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Transit


The Purple Line gets a boost from President Obama's budget

Yesterday, the Purple Line took a big step forward when the federal government recommended giving it a $100 million grant for next year and providing additional funding in the coming years. Now, all it needs is approval from Congress.


Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

President Obama included the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in his 2015 budget. It's one of 7 transit projects the Federal Transit Administration recommended for a "New Starts" grant, including the Baltimore Red Line, an extension of LA's Purple Line, Boston's Green Line extension, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, and commuter rail in Orlando and Fort Worth.

The agency also recommended Congress give the Purple Line a "full funding grant agreement" committing it to help pay for construction. Maryland hopes the federal government will provide $900 million, though it's unclear what the final amount will be.

The state has already agreed to put in up to $900 million for the project. Montgomery and Prince George's counties will give $220 million total, while the state is looking for a private partner to build and operate the line and pitch in additional funds.

The Purple Line has been discussed in some form since 1986. If everything goes right, it could start construction in 2015 and open in 2020. But getting here hasn't been easy.

From the beginning, it faced vehement opposition from the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, because the line would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight rail line that bisected its golf course. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland didn't want it passing through the heart of campus, and even hired former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (now running for a fourth term) to oppose it.

Maryland was able to find a workable solution for both parties, and the Purple Line now enjoys the support of both county executives, elected officials in both counties, and hundreds of civic, environmental, business, and advocacy groups.

But there are still a few challenges remaining. One is that Congress actually has to approve President Obama's budget and decide how much the "full funding grant agreement" for the Purple Line would be. The other is the Town of Chevy Chase, which continues to oppose the project because of its impacts on the trail. The town recently hired a lobbyist who happens to be the brother of the House transportation committee chair to make the case against the line.

Meanwhile, other residents may sue the government because they feel not enough research has been done about the Purple Line's impacts on a small, shrimp-like creature that's listed as an endangered species but is found several miles away. These things may add additional delay to the Purple Line, but it's unclear whether they're enough to actually halt the project.

In any case, yesterday was a great day for the Purple Line. When I attended my first Purple Line meeting in 2003, as a junior in high school, I assumed that I'd be riding it by now. Hopefully, 28 years after the project was first announced, we won't have to wait much longer.

Government


Was last year's Virginia transportation bill a bait and switch?

Last year, Virginia legislators passed a bipartisan transportation bill that promised to give Northern Virginia the authority to plan and fund its own transportation projects. Now that the money is flowing, a bevy of new bills seek to wrest control of funding from locals, and send it back to Richmond.


Dollar lure image from Shutterstock.com.

The issue is that some legislators feel the only way to solve Northern Virginia's transportation problems is by building and expanding highways, and they want to prevent local governments from doing anything else. To them, money spent on public transportation is better spent on ensuring that everyone has the "freedom" to only be able to drive to work.

But unlike many parts of the state, transit has proven its value in Northern Virginia. For communities that have tried for decades to raise their own taxes to implement their own priorities, these proposals are a gross violation of bipartisan trust, and a clear bait and switch.

Bob Marshall's bills

Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Bull Run) never wanted Northern Virginia to have its own money in the first place. He unsuccessfully sued to stop the process. Since that didn't work, he's now submitted a HB40, a bill to repeal the new funds.

But that's unlikely to pass, so Marshall is hedging his bets with HB41, a bill to have the statewide Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) pick projects that Northern Virginia is allowed to build, instead of the locally-controlled Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA).

Marshall also has a third bill, HB84, to remove state elected officials from the NVTA board. That would seem to give locals more strength on the board, but if Marshall's second bill to strip NVTA of its powers goes through, what would be the point?

Jim LeMunyon's bills

Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) is trying the opposite tactic. Instead of cutting the NVTA's authority, his HB425 would increase the number of General Assembly legislators on NVTA's board, thus effectively weakening representation from the counties and cities.

