The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Transportation Financing


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


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.


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.


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.


Koch-funded groups: Cut all federal funding for walking, biking, transit

You know it's time to fight over the federal transportation bill when the fossil fuel-soaked elements of the conservative movement start agitating to stop funding everything except car infrastructure.

As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is transit and "squirrel sanctuaries." Image from Brookings.

Yesterday, a coalition of 50 groups, several funded by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the small portion that goes to walking, biking, and transit [PDF]. The signatories do not want Congress to even think about raising the gas tax, which has been steadily eaten away by inflation since 1993.

The coalition membership includes many stalwarts of the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth. The Koch brothers recently went public with plans to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is "regressive" because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can't afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

"This scorched-earth proposal would eliminate the ability of local transportation agencies to invest in their own transportation priorities and lock us all into a 1950's—style highway- and car-only mentality that flies in the face of common sense—not to mention economics and what the free market and simple demographics have been telling us for years," wrote Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

Eliminating federal funding for transit would devastate many American cities, where transit agency budgets would be thrown into turmoil. And while federal funding for biking and walking can make a big difference because the infrastructure is so cost efficient, killing those programs won't affect the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. The savings wouldn't even be enough to cover the cost of rebuilding a single interchange in Wisconsin.

Congressional Republicans tried this maneuver before during the last transportation bill reauthorization battle, unsuccessfully, although they did eventually whittle away secure funding for programs like Safe Routes to School. That didn't actually solve any problems, but it was a fine way for the GOP to pretend like the country can go on spending like a drunken sailor on highways.


What to watch for in the 2015 Virginia General Assembly

The Virginia General Assembly's 2015 session kicks off today in Richmond. Smart growth and environmental advocates are gearing up for a busy, if short, session. While things evolve quickly at the beginning of any legislative session, there are already several issues and bills to look for that may impact smart growth in Northern Virginia.

Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.

Transit funding

Because legislation over the past four years didn't make transit a priority, it faces big funding shortfalls. 65% of Virginia's population and gross state product lie within the urban crescent (from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads), and with an aging population in rural areas, transit needs are growing.

Yesterday, Governor McAuliffe announced a package of transportation initiatives including a proposal to shift $50 million per year from ports, aviation, highways, and freight rail to transit. This helps, but isn't a long-term solution.

Transportation policy reform

Advocates expect that bills to reform the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA) will try to prevent future disastrous project decisions, like Route 460 out of Hampton Roads, which wasted $300 million in taxpayer funds without having permits in hand. This year, proposed reforms to the PPTA include requiring better risk analysis and greater legislative oversight.

Highway advocates hostile to transit have tried for many years to make "congestion reduction" the main criterion for selecting transportation projects. Last year, the smart growth community won important amendments to a bill, HB2, which set more balanced criteria to give transit projects a fair chance at funding.

Unfortunately, transit opponents are back this session with bills to force VDOT to evaluate Northern Virginia projects solely under the congestion reduction standard. This would force officials to ignore the benefits of transit for moving more people, providing an effective commute option, reducing air pollution, promoting smart growth development, and maximizing walk, bike and transit trips.

Bicycle and pedestrian priorities

Legislators are proposing bills to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, including anti-dooring bills, bills to make it easier to safely and legally pass cyclists with a 3-foot buffer, and bills to require stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks.

Another bill would ensure localities don't lose state funding if they make bike improvements on local streets. Today, changing road from two lanes each way to one lane each way, plus a center turn lane, plus bike lanes (as Fairfax County did with Lawyers Road) could reduce a jurisdiction's funding under the state formula.

Standards for Uber, Lyft, and other services

Ride-hailing services have hit the scene across the country, offering new options for getting around without owning a car. States are addressing how to properly regulate these services, and Virginia is no exception. Issues include insurance, background checks for drivers, access for the disabled and those without credit cards, and use of hybrid or other high-efficiency vehicles.

Threats to land conservation

Virginia's very successful Land Preservation Tax Credit program is facing significant cuts, even though it has effectively helped Virginians to voluntarily conserve tens of thousands of acres in farms and forests, and helped communities reduce sprawl and the costs of public infrastructure.

Opponents of land conservation are also pushing legislation designed to undermine the conservation easement program, impacting the right and ability of private landowners to conserve their land. Expect to see smart growth and conservation groups across the state partner to defend this program.

Potomac bridges

It seems that each year brings new bills pushing for new highways across the Potomac far upstream from the American Legion Bridge. New bridges have the potential to impact Great Falls, Reston, and eastern Loudoun, fueling more sprawl and diverting funds need for investing in transit and fixing the American Legion Bridge. Each year, we've won bipartisan support to stop these bills. We'll see if they pop up again.

Specific details on particular bills will become available on the legislative system as they are filed and published. We'll follow up with bill numbers, details, and links in upcoming posts as the legislative session continues.


