cancellation of the streetcar, officials haven't presented a concrete plan for investing in accessible, convenient transit in Arlington. Hynes said that announced that this month, county staff will launch a new transit development plan, along with a conversation that "isn't about fixing what we have, it's about how we vision forward."

Hynes says decades of decisions to fund expansion of transit and implement environmentally conscious land use policies have meant huge economic, environmental, and other quality of life benefits for Arlington. But, she warned, those benefits will not continue at the same levels. She cites Arlington's high office vacancy rate, rising school enrollment, stiff regional competition and limited remaining space for development, and the federal government's reduced local presence as challenges for the county.

A new vision can help Arlington overcome those challenges. But as we recently learned from the fallout over the streetcar, broad-based support has to be a top priority for any project. If it's not there, sustainable transportation projects won't be so sustainable.

Arlington has a lot at stake

Does Arlington need a "second generation of Smart Growth?" What should Arlington do to retain and strengthen its appeal for years to come?

In September 2014, Matt Carmichael of Livability wrote the following about Arlington:

"Together, its mix of retail, residential, government buildings, and offices help draw residents and businesses, but also help support the more traditional suburban parts of Arlington such as the cul-du-sac, single-family-home neighborhoods of Country Club Hills and Columbia Pike."

Carmichael makes a salient reference to how mixed development supports Arlington's traditional suburbs. Often, homeowners oppose plans to add more residential units and further increase density in their backyards when they're not convinced they'll benefit. This is happening now with RiverHouse, where I live.

So what will it take to sustain Arlington's impressive combination of quality-of-life rankings, like best DC suburb for young professionals? Or second best place in the country to retire? Or Livability's third best small to mid-size locality in the country to live?

In her address, Hynes also touted mega European retailer Lidl's recent decision to locate its US headquarters in Arlington, near the future Potomac Yards Metro station.

Big revenue-generating employers help fund Smart Growth initiatives. Arlington's livability rankings help lure the Lidls here. Those ratings depend on forward thinking and follow-through just like reaching the top of a hill by bike depends on non-stop peddling: Rest, and see what happens.

So now which way do we go?

Arlington is experiencing dramatic turnover among its leaders. Hynes and longtime County Board member Walter Tejada are not seeking reelection. In November, we will elect their successors. Jay Fisette, first elected in 1997, will be the only member who has served more than four years. And the Board is searching for a new County Manager.

Board members Libby Garvey and John Vishstadt, while known for what they were against, are approachable decisionmakers. Of the four candidates running in November—Democrats Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol, former Republican and now Independent Mike McMenamin and Green Audrey Clementonly one, Cristol, addresses smart growth issues on her website. (Disclosure: I supported Cristol and Dorsey in the June 9th Democratic primary.)

The coming transportation plan will aim to tackle some pieces of Hynes' second generation of Smart Growth, but there isn't reason to expect a bold vision. She previewed that it may address Blue Line shortcomings. And outline improvements for Columbia Pike, Virginia's busiest bus corridor, where the county is proposing to install 23 new transit stations. From what I've seen, the county has learned from its mistakes with the million dollar Walter Reed bus stop debacle. New, cost-effective designs I've seen feature improved signage, seating and protection from bad weather.

Will the new plan focus on Lee Highway or Glebe Road, listed as priority corridors in the Master Transportation Plan? Or on providing better bus service between Rosslyn and Ballston? We'll soon see.

Once the transportation plan is released, we'll have some answers—and still important questions to explore. The significant changes in Arlington's political leadership present an opportunity to engage and think fresh about the path forward. Fisette, together with Vihstadt and Garvey and the two new members, will chart Arlington's "new course." And we will, too, if we choose to take up Hynes' challenge "to be part of the solution."


Virginia has a primary Tuesday. Here's the urbanist scoop on the candidates

Virginia's elections for many local offices are this year, and the primary is Tuesday, June 9. There are competitive races in the Democratic primaries for Arlington County Board, Alexandria mayor, two Fairfax supervisor seats, and the 45th legislative district.

Virginia voting image from Shutterstock.

I asked our Virginia-based contributors what they think of the candidates in these races. Who is good on smart growth, transit, walking and bicycling, and other issues we cover? Who has a strong vision and the ability to work with people to achieve it?


Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada were both up for re-election to the Arlington County Board this year. After John Vihstadt won a full term and the board canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, Hynes and Tejada announced they would not run again, leaving two open seats.