A second bill, HB793, requires VDOT to suggest which projects NVTA will build. It does not ask for any input from Virginia's corresponding transit agency, the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT).

Finally, HB426 would simply bypass NVTA completely, and require VDOT to widen I-66 inside the beltway, over Arlington's objections. The bill is written so that only an auto-based option could be considered. Even when 66 already has a transit option that could be improved and extended in any number of ways that could move more people than an extra lane.

David LaRock's bills

David LaRock (R-Sterling) is sponsoring HB635, a draconian bill that would block NVTA from funding new transit projects, instead forcing them to fund only projects that help highways.

And just in case NVTA can build a case that transit projects do help highways, LaRock also filed HB653 to restrict it to using no more than 25% of its own money on mass transportation projects, no matter what.

Finally, LaRock is sponsoring two bills attempting to override the local authority that sets toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road.

HB647 would outlaw use of any state money on construction of Phase 2 of the Silver Line, unless the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) matches the toll rate for its airport lanes (currently free) to the toll rate on the Dulles Toll Road.

This is seen as a move that would force MWAA to lower its overall toll rates, since it wants to keep its Dulles access lanes as free or cheap as possible.

Lastly, LaRock has also sponsored HJ84, a resolution that asks Congress to intervene and lower the tolls set by MWAA.

Others

Christopher Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) proposes HB2, requiring that all allocations to the Northern Virginia highway district go towards highway congestion relief projects. It's not clear whether that means only VDOT money, or all funding for Northern Virginia including NVTA money, but either way it would prohibit spending on things like safety or maintenance projects.

Finally, David Albo (R-Lorton) is sponsoring HB281, which stops NVTA from spending money on joint projects with DC or Maryland unless the costs are borne exactly equally. This would make it harder to fund regional projects like 8-car Metro trains, and could end up costing Virginia big money on projects where it would make more sense for Virginia to contribute less than 50%.

Stark contrast

These delegates, all Republicans, represent constituencies that are from the farthest reaches of the Washington metro area, or even outside it completely. Their legislative priorities reflect a desire to ensure that people living in far-out areas can quickly drive around the region. They don't think that it's possible that making sure people closer to the region's core have more transit options could even benefit those driving from farther away.

This flies in stark contrast with NVTA, which functions well and tries to accommodate the needs of everyone. NVTA allows outer suburban jurisdictions to build the roads they want, while also allowing the more urban ones to focus on transit, cyclists, and pedestrians.

It's ironic that Republicans who emphasize small government would support something that takes away power from local governments. If you'd like Northern Virginia to have control over its transportation future, you can tell them here.

Roads


Will Montgomery fund new transit, or build more roads?

Maryland's gas tax increase means it now has the most transportation funding in a generation. Will Montgomery County spend its share on transit to support its urban centers, or keep building highways?


Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Coupled with existing revenues, the new gas tax has made $15 billion available for transportation, a 52% increase from last year and the most transportation funding in a generation. This month, the County Council will send the state a list of their transportation priorities in order to receive some of that money. As in past years, there are a number of road projects on the list.

But the Planning Board, noting the high cost of new highways and efforts to direct future growth to urban centers, urged the council to choose transit instead. Transit isn't "the answer to every transportation problem," they write, but "where roadway widenings to solve perennial traffic congestion would significantly affect existing communities, natural resources and parkland, a more efficient solution is needed."

Funding would give county's transit plans teeth

Not all of the projects on the list are likely to receive funding. But if they were, the county's transit network could expand dramatically.

Some projects already have the support of county and state officials, including the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway. Also included are funds for more 8-car trains on the Red Line, which will allow Metro to stop turning trains around at Silver Spring instead of running them to the end of the line at Glenmont.

There's also funding to build three of the county's proposed BRT lines along Georgia Avenue, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road, as well as studying future lines on Rockville Pike and New Hampshire Avenue. A proposed HOV lane on I-270 could eventually support transit between White Flint and Tysons Corner. Planners also recommend funding new sidewalks and bike paths along Georgia Avenue between Forest Glen Road and 16th Street, which the State Highway Administration is currently studying, and a pedestrian underpass at the Forest Glen Metro station.

