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Transit


Watch live as Paul Wiedefeld and other experts answer questions about WMATA tonight at 6 pm

During his tenure at WMATA, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has opened more dialog with advocates and the public than many past General Managers. Tonight at 6 pm, he'll join a panel discussion and answer questions from the public at a livestreamed forum.

Once the event starts, the player above will livestream the event. After the event, we'll swap out the livestream player for a recording once it's available. (Update: the totally unedited recording is now available above; the program starts at 16:15.)

40 minutes will go toward audience questions, meaning attendees will have a chance to ask about pressing issues like late night service, rider safety, and anything else they want to know about.

The two-hour discussion will include a public update from Wiedefeld, a moderated panel discussion, and audience Q&A. The panel will also include WAMU's Martin Di Caro, DowntownDC BID's Neil Albert, Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter.

The forum is taking place at Georgetown University's Urban and Regional Planning program, hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and several partner groups. Uwe Brandes, Executive Director of Georgetown's planning program will moderate.

If you have questions during or before the event, you can tweet them to @betterDCregion using the hashtag #WMATAchat. During the Q&A portion of the program, organizers will pose as many of them as possible.

On October 26, a livestreamed followup forum will tackle Metro funding specifically. RSVP is now open, with more program details coming soon.

Development


When the Metro first arrived in Shaw and Columbia Heights, they were far different than they are today

During rush hour, northbound Yellow Line trains need to reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there isn't enough capacity for all of them to run to Greenbelt. That's because when Metro designed the Yellow Line, it was hard to imagine neighborhoods like Shaw and U Street developing as rapidly as they did.


This pre-2004 map shows original full-time Yellow Line service. Image from WMATA.

Why can't Yellow Line go farther north full time?

For the Yellow Line to operate north of Mount Vernon Square full-time, there would need to be a pocket track somewhere between that station and Greenbelt, so that Yellow Line trains could turn back towards Virginia without impeding Green Line trains at rush hour. (Right now, a few Rush+ Yellow Line trains do go all the way to Greenbelt, but usually only about four per hour during peak periods).

The tunnel that carries the Green and Yellow Lines under 7th Street and U Street NW opened in two stages: from L'Enfant Plaza to Gallery Place in April 1983, and from Gallery Place to U Street in May 1991. These tracks initially only provided service for the Yellow Line, but the Green Line would soon utilize the tunnel when it began operation from U Street to Anacostia in December 1991. Check out the Evolution of Metrorail graphic below, which we initially ran two years ago to see how service has changed:

The tracks running through the 7th Street tunnel had always been intended to be shared by the Green and Yellow Lines, but only for a short portion. Although it was intended for the Green Line to operate along the entire length of the tunnel - continuing onwards to Petworth, Fort Totten, and northwest Prince George's County - the Yellow Line would short turn at a pocket track somewhere along the route, so as not to overwhelm operations at Greenbelt (as I discussed in my first post on this topic).

Metro's planners opted to build the necessary pocket track at Mount Vernon Square station, which meant that Yellow Line trains would have to end their route and turn back towards Virginia without serving neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Petworth. Except for the brief six-month period between the opening of Mount Vernon Square, Shaw, and U Street stations in June 1991 and the commencement of Green Line service that December, the Yellow Line has always terminated at Mount Vernon Square in regular rush hour service.

Off-peak Yellow Line service all the way to Fort Totten began in 2006. This has certainly been a first step towards meeting the increased demand in DC's Mid-City area (generally thought of as the neighborhoods served by the Green Line from Shaw to Petworth). However, these areas have now grown enough in population that full-time Yellow Line service is warranted, despite the significant obstacles that stand in the way.

The growth of Mid-City has led to a need for increased Metro service

Massive redevelopment in Mid-City began around the turn of the century, and has continued at a frantic pace to the present day. That's meant increased demand for service along the Green/Yellow Lines at all hours.

When the Mid-City section of the Green Line opened in 1991 (between Gallery Place and U Street) and was completed in 1999 (from U Street to Fort Totten), the area was still reeling from the destruction caused by the 1968 riots. Shaw and Columbia Heights were still plagued with empty storefronts, and the landscape was pockmarked with empty lots where incinerated buildings had once stood.