The streetcar aside, Vihstadt, fellow member Libby Garvey, and their political backer Peter Rousselot have built their political bases by criticizing county spending on a wide range of infrastructure projects. Perhaps some initiatives were unnecessary or overly expensive, but Arlington now needs board members who can articulate a vision to make the county better instead of simply doing less.

Just as some people accused the former board of acting too often as a single bloc, there's the possibility that Garvey and Vihstadt would gain an allied third member and have a bloc of their own which would move the county in a much more conservative direction, halting investment in the county's future rather than continuing the kinds of policies which have made Arlington County a national model for sustainable growth.

There are six Democratic candidates for the two seats. Arlington Democrats will have the ability to vote for two apiece. Chris Slatt says,

Peter Fallon and Katie Cristol are both solid pro-smart-growth candidates. Peter has the experience (he's been on practically every commission you can be on), while Katie brings a new perspective, youth and energy.

Peter has a track record of supporting transit, biking, and walking. Katie doesn't have a record she can point to, but even a brief conversation with her makes it clear that she sees Arlington's commitment to smart growth as what has made it so desirable as a place to live and she's committed to doing whatever needs to be done to keep it moving forward.

James Lander isn't anti-smart-growth, but it doesn't appear to be a focus or a passion. There is nothing smart-growth-y on his issues page, for instance. Andrew Schneider is in the midst of his first term on Arlington's Transportation Commission and has largely voted in a smart growth way. He also turned in some of the most spot-on answers in a cycling issues questionnaire, but he has taken some potentially anti-transit positions such as a lengthy soliloquy about even the cheaper, redesigned Columbia Pike transit stations being too costly.

Christian Dorsey is a passionate, compelling candidate but has the support of Peter Rousselot (publicly) and Libby Garvey (privately), which is troubling for many given not just their opposition to the streetcar but also the destructive and negative way in which that opposition was presented. Bruce Wiljanen hasn't devoted enough time and effort to his campaign to have a chance at winning.

Steven Yates adds,
I actually know Katie Cristol. I was the stage manager for a production of Clybourne Park that she was in (which was a Greater Greater Washington event, in case any of you went). I can tell you she was a pleasure to work with.

She's a newcomer, so she doesn't have an extensive record on issues to point to, but she is at least saying the right things. On housing she's proposing modest increases in density through things like microunits and allowing renovations to convert single into multi-family housing.

She also supports transit-oriented development and wants to accelerate the TSM 2 alternative on Columbia Pike which includes off-vehicle fare collection and multi-door boarding, as well as greater frequency. She doesn't say the streetcar was a bad idea, just that it's in the "rearview mirror."

Peter Fallon (left) and Katie Cristol (right), two candidates for Arlington County Board. Images from the candidate websites.


William "Bill" Euille has been Alexandria's mayor for twelve years, and for the first time, faces primary competition—in fact, two competitors: councilmembers Kerry Donley and Allison Silberberg. Euille has been an alternate member of the WMATA board since 2000.

One contributor, who wasn't comfortable being named, said:

The article that accompanied the Washington Post's endorsement of Mayor Euille portrayed each candidate succinctly and brilliantly.

Allison Silberberg is a lovely person who is caring and delightful to know one on one; regrettably her votes have been anti-growth of any kind, even to the point of voting against an Alzheimer's care facility on busy Route 7 between a cemetery and a nursing home. She also has no concrete proposals on how to pay for the causes she espouses such as better schools, historic preservation, more parks and open space, etc.

Kerry Donley was mayor for a number of years, as well as being on and off the council subsequently. He is in favor of the Potomac Yard Metro and economic development projects such as the PTO and NSF, which he helped attract to Alexandria, yet he antagonizes many in the community by being dismissive of concerns.

Mayor Euille appears to strike the right balance between listening to citizen input and getting things done, and as the Post says, he was able to limit the recession's impact on the city. Many are concerned that Donley and Euille will split the pro-growth, smart growth, fiscally responsible vote and that both will lose.

Jonathan Krall takes a different view (which, perhaps, helps illustrate the potential for vote-splitting between Euille and Donley):
According to my friends in the bicycling community, they are supporting Donley, even though Euille mentions bicycling more often in the campaign. They cite his comments and votes when he served on the Transportation Commission, Euille's abandonment of the Royal Street bike boulevard project, and Silberberg's weak support on bicycling issues.
Krall wanted to emphasize that all of the views he's talking about are individual people's personal opinions and not the position of any cycling advocacy group.

