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WMATA plan: Not $26 billion, not mostly about tunnels

New Metro tunnels in downtown DC sound really cool (and expensive), but they're not what's most important about the "Momentum" strategic plan WMATA planners showed their board on Thursday. Rather, the crux of the plan is the smaller, yet very important, projects Metro needs for 2025.

Photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr.

The capital improvements in "Metro 2025" come to about $6 billion, and include these 7 items:

  • 100% 8-car trains ($2 billion)
  • More capacity at core stations, including pedestrian tunnels ($2 1 billion)
  • Fixing the bottleneck at Rosslyn ($1 billion)
  • More places to turn trains ($500 million)
  • Next generation communications infrastructure ($400 million)
  • Speed up buses on priority corridors ($600 million)
  • More buses and new garage to grow bus system ($500 million)

The Momemtum plan also talks about some downtown tunnels in a future phase, "Metro 2040," but Tom Harrington, Director of Long-Range Planning for WMATA, emphasized in an interview that WMATA has not made any decisions about where specifically such tunnels would go, or which they want to build.

Rather, those sections are more general placeholders than anything else. While it's likely Metro needs at least one new tunnel to add capacity, WMATA can't even begin to plan for those tunnels until the elements of the 2025 plan get funding.

Given how long it takes to design, build, and fund transit in the United States, it's not too early to start talking about and building support around the elements of the 2040 plan. But what's more important now is laying the groundwork to enable those plans to go forward. That's the 2025 plan.

Harrington added that the $26 billion figure in the Washington Post's headline, which most other reporters subsequently focused on, isn't really the price tag for WMATA's plans. Rather, that covers the total cost of all transit projects the region's governments hope to build as well as future projects for WMATA.

As we discussed on Thursday, the plan also contains a lot of priorities for WMATA to improve its own operations. They include finishing repairs on the system, ensuring it's safe, devising better plans for communicating disruptions, making the system more "self-service," lowering costs and increasing efficiency, environmentally sustainable practices, and more.

The plan is not very detailed about these, and we look forward to hearing and discussing them more when there's more to understand.

Meanwhile, let's look more at the 7 capital items:

Photo by erin_johnson on Flickr.
100% 8-car trains: The original system's designers anticipated having trains of 8 cars, the full length of each platform. However, the system didn't need such long trains at the start, since the designers knew demand would grow over time.

They didn't build enough power stations and yard space to house all of those cars, anticipating that as the system grew, the local, state, and federal governments would fund the system's growth. That investment didn't continue much after the initial system was built, however. Today, Metro is overcrowded in many places, and needs the longer trains.

Core station capacity: The main transfer stations (Metro Center, Gallery Place, and L'Enfant Plaza), plus Union Station which is a transfer point between Metro and commuter rail or Amtrak, are jammed during rush hour. Metro needs to expand key spaces inside the stations and increase the numbers of escalators, elevators, and/or stairways between the different levels of the stations.

Image from WMATA.
WMATA's proposal includes pedestrian tunnels between Farragut North and West, and Metro Center and Gallery Place. The Farragut tunnel would reduce loading on the Red and Orange Lines where people have to currently ride to Metro Center to transfer, and the Metro Center-Gallery Place tunnel would let people avoid riding the Red Line one stop to transfer there.

Fix Rosslyn: This is the system's biggest bottleneck. We'll talk about this in part 2.

Turnbacks: Many subway systems have places where "gap trains" can wait to enter service in a busy section if trains get delayed, or places to push a disabled train out of the way. The Momentum plan isn't clear on where these would be, and Shyam Kannan, Managing Director for Planning, said WMATA is finishing up a study on this now.

In the past, WMATA planners have talked about adding pocket tracks north of Fort Totten and east of Eastern Market. A pocket track north of Fort Totten would also make it possible to run Yellow Line trains to Fort Totten during rush. Here's an explanation of why it's not possible to do that today; basically, they turn around on the main tracks, which takes too long to avoid delaying other trains at rush frequencies.

Communications infrastructure: The current "PIDS" screens in rail stations use very old technology dating back to Metro's early years. According to Kannan, during a service disruption, someone has to manually modify the information in the computer system to get the PIDS to work properly. They want to replace this whole system with a more modern one that doesn't have the flaws of the old.

