Posts about Maryland
Now that Montgomery County's approved a plan for an 81-mile Bus Rapid Transit network, we can begin looking at how it will work in detail. A new map and video show what BRT might be like.
The county's plan calls for dedicated bus lanes on major roads like Rockville Pike, Georgia Avenue, Columbia Pike and Veirs Mill Road, whether by repurposing existing car lanes or, where there's room, widening the road.
Communities for Transit commissioned A consultant working for Montgomery County made this subway-style map of the proposed system, showing potential routes and stops.
The map takes some liberties with the plan. Montgomery County has only decided what corridors can should have BRT service and where stops made sense, but not what routes would look like, and whether they'd be named for colors, letters, numbers, or something else. But it can help people take the leap and see how the system could benefit them.
Communities for Transit, a Silver Spring-based nonprofit, made this video about how this might look, using examples of existing and proposed BRT systems from around the country.
There are still lots of questions about BRT. We still need to figure out how exactly dedicated lanes would work on the county's streets, particularly in close-in areas where there's no room to widen the road.
We also don't know whether the county would even run the BRT system, which would affects the branding of the routes and system. Metrobus already serves many of the corridors in the proposed BRT network and recently introduced a limited-stop bus on New Hampshire Avenue, a precursor to full Bus Rapid Transit. If Metro ran Montgomery County's BRT network, it could use the same "Metro Way" branding as the new Crystal City-Potomac Yard BRT line in Northern Virginia, which will open next year.
In any case, having visualizations like these are a great way to help people understand how BRT could work for Montgomery County. Hopefully, this will help allay the concerns some residents have and build support for better transit.
Six private consortia have expressed interest in building and operating the $2.2 billion Purple Line in partnership with the Maryland Transit Administration. They bring experience from similar deals around the world, including a successful project in Denver.
The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has received responses from six private consortia who want to bid on the planned light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in a public-private partnership (P3), which the state approved in August.
"The six responses, from local, national and worldwide firms, clearly demonstrate leaders in the P3 industry have strong interest in delivering this long-awaited project," said Maryland transportation secretary James Smith in a statement. The consortia include a who's-who of investors and operators active in the P3 space, including the investors in the only comparable transit concession in the United States, the Eagle P3 in Denver.
The interested teams are: M-PG Connect (Plenary Group and Bechtel Development), Maryland Purple Line Partners (Vinci Concession, Walsh Investors, InfraRed Capital Partners, Alstom and Keolis), Maryland Transit Connectors (John Laing Investments, Kiewit Development and Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate), Purple Line Development Partners (CSCEC and United Labor Life Insurance), Purple Line Transit Partners (Meridiam Infrastructure, Fluor and Star America Fund) and Purple Plus Alliance (Macquarie Capital and Skanska Infrastructure Development).
Macquarie and Fluor's Denver Transit Partners was the winning bidder of the Eagle P3, the only design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) transit concession that has successfully closed in the US. John Laing and Uberior bought Macquarie's stake in the project when its financing closed in August 2010.
Under a DBFOM concession, a private consortium takes responsibility for the design, construction, financing, operations and maintenance of a project within the parameters of the contract with the grantor, which in this case is the state of Maryland. The deal structure also places the majority of the design, construction and operational risks on the private sector.
The Eagle P3 is a good comparison for Maryland's Purple Line. In addition to being the country's only DBFOM transit concession, it also uses availability payments, which are guaranteed payments to the concessionaire from the grantor.
It also involves an isolated rail system that is separate from Denver's existing light rail. This separation is important in terms of measuring the operational performance since there aren't any other services to affect it. This allows the grantor to accurately reimburse the private concessionaire in the future.
The Purple Line light rail will stretch 16 miles from Bethesda to New Carrollton through Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Operationally separate from the MTA's other transit lines, the concession also includes a maintenance facility and rolling stock.
The Eagle P3 includes three commuter rail lines that will run more than 35 miles from Denver Union Station to Denver International Airport, the suburb of Westminster and the suburb of Wheat Ridge when they open in 2016. It also includes a commuter rail maintenance facility and Hyundai Rotem rolling stock.
Fluor, John Laing and Macquarie will undoubtedly be able to bring best practices to Maryland from their experience in Denver, some of which could help reduce costs and possibly speed up the construction schedule.
Other interested firms also have transit concession experience outside the US. Keolis and Plenary are investors in the eight-mile Gold Coast light rail concession in Australia, and Vinci is an investor in multiple light rail concessions in Europe.
Meridiam and Skanska bring experience from other DBFOM concessions in the US to the table. Meridian built a courthouse in Long Beach, California, while Skanska worked on the Midtown and Downtown Tunnels in Virginia's Hampton Roads area.
