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Roads


The feds just blew a chance to reform the city-killing, planet-broiling status quo

The Obama administration has released new rules governing transportation planning. Despite rumors the new rules would be a big step forward, for example requiring states to take things like greenhouse gas pollution into effect, instead they appear to be more of the same-old.


US DOT isn't taking steps to hold transportation agencies accountable for building ecological disasters like the Katy Freeway. Image from Top 10 Famous.

Reformers hoped the rules would get states to reconsider highway expansion as a method of dealing with congestion and emissions, since widening roads induces more traffic and pollution. By introducing better metrics and reporting requirements, the thinking goes, US DOT could compel states to document the failure of highway expansion, which would lead to pressure for a new approach.

But the rules released yesterday are a big disappointment, say analysts. While it will take a bit more time to fully assess the 423-page document [PDF], advocates are already going on the record panning US DOT's effort.

Greenhouse gas emissions

On the question of whether state transportation agencies should be required to at least report the emissions impact of their transportation plans, US DOT "whiffed," writes Joe Cortright at City Observatory:

There's nothing with any teeth here. Instead—in a 425 page proposed rule—there are just six pages (p. 101-106) addressing greenhouse gas emissions that read like a bad book report and a "dog-ate-my-homework" excuse for doing nothing now. Instead, DOT offers up a broad set of questions asking others for advice on how they might do something, in some future rulemaking, to address climate change.

This is hugely disappointing, considering that anonymous Obama administration officials were bragging about the impact of these reporting requirements to Politico earlier this week. At the rate things are going, half of Florida will be under water before American transportation officials acknowledge that spending billions to build enormous highways serving suburban sprawl is broiling the planet.

Traffic congestion

There was also some hope that US DOT would reform the way congestion is measured. Current measures of congestion emphasize vehicle delay, which leads to policies that actually promote more driving and more total time spent in cars, as agencies seek to temporarily reduce delay by widening roads. Policies that reduce traffic by improving transit or enabling people to live closer to work don't rate well under this measure of congestion.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the new rule "would still push local communities to waste time and money attempting to build their way out of congestion by using a measure of traffic congestion that's narrow, limited and woefully out of date."

Cortright says the metric could have been worse, but it's still measuring the wrong things:

The core measure of whether a metropolitan area is making progress in addressing its congestion problem is what USDOT calls "annual hours of excessive delay per capita." This congestion measure essentially sets a baseline of 35 mph for freeways and 15 mph for other roads. If cars are measured to be traveling more slowly than these speeds, the additional travel time is counted as delay. The measure calls for all delay hours to be summed and then divided by the number of persons living in the urbanized portion of a metropolitan area.

The proposed measure is, in some senses, an improvement over other measures (like the Texas Transportation Institute's Travel Time Index) that compute delay based on free flow traffic speeds (which in many cases exceed the posted speed limit)…

This is all about vehicle delay, not personal delay. So a bus with 40 or 50 passengers has its vehicle delay weighted the same amount according to this metric as a single occupancy vehicle.

This ignores the value of shorter trips. As long as you are traveling faster than 15 miles per hour or 35 on freeways, no matter how long your trip is, the system is deemed to be performing well.

When you get down to it, US DOT's congestion metric belongs to the same line of thinking that led Houston to spend $2.8 billion widening the Katy Freeway to 23 lanes only to see traffic congestion return with a vengeance a few years later. Instead of managing demand for freeways, it will lead to more supply.

California has shifted away from an emphasis on vehicle delay and instead uses "Vehicle Miles Traveled" as a performance measure. VMT measures how much traffic a given project will add to streets and highways. US DOT is nowhere close to such an enlightened position.

Biking and walking

Caron Whitaker of the League of American Bicyclists also notes another big disappointment.

What you can do

Now for the good news. This process isn't over yet. The rule can be amended—and anyone can weigh in. The comment period will open Friday and will likely be open through the summer. US DOT needs to be inundated with comments that call for a modern approach to measuring transportation system performance.

It's worth noting that US DOT officials are touting this rule—which took three years to draft—as environmental progress. Gregory Nadeau wrote on the Fast Lane Blog:

This is a down payment on the administration's 21st Century Clean Transportation Plan, a budget proposal to reduce traffic and carbon intensity of the transportation sector.
Let's hold them to that.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.