These projects would serve the county's existing urban centers, like Silver Spring and Bethesda, by giving people alternatives to driving. And they would support the development of future ones like White Oak, where County Executive Ike Leggett envisions a research and technology hub.

Planners say transit would better serve growth areas

But many of the road projects in the priorities list could undermine those efforts, whether by directing funding away from transit or by encouraging more people to drive there.

The priorities list includes three interchanges along Route 29 in East County, at Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road, which have been in planning for decades and would cost $344 million. (Maryland has already set aside $7 million to design a fourth interchange at Fairland Road, estimated to cost $128 million to build.) Under the county's traffic tests, they have to be built before development in White Oak can happen.

County planners estimate that the three interchanges would cost the same to build as an 11-mile BRT line along the same corridor between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville. They say transit would not only better support the creation of a town center in White Oak, but give commuters from points north an alternative to driving, ultimately reducing local congestion.

"We believe that prioritizing the [Route 29] transit corridor improvements is the better choice," their report says.

Other road projects on the list include funds to build Montrose Parkway, a highway that would divide White Flint and Twinbrook. And there's a proposal to widen Norbeck Road between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road and build an interchange at Georgia, even though the road runs parallel to the underused Intercounty Connector a half-mile away.

Maryland's new transportation funds present a rare opportunity to the state and Montgomery County, its economic engine. Some road improvements may be necessary and beneficial, especially in the county's suburban areas. But the county's urban centers are where most of its future growth will happen, and they need transit to thrive. We have to make the right choice now, because we may not get it again for a long time.

Government


Topic of the week: No more federal gas tax?

A new bill in the House of Representatives proposes eliminating the federal gas tax and making states pay for roads and transit themselves. Would that be good or bad for transportation?


Photo by RW PhotoBug on Flickr.

The Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Graves (R-Georgia), would virtually eliminate the federal gasoline tax over a 5-year period and devolve the responsibility of funding roads and transit to the states. It now has 19 co-sponsors in the House. We asked a few contributors to give their thoughts on how it could affect transportation funding.

David Cranor: This could be made workable. First, we could devolve gas taxes to states. Then, we could take the general funds used to enhance state funding to pay for Transportation Enhancements, recreation trails, Amtrak, TIGER, and so on.

The upside is that it gets rid of all the belly-aching and actually means less money for roads, unless states raise their gas taxes. The downside is that it reduces political support for non-car transportation.

David Edmondson: If the federal government cuts the gas tax and its investments in transportation, this would undoubtedly be bad for transit and non-car modes of transportation. But there may be a silver lining.

Despite the best efforts of advocates, federal transportation dollars overwhelmingly favor roadway projects, and most of those are highways or overbuilt arterials. And, given that these are often capital projects, the end result is high maintenance costs on localities that wouldn't have built the project in the first place if the money weren't "free" from the feds.

If states raise their own gas tax to match the loss, they'd be able to use that money how they see fit. A whole slew of federal strings would come off, freeing states to make the decisions they think they ought. While that might mean more questionable interchanges in Wisconsin, that state will actually need to pay for them entirely.

Advocates' fear that states won't raise their gas tax are certainly valid, of course. The tax discourages driving and was designed to fund infrastructure of national importance. Eliminating it would cut the federal government's ability to do either of those things. Yet the chance to cut all the bloat and waste advocates fight against and this money encourages would be quite a silver lining.

Matt Johnson: In Georgia, Graves' home state, the state constitution expressly prohibits the expenditure of gasoline tax revenues on anything other than roads, so without federal money, the Peach State would essentially only invest in highways. That's actually not a huge change.

MARTA, which operates rail, bus, and paratransit in Fulton and DeKalb counties is the largest transit agency in the country that receives no funding from the state government. Of course, MARTA was able to build their rail system using local and federal funds. But without the federal share, it would have been impossible.

