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When temporary becomes permanent: Why reopening the SE Freeway is risky

Studies are underway to replace the closed piece of the Southeast Freeway, between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle, with some combination of roads, parks, and buildings. But meanwhile, DC transportation officials plan to reopen the freeway. That's a terrible idea.


Image from Google Street View.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven has explained some of the many policy reasons this is bad. It'll encourage more traffic in an area where DC has long-term plans for less. It'll cost money only to undo later. It'll foster cut-through traffic in the neighborhood, and entice people to drive through DC who don't today.

Meanwhile, DDOT's Ravindra Ganvir tells Aaron Wiener that the city needs to reopen the freeway because the closure was always intended to be temporary.

Will the city be able to open a freeway segment and then close it again soon after?

In an ideal world, officials would analyze a situation with public input, make the best decision given the facts, and then implement it without regard for the politics. In reality, people are often resistant to change. In many public projects, a large number of people might benefit a little, but if a smaller group loses out in a big way, they'll fight hard not to give up an advantage.

That means that a temporary project can really change a political dynamic. Open up a road that you just want to get rid of later, and it'll create a constituency of people who will then fiercely resist the later effort to remove it. Create a pilot project you think you might want to extend permanently, and you create a constituency to extend that for good.

Smart officials can use this effect to help move toward long run goals. Officials who ignore it set themselves up for failure later on.

When nature wipes out roads, cities decide they didn't need them anyway

For years in the 1980s, San Francisco leaders hoped remove the Embarcadero Freeway, which cut off the city from its waterfront. But voters rejected a plan to do that in 1986. Just three years later, however, Mother Nature cast a more decisive vote: the freeway fell down in the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Drivers adjusted to new patterns excluding the freeway, and discovered that traffic without it wasn't so bad after all. San Francisco then replaced the freeway with a surface boulevard in 1991.

New York also had a waterfront elevated highway, the West Side Highway, which gradually deteriorated from lack of maintenance. Some portions had to be closed after a collapse in 1973, but proposals to replace it with a new elevated, underground, or even underwater (in the Hudson) freeway never made it off the ground (or under it). Today, it's a boulevard that offers a less forbidding connection between the neighborhood and the waterfront.

DC has its own version of this same effect. Klingle Road was one of the many roads in Rock Creek's ravines that functioned as virtual freeways (like Rock Creek Parkway, Broad Branch, and so on). But it washed out in 1991 and DC never rebuilt it. Drivers adjusted.

In 2008, the DC Council formally decided to build a walking and biking trail there instead, and now, six years later, well, they're about 65% done designing it.

Pilots can be hard to change later

Pilot projects are a great way for an agency to try things and see if they work. Temporary curbs at 15th and W Streets, and Florida and New Hampshire Avenues NW, for example, made a very dangerous intersection a little safer for the six years until DDOT could move forward with the permanent design (slated for 2015).

But if an agency does a pilot when it has every intention of doing something different later, it can be hard to change course. The best example of this effect is visitor parking passes. Before 2008, residential permit parking zones were only for residents, plus a 2-hour grace period for others. If you had a visitor, you could get a 2-week pass from the local police station.

Starting in 2008, pilot visitor passes started in lower-density areas of the city like wards 3 and 4. Legislation also forced DDOT to roll out passes in some areas trying new "performance parking," like the ballpark area and Columbia Heights.

Jim Graham realized visitor passes were popular, and so pushed legislation to expand them to all of Ward 1. Then they expanded to Ward 5, more parts of Ward 6, and now are in effect everywhere except for Ward 2, whose neighborhoods near downtown fear more people will just sell or give their passes to people who commute.

The visitor passes are not very sophisticated: they are simple placards you can place in a window. And, in fact, they work just fine in places where parking is fairly plentiful anyway. But where parking is scarce, each placard helps a visitor, but it also adds to the parking crunch. That's especially true when people give their placards to someone who's not really a visitor, particularly someone who plans to use it to commute to offices or a school and park in the nearby residential area.

DDOT officials have been aware of this potential problem all along, and continually insisted they were working on a better system. However, year after year, they never quite got that better system done, and meanwhile, the program grew and grew.