Roads


Why widening highways doesn't work, in one simple gif

Decade after decade, American metropolitan areas continue to widen their highways in order to reduce congestion. And decade after decade, congestion just keeps getting worse. That may be counterintuitive, but it's because of a phenomenon called induced demand. This simple gif illustrates how it works:

Of course, it's a little more complicated than this gif. Congestion keeps increasing not only because more people drive, but also because more people drive farther. And because the more highways we build, the less walkable and transit-accessible our cities usually become. And because the more desperate our congestion situation becomes, the more some groups attack using money for anything other than more highway widenings.

Highway congestion is a negative feedback loop. The only way to really solve it, besides economic calamity, is to break out of the loop by attacking its root causes. Rather than applying highway-widening band-aids that only work for a few years, build urban communities with multimodal infrastructure, in which it's just as convenient (or more so!) for most residents to get around without a car than with one.

That doesn't mean no new roads are ever needed. New communities and densifying ones need streets, after all. But it does mean we should be skeptical of plans to make highways bigger. In the long term, that money is usually better spent elsewhere.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Would it be the end of the world if fewer cars could pass through Rock Creek Park? We'll find out soon.

Work to reconstruct a nearly 6.5 mile stretch of Beach Drive, from Rock Creek Parkway to the Maryland line, will start soon. That will mean closing a section of the road that the National Park Service, environmentalists, and cyclists have long wanted to close but that motorists and some neighbors have fought to keep open.


Cyclists enjoy Beach Drive without automobile traffic. Photo by Oblivious Dude on Flickr.

The work, which the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will oversee, will happen in five phases, with a section of Beach Drive closing for between four and eight months during each phase. The fourth phase will involve the section of Beach that runs from Joyce Road to Broad Branch Road, which officials have considered closing in the past but have not due to strong opposition.

The closures could be a chance for traffic engineers and Park staff to study the impacts of closing parts of Beach Drive to cars.

There was a movement to close Beach Drive in the 60s and 70s

Rock Creek Park has a long history of turning its roads over to cyclists and pedestrians. The first time Beach was limited to bike and pedestrian traffic was in 1966, on the section from Joyce Road to Broad Branch on Sunday mornings only. Over the following years, additional sections of roads eventually closed, and for more of the weekend. There was even an experiment with closing a lane of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway north of Virginia Avenue for a week.

Efforts to encourage recreation in Rock Creek Park, and to make it more of a park and less of a commuter route, continued through the 1970s. Pointing to how both Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City had seen success with limiting car traffic, NPS announced in 1983 that it would gradually close the section of Beach from Joyce to Broad Branch.

At first, one lane would be reserved for cyclists and joggers during weekday rush hours, and the lane pointed in the direction of the rush hour commute would stay open to cars. Later, once the Red Line was completed beyond Van Ness, the Park Service planned to place a gate near Boulder Bridge and permanently close the section of Beach from there to Joyce.

Political pressure has pushed against efforts for long-term closures

Three months later, however, under pressure from automobile groups, commuters, and the DC Department of Public Works and Transportation, the Park Service backed off from that plan and decided to keep Beach open. Instead they promised to build a 2.5 mile trail on that section of Beach Drive. Later, due to the constrained geography of the area and the objection of the National Parks and Conservation Association, the plans for the trail fell through altogether.

In 1988, a FHWA report concluded that Beach Drive was getting more traffic than it could handle. Since expanding the road wasn't an option, FHWA recommended adding tolls, instituting HOV requirements, or permanently closing all or part of Beach Drive.

The report, along with the limited impact of a 10-week closure of the Zoo Tunnel in 1990, emboldened both activists and the Park Service to again look at further limiting automobile traffic in the park.

The process of writing Rock Creek Park's General Management Plan (GMP), which lasted from 1996 to 2006, turned into a showdown between the People's Alliance for Rock Creek Park (PARC), a coalition of environmental and cycling advocacy organizations in support of closing Beach Drive, and a less-organized coalition of Maryland commuters, Park neighbors, and motorist organizations, like AAA.

The fight over how to use Beach Drive left it open for cars

Several possibilities for closing Beach Drive received consideration, and advocates for limiting automobile traffic finally settled on a compromise to close only the section between Joyce and Broad Branch—the same section as in 1983, where no trail exists and where Ross Drive is an alternative—in the time between rush hours.