Bill Euille (left) and Kerry Donley (right), two candidates for Alexandria Mayor. Images from the candidate websites.


The Mason district covers the part of Fairfax County which borders Arlington and the west side of Alexandria. It includes Fairfax's portion of Columbia Pike and the south side of Seven Corners.

That last spot has been a source of major controversy, where a county plan would transform Seven Corners' big-box stores and giant parking lots into mixed-use, walkable (though perhaps only marginally transit-oriented) urban villages.

As the Washington Post's Antonio Olivio reports, current Supervisor Penelope "Penny" Gross supports the transformation, but some neighbors do not, warning it could turn Seven Corners into San Francisco or downtown Washington. That has drawn her two opponents, Jessica Swanson in the Democratic primary and Mollie Loeffler in the November general.

Both say they oppose greater density in the Seven Corners area. The Washington Post endorsed Gross for reelection.

In the Mount Vernon District along the Potomac, four candidates want to succeed retiring delegate Gerald Hyland. This district includes one side of much of Route 1, where Hyland and Lee District supervisor Jeff McKay have taken different positions on the corridor's future. Will Route 1/Richmond Highway remain a traffic sewer flanked with strip malls that divides communities? Can it be a chain of real places with real transit?

The next supervisor could have a significant impact, but our contributors did not have input on this race. If you do, please post it in the comments.

District 45

Delegate Rob Krupicka is retiring, and five candidates are vying to represent the district which includes Alexandria, some of Arlington, and a bit of Fairfax. As Patricia Sullivan explained in the Washington Post, there aren't a lot of clear policy differences between the candidates.

Our contributors felt similarly. One said, "All five candidates are good people, and it's hard to differentiate them on issues. All have built their campaigns primarily on education and women's issues; none have particularly addressed smart growth, planning, or transportation." Jonathan Krall added,

I attended two 45th district debates and took notes on the number of times various candidates mentioned biking, walking, transit, smart growth, etc. In fact, these issues were not discussed a great deal. Transit was only discussed by Craig Fifer, Julie Jakopic and Clarence Tong, who each mentioned it twice.

Tong was the only candidate that mentioned biking, noting that he hears from friends that the National Park Service should plow snow from the Mt Vernon Trail in the winter. Larry Altenburg, Mark Levine, and Tong lost points with me by suggesting that traffic congestion should be addressed rather than made irrelevant by adding transit.

What do you think?

If you have followed any of these races and identified actions or statements from the candidates that relate to urbanist issues, share them with our Virginia readers in the comments. And if you live in Virginia, please vote Tuesday! (Especially if you are a Democrat, because the competitive races are only in the Democratic primary.)


Without a streetcar, what's next for Columbia Pike, technically and politically?

After a decade of planning, officials in Arlington cancelled the Columbia Pike streetcar this week. If streetcars aren't going to be the answer on there, what might realistically happen instead?

Columbia Pike. Photo by harry_nl on Flickr.

In the wake of the streetcar's cancellation, some have suggested Metrorail, BRT, or light rail. None are likely. The county will probably just end up running articulated ("accordion") buses on Columbia Pike. Voters might be surprised how long that takes, how much it costs, and how little capacity it adds.

It's also time for the anti-streetcar forces to prove that when they claimed they supported better transit, they meant it and weren't just using the issue to divide voters. That means they now have to get involved in finding a solution and making it a reality.

There's tremendous demand for good transit on Columbia Pike. It's already the busiest bus corridor in Virginia, and by 2040 there could be more transit riders on Columbia Pike alone than in the entire Richmond metropolitan area. Doing nothing isn't a viable option.

As we discussed yesterday, Metrorail is (unfortunately) not financially realistic, and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has told Arlington it may not dedicate a lane to transit—if even that were politically possible over drivers' inevitable objections.

So what can happen now?

How soon can Arlington beef up bus service?

Unfortunately, large transit projects take years to plan and, if they cost a significant amount, even longer to fund. The funding process is what really held up the Columbia Pike streetcar; Arlington and Fairfax leaders thought they had the money together in the past, like in 2007, when Virginia handed some taxing authority to a regional authority to build transportation. But then courts ruled the plan unconstitutional, and it took more years to get funding together again, culminating in Governor McAuliffe's pledge this year for the state to pick up a significant amount of the tab.

One plan has gone through some detailed studies: the option called "TSM-2" in the streetcar alternatives analysis. That includes running longer articulated buses on Columbia Pike along with larger bus stops, machines to pay the fare before the bus arrives ("off-vehicle fare collection"), and rebranding the buses as MetroExtra or Metroway.

