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Montgomery proposes bigger parking subsidies

While they say there's not enough money to increase bus service, Montgomery County transportation officials propose to throw millions of taxpayer dollars at oversized parking garages.


White Flint conference center. Photo from Google Earth.

In White Flint, the county wants to use $21 million in proceeds from a land sale on a new parking garage. The garage would replace the parking lot at the Bethesda North Conference Center while adding more parking spaces. Officials haven't said how many spaces the garage would create.

If the garage serves a real need, then it ought to be fiscally self-sufficient. Marriott, the operator of the conference center, currently charges $5 per hour or $15 a day for parking. At those rates, a parking space that costs $600 a year to operate could easily generate annual revenues approaching $5,000, yielding handsome profits for operators.

If big weekend or evening events at the conference center occasionally need extra parking, valet parking could use empty spaces in the Metro garage across Rockville Pike. No subsidy would be needed.

The county Department of Transportation asserts that under an agreement with the Maryland State Highway Administration, the proceeds of the land sale can only be used for this garage. But a letter from former state Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley suggests otherwise. Swaim-Staley wrote that the state's interest in parking relates to its investment in the existing conference center. As long as parking is sufficient for that building, the state could free up the land sale funds for other transit-oriented projects.

Now, a pedestrian-friendly street network in the White Flint area certainly fits that bill.

This is not the first time the county's parking division has tied its own hands through real estate contracts to promote public parking. In both Bethesda and Silver Spring, sales of parking lots were structured so that the proceeds went directly into parking garage construction without ever appearing in the county budget.


A 6-level, $80,000-per-space public parking garage under construction in Bethesda. Photo by the author.

Meanwhile, the budget currently before the County Council keeps garage parking free in Silver Spring after 6 pm. Extending the payment hours until 10 pm would add substantially to Silver Spring's current $10 million per year parking revenues.

In past years, proposals to charge for evening parking conflicted with a contract between the county and Foulger-Pratt, the developer of the shopping area on Ellsworth Drive that was critical to the downtown revitalization program. That contract guaranteed free parking in two adjacent garages. Some downtown merchants worried that paid parking at the garages nearer to their stores would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

But the contract with Foulger-Pratt ends May 7. The Silver Spring parking district is heavily subsidized with a perversely designed tax that encourages landowners to build more parking than their customers are willing to pay for. Free parking in county garages after 6 makes things even worse.

County leaders tell the state that Montgomery needs more school construction funding. Spending the county's own money on an unneeded garage hardly helps their case. And it's hardly fair to give away parking for free in Silver Spring while bus fares and state bus aid are used to cut real estate taxes.

Montgomery County doesn't have money to throw around, and its urban areas are growing up. As they mature, they need to be gradually weaned from dependence on subsidized parking.

Parking


Baltimore's car-stuffed waterfront is poised to keep adding more cars

Fancy office towers, hotels, museums, and tourist attractions line the contours of Baltimore's Chesapeake Bay harborfront. So too, do massive parking garages and interstate-sized roadways that feed them. What does the future hold? According to a new plan, still more parking.


A waterfront parking garage at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. All photos by the author.

Like much of America, Baltimore waterfront development since the age of cars has been designed for the age of cars. That looks likely to continue as the waterfront grows.

The Greater Baltimore Committee and Waterfront Partnership hired architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross to prepare Inner Harbor 2.0, an overarching new plan for reinvigorating Baltimore's Inner Harbor waterfront.

The Director of Landscape Architecture for Ayers Saint Gross, Jonathon Ceci, said about a parcel of harborfront currently covered by beach volleyball courts, "The site is basically an island cut off from the rest of the Inner Harbor. Besides Key Highway [on one side], you've got the water [on the other side] and a lack of parking garages. The question was, how do you make it a magnet for urban activity?"

How does Ceci plan to create "a magnet for urban activity"? Apparently, with parking garages. The Inner Harbor 2.0 plan recommends a $20 million garage on this waterfront site at a public cost of $12-14 million.

Baltimoreans should question the line of thinking that big garages are the best magnets for urban activity. Big garages and wide roads go hand in hand. They create the "island effect" that Mr. Ceci wants to eliminate.

Baltimore's near waterfront has more high-rise parking spaces than high-rise residential units with waterfront views. There are at least 6 waterfront parking garages, and at least 14 large parking garages within one block of the waterfront. At least 9 parking garages rise to between 7 and 12 stories tall. The waterfront has around 4,500 parking spaces already planned or under construction: 4,000 at the Horseshoe casino and about 500 at Rash field.

Meanwhile, the one-way street pairs adjacent to the harbor have 10 lanes of through traffic, while at many times, cars cannot make it through a light in one cycle. Baltimore has used these streets for 180-mile per hour races.

What Baltimore's waterfront has gained by attracting tens of thousands of cars it might have lost by being unfriendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, urban livability, and more local populations. Walkers can enjoy a promenade ringing the water, but to venture inland, they have to cross many lanes of unfriendly traffic. These physical road barriers separate the water from Baltimore's traditional downtown and may limit economic development from more easily sweeping inland.