Should Congress be the ones to deliver more and better transportation infrastructure, or should we?

Now that the cromnibus crisis is crover, it's not too soon to remember that the current federal surface transportation spending authorization is going to run out in six months. Before things get down to the wire, we should remind ourselves of why surface transportation finance has become such a messy issue.

Results from a recent focus group study on transportation funding. Image by Lake Research Partners and Bellweather Research and Consulting.

Last summer, Congress allowed the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to nearly go bankrupt before providing a last-minute bailout. But that infusion from the General Fund, along with a dozen short-term extensions and authorizations, is the type of money that's kept federal surface transportation limping along since the last long-term authorization expired in 2009.

Ever since, the federal government has dispensed funds in a way that keeps infrastructure maintenance and construction on a flatline, short-term budget while requiring states and regions to provide plans for the long-term. It doesn't make sense.

The federal surface transportation program currently has no vision; it's a formula rather than a dynamic plan. And in five years of waiting, neither the Obama administration nor members of Congress have filled the void.

A big part of the problem is that transportation has lost the public's trust

Congress is unlikely to raise the gas tax even as prices plummet. We're all completely fed up with crumbling roads and incomplete streets. But instead of blaming a do-nothing Congress, transportation professionals need to confront the fact that actually no one wants to dedicate revenue to our work because the American transportation planning process is opaque and technocratic, wasteful, and unresponsive to public priorities. Some even call it elitist.

Our region has certainly fallen victim to this dynamic. In 2013, a series of focus groups led by the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in DC, Maryland, and Virginia showed that people are generally against attempts to increase revenue for transportation.

But after group participants considered alternatives, like increased tolling or a instituting a charge on vehicle miles traveled, support for increasing the gas tax rose from 21 percent to a majority of 57 percent. Even more telling, a whopping three-quarters of focus group participants wanted more money to go to transit, and 58 percent backed more funding for pedestrian and bicycle projects. Directing new revenue to roads came last, at 53 percent.

A recent national poll by a bipartisan pollster team (and sponsored by my employer, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy) found similar results across party lines, demographic groups, and geographic regions among likely 2016 voters. When asked to distribute a hypothetical $100 in tax dollars among highways, transit, and pedestrian and bike infrastructure, voters divided the money far more evenly among these three pots than Congress currently does.

There is a clear difference between the public's priorities and what the current planning process serves up. Voters of all kinds would support funding transportation infrastructure if we addressed this cognitive dissonance.

Crowdsourcing is a new way for the public to get involved in financing and supporting transportation projects

The federal government could take the wheel in realigning how it invests in transportation infrastructure to match public priorities. But is it likely to do so?

A lot of people are tired of waiting to find out. As an alternative to hoping for money from Washington, staff from the crowd-resourcing platform ioby recently gathered in DC with transit, walking, and bicycling advocates to brainstorm ways to apply their grassroots funding model to projects in the Washington region.

Participants noted that crowd sourcing doesn't just bring purchasing power, but also an opportunity for donors to show political and emotional buy-in for projects in their communities. And while crowdfunding isn't going to build a billion dollar bridge or transit line, a project leader in Memphis recently used the platform to raise matching funds to leverage $4.5 million in other funding to build a two-mile protected bike lane.

Perhaps this new form of civic engagement for transportation projects will help push our leaders toward a new vision for American surface transportation.


Chevy Chase grasps at straws in the Purple Line fight

The Town of Chevy Chase has run out of coherent arguments in its fight to keep the Purple Line away from its borders.

The Purple Line in Maryland. Rendering by MTA.

With a Republican administration arriving in Annapolis, endangered shrimp-like creatures are no longer in fashion. So in a series of blog posts this week, former Chevy Chase mayor David Lublin focuses instead on the project's finances. He makes two main points in his criticism of the Maryland Transit Administration's plans for the Purple Line: that the state will turn to private partners to help fund it, and that the state expects it to carry more passengers than other light rail lines around the country.

But these are strengths, not weaknesses.

Lublin's claim that the project is weak because it uses a public-private partnership (P3) has things backwards. The project's merit is why the state chose it as the vehicle for P3 funding. Maryland could afford to build the Purple Line with current revenues, but it needs money for other transportation projects.

The total of the road and transit projects around the state is more than what the state can finance within its debt limit. Under Maryland law, P3 financing doesn't count against the limit because it is not paid back out of taxes. (In this case, fare revenue will repay the investors.) The state selected the Purple Line as a vehicle for P3 financing rather than some other facility because it judged that it would be unusually attractive to private investors. This judgment has proved correct, demonstrating the project's financial soundness.

Compared to other transportation projects, the Purple Line is the best investment Maryland can make

Maryland faces serious budget pressures, but that does not mean it can or should stop building transportation infrastructure. Over the next six years, the state plans to spend $7.2 billion on capital projects through the State Highway Administration, and $6.2 billion on transit through MTA and WMATA.