But even that isn't so simple.

First, WMATA doesn't have any bus storage or maintenance yard in Virginia equipped to handle articulated buses. Arlington will have to find land and build that, just as it would have had to do for a streetcar railyard.

Second, Columbia Pike's pavement isn't strong enough to handle the wear and tear of hundreds of articulated bus trips per day. It wouldn't crumble the first week, but before long Arlington will have to reinforce and repave the street, just like it would have had to do for streetcar tracks.

Finally, a lot of planning work will have to re-done. Just how much is not yet clear. At the very least, contracts and design work that had been progressing will cease, and Arlington will have to prepare new contracts and possibly hire new contractors. At the higher end of the scale, it's possible the entire alternatives analysis process that produced the TSM-2 option will have to start anew, with a different set of constraints.

Whatever the specifics turn out to be, it's definitely not a simple matter of buying some buses and calling it a day. It's going to take years.

That likely won't last for long

The Alternatives Analysis estimated that at current growth rates, ridership will outstrip the capacity for articulated buses before long.

There are three likely scenarios here:

  • Columbia Pike will not grow as leaders and residents hope, in which case it will remain depressed relative to the rest of the county and not need more transit ridership. A streetcar might become necessary to jump-start the economy, or voters will keep letting it languish.
  • It will grow, demand will increase again, and we'll be back where we started. Maybe the county will again consider a higher-capacity streetcar, just years later and at an even higher cost.
  • The AA is totally wrong and everything will be hunky-dory with just articulated buses, as Libby Garvey and others have argued. That's worked with voters, but no transit experts have really said it holds water.
What about dedicated lanes?

Several readers have said they believe that transit is just not worthwhile without dedicated lanes. Certainly dedicated lanes are better, but elected officials have to make a judgment about what is politically possible and what is not.

Columbia Pike used to be a state road (and still is in Fairfax). The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) turned it over to Arlington, but with the condition that the number of lanes open to cars not drop below four—and it's a four-lane road.

It's theoretically possible that a transit-friendly governor in Virginia could order VDOT to change this condition and let Arlington dedicate lanes on Columbia Pike. Or maybe in another decade or two, VDOT will come to that decision naturally.

The McAuliffe administration stuck its neck out in support of the streetcar. After Arlington hung them out to dry, will they take even more of a risk to take lanes away from cars?

And what evidence do we have that the voting bloc that would fight against losing any car lanes is smaller than the bloc who opposed spending money?

It's about politics now

All of the above is, essentially, the calculus that folks inside Arlington government are or will be working through. What should they plan for now? What contracts are necessary?

But this project didn't lose because of insufficient planning. It lost because of politics.

Arlington has long operated on the "Arlington Way," where civic leaders and other residents discuss issues calmly in advisory committees, the staff formulate recommendations, the board debates them, and ultimately passes things usually with unanimity.

This works pretty well when residents are willing to trust their elected leaders and county officials. But that system is now dead. The faction opposed to the current board members told voters that the consensus on the county board was a sign of the board not listening to people, and eroded popular trust in the county board and staff.

The county board has no committees. There's just one political party. The executive isn't independent. Everything is set up around the idea that everyone acts together. But a faction that now represents 40% of the board isn't interested in doing it that way (unless they are in charge, maybe).

If the board members just ask the transportation department to devise some options, recommend them to the board, and pick the best one, some people will still be unhappy with whatever happens. There will still be opportunities to blame Mary Hynes, Walter Tejada, and Jay Fisette for not doing it the right way, because there's no perfect way that will satisfy every person.

Transit supporters need to start thinking of this as a political fight and not a transit planning fight.

Streetcar opponents: You won. Now, get something done

Libby Garvey, John Vihstadt, and Peter Rousselot have consistently claimed they are for better mobility on Columbia Pike. They just don't want the streetcar. Well, now the streetcar is gone, so there's no apparent division.

Either they were genuine, in which case they can and will work to make transit better, or they were just using it for political advantage. The trick is to now set things up so that voters will be able to see which it is. (Update: Rousselot, at least, has stated his spending priorities and none of them is transit of any kind on Columbia Pike.)

How about putting Garvey and/or Vihstadt in charge of some sort of committee to analyze transportation on Columbia Pike and recommend solutions? And hold a vote putting the county on record that it does want to ask Virginia for a dedicated lane, and send Garvey down to Richmond to push for it. She sure had nearly boundless energy to meet with state officials to criticize the streetcar; how about doing the same for something that would help Arlington County?

