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Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:

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


Cheh and her staff want to have a series of conversations on the various proposals, through some combination of public forums and a smaller working group. Based on that, hey might decide to change their recommendation, maybe reallocate which functions go to which agencies, or even decide that something shouldn't get split out and should stay where it is.

The forums will take place in June and July. Cheh hopes to then have final hearings in September, mark up the bill, and pass it at council sessions in late September and early October so that it can take effect by January. That would mean that the next mayor, whoever it is, would appoint new agency heads under this new system.

Is this a good idea?

What do you think about Cheh's plan? Tomorrow, I'll give some of my own thoughts.

Public Spaces

Neighbors alarmed when old oaks suddenly disappear

Residents really value the trees in their neighborhoods, and when the city cuts them down, it's an irreversible decision. Dupont Circle Nord Wennerstrom wrote in about trees at Ross Elementary, on R Street, suddenly disappearing:

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.
Three years ago GGW's David Alpert wrote an article about tree removal on the 1700 block of Corcoran Street, NW that caused a neighborhood uproar. Well, three years later and one block north, it's happening again.

On Dec. 31, 2012, on the grounds of the Ross Elementary School, contractors for the Department of General Services (DGS) chopped down one large failing oak and then chopped down two large perfectly healthy oaks—among the largest trees on the block. DGS, which maintains DCPS buildings and grounds, did not notify the neighborhood, the school's principal, the DCPS Chancellor's office or Councilmember Jack Evans. DDOT/Urban Forestry was similarly unaware.

Neighbors intervened to prevent a complete clear cutting—today one last oak still stands. Councilmember Evans' office has gotten involved along with ANC 2B03 rep Stephanie Maltz. The contractors on site, Andersen Tree Expert Co., said an arborist had certified the need for the trees to come down. Actually, the arborist is an Andersen employee, and Andersen got the job for chopping down the trees and was paid by the tree.
Wennerstrom's detailed explanation about the DGS's and Andersen's stated reasons for taking down the trees (which Wennerstrom finds dubious) are below. Certainly the biggest issue is not communicating about the issue ahead of time. Further, there is the question of whether arborists tend to be overzealous about taking out trees.

I've talked to several arborists, both at DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration and private arborists I've hired to prune the tree on my own property. You might expect someone whose job is caring for trees to want to do everything possible to maximize tree life, but I've found that many arborists would take down a lot more trees, and a lot earlier, than most residents would.

Our block, not far from Ross, has a number of very large oak trees. Some of them have fungus starting to grow near the roots, which will eventually kill the trees. However, they could last many more years before that happens. On the other hand, over time this will weaken the roots, and eventually, one might fall in a large storm, damaging nearby houses.

When we had a private arborist to look at our private tree, I asked him about some of the street trees along the block. He said he would probably recommend taking several of those down (not the one closest to our house, fortunately) sooner rather than later.

The experts would often choose to take trees down as soon as anything seems wrong. Meanwhile, residents love their trees, and want to keep them up. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration has to balance residents' desire to preserve trees against the profession's predilection for removal.

It's hard to know who is right. The arborist profession might know what we don't. On the other hand, they could fall victim to orthodoxies around an arbitrary "standard." Certainly, DDOT has its standards, like cutting all branches up to 8 feet away from houses, just as the traffic engineering profession has controversial standards for road curvature, clear zones and more. The 8-foot tree standard keeps branches from hitting the houses, but also yields odd-shaped trees and cuts down on the shade that helps keep houses cool.

Here is the rest of Wennerstrom's letter:

On Dec. 31, Andersen reps on site and contacted by telephone offered several reasons for the demolition—including root rot due to excessive ground moisture, the poor health of the trees, the trees were causing basement leaks and, what turns out to be the real reason, trenching needs to be done around the perimeter of the building to remedy the leaks, an action that will endanger the trees.

In fact, on Dec. 26, an Andersen inspection determined there was no root rot yet on Dec. 31 their reps insisted root rot was the cause; the Ward 4 arborist Joel Conlon, who inspected the trees on Dec. 31, and says there's no evidence the trees were in poor health, contradicting what Andersen reps were telling the neighbors; and landscape architect James Urban, one of the nation's leading authorities on design with trees and soils in urban settings, questioned the aggressive trenching/leak remediation plan proposed. Urban says tree and root pruning, along with careful trenching would permit the need leak remediation without destroying the trees.

