In this episode: Author Philipp Meyer’s epic novel, The Son, ended up on best-of 2013 lists from The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. Tackling big themes about the American West, race relations and oil, the book follows multiple generations of the McCullough family in Texas. Today, Meyer -- a former derivatives trader -- tells us how The Clash and union anthems like “Which Side Are You On?” got him thinking about a creative life beyond Wall Street.
Carl Douglas scored a No. 1 hit in 1974 with a catchy, but not-quite-politically-correct track called “Kung Fu Fighting.” Pop chart obsessive Chris Molanphy explains how the birth of disco and the death of Bruce Lee created a perfect storm for this truly weird hit.
And: Jonathan Wilson channels the “Laurel Canyon Sound” on his latest record, Fanfare. Hear the singer-songwriter performs songs from his new album live in the Soundcheck studio.
Leaders in Howard County, Maryland, and the unincorporated town of Columbia are trying to figure out whether something that seems to be working quite well in more urban areas can be part of the plan going forward in their neck of the woods -- they’re exploring the potential of bike sharing.
The two municipalities have teamed up to apply for for grant money to fund a feasibility study on such a program.
The arrival of a bike sharing program could coincide with major redevelopment in Columbia's downtown, which is currently dominated by a sprawling shopping mall.
"It isn't a traditional downtown with a main street," Columbia Association director of community planning Jane Dembner says. "
But the sprawling retail complex and the expanse of parking lots surrounding it haven’t stopped Columbia, which is about a 30 minute drive from Baltimore and a 45 minute drive from the nation's capital, from regularly being listed as one of the very best places to live in the country.
The town's 100,000 residents have access to some of the best public schools in the nation, and foreclosure and jobless rates are impressively low.
But local leaders believe a bike sharing programs could make things even better. And there are already reasons to believe that if bike sharing is feasible in a suburban environment at all, Columbia would be the place.
Turn in to any of the residential streets in Columbia and it’s not long before you see some of the paved trails that snake through the neighborhoods. The trails were created as a selling point when this planned community was conceived by local developer Jim Rouse more than 40 years ago.
"We have 94 miles of pathways that are separated from our roadways. Major cities don’t have that many," Dembner says. "Washington [D.C.] doesn't have that many pathways."
The paved pathways are perfect for bicycling in most spots, but that doesn't mean they're perfect for bicycle commuting.
Some routes contain steep and winding sections that are difficult to navigate on a bicycle, and signage is almost non-existent. Even some locals say it's easy to lose your way.
"For people who know the area, it's in your head -- a mental map, I guess you could say," says Anthony Rizzi, a 17-year-old student at Wilde Lake High School. "But I know as a freshman doing cross-country I got lost all the time."
Howard County Council Chair Mary Kay Sigaty says the county, which is in charge of road improvements in Columbia, will have to invest in better on-road bike lanes to make bike sharing work.
"If you go on our bike trails, you can go all sorts of wonderful places, but you can't necessarily get from here to there," she says.
You can hear the entire WAMU story here.
(Jonathan Wilson - WAMU) Two D.C. Metro workers have been charged with stealing thousands of dollars in coins from fare machines.
Federal prosecutors allege 58-year-old Horace McDade, of Bowie, Md., and 54-year-old John V. Haile, of Woodbridge, Va., worked as a team to systematically pilfer from the transit agency's malfunctioning fare machines.
McDade is a revenue technician and Haile is a Metro police officer who allegedly provided security for the money transports.
Prosecutors say the investigation began after a source told authorities that Haile routinely pulled up to a store in Woodbridge with bags holding $500-dollars worth of coins he would use to buy lottery tickets.
Lottery records show Haile won $32,000 in 2011, and those records only count winning tickets of $600 or more.
Metro says both men have been suspended, and Officer John Haile is in the process of being fired.
Sarles' proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 would raise rail fares by 5 percent for most riders.
It would also introduce a flat fare for rail riders who use paper tickets, setting a $4 fare for off-peak hours, and a $6 fare for paper tickets during peak hours.