A family racing from the Inner Harbor to safety.

Ironically, all the car infrastructure may not make car driving easy. Supersized roads and garages contribute to congestion that can offset cars' theoretical time-saving advantages. Driving across town and up and down garages sometimes is slower than walking and bicycling. The business case for more parking erodes if corresponding congestion leads to traffic jams and stress.


Rush hour traffic near Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

By adding four high frequency Charm City Circulator bus routes, Baltimore has made progress. It can do much more to shift the balance.

Here are some additional ideas to consider near the waterfront:

  • Create an app that directs cars to affordable satellite parking spaces.
  • Create a tax on new parking garages and dedicate the revenue to non-automotive transportation.
  • Let developers choose to pay into an alternative transportation fund instead of building parking as required by zoning.
  • Encourage parking at outlying transit stations that serve downtown.
  • Re-introduce and enforce bus-only lanes downtown.
  • Create peripheral park & ride lots with frequently departing shuttles servicing downtown, similar to the way airport shuttles work.
  • Create iconic Inner Harbor bus shelters.
  • Operate Camden Line trains on weekends for special events and Orioles games.
  • Ask the Orioles to reward fans for not bringing a car.
  • Create a discounted MTA family pass.
  • Ask downtown employers to create financial incentives for employees to not bring a car.
  • Build Pratt Street and Key Highway cycletracks to support bicyclists and bikeshare.
  • Add Charm City Circulator routes to South Baltimore, Canton, the Casino parking garage, and new park & ride locations.
  • Make sure the east-west Red Line moves forward.
Baltimore's waterfront must be accessible to people who own cars. However, with more affordable, safe, and convenient alternatives, some drivers would be happy to visit the city's downtown waterfront, while leaving the car outside of the city center.

Transit


Three ways to build in Forest Glen without creating more traffic

As new homes, offices, and shops sprout around the region's Metro stations, Forest Glen has remained a holdout due to neighborhood resistance to new construction. But that may change as WMATA seeks someone to build there.


Metro wants to redevelop this parking lot. All photos by the author.

Last month, the agency put out a call for development proposals at Forest Glen, in addition to West Hyattsville and Largo Town Center in Prince George's County and Braddock Road in Alexandria. WMATA owns 8 acres at Forest Glen, most of which is a parking lot, and developers have already expressed interest in building there.

Forest Glen should be a prime development site. While it's on the busy Red Line, it's one of Metro's least-used stations. It's adjacent to the Capital Beltway and one stop in each direction from Silver Spring's and Wheaton's booming downtowns. Holy Cross Hospital, one of Montgomery County's largest employers with over 2,900 workers, is a few blocks away. But since Forest Glen opened in 1990, not much has happened.

On one side of the Metro station is a townhouse development that's about 10 years old, while across the street are 7 new single-family homes. The land the parking lot sits on is valuable, and it's likely that WMATA will get proposals to build apartments there because the land is so valuable. But zoning only allows single-family homes there, the result of a 1996 plan from Montgomery County that recommends preserving the area's "single-family character," due to neighbor concerns about traffic.


Townhouses next to the Forest Glen parking lot.

As a result, whoever tries to build at Forest Glen will have to get a rezoning, which neighbors will certainly fight. It's true that there's a lot of traffic in Forest Glen: the Beltway is one block away, while the adjacent intersection of Georgia Avenue and Forest Glen Road is one of Montgomery County's busiest. While traffic is always likely to be bad in Forest Glen, though by taking advantage of the Metro station, there are ways to bring more people and amenities to the area without putting more cars on the road.

Make it easier to reach Metro without a car

Today, two-thirds of the drivers who park at Forest Glen come from less than two miles away, suggesting that people don't feel safe walking or biking in the area. There's a pedestrian bridge over the Beltway that connects to the Montgomery Hills shopping area, a half-mile away, but residents have also fought for a tunnel under Georgia Avenue so they won't have to cross the 6-lane state highway.

Montgomery County transportation officials have explored building a tunnel beneath Georgia, which is estimated to cost up to $17.9 million. But county planners note that a tunnel may not be worth it because there aren't a lot of people to use it.

And crossing Georgia Avenue is only a small part of the experience of walking in the larger neighborhood. Today, the sidewalks on Forest Glen Road and Georgia Avenue are narrow and right next to the road, which is both unpleasant and unsafe. WMATA has asked developers applying to build at Forest Glen to propose ways to improve pedestrian access as well, and they may want to start with wider sidewalks with a landscaping buffer to make walking much more attractive. Investing in bike lanes would also be a good idea.