Attempts to get information from DGS continue to be frustrating. For example, we requested the written evaluation that justified the trees' removal and we only received a cover letter and a crudely drawn schematic diagram. Not included, and crucial to the discussion, were Andersen's eight pages of tree evaluation forms with several questionable observations.

Now DGS has come up with a new reason for the trees' removal. In the Jan. 9 edition of the Dupont Current, DGS spokesperson Kenneth Diggs is quoted as saying the trees are causing the sidewalk to buckle. That's completely untrue—no sidewalks are buckling. Mr. Diggs and DGS made that up.

We enjoy having Ross Elementary as our across-the-street neighbor and recognize the school's need for building improvements—we've already lived through three months of a very noisy and filthy renovation this past summer.

DGS may have done everything "by the book", but they continue to do a really poor job of communicating with the public.

This weekend, Wennerstrom followed up with an update:
On the Ross front, I've heard from another DGS spokesperson. The bottom line is that DGS never considered any basement leak remediation methods that would also have saved the trees—they were doomed from the outset. Their arborist's certification that the trees had to go was a pro forma move.

Nevertheless, in a January 2, 2013 email response to Ward 2 Council Member Jack Evans about the Ross situation, DGS Director Brian Hanlon wrote: "I never take lightly the removal of any tree." (Imagine if DGS were in charge of RGIII's healthcare, rather than microsurgery for his knee, they would have amputated his leg).

Public Spaces

Have an empty street tree box? Ask for a new tree now

District residents have until June 15th to suggest locations that need trees for the upcoming 2012-2013 street tree planting season.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) designates June 15th of each year as the final day for resident feedback on where to place trees during the roughly October through April annual planting season.

UFA's job revolves around the trees in tree boxes along city streets. The District currently boasts 130,000 street trees, which fill over 90% of the available tree locations filled.

With unlimited funding UFA could plant a tree in every empty tree box this season, but budget constraints require arborists to choose which spots to fill. They prioritize areas where residents have requested trees, and use any remaining funding to add trees in areas with more available locations and less existing tree cover.

A team of 12 arborists, including Supervisory Forester Earl Eutsler, monitors the approximately 145,000 available open spots for trees. The available space fluctuates for many reasons. For example, redesigned sidewalks or roads can eliminate tree boxes, or a large tree imposing on power lines may be removed and replaced with a number of smaller trees.

Eutsler encourages residents to use online service requests to provide information and feedback to the arborists. Alternatively, residents can request plantings by calling 311 or using the SeeClickFix mobile application. UFA staff are also available at 202-671-5133 to speak with residents about tree concerns.

Eutsler says:

Ideally, each customer would go through, where they can enter the comments for themselves, as opposed to relaying a message to a call taker where an abridgement may occasionally occur. Also, people who start with will enjoy a virtual file cabinet of every request they have put in, for reference. So customers should start with 311 and be as specific as possible. If they would like to move from the formal request into an actual dialogue with one of our arborists they should leave their email address in the contact information window and add a comment requesting a follow up message from the inspecting arborist.

Of course, our findings are entered into each service request, so the customer could also log back in to see our findings. Please convey that every official service request is reviewed by this office. Our arborists take each request with them into the field (virtually), and update the service request while on site at the tree in question. At the end of each day, our inspection results are pushed back into the main request system where they may be reviewed by the customer.

Residents can also track plans to plant and remove trees through a set of Google Documents spreadsheets. An ArcGIS map shows the locations of existing trees. UFA is moving toward only using ArcGIS to track the tree inventory, planting, and removal in the future.

An open data set of street trees lists the location, tree species, size, condition, and date of last inspection. By plotting the DC GIS data, residents can even analyze the ratio of open to planted spaces in their neighborhoods.

The arborists are limited in the amount of time they can spend caring for every street tree. Residents can adopt and care for newly planted trees through DDOT's Canopy Keeper program.