Which is probably what Graves and Lee want. After all, the GOP has long suggested that investing in transit is a wasteful subsidy, while investing in roads is a sound investment for economic development.

According to Senator Lee, "Under the Transportation Empowerment Act, Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached." [emphasis added]

Of course, this isn't accurate. According to a Government Accountability Office report from September 2011, both Georgia and Utah are winners in the transportation dollar lottery. Both states got $1.10 back in federal transportation dollars for every $1.00 they sent to Washington between 2005 and 2009.

Of course, they're no different from the other 48 states. But wait a minute: aren't there winners and losers? Doesn't at least one state have to be a donor state?

No. Because Washington doesn't just allocate gas tax revenues. They also send general fund revenues off to transportation projects.

So not only are those sticky-fingered lobbyists not stealing from Georgians to fund highway projects in Yankeeland, but the federal government is actually gifting Georgians (and Utahans) a little extra money on the side. Or to translate that into GOP-speak, "it smacks of socialism."

The idea, of course, is to just let the states take over and use a more locally-focused approach that works best for them. Federalism and all that.

But anyone want to put the odds on whether a state like Georgia would actually raise their own gas tax to compensate? Yeah, I didn't think so.

The real goal is of course, to stop spending money on transportation altogether. But that's okay. It's DOA in the Senate.

Canaan Merchant: Any transportation project is going to try to combine its funding from all levels of government. This bill is just the latest example of trying to come up with a standard across a large country with a very diverse population and large number of situations that require specific and different solutions.

Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic has considered the question as well. He argues that the basic scheme where the federal government provides funding for construction while states and cities pay for operations and maintenance is backward.

Local governments may benefit from being able to not have to compete against dozens of other projects for federal funding while the federal government can ensure that service doesn't take a dive in lean budget years for localities.

Now that may not be optimal in the end, but it may be beneficial to completely reconsider how and who funds transportation projects across the country.

Events


Events roundup: Transit in Montgomery, Fairfax, and beyond

Over the next few weeks, talk about transit in the 2014 election, learn about Bus Rapid Transit in eastern Montgomery County, and figure out how to spend Virginia's transportation money at meetings around the region.


Robert Thomson (at left), aka Dr. Gridlock, in Tysons Corner. Photo by VaDOT.

Transit reporters talk politics: How will Smart Growth issues affect the 2014 elections in DC and Maryland? The Action Committee for Transit will host a panel discussion on transit and the election with the Washington Post's Robert Thomson, also known as "Dr. Gridlock," Ari Ashe from WTOP, and Josh Kurtz from the blog Center Maryland. Kyjta Weir, former Examiner reporter and current reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, will moderate.

This free meeting will be Tuesday, November 12 from 7:30 to 9pm at the Silver Spring Civic Building, located at the corner of Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. For more information, visit ACT's website.

Learn about BRT on Route 29: Do you live, work, or travel along Route 29 in Montgomery County, also known as Colesville Road and Columbia Pike? Join CSG, Communities for Transit, and other local organizations hosting an educational event about Bus Rapid Transit for residents and business owners along 29 between Silver Spring and Burtonsville. Speakers will include Montgomery County Planning Board member Casey Anderson, county planner Larry Cole, and Chuck Lattuca, BRT system manager at the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

With 17,000 projected riders by 2040, a BRT line along 29 is an important part of Montgomery's rapid transit network. The event will take place on Wednesday, November 13 from 6 to 9pm at the White Oak Community Recreation Center, 1700 April Lane in Silver Spring. Click here to RSVP or for more information.

Spend Virginia's transportation money: Virginia's newly-passed transportation funding bill means new money for projects in Fairfax County. How should the county spend it? County officials are holding a series of dialogues to learn what residents want and find the best ways to get them moving.