The next steps for Maryland include evaluating the responses that the six consortia submitted for the Purple Line P3 and selecting a shortlist of qualified teams who will move on to the actual bidding phase. Robert Smith, administrator of the MTA, says that they plan to shortlist up to four consortia.
The MTA plans to announce the shortlist in January 2014 with proposals due in the early summer, the agency says. It expects to pick a preferred bidder by either the end of 2014 or early 2015.
Construction on the Purple Line could begin as early as the second quarter of 2015, subject to approval of the concession contract by the Maryland Board of Public Works and funds from the federal government to help finance the project.
Maryland is seeking up to $1.05 billion in a New Starts grant from the US Federal Transit Administration and has submitted a letter of interest for a TIFIA loan from the US Department of Transportation. The state plans to contribute at least $711 million and expects between $400 million and $900 million in funds from the private sector.
While there aren't many transit projects built through P3s in the United States, if successful, the Purple Line could set an example for the rest of the country.
Last month, downtown Wheaton got a new Safeway, complete with 17 floors of apartments on top. While the new building gives Wheaton a skyline, it also has a lot of above-ground parking and blank walls, making the surrounding streets less inviting to pedestrians.
The Exchange, a new apartment building with a ground-level Safeway, towers over downtown Wheaton. All photos by the author.
Downtown Wheaton is having a residential boom, with 900 apartments in various stages of construction. Over half of them are in the Exchange, which is located across from the Metro station at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive and has a Safeway on its ground floor.
It's one of several residential projects with supermarkets being built around the region. Representatives from developer Patriot Realty says they were inspired by the Safeway with housing above at CityVista in Mount Vernon Square. There's also a Safeway with apartments above being built in Petworth, and a Giant with housing recently opened at the old O Street Market in Shaw.
Wheaton is one of the highest points in Montgomery County, and placing an 17-story building on top means it can be seen for miles in each direction. The county's plan for Wheaton calls for many more buildings like the Exchange, but for now it towers over the downtown's one- and two-story strip malls. And it fills most of a city block, meaning it faces not one, but three streets.
Seen from Veirs Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the Exchange (left) looks like three smaller towers. The Computer Building is on the right.
Baltimore-based architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht tried to visually reduce the building's mass by making each wing look like a separate "tower." From many points in downtown Wheaton, it actually does resemble a cluster of small, thin towers.
It works well with the other buildings on Georgia Avenue that are being built or were built a few years ago. The Exchange's "towers" pair nicely with the Computer Building, an office building one block away that's being converted into a 14-story apartment tower. Together, they create an interesting rhythm with the two other mid-rise buildings on the same block, which were built in the mid-2000's, and the six-story Solaire Wheaton across the street, which will open later this month.
Of course, the Exchange also has ground-floor retail, unlike all of those other buildings. The Safeway and an attached Starbucks have lots of big windows facing Georgia Avenue and even an outdoor patio with seating, which will likely attract people and make the sidewalks active when it's warm out.
But the building's structured parking garages threaten to undermine all of the good design features it has. The "towers" sit atop a podium containing several stories of parking for residents. The Safeway sits below that, at street level, and below it is another parking garage for grocery shoppers. Together, the parking garage and Safeway are about as tall as the mid-rise MetroPointe apartments next door.
Montgomery County's zoning code requires lots of parking in new apartment buildings, even when they're literally across the street from a Metro station. Underground parking can be really expensive to build and the foundation could have impacted the Metro station, even though it's one of the world's deepest. So the developer chose to put some of it above ground, and some below.
That means if you stand in front of the Safeway and look up, you see several floors of dark "windows" meant to make the parking garage blend with the apartments above. Around the corner on Reedie Drive, people leaving the Metro pass blank walls. The building's on a steep hill, so you're walking next to the parking garage, not the Safeway. If there wasn't so much parking, there could have been some small shops here instead.
Turn the corner again to Fern Street and there's basically six stories of blank wall facing Veterans Park: loading docks and shopper parking at the street level (it's set into the hill, so you can't see it from Georgia); the double-height windows of the Safeway, all of which are papered over; and three stories of resident parking.
Urban parks should have buildings with entrances and windows and storefronts facing them, which give people a reason to visit the park and provide "eyes on the street" that make it safer. There's already a public parking garage on one side of the park, and it's disappointing that the designers and developers didn't take the opportunity to do something different, or that Montgomery County didn't make them.
It's likely that many residents won't bring cars to the Exchange given its proximity to Metro and location in a walkable neighborhood. If the developer had been able to build less parking, there may have been more opportunities to shape the building's mass to make it feel even less bulky. And there may not have been as many blank walls. There could actually be apartments and shops looking out onto Veterans Park.