The non-profit company Casey Trees recently released a comprehensive online reference page about the District's street trees. There are other Casey Trees programs that complement UFA's efforts, such as a tree purchase rebate program for trees on private property.

Residents periodically notice newly planted trees that are not thriving because they haven't gotten enough water or care. UFA tries to avoid these problems by requiring its planting contractors to guarantee the tree for one year, and sets a demanding standard for what constitutes a properly established tree.

If you see newly planted or established trees that need trimming, maintenance, or removal, enter a service request to notify the UFA. Likewise, if you have an empty tree space near your home, enter a service request before June 15th for UFA to plant a new tree during the next planting season.

Public Spaces

DC's tree-lovers are partners, not pests

Trees are one of the most cherished parts of the streetscape for many homeowners. So when a crew sporting chainsaws suddenly shows up on your street unannounced and refuses to answer any questions, it's more than little worrisome.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration, which manages tree pruning, engages in no regular communication with residents about the work they're going to do. Their tree crews often try their best to ignore, often quite rudely, any homeowners asking questions.

If the crews always did the right thing, this might be merely an annoyance, but they don't. Arborists and the crews have a lot of discretion and sometimes make choices which significantly diminish the quality of a streetscape for residents. And when a crew cuts off a tree limb or removes a tree, there's no way to get it back.

Keeping DC's many trees alive, especially with small tree boxes, periodic utility work, the occasional drought, and assault from fungus, is a tough job. And regular maintenance and pruning is indeed important.

People I know and trust at DDOT tell me that they consider John Thomas, head of the Urban Forestry Administration (UFA) to be one of the best division heads in the agency. But for the typical homeowner, or even the homeowner who's very involved in civic affairs like myself, we don't get to see the excellent side of UFA.

Instead, an arborist comes by each block at some point, looks at the trees, and makes a decision that some need to be pruned. A work order goes into a system which homeowners probably won't know anything about, and No Parking signs go up which don't say anything about tree pruning.

Then, suddenly, some guys show up with chainsaws and start cutting off pieces of trees. If a homeowner isn't home, they'll come back and find potentially very unwelcome gaps in the trees; if a homeowner is around and tries to talk to the tree crew, they'll rudely refuse and try to push the pesky questioner out of the way.

Strangely pruned tree in Logan Circle. Photo by the author.

Some tree pruning just involves taking away a few dead branches, but at least some DDOT arborists and tree crews go much farther. The last time a crew was on my block, for instance, they cut every branch of a tree within 8 feet of a house, which creates odd-looking one-sided trees like the one above in Logan Circle. I know a homeowner who lives in that area, and they were decidedly unhappy upon returning home one day to find half of this tree suddenly lopped off.

Other homeowners have found numerous trees completely removed without warning, even when experts can disagree about whether the tree is a hazard or not. Sometimes trees do need to go, no matter how beloved. But it's not unreasonable for homeowners to want some warning to prepare themselves and get educated on the necessity first.

A crew from "Adirondack Tree Experts," on contract to DDOT, showed up this yesterday on my block. I wanted to better understand what they were doing, but when I went out to speak to them, they pointedly ignored me until I stood too close to the area they were working. Then, they loudly insisted I move to avoid falling branches, but still refused to talk to me, only saying they were "under contract."

I made a bunch of calls and sent some concerned tweets, after which DDOT finally sent an arborist who spoke to me. I appreciated this gesture, but would DDOT do that for everyone who doesn't have a well-known blog? Should they? It shouldn't take such measures to get information about tree pruning, and informing homeowners shouldn't require a personal visit by an arborist every time.

8 feet from each house is DDOT's "standard" for tree pruning. The arborist who came out yesterday said that just because that's the standard, they don't necessarily take off all branches to 8 feet. He doesn't, he said, but that depends on the arborist. Apparently whichever arborist or tree crew handled the tree above has a different view. The same goes for the last pruning on my block.

In this case, it appears Adirondack was only removing branches that actually had some disease. Doing that keeps the tree alive, because the disease can spread to the main trunk of the tree if not nipped in the bud. A simple assurance from the tree crew that they were just going to remove a few branches, not truncate half the tree because of the 8-foot "standard," would have meant a lot.