Aftermath of DC's 1968 riots. Image from the Library of Congress.

The corridor has since benefitted from an incredible amount of reinvestment since the opening of the new Green (later Green/Yellow) Line stations in the 1990s. New construction has ranged in scale from projects like Progression Place, a huge mixed-use center that was recently built directly atop Shaw Metro, to smaller infill developments aimed at repairing the urban fabric.


Apartments at the Columbia Heights station. Photo by Alice Crain on Flickr.

A problem inherent in the system's design

Unfortunately, plans for Metro service patterns in Mid-City didn't anticipate the future growth that these neighborhoods would face. The Yellow Line was designed to provide a direct connection from Virginia to downtown for the commuting crowd; it travels express between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza, then provides a connection to each of the other Metro lines downtown before turning back at Mount Vernon Square.

The system's planners didn't predict that a significant amount of Yellow Line passengers would desire to travel past downtown, to neighborhoods like Shaw and Columbia Heights. Thus, it was assumed that the Green Line would provide adequate service for this portion of the line. Hence the pocket track going in at Mount Vernon Square, rather than at a more northern station like U Street.

So, could Metro build a new pocket track to account for the development spree?

Unfortunately, because this service pattern is cemented by the chosen location to build a pocket track, any attempt to correct this past oversight will be very laborious and costly.

It would be extremely difficult to add a pocket track to the Green and Yellow Lines anywhere between Mount Vernon Square and the District line because the tracks run almost entirely underground all the way to West Hyattsville. It would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive to excavate along the existing route and construct a pocket track between the mainline tracks—a WMATA study placed the cost of a Fort Totten pocket at $150 million.

Although the lower platform at Fort Totten is mostly built in an open cut (a shallow excavation that puts the tracks slightly below ground level), the tracks emerge directly from tunnels on both sides. The necessary location for a pocket track - the east side of the station, on the far side of the platforms from the city - is also the location of the B&E Connector track, a non-revenue link between the Red and Green Lines. The combination of these factors would make the construction of a pocket at this location very complex.


The track layout at Fort Totten. Light-colored tracks are below ground. Graphic by the author.

The next logical place to build a pocket track beyond Fort Totten is in Prince George's County, at the point where the tracks emerge from underground near West Hyattsville station. However, while construction of a pocket here wouldn't require excavation, it would still be extremely difficult and disruptive because the tracks are side-by-side on an elevated viaduct.

Because a pocket would have to be built between the existing mainline tracks, Metro would have to reconstruct a roughly 600-foot section of this elevated viaduct in order to pull the tracks apart and create space for a third track in between. This would be comparably disruptive and expensive to constructing a pocket track underground near Fort Totten. What's really required is a section of track that is at-grade, e.g. resting at ground level rather than underground or on a viaduct.


The Green Line viaduct and platforms at West Hyattsville. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The next feasible place to build a pocket track would be at the above-ground embankment behind Home Depot on East-West Highway near Prince George's Plaza station (although that, too, might be difficult due to the curve at that location).

Of course, a pocket track gets less and less useful the further it is from downtown. The next possible location for a pocket would be near College Park, at which point Yellow Line trains might as well continue all the way to Greenbelt.

It looks like for now, stations north of Mount Vernon Square will have to make do without full-time Yellow Line service. Until WMATA can procure $150 million to add an expensive new underground pocket track at Fort Totten, as well as $100 million for new rolling stock (plus millions more in annual operating funds), rush hour Yellow Line trains will have to continue to terminate at Mount Vernon Square. But the temporary terminus at U Street offers us a glimpse of what could have been if Metro had built a pocket track there back in 1991.

Transit


Why can't Metro label escalators "walk left, stand right" or label where doors will stop on the platform?

Over 1,000 Metro riders submitted ideas for our recent MetroGreater contest. Two came up most often, but are sadly not possible: Signs or markings to encourage people to stand to the right on the escalators, and decals to show where the doors will stop on the platforms. Here's why they couldn't be winners.


Photo by Benjamin KRAFT on Flickr.

In New York, for instance, markings like the ones above show where the doors will stop and urge riders not to stand right in front of the doors.