But in 2005, the Park Service, again facing opposition from commuters, automobile advocates, and political leaders like Maryland's congressional delegation, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the majority of the DC Council (Phil Mendelson, Jack Evans and Harold Brazil, all who had supported the closures) and others, chose a different option that was close to the status quo: leave the road open during the entire weekday.

Despite a 2004 traffic study that found midday limits on Beach Drive between Broad Branch and Joyce would have "minimal impact" on travel times and on nearby streets, especially if drivers were encouraged to use Ross Drive and Glover Road, one of the main concerns of the GMP was spillover traffic.

In fact, all of the letters from members of Congress were about the closures, ignoring all other aspects about the GMP. They questioned the utility of the closures, criticized the methodology of the traffic study, expressed fear that diverting traffic onto other roads would be unsafe and inefficient, and promised to find money for a trail in this section.

DC Councilmember Carol Schwartz, for example, feared that closing any part of Beach Drive at any time during the week would have "severe" impacts on Cleveland Park, Crestwood and Mount Pleasant.

Another concern, brought up by Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, was that closing this section to through traffic would limit access for those with disabilities. NPS pointed out that "all park facilities, such as picnic areas, parking lots, historical features, and trails, would continue to be available to visitors traveling by automobile. The only limitation would be on driving the length of Beach Drive between these facilities."

Instead of midday closures, NPS proposed a lower speed limit in this section, down to 20 mph, increased enforcement, and speed bumps or speed tables. But to date, none of those things have actually happened.

NPS also promised to improve the existing trail south of Broad Branch—a process which is, finally, nearly underway—and study expanding the trail north of Broad Branch to Joyce. The upcoming projects will not build a trail north of Broad Branch, nor are there any plans to ever do so. It's not clear that there was ever money to study the trail in that segment or if a study was performed.


Beach Drive Closure similar to 1983 and 2005 proposals

Upcoming work is a chance to test some of these hypotheses

Phase four of the Beach Drive rehabilitation project involves the closure of the very section of Beach Drive, Joyce to Broad Branch, that faced opposition in 1983 and 2005. Will the impact of such closures—during the midday, not rush hour—be "minimal," as the Park Service concluded, or will it be "severe?" Will neighborhood roads be filled with traffic? Will safety be compromised? Will travel times dramatically increase? Will those with disabilities stay away from the park? And what are the impacts during rush hours?

We'll now get a chance to study these things in a much more robust way—during a real-world experiment, which is exactly what Norton, Van Hollen, Mikulski and others asked for.

Unfortunately, since the road won't be open for non-automobile traffic, we won't be able to determine to what extent its closure would increase recreational use.

With phase four still more than a year away, now is the time for DDOT and FHWA to put a plan to study the impacts into place. There is still no trail on the section of Beach Road between Broad Branch and Joyce. Perhaps such a study will show something two reports have already shown: limiting this section to non-automobile use, for part of the day or permanently, is not that big of a deal.

Roads


How road design could stop drivers smashing into Dolcezza

Twice in the last three months, a car has careened through the storefront windows at 6th and Penn Street NE, on the western side of Gallaudet. The crashes are symptoms of a common problem: drivers reaching dangerously high speeds on 6th between Florida Avenue and Brentwood Parkway. Here are some thoughts on how to fix that.


Two drivers have crashed into Dolcezza at the intersection of 6th Street, Brentwood Parkway, and Penn Street NE since January. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

The January 9th and March 8th crashes saw cars traveling northbound on 6th Street NE (and presumedly looking to veer onto Brentwood Parkway) barrel into the storefront of Dolcezza, a gelato and coffee shop north of Union Market and west of Gallaudet University. The driver was reportedly asleep at the wheel in the second incident.

Take a walk along the three-block stretch of 6th that's between Florida Avenue and Brentwood Parkway and one thing will quickly become clear: it is basically a drag strip. The road is about 70 feet wide with 12 foot wide lanes, with little by way of traffic calming. Drivers get the impression they can drive much faster than is actually safe.


Image from Google Maps.

There have been attempts to slow traffic here. In 2014, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) installed large flowerpots to narrow the road and painted a new crosswalk at Neal Place NE (adjacent to Union Market's entrance), and added a protected bikeway.

But people walking, riding bikes, and even some drivers say that despite DDOT's efforts, people still drive way too fast along this stretch. The recent spate of crashes into Dolcezza, along with the planned development along 6th Street, make it clear that the streetscape is due for a redesign.


The 6th Street NE protected bike lane. Photo by the author.