Provide things to walk to

Another way to reduce car trips is by providing daily needs within a short walk or bike ride. The Montgomery Hills shopping district, with a grocery store, pharmacy, and other useful shops, is a half-mile away from the Metro. But it may also make sense to put some small-scale retail at the station itself, like a dry cleaner, coffeeshop or convenience store, which will mainly draw people from the Metro station and areas within walking or biking distance. Some people will drive, but not as many as there would be with larger stores.

Putting shops at the Metro might also encourage workers at Holy Cross to take transit instead of driving, since they'll be able to run errands on their way to and from work. Encouraging this crowd to take transit is important, since hospitals are busy all day and all week, meaning they generate a lot of demand for transit, making it practical to run more buses and trains, which is great for everyone else.

Provide less parking

Whatever gets built at the Metro will have to include parking, not only for commuters, but for residents as well. While Montgomery County's new zoning code requires fewer parking spaces, each apartment still has to have at least one parking space. Even small shops will have to have their own parking. The more parking there is, the more likely residents are to bring cars, which of course means more traffic.

Thus, the key is to give future residents and customers incentives to not drive. The new zoning code does allow developers to "unbundle" parking spaces from apartments and sell or rent them separately. Those who choose not to bring cars will then get to pay less for housing. The code also requires carsharing spaces in new apartment buildings, so residents will still have access to a car even if they don't have their own. If Montgomery County ever decides to expand Capital Bikeshare, the developer could pay for a station here.

And the developer could offer some sort of discount or incentive for Holy Cross employees to live there, allowing hospital workers to live a short walk from their jobs.

No matter the approach, there are a lot of ways to build in Forest Glen without creating additional traffic. A creative approach can do wonders for the area's profile and elevate the quality of life for residents there.

Parking


Top 6 reasons a parking garage near 14th and U is a bad idea

Some are pushing for a municipal parking garage on S Street, NW near 14th Street. To break even, such a garage would need to charge $3.51 to $4.33 per hour. What if it didn't have to break even? Should taxpayers subsidize a parking garage here?


Photo by Michael Kappel on Flickr.

Many cities do subsidize parking, often heavily. They often believe, rightly or wrongly, that unless public money contributes to making it easy for people in cars to drive and park in the area cheaply, then businesses won't thrive.

But a publicly-subsdized parking facility is not the answer for the 14th and U corridors. Here are the top 6 reasons this is not the right solution to Logan Circle's and U Street parking.

1. The area is doing great without it.

A presentation touting the garage proposal says that "Cultural and retail uses have led to the vibrant, walkable neighborhood we enjoy. However they also rely on a significant number of visitors to succeed." Does this argument really hold water for the Logan Circle and U Street area?

In his column supporting the concept, Roger Lewis writes that "the neighborhood around 14th and P hums with activity around the clock." In fact, restaurants on 14th Street are mostly full night after night, and the most popular ones have an hours-long wait or a weeks-long line for reservations.

It certainly seems like there is no shortage of people going to the businesses on the 14th and U Street corridors. That's not to say that some people couldn't benefit from adding even more subsidized parking beyond the existing free spaces on residential streets, but it probably wouldn't affect businesses' health or tax revenue for the neighborhood.

Some, like people with disabilities, have a particular claim to need help getting to an area, which is why DC has rightly proposed dedicating some meters for disability parking. For a lot of other folks, it seems this would just be a subsidy to make it cheaper to get to an area that doesn't really need it, and which they can still drive to, for a cost.

2. It won't solve residential parking frustration.

As we discussed in the last part, people will often bypass a pay garage to park on the street when street parking is free. Today, people can park for free on one side of every residential street near 14th and U during evenings and weekends.

So long as that is true, people are going to circle for neighborhood parking. Besides, for almost all destinations along 14th and U, nearby residential blocks are much closer than this garage would be. The bottom line is that adding supply is not going to make local streets clear and easy to park on. The moment they are easy to park on, people will park on them for free!

3. It might not even fill up.

In Columbia Heights, the large DC USA garage continues to go largely empty, even though it costs just $1.50 an hour. Parking remains scarce on many nearby blocks, for exactly the reason above: the street parking is far easier to find and more convenient.

DC would run a serious risk of building an expensive garage and then finding it largely unused.

4. It will have significant downsides to the neighborhood.

A garage would draw a lot more traffic to the area. That traffic would be particularly bad on S Street, but also bad in the rest of the neighborhood. If people didn't park on neighborhood streets, then a lot of traffic from people circling would go away, but there's every reason to believe that this garage wouldn't stop on-street parking.

5. There are much better ways to deal with parking.

It would be technically simple to require that anyone from outside the neighborhood parking here use the pay-by-phone system (or an alternative for those who can't use it) to pay a rate for parking that equalizes supply and demand.

Plus, on-street parking has another advantage: you can park a block or two from your destination, instead of always having to park at 13th and S.

Lewis mentions a shuttle from the parking garage, but there already is a Circulator from the Metro at McPherson Square and from the corner of 14th and U, a block from the U Street station. For those who can't walk from the Metro, the garage might be a little closer, but it would save only at most 2 blocks.