The obstacle is simple: On the new 7000 Series trains, the doors are not in the same place as on the older trains. Metro plans to run 7000s on all lines and gradually replace all trains with them, but it will be a long time before any line has no older cars. Therefore, markers wouldn't be in the right spot for all trains.

Here's a comparison between the 7000 series (top) and older cars (bottom) by Sand Box John:


Image by Sand Box John. Note that the exterior design of the 7000 ended up somewhat different than in this sketch made from early plans.

It's too bad the markings aren't possible, but moving the doors closer to the center on the 7000 series does make some sense, as they could better distribute crowding between the middles and ends of the cars. It would have been even better to build them with four doors per side, but perhaps in the future. (If so, however, that will push off the day even further when these markings might be an option.)

Walk left, stand right?

Most of us stand on the right side of an escalator, if we're not walking up or down it, and walk on the left side. Thirty-three separate people submitted variations on the idea of educating people about this custom. It could be a sign, like this one that entrant Kristoffer Wright mocked up:


Image by Kristoffer Wright.

Or, what about footprints, as in this idea by London designer Yoni Alter:


Photo by Yoni Alter.

There's one straightforward problem with the footprints in DC: Many Metro escalators sometimes run up and sometimes down (though many do not). On those, at least, the footprints would make no sense with the escalator reversed. Not only would the feet be facing the wrong way, but the "walk" footprints would then be on the right side, giving people the wrong suggestions. ("You should walk backwards down the wrong side of this escalator"?)

As for signs, reversibility isn't the issue, but safety is. According to WMATA Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox, people walking on escalators "is the single biggest point of customer injury, and Metro does not want to endorse that." They know people walk on the escalator as an "informal commuter practice, but it is a safety concern and we do not want to encourage walking or running on moving conveyances."

Transit agencies around the globe have a wide range of views on whether this is a safety issue. Ryan Young, one of the people who submitted the idea, pointed out a few worldwide examples. Chicago, for instance, officially recommends "walk left, stand right":


Image from Chicago CTA.

Toronto, on the other hand, ended the practice in 2007 for safety reasons. Young also found this Polish article showing a "walk left, stand right" sign in a Warsaw department store and advocating for similar ones in the subway.

We could quibble with Metro's decision, but the fact (right or wrong) right now is that Metro's safety is under a microscope. We have people like US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx insisting that safety is the only priority and that he'd sooner shut down the Metro than have any safety problem whatever. In that climate, doing something on escalators that could be a little less safe, even if the change is slight, is probably not wise.

Personally, I still will be walking on the escalator and politely saying "excuse me" to people who stand on the left.

Transit


AskGGWash: Why are Yellow Line trains terminating at U Street?

During rush hour, Yellow Line trains usually run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. But beginning in August, I noticed that many went all the way to U Street, two stops north of their usual ending point. The reason is a mechanical malfunction with a track at Mount Vernon Square that lets trains change direction, and the issue highlights just how important that track is to the entire system.


Photo by the author.

In technical lingo, the problem is called a "bobbing track circuit." The issue is typically considered more of a nuisance than an actual danger, but it's been preventing rush hour Yellow Line trains from accessing their usual turnaround point (the Mount Vernon pocket) for several weeks.

According to WMATA operations guru Stephen Repetski, a track circuit is described as "bobbing" when it erroneously flips back and forth between registering that a train is occupying its block when it might not actually be. This may occur because the circuit is too sensitive, or it may be due to old equipment that needs to be replaced.

A bobbing track circuit can cause trains to lose their speed commands. This forces the operator to stop and wait for permission from the Rail Operations Control Center to proceed to the next signal block, which they must do at a reduced speed. This significantly delays train operations.


WMATA signaling infrastructure. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Usually, rush hour Yellow Line trains reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there's a pocket track there-- a short third track located between the two main tracks, which allows trains to reverse direction without blocking trains on the mainline. In normal rush hour operation, Yellow Line trains use this pocket track to short turn, e.g. to turn around without running all the way to the end of the line at Greenbelt.

Since Yellow Line trains currently have to turn around using the crossover at U Street* (or run all the way out to Greenbelt), fewer trains are operating on the Green/Yellow Lines every rush hour. This is due to the fact that when trains have to short turn without the use of a pocket track, they cause delays by blocking trains in both directions, as Matt Johnson detailed in a 2010 post on the issue.