This project also will involve systems to help riders get real-time bus and train predictions, Kannan said. Metro would like to place large screens, perhaps 4 by 6 feet, in many rail stations and busy bus stops to tell riders about the locations of trains and buses, as well as information about other modes like commuter rail and commuter buses. Better apps for smartphones and tablets, as well as open data to help other developers make their own tools, are also part of this piece of the strategic plan.

Bus priority corridors: Let's not forget buses. As we've talked about many, many times, making the buses more efficient, with features like "queue jumpers" to bypass congested areas, is an inexpensive way to improve transit and could even save money. If a bus can travel its route more quickly, you can have the same bus frequency with fewer buses and drivers, or more frequent service with the same numbers.

WMATA has identified a set of corridors ripe for optimizing bus service, but it needs more cooperation from local jurisdictions, which control the roads, signals, and bus stops, to make it happen. Some early elements are in the works; DC is planning bus lanes on H and I Streets past the White House, for instance.

More buses and a bus garage: A lot of bus riders wait longer than they should have to. We should beef up service on busy lines and in key places, like east of the Anacostia, which need better connectivity.

Also, WMATA needs to replace its aging garages in DC with a new one somewhere; Walter Reed was a promising spot, but Muriel Bowser and Vincent Gray blocked the idea; most recently, they have apparently been eying the Armed Forces Retirement Home, at North Capitol and Irving.

These are not in the region's plans today

These 7 items are extremely important for mobility in our region. They aren't just things that would be nice to have, but necessities if we don't want terrible overcrowding and delays.

However, these items are still not in the Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP), the list of transportation projects each jurisdiction gives to the Transportation Planning Board to staple together into a regional plan. (DC just proposed adding the I Street bus lane, and already had H Street in there).

As the TPB explains:

The CLRP (Financially Constrained Long-Range Plan) includes all "regionally significant" highway, transit and High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV), bicycle and pedestrian projects, and studies that the TPB realistically anticipates can be implemented by 2040. Some of these projects are scheduled for completion in the next few years, while others will be completed much later.
That means without action by regional leaders, we could get to 2040 and still have no more 8-car trains, the same and even worse Rush Plus crowding problems, terrible jams at transfer stations, buses stuck in even more traffic, and no room to park buses to expand service.

These improvements are basically necessary to keep Metro running efficiently over the next decade and to set the stage for future expansion. But it will not be easy to build these projects unless regional leaders are able to work together to secure funding for Metro's future.


Ward 5 needs a vision beyond "no bus/streetcar parking"

Will the Spingarn streetcar barn harm the Benning Road corridor? Would a bus garage on North Capitol damage surrounding neighborhoods? Will mixed use development destroy Brookland? Discussions in DC's Ward 5 often center around what residents oppose, but what's really needed is a plan for what they do want.

Photo by james4765 on Flickr.

Ward 5, mostly in Northeast DC, has the most industrial land, surface railroads and suburban big box stores of any part of the District. In short, it's the farthest away from the kind of walkable mixed-use patterns in highest demand today.

Its new councilmember, Kenyan McDuffie, is trying to figure out the future of Ward 5. He's got a tough uphill climb to bring fractious neighborhood activists together in a vision that could fundamentally reshape the ward, while dealing with old infrastructure and new infrastructure proposals that might or might not fit into a vision.

Ward 5 has a famously-bitter political culture, with ward-wide and neighborhood listservs that draw more nasty, personal backbiting than perhaps any others in the city. In that toxic environment is a very loud chorus of voices shouting down almost any ideAFRHa.

The critics point to a lot of transportation storage facilities being planned or proposed for Ward 5:

  • Ivy City is getting a parking lot for 65 charter buses displaced from Union Station. Ivy City already has very poor residents with many health problems, and don't need the added pollution. But Mayor Gray says it's also one of the most logical places to locate the buses, because it's along New York Avenue and there's ample city-owned vacant land there today.
  • After long insisting the streetcar facility could be under the H Street overpass, DDOT suddenly moved it to the Spingarn campus. They said they had no alternative to Spingarn, because it was too late to try to work something out for the RFK parking lots or some other spot, any of which would be more complex and time-consuming.
  • WMATA is now looking at relocating the Northern Bus Garage on 14th Street to a part of the Armed Forces Retirement Home property on North Capitol Street. WMATA sorely needs a more up-to-date facility, residents of 14th Street want to get rid of the bus garage, and AFRH wants to sell some of its land.

