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Development


Prince George's adopts "Sprawl Plan 2035" over community objections

It was supposed to be different this time. Prince George's County's new general plan was supposed to embrace a bold new vision for a more sustainable and transit-oriented growth strategy. Instead, the county chose to cling to its old, failed approach of mouthing platitudes of support for walkable urban development around transit while actively facilitating suburban sprawl far from transit.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

County residents and smart growth advocates feared this when planners released a draft of Plan Prince George's 2035, the updated countywide comprehensive plan for long-term growth and development, last fall. The draft placed too much emphasis on sprawl.

It ignored the revitalization needs of most inner-Beltway communities and downplayed neighborhood Metro stations. At the same time, the preliminary plan supported massive greenfield development outside the Beltwayboth at mixed-use "suburban centers" like Konterra and Westphalia, and also in scattered single-family residential subdivisions.

Each subsequent revision of the plan only made matters worse. When the Planning Board adopted its version of the plan in March, it added hundreds of acres to the exiting suburban Bowie Regional Center, which was already too disconnected from transit.

Likewise, when the County Council approved its version of the general plan earlier this month, it removed hundreds of additional acres of woodlands from the rural preservation area and placed them into the "established communities" area, making them eligible for further sprawl development. The council also added language specifically endorsing automobile-oriented suburban "town centers," stating they "help[ed] fulfill countywide goals."

Planners and council members rebuffed calls for TOD fixes to plan

When planners held their first town hall meeting about Plan Prince George's last June, they appeared committed to a strategy of picking 3 Metro station areas as "downtowns" and focusing most of their energies at those stations.

But when the preliminary plan draft finally emerged, it did not seriously put weight behind directing more growth to those downtowns and less to areas far from transit.

When the preliminary draft plan went before the Planning Board for review in March, more than 100 citizens and public officials from across the county signed a petition urging county officials to reconsider the land use priorities in the preliminary plan.

Among the petition's signatories were Maryland State Senator Joanne Benson, Capitol Heights Mayor Kito James, Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant, Forest Heights Mayor Jacqueline Goodall, and a host of civic leaders representing all 9 council districts. The Planning Board ignored these pleas and forwarded its sprawl-enhanced version of the plan to the County Council for approval on March 6.

Led by council members Ingrid Turner (District 4) and Derrick Leon Davis (District 6), the County Council chose to maintain the build-anywhere-you-want culture that has left the county with the least-developed and least-profitable Metro station areas in the region. The lone dissenter was outgoing District 3 council member Eric Olson.

In the end, Plan Prince George's 2035 embodies the same undisciplined, sprawl-centered approach that planners cautioned against. While the plan says many good things about why the county should focus on developing its transit stations and reinvigorating its older communities, it ultimately allows and encourages uncontrolled growth away from transit and outside the Beltway. As such, it does not improve much upon the previous 2002 general plan.

Fortunately, the county does not have to wait another decade to right this wrong. Any future master plan or small-area sector plan can amend the general plan as it relates to that specific planning area. But to realize that opportunity, the county needs council members who are serious about focusing on smart growth.

A version of this post originally appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.

Events


Events roundup: Forums, freight, and financing

This week, learn about infrastructure and support smart growth advocacy. Next week, weigh in on projects that will make communities better in DC, Arlington, and Alexandria. And enjoy the nice weather, get outdoors, and explore the Washington region with more walking tours.


Photo by Loco Steve on Flickr.

CSG Livable Communities Leadership Award: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's annual awards ceremony is an important way for all of us to support smart growth advocacy and honor people who have made a difference.

This year, CSG will be honoring Arlington County Board Chairman Walter Tejada for his work supporting transit, revitalization, and affordable housing on Columbia Pike, and upper Northwest's Ward 3 Vision which pushes to make Ward 3's neighborhoods more walkable and sustainable.

Tickets are $125 and go toward furthering the goals many of us share on this blog. The reception is Thursday, May 15, 6:30-8:30 at Epic Studio, 1323 Connecticut Avenue, NW. Buy your tickets here.

Infrastructure Week, 2014 is this week, May 12-16. Join the US Council on Competitiveness, US Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, and the Brookings Institution for a week-long discussion of our nation's infrastructure. Topics will include transportation, freight movement, and water management. Below are several highlights of the 20 events happening this week:

  • Funding and financing America's infrastructure, Tuesday, May 13 from 9-11 am.
  • Bridging the financing gap panel discussion, Wednesday, May 14, from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm.
  • Forum on high speed train technology, Wednesday, May 14, from 2:30-4 pm.
  • Economic impact of transit investment, Thursday, May 15, from 12:30-2 pm.
Check out the Infrastructure Week website for the full calendar and for registration infofmration. Plus, Young Professionals in Transportation is having an Infrastructure Week happy hour on Wednesday, May 14, 6-8 pm at the Brixton, 901 U Street NW.