After Thursday's finance committee meeting, federally appointed board member Mortimer Downey says he's supportive of most of the fare increases -- but he says the flat paper ticket fees would be asking occasional riders to pay the highest fees in the entire system.
"If I were faced with that choice, I would say, 'How much is a cab?'" Downey says.
Sarles $1.6 billion budget proposal would allow the system to hire more than 1000 new people - a third of whom will help Metro get ready for the opening of the new Silver Line to Tysons corner in two years.
Metro's customers seem to have mixed feelings about how much more they should have to pay.
Doug Hunter says this isn't the first rate increase he's seen, and since Metro isn't getting enough support from local governments, he's happy to pay.
"Service isn't great sometimes, but it's the best thing we got -- the only thing we got," he says.
Stephanie Westbrook disagrees.
"Lot more voices need to be heard about this, because that increase is obnoxious," she says.
Westbrook and other customers will get a chance to weigh in on the proposal -- public hearings are scheduled for late February.
The debate over how to fund transportation needs in Virginia seems to be never-ending, but there's one idea gaining steam in Richmond that has both Republicans and Democrats in Virginia's D.C. suburbs worried: "devolution."
Devolution is the term for having counties and cities take over maintenance of secondary roads, and the idea has been discussed for years. Right now Virginia's Department of Transportation (VDOT) has much of that responsibility, but with the agency severely underfunded and a steady stream of complaints about road deterioration in the Commonwealth, the prospect of saddling cities and counties with the task is becoming more attractive to some. Earlier this year the state commissioned an extensive study on 'devolution' by George Mason University researchers.
"It's something that's on the table -- we have to consider it," VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley says. "It's just difficult, based upon the funding that we have, to do all things. So we're going to have to pick a few things and to them well."
Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart, a Republican, says if the governor and general assembly push 'devolution' through, it's local taxpayers that would suffer.
"It will cause a massive tax increase all over Northern Virginia, not just Prince William, but also Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria," says Stewart.
Fairfax County Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay says Fairfax could likely do a better job than the state's Department of Transportation, but not without new revenue.
"If it devolves to local government, with the funding scheme that's in place today, we simply don't have the money to do it," McKay says.
But both Stewart and McKay say they fear Virginia's general assembly could push the idea through no matter what local leaders have to say about it.
(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) There was no shortage of transportation related news for D.C.-area residents to digest in 2011. Here's a list of some of the biggest stories:
The Rail-to-Dulles Kerfuffle
Most residents and leaders in the D.C. region agree that extending Metrorail to Dulles International Airport is a good idea. But that doesn't mean that everybody agrees on what it should cost, how the new Metro stations should be designed, or who should pay how much.
The nearly $6 billion project is so important to the nation's capital region that U.S. Transportation Secretary stepped in to broker a compromise, but it took a while. The way the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which is overseeing the project, has handled the situation angered local Northern Virginia leaders so much that MWAA may soon be forced to change the way it does business. For now, the counties are onboard with the latest plan, and the second phase of the project is moving forward, but stay tuned.
More Metro Woes
It's hard to know where to start with this one -- the bad news for D.C.'s transit system doesn't seem to have stopped since the 2009 Metrorail crash that left nine people dead. This year the bad news continued with questions surrounding the ethics behind Metro's method of extending contracts. The GAO also chided Metro's board for mismanagement. Crime at Metro stations continues to trend upward. The woefully underfunded system also seems to find new ways to show its age every year -- and in 2011, it was broken escalators that got the spotlight. To be fair, Metro made some progress on the escalator outages. Maybe that freed up some grumbling riders' energy to focus on those long station names, also seen as a problem.
Capital BikeShare Grows
The program launched in the summer of 2010, but in 2011 it took off, drawing in tourists and residents alike -- -- particularly after an online coupon doubled membership. Support from the nation's executive branch doesn't hurt. Neither do free helmets. The system currently covers the District and neighboring Arlington County, in Northern Virginia, but all signs point to expansion in both Virginia and Maryland.