*There are crossovers that allow trains to turn around between every station from Gallery Place to Fort Totten, but Metro seems to have chosen U Street as the temporary turnaround point.


Trains that have to short turn without the use of a pocket impede through trains in both directions. Graphic by the author.

However, a pocket between the mainline tracks allows short-turning trains to be taken off the mainline while reversing direction, thus allowing through trains to proceed unobstructed. Thus, when rush hour Yellow Line trains turn back toward Huntington using the pocket track at Mount Vernon Square, they are allowing through trains (e.g. Green Line trains) to pass unimpeded on the mainline while the reversal procedure is carried out.


A pocket allows trains to reverse direction without blocking the mainline tracks. Graphic by the author.

This temporary "extension" of Yellow Line service did get a few Greater Greater Washington contributors thinking: could Metro ever permanently extend the Yellow Line past Mount Vernon Square during rush hour? Doing so would provide booming stations like Shaw, U Street, and Columbia Heights with increased service and a direct connection to Virginia at all hours.

There are, however, several financial and logistical problems standing in the way.

The obstacles: lack of a pocket track, railcars, and funding

After 15 years of short-turning Yellow Line trains at Mount Vernon Square at all hours, Metro began running off-peak Yellow Line trains all the way to Fort Totten in December 2006. The service started as a pilot program, but was quickly made permanent due to high demand.

However, there are three major obstacles preventing Yellow Line trains from running to Fort Totten during peak hours: there's no a pocket track at Fort Totten, Metro only has so many trains, and Metro doesn't have the money (Matt explored these factors in depth in his 2010 post).


An above-ground pocket track north of Silver Spring. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Turning some trains around at pocket tracks (like the one at Mount Vernon Square) rather than running them all the way to the end of the line allows more trains to run on the given section of the Metro system because it keeps terminal stations like Greenbelt from getting overwhelmed.

For example, 50% of rush hour Red Line trains only run between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring (rather than all the way from Shady Grove to Glenmont), using the pocket tracks at these stations to reverse and head back in the other direction. This means that Shady Grove and Glenmont only have to handle turning around 13 trains per hour, rather than the maximum of 26.

There is excess rush hour capacity on the Green/Yellow Line tracks north of Mount Vernon Square, as you can see in Matt Johnson's graphic below, and extending the Yellow Line to Fort Totten would take advantage of it (as the four hourly Rush+ Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt already do).


Metro service vs. capacity. Graphic by Matt Johnson.

But without building a pocket track somewhere between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt (such as at Fort Totten), it is impossible to take full advantage of this capacity without overwhelming operations at the busy Green Line terminal. Unfortunately, there are significant obstacles standing in the way of this.

In addition to the cost of the pocket track itself, Metro would have to pay for additional rolling stock in order to operate the extended Yellow Line service full time. As Matt explains, the increased service would require 30 additional railcars at a cost of approximately $100 million, plus $3 million per year in operating costs. The new railcars would have to come from Metro's order for the 8000 series, which aren't expected to begin delivery until at least 2023.

Is it possible to build an extra pocket track between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt? And how come one didn't go in in the first place? I'll take a look at that in a post next week.

Correction: This post initially said there are crossovers at every station between Gallery Place and Fort Totten. That isn't the case, and given where the crossovers are, U Street makes sense for the current Yellow Line issue.

Public Spaces


Car-free travel idea: Backpacking via Metro

Sure, the Metro can take you to many places, but did you know that you can take it to go backpacking? Parks in both Maryland and Virginia have campgrounds that are less than a one-hour hike away from Metro stations.


Greenbelt Park has family-friendly hiking trails. Photo by Brian Vallelunga on Flickr.

Greenbelt Park in Greenbelt, Maryland

This 174-site campground sits atop a heavily wooded ridge between two small streams that feed into the Anacostia River, within a National Park Service-run park that also has nine miles of hiking trails. It's a two-mile walk from the east entrance to the College Park Metro, about half of which is on sidewalks (going near the College Park Aviation Museum) and the other half on trails; NPS even provides convenient turn-by-turn directions.

The park is also about three miles south of Old Greenbelt, an experimental town built by the federal government during the Great Depression.


Lake Fairfax Park's group campground. Photo by Adam Theo on Flickr.