If she succeeds, then that's fantastic! We get better transit. I don't think it'll happen, but I'd love to be proven wrong here. I'd love to be able to praise Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt for making things better instead of just breaking things. Then transit supporters can start seeing them as friends and support their re-election.

But if a dedicated lane can't happen, articulated buses turn out to cost almost as much as the streetcar, and they're still too crowded, then voters should blame them, not Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada who tried to do something and got shot down.


Bright hopes, some obstacles for Northern Virginia streetcars

Streetcar supporters in Northern Virginia hope to see streetcar lines traversing many of Northern Virginia's cities and counties, linking housing to employment centers within and across jurisdictions, often retracing routes operated decades ago.

A modern streetcar. Photo from Arlington County.

To get streetcars across boundaries, however, the many local governments must coordinate their plans and deal with differences in their abilities to fund projects.

The Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition's top priority this year is supporting Arlington's plans for the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar lines. It also will encourage other cities and counties to consider streetcar options.

Arlington has steadfastly supported a vision of smart growth around transit nodes and multimodal transportation options for a great many years. Thanks to this consistency, their work has paid off in positioning Arlington as a good place to live and work.

By selecting streetcar rather than some variety of enhanced bus service, Arlington is reinforcing its past planning efforts by providing investors and developers along the two corridors with the certainty that only a commitment to a fixed alignment can give.

Arlington and Fairfax counties worked together on plans for high-capacity transit along Columbia Pike for several years, and in July 2012 voted to select streetcar as the preferred option for Columbia Pike and apply for federal funding. Arlington also plans a streetcar line for Crystal City to connect with the Columbia Pike line.

The 5 mile long Columbia Pike line, as currently planned, will cross into Fairfax County, terminating at Skyline. The 2½ mile long Crystal City line, on the other hand, will terminate at Four Mile Run, the boundary between Arlington and Alexandria.

Proposed streetcar alignments in Arlington. Image from Arlington County.

Meanwhile, Alexandria has been studying transit for Route 1 and the Beauregard/Van Dorn transit corridors. NVSC wants to ensure no decisions would preclude using streetcars in those areas.

NVSC also will encourage Fairfax County to expand its streetcar lines beyond Skyline, going either toward Falls Church along Route 7, toward Northern Virginia Community College and the Mark Center east of Skyline, or along Route 1 south of Alexandria. Finally, ongoing studies in various jurisdictions could identify additional corridors suitable for streetcars.

Leaders emphasize need for transit, desire to coordinate

In November, the Northern Virginia Streetcar Coalition hosted a public meeting where leaders from Arlington, Fairfax County, Alexandria, and Falls Church discussed, in a spirited but positive manner, regional cooperation in planning high-capacity transit.

They saw Northern Virginia's future as multimodal, with mixed uses around transit stations. Then-Arlington Board Chair Mary Hynes noted that Virginia commuters to DC must cross Arlington. Without its multi-modal strategy, she said, the county would "become a parking lot."

All of the officials emphasized that the jurisdictions want work together, and have coordinated in many ways. However, due to differences in funds available for transit and each jurisdiction's priorities, it has not always been possible to think regionally in spite of best intentions.

Arlington has been more successful at raising funds for transportation capital projects than its neighbors, partially due to its more balanced ratio of commercial to residential property and its commercial add-on tax for transportation.

Paul Smedberg, a member of the Alexandria City Council, spoke of the need for a streetcar connection to the BRAC-133 building at Mark Center. Fairfax Supervisor Penny Gross said that although extensions to the Columbia Pike line are desirable, it was important to get the first segment built rather than bogging down the whole process by considering alternatives.

Former Falls Church City Council member Dan Maller, standing in for Vice-Mayor David Snyder, noted that he was eager to work with Fairfax on a Route 7 extension to Falls Church. Somewhat reassuringly, Alexandrians learned that they would have continuous transit options to get from their city to Arlington without transferring at Four Mile Run—although presently these are bus options rather than streetcar options.

As local and regional plans for high-capacity transit develop, decision-makers must think long-term and regionally. Not every transit route is suitable for streetcars, but where cities and counties want environmentally-sound, reliable, clean transportation that also contributes to local economic development, they should consider streetcar lines and ensure they can interoperate across jurisdictional boundaries now and in the future.


New coalition aims to improve regional planning

A new coalition of elected officials, planning professionals, and engaged citizens is hoping to improve coordination of regional planning in the DC area, with the goal of fostering more complete and accessible communities.