Montgomery County's working on a new zoning code that would demand less parking near transit, but it's too late for this building. It's unfortunate, because the Exchange sits on a really prominent site in downtown Wheaton. It's also the first high-rise to be built there, meaning it will set the tone for decades of future development.
In some ways, the Exchange is a good precedent for the projects to come. But it may also be a cautionary tale, showing developers what not to do.
On narrow sidewalks, there's often a tension between different users and activities. But sidewalks in an urban place need to make room for people to do more than just walk through.
On Black Friday, I went to the Apple Store in Bethesda Row to get my computer checked out. Though the area is a really popular destination for shopping and dining, the sidewalks are surprisingly narrow, and seemingly designed to make walking difficult and unpleasant.
Here's the sidewalk two doors down from the Apple Store on Bethesda Avenue. Next to the curb, there's a row of big, mature street trees in large, fenced-off planters. Where the buildings step back, there's also a little seating area with some benches.
The level of the street falls about a foot here, meaning the seating area is actually below the sidewalk. So there's a brick wall around the benches, just in case anyone falls.
That leaves about four feet for the actual sidewalk, which becomes a narrow channel between the storefronts and the brick wall. Since it's also on an incline, there's a railing to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, blocking off about a foot of sidewalk between the railing and the storefronts.
On a busy day, or frankly on any day when people are outside, you can watch folks struggle to pass each other through this slalom course: shoppers with bags, parents with strollers, or groups of friends chatting. They look down to avoid eye contact, form a single-file line, or swivel their bodies to squeeze through. The sidewalk discourages strolling or lingering here, which is part of the attraction of Bethesda Row.
Given, this is right across from Bethesda Lane, a pedestrian-only street. And Bethesda Avenue itself is a pretty narrow and slow-moving street, which is much nicer to walk along than Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, where the sidewalks are similarly pedestrian-hostile but there's far more car traffic.
But it still shows what happens when designers and engineers don't really think about the experience of walking through a place. Bethesda Row has most of the pieces to be a great place to hang out and gather, and most of the time it works really well. But poorly-designed sidewalks make it hard to enjoy being here.
After 5 years of study, Montgomery County approved a plan for a 10-route, 81-mile Bus Rapid Transit network this morning. If built, it could be the nation's largest BRT network.
The County Council unanimously voted for a plan to set aside road space for BRT on several major roads, including Route 355, Route 29, Georgia Avenue, and Veirs Mill Road, all of which already have high rates of transit use. It proposes dedicated bus lanes in 78% of the network, whether by repurposing existing lanes or widening roads to add new ones.
Supporters say the plan will give travelers an alternative to sitting in traffic while supporting future sustainable growth in places like White Flint and White Oak. "There's no real way forward in this county without transit," says Councilmember Marc Elrich, who first proposed a BRT network in 2008.
Now that the plan's approved, the county can begin detailed work on specific routes. Department of Transportation director Art Holmes wants to look at Route 355, Route 29, and Randolph Road first, while the Maryland State Highway Administration is already studying BRT on Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road.
The approved BRT network. Red are corridors with at least one dedicated lane, blue are mixed-traffic, and purple are sections to be determined.
The plan has been controversial. While many civic, environmental, activist, and business groups endorsed BRT, a vocal minority in neighborhoods like Four Corners and Chevy Chase West fought the plan based on claims that it would take their property or endanger their children.
In response, councilmembers added language to the plan that would create more opportunities for public input. Each BRT corridor will have its own Citizens Advisory Committee of local stakeholders. And the council approved an amendment from Councilmember Valerie Ervin to not allow funding for BRT projects unless there's a public hearing first.
"We've taken almost unprecedented steps in this plan to make sure our communities are engaged," said Councilmember Roger Berliner, chair of the council's transportation committee.
Though all nine councilmembers voted for the plan, not all of them were satisfied with it. Echoing many skeptics of BRT, Councilmember Nancy Floreen noted that most Montgomery County residents drive, and that the BRT may not deliver as promised. "Montgomery County is largely suburban, and I think it's going to stay that way," she said.
It's true that this plan won't solve all of the county's transportation issues, as skeptics and opponents frequently point out. But the alternatives, whether it's improving existing bus service, building more highways, or extending Metro, are either too small, too destructive, or too expensive to really make a difference. And in a county with a growing number of car-free residents, increasing transit use, and an eagerness to attract young people, finding cost-effective ways to expand our transit network can do a lot of good.