Lake Fairfax Park in Reston, Virginia

The three campgrounds near Lake Fairfax are run by the Fairfax County Park Authority. The hike from Wiehle Metro to the nearest campsite is just under two miles, both along suburban streets and along the uppermost reach of the Difficult Run trail, which ultimately leads to Great Falls Park. Besides the recreational lake, the park also has a skateboard area and an "activity pool" with waterslides and a lazy river.

Reston was also built as an experimental planned community, albeit in the 1960s, and the campground is three miles from Reston's original "village center."


Lockhouse 6, one of six cabins for rent along the C&O Canal. Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.

C&O Canal National Historic Park in Brookmont, Maryland

If a cabin with a kitchen and water views is more your style, Lockhouse 6 is a restored cabin right along the C&O canal that you can rent out for $150 per night. Built almost 200 years ago for canal employees, it's now decorated in a 1950s style and includes a kitchen and bathroom.

Getting there takes either a three-mile walk from the Friendship Heights Metro—or just a five-minute walk from RideOn's bus route 23, which runs Monday through Saturday and stops at Broad Street and Maryland Avenue in Brookmont. A campsite that convenient does have one drawback: the cabin backs up to busy Clara Barton Parkway.

Transit


Public reaction to Metro's proposed cuts proves the need to be vastly more transparent about rebuilding

Metro has a trust problem that's impeding the agency's ability to fix its decaying rail system. Riders and city officials don't believe the agency's proposed permanent cuts are necessary. To solve this one way or another, Metro must regain rider trust by precisely reporting exactly what its rebuilding needs are, and whether efforts thus far have been successful.


To gain public trust, Metro needs to be much more specific about the kinds of track work it needs to do, and why. Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

This series of seven tweets explains why this problem persists, and how being legitimately transparent can only help WMATA achieve its goals.

WMATA has tried to explain its maintenance plans, and has occasionally reported on progress, but there's no single resource available to riders all the time that compiles all Metro's needs, both SafeTrack and non-SafeTrack, and reports on progress in detail.

For example, how many feet of track must be rebuilt before Metro reaches a state of good repair? Out of that, how many feet has WMATA successfully rebuilt to date? How many feet were fixed in July?

That's the kind of information that will help decision makers and the public understand what WMATA needs, and thus support informed decision-making.

If possible, still more detail would be even better. How many rail ties have been fixed, out of how many that need to be? How many insulators? How many escalators and elevators? That level of detail may not always be possible to report (WMATA may not know the full needs until they start doing work), but after so many years of frustration, this is the kind of information the public requires to feel comfortable with Metro's progress. The data should be specific and be listed for each station or between stations, if possible, so passengers can know exactly where work still needs to be done

In Chicago, 'L' riders can see a detailed map of slow zones in the system, and New York's MTA runs video explainers about system problems. These are good examples worth emulating, but WMATA must go further.

If Metro officials hope to get buy-in for extreme measures like permanently cutting late night service, it's reasonable for the public to demand extreme explanations, and reassurance that sacrifice will result in improvements. Without more frequent and more candid communication about progress, trust in WMATA will continue to erode, political support for sacrifices will be hard to obtain, and the spiral of decaying service will likely deepen.

Transit


These maps show who the region's non-English speakers are, and where they live

About 11% of the region's population has a limited understanding of English, and there are at least 26 language groups with more than 1,000 people. This map shows where the most populous groups live:


On the map, each dot represents a Limited English Proficient household. Click for a larger version of the map, and a key that explains which colors correspond to which language (there are 13). All images from WMATA.

The map comes from WMATA's PlanItMetro blog, where planners used Census data to report that 11.4% of the population within its service area (the cities and counties with Metro rail and bus service) is classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP). Aside from English, the languages spoken most commonly in our region are Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Arabic, and Amharic (in that order).

As you can see, places outside of DC are very diverse. Looking at the Census data geographically also reveals some interesting trends in the distribution of the region's different languages. The Chinese population in DC's Chinatown is shrinking, while in Rockville, it is growing. In addition, there is a growing population of African language speakers in Silver Spring and NW DC along Georgia Avenue (they're most likely Ethiopians).