Karina Ricks, of Nelson\Nygaard, said that another approach some cities like Asheville have taken is to set up shared valet parking systems. People can drop their cars off at one or more fixed locations, and valets will park the cars. This would save restaurants from all having to staff their own valets.

Where would the cars go? Perhaps to some of the buildings that have garages but only open them up during the day. The valet provider could reach a deal with these buildings to use the garage at night. And if only valets are parking there, it wouldn't be necessary to staff each garage.

6. There are better uses of land here.

Any proposal to have the city provide cheap land always needs to be weighed against what else could go on the land. Housing would actively bring in tax revenue, as opposed to a parking garage which would burn through money. With public land, the District's policy has been to seek affordable housing, which could help more people of lower incomes live in this booming area.

Plus, existing residents probably would much rather live near residences than a large parking garage. Even if the garage were underground, it would generate a lot of traffic and diminish the value of whatever could go on top, or cut down on the amount of affordable housing that DC could get in a bidding process for the land.

But if someone wants to pay for some land, build a garage which isn't an eyesore or a source of unnecessary noise, or build some parking underneath a new building to sell to the public, that could be okay. But this isn't happening, which is why some nearby businesses are hoping the government will subsidize parking. That's not a good investment.

Parking


Hey reporters: There are good people you can call for stories about parking tickets in addition to just AAA

The city is full of cherry blossoms, and the media full of stories about parking tickets based on AAA Mid-Atlantic press releases. While eating up the juicy statistics AAA gets from FOIA requests, too many reporters also swallow AAA's policy conclusions and don't get other points of view.


Photo by John M on Flickr.

The latest example is a story this morning in the Washington Post about how DC's parking ticket revenue has decreased, thanks to new smartphone apps that help people park legally.

AAA's John Townsend II says the number of tickets in DC is "a phenomenal pace to nearly three times the city's estimated populace of 646,449 persons. That's three parking tickets for every man, woman and child in the city. It's the upshot of high demand for far too few spaces and the confusing signage that bedevils drivers."

Comparing the number of tickets to DC's population is misleading, since DC's daytime population is over one million. And over an entire year, far, far more people than 650,000 come to DC.

I don't really disagree that the signage is confusing and could be a lot better. (Just look at these signs, which a ticket writer even misinterpreted and wrote an erroneous ticket).


Townsend and I would agree this is really confusing. Photos from the 800 block of 17th Street, NW.

But is this "the upshot of ... far too few spaces?"

A lot of people would disagree with that. The District is simply never going to be the kind of city where parking is extremely plentiful and cheap downtown. Some American cities are. Those cities tend to have large swaths of desolate downtown streetscapes in districts that are empty a lot of the time. Those spaces drag down the economic strength of many cities' downtowns.

These "parking craters" can be so bad that that Streetsblog just ran a March Madness-style tournament to choose the worst downtown parking. DC is fortunate to have a thriving, mixed-use downtown without such gaping holes and a lot of transportation choices.

Some people drive and park. That's fine. But it's not physically possible to have a city with all of that activity and also enough space for everyone to bring a car which they park on the street or in a surface lot. This is simple geometry, since the cars are larger than the people. Underground parking isn't cheap, and many people get tickets because they don't want to shell out for the garage.

It's not so easy to capture this in a sound bite as "people are getting tickets! Lots of them, OMG! That's because we need more parking!" But it's more true.

I hate tickets, too

I'm not pro-tickets. I don't think the District should be counting on ticket revenue in its budget and am very happy that tickets are declining. It would be fantastic for technology to help people know how to park legally.

I got a ticket last year when I parked on the street around the corner from my house while we needed someone else to use our parking space. I came back a few days later and found that mere hours after I parked, a nearby building put up those "Emergency No Parking" signs for tree pruning, and the required 72 hours had elapsed. I was just about an hour too late to avoid not only getting a ticket but an extra fee for having my car towed one block away. Aargh!

It would have been terrific to have an app that could know my car location, check it against some open database of temporary and permanent parking restrictions, and notify me when my legal space is going to turn illegal. Maybe one day someone will build that.

Call these people!

Meanwhile, if reporters want to write a story about parking tickets, they should go ahead and cite AAA statistics all they want, but if they're also going to print John Townsend's opinion about how the District needs to revamp its built environment, how about also calling someone else?

Off the top of my head, there's:

  • Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth
  • Marlene Berlin of the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council
  • Barbara McCann with the Complete Streets Coalition Correction: McCann has recently moved to US DOT, so she is probably not available for comment on AAA press releases.
  • Neha Bhatt with Smart Growth America
  • For anything about bicycling, Shane Farthing or Greg Billing at WABA
All would be great people to call for anything about parking or photo enforcement or to respond to pretty much any AAA press release, campaign, or gripe of the day.

I'd be happy to send any reporter these folks' phone numbers. Just drop me a line.

Taxis


Cheh's DDOT reorganization: Who makes the plans and sets the priorities for transportation?