The state relies heavily on county governments to prioritize transportation investments. In 2013, following the increase in the gas tax, MDOT announced funds for replacing the Nice Bridge, a project that will cost $1 billion to serve an estimated 37,000 cars per day, because that's what Calvert Charles County prioritized. MDOT also funded design for the Thomas Johnson Bridge, estimated to cost over $800 million, because that's what Calvert and St. Mary's Counties wanted.

In Montgomery and Prince George's alone, there are dozens of road widening and interchange projects in the pipeline that collectively cost billions. In Montgomery, there are at least eight interchanges, including the Georgia Avenue/Norbeck Road interchange ($142 million), the US-29/Fairland Road interchange ($148 million), a new interchange at I-270/Newcut Road ($138 million), and four more interchanges on US-29 that will cost an additional $500 million. In Prince George's, officials have plans for an interchange at MD-4/Suitland Parkway for $150 million, and for seven interchanges on Indian Head Highway totaling $606 million.

Ten interchanges cost as much as the state's share of the Purple Line. Which of these will create more access to jobs and stimulate more economic development? Prince George's and Montgomery know the answer, and for many years their leaders have identified the Purple Line as their transportation priority.

Lublin claims the Purple Line's projected ridership is inflated, but that's not true

Lublin's second claim is that Purple Line proponents have overestimated its ridership. For this argument, he relies on a blog post by the well-known light rail critic Randal O'Toole, who asserts the Maryland line won't carry any more riders than others around the country.

O'Toole doesn't look at the specifics of the state's ridership forecast—which, as I showed recently, is probably too low rather than too high—but instead relies on general observations about the route. These range from very dubious ("no major job centers" in Montgomery County) to irrelevant (the average density of the built-up sections of the county, including Germantown and Olney) to just plain false (he says many University of Maryland classrooms are not within walking distance of a future station).

Even worse, O'Toole gets the numbers completely wrong. He says the final Environmental Impact Statement forecasts 46,000 riders a day in 2030; actually, it says there will be 69,300 in 2030 and 74,160 in 2040. Similarly, he misquotes the draft EIS36,000 rather than around 65,000 (the route the state later chose is a hybrid of alternatives with forecasted ridership of 62,600 and 68,100).

Based on O'Toole's analysis, Lublin infers that fare revenues will fall short of estimates. He then throws in a complete red herring, asserting that Baltimore bus fares will pay to run the Purple Line. It would have the same degree of truth, and be just as misleading, to say that car registration fees paid in Garrett County finance the free courtesy van at Martin Airport east of Baltimore. Maryland collects revenue from air, water, and ground transportation throughout the state into a single trust fund. All regions contribute, and all benefit.

David Lublin is not a stupid person, and he is familiar with the Purple Line ridership forecasts. While he served on its council, Chevy Chase paid consultants a lot of money to critique the state's numbers. If the arguments in his recent blog posts are the best he's got, that speaks volumes about the weakness of the case against the Purple Line.


Events roundup: Post-holiday fun

After a short holiday break, we are jumping right back into a busy week of fun-filled events. Learn about Buzzard Point, Montgomery County rapid transit, and President Obama's transportation funding strategy. See new apps and tools using Capital Bikeshare data, and learn how smart growth and environmental protection go hand-in-hand in Virginia.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The future of Buzzard Point: This section of DC has started to change with the nearby baseball stadium and will change far more if a soccer stadium comes to the area. GGW contributor David Garber is moderating a panel discussion about Buzzard Point development Tuesday, December 2, 6:30 pm at 101 M Street SW.

Obama's transportation strategy: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, wil discuss the Obama administration's transportation funding strategy at a talk on Tuesday, December 2. It's at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm.

Capital Bikeshare technology: Coders around the region have continued to build useful and fun apps and visualizations using Capital Bikeshare data. The third CaBi hack night is coming up on Thursday, December 4. People will show off their creations at the WeWork Wonder Bread Factory, 641 S Street NW starting at 6 pm.

Montgomery County rapid transit: If buses are more your flavor, then spend your Thursday night learning about the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line for Montgomery County. The Coalition for Smarter Growth and Communities for Transit will host an informational open house at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 7:30-8:30 pm, where you can get up to speed on the proposal for 10 major BRT routes to connect several communities in the County.

Greener smart growth: Interested in saving the environment while supporting smart growth? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the MVCCA Environment and Recreation Committee to consider how smart growth can help support restoring the watershed around Route 1 in Fairfax County. Ecologist Danielle Wynne with Fairfax County will discuss the current restoration plans for the watershed and how we can balance growth and the future health of the environment. The event is on December 3 at the Mt. Vernon Government Center, 2511 Parkers Lane, from 7:15 to 8:30 pm.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City