    However, WMATA initially wanted to build its garage at Walter Reed, where there was plenty of room to keep it away from surrounding houses. Councilmember Muriel Bowser staunchly opposed the plan, as did Mayor Gray. Was Ward 4 able to wield a lot of clout because it's a wealthier part of the city?

    According to sources familiar with the discussions, WMATA officials now think AFRH might work even better, as it's closer to the center of the city and North Capitol and Irving are now configured as high-speed near-freeways. It's not right next to any residential neighborhood, let alone inside one. Still, it will bring more deadheading bus traffic to some streets which don't have the buses now.

McDuffie has taken a firm stance against all of these facilities. He's responding to his constituents, and the fact that all 3 are going to Ward 5 does seem unfair.

But if all or some of them will go there anyway, are there opportunities to design them to be assets to the area?

The buses in Ivy City are pretty hard to make into a plus, but a streetcar barn is really not such a bad thing. If designed well, it could even contribute to the neighborhood.

AFRH might be the best spot for a bus garage that nobody really wants to live near (except people in Friendship Heights, like some who want to landmark the Western Bus Garage on the belief that a mid-rise building would be far worse).

It's hard to be very surprised that the District ends up suggesting locating transportation facilities in a ward that already has many transportation facilities, relatively low densities of residents, and many places without immediate opportunities for other types of development. In places far from Metro or high-frequency bus lines, large-scale residential or office development would be hard to attract and would bring lots of its own new traffic, likely stirring up vociferous opposition on the listservs as well.

That's why it's great that McDuffie is also moving beyond simply saying "hell, no" and trying to jump-start some planning for his ward. He is proposing an industrial land use task force to look at how to plan for the ward's many acres of industrial spaces.

At Wednesday's hearing on the bill, McDuffie suggested a MARC station at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. As Dan Malouff discussed, it's not a bad idea. McDuffie also wants to look into the potential for residential development, urban agriculture, and hubs for small businesses and nonprofits in Ward 5, he said.

If McDuffie can shepherd a vision for the future of Ward 5, and more importantly get something his loud neighborhood activists can say yes to, it will do a lot more to improve the quality of life than just blocking a few locally-undesirable transportation facilities. It will also create more reasons to spread those facilities out to other parts of the city as well.

Still, as long as Ward 5 is the most industrial of the wards, it'll attract things that tend to go in industrial places. A vision would also give residents something to ask for in exchange for these proposals.

Maybe, rather than stopping a bus garage on North Capitol, they can insist on money for other priorities for spots that are closer to more residents. Likewise, If a training facility at Spingarn doesn't mitigate the cost of having the car barn, what would residents like instead?

Ward 5 can ask for the city to really invest in what they want, when it also invests in what the rest of the city needs.


New residents and arts spaces could spark Ward 4's 14th St.

Can 14th Street north of Columbia Heights become a lively and successful commercial area once again? A new plan suggests finding spots to catalyze development, possibly including the WMATA bus barn or surrounding properties, and making a piece of the corridor into a place for artists to live and work more cheaply.

The 14th Street bus barn. Photo by the author.

This part of DC boomed in the mid-20th century, spurred by population growth and easy access to transit via the 14th Street streetcar line. The corridor began to decline after 1970, as the District's population decreased. As a result, the commercial nodes of central 14th Street have struggled for several decades.

Now, as the city's population begins to grow once again, DC's Office of Planning studied ways to make the area more attractive for residents and businesses, both old and new. After a series of community workshops in 2010 and 2011 with residents and stakeholders of the central 14th Street corridor, OP has released its draft plan and is looking for public comment until February 3.

The plan covers the 20-block stretch of 14th Street NW from Spring Road to Longfellow Street. It includes three distinct commercial nodes: Spring Road to Shepherd Street, Webster to Decatur Street, and Jefferson to Longfellow Street. (This portion of 14th Street has been referred to as "upper" 14th Street for as long as I can remember, but the Office of Planning is now referring to it as "central" 14th Street.)

The 2010 population of the study area was 14,370, showing an increase of about 300 people since the 2000 census. The population growth is encouraging, but the plan notes that because the population hasn't reached the level of the mid-20th century (the high population was 16,736 in 1960), the corridor has too much commercial space for the number of people that the spaces are meant to serve. That means greater density is necessary to make new businesses viable.