Montgomery County has a million residents and 500,000 workers, 60% of whom live and work here. Cities half our size wouldn't think twice about investing in better transit. While the fight may not be over, we just made a pragmatic step in the right direction.
It may be a few years until the Purple Line arrives in Silver Spring, but this past Saturday the Action Committee for Transit offered a fun preview by dressing up as a light-rail train in the Montgomery County Thanksgiving Parade.
ACT members and supporters marched in the 16th annual parade wearing Purple Line train costumes and blowing train whistles. Barbara Ditzler of Silver Spring designed a six-person Purple Line train costume, complete with Styrofoam plate wheels. And a fifth-grader at Clearspring Elementary School in Damascus made a train costume for her and her family out of painted cardboard boxes.
The group already has big plans for next year's parade, including even more train costumes and possibly a dance routine. If you have a costume or song in mind, feel free to visit ACT's website and get in touch with us. We have only 12 months to prepare for the 2014 parade!
The sidewalk on the east side of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring just got a makeover, with new brick pavers and street trees. But will it have enough room for everyone who wants to use it?
Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) managed the $650,000 project, which began this summer and lasted about five months. The agency's main goal was to level and lower the sidewalk to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It replaced the existing concrete sidewalk, built in the 1980s, with sturdier and more attractive brick pavers, and created large new bumpouts at some intersections.
The new sidewalk is very attractive and will hopefully encourage visitors and shoppers to stray from the Ellsworth Drive strip and check out the businesses on Georgia. But it also reveals the tension between different users on Silver Spring's often-cramped sidewalks.
DHCA also removed all of the mature Zelkova trees along Georgia, arguing that the sidewalk reconstruction would disturb the trees and kill them. The new trees are Princeton or Lacebark Elm trees, which will apparently improve the visibility of shops and restaurants from the street.
The old sidewalks had trees in tree grates, allowing room that businesses could put out tables and chairs and leave enough sidewalk for people to walk past comfortably. But the new trees now sit in long, wide planter boxes with little gaps in between for street lights or people getting out of parked cars.
This isn't the only place in downtown Silver Spring with new planters. The county's Department of Transportation (MCDOT) also installed the same planters along Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, except with three-foot-high hedges. Some planters, like one on Fenton Street, extend for most of a city block to discourage jaywalking.
In 2009, when planning on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk project started, county-hired arborist Steve Castrogiovanni recommended doing the same thing with the new trees to "strike a [balance] between the trees' needs and the needs of pedestrians." But officials endorsed the bigger planters, saying it would give the trees more soil and help them live longer.
Street trees have a lot of health and environmental benefits. They can provide a feeling of enclosure on a street or sidewalk, calming traffic on busy streets like Georgia Avenue, and making pedestrians feel safer.
However, these planter boxes seem to provide the wrong kind of enclosure. Crowded sidewalks can be a good thing, creating a feeling of excitement and vitality on a city street. But when you push pedestrians and outdoor dining tables into too small a space, it can feel uncomfortable, and people won't want to stick around and spend money.
That's why restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, who owns Jackie's, Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern, all on Georgia Avenue, didn't want trees planted on the narrow sidewalk outside her businesses. "THIS WILL ELIMINATE MUCH OF MY PATIO SEATING!" she wrote in a 2010 email to DHCA. "This is NOT an improvement and is unnecessary, even undesirable." In the end, DHCA agreed not to plant any there.
Having healthy street trees and vibrant sidewalks aren't mutually exclusive. DHCA could have still created a bigger soil pit for the trees, giving them room to grow, while putting tree grates or permeable pavers on top, ensuring that there's still enough sidewalk space.
Wider sidewalks mean ample room for walking, for dining, and for nature. Photo by Jim Malone on Flickr.
And if county officials really wanted planters, they could have at least used a more attractive design, like these low, stone planters in NoMa that provide space for trees and plants while staying out of the way. Or they could have looked at a bioswale that cleans and filters stormwater in addition to looking pretty.
The real issue isn't the planters, but that the sidewalks on Georgia Avenue aren't appreciably wider. DHCA's project was simply to make the sidewalks meet ADA regulations.
This sidewalk may not get rebuilt for another 30 years, meaning we've missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about how Georgia Avenue works. Wider sidewalks mean we wouldn't have to decide between landscaping, walking space, and outdoor seating. They mean we could have added new features, like benches, or a "shared use trail" for cyclists similar to the Green Trail on Wayne Avenue.
Doing this would require taking space for cars, which today constitutes the vast majority of Georgia Avenue, and giving it back to people. While that would probably be bad for drivers passing through, it would ultimately be a good thing for downtown Silver Spring, whose historic main street would become a more attractive, pleasant, and safer place to walk and spend time.
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