Sure, it's easier for the arborists and the contractors not to talk to any homeowners. Most homeowners don't understand trees and probably want to ask the contractor to do the wrong thing. But that doesn't mean chainsawing people's trees without giving them any opportunity for involvement is the right policy.

UFA does have an online spreadsheet listing upcoming work orders, except in Wards 2 (my ward) and 6, where it lists no work orders and has a last updated date from June.

It would be great if DDOT could set up an online system which lets people subscribe to alerts about tree actions on their block. Naturally, that would require some money, and DC has cut budgets, not expanded them.

UFA could also create a nice booklet explaining the issues around trees, and how to spot the signs of disease. The crews could hand those booklets out. More importantly, they could bring flyers explaining what is on the work order, what's not and why the work needs to be done, or direct curious residents to a better Web site that also shows the details that the arborists can see.

After all, some knowledgeable arborist at UFA has synthesized data and observations, and ordered the work to be done. Chances are they had good reasons in doing so. Why not share those reasons openly with citizens?

Most of all, the crews shouldn't treat residents who want to make sure their trees remain healthy, full and strong as annoyances. Residents who care about the trees are an asset to DC, not an obstacle. UFA could enlist them to spot problems, keep trees watered, or keep an eye out for work crews from utilities who inadvertently take actions which can damage the trees.

There's already Canopy Keepers, which enlists residents to water young trees in their area. Unfortunately, that requires printing out and mailing or scanning a paper form. But it's a start.

The District's tree canopy is one of its greatest treasures. In order to maintain and expand our city's tree coverage, we need to find ways to make residents active partners of UFA.

Public Spaces

What trees are on your street?

Casey Trees used data from DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration to create a great interactive map of street trees:

Blue dots show maple trees, red dots are oak, pink elm, green sycamore, and yellow dots show all other trees.

Erik noted this in a Breakfast Links recently, but it's interesting enough to show in more detail. It's fascinating to see how most streets have one or two types of trees. In many neighborhoods the oaks line more of the major streets and maples smaller ones, though in some places, like Georgetown, there are many trees but almost no oaks.

Clicking on a tree also shows its size. A future improvement to the map might be to show larger dots for larger trees, to help people visualize the overall tree cover.


Got any big ideas for the DDOT budget?

DC faces huge budget gaps, and every agency is being asked to make cuts, most of which take a little from everything. For DDOT, do you have any ideas for bigger cuts that should be considered, or revenue increases to look into?

Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

The DC Council held a marathon hearing yesterday to listen to feedback on closing DC's massive budget gap. Most of the witnesses just asked for specific programs not to be cut, rather than presenting ideas for different cuts in their place. Many advocates called for tax increases, which I think should be part of the final package along with many cuts.

In transportation and planning as well as many other areas, the cuts generally spread the pain out across the board rather than cutting specific programs far more or eliminating any governmental activities entirely, though a few do get completely wiped out. For DDOT, for example, these are some of the cuts:

  • $2.2 million from road, sidewalk, and alley repairs
  • $300,000 out of $1.5 million from bike-ped safety programs
  • $416,000 from traffic control officers around the ballpark and convention center
  • $244,000 from school crossing guards
  • $620,000 from street trees (see below)
  • The entire $7 million "streetscape survival fund," payments to small businesses affected by recent streetscape projects to help them weather the hit to their business from the construction.
  • $500,000 from a parking rate increase at Metrorail lots in the District, which is a nonstarter since it requires WMATA Board approval and the Board won't even have time to consider this in the brief timeframe, let alone whether outer jurisdiction members would approve a hike that some of their residents would have to pay.
This is painful but most of the smaller cuts are probably a reasonable way to spread out the pain. But here are a few ideas for areas to cut more deeply or raise some revenue to restore a few cuts:

Eliminate poorly performing staff in IPMA. IPMA is the Infrastructure and Project Management Administration, which handles the repavings and the streetscapes and all that. Almost any neighborhood activist has a host of stories of poor presentations by IPMA engineers and project managers who lacked good communication skills. There are also many people at IPMA who are locked in the old style of transportation engineering, building everything to a standard in a manual and not really listening to residents who want safer streets instead of higher speed traffic.