Five ideas for a safer 6th Street NE

1. A traffic circle could go in at the three-way intersection of 6th Street, Brentwood Parkway and Penn Street. That would force drivers to slow down as they approached and entered the intersection.

An example is the circle on Brentwood Parkway at 13th Street NE and Bryant Street NE that slows traffic as they yield to automobiles in the circle without a stoplight.


The traffic circle at Brentwood Parkway, 13th Street and Bryant Street in northeast. Image from Google Maps.

However, a circle would require the District to take land from the adjacent landowners, likely making it more difficult to implement.

2. A sharper corner would also force drivers to slow down in order to navigate the turn like with the traffic circle. This would also require taking land from adjacent landowners, however.

3. Chicanes artificially narrow and often add curves to otherwise straight stretches of road. Adding them to 6th Street would force drivers to slow down and pay more attention to the road, but they could be difficult for delivery trucks (which frequent the area) to navigate.


A chicane in Christianshavn. Photo by Payton Chung.

4. A stoplight could go up on 6th Street at either Morse Street or Neal Place. This would break up the roughly 1,500-foot long stretch of road into more city block-length segments.

However, a number of Greater Greater Washington contributors discussed the matter yesterday, a number said they doubted a light would have as much of an impact on speed as other traffic calming measures would.

5. A speed camera is a likely the quickest and easiest solution to slowing cars on 6th Street. Cameras have successfully slowed traffic on other roads around the District and almost certainly would have the same effect here.

These ideas are just part of the discussion of how to transform 6th Street NE into a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly corridor. DDOT was not immediately available to comment, but the topic will become increasingly pertinent as the neighborhood around these blocks transforms into one full of residents, students and shoppers from its more industrial past.

Roads


Could a Fairfax school turn into an urban street grid?

In 2019, the private school Paul VI will move to Loudoun County from its Fairfax City campus. Plans for what to do with the land are starting to take shape, and there's a big opportunity to make the space walkable and transit-friendly.


Paul VI and the surrounding area. Image from Google Maps.

The 18-acre Paul VI campus is located along Fairfax Boulevard (Route 50/29), where the City of Fairfax wants new commercial development. It's across the street from a shopping center anchored by H-Mart, a popular Asian grocery store. Immediately east and west of the campus are detached houses and garden apartments, and immediately south are Pat Rodio Park and the Chilcott baseball field.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington owns the land Paul VI sits on. It has hired a developer, the IDI Group, to come up with a plan for developing it and to work with Fairfax City through the rezoning and special use permit process. The Archdiocese will ultimately sell the land, presumably to a buyer who wants to carry out the approved plan (that could be the IDI Group).


Paul IV. Image from Google Maps.

Paul VI is a chance to make Fairfax Boulevard walkable, inclusive, and sustainable

Most of Fairfax Boulevard consists of large commercial lots dominated by surface parking, but Paul VI's redevelopment could mean a more compact and walkable street grid. A private drive and parking lot on the Paul VI property currently separate two segments of Cedar Lane, a residential street that extends to Chain Bridge Road. The redevelopment could connect these segments of Cedar to one another and to new internal streets.

While Fairfax Boulevard has not traditionally been a place to build new housing, a 2007 master plan for the street says more residential units would make the area more vibrant and economically successful. The plan also envisions a mix of stores and offices along Fairfax Boulevard.

A nearby piece of land increases the chance for a smart growth plan

Coincidentally, last month Fairfax City also received an application for the redevelopment of the Breezeway Motel and adjacent garden apartments, located on a five-acre site just 300 yards from Paul VI. AvalonBay Communities has filed an application to redevelop the Breezeway and adjacent Fairfax Gardens apartments, as well as several smaller properties, as a 351-unit apartment building, and 11 townhomes.

As it stands, that apartment building would span two blocks and break up the street grid that currently exists, as well as replace relatively affordable housing with what are likely to be far more expensive units.

If the city reviews the Paul VI and the Breezeway projects in the absence of a comprehensive framework for redevelopment, it could miss opportunities to create better transportation connections and plan the right mix of uses. Fairfax City will update its comprehensive plan over the next year and a half, and that could be an opportunity to better coordinate the redevelopment of these two areas.

Community members recently chimed in

Last week, IDI Group held a community meeting to gather ideas about the property's future use. Neighbors, local officials, city staff, and others in the community called for the development to consider the "big picture," including the proposed Breezeway development as well as other nearby sites.