It's going to be very difficult now to replace this entitlement with a different system, even if it's one that works better for residents as a whole. That's because any new system will take something away from someone, and those people will ferociously resist the change. Everyone else might find it a little bit easier to park, but that benefit is too diffuse to really motivate action.

But six years ago, when there were no passes, a better pass system would have been easy. It would have given residents something useful without taking anything away.

It's too late for visitor passes, and we'll just have to see whether DDOT is ever able to win support for a better plan. Right now, they're trying a very small incremental step: requiring people to actually ask for the passes. Even that is running into some political resistance.

But it's not too late for the Southeast Freeway. There, the road is still closed. The area ANC commissioner and many residents do recognize the danger. The smart move would be to keep it temporarily closed until DC has a final plan for the boulevard. The boulevard plan would then give something to residents and through drivers alike.

Roads


A traffic engineer and a planner both study a closed freeway segment. Their conclusions are wildly different.

Let's say you have a closed piece of freeway along your waterfront. What should you do with it? Ask many traditional traffic engineers, and they'll likely answer with some variant of "build a lot of car lanes, maybe with some path for walkers and cyclists if there's room." Ask an urban planner, meanwhile, and the answer could be a more nuanced mix of buildings, parks, roads, or other pieces of a city.

Just look at what traffic engineers versus planners came up with for the piece of DC's Southeast Freeway between the 11th Street Bridge and Barney Circle:


Four-lane road with parking and overpasses. Image from DDOT.


Concept extending DC's street grid into the freeway. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Advocates of "urbanism" or "livable streets" or "smart growth" often deride the "traffic engineer mindset." This is the attitude of some (but not all) engineers who primarily build and maintain roads. These folks tend to hold an ingrained assumption that more roadway lanes are basically the answer to any mobility problem.

Meanwhile, graduates of most planning schools today will bring a wide variety of tools to the table. They'll often look not just at how to move vehicles or even people, but whether more motion is really the best way to use some land. If people are encountering more traffic to get to jobs, one solution is to build a big transportation facility, but another approach is to create more opportunities for the people to live near the jobs, or to put the jobs near the people.

For one of the starkest illustrations of this "lane engineer" versus planner mindset dichotomy, look at the Southeast Boulevard studies in DC. There used to be a freeway running along the edge of eastern Capitol Hill to Barney Circle. Long ago, plans called for it to connect to a new bridge over the Anacostiathe Barney Circle Freeway, and part of an "inner loop" of freeways around downtown. That would have been a very damaging plan for both DC's environment and its congestion.

DDOT's study thinks very narrowly

In 2005, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) came up with a somewhat better scheme, to essentially widen the 11th Street Bridge by building a new parallel local bridge and convert the freeway segment from a four-lane freeway to a four-lane urban boulevard.

DDOT then conducted a 2014 study of options to replace the freeway segment. The study devised xis options, but all of them basically looked like near-freeways. While pedestrians and cyclists could cross to access the waterfront, and cars could turn on and off to nearby streets in some options, all of the options turned a huge expanse of pavement and empty grass into other huge expanses of pavement and empty grass, sometimes also with tour bus parking.

DDOT's options still primarily focused around moving cars fast, and would all have created big empty spaces that would not create any actual sense of place and would be, at best, unpleasant to cross on foot.


Map of Concept 2. Images from DDOT.


Concept 2.


Concept 4A.

Planners think more creatively

Residents, led by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven, were not happy with the narrowness of DDOT's analysis. Instead, at Councilmember Tommy Wells' urging, the Office of Planning stepped in to do a more open-minded study of how to use the space.

OP's options still look at four-lane boulevards and even four-lane parkways, but with much more appealing designs like a big park next to and partly on top of the road:


Concept C2. Images from the DC Office of Planning.

Or just extend the street grid right through the site with new townhouses like the old ones:


Concept A2.

Or a new avenue fronted by larger buildings:


Concept A1.

Or a hybrid:


Concept B1.

Why 4 lanes?

But even OP's study assumed that there need to be 4 lanes of traffic, as that's what DDOT insists on. OP's presentation points out that 4 lanes of traffic can be a part of residential boulevards, like New Hampshire Avenue in Petworth or East Capitol Street near Lincoln Park. However, these roads still feel much wider than others. Drivers tend to move faster here, often too fast to safely mix with other neighborhood users. New Hampshire Avenue north of Dupont, in contrast, is just one lane each way.