There will be four meetings over the next few weeks at various locations throughout the county. The next one is this Monday, November 4th from 6:30 to 8:30pm at the Falls Church High School auditorium, 7521 Jaguar Trail in Falls Church, followed by meetings in Fairfax and Reston. For more information, visit the county's website.

Envision better biking in Fairfax: Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling will hold its second-annual Bicycle Summit tomorrow with keynote speaker Jeff Olson, author of The Third Mode: Towards a Green Society. Citizens, community leaders, bike advocates, and transportation professionals will discuss ways to make Tysons and other parts of Fairfax County more bicycle-friendly.

The event will be from 9am to 3:30pm. The registration fee is $25 and includes lunch and other refreshments. To register, visit the event website.

Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner will hold a town hall meeting tomorrow night to discuss issues affecting District 1, which includes Bethesda, Potomac, White Flint, and Poolesville. Berliner has been a strong supporter of the county's Bus Rapid Transit proposal, which the council is currently studying, making this a great opportunity to give him your thoughts on the plan.

The meeting starts at 7pm at Garrett Park Elementary School, located at 4810 Oxford Street in Garrett Park, near the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station. For more information, visit this page.

Roads


Will Maryland spend its new transportation funds wisely?

On Monday, Governor Martin O'Malley will announce which Montgomery County transportation projects he will support with funds from the new transportation bill passed earlier this year. While there may be good news about transit, advocates are concerned about the selection process and new highway projects that may receive funding.


The ICC. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

After years of a dwindling transportation trust fund, Maryland is ready to get started on a large backlog of important transportation projects. While the new Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act will raise $4.4 billion over the next 6 years, it's not enough to finance all the competing priorities. It is unclear how state leaders will decide how to allocate the money.

Advocates from 10 organizations working in Montgomery and Prince George's counties who supported the bill released a letter today applauding funding pledged so far for transit, bicycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. But they also raised concerns over new highway capacity projects and a project selection process done behind closed doors.

Unlike Northern Virginia, there is no clear public process for project selection for transportation funding in Maryland. In the fall, MDOT will release their draft project list and hold a series of open houses, but only after the O'Malley administration has spent the spring and summer announcing the projects it will fund.

So how do transportation funding decisions really happen in Maryland? One important influence is "priority letters," from each county telling the state which projects they want funding for. But the letters themselves are often not created with much public input, and while the Montgomery and Prince George's letters embrace some transit, bike, and pedestrian projects, both focus heavily on roads.

An important influence in Maryland's transportation funding decisions should be the stated goals of the Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). It includes several important goals that ought to be used as selection criteria for funding, including doubling transit ridership by 2020, encouraging transit-oriented development and smart growth, prioritizing system preservation, and preservation of the natural environment and rural resource lands. Just last week, O'Malley made a major announcement regarding his plan to tackle climate change, which includes investment in public transit and transit-oriented development as a core strategy.

Despite a stated commitment to smart growth, climate protection, and system preservation, O'Malley's list of projects for Prince George's includes two major new road capacity projects that direct hundreds of millions of dollars far from Metro stations or inside-the-Beltway communities. $150 million would go towards a new interchange at MD 4 (Pennsylvania Avenue) and the Suitland Parkway, which would fuel the 6,000-acre Westphalia greenfield scheme. Such an investment promises to undermine local and state goals of encouraging transit-oriented development at the county's 15 underutilized Metro stations.

O'Malley will announce Monday which projects he will fund in Montgomery, but if the county's priority letter is any indication, his list will include road projects that may work against smart growth goals. Four of these projects are road widenings and interchanges along the Route 28/198 corridor. These projects alone would cost $500 million dollars, while drawing commuters and toll revenue away from the already underutilized Intercounty Connector, which runs parallel to the road.

Meanwhile, previous announcements indicate that Maryland may use a public-private partnership, effectively borrowing against future revenues, to help pay for the Purple Line. Governor O'Malley has already pledged $280 million for design and right-of-way acquisition, but in order to open by 2020 as scheduled, the light-rail line needs $1.1 billion of local funding.