At the same time, there are good people at IPMA too. Sometimes it's hard in government to get rid of just the bad people, but to the extent this is possible, DDOT could use a good housecleaning in IPMA. Since fewer streets and alleys will be repaved and fewer sidewalks reconstructed, the department could probably make do with fewer people for a few years. Then, when things pick up again, they can hire high quality people in place of the bad ones they got rid of.

Reduce regular tree trimming. Some trees really need trimming, but there are also many cases where people don't actually want their trees trimmed. I was pretty dismayed to find a crew cutting whole limbs off the tree in front of my house one day, limbs which shade my windows in the summer. Since I work from home, I was able to stop them though now some limbs are oddly truncated. Meanwhile, another set of friends who just bought a house in Logan Circle came home one day to find almost half their tree lopped off, a significant aesthetic decrease.

It could be that pruning helps trees live longer, but when I spoke to the Urban Forestry Administration about my tree, mainly they simply said that this was their "standard" and they have all contractors trim all trees to the "standard." We can probably do with a little less adherence to that standard, at least for a while.

The budget takes $200,000 out of tree trimming, $300,000 out of tree planting, and $120,000 from hazardous tree removal, saying there has been low demand for removing hazardous trees. I wonder if DDOT scale back even more its payments to the contractors who do this trimming. Its in-house arborists could spend less time on trimming and more on making sure the trees that are planted get watered.

Increase the Circulator fare. The Circulator costs $1. Metrobus costs $1.70 or $1.50 with SmarTrip. Yet the Circulator is more reliable and draws more tourists and people in well-off neighborhoods, where it primarily runs. This wasn't intentional but it's totally unfair.

Raise the Circulator fare to $2 cash (which is easy for tourists to pay and is still far cheaper than a cab) and $1.50 with SmarTrip, the same amount as on any other Metrobus. If a Circulator runs on a better schedule or a better route than other buses, people should ride it, but not because it's cheaper.

Increase the off-street parking tax. Jim Graham suggested this yesterday. He suggested raising it as high as 18% from the current 12.5%, which could bring in $19 million in revenue per year.

The Post's Nikita Stewart writes that "The amount does not account for the loss of customers who could balk at an increase," though given the amount of competition for commercial garages, a tax increase here may not lead to as much of a consumer price increase. It could just cut into the profits of garage owners and the revenue that building owners get from garages. In the long run, that could create more of an incentive to redevelop large surface parking lots.

DC could also grant garage owners a full or partial exemption from the increase for implementing certain measures like automated cash collection systems to ensure the tax is being correctly reported. In addition, the new zoning code requires certain numbers of bicycle spaces and car sharing spaces, and requires surface lots to have a certain amount of landscaping. If an existing lot complied with these rules, perhaps it should get some relief from the added tax.

Close the free parking tax loophole. This is another longer-term measure that keeps getting kicked down the road and then is too long-term to implement in any budget cycle. But the off-street parking tax contains a big loophole, leaving out facilities that provide free parking to employees rather than contracting through a commercial operator. In the downtown area, these spaces should be taxed at a similar rate to commercial spaces.

This proposal has been introduced in the Council in the past as the "Clean Air Compliance Fee." It wouldn't help with the immediate budget, but it seems that the most meaningful budget measures get little attention outside budget crises, and then during every crisis it's too late to implement it.

Contract out local bus routes. This is another longer-term issue, but again worth talking about while people are seriously thinking about budgets. If DC took over its local bus routes and contracted them out, DDOT believes it could save quite a lot of money.

What else? Do you have other ideas for ways to make bigger cuts or raise revenue in transportation?

Public Spaces

Street tree care: How can it improve?

Washington, DC is nicknamed "City of Trees," but its appropriateness is at risk along with many of DC's trees. We must improve the way we care for our city's trees to make this nickname relevant again, and soon.