Great spaces: What makes a great space? Listen to experts from the Urban Land Institute, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Arlington County Center for Urban Design and Research, and the Coalition for Smarter Growth talk about the benefits of "great spaces" at the 2014 State of Affordable Housing talk. The talk is Wednesday, May 14 from 4:30-7:30 pm at the Walter Reed Community Center (2909 16th St South) in Arlington. Go here to RSVP.

CSG walking tours: The Coalition for Smarter Growth is leading three more Saturday walking tours over the next month. Next up: Twinbrook, on May 17, Pentagon City, on May 31, and H Street NE, on June 7. Come hear about the past and future of these changing neighborhoods while enjoying some spring sunshine.

  • Saturday, May 17: Visit the Twinbrook Metro station and see how a community is taking shape on an area that used to be an expanse of parking lots.
  • Saturday, May 31: Come hear about how recent development projects are transforming Pentagon City into a community that is more than a mall.
  • Saturday, June 7: Explore H Street NE and learn about one of DC's most rapidly changing neighborhoods. Plus, get the scoop on the latest addition to the community: the DC Streetcar.
All of the CSG walking tours run from 10-noon. These events fill up quickly, so RSVP to secure a spot!

MLK library renovation forum: The DC Public Library is exploring renovation options for its central facility, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and is looking to the community for input. The architect team of Martinez & Johnson and Mecanoo will host a public forum to present preliminary design ideas on Monday, May 19 from 6-7 pm at the MLK library (901 G Street NW).

Arlington Transit forum: Give Arlington's government your input on transit service at a public meeting from 7-9 pm on Monday, May 19 at the Arlington Mill Community Center, 909 South Dinwiddie Street. If you can't make it, you can take an online survey to give your feedback.

Monroe Avenue, a complete street: Alexandria wants to redesign Monroe Avenue in Del Ray to calm traffic and better accommodate bicyclists. Officials will present options and hear from residents on Tuesday, May 20, 6-8 pm at Commonwealth Academy on Leslie Avenue.

Have an event for the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Email it to events@ggwash.org.

Parking


Thousands of public parking spaces in Bethesda and Silver Spring sit empty every day

Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: "There's nowhere to park!" But as those communities have grown, their parking demands have actually gotten lower. On an average day, thousands of spaces there sit empty.


Montgomery's downtowns have lots of empty parking spaces. Image by the author using data from MCDOT.

This Friday, transportation planner Tom Brown and I will talk about parking and placemaking at Makeover Montgomery II, a conference about strategies for urbanizing suburban communities organized by the Montgomery County Planning Department and the University of Maryland. In 2011, Brown led a team at Nelson\Nygaard, where I now work, that recommended ways Montgomery County could better use its parking to promote and strengthen its downtowns.

Montgomery County has had its own municipal parking authority since the 1940s. A 1952 spread in the Washington Post's "Silver Spring Advertiser" section boasted, "Look at all the parking space!" in downtown. But downtown Silver Spring couldn't match the sea of free parking at new suburban malls like Wheaton Plaza, and it began to languish.


1952 Washington Post article about all the parking in Silver Spring.

Many communities around the country faced the same story, especially older suburban communities that have more in common with revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods than in greenfield developments on the fringe. Yet these older suburban communities often have the power of place: unique, local shops and businesses, walkable streets, and vibrant public spaces. Today, people will eagerly deal with the hassle of parking to visit places like this and, increasingly, to live in them.

When Silver Spring started competing on place, not parking, it started to take off as an urban destination for the entire region. And a funny thing happened: as more homes and offices and shops were built around the Metro station, filling downtown's gaps and vacant lots, the demand for parking actually decreased.

According to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the demand for parking in Silver Spring actually peaked in the early 1980s, when it had fewer residents and jobs. Today, a majority of downtown residents get to work without a car. Over 40% of downtown's 9500 parking spaces are vacant all the time.

Realizing that its parking policies needed to reflect how people actually got around in its downtowns, county officials asked Nelson\Nygaard to offer suggestions. The resulting Montgomery County Parking Policy Study recommended reducing or eliminating parking requirements in urban areas, since there was already a glut of parking spaces, and finding ways to direct drivers to underused lots and garages.