This map, which was part of the same WMATA report, shows which language is most common among the LEP population near each of the region's Metro stations:


Click for the full version.

As well as a list of the languages with the most speakers, how many people speak each, and how many of them are LEP:


These visuals are part of an internal effort at Metro to better understand the makeup of the region's population. WMATA's efforts come together in a document called the "Language Assistance Plan," which helps the agency determine its public outreach to LEP populations. WMATA updates this plan every three years and the next update is due to be released in 2017.

Considerations for LEP are mandated by the federal government under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The FTA provides guidelines that require transit agencies to identify LEPs within their service areas and produce an outreach plan accordingly. This outreach can include fairly basic things like translated signs and pamphlets at transit stations to more comprehensive actions like public meetings or even personal interviews. The goal of all these efforts are to make sure different population groups aren't excluded or negatively discriminated against.

Development


It's time to build housing at the Takoma Metro station

Metro has been trying for over a decade to spur development around the Takoma station in DC, but in the past, opposing neighbors and their elected officials have created years of delay. The project is ready to move forward again, and hopefully the cycle won't repeat itself this time.


The parking lot at the Takoma station, where WMATA and EYA plan to move forward with plans to build townhouses. Image from Google Maps.

What's the problem?

Since before the turn of the millennium, Metro has planned to redevelop an underused parking lot next to the Takoma station, where parking usage is less than 50% most days. Housing developments on top of or adjacent to Metro stations is hardly controversial; it's a logical idea and part of Metro's development policy to promote them at or near Metro stations in order to make it easy for residents to get around.

In 2000, Metro selected EYA to develop the Takoma station's parking lot, and the first plan developed in 2006 called for the construction of 90 townhouses. Some local neighbors in Takoma, DC, as well as elected representatives of Takoma Park, MD, opposed the first plan, with groups like Historic Takoma saying the proposal was "too dense." They also argued that the two-car garages in each townhouse would bring too much traffic.


The Takoma Metro station today. Image from Google Earth.

Some smart growth supporters didn't think townhouses were unreasonable for an area right by a Metro station, but many did feel such large garages were unnecessary. EYA's original plan got sidelined by a combination of opposition and the recession, but in 2013 the company drew up a new plan to build a medium-density apartment building between five and seven stories high (but scaling down to four stories at Eastern Avenue) instead, with about 200 units and with fewer parking spaces per unit.


EYA's revised plan to build apartments by the Takoma station. Image from EYA.

Many neighbors again opposed EYA's plans, but this time, they had a much more effective online campaign, building and maintaining two separate opposition websites as well as both a Facebook page and Yahoo group. The neighbors also managed to garner support from elected officials this time around.

Complaints about EYA's proposal are varied, but the theme is evident: "it's too big and has too much parking."

The neighbors' petition cites their concerns over the size of EYA's proposed building, the loss of green space, and EYA's use of an above-ground parking garage with the building wrapping around it (rather than underground parking). ANC4B also raised concerns about traffic and said the size of the proposed building violates DC zoning rules for being higher than 50 feet.

Meanwhile, elected officials of Takoma Park also raised concerns about the size of the proposed building, the location of a loading dock for apartment residents, too much parking and that the plan steals public parking spots for the benefit of apartment residents.

Don't let perfect be the enemy of good

The latest development isn't perfect, but it's not terrible either. Looking first at the size, even if the neighbors are technically correct that the proposed building is greater than the underlying zoning, a four-story apartment building abutting Eastern Avenue and adjacent to a Metro station is hardly out of character for the neighborhood. DC law does allow projects (like this one) to go through a process called a Planned Unit Development, which can give a project some latitude, such as to increase density near a Metro station or for affordable housing. That seems like good policy.

The argument that this development will increase parking and traffic is wrong-headed. This development is adjacent to the Takoma station, where people will have to drive less, not more. It does shift a significant number of parking spaces from public to private use, but will retain the number of Metro parking spaces for riders and expands the number of bus bays serving Metro and Montgomery County's RideOn.

Former Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes represented Takoma Parkers, who border the site and led the charge opposing EYA's proposal. He told me that Metro and EYA's motives are good with this project, as he fully supports development around the Takoma station, but he echoed what other neighbors have said: that EYA's plan is still too focused on parking and encourages car ownership and driving. However, the number of parking spaces has dropped from two per unit in the original plan to 0.7 per unit, and at the same time, the housing that would be available would increase from 90 to 200 homes.