A few years ago, the city planted trees in the median of North Capitol Street, from Michigan Avenue to Hawaii Avenue, while the street was undergoing a complete reconstruction. The trees all died within the year, due to a lack of water. Casey Trees recommends that a newly-planted street tree receive twenty-five gallons of water per week for the first three years while establishing a healthy root system. (I am a Casey Trees Citizen Forester.)

Over the last year, the city reconstructed Brentwood Road NE from Rhode Island Avenue south to T Street. That reconstruction included the planting of approximately 64 new trees in the treeboxes lining the street. The photographs above show the condition of the trees on this stretch of road now—namely, they've nearly all died.

On a recent weekend, I counted only four trees, or 6% of the total from this project, that remain alive. Weeds choke the treeboxes that line the street (save two in front of the Lowest Price Gas Station, where the trees are still dead), all of them neglected. That's unacceptable.

A new section of the Metropolitan Branch Trail recently opened between the New York Avenue Metro Station and Franklin Street NE. Trees were planted along the trail at many points, including the pocket park pictured at 4th and S Streets NE. Many of the trees are already dead due to the extremely dry spell we had in June and early July.

All of that is unfortunate, and easily could have been prevented, had the property owners and neighbors along the Met Branch Trail and Brentwood Road taken the time to water the nearby trees, or if the city had planned to water the trees in the North Capitol Street median, as the road there is practically a freeway where watering would be difficult. But there is hope ahead!

The city is actively working on a streetscape plan for the entire length of Sherman Avenue NW, between New Hampshire and Florida Avenues. One of the elements of this reconstruction will be a planted median. After seeing what happened on roads like North Capitol Street, it's reasonable to see why residents might be skeptical that trees could survive without a dedicated source of water to keep them alive.

Thankfully, Sherman Avenue resident Craig Sallinger was able to get a guarantee from a DDOT employee that an irrigation system will be included in the construction of the road, so it will be easy to get water to those trees while they're trying to establish roots. Hopefully this will be a consideration DDOT makes in all of their future streetscape programs.

In the August 4th edition of the Dupont Current, there is a story about the DC "Tree Fund." The fund is partially filled by fees levied as part of the Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002, and is legally required to be kept separate from the city's general fund. (I wish I could link directly to the story, but the Current has a strong dislike of Internet publishing.)

The Current says that the 2011 budget, proposed by the Mayor and approved by the Council, removes money from the fund and places it in the city's general fund. In the article, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) states she wasn't aware that the money was being diverted from the Tree Fund into the general fund when she voted for the budget.

The government agency tasked with planting and maintaining street trees in DC is the Urban Forestry Administration (UFA), which is part of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). I recently had the opportunity to speak with John P. Thomas, the Urban Forestry Administration's Chief Forester, about some details of the city's street tree planting and maintenance program.

DDOT's yearly street tree budget is $7.5 million. As John Kelly noted on Sunday, the city is not responsible for watering trees once they are planted (contractors plant most of the street trees in the city). Mr. Thomas said that watering will be a line item in the planting contract this coming year. It will most likely mean that the city will not be able to plant as many trees as they have in years past, but I see that as a net positive for the DC.

Spending money on in-ground watering systems and paying more individuals (be they UFA contractors or students employed during the summer) will inevitably take money away from actual tree planting. I think that's a good thing.

I'm not saying I want fewer trees. I want more! But I want them to be mature and healthy, not first-year seedlings, struggling to stay alive.

DDOT's current planting process doesn't work, through no fault of their own. Mr. Thomas noted that 95% of what they plant comes from resident requests for trees in front of their house. A program called "Canopy Keepers" exists to encourage residents to water the young trees on their street. Some of my friends here in Trinidad are participating in this program. Walking around the city, though, you can easily see that many residents are not holding up their end of the bargain. The UFA staff does an admirable job with limited resources, but I believe it would be better to help young trees mature instead of wasting those resources replacing trees year after year.

You can only count on the kindness of strangers to a certain point. Eventually, money talks, and it can also water trees.

Cross-posted at The District Curmudgeon.

Public Spaces

How great are tree grates?

DDOT will soon be bidding contracts to reconstruct 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Adams Morgan Main Street is trying to persuade them to replace the standard tree boxes with grates.