Focusing on people, not cars, makes downtown a more attractive place to go. Photo by the author.

Officials are starting to take the advice. Last year, the county passed a new zoning code that still mandates parking in new developments near transit stations, but requires far fewer spaces than it does for more suburban, car-dependent areas. That will conserve land and reduce building costs, as structured parking garages are very expensive to build lowering the barrier for potential residents and businesses who want to come here.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has introduced demand-based pricing in Bethesda, setting higher rates for on-street parking spaces and lowering them in garages to encourage drivers to park there instead. This frees up on-street spaces for drivers staying for brief periods; reduces circling for a space, which causes congestion; and sends a message to drivers that they'll be able to find a space.

People will choose to live, work, and hang out in Montgomery County's downtowns not because it's easy to park there, but because they're great places to be. Some parking will be necessary, but these places will thrive if our community leaders focus on urban design and create complete streets that welcome everyone who already comes to Silver Spring or Bethesda by foot, bike, or transit.

Makeover Montgomery II runs from this Thursday through Saturday at the Silver Spring Civic Building in downtown Silver Spring. We'll be part of a panel discussion this Friday afternoon at 1:45 pm. For more information or to register, visit the conference website.

Events


Events roundup: Better buses on a budget

Talk about how to make bus service better, have a drink with Greater Greater Washington readers, and much more at this week's events.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Better buses in DC: There's long been talk about ways to make bus service better in DC, but some, like rush hour bus lanes on 16th Street, still haven't become a reality. On Wednesday, April 30 from 6-8 pm, a panel will discuss proposals for better bus service and what it takes to make them happen.

Speakers include Mary Cheh, DC councilmember and transportation committee chair; Joseph Barr, former Director of Transit Development in NYC; WMATA bus planner Jim Hamre; and Sam Zimbabwe, Associate Director of Policy, Planning, and Sustainability at DDOT. The forum is at the Chastleton, 1701 16th Street, NW. RSVP here.

After the jump: A happy hour in Bethesda, a walking tour of Falls Church, a chance to learn about biking with kids, and more.

Circulator pop-up meetings: There are still three chances to give DDOT feedback about the DC Circulator. As part of the system's Transit Development Plan update, there is a series of pop-up meetings to discuss the current system as well as future routes. Here are the remaining ones:

  • 14th and U St NW: Tuesday April 29 3:30-6:30 pm, Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center (2000 14th St NW)
  • Anacostia: Thursday May 1 3:30-6:30 pm, Anacostia Metro station
  • Georgetown: Saturday May 3 12-3 pm, M St NW & Wisconsin Ave NW
GGW happy hour: Also this Wednesday, join Greater Greater Washington, CNUDC, YIPPS, and guests from the Montgomery County Planning Department for a planning-and-drinking gathering where you can learn about the Bethesda Downtown Plan. The happy hour is 6-8 pm on April 30 at Tommy Joe's, 4717 Montgomery Lane, in Bethesda.

Tour of East Falls Church: The Coalition for Smarter Growth's walking tours continue this Saturday, May 3 with a look at East Falls Church. Come hear about the history of the neighborhood and learn what's being planned to make the area more walkable and bikeable. Space is limited so RSVP today!

Bike with the family: Do you have kids? Are you interested in learning how to safely bike with them around the city? The third annual "ABCs of Family Biking" event is Saturday, May 3, 11-2 at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan.

Family biking experts will show parents what equipment they might need, and local bike shops will have some for sale. Parents can try out equipment on a special obstacle course and can also trade or sell each other gently used equipment. WABA instructors will teach free classes for parents and kids to bike alone or together. And you can get in practice for Bike to School Day, Wednesday, May 7!

Open houses for Montgomery zoning update: The Montgomery County Planning Department's zoning update open houses resume on Tuesday, April 29. Planning staff will be available to discuss the updates. The full open house schedule is below:

  • April 29: Park and Planning Headquarters, Silver Spring (5-8 pm)
  • May 1: Marilyn J. Praisner Library, Burtonsville (6-8 pm)
  • May 5: UpCounty Regional Services Center, Germantown (6-8 pm)
  • May 6: B-CC Regional Services Center, Bethesda (6-8 pm)

History


Today's problems were visible decades ago, but zoning has blocked solutions ever since

No one could have foreseen that DC's zoning could push middle-class residents out of the District and force people to drive even to get milk, right? Actually, planners in 1970 warned of exactly of these dangers.