Participants also raised concerns about how redevelopment could affect transportation, particularly the risk of significant cut-through traffic in adjacent neighborhoods that don't have sidewalks. They also voiced a desire for the development to "fit in" with what's already in the area and for planning to account for walking and biking, along with hope that the existing building could be (at least partially) reused and that the site could potentially be home to a youth center, park, and open space.

At a follow-up meeting on March 10, IDI Group will report back to the community on the information gathered at the February 11 meeting and present its initial concept for redeveloping the site.

The Paul VI site has the potential to begin the transformation of Fairfax Boulevard into a well-designed, walkable street with sidewalks, street trees, on-street parking along local lanes, and street-oriented buildings. It is time for the city to implement its master plan and revitalize Fairfax Boulevard, a primary economic engine.

Bicycling


DC will swap driving lanes for bike lanes in four key places

Around the District, four new sections of bike lanes and protected bikeways will replace existing driving lanes. These are part of four miles of planned new segments that will close gaps in the city's bike infrastructure.


Photo by Dylan Passmore on Flickr.

They'll focus on four major areas: the Metropolitan Branch Trail, the Klingle Trail, downtown, and Piney Branch Road, near Catholic University.

The projects are part of an amendment the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is submitting to the Transportation Planning Board's long-term plan. DDOT is proposing to complete all of them this year, an undertaking that would cost $1.35 million.

Here's a big-picture look at all of them:


Map from MWCOG.

Metropolitan Branch Trail

Three of the eight projects are related to the Metropolitan Branch Trail. One would cut Blair Rd NW from three lanes to two lanes from Peabody Street to Aspen Street (a total of 0.73 miles) to allow for that section of the trail to be added in.


Blair Road with a protected path. Image from DDOT.

Two other projects would, functionally if not explicitly, extend the trail south from Union Station to the National Mall. One would remove a lane from Louisiana Avenue from Columbus Circle to Constitution Avenue in order to add in a 0.42 mile long protected bikeway. The other would remove two lanes from the stretch of Constitution Avenue that runs from 1st to Pennsylvania Ave NW to add in 0.23 miles of protected bikeway.

Klingle Trail Connection

Another project would remove half the lanes on Klingle Road between the under-construction Klingle Trail at Porter Street and Adams Mill Road. This would allow for 0.31 miles of separated bike lanes on both sides of the street, which will help to connect Mount Pleasant and the new trail.


Image from Google Maps.

East side downtown protected bikeway

The longest project on the list (1.6 miles), this is the bike facility that has been the subject of so much media attention. It would add protected bikeways to 5th, 6th or 9th Street NW.


Image from DDOT.

Closing bike lane gaps

The remaining three projects would close gaps in the current bike network. The first, in Edgewood, would remove a driving lane on 4th St NE between the existing bike lanes that end at Lincoln Road and the existing bike lanes at Harewood Road and add 0.27 miles of bike lane in their place.


Image from Google Maps.

The second would remove one of two driving lanes on the one-way section of Harewood Rd NW on the south side of the Soldier's Home Cemetery and replace it with a separated bike lane (I assume bi-directional). It would be 0.2 miles long between Rock Creek Church Road and North Capitol.


Image from Google Maps.

The last and smallest project, at 0.11 miles, would close a small gap in the bike lanes on Piney Branch Road NW between Georgia Ave and Underwood Street, again by removing a driving lane.


Image from Google Maps.

The Transportation Planning Board has opened a 30-day comment period on these changes.

There are other new bike projects in the works around the region. The I-66 Multimodal Improvement Project includes bike and walking improvements, and a project to extend VRE to Haymarket will include three new stations with "bicycle access." The Crystal City Transit Way (BRT) promises bicycle and pedestrian facilities improvements, and the I-66 Outside the Beltway project notes that Bicycle and Pedestrian accommodations in the corridor are included as part of the Preferred Alternative.

Cross-posted at The WashCycle.

Roads


Why Arlington might not sue Virginia over I-395 this time

This is part two in a series the 395 HOT lanes. Read part 1 to understand what happened the last time they were proposed.

VDOT has proposed converting HOV lanes on I-395 into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. The first time this proposal came up, Arlington County stopped it with a lawsuit. But Arlington seems receptive this time. What's different?


Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

New plan differences

Unlike last time, VDOT has committed to doing an environmental assessment from the start. The agency is also doing a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) study to "identify transit, carpool, vanpool and other demand strategies that can improve travel along the corridor."