Grimes opined that the size issues could be remedied by either building the parking below ground or by greatly reducing it. "EYA designed a building for 10 years ago as opposed to 10 years in the future," he remarked.

You can't always get what you want

The irony to all of this is that the neighborhood is struggling to attract businesses to its commercial street where the Takoma station is located. There is some good news in that Starbucks is opening a store in Takoma; even if it does upset some anti-corporate locals, many see it as a positive sign for the neighborhood's business climate. Heck, despite the announcement by Starbucks to open a store in Takoma, a new local coffee shop announced plans to open nearby too.

But if you walk around Takoma's main street (i.e. Carroll and 4th Streets, DC and Carroll Avenue, MD) you'll find plenty of empty space for lease, including the old Takoma theater, a grand property ripe for reuse. Given Takoma's reluctance to supporting chain businesses, such a result is not unforeseeable. Additionally, Takoma's historic districts may dissuade developers and businesses from wanting to build and invest here.

As an aside here, it's richly ironic that Takoma was founded by B.F. Gilbert, a "New York venture capitalist" who is beloved by many of the same neighbors that are leading the charge against EYA. Meanwhile, people in Takoma are clamoring for more shops, restaurants and services. Look here to see how excited the community was for the startup of a local food truck! Gilbert would have probably supported an even larger mixed-use development than what EYA has proposed.

Personally, I think Metro could do even more development at this site by rerouting the buses to the Silver Spring transit center and developing the entire parcel into a larger mixed-use space, but I doubt that the community would support the loss of neighborhood bus service or the loss of the greenspace, even if it is never used. Still, there is a housing crisis in DC and Takoma has a lot of crime that could be decreased with more "eyes on the street." If only Metro was more ambitious.

More development is coming to Takoma, so let's stop fighting already

With the recent opening of two new apartment buildings on Willow and Maple Streets, Takoma, like the rest of DC, is growing. Does this mean that we should start building skyscrapers adjacent to the Takoma station? Of course not, but Takoma residents cannot claim to be "progressive" and concerned about gentrification while simultaneously opposing new housing developments around a Metro station on the basis of zoning technicalities.

The effects of such diametrically opposed views results in pushing new development outside DC, which increases traffic and sprawl, and only isolates lower-income people from the jobs they need to make a living. While opposing activists may have slowed this development, with the support of other neighbors, the WMATA board approved it so it is now a question of when, not if. I spoke with Jack Lester from EYA and he confirmed that the project is still moving forward as EYA and WMATA work out some of the finer details.

But how do we thread the needle so that Takomans get more shops, restaurants and services while retaining the small-town feel (i.e. no significant traffic increase)? It's not rocket science and a lesson for all business districts: increased density = more people living in the area = more demand for more local shops and services = more supply of local shops and services.

What is most perplexing to me is that much of the opposition to this development appears to be coming from Takoma Park even though the development sits in Takoma, which, again, is in DC. Takoma Park is an extremely progressive community that has laws protecting trees and bans on styrofoam containers and is the only rent control municipality in Maryland.

How can a community that cares so much about the environment and those who are less fortunate be so opposed to increasing the amount of available housing (some of which will be reserved for people who are at or below the poverty line), increasing the number of people who live close to public transportation (which supports Metro's future) and are thereby unlikely to drive very much (which is better for the environment)?

In a Washington City Paper article about this whole ordeal, there was an interesting comment that may provide some insight. It reads:

There's an in increasingly common NIMBY strategy to pretend that what you're really fighting is evil developers. Complaining about the future residents can come off too classist or racist, but complain about the developers who enable those "others" to move in is supposedly going to convince us that the NIMBYs are pure hearted.

Developers wouldn't be interested if they couldn't find a buyer. They are merely agents for the future residents. There is no isolating your objections against "developers' greed" and your objections to the people that simply want a place to live near where you have found a place to live.

What do you think? Does this sounds like what is happening in Takoma or does the opposition raise some valid concerns?

Cross posted at Takoma Talk.

Budget


WMATA wants a private company to run its parking facilities. That's a risky move.

