Greater Greater Washington

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Roads


Hogan shifted transit money to roads. Here's what he'll build

When Maryland governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore's Red Line and cut state funding from the Purple Line, he shifted over a billion dollars from transit to road construction. Here are the road projects he plans to build with that money.


All images from the State of Maryland.

On the map, blue lines and dots illustrate major highway projects. Red lines are smaller road projects, and green dots are bridge projects.

There are three major highway projects in the Washington region, on I-270, the Beltway, and Route 1. Most of the money is going to projects in other parts of the state.

I-270 in Montgomery

Montgomery County will get one big project: $100 million for "innovative congestion reduction" on I-270, between the Beltway and I-370.

That won't be a widening. It will be operational tweaks to squeeze more efficiency out of the pavement that's already there. MDOT will introduce things like ramp meters, bus-on-shoulder, and signals that let motorists drive on the shoulder at peak times.

Officials haven't determined the exact location or mix of projects yet, but all three of those strategies have helped Virginia squeeze more capacity out of I-66.

Two in Prince George's

Prince George's will get two big projects: $185 million to expand the Beltway interchange at Greenbelt Metro station, and $30 million to rebuild US-1 through downtown College Park.


Greenbelt (left) and College Park

The Greenbelt project will add new highway ramps, so drivers coming from northbound I-495 will be able to get to the Metro station, and so drivers leaving Metro will be able to reach southbound I-495. Those movements aren't possible today.

The College Park project will make US-1 a four-lane highway with a raised median, and add better bicycle and pedestrian accommodations. This is the same project this blog has advocated for over the past year, although it's not clear from Hogan's announcement what the final design will look like.

Most of the money goes elsewhere

Those three projects will most directly affect Washington-area drivers. Here are the biggest new projects elsewhere in the state:

Here's the complete list of major road projects statewide. In addition to new projects, the list also includes $645 million in "preserved" funding for projects for which MDOT had already budgeted.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Bicycling


There's plenty of room for safe bike lanes in College Park

Route 1 in College Park is about to undergo a major reconstruction. As long as Maryland's State Highway Administration doesn't widen the road's travel lanes, the project is a chance to make Route 1 safe for people on bikes.


Route 1 plans. All images from Maryland SHA.

Local residents, the University of Maryland, the City of College Park, and biking advocates all want protected bike lanes on Route 1. SHA engineering guidelines now include design specifications for protected bike lanes.

But SHA is looking into widening Route 1's existing travel lanes at the expense of safe, usable bike lanes.

Advocates from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association recently measured the existing roadway and lane widths on Route 1 between between the entrance to the University of Maryland and Greenbelt Road. Currently, that stretch is nearly 53 feet wide, with ten-foot travel lanes along the entire segment.

Ten-foot lane widths would mean ample room for safer, buffered and protected bike lanes. On the other hand, making travel lanes wider would lead to higher vehicle speeds that'd then make it more difficult to make downtown College Park walking and biking-friendly. Narrow, unprotected bike lanes are unsafe alongside high-speed, high-traffic roads.

Route 1 can be a road everyone can use

SHA's original proposal for Route 1 included 11-foot travel lanes plus five feet for bike facilities (a four-foot lane and a one-foot gutter pan). Five feet for bike lanes that run alongside Route 1's heavy car and bus traffic is not enough space—just look at how rarely people use the unprotected bike lanes on several other busy Prince George's County roads. The bike lanes would be stressful to use at best, and death traps at worst.


Original Route 1 proposal.

SHA is considering expanding the bike lanes to six feet in total width (a five-foot lane plus a gutter). That would be better, but the bike lanes would still not be protected or buffered, and SHA would still be expanding the current lane widths from 10' to 11' for all four travel lanes.

However, if there is room for two 11' travel lanes and a 6' bike lane, then there's also room for a properly buffered and/or protected bike lane. SHA's minimum recommended width for buffered bike lanes is seven feet: four feet of lane, two of buffer, and a one-foot gutter.


If at least one of the travel lanes stays at ten feet wide rather than going to 11, there would be room for a seven-foot protected bike lane.