Councilmember Mary Cheh wants to split up the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and reorganize transportation-related functions in the government. Is this a good idea? Many of you responded positively to her proposals around taxis and parking, but worried about splitting transit away from the rest of transportation.


Photo by JK Keller on Flickr.

Would such a split create turf battles around how to use each road? Who decides what gets priority for scarce road space and limited funding? These are questions that the plan will have to answer as it evolves, if it's to improve transportation in DC.

Taxi, parking proposals preliminarily popular

The Taxicab Commission seems to serve two roles: deciding policy around how taxis work, and licensing and monitoring taxis. Cheh wants to move the policy and regulatory role into the new District Transit Agency, and move licensing into the Department of Motor Vehicles. Most of you thought that was smart.

For parking, most of our commenters felt it made sense to consolidate the three parking-related functions into one place. Right now, DDOT sets parking policy and rules, DPW writes the tickets, and DMV enforces them. A few people worried about one agency being "judge, jury, and executioner" (according to Cheh, that fear is a reason the functions were split in the past), but most of you feel that with parking functions all in one place, DC will be able to manage parking more adeptly.

But who defines the priorities and plans?

One area that caused the most concern was also an area Cheh's proposal hasn't thoroughly fleshed out: Who decides the purpose of each street, and how to prioritize projects? In short, who plans our transportation network?

Right now, even a unified DDOT does not have a good answer to this question. It has a planning group, which can make lots of long-term and short-term plans, but those planners then have to hand plans over to the engineers, who primarily control the capital budgets and the projects themselves. The engineering group often decides to change or ignore a plan, even one that has gone through a lot of community input.

Also, the bicycle and pedestrian programs are part of planning. You'd think that the bike planners could plan for where a bike facility goes and what type to use, hand it to the engineers. Then they would design the specific details of that project and build it. But as Shane Farthing has documented, that doesn't happen.

Farthing wrote, "In theory, PPSA [the planning group] plans and IMPA [the engineerng group] implements. That, however, assumes that PPSA also has the authority to set the order of priority for IPMA's implementation. It does not." Instead, the planners actually manage most bicycle projects from start to finish.

It's not just bikes. There are no project managers working on implementing bus lanes right now. Meanwhile, there is a whole group of people in IPMA (the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative) dedicated to building bridges and roads around the Anacostia River, so those projects keep happening, even if (as with the Southeast Boulevard) what they design doesn't fit with community desire or the mayor's sustainability plans.

Who decides under Cheh's plan?

A lot of you worried about how this would work in Cheh's new organization. There would now be a "transit" authority that has control over transit, taxi policy, and Capital Bikeshare. Cheh's diagram places "multimodal planning" in this bucket as well.

Would the District Transit Agency decide which streets get a streetcar, a bus lane, a bike lane, a truck route, wider sidewalks, and so on? How does that agency then ensure that the rump DDOT carries out its requests? Which agency prioritizes capital projects, the DTA or DDOT?

If DDOT, then wouldn't DDOT just keep picking and choosing its own priorities and largely ignoring the DTA? If the DTA, is that still really a transit agency, or is it now more of a Transportation Commission and DDOT just a construction department? And then, why not just make DDOT part of DPW or the Department of General Services once more?

If the DTA is still just transit, would you get turf wars between the two about whether to put a transit line or something else on a road? Already, a big obstacle to projects like bus lanes is that WMATA wants to speed up buses, but DDOT might have other ideas for the same roadway, or want to put dollars elsewhere. Will this continue?

Plus, DDOT is an official state Department of Transportation. Every state has to have one, and that's the agency which receives federal money and works with the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration. One agency has to define what goes into the regional Comprehensive Long-Range Plan. If DDOT plays this role, then DDOT is still in the driver's seat about overall transportation priorities, but with less responsibility for "multimodal planning."

Here's what you said

A lot of you worried about this issue.

Abigail Zenner wrote, "I worry about more siloing, turf wars, and not treating all street users equally."

MLD wrote:

Splitting off transit, bikeshare and multimodal planning and making that a separate agency on the level with DDOT could lead to problems. First, it can make each side more entrenchedDDOT will now be "roads and highways." You'll have one agency making the plans and another agency tasked with putting those plans in place. Which plans will get priorityDDOT's or the "multimodal" plans?

There is also a big benefit to be gained from having the agency that controls the streets and the agency that plans for transit be the same thing. Especially with how transit-focused the city should be, the transit agency shouldn't have to go begging to the roads people to get plans implemented.

Also, if you are going to create an independent board, go whole-hog and just make it a transportation board in charge of the whole thing.

fonfong echoed the same concern.
Having the bike/transit stuff in a place different than roadway stuff seems to be a recipe to repeat the same dynamic. I'd prefer that it not take an act of Congress, or in this case the new Authority's board, to force the road folks to implement new infrastructure changes.
jeff said, "Given how difficult it has been for the multimodal planners to coordinate their efforts with other divisions within DDOT I imagine that moving them to a different agency is going to simply make that worse."