WMATA recently announced that it's looking to have a private concessionaire take over operations and maintenance of all of its parking facilities, including garages and parking meters on its property. In exchange for a big up-front payment equal to 50 years of parking fees, the concessionaire would have to operate and maintain almost 60,000 parking spaces. It'd also get to collect all the parking fees.


Right now, Metro runs its parking lots. WMATA is looking for a company to take over, though. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

For the base proposal, WMATA allows up to a 3% increase in parking rates every year, and expects the estimated payout to be based on similar hours of operation. However, as an alternate proposal, each potential operator can propose changes to rates and hours of operation, which would be subject to board approval.

This idea looks disturbingly similar to a disastrous proposal which locked the city of Chicago into giving away most of the value of their on-street parking for 75 years. In exchange for $1.2 billion up-front, mostly used to close budget gaps and now long gone, Chicago no longer has any control of how on-street parking is priced, and has to pay the concessionaire when people use the streets for festivals, for disabled placard use, and for allowing construction of parking garages.

Why WMATA might want this deal

The benefits to WMATA are fairly obvious: they get out of the business of operating parking garages and lots, similar to how they have contracted out paratransit service. WMATA gets a big up-front payment of what I'd estimate to be about 1 billion dollars depending on the discount rate, the cost of operating and maintaining the parking spaces, and how much profit the private concessionaire prices into its bid.

However, WMATA and the funding jurisdictions would lose almost $50 million in current parking revenues per year, which is approximately half of the annual estimated budget shortfall WMATA has had at the beginning of the typical budget season for the past 12 years. So in addition to the usual $100 million in budget savings, fare increases, and juridictional subsidy increases to close the typical budget gap, WMATA would have to find an additional $50 million a year to make up for the loss in parking revenue.

The deal could limit Metro's freedom to boost ridership or redevelop stations

But that's not all. Since WMATA is requesting potential concessionaires to be creative with their bids, they could potentially increase the amount of the up-front payment by offering to charge for parking during nights and weekends.

Currently, WMATA offers parking for free evenings during the week, and all weekend. This helps improve WMATA's bottom line, because the parking is not scarce, and the people parking typically ride Metrorail and pay substantial off-peak fares (increased over the past decade from about 50% of peak fares to about 75% of peak fares under the guidance of former general manager Richard Sarles).

A savvy concessionaire could offer WMATA a much larger payout by charging for evening and weekend parking. But by discouraging weekend/evening riders, it could be taking revenue away from Metrorail—revenue that WMATA may have been counting on, but which wasn't on the parking concessionaire's balance sheet. Without a solid analysis of how much fare revenue could be lost, WMATA risks further damaging the annual budget in exchange for a one-time payout.


Parking here during nights and weekends is currently free, which encourages more people to ride Metro. But a private company could change that. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

It's even worse if WMATA decides in the future that parking isn't the best use of some land near a station. If office, residential, or retail would be better around a station, or if Metro needs some of the metered spaces for buses or another use, WMATA would either have to pay the concessionaire a large penalty or, depending how the contract is structured, be unable to make the change at all.

Even if a redevelopment replaces parking, would the concessionaire be able to veto designs it didn't like? Would WMATA have to pay it back for all of the revenue while the garage is being rebuilt, and what would the cost be? WMATA's request for proposals doesn't specify, but if a final contract is anything like Chicago's, this deal could significantly hamstring Metro's choices in the future.

Do we trust Metro to negotiate well?

All of this aside, for this plan to succeed, we would have to trust WMATA to correctly evaluate the future value of their parking assets so as not to get taken advantage of financially. According to an independent inspector general report, Chicago's deal could have been worth almost $900 milllion more than the city actually received. In response to a press inquiry, WMATA only stated that "outside resources" would be used to help evaluate bids.

We also have to trust that WMATA will appropriately spend the money it gets up front in a way that is worth giving up all the future revenue from parking we currently count on to pay WMATA's bills. Without parking revenue to help increase the cost recovery ratio of the system, it is possible that state and local governments will put pressure on fares to make sure more of the operating costs are being covered. Finally, WMATA risks losing the ability to control prices or usage of the parking lots without financial penalties.

This looks like an extremely risky potential deal. WMATA should proceed with caution.

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