BRAC, BRAC, BRAC
Under the Department of Defense's Base Realignment and Closure program military bases are closing around the country, dampening the economies of many base-dependent communities. But in the Washington D.C. region, the concern is on military personnel moving into the area, and creating traffic nightmares for the already congested roads. For much of 2011, local leaders were scrambling to get more federal funding for traffic improvement projects around bases and new DoD buildings, and some wanted BRAC projects delayed altogether. Much of the furor surrounded the massive Washington Headquarters Service building in Alexandria, which brings 6,400 federal workers into a building along I-395, one of the busiest roads in the country. Thanks to the DoD's plan to phase in the arrival of the workers, the building, which opened in September, hasn't led to the traffic nightmares many predicted. But local leaders who criticized BRAC plans say things will get worse as more workers move in, and they feel vindicated by this report, released at the start of December.
Former District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein actually resigned in December of 2010, but the ripple effects continued well into 2011. In the Spring, while Mayor Vincent Gray continued his search for a replacement, TN broke the story that Klein was tapped as transportation chief in Chicago, under new Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Gray finally named a successor in May, but it remains to be seen if the new director can leave a mark as big as Klein who was the driving force behind Capital Bikeshare, new bike lanes, and the D.C. Circulator bus service.
Arlington Draws Line in Sand over HOT Lanes
Northern Virginia continues to move forward with the construction of High Occupancy Toll lanes, on the Capital Beltway and on a portion of I-95, but Arlington County leaders successfully forced the state to keep HOT lanes out of their territory, and made a few enemies by doing so.
Pedicabbers vs. Park Police
At the start of the summer, pedicabbers in began complaining that Park Police around the National Mall had upped the hostility towards their kind this year. Park Police denied any sort of crackdown. Some pedicabbers suggest a change in treatment had to do with the Park Service's exclusive contract with Tourmobile, a tourbus company that has designated parking spots around the Mall. But since the contract expired this fall, pedicab operators say things aren't getting any better.
D.C. Attempts to Impose Some Order on Intercity Bus Industry
Unlike New York, D.C. is moving the "curbside" buses -- like Megabus and Bolt Bus -- away from the curbs. First the city announced new fees for the discount bus companies to cover their idling in metered parking spaces. Then the city moved several of the most prominent companies off of city curbs and into a space in the Union Station parking garage dedicated to the booming industry.
Read other year in review posts from around the nation here.
(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) In Maryland's Montgomery County, AAA MidAtlantic and the Latino Advocacy group Casa de Maryland are sounding the alarm about the disproportionate number of Hispanics killed in pedestrian crashes.
Triple-A's John Townsend says of the 11 pedestrian deaths in the county this year, five of the victims were Hispanics -- Hispanics make up only 17 percent of the county's population.
"What we're seeing is this increase in the percentage of Hispanics who are killed on highways not only in Montgomery County, but across the region," says Townsend. He says many Hispanic immigrants aren't used to the amount of traffic on local roads, and for some, a language barrier makes it hard to understand safety rules.
Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews says the county will continue efforts to reach out to the Hispanic community regarding traffic safety. But he says it's also critical for individuals to simply change their behavior.
"The government can only do so much -- ultimately it's up to drivers and pedestrians to be more careful," says Andrews.
AAA says Viers Mill Road has emerged as a particularly dangerous road for pedestrians in Montgomery County this year. So far four Hispanic pedestrians have been killed on the road in 2011, including two just this past weekend.
(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Montgomery County, Maryland ,which borders the nation's capital, is hoping for some financial help from the state to get its portion of Capital Bikeshare up and rolling.
(Washington, D.C. - Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) D.C. pedicab operators have been complaining of hostile treatment from police around the National Mall for much of the year. Although business slows down as the weather gets colder, some pedicab drivers say unpleasant interactions with police are again heating up.