The proposal includes "guaranteed funding" for new and enhanced transit service and carpooling incentives, though the amount of funding is still under negotiation. Unlike the prior plan, it leaves the Shirlington Circle interchange as-is and would keep the currently under-construction Seminary Road access ramp restricted to HOV use.

Questions remain about design, transit, and bicycle accommodations

Despite the changes to the proposal, Virginia transporation officials still need to answer many of the questions and concerns raised last time around and work to mitigate any potential negative impacts from the HOT lanes.

While the proposal adds capacity with a third lane, it also allows cars with fewer than three occupants, meaning additional traffic. Will this speed up or slow down the existing HOV and bus traffic? Slowing down HOV traffic would lessen the incentive to carpool. And slowing down buses would lessen the incentive to use public transit, as well as raising the operating and capital costs for local transit agencies.

One of those agencies, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, lost $1.5 million in federal funding when the 95 HOT lanes opened. What impact will the conversion have on transit funding for other local transit agencies?

There are other significant issues with safety, accommodating travelers without cars, and working the plan in with other transportation plans in the area.

VDOT claims that construction will not require taking of any residential properties or significant rights-of-way. Other than the construction of new sound walls, officials believe they can fit the third lane into the existing footprint of the HOV lanes. But that could require making the shoulders narrower or even removing them, which could impact safety, access for emergency vehicles, and the reliability of travel times.

It seems like every major highway expansion, from the 495 HOT lanes to the Intercounty Connector includes a major transit element, and yet they rarely seem to materialize or are quickly phased out. It's unknown how much money this plan guarantees for transit and TDM and who will determine how it is spent.

Likewise, the plan misses an opportunity to add to Northern Virginia's trail network, like the existing Custis Trail proposed trails along I-66. And it's unclear whether the plan will do anything to mitigate tree loss, which was a major issue with the I-95 Express lanes.

Virginia learned a tough lesson with the existing 95 HOT lanes: Eventually all HOT lanes have to end, and the merge situation when they do can create major backups. The 395 HOT lane extension would end at or near the already-congested 14th Street Bridge. How will VDOT avoid exacerbating an already ugly situation there and can they coordinate with DC's slow-moving initiative to add a network of HOT lanes within DC, including on the 14th Street Bridge?

The way the contract is written gives Virginia an incentive to discourage carpooling in the HOT lanes. The 395 HOT lanes will be governed by the existing contract the commonwealth has with Fluor-Transurban which requires Virginia to reimburse the firm if the facility carries "too many" HOV users.

I-395 and I-66 are very different

Comparisons between the plans for I-66 inside the beltway and I-395 HOT lane plans are easy to make; both would convert existing HOV lanes into HOT lanes and both would provide funding for transit. Beyond that, however, they differ quite significantly.

I-395 has, and would continue to have un-tolled, unrestricted lanes in addition to the HOT lanes. I-66 would consist of only HOT lanes. The I-395 HOT lanes would charge tolls at all times; the I-66 lanes would only charge during rush hour, and only in the peak direction.

The I-395 HOV lanes are already HOV-3 only; the I-66 lanes are HOV-2. The I-395 HOT lanes will be paid for by a private partner; the I-66 HOT lanes will be paid for by Virginia.

The cumulative effect of the differences in cost, alternatives options and existing HOV level shift the conversation being had about effectiveness and impact on surrounding jurisdictions enough that support or opposition for one doesn't necessarily translate into similar feelings on the other.

The plan is more predictable and it gives the local governments a say

The changes in the latest HOT lanes proposal appear tailor-made to reduce push-back and ease approval by making the effects of the proposal easier to predict and understand. It requires almost no land acquisition, changes the existing highway interchanges as little as possible, uses an existing vendor under an existing contract, commits to funding transit and TDM, and will include an environmental process from the outset.

The environmental process ensures that the public and the jurisdictions will have the leverage they need to ensure their questions get answered. Until they are, however, we can't know whether this proposal will help or harm. If Arlington sues again, or some other jurisdiction does, it likely won't be because they can't get their questions answered, it will be because they don't like the answers.

What question do you have? What should the public and jurisdictions be certain of before deciding whether to move forward with HOT lanes on 395?