Jasper wrote, "The problem with breaking up a large institution is that you break up the complexity of scale with walls that people will hide behind, causing conflicts between the different agencies. See the issues with parking. "

BTA said, "Separating cars from "everything else transportation" is only going to further the disconnect in planning for multimodal systems."

What could work?

A lot of you were skeptical about splitting up transportation, but it's not a foregone conclusion that a transit agency wouldn't work. However, at the very least, there needs to be a very clear answer about who sets priorities.

Another possibility, Cheh's staff say, is putting planning into the Office of Planning. That could strengthen that agency, or it could create even more seams between agencies. One obstacle: OP is right now under economic development, making its planning still subordinate to other objectives. Fixing that is possible and even desirable, but would require a larger-scale reorganization (and multiple council committees).

Cheh's staff say that they are hoping the public input process and working group meetings deal with these kinds of questions. That's fine, as long as there is a clear answer by the end, or they are willing to lengthen the process until this is firmly resolved. If transit splits off but this problem isn't fixed, then transportation planning in DC could get much worse, not better.

This is an issue that needs fixing, regardless. A conversation about reorganization can present a great chance to solve this problem. Maybe reorganization would also spur actual change in a way that wouldn't otherwise. But this part of the reorganization can only be worthwhile if we know the new structure will create a clearer chain of command from plans to action.

Parking


A municipal parking garage for 14th and U? It would not come cheap

A number of businesses and residents around 14th and U Streets are interested in trying to create a municipal parking garage in a large government-owned parcel on S Street. Is this a good use of the land? What if it cost $4 an hour, or required heavy subsidies from the DC budget?


Image from Bing Maps.

The DC Department of Parks and Recreation now uses the property, 1325 S Street NW, to park vehicles and for other service uses. Proponents of a municipal parking garage suggest an above-ground parking structure lined with retail or residential, or an underground garage with buildings or a park on top.

But those advocating for the garage assert that it would pay for itself. Based on a quick analysis based on numbers from parking experts, it seems likely that such a garage would have to charge $3.50-4.50 per hour just to break even.

Do those supporting this garage idea realize that would be necessary? Or, if a garage would require significant ongoing subsidies to operate, is there a good reason to spend public money on making parking cheaper in the hot Logan Circle and U Street area?


Image from the DC Zoning Map.

A committee of Logan Circle's ANC 2F heard a presentation on the concept in January, as did ANC 1B in March. The concept is getting support as a part of a larger effort to establish a Business Improvement District for the area, and the JBG Companies, which owns a lot of properties nearby, has given $150,000 to help set up the BID.

A lot of the impetus is coming from the Studio Theatre at 14th and P, which, the presentation said, saw "significant reductions in their show subscribers and customer base, largely due to the lack of available public parking."

Arguments for the garage

Recently, many residential blocks in the area got the "red sign" parking restrictions that limit parking on one side of each street to residents with the appropriate ward sticker (1 or 2, depending on where in the area you're talking about). That has made parking easier for residents (or people driving in from places like Mount Pleasant or Georgetown in the same wards) but even scarcer for others.

The presentation to ANC 2F claims that there are not many buildings with "abundant nighttime parking" in the area, and that "case studies of many great urban areas show how centrally-located public parking facilities solve transportation issues and spur economic development (locally, including Clarendon, Bethesda, and Shirlington)."

Architect Roger Lewis praised the idea in a recent column for the Washington Post, where he suggested cities need a "flexible approach" to parking. He said,

Along 14th Street for several blocks north of P, public parking is a scarce and expensive commodity. Moreover, the nearest Red Line and Green Line Metro stations are a half mile or more away, just far enough to be a challenging walk for older folks, for people with disabilities and for parents with very young children in tow. ...

Either the city or a parking garage operator could construct and manage the garage, which would be self-financing. From such a garage, people could comfortably walk or hop on a local shuttle to reach their destinations.

How much would this cost?

Is this a good idea? Certainly parking is often difficult in the area. If one could make parking easier, without any costs or tradeoffs at all, that's not a bad thing. But it's always important to understand the proposal clearly.

There are plenty of arguments to be made about the garage. I will get into most of those in part 2. First, we need to talk about cost. How much would this cost the DC government? How much would people pay to park? Often in these discussions, people make assumptions that turn out not to be true. Let's delve into them.

Lewis suggests a garage would be "self-financing." What does that mean? Does it mean that a private company could afford to buy the land at market price, build a garage, run it, and break even? (Probably not, because if that's true someone would probably have done it).

Does it mean that the city would lease the land for free to the operator, who would then build a garage and maintain it? Or would the city have to pay for a garage which then an operator could maintain?

Many suggestions to build parking (like the National Coalition to Save Our Mall's proposal for the National Mall) assert that garages will pay for themselves, but often without numbers to back up the assertion.