Last month, the Region Forward Coalition (RFC) held its inaugural meeting. The coalition is sponsored by the Council of Governments (COG) and is charged with providing policy guidance on regional planning matters, and with advancing the goals set forth in COG's Region Forward plan. The plan was adopted in January, 2010, and is an aggressive vision of regional Smart Growth.

I serve as a coalition member representing Greater Greater Washington, and will report on the group's progress from time to time. GGW was invited as a member because of our ability to reach people who care deeply about regional development. The selection is a testament to the hard work and insight of our community.

The Region Forward report identifies goals in several categories with specific targets relating to accessibility, sustainability, prosperity, and livability. The goals range from minimizing economic disparities and achieving balanced growth throughout the region to maximizing connectivity and walkability.

The report's land use goal sums up the overarching theme very succinctly: "We seek transit-oriented and mixed-use communities emerging in Regional Activity Centers that will capture new employment and household growth."

The purpose of the RFC is to oversee the implementation steps recommended in the Region Forward report, and to advise the COG Board on future regional planning activities. The RFC consists of 80 members representing area jurisdictions, planning committees, and advocacy groups. Prince George's County Council Vice Chair Eric Olson serves as the RFC chair, and Arlington County Board Member Mary Hynes and District of Columbia Planning Director Harriet Tregoning serve as vice chairs.

The author discusses the regional activity center of Woodbridge with Mary Hynes and Robert Brosnan of Arlington County, Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, Greg Goodwin of COG, and other members of the RFC.

Our kickoff meeting offered excellent opportunities for RFC members to engage with each other on a variety of topics, including the question of what's included in the concept of "complete communities." What surprised me the most was the fact that there was a great deal of agreement among participants about the essential elements. These included a variety of transit options to integrate activity centers into the region, a mix of land uses to enhance walkability and livability within the community, and the presence of a variety of economic and social opportunities nearby.

I was also impressed by the initial focus on transit-oriented affordable housing. Too often, large scale planning exercises like this pay only lip services to things like public safety, education, and affordable housing. I look forward to a process that ensures these priorities are factored into planning in a meaningful way.

Alicia Lewis of COG moderates a panel on transit-oriented affordable housing programs

The next step will be to organize working subcommittees that will consider the definition and identification of "regional activity centers," taking baseline measurements of those centers, and developing future planning approaches to help them grow according to the goals identified by the Region Forward plan.

As with any diverse coalition, the goals and needs of members will not always align, but everyone involved is committed to the vision in the Region Forward report. I am excited to be serving with so many outstanding public servants and representatives from such diverse communities, but I am even more excited about strengthening the dialogue between these groups and the GGW community.

It was obvious from the kick off meeting that there is great potential for GGW to have an impact on regional planning through the course of the RFC's work. In the future, we envision live chats, guest posts and other forums to ensure that your voices are heard as we continue planning the future of the greater Washington region.


GAO says clarify WMATA board role, don't restructure

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its long-awaited report on WMATA governance this morning. The report concludes that the board lacks clarity about where its role begins and ends, but rejects some of the drastic structural changes that have been proposed, instead arguing the board can and should fix problems itself.

Photo by Auntie P on Flickr.

An ambiguous definition of the board's role was a common theme in both the Riders' Advisory Council and Board of Trade reports. The board has been accused of micromanaging operations rather than focusing on policy and high-level issues.

The GAO report agreed, and recommends the board clarify its responsibilities as well as conduct regular self-assessments. Fortunately, the board is already doing much of that.

A governance committee, ably led by Mary Hynes of Arlington, has formulated bylaws and procedures for the board which better define its role. This year, after most members turned over and the reports came out criticizing past board actions, the board has indeed started focusing effectively on the high-level decisions that it needs to make to keep Metro running smoothly.

The GAO report says, "These draft bylaws represent a good first step toward addressing some of the concerns discussed in this report but will need to be adopted and then effectively implemented to achieve their desired effect." The report also criticizes past boards for doing a poor job of strategic planning, suggesting the board develop a better plan and then commit to implementing it.

The executives and DOTs of DC, Maryland, and Virginia were waiting to see the GAO report before moving ahead further on structural changes. The Board of Trade report last year suggested removing alternates, giving the governors one extra appointment of their own, creating an added "super-board" above the current board to supervise the board, and changing the jurisdictional veto.