A partnership with a private company would enable the state to pay for the project over a longer time horizon. But because the Purple Line is the top priority for both Montgomery and Prince George's counties, transit advocates are asking that state funds not go to lower-priority projects until it is certain that alternative financing is really a good deal for taxpayers and riders.

Since there will never be unlimited funds for transportation, the state's investments for suburban Maryland should go towards projects that are consistent with the state's long-stated smart growth and climate protection goals. If Maryland wants to address the area's traffic challenges and air and water pollution, the state must make building the Purple Line, funding the MARC Growth and Investment Plan, and WMATA's Momentum plan its top priorities.

Transit


Northern Virginia picks transportation projects to fund

For years, leaders in Northern Virginia have been asking Richmond to let Northern Virginia raise its own money to spend on its own transportation priorities. They are finally getting the chance.


Almost $20 million will go to new VRE railcars. Image from BeyondDC.

When the Virginia General Assembly passed a broad new transportation funding bill earlier this year, it included a section letting Northern Virginia raise and allocate hundreds of millions per year. Those new taxes began rolling in on July 1, with the beginning of Virginia fiscal year 2014.

On Wednesday night, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) officially approved its first set of projects. The authority allocated about $210 million, split roughly evenly between transit and roads.

The largest projects include the Silver Line's Innovation Center Metro station, new VRE railcars, and widenings along Route 28.

NVTA also approved a bond validation lawsuit that will preemptively ask Virginia courts to rule on NVTA's legality. That process should take 6-9 months, and NVTA will have to wait until it's over to actually start spending money. Taking the issue to court now means NVTA won't have to spend years fending off other court challenges.

The project list is below. For more details, see the project description sheets on NVTA's website.

ProjectFunding (millions)Location
Transit and multimodal projects
Innovation Center Metro station$41  Fairfax Co.
VRE railcars$19.8Regional
VRE Lorton station 2nd platform$7.9Fairfax Co.
WMATA buses$7  Regional
WMATA Orange Line traction power upgrades for 8-car trains$5  Regional
DASH buses$3.3Alexandria
Potomac Yard Metro station environmental study$2  Alexandria
Crystal City multimodal center bus bays$1.5Arlington
VRE Gainesville extension planning$1.5Regional
VRE Alexandria station pedestrian tunnel & platform improvements$1.3Alexandria
Herndon Metro station access improvements (road, bus, bike/ped)$1.1Fairfax Co.
ART buses$1  Arlington
Leesburg park and ride$1  Loudoun
Loudoun County Transit buses$0.9Loudoun
Route 7 Tysons-to-Alexandria transit alternatives analysis (phase 2)$0.8Regional
Falls Church pedestrian access to transit$0.7Falls Church
Duke Street transit signal priority$0.7Alexandria
PRTC bus$0.6Prince William
Alexandria bus shelters & real-time information$0.5Alexandria
Van Buren pedestrian bridge$0.3Falls Church
Falls Church bus shelters$0.2Falls Church
Road projects
Rt 28 - Linton Hall to Fitzwater Dr$28  Prince William
Rt 28 - Dulles to Rt 50$20  Fairfax Co.
Belmont Ridge Road north of Dulles Greenway$20  Loudoun
Columbia Pike multimodal improvements (roadway, sidewalk, utilities)$12  Arlington
Rt 28 - McLearen to Dulles$11.1Fairfax Co.
Rt 28 - Loudoun "hot spots"$6.4Loudoun
Chain Bridge Road widening$5  Fairfax City
Boundary Channel Dr interchange$4.3Arlington
Rt 1 - Featherstone Rd to Mary's Way$3  Prince William
Edwards Ferry Rd interchange$1  Loudoun
Herndon Parkway intersection with Van Buren St$0.5Fairfax Co.
Herndon Parkway intersection with Sterling Rd$0.5Fairfax Co.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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