If both travel lanes stay at ten feet wide, there would be room for an eight-foot wide bike lane with a three-foot buffer and a five-foot lane. This would make College Park and the university more accessible and safer to travel around by bike. That's what the community wants and deserves.

There have been several pedestrian deaths on Route 1 in recent years, and SHA has billed Route 1 reconstruction as a safety and accessibility improvement for people who walk and travel by bike.

Completely rebuilding Route 1 is a tremendous opportunity for Prince George's county to create a walkable, person-friendly corridor in College Park. Buffered or protected bike lanes should be part of that vision. As long as Route 1's travel lanes don't get any wider, there's plenty of room for that.

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Bicycling


It wouldn't cost much to make this Prince George's road safer for everyone

Suitland Road, a major thoroughfare in Prince George's County, offers nothing for people who walk, ride bikes, or take the bus. There's enough room to make the road nicer and safer for everybody, and the cost would be tiny.


WABA Proposal for Suitland Road. Illustration by the author.

Suitland Road is a rural-style, two-lane road that passes through a nondescript commercial patch on the way from DC to the Suitland Federal Center. It has no sidewalks or bike lanes between Southern Avenue in DC and Silver Hill Road in MD, and and its wide traffic lanes (16 feet in some places) encourage speeding. However, it will soon be the hub for new development next to the federal center and near the Metro station.


Suitland Road in its current condition. Photo by the author.

Washington Area Bicyclist Association Prince George's action committee has made transforming Suitland Road into a bike friendly space a top priority for 2015. The committee published a proposal to repurpose Suitland Road's wide traffic lanes, center turn lanes, and shoulder space to a street with protected space for biking and walking on either side. There'd be no need for additional asphalt, or even sidewalk paving.


Suitland Road between Maryland and DC. Image from Google Maps.

All things considered, the suggested changes are cheap

Adding the protected bike lanes and walk space that are in WABA's proposal would cost between $80,000 and $165,000, with annual maintenance costs of less than $10,000. Of course, actual sidewalks, along with bus platforms and landscaping, would be nice. But the idea is to calm traffic and make Suitland Road safer for people on bikes and foot as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

WABA's proposal uses flexposts, a "soft" bike lane protector that's common in DC, rather than more expensive curbing or a raised roadbed for bike lanes. The cost estimates also cover bike symbols, lane and buffer striping, and changing existing pavement lines.

There are two main approaches to lane striping. The first, thermoplastic lines (hot tape), would cost about $165,000 to install. They'd carry an annual maintenance price tag of about $1,200.

The other option would be to use white paint for the lane markings. This would cost about $80,000 upfront, with $9,600 in annual maintenance.

On a per-mile basis, these cost estimates are considerably lower than most types of roadway improvements. The estimates, meant to provide ballpark figures rather than specifics, are from an engineer familiar with the proposal.

The Maryland State Highway Administration, which maintains Suitland Road, recently added road design guidelines that include buffered striping for bike lanes along with curbed protection features. WABA's proposal uses flexposts, a "soft" bike lane protector that's common in DC, instead of curbing or a raised roadbed for bike lanes.

The Suitland Civic Association, WABA, and local bike shops are planning a community walk to advocate for a better Suitland Road on April 4th.

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Transit


Events roundup: Outside and inside the beltway

Outside the beltway, learn about big plans for I-66 and buses in Loudoun County, and weigh in on transportation funding in northern Virginia. Inside the beltway, learn about Metro safety and hear some progressive takes today's transit challenges.


Photo by Adam Fagen

Changes to I-66: VDOT has big plans for HOT lanes on I-66 outside of the Beltway. Join Coalition for Smarter Growth and its partners to learn about their plans and voice your concerns on Wednesday, March 25, from 7 to 9 pm at the Oakton High School cafeteria at 2900 Sutton Road, Vienna. There will be a panel and extended open forum. RSVP is requested.

After the jump: Metro safety, buses in Loudoun, budgeting in northern Virginia, and crossing transit boundaries.