The Riders' Advisory Council, on the other hand, argued that these changes were unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. Its report argued that the problems could be fixed by doing a better job appointing members and by the members developing better policies around these issues. (Disclosure: I was the principal author of the RAC report.)

The GAO took a similar stance to the RAC's report. They wrote:

Our analysis, however, indicates that most of the recommended changes have trade-offs—there are both benefits and drawbacks to them. We compared the various recommendations to leading governance practices, approaches taken by other transit agencies, and the views of board members and stakeholders. Board members and stakeholders indicated that proposed changes to the board's structure and processes—such as eliminating alternate board members, changing the size of the board, or eliminating the jurisdictional veto—have trade-offs, and we did not find consistent support among leading governance practices or other transit agencies that these changes would improve governance.

The [Board of Trade/COG] Governance Task Force recommended that the signatories and the appointing authorities form a WMATA Governance Commission to make improvements to the authority's governance structure and hold the board accountable for its performance. ... Such a commission was viewed by some stakeholders we spoke with as redundant because it would be comprised of most of the same membership that is responsible for appointing the board of directors.

The GAO paid special attention to the federal government's involvement, which includes the General Services Administration appointing a set of federal members. The GAO says that GSA lacks clear procedures for selecting and appointing these members. The GSA replied that while it's true it doesn't have formal procedures, it doesn't think that's interfered with selecting qualified candidates.

Moving forward, this report confirms what's become increasingly clear: WMATA can be fixed without rearranging the organizational structure. Doing that could fix some problems but create others, and would ultimately be a distraction from the work of actually governing better.

Already, we've seen tremendous progress. The NTSB feels safety is improving. Communication has taken huge steps forward with WMATA now tweeting and generally using two-way communication. The board passed a budget that avoided service cuts and without any major acrimony. Local jurisdictions stepped up with needed funding.

Now, we should let the current board and management keep making the strides they have. The executives and DOTs should let this issue rest.

Governor McDonnell did succeed in using the frustration over Metro to let him take away some power from Northern Virginia, giving him a direct appointment to the board who will likely replace Mary Hynes entirely or move her to an alternate position and bump Jeff McKay. Either way, that will be a big loss for Virginian interests, since both have effectively represented their constituents. The legislature should reverse this hasty decision before the appointments are made or renewed at the end of the year.


WMATA Board ponders cutting late-night service

WMATA Board members, including federal representatives and new members from DC and Arlington, expressed a willingness to explore cutting back late-night weekend transit service at their meeting today. The tenor of the debate differed greatly from that of previous years, when Board members pushed hard against even the suggestion of such cuts.

Photo by camera_obscura on Flickr.

This move would save substantial money, but also would impair people's ability to go out in DC, Arlington, and other walkable communities without a car with confidence they can get home affordably.

Such a move risks shifting the DC region away from the "transit culture" that has been developed. On the other hand, if jurisdictions can't contribute more money and WMATA can't find other savings, other cuts could similarly cripple transit and take away vital access for riders.

Maryland's Peter Benjamin asked about providing bus, taxi, or other service as an alternative to rail service, to avoid completely cutting off riders from having transit options. Such a program could blunt the pain of such a cut.

Rail operations head Dave Kubicek said the late-night Friday and Saturday service forces WMATA to pay the equivalent "adding an eighth day of work" each week. Cutting back the hours to midnight from 3 am would effectively give them 45 more days per year to perform track work.

The Board also discussed plans to hold hearings and give the public a chance to weigh in on these issues.

New Board member Mary Hynes from Arlington suggested presenting the idea of earlier closings juxtaposed with whatever can be accomplished in the extra time. "Our goal is Metro 2.0," said Hynes. She argued that if riders knew what could be fixed and how much faster, it could help them decide whether to support late-night cuts.

Unfortunately, this also risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don't live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool. Federal member Mort Downey already started down that road by talking about how Metro is a "demand-driven" service, organized primarily around the times of peak usage, which also happens to be what matters most to the federal government.

Tom Downs, DC's voting member from the Gray administration, also expressed an interest in exploring this, though he also made very clear that rider input is vital. As Kytja Weir noted on Twitter, cutting late-night service is something Jim Graham constantly fought, often tenaciously and to the irritation of some of his colleagues or the Board of Trade.

We're seeing the effect in this meeting of the new Board. Gone are two of the more vociferous defenders of transit service, and the new members either won't be fighting as hard or haven't yet found their footing to do so. While the Board hasn't necessarily decided to make these cuts and members haven't committed to supporting or opposing them, in the old Board, we'd have heard members making impassioned speeches against this idea the moment it came up.