44 years ago, when Richard Nixon was president, the same consultants that noted outdated ideas at the root of DC's then-outdated zoning code foresaw other problems looming for the city.


Image from DDOT DC on Flickr.

The first Walter Washington admini­stration hired planning firm Barton-Aschman to examine the zoning code after the MLK assassination riots, urban renewal, the Metro, and freeway revolts. Planners greatly rethought their approaches after these seismic events.

Not all of Barton-Aschman's comments were negative, but they criticized the technocratic, autocentric attitude that underlay the 1958 zoning code. They found fault with the 1958 code's absolute separation of commercial and residential uses, which underlies the ban on corner stores.

They noted that the then-planned Metro system justified higher densities downtown and less reliance on automobiles. Finally, they anticipated that zoning restrictions made it hard to build enough housing for a growing city.

Barton-Aschman foresaw the problem with restricting housing supply

Studies for the 1958 code by its main author, a consultant named Harold Lewis, predicted that 870,000 people could live in DC under his zoning regimen. But that assumed large families and urban renewal instead of historic districts. The 1970 report says:

It is possible that zoning makes it difficult to develop new family-type housing units in the district, while also inhibiting the development of high-rise apartments which may be more attractive to single persons and families without children. ... If zoning helps deter population growth, is it contributing to an imbalanced society in the District?
They noted that these restrictions would push out the middle class, "leaving predominantly the rich and the poor of both races." They wrote that this is not a local fluke, but one that is recognizable nationwide:
The Douglas Commission has pointed out that existing codes and ordinances of major cities across the country deter the development of low-cost housing by private industry. Land is too expensive, parcels are to small, height and floor area ratios are too low, and density patterns are too restrictive to encourage modern, attractive, and livable low cost residential projects.
Aggressive downzoning, ostensibly to preserve urban character, exacerbated these problems during the 1980s. The report raised this concern, warning, "Local residents might stretch the zoning process to become exclusionary." The specter of explicit segregation was fresh in the public's memory, so they worried that the code might be abused to the same end.

Barton-Aschman realized that Metro changed everything

Barton-Aschman's 1970 report was blunt about how Metro would change the city:

Perhaps the metro system alone is a sufficiently important factor to justify a complete review of policies assumed in the 1956 Zoning Plan and reflected in the existing Zoning Regulations.
Lewis, meanwhile, saw his plan as an alternative to a mass transit system. At a public hearing on July 28th, 1956, he justified his plan:
Washington has, of course, a free choice as to which means of transportation it wishes to dominate the central city, ... no new transit system can possibly start operation for several years at the earliest, and it is therefore obvious that the [1958] zoning must be based on solid present trends and solid present fact.
Those trends? Declining transit ridership and the extensive network of highways that were soon to snake their way through Washington's neighborhoods.

In his published report, as well as the 20 public meetings held to discuss the plan, Lewis saw those highways as serving a second function, separating residential and commercial uses.

He saw the inner beltway as a great "dam" that would forever keep a shrunken downtown from bleeding into into residential neighborhoodsat least the ones that survived highway construction. Secondary arterials like Wisconsin Avenue in NW and Pennsylvania Avenue in SE would divide the city into residential cells, free of commerce.


Harold Lewis and NCPC imagined a Washington of nodes an neighborhoods.

Lewis tried to eradicate all corner stores

Lewis also saw corner stores as a blight, and proposed relocating all commercial activity to well-parked shopping centers, like the one in Spring Valley today. Residents could then drive down one of the major thoroughfares to the store.

Although Lewis had to introduce a Special Purpose (SP) mixed-use zone after the first round of comments, he still tried to force noncompliant uses like corner stores to close. The Zoning Advisory Commission decided that the enabling legislation didn't permit that. They agreed that separating uses was theoretically sound, but not politically feasible. Therefore, this attitude persists in the code's minutiae.


Recommended employment centers, from the Lewis report.

We don't know whether the authors at Barton-Aschmann would support the text of the proposed new zoning code as it was set down last September 9th. But we do know that they saw a lot wrong with the text we have now. We've known about those problems for decades; scouring the flawed assumptions and integrating the ad-hoc fixes is unavoidable to create a code for the 21st century.

History


Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza

Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

Tom writes that, "The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the 'grand axis of the Nation,' removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections."

From the Post article:

Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a "depressed street"a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.

At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.

Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...

Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.

Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, "it will not only look different but sound different" to motorists.

This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era's transportation mindset, L'Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what's best for the pedestrian experience.

A "depressed street" creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.

Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

What's now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn't seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it's hard to know how it might have worked.

It perhaps couldn't have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.

Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.

Public Spaces


A rural village plan will breathe new life into Sandy Spring

Sandy Spring could one day be a small, walkable community at the center of rural life in northeast Montgomery County, if all goes according to plan.


Rendering of the Sandy Spring rural village core by John Carter.

For 15 years, Sandy Spring residents asked for a plan to revitalize their rural village, which has gotten passed over as suburbanization swept the area. Montgomery County planners say a new open space, walkable main street, and some new housing and retail could turn things around.

Residents want new commercial establishments, coffee shops, and retail in the village center. As redevelopment takes place in the small community on Route 108 near New Hampshire Avenue, the changes will allow new mixed-use buildings located closer to the street to activate public space.


3D rendering of MD 108 and Brooke Road looking east. Rendering by MNCPPC.

The preliminary concepts encourage quality open space for public gatherings and community activities at the intersection of MD 108 and Brooke Road. As the historic center of Sandy Spring, the intersection is home to one of Maryland's oldest post offices. More public gathering space will strengthen civic engagement, create a sense of place, and generate opportunities for special events and festivals.


Sandy Spring streetscape rendering by John Carter.

Changes can also make the area more walkable. Today, the north side of MD 108 has no sidewalk and 90-degree parking in the right-of-way, requiring vehicles to back out into the road. Not only is the design dangerous, it creates traffic when village center activity increases.

Following the "Complete Streets" standard, there will be a wide, pedestrian-focused sidewalk and parallel parking. Bike lanes and improved pedestrian movements at intersections will give all users safe and equal access to the public space. These modifications are timely because Pepco is relocating its utilities underground in the area, further enhancing the corridor.

Over the last 10 years, many newer residents of varied income levels have also settled into the rural village. While these recent changes have increased competing interests and viewpoints, it is still a community founded on togetherness and communication.


Sandy Spring planning area and conceptual layout. Rendering by Roberto Duke.

Quakers established Sandy Spring in the early 18th century as a rural village based on communal exchange of ideas on social and political concerns, agriculture, and family. Today, many descendants of those Quaker families remain as their trademark brand of gentility still influences the town.

A high percentage of high-income residents own houses in the area. One quarter of households have incomes over $200,000, proving the town's potential for upscale business, specialty retail, and restaurants within the rural village.


Sandy Spring in the beginning.

Due to the uniqueness of Sandy Spring and the limited size of the planning area, Montgomery planners staff took a different approach to the planning process. In February, they held a four-day planning workshop in Sandy Spring focused on specific land use topics and time devoted to interacting with residents on their vision for the future of their village.

In other words, the heavily lifting of planning work was essentially done in four days. With the collaborative community vision of residents firmly in hand, staff developed illustrations and renderings in advance of recent community outreach meetings. The renderings are currently on display at the Sandy Spring Museum through April 2014.

Planners will develop a draft plan over the coming months with continued community follow-up and intend to have an adopted plan by April 2015.

If the Planning Board and then the Montgomery County Council adopt it, planners will quickly follow up with a sectional zoning amendment to rezone the property within the planning area. This will trigger the development and land use standards to implement the plan's vision.

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.

Government


DDOT director and chief engineer are leaving

A source in the DC government just passed along the news that District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Terry Bellamy and Chief Engineer Ronaldo "Nick" Nicholson are leaving the agency.


Bellamy and Nicholson are the two men in ties. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

We don't yet have information on exactly when they will leave, or where they are going. This is another step in what is likely to be a long string of high-profile departures. Nicholas Majett, head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs which enforces regulations, is also stepping down.

Under Bellamy's leadership, DDOT has not made progress on a lot of important initiativescycletracks, bus priority, residential parking, trails, and much more. Still, will this mean DDOT will achieve even less for the remaining nine months of Mayor Gray's term?

A lot will depend on who Gray picks to run the agency in the interim. He chose former planning director Ellen McCarthy to run the Office of Planning after Harriet Tregoning. McCarthy has had the job before, and knows the lay of the land (literally and figuratively). She did a good job under the Williams administration.

Planning will at the very least keep moving along in a positive way for the rest of 2014, and maybe McCarthy can spearhead some important initiatives that wouldn't have gotten as much attention otherwise or which are more politically palatable in a lame duck administration.

Is there a similar figure for DDOT?

Overall, having the primary on April 1 was a bad idea, and not just because of low turnout, which Gray cited in his concession speech. Despite Gray's statements that he will keep working hard to improve the District for the rest of his term, many of his political appointees are already looking for new jobs.

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.

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