Metro safety: Safety is a growing concern on the Metro after several recent incidents. David Alpert will join an upcoming panel hosted by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) on Metro safety. ATU's public hearing is on Wednesday, March 25, from 6 to 8 pm at 1313 H St NE.

Buses in Loudoun County: Are you a commuter in Loudoun County? Loudoun has begun work on a six-year plan for countywide bus operations. It's focused on improvements to current service as well as expanding around the Silver Line. There will be two open houses on Wednesday, March 25, at the Loudoun County Government Center at 1 Harrison Street SE in Leesburg. The first will be from 12 to 3 pm and the second will be from 3 to 7 pm. Stop in and share your thoughts.

Virginia transportation projects: Have an opinion on which northern Virginia transportation projects deserve funding, and which don't? The place to speak up is at Wednesday's Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) public input meeting. Learn about and comment on the proposed projects, before NVTA makes decisions on which projects to fund. The open house begins at 6:00 with a presentation and public hearing to follow. Shuttle to the meeting from Dunn Loring Metro provided.

Pushing transit boundaries: If you are frustrated with the current state of regional transit, join GGW contributors Dan Reed and Stewart Schwartz at the League of Women Voters' transportation forum on finding modern solutions to today's problems. The forum is this Saturday, March 28, from 9:30 am to 3:15 pm at 4301 Wilson Blvd in Arlington.

Pressure for bus lanes: After advocates' campaign for a bus lane on 16th Street last year, next Tuesday 3/31 DDOT is kicking off the year-long study that is the next required step to see real change in the corridor. But public involvement is key to keeping it from becoming just another dusty study on a self. The Coalition for Smarter Growth is organizing supporters to attend the kickoff at the Mt. Pleasant Library (2160 16th St NW).

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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Government


Virginia takes the politics out of transportation spending

A newly-passed General Assembly bill will make transportation spending in Virginia more practical and less political, by replacing ad-hoc funding decisions with more transparent performance measures.


Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.

HB1887, the "omnibus transportation bill" which the General Assembly passed this session, makes dozens of changes to the complicated web of formulas and regulations that govern Virginia's transportation budget.

The biggest change completely replaces the state's system for deciding which local road projects to build. Other changes set aside more money to maintain existing roads and bridges, and add more money to transit.

The new legislation will "revolutionize the way Virginia invests taxpayer dollars to restore aging roads, build new capacity and increase transit," says Virginia secretary of transportation Aubrey Layne in an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Funding decisions should become less political

Proponents of HB1887 argue it will make transportation planning and budgeting far less political.

Currently, a group called the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) makes decisions about what projects to advance, and where to spend money. But CTB members are appointed by the governor, and it's common for governors to fire and replace any CTB members who don't toe the party line, or who toe the wrong party's.

HB1887 changes that. Not only does it restrict governor's ability to fire CTB members without cause, it also requires the CTB to follow objective performance measures when allocating certain pots of money.

Money for repairs and key projects

Once signed into law, HB1887 will direct a larger percentage of Virginia's transportation budget to maintaining and replacing old bridges and roads, as opposed to building completely new highways. The CTB will develop a priority ranking system to distribute those funds, so the money will go where it can do the most good.

Still, a lot of money will go towards projects to expand interstates, major roadways, and rail lines across Virginia. The CTB is also responsible for distributing these funds, but under new, more mode-agnostic criteria mandated under last year's HB2 legislation.

Improvements to local project funding

Another large pot of money will go to road projects that local jurisdictions request funding for directly, via Virginia's nine road construction districts. Any county, city, or town can apply to its VDOT construction district for a grant. VDOT will analyze each request according to pre-determined performance measures, and fund as many as it can each year.

Northern Virginia's district includes the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, Manassas, and Manassas Park, along with Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties.

"Projects selected will receive full funding for all phases, allowing projects to proceed more quickly from design to construction," wrote Layne. He adds, "this is a significant improvement from the old system" which guaranteed a small amount of money to each jurisdiction every year, and "in which communities often "banked" funds for five to ten years so they had enough money to build the projects they wanted."