So why do there need to be 4 lanes of traffic? DC just effectively widened the 11th Street Bridge, adding car capacity there. Can't there be a reduction on an adjacent street? More than that, there haven't been any lanes for years now. It seems that a traffic pattern with zero lanes works fine.

If there's new development, it would need a road and some lanes to get to it, but to say we need 4 because we already had 4 is circular reasoning without logic, unless you assume that more lanes are always better, and any lane once built must always remain to eternity. That's the ingrained belief of many traditional traffic engineers, and it's the answer I got from Ravindra Ganvir, DDOT's deputy chief engineer, when I asked in February of 2013:

The constrained long range plan (CLRP) traffic model is assigning traffic volumes that would exceed the capacity of a two-lane facility and is showing Southeast Boulevard as a four-lane arterial facility.
Traffic models "show" traffic on a link that varies depending on what kind of link you have built, so to say that the model shows a four-lane boulevard worth of traffic when you have a freeway or boulevard in the plan is again circular. Or, as one contributor wryly paraphrased, "We are building a big road because we need a big road because there was a big road there before."

DDOT needs to re-examine its reflexive assumption that 4 lanes is the only possibility. Regardless, this area now stands a good chance of becoming an excellent urban place now that people who think about spaces broadly and creatively got involved.

Roads


Designs for a Southeast Boulevard look like the freeway it's replacing

Last night, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) presented several concepts for replacing the end of the Southeast Freeway with a boulevard. While it's supposed to reconnect Hill East to the Anacostia River, all of the designs presented prioritize through traffic instead.


Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The Southeast Freeway has been a barrier between the neighborhood and the river, but the new 11th Street bridges mean that the spur between 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE is no longer needed. DDOT would like to replace it with a surface street, called "Southeast Boulevard," connecting the freeway at 11th Street to Barney Circle.

A standing-room only crowd packed the Payne Elementary School auditorium for DDOT's public meeting on the Barney Circle-Southeast Boulevard Transportation Planning Study. At the meeting, required as part of an environmental assessment of the project under the National Environmental Protection Act, transportation planners shared design concepts for the project and gathered community feedback.


Map of Concept 2. Images from DDOT.

Alternatives for Southeast Boulevard and Barney Circle vary slightly

DDOT planners presented six different options they're studying for the new street, including a "No Build" option (Concept 1) required as part of the NEPA process that would keep everything as it is today.

Concept 2 puts Southeast Boulevard on an elevated structure midway between L Street SE and the existing CSX railroad tracks. The boulevard would be on the same level as L Street, with green space acting as a buffer. Pedestrians and cyclists could access the waterfront by crossing the boulevard at 14th Street SE. DDOT would also build a "multi-modal" parking facility underneath the raised boulevard, with ramps off of the boulevard providing bus and car access to the parking facility.


Concept 2.

In Concept 3A, Southeast Boulevard would be at grade, below the level of L Street, with surface parking and green space next to it. There would be a foot and bike bridge over the boulevard and another surface lot to provide access to the waterfront.


Concept 3A.

Concept 3B is similar to 3A, except the boulevard is on the same level as L Street. In this case, pedestrians and cyclists would have to cross directly over the 4-lane boulevard and surface parking lot to access the waterfront.


Concept 3B.

Concept 4A places the Southeast Boulevard closer to the railroad tracks and away from L Street, with a parking lot in between. The boulevard and parking would be at grade below the level of L Street. Pedestrians and cyclists would access the waterfront via a pedestrian bridge over the parking lots and boulevard.


Concept 4A.

Concept 4B is the same, except the boulevard is at the same level as L Street, and pedestrians and cyclists would cross the parking lots and boulevard at 14th Street.


Concept 4B.

Planners also presented two options on the Barney Circle project, both of which would place traffic signals at the circle.

Option 1 would connect 17th Street, Kentucky Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Southeast Boulevard directly to the circle. Kentucky Avenue would stay a two-way street south of Freedom Way and one-way north of it. K Street would not be connected to the circle, but you could still reach it via Pennsylvania Avenue.