17th Street grates. Image from DDOT presentation (PDF).

Tree boxes fence off an area for the tree's soil and roots. Meanwhile, tree grates cover that space with a surface that people can walk on, but which allow rainwater to run down to the soil beneath.

DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration generally refuses tree grates, though they already exist in some areas such as Georgetown and downtown, and are part of the new Columbia Heights public realm at 14th and Park Road.

According to a presentation on innovative stormwater techniques, grates will also be part of the reconstruction of 17th Street in Dupont Circle. The need is even more acute on 17th, where the sidewalks are extremely narrow. In many places, there isn't even the standard 10 feet between fenced-off yards or sidewalk cafes and the adjacent tree boxes.

In Adams Morgan, DDOT will be significantly widening sidewalks, creating much more pedestrian space even with boxes. At the same time, 18th gets very heavy pedestrian traffic and more space would be helpful.

This problem is most severe on U Street. Unlike in Adams Morgan, DDOT's plans for U Street don't widen the sidewalk, except in one small spot, and U Street is growing rapidly in numbers of residents, retailers, and pedestrian traffic.

Why does DDOT oppose tree grates? Here are some arguments made by UFA head John Thomas in a May email on the subject:

"Stormwater friendly tree box" from DDOT presentation (PDF).
  1. DDOT's ADA compliance officer does not accept tree grates. I am not an ADA expert, but it seems that tree grates are no worse than tree boxes, which block off the entire space to all people including those with disabilities. Also, DC has a number of tree grates now.
  2. The grates are above the DDOT maintenance capabilities. This is a legitimate concern in most areas. DDOT does not have the ability to keep checking on tree grates. If not monitored, as the tree trunk expands, the grate can choke it unless the hole is widened. Also, roots can pop up the grate.

    Many (or perhaps all) of the existing tree grates in DC are in areas such as Georgetown and downtown where a BID can handle some maintenance. DDOT could require an agreement to maintain the grates from a local business or citizen association before agreeing to install any.

  3. Trees will be damaged at the trunk and lower limb levels (as is the case along and M and Wisconsin) regardless of the grates. Thomas didn't elaborate on why, though I could see that people might lean against the tree or bump it as they walk if the grates facilitate getting closer. In a place like Adams Morgan or U Street, drunk people might be more likely to lean against (or perhaps urinate on) the trees if they can get close to them.
  4. Bikes tend to get locked to trees when tree grates are present. Fences and plants keep bikes away. Also a fair point.
  5. The liability would still remain with the District even with an MOU if there is a trip/fall claim. Are grates less safe than fences? It'd be helpful to have any statistics from other cities or from DC's existing grates versus its tree boxes.
  6. UFA has historically denied grates across the board. So? DDOT also has historically granted curb cuts willy-nilly, but fortunately, they have recently cracked down. It shouldn't ever be too late to change bad past practices.
Should DDOT install tree grates? There are good arguments on both sides. It seems that a decision about tree grates must balance the value of adding pedestrian space against the slightly better conditions for trees.

UFA is focused entirely on maximizing tree canopy, and that's an extremely worthy goal. In some commercial areas, however, maintaining a wide enough sidewalk for pedestrians is also a worthy goal, and there needs to be a balance that weighs the inadequacy of pedestrian space with the potential harm to trees.

Plus, sometimes UFA can't put in a tree, or has to settle for a smaller tree box, because of available space. Grates could allow more trees that can collect more stormwater. There are even more innovative stormwater techniques for trees, such as grates on hills (like 18th Street) where water from one tree area drains into the next, and so on, like a natural hill. DC also has "structural soil" covered with cobblestones or pavers to provide stormwater management without sacrificing walking space around the ballpark and Barracks Row.

All of these techniques, including tree grates applied where pedestrian volumes warrant, can make DC's streets more usable and greener at the same time.

Public Spaces

Missing the notice for the trees

Few government actions impact homeowners' properties as quickly or as irrevocably as cutting down trees.

DC street trees. Photo by shioshvili.

A leafy canopy makes a street far more desirable and valuable. It's no wonder, then, that residents get very upset when their government removes trees. Sometimes trees have to go; disease can kill them, and if a tree falls, that impacts the homeowner immediately and even literally.