$40 million for transit

The bill also moves $40 million statewide from highways, ports, and aviation toward transit projects, such as new buses or railcars, and rehabilitating track. This transfer is key, because without it Virginia's transit capital funding would drop 62% in the coming years.

That's only a partial win. The coming drop in transit funding is close to $100 million, so there will still be less money for transit in the future than there's been in the past. But $40 million is better than nothing.

By comparison, individual highway interchanges frequently cost over $40 million each.

Other good transportation bills also passed

In other good news, legislators amended HB1915/SB1314, which would have forced officials to use highway-favoring "congestion metrics" in choosing transportation projects, to be less damaging to transit, bike, and pedestrian projects. And HB1886 passed, which partially reforms the Public Private Transportation Act, meaning Virginia should see even more accountability and transparency.

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Transit


How should Montgomery County fund and build Bus Rapid Transit?

Montgomery County needs to find a funding stream in order to make its Bus Rapid Transit happen, and county executive Ike Leggett is exploring the possibilities. One of them is an independent transit authority, and while that may still work, the county needs to both vet it more thoroughly and weigh other options.


Photo by Oregon Department of... on Flickr.

In late January, Leggett rolled out his initial vision for how to develop, operate, and finance BRT via a new independent transit authority that could raise additional property tax revenue. Opposition led him to withdraw that initial proposal last week, citing a need for a more in-depth community review.

The first step in the process would have been to pass state legislation to enable Montgomery County to create such an organization. An array of voices turned out to a hearing in Rockville on January 30th to testify in favor of the legislation and to support the BRT network, from the Sierra Club to the African Immigrant Caucus.

The Bus Rapid Transit plan is popular with Montgomery County residents—a survey of 400 residents in early 2014 found 71% of residents support BRT. They see BRT as a way to revitalize aging commercial corridors, make the area safer for people walking and on bikes, ease traffic congestion, and decrease air pollution.


Map of Montgomery's BRT plan by Communities for Transit

But while the network has garnered widespread support, many union members and civic association leaders have voiced opposition to the independent transit authority legislation. Their concerns range from the proposed tax to questions about labor rights to how quickly the bill had been rolled out.

While some opponents are people who have been against BRT from the start, concerns from residents and councilmembers prompted Leggett to withdraw the bill and bring stakeholders together to discuss other options for funding by June.

Where should the money come from?

Montgomery County already dedicates a portion of its property taxes to the RideOn bus system, but it's not enough to pay for both RideOn and BRT. Leggett proposes giving the county council authority to set and approve a higher property tax rate that would be enough to would cover both.

An independent transit authority with a dedicated revenue stream is a promising idea that deserves consideration. Similar structures have worked well, primarily at regional scales, to provide laser-focus to build and finance new transit systems such as a streetcar in Pima County, AZ. Local funding and oversight for BRT may be more important than ever given the new Governor's expressed interest in cutting transit investment.

One reason transit advocates supported the transit authority proposal was that it included the possibility for the county to do its own planning studies; currently, the State Highway Administration is in charge. Right now, it's hard for Montgomery County to manage timelines, costs, and system designs, a problem that last year led to a mishandled planning study on Georgia Avenue. A local agency wouldn't totally eliminate the risk of bad design or lagging timelines, but local control over the coming BRT system will be essential to making it great.

County Council staff have recommended considering other options that the county allows for raising revenues, including special taxing districts and differential tax rates on commercial and residential properties. Councilmembers have said they prefer splitting the cost between all residents as well as commercial property owners within the BRT corridors that stand to benefit.

Before raising additional revenue, elected officials should also look to reprogram the existing transportation budget. Even though driving in the county has been declining for over 10 years, costs of road expansion projects total over $180 million in the county's capital budget and over $1 billion on its wish list for state transportation funds. If BRT is the county's top priority after the Purple Line, it should reconsider these costly investments.

To move forward, the county can use a public engagement process to help residents understand the costs and benefits of a potential funding system for BRT. Montgomery's transit plans are forward-thinking and its residents need and want better transit. Now, officials need to put forth a clear vision to finance and build BRT, in partnership with the community.