In Option 2, 17th, Pennsylvania, and Southeast Boulevard would connect to Barney Circle, while Kentucky Avenue would become a one-way southbound street from H Street to the circle. H Street would become a two-way street, with all-way stop signs installed at 17th & H and 16th, Kentucky, and H. K Street would remain one-way, but would connect directly to the circle.


Option 1.

These options prioritize through traffic over local connections

All of DDOT's concepts for Southeast Boulevard have three things in common: they all include a four-lane boulevard, have no connections to local streets, and include some parking element. The agency's traffic analysis determined that the new street was necessary, connections to local strets would increase cut-through traffic and that there's a significant need for parking.

The result is concepts that simply recreate what DDOT and the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative are trying to eliminate: a freeway that separates the neighborhood from the waterfront. The extra lanes, lack of signals and additional parking will just attract more drivers to the neighborhood during rush hour.

The designs are especially harmful to 17th Street, where Hill East residents have fought for years to reduce traffic volume and speed. DDOT proposes making 17th Street the only access point to Southeast Boulevard via Barney Circle, making it an alternative for drivers trying to avoid 295 and the 11th Street bridge.

Replace the freeway with a new street grid

If a new street is necessary, a better option is to extend the neighborhood grid by connecting the local streets, 13th, 14th, and 15th, to a two-lane boulevard with stoplights at each intersection. This would make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to cross at multiple locations and make the boulevard a local street, rather than a freeway.

A two-lane road with multiple signals would attract less traffic, easing but not eliminating some of the pressure on 17th Street SE. Green space could provide a buffer between L Street and the two-lane boulevard. And forget the unneeded parking lots.

On Barney Circle, Option 1 appears to be preferable to Option 2, assuming that DDOT can implement traffic calming measures on Kentucky Ave SE. Option 2 exacerbates current traffic volume problems by attracting more vehicles to 16th, 17th, and H streets. Without changes to the Southeast Boulevard portion of the project, both Barney Circle options make the neighborhood worse off.

If the goal of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is really "to reduce barriers between neighborhoods and the waterfront parks" and "provide continuous pedestrian and bicycle access along the entire waterfront," than we need an option that replaces the Southeast Freeway with a new street grid that prioritizes local connections.

What do you think about the proposals? You can send your comments directly to DDOT at barneycircle@prrbiz.com.

Roads


DDOT could put tour bus parking on Southeast Freeway

DC is having trouble finding a place for tour buses to park, but DDOT might have an answer: part of the Southeast Freeway east of the 11th Street Bridge, near 14th and L Streets, SE.


Photo by afagen on Flickr.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has started a study to replace that last segment of the Southeast Freeway, which connects the 11th Street Bridge to Barney Circle, and redesign the circle itself.

The roadway was originally part of a larger project to build a new bridge over the Anacostia from Barney Circle to DC-295. It was canceled in 1996. Instead, as part of the 11th Street Bridge project, DC built new ramps between the bridge and the freeway east of the Anacostia River.

What should DDOT do with the extra land? At last Thursday evening's meeting at Payne Elementary School, DDOT showed one potential use of land on diagrams at the break-out tables: a new tour bus parking facility.


Bus depot options. Click for PDF. Images from DDOT.

I was only able to get photos of two of the bus options. In the third one, the bus depot would be at grade, and the Southeast Boulevard would be placed in a tunnel beneath it. We've asked DDOT for the PDF files of all three proposals. Update: DDOT has sent along all 3 PDFs.

This was only the scoping meeting to start an environmental analysis, so these are just concept ideas, which the consultants will develop into formal alternatives as the study proceeds.

DC has had ongoing struggles with warehousing tour buses while they're waiting for groups to explore the sights downtown. Many tour buses once parked in the parking garage behind Union Station, but got kicked out to make room for intercity buses.

DC proposed using the Crummell School in Ivy City, but advocates have sued the city over that plan, arguing that it violates promises to create a community facility there and concentrating more polluting uses in a neighborhood already suffering from poor public health.

Councilmembers Vincent Orange and Jack Evans proposed legislation to move those buses to a vacant lot near Buzzard Point. A bus depot on the old Southeast Freeway land could be the executive branch's solution to the same problem.

The bus parking discussion was only part of last Thursday's meeting. We'll have more about the boulevard itself and the need for comprehensive planning for this area later this week.

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