The plan points to Longfellow Flats, a newly renovated 14 unit condominium at 14th and Longfellow Streets, as one of a few projects that will help to attract more residents to the corridor. The site of the CK Motel, and 14th and Quincy Streets, is also slated for residential redevelopment.

Can the bus barn move?

The site with the largest potential for both commercial and residential redevelopment is the WMATA bus barn, along the eastern side of 14th Street from Buchanan to Decatur Street. Redeveloping the bus barn as a mixed-use project would likely catalyze the rest of that node and perhaps the rest of the corridor, but to redevelop the barn, WMATA has to find another location for the 175 buses that are currently housed there.

One idea, to construct a new bus barn on the site of the old Walter Reed hospital, has been an issue of much contention between residents of Ward 4's 14th Street and Georgia Avenue corridors. Both Mayor Gray and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser have voiced opposition to that idea. As an alternative, the plan recommends excavating a level beneath the existing bus barn to house the buses, allowing for the above-ground structure to be redeveloped.

Another complication is that the bus barn is quite an attractive structure. Constructed in 1907 and designed by the prominent Washington architect Waddy Wood, the building is likely eligible for historic designation. Between this and the dilemma of finding an alternative for WMATA, the bus barn is likely to stay for at least the next decade.

In lieu of redeveloping the bus barn, the plan identifies 3 sites in the Webster-Decatur node that could serve as catalysts.

  • The WMATA bus barn parking structure on the northern end of the bus barn property. This is not eligible for historic designation and therefore could be redeveloped for mixed-use within the next 5 years.
  • DSK Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which owns the entire 4500 block of 14th Street with the exception of the Exxon gas station, has plans to construct a new sanctuary that will face 14th Street. It will include an Ethiopian cultural center on the Buchanan Street side.
  • The Value Furniture store, the former home of the Park Theater, which opened in 1924 but shut its doors just four years later. As the second largest site (75,000 square feet) in the study area with single ownership, it has the best potential for redevelopment within the next 5 years. It could easily become 2 or 3 floors of residential space above ground floor retail, an ideal spot for a neighborhood-serving grocery store.
The plan recommends focusing on attracting unique retail, such as second hand shops, specialty food shops, and culinary incubators (the plan includes a photo of Boston's Crop Circle Kitchen culinary incubator as an example of what could be). The goal is to fill niches between the chain stores to the south in Columbia Heights and the proposed Walmart to the north in Brightwood.

Affordable space for artists?

The Jefferson-Longfellow Street node has its wide sidewalks, some as wide as 20 feet, that are perfect for pedestrian-oriented activities, such as a farmers' market. However, there's also a high commercial vacancy rate, which the proposed Walmart store on nearby Georgia Avenue will likely exacerbate.

The plan recommends focusing on arts-related uses in this area, with a focus on artists who have been priced out of other neighborhoods and who might be attracted to the area's relatively large spaces. OP recommends designating this area as an Arts Cluster and listing the node's vacant commercial spaces in the DC Creative Retail Space Bank in order to advertise their availability.

The area can build on its existing positive features, such as the mature tree canopy, attractive housing stock, and walkable neighborhood atmosphere. The plan makes several recommendations for improving the area's aesthetics while strengthening pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, as well as connectivity between the three commercial nodes.

Better transportation

A number of recommendations would improve mobility, including:

  • Upgrade bus service. 14th Street is one of WMATA's Priority Corridors. Improvements like making traffic signals adapt to the buses, having people pay before boarding the bus, and more could speed up travel and make buses more reliable and productive.
  • Add Capital Bikeshare stations. OP recommends placing a Capital Bikeshare station at or near the intersection of 14th and Kennedy Street during DDOT's next round of station installations.
  • Increase car sharing options. To give residents a choice not to have to own or drive personal vehicles, OP recommends collaborating with DDOT to target off-street locations for car sharing companies. Two possible locations are the parking lot of DSK Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the parking lot of the Children's Medical Care Center (14th and Kennedy Street).
OP plans to create a task force of community residents and stakeholders who will help determine which recommendations are the highest priority. Community and business associations can also help find resources, programs, and grants to bring specific recommendations to fruition.

To give your comments on the plan, mail them to OP or (more likely) email by February 3, 2012.

Cross-posted at The Brightwoodian.

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