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Transit


Is "the GGW agenda" dead? No, but it's hard to build transit

Former Chevy Chase mayor and longtime Purple Line foe David Lublin provocatively wrote that "the Greater Greater Washington agenda" is "a fading dream" after a year of bad news for transit in our region. While we appreciate his compliment in choosing us to pick on, he's wrong.


Original agenda image from Shutterstock.

Lublin notes that Arlington canceled the Columbia Pike streetcar, the DC Council cut its streetcar budget, and Maryland governor Larry Hogan is "reviewing" the Purple Line after campaigning on the idea that it's too expensive.

Lublin claims that this shows "the region isn't following" this site's transit vision. Indeed, the first two are significant setbacks. It's too early to call the Purple Line, though as a leader in the town which has vociferously fought the line since 1989, Lublin is hoping for its demise.

But has Washington really turned away from transit?

2014 was a bad year for transit... except it was one of the best

Lublin adds one important caveat: he says all this happened "since the high point of the opening of the Silver Line." That was a pretty high point. This was the first new track mileage for Metro since the Blue Line to Largo in 2004. The Silver Line route has been on maps since at least 1968.

Virginia also opened the region's first Bus Rapid Transit, Alexandria's "Metroway" around Potomac Yard. These were big wins, and they matter.

It's very, very hard to build transit projects in America. The original Metro came a time when the United States wanted to invest in infrastructure, to compete with the Soviet Union among other reasons. We believed we could achieve great things together; we went to the moon, we built great highways and bridges and trains. Now, Asian nations are doing that while we nitpick the cost of every project.

Unlike road money, federal transit funds are competitive. The Federal Transit Administration chooses projects based on cost-effectiveness, and there are far more worthy projects than available dollars. It took a sustained, bipartisan campaign from Fairfax and Virginia officials, local business groups, and landowners to win the Silver Line. The airports authority also had the power to raise tolls to bring in a little more money and get the project over any obstacles.

There were big setbacks for transit

Lublin lists three "key components of GGW's vision" which, he claims, "the area has begun to reject."

It's worth pointing out that "the GGW agenda" goes far beyond just transit. Walkable development and "main streets" are getting built instead of malls and sprawl subdivisions. There are bike lanes and protected bikeways everywhere, including in Lublin's mostly-suburban Montgomery County. Walking is getting safer. There are more retail choices in many neighborhoods. Cities are working hard to expand affordable housing.

Still, let's look at the real transit setbacks this year.

1) The Columbia Pike streetcar. Arlington had enormous success building dense development around transit stations, but it wasn't getting any new Metro lines. There's no way to fund a Metro line under Columbia Pike. A dedicated transit lane would also be excellent, but the Virginia Department of Transportation said taking any lanes away from cars was out of the question.

It's tough when there isn't money to build the best transit and politically you can't inconvenience drivers. Arlington leaders concluded that even a streetcar in mixed traffic would move many riders than buses and generate enough economic incentive to build more densely and fund considerable new affordable housing.

But they had to choose a deeply imperfect alternative, which many reasonable pro-transit people still opposed. It was far from a slam dunk. Leading opponents also blatantly lied about whether "BRT" was a realistic alternative.

Meanwhile, BRAC made office vacancy rates skyrocket and kneecapped Arlington's budget. Add in complacency and political tone-deafness from the sitting county board, and it created an opening for a new set of politicians to tell voters, especially ones in wealthy suburban North Arlington, that their tax dollars were being wasted.

Once, Arlington had one political party. Now, it has two. One is finding big success encouraging wealthy taxpayers to resent public works that benefit others. It has plenty in common with Town of Chevy Chase Purple Line opponents.

2) The DC streetcar. It's important to note that to this day, most DC politicians continue to insist they favor streetcars. Maybe it's just posturing, for some, but DC is not anti-transit. Rather, the problem is simple: the streetcar was terribly, horribly, miserably mis-managed under the Gray administration.

There had been mistakes before, too, but over the last four years, DDOT streetcar officials continually lied to the public about when the streetcar could open, completely failed to plan for a maintenance facility, and dropped the ball entirely on coordinating with WMATA to keep buses and streetcars interacting smoothly.