Fortunately, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has some detailed research on the cost of parking structures. Their report estimates that an urban parking garage costs about $18,000 per space to construct, and $600 per space per year to maintain. Karina Ricks of Nelson\Nygaard says DC has higher costs than around the county, so $20,000 would be a better estimate.

If a property pays no taxes, therefore, the annualized cost of construction per space, plus maintenance, is $1,569 to $1,744 at a 6% interest rate. With operating costs, that's $181-195 per space per month. Already, this rivals the cost one would pay for an off-street space in the neighborhood, meaning that the revenue from parking is unlikely to even pay for just constructing and maintaining this garage.

Plus, we haven't even talked about land. This property is about 2 acres. The square to the west, once you get past the commercial area right along 14th, has about 120 townhouses in 5.74 acres. The property assessment database shows that DC assesses the land for each townhouse at $400-500,000, so at an average of $450,000 per townhouse, that's $9.4 million in land value per acre in this area, comparable to what VTPI lists for center cities in most of the country.

For a 4-level parking structure of 130 spaces per level, that's $36,000 more in land costs per space; for a smaller 3-level garage, it would be over $48,000. That adds $263-$351 per month to the parking cost.


Image from the ANC presentation.

Oh, and that's just if the garage is above ground. Move it underground, and your construction cost skyrockets. Ricks says DC construction costs usually run around $60,000, or $5,231 per space. That makes the monthly cost per space about $486 per month with operating costs, even if you ignore the cost of the land entirely. You can do that to some extent because you can still build something else on top of the garage, though that building then becomes more expensive, and having a commercial garage below diminishes the value of whatever can be built there.

The price per hour to break even is...

How much would the garage have to charge per hour to recoup these costs? Ricks said that a very generous estimate would assume the garage averages 70% full each day over an 8-hour peak period of 4 pm to midnight.

This assumes the garage is totally full at the busiest times, like Saturday at 8 pm, tapering off toward the edges with low occupancy on weeknights at 5 or 11 pm. There will be little if any revenue from the daytime in this area, which has few offices except the Reeves Center, which has its own garage.

If Sundays and holidays stay free, that is 270 days per year. With the numbers from above, the garage would have to charge $3.52 to $4.33 per hour just to recoup its costs, whether it is underground or above ground.

You can see all of the math and calculations on this spreadsheet (XLS).


Image from the ANC presentation.

Would people really park in the garage?

So, we've got a parking garage which costs $3.50 or $4 an hour to park in. To go to 14th or U for dinner, that would set you back maybe $10-15. The presentation to ANC 2F CDC suggests that a garage would "relieve parking pressure on nearby streets and reduce circling." That's only true if it is considerably more desirable than parking on the street.

Right now, it's not. At night, it's free to park on the side of the street which isn't reserved for residents of the ward. Lots of people (including myself) circle for long periods of time in Georgetown to find free spaces or cheap metered spaces even though there is pay parking, because the cost is so different.

If this garage has to pay for itself, it would provide some parking, but that probably wouldn't be cheap enough to dissuade people from trying for a street space. We could change the on-street policies to charge more of a market rate there, but then would a garage be necessary?

For those who don't want to circle, there are businesses with valet parking on 14th and U already. Le Diplomate, for instance, has valet parking for $12. It seems that there are options to park if you are willing to pay a market rate, and building a garage wouldn't lower the market rate.

One problem with many of these parking proposals is that they assume, on the cost side, that the garage would make so much revenue to not cost the public anything, but on the other hand they assume that the parking is cheap enough to not cost the public much there either. It can't be both.

Cost isn't the only reason to build or not build a garage. In the next part, we'll look at other arguments for and against the proposal.

Government


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.

Process

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.

Government


Maryland occupies, intends to annex disputed District of Columbia territories

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley seized on instability in the small but strategic territory of Columbia today, where local elections could return a controversial leader, who may face indictment, back to power.


Photo by Michael Hilton on Flickr.

Maryland-based construction contractors demanding access to District government projects and to the Fort Totten dump led columns of untagged pickup trucks over the District line this morning. College Park students, also believed to be acting on O'Malley's orders, have rallied at District polling places to demand a referendum on the territory's status, chanting "There is no State of Columbia!"

The Marylanders took over several recreation centers and library buildings in Wards 4 and 5, raising purple and black Ravens flags and demanding the territories be "returned" after being illegally "taken" from Maryland in 1801.

Pro-Maryland forces moved as far as DC USA and the Rhode Island Avenue Home Depot by early afternoon. At a press conference, O'Malley justified the move, citing "chaos" in the District and alleged mistreatment of Marylanders. Grievances were not limited to contractor rights. "Sunday church parishioners arriving from Prince George's County have been pushed out of their traditional parking lands by bike lane fascists," he claimed.

Embattled District Mayor Vincent Gray asserted there was no pretext for the incursion, and that his administration stopped enforcing parking bans around churches months ago.