Roads


I-66 widening will happen soon whether it makes sense or not

Virginia Governor McAuliffe announced today that I-66 will become one lane wider eastbound inside the Beltway, from the Dulles Toll Road to Ballston. That changes previous plans to hold off on widening, to give transit and tolls a chance to ease congestion on their own.


Could only HOT lanes combined with transit and multimodal options have eased congestion on I-66? We'll never know. Photo by Virginia Department of Transportation on Flickr.

Until today, the plan was to allow single-occupancy vehicles to use I-66 in exchange for paying a toll, and to dedicate the toll revenue to transit and demand management. Then VDOT would study whether or not it was still necessary to widen the road.

However, Republican leaders in the Virginia General Assembly filed legislation to block that plan, and widen immediately instead.

The new compromise plan will immediately move forward with widening I-66 eastbound from the Dulles Toll Road to Fairfax Drive in Ballston. In exchange, Republican leaders will drop their opposition to the tolls and transit components.

One more compromise

McAullife's original tolling proposal had already been significantly compromised. His original plan called for tolls in both the peak and non-peak directions, and an immediate switch to HOV-3. Those proposals were axed months ago to appease Republican lawmakers outside the beltway.

What was theoretically finalized in late 2015 was converting the existing peak-direction HOV-2 lanes to HOT-2, an agreement to spend the majority of toll revenue on transit projects in the corridor, eliminating exemptions for hybrid cars, Dulles Airport traffic, and law-enforcement cars so that all single-driver cars had to pay the toll, and an agreement that Virginia would not widen I-66 without first studying the effects of the tolls and transit.

It's that final part, the agreement not to widen, that's now changing. The remainder of the 2015 deal, including tolling, dedicating most revenue to transit, and eliminating the various HOV exemptions, will continue.

Tolling is still expected to start in 2017, the same as the original timeline. It will take longer to build the new lane, but not much longer. The widening will likely be complete by late 2019, just prior to a planned sister project outside the beltway. The HOV-2 provisions will become HOV-3 both inside and outside the beltway in or around 2020.

The widening inside the beltway will cost $140 million.

This is a loss for Arlington, but there are silver linings

This new compromise is a blow to Arlington, which has long supported investments like transit, cycling, and transportation demand management as alternatives to widening I-66. It is also a blow to Virginia's move toward a more data-driven transportation decision-making process, as the lawmakers pushing for widening ignore data saying it's not necessary.

While Smart Growth advocates never like to see highways gets wider, there are some bright points in even this compromised proposal.

While induced demand causes most widened highways to fill back up with traffic quickly, I-66's tolls will adjust in price according to the level of congestion, which should fight that tendency. The widening will also require a thorough environmental review, giving the community a chance to discuss impacts to parks, trails, water quality, and more.

Crucial to the compromise is the fact that the majority of toll revenue will still be dedicated to transit and other multimodal improvements, and that HOV exemptions that currently make it easy for single-occupant cars to skirt the rules will be eliminated.

That said, serious concerns remain. The governor has stated that the $140 million is not being taken from any other project, but money doesn't just appear. Even if it hadn't been allocated to another project yet, it would have been eventually. What are we not getting because we're spending $140 million widening I-66?

McAuliffe's plan has been watered down several times already. Will Virginia stick to its guns now? Or will toll revenue eventually be stripped from transit? Will the planned move from HOT-2 to HOT-3 never materialize? Will tolls really follow the formula to rise with with traffic, or will political wrangling make tolls too cheap to be effective?

What do you think of the compromise? Is it better or worse than the status quo?

Pedestrians


If students were cars, schools would have opened sooner

Many of the region's schools closed for a full week after the recent blizzard, leaving parents to scramble for childcare and students missing out on valuable classroom time. That's what happens when your storm recovery efforts prioritize making it easy to drive rather than giving everyone a safe way to move around.


Photo by Fionnuala Quinn on Twitter.

The historic storm hit the DC area on Friday, January 22nd. By the time the last flakes fell on Saturday night, just about everything was covered in over two feet of powdery, slippery, transportation-crippling snow.

It was soon pretty easy to drive, but not get around by any other means

As crews throughout the region got to work on their respective snow clearing plans (impressive work for which they deserve a lot of thanks), roads became passable and then completely clear. In contrast, sidewalks, curb cuts, and bus stops were often blocked not just by snow, but also frozen slush.