Or, perhaps members will just be more subtle about it. Another item on the list of potential cuts is Yellow Line service to Fort Totten off-peak, which keeps riders between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten from facing very long midday and evening headways. Tommy Wells asked staff to also add Red Line turnbacks at Grosvenor to the list, which represent a potential Montgomery County-only cut to parallel this DC-only cut.

About half of Red Line trains stop at Grosvenor rush hours instead of continuing to Shady Grove. Years past, this happened off-peak as well, but Maryland secured service sending all off-peak trains to Shady Grove and only turning any back during the peak.

If one is on the table, it's fair to put the other on as well, and perhaps a comparable service pattern in Virginia. All would be terrible, however, and the Board needs to look hard at alternatives before jumping to this option.

Update: Tommy Wells criticized this option when talking to reporters after the meeting.


Zimmerman leaving WMATA Board, bag checks starting

Today's WMATA Board meeting revealed several surprises, both disappointing. Chris Zimmerman is stepping down from the board. Also, WMATA will begin random bag checks.

Photo by cliff1066™ on Flickr.

Zimmerman, the member from Arlington for 13 years, was one of the best members, both in transit knowledge and in his responsiveness to riders. Apparently even fellow Board members were unaware of Zimmerman's decision, and praised his long service.

Zimmerman said as he is in line to take over the chairmanship of the Arlington County Board, now was a good time to step down. Update: Mary Hynes will take over Arlington's seat on the board.

Gordon Linton, Montgomery County's alternate member, is also leaving. More changes are likely to come when Vincent Gray makes his picks for the DC mayoral appointees and Rushern Baker for the Prince George's alternate; speculation is that Kwame Brown will also change one or both of the DC Council appointees.

Meanwhile, General Manager Sarles announced that WMATA will ramp up useless security theater in the form of random bag checks. As usual, anyone can just turn around and decline to enter the station instead of having a bag searched.

This will let riders be confident that anyone trying to smuggle contraband into that particular station at that particular moment is instead walking to a different station instead, while having enormous amounts of time and police energy wasted on not catching actual potential terrorists.

TBD summarizes the more meaningful news from the safety committee's meeting: Metro has made good progress on safety incident investigations, and suicides have declined. However, train doors are still occasionally getting opened on the wrong side, and there are more fires but fewer smoke incidents. Also, people keep assaulting bus drivers.

Update: Zimmerman sent a letter which is included below. He announced that Mary Hynes, his colleague on the Arlington County Board, will be taking over the seat.

Today I announced that I will be stepping down from my role as Arlington's representative on the WMATA Board of Directors. On January 1st I will assume the Chairmanship of the Arlington County Board. In view of those responsibilities, and my desire to give greater focus to some of the needs within my county, I have decided that this is a good time for me to pass on the day-to-day duties of Metro representation.

I want to assure you that my commitment to transit and to Metro is as strong as ever, and I will continue to work for improvements to rail, bus, and paratransit services in our region. I will continue to serve on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (which is the governing body for WMATA in Virginia), as well as on the Transportation Planning Board for the National Capital Region, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

One benefit of this move is that another member will have the opportunity to become immersed in the daily issues involved in the system, increasing the level of direct knowledge about Metro significantly on the Arlington Board. And I am confident that my County will be well-represented, and the region well-served, by the member who will succeed me on the WMATA Board.

My colleague Mary Hynes will take over in January. Mary is an exceptional public official, and she is well-prepared for this role. For the last three years she has served on the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, for which she is currently Secretary-Treasurer. Mary has a very personal connection to Metro. For many years, she and her family have lived about a block-and-a-half from the Clarendon Metro station. They have relied upon the system, and seen the changes Metro has brought to the community over the years. Mary is also a very experienced local elected official, having served Arlington since 1995 as a School Board and now a County Board Member. She is known for her responsiveness to constituent's concerns, and for paying close attention to details. Mary is also highly respected for her command of capital budgeting issues. She will be a strong advocate for riders, and a conscientious steward of the agency.

It has been a great privilege serving on the WMATA Board, and I appreciate all the help and support you have given me over the years in this role. I will be, as I have been, an ardent advocate for Metro, its riders, and the jurisdictions it serves. I look forward to continuing to work with all of you. There is much we need to do for the betterment of public transportation in our region, and for a bright future for Metro.

Thank you.

Chris Zimmerman

Arlington County Vice-Chairman
WMATA member

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