O'Malley also promised that no commuters driving into the city would have to face discrimination on the basis of whether they chose to pay at a meter or not, whether they obeyed posted time limits or not, or for leaving parked cars in rush hour restricted lanes.

Tensions remain high as O'Malley appears poised to encroach further into the District from the south, with still greater Maryland forces amassing at Town Centers in Largo, Westphalia, and National Harbor. An analyst with the Coordination Strategy Group (CSG), a defense contractor, said the formations were suspicious. The analyst, Carol Chort, said, "These should be lifeless places. But we're seeing levels of pedestrian activity at these Town Centers that our models would have never predicted, even under ideal busway conditions."

Gray's rivals for power were trying to capitalize on events as they unfolded. Councilmember Jack Evans claimed credit for keeping Maryland forces out of Ward 2, citing the hordes of gentry he had mobilized on 14th Street NW at happy hour to dissuade further incursions with the area's notorious $14 cocktails.

Meanwhile, fellow rival Muriel Bowser said that while she had no specific comment on the merits of annexation at this tme, she promised residents she would fight hard against applying Maryland's laxer zoning restrictions and lack of a height limit to occupied Ward 4 territory.

At his press conference, O'Malley brimmed with confidence. "There is no ethnic or linguistic distinction between Marylanders and our District brothers. We will free them from corruption and taxation without representation." He concluded, "Under my decisive leadership, I am confident we can extend the Green Line all the way to Maryland Live! Casino in Arundel Mills by 2024."

Development


Takoma Metro development proposal is a real compromise

For more than 10 years, we've discussed what kind of development at the Takoma Metro station would make this station a lively, safer place. A new plan for a residential building does just that, while offering a compromise to neighbors concerned about open space and parking.


Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Since 2000, WMATA has attempted to develop the area around the Takoma station. Last year, developer EYA proposed building about 200 apartments on a surface parking lot. The building would have 3 stories on Eastern Avenue and step up to 4 toward the train tracks. It would replace most of the parking, only about half of which is used at one time.

The plan keeps the existing 2.5 acre green space open, and offers some enhancements to make it more usable. The proposed building and residents overlooking the site will help foster a safer, more pedestrian-friendly environment by orienting the building to the bus drive, with entrances and windows facing the lane. Previous plans for live-work units or retail space have been dropped because of the weak market for retail at the site.

A 2006 plan that later stalled out offered about 90 townhouses and a one acre village green, but no replacement for the Metro parking, which is only for short term use. While the attractive townhouse and inviting village green were worth pursuing, I always thought this site would be better for an apartment building.


Image from EYA.

Then and now, some neighbors in both Takoma and the adjacent city of Takoma Park, which sits across Eastern Avenue, have opposed the project. In 2006, both supporters and opponents gave the developer grief about building homes with 2-car garages at a Metro station. But many critics also said that WMATA should replace all of the existing parking, in addition to preserving the whole 2.5 acre open space in front of the station and adding more bus bays.

The new plan responds to nearly all of the major criticisms, while at the same time more than doubling the amount of housing originally proposed. Now, opponents mostly object to the potential building's height, even though it is on a block with other 3-story apartment buildings, all of which face single-family houses.

The proposal's modest scale is in sync with the downtown district's eclectic variety of buildings. EYA has already agreed to make the building shorter and reduce the number of units from 266.

At a March 13 WMATA committee meeting about the project, the board members incorporated amendments that the city of Takoma Park requested into its resolution to move the project forward. This Thursday, the WMATA Board will vote on an agreement with EYA to pursue the project, and to hold an official public hearing.

If WMATA approves the project, it will go to the DC Zoning Commission, which will have an opportunity to refine the design in its review process. Neighbors will have ample opportunity to raise their concerns about any aspect of the proposal then.

Like with any proposal, there is room for more improvement. The proposal offers much less parking for residents than before, which makes sense for a site next to a Metro station. But it could be lower still, since this is the transit agency's land and the point is to build housing for more transit customers.

The new proposal offers residential parking at about 0.7 spaces per unit, down from 1.5 to 2 spaces per unit in the townhouse proposal. It would be sensible for WMATA to require that developers on their property to build less parking and offer their residents incentives to ride transit and use carsharing. That makes it easier to market the building to transit-oriented households who rely much less on personal cars.

The other important way the WMATA Board could improve this project is to honor the DC Council's 2002 request that 20% of any housing at this site be set aside for households making 30%, 60%, and 80% of the area median income. This is still the right commitment for a property that the public transit agency and District of Columbia control, and our need for more affordable housing has only grown in the intervening years.

It's been a long time coming, but this proposal for the Takoma Metro station will make downtown Takoma a better place for everyone. It will help a greater number of people use transit, have daily access to local shopping, and live with a lower carbon footprint. This is exactly where our region should be growing, and where we can accommodate more people who seek a transit-oriented lifestyle.

If you agree, ask the WMATA Board to move ahead with this project. Click here to let them know.

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