They even have absolutely no system right now to collect fares if and when the streetcar does open, and avoided telling almost anyone about this for years.

It's no wonder that when one of the councilmembers who most opposed streetcars in the first place tried to take the money away, almost nobody put up a fight. Who would stick his or her neck out amidst such failings?

The streetcar still has a lot of promise, especially if officials can muster the political courage to give it dedicated lanes (which is already part of the plan for the congested K Street segment). But DDOT will have a long road to rebuild confidence before elected leaders or the public will just hand the agency a big chunk of money.

3) The Purple Line, on the other hand, has none of these flaws or missteps. It is an absolute slam dunk of a transportation project. It will run in an old railroad right-of-way between Bethesda and Silver Spring, two massive job and housing centers, and then in dedicated lanes over to the University of Maryland, a huge activity hub, and New Carrollton, a significant transit center.

It would blow past the ridership levels of nearly any other light rail line in the nation. It would make the existing investment in Metro vastly more valuable as well and add significant ridership at the less crowded ends of lines. It will make parts of Prince George's County much more desirable for new office and retail.

Unlike the DC Streetcar, it has been well-planned and well-managed (in large part by the man who now has taken over DC's department of transportation and has the job of cleaning up the streetcar mess). It has passed all of the federal competitive grant processes and been found worthy, and has additional federal money attached.

There are only two reasons to oppose the Purple Line, neither good. One is Lublin's: you live in a leafy little rich town in between Bethesda and Silver Spring and don't want a train to run along its edge, no matter how valuable that is to other Marylanders. The other is the rural voters', many of whom helped elect Larry Hogan: you just don't want a big chunk of "your" tax money (even though the denser jurisdictions pay more in taxes) to go to things you won't use in a part of the state you don't live in.

The nation we were is gone

The Purple Line will bring economic growth whose benefits far outweigh the costs. It will move a lot of people very effectively. America used to invest in such projects because we believed in building great things. Yet our nation has grown more fiscally conservative since the days of building Metro.

Lublin writes,

Project after project promoted by GGW has gone by the wayside in some among the most liberal jurisdictions in the country, so it's difficult to blame the shift on the Tea Party. Moreover, most of these projects have had frequent and unremitting support from the establishment Washington Post.
Don't dismiss shifting political winds so readily. Even in our Democratic-dominated region, more and more voters just want a politician who will cut taxes and spending. There was real waste in those headier days, sure, but also real investments we no longer have the political will to make.

Despite its transit support, the Post's editorial board consistently supported conservative candidates this cycle. The editors endorsed John Vihstadt, the anti-infrastructure Arlington candidate, partly the grounds that he would "reevaluate other expensive projects" other than the streetcar, which they supported. (They also argued his election wouldn't kill the streetcar, which was entirely wrong.)

They endorsed Hogan in the primary with a fervent anti-tax statement, then tepidly supported Democrat Anthony Brown in the general election while continuing to complain about state spending. And they helped Muriel Bowser, who was one of the most fiscally conservative members of the DC Council, break out as the anti-Vincent Gray candidate and ultimately win the mayoralty.

Many people now speak of infrastructure more as "spending" than "investment." Even most press articles about any project lead with the top-line dollar figure in the headline and bury any analysis of the project's economic benefits, and one of the first commenters always shouts, "Boondoggle!"

Communities increasingly look inward and resent projects that benefit someone else. We want to do less together as a society. We don't want to build big things. Those who have want to jealously guard their advantages instead of bettering the whole. Even people who consider themselves liberal on national issues want to build virtual walls around their own communities to keep the other out.

Lublin is right that things have changed. More wealthy enclaves in the Washington area are adopting the Town of Chevy Chase's brand of tight-fisted, self-interested narrow thinking. I just don't think it's something to be proud of.

Correction: The initial version of this post said the Washington Post had endorsed Larry Hogan for Maryland governor. In fact, it endorsed Hogan only in the primary, but its general election endorsement for Anthony Brown still took a fiscally conservative tack. The appropriate paragraph has been modified.

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