At other times, however, arborists can disagree about whether a tree has to go. We have a honey locust tree in our backyard that lost a limb after another tree fell on it (and the house's previous owner's car) during a storm. About half the aborists we talk to say the tree should come out, since it might fall over one day. The other half say that these trees are nearly indestructible, and unless it starts dying, we have nothing to worry about. We like the shade. What to do? For now, we're keeping it. We hope we're right.

That tree is on private property. But if it were a street tree, DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration could simply decide to take it out. DDOT has policies that they should notify homeowners, and the Council has considered laws to require notification. But those aren't always followed.

On Monday, DDOT cut down six trees on the 1700 block of Corcoran Street, NW. According to ANC Commissioner Bob Meehan, one tree was definitely a hazard and had to go, but others were at the very least open to debate. Meehan wrote,

The trees in front of 1760 Corcoran (cut down two weeks ago), and 1751 and 1732 Corcoran (cut down today) were removed solely on the basis of one forester's judgment that the trees were failing in some manner. This does not necessarily imply that there was ever any imminent danger to the public or that they couldn't have survived for many more years.
I have a Master Gardener Certificate and can attest that the tree in front of 1732, a female, was probably on its last legs and had lost several large limbs in recent years. However, I did not get a satisfactory answer justifying destroying the other two trees.

They were removed today, prior to community feedback, simply because equipment to do the job was already around the corner to remove two trees on the 1700 block of Q St at the request of residents. It is DDOT policy to confer with residents prior to taking down trees that don't pose immediate danger. This policy was totally ignored.

The three remaining trees were female ginko trees. Mr. Thomas apologized and said that his staff were wrong to cut down these trees. The trees should have stayed put unless the owners in front of the trees initiated a petition to remove them a nd 60% of their neighbors signed the petition. There had been no petition. Instead, there was just the presence of DDOT's equipment from Q St and a desire by DDOT staff to remove female ginkos.

This lack of communication is particularly frustrating because in other situations communication had been good. For example, the basis for the recent removal of female ginko trees (and their replacement by certified male ginkos) on the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Corcoran St was a mutually-negotiated agreement between the city and the residents.

In replies, other residents spoke up in favor of removing the tree at 1751 Corcoran and agreeing with Meehan's assessment on 1732. Others noted that there had been complaints about the smell of the female ginkgos. There is no definitive evidence that the tree removals were wrong. However, they were clearly not communicated.

The Urban Forestry Administration has to manage many trees with few staff. They can't afford to teach every resident all about arboriculture every time they want to cut or prune a tree. However, it's also understandable that residents will want some communication and assurance about upcoming tree cutting. A tree takes decades to grow. A pruned limb never comes back. UFA needs to find some way to better communicate with residents.

At the end of September, tree crews started pruning various trees on my block. I was happy to give DDOT the benefit of the doubt, but wanted to find out what was planned and for which trees. However, numerous emails to UFA head John Thomas and Ward 2 arborist Munevver Ertem went unanswered. Ms. Ertem even told me on the phone that while normally they would email their database entries about a block's trees to residents, because of my blog she would have to check with others; I never got the information.

Eventually, the tree crew got around to the tree in front of my house. When I spoke to them about my desire to keep as much of the tree as possible, they said that they could certainly prune less than the standard, which is to cut all branches six feet away from any buildings. Like many on our block, that tree extends over our house, which I personally like for the added shade in summer.

Ms. Ertem also told me that an arborist had reviewed the block in May and scheduled the trees for pruning. That means from May to September, DDOT had a plan to prune the trees, but nobody knew about it. Nobody . I have no specific objection to any decisions of the arborist, but residents should have the opportunity to weigh in on the judgment calls, like how much to prune, and to know about what's planned.

UFA has a detailed database of street tress. DDOT should make that database available publicly. It will inevitably lead to more questions from affected residents, but answering questions is something our government officials should do.

Meehan has arranged for UFA's John Thomas and DDOT Director Gabe Klein to attend next Wednesday's ANC 2B meeting.

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