Some of the area's bike trails were cleared, but access points were plowed in, and the network as a whole was not rideable. Metro returned to service, but getting to stations was a dirty, icy, boulder-climbing adventure and plowed-in bus stops left people waiting often in very busy streets.

Without good options, the only choice left for most people was to drive, clogging our already strained roadways that the remaining snow had narrowed.

As the week wore on and roads became clear, adults returned to work. But faced with the conditions that would have left children walking and waiting for buses in the streets, school officials decided there were not enough safe routes to school, and kept most of the region's schools closed for the entire week.


DC's 5th and Sheridan NW, the Tuesday after the storm. To the right on 5th (the street going left to right) is Coolidge High School. To the left is Whittier Education Campus. Photo by Julie Lawson.

This didn't happen randomly. Arlington is an example of why.

These conditions were a result the fact that our systems for clearing snow focus first on getting cars moving again. People walking and biking are, at best, an afterthought in the region's snow clearing plans.

For example, Arlington posts a clearly thought-out snow operations plan on their snow operations web page:

  • Phase I: During the storm, county crews keep the arterial and collector roads as functional as possible to make sure that emergency access like EMS, fire, police, utility trucks etc. could still get through.
  • Phase 2: Immediately after the storm, they keep working those major corridors, widening lanes so everybody else could start driving again, too.
  • Phase 3: When those are under control they start working their way into residential streets.
Arlington has no unified public plan for clearing the rest of the transportation network - the sidewalks, trails, curb cuts and bus stops that are necessary for people walking, biking and taking transit.

Private individuals are responsible for clearing the majority of sidewalks, and various agencies of the County government are responsible for some routes. Apparently, there are designated "safe routes to schools" that are meant to get priority in snow clearing, but those routes are not made public and are not given priority if the schools are closed. However, many stretches are left without anyone to clear them, unless the County chooses to on an ad-hoc, complaint-based basis.

For example, the stretch of sidewalk along Lynn Street between the intersection of Lee Highway and the Key Bridge is along National Park Service Property. After this storm it took more than a week before the snow and ice were clear along this stretch, which cut off the main sidewalk access between Rosslyn and DC.


Arlington's "Intersection of Doom," at Lee Highway and N Lynn Street, just south of the Key Bridge. People walking and biking would need to climb over this snow/ice mound to get to the iced over sidewalk that leads to Key Bridge. Photo by the author.

When this snow plan was implemented, the streets were cleared, but the sidewalks and bus stops students would have needed to get to school were covered, often in mounds of snow deposited by snow plows. Instead of forcing kids to walk or wait for buses in the street, officials closed most of the region's schools for the entire week after the snow storm, forcing students to lose valuable instructional time at the end of the grading period.

Meanwhile, the region began to get back to work. By Wednesday, after three full days of being closed to allow the region to focus on digging out, most business were open and workers were working.

There are other ways to do this

During and immediately after the late winter blizzard of 1996 that dumped about the same amount of snow as last week's storm, New York City shut down all streets in Manhattan to private cars. The only vehicles on the roads were emergency equipment, garbage trucks, transit vehicles and of course snow plows.

NYC-DOT knew it could never get the city up and running again quickly if they decided that their first priority was to make it possible for everybody to drive their cars again. Roads were opened to traffic only after the sidewalks and bus stops were clear. In New York this took two days.

Arlington could do the same thing: Clear just enough of the roadway to accommodate emergency and service vehicles and eventually transit, but not more. With virtually no cars on the roads, people could at least get around on foot without putting their lives in danger.

And because transit and school bus stops would be cleared and almost no traffic on the road, these buses could actually get through and run on normal schedules. All kids, walkers and bus riders alike, would have a safe way to get to school.

Arlington does transportation well… when it doesn't snow

Fortunately, a good model exists right under our own noses. Arlington's transportation program looks at mobility as a public right, and sees all modes as legitimate. This includes mobility for people in cars, but doesn't leave out people on bikes, people on transit and people on foot.

Arlington's snow operations planners should try looking at mobility the same way when they plan for snow removal.

In this storm we saw a snow removal plan focused on getting cars back on the road. That happened by Wednesday. But cars don't occupy desks at schools.


After snow storms, it'd be smart to prioritize getting schools up and running. Photo by Arlington County on Flickr.

Our public schools closed for a week because there wasn't a safe way for kids to get to them. We need a transportation system that serves the students, whether they drive, ride the bus, walk or bike to school.

We didn't have that after the recent blizzard, so we didn't have school.

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