Pedicab operators in the District started complaining of a police crackdown on their industry in the spring. Brian Graber, who's been operating a pedicab for three years now, says the U.S. Park Police force-- which has jurisdiction over the National Mall -- was enforcing rules before, but something has changed.
"This year, it started getting ferocious, if you will," Graber says. "I don't know what happened."
Oskar Mosco says he thought things would calm down once the National Park Service contract with Tourmobile ended in October, since many confrontations with police have centered on pedicabs picking up customers in designated Tourmobile pickup locations. But in the past couple of weeks, he says he's seen an increase in hostile attitudes from some officers.
"The same officers are coming up," he says. "We talk about getting badge numbers, to have some accountability."
The Park Police did not respond to requests for comment. The National Park Service has said it is drafting revised regulations for pedicab operation around the mall.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is drafting a letter to the National Park Service this week, urging Park Service officials to involve pedicab operators as they formulate the plan.
Norton says tension between police and pedicab operators should be resolved with a simple sit-down meeting, but she also says revamping the transportation plan for the National Mall goes beyond resolving conflicts between pedicab operators, the Park Police and the Park Service.
"Are we going to have multi-modal, green transportation on the mall?" asks Norton. "Or are we going to have monopoly transportation? That's the kind of issue the public needs to weigh in on. I'm hoping the Park Service understands that."
(Washington, D.C. - Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) Thirty two-year old Kathleen Caggiano says she loved to travel…she had flown dozens of times without a worry. But in 2008 she was flying into Reagan National Airport from Dayton, Ohio. She says the flight was full – but she’d been on crowded planes before.
“I do remember, there was a guy next to me and he kept bumping into me with his elbow," she says. "I thought he was just trying to get settled in his seat, but then throughout the flight he kept doing that.”
Caggiano says about 30 minutes before the landing…something in her cracked.
At first it felt like an allergic reaction.
“My throat started closing in…and I just had this sensation of, ‘I have to get off the plane now.’ Of course, I realized, I couldn’t – I’m thousands of feet up in the air. But I’ve never had that feeling of ‘Get me out, NOW,'" she says.
Fear of Flying vs. Claustrophobia
There’s little reliable data on how many people suffer from a fear of flying. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll from 2006 found that 9 percent of American adults count themselves as “very afraid” of flying, but the number of people for whom the fears are serious enough to count as a phobia may be much lower.
Clinical Social Worker Jean Ratner, who specializes in patients with travel anxieties, says for about half of the fearful flyers she’s seen, the problem has little to do with worrying about a crash or a terrorist attack…the issue is claustrophobia, or a fear of being trapped in a small space.
Ratner remembers one client who made her realize that not all flying fears are the same.
“This one woman said to me, you know what, if that plane exploded or had a crash – at least that would be a way to get out of that plane. And that really drove it home to me.”
Kathleen Caggiano – who fell into the claustrophobic group – avoided airplanes for about two years after her 2008 episode.
“My dad and stepmom retired to Naples Florida, and that was hard for me because I ended up driving. And it was 16-18 hours, it was ridiculous.”
And the fear spread…riding the Metro became too much for her, and even driving became a problem when it came to the Fort McHenry Tunnel on I-95 North. Caggiano says she knew she needed to get help after calling off a trip to visit family in Pennsylvania.
“I was literally – had my car packed, I was at the tunnel, and I couldn’t do it. I got off a the last exit and went home. I told my family I was sick and not feeling well – that was really hard for me. I really wanted to go and see everyone, and I couldn’t do it.”
Ratner says increasing isolation from family and friends is common for travel claustrophobics who aren’t getting help…she says many of her clients in the D.C. area are successful professionals who are fearful of getting promoted at work if it means they’ll have to travel more.
But she says there is plenty of reason for hope, even if it feels as if the fear is insurmountable…for many people, stopping a panic attack before it starts is all about breathing.
Ratner says many people start holding their breath as they start to panic…
“With each person, I try to find, what will help them get into a natural, effortless kind of breathing – it doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” she says.
Ratner also makes her clients practice sitting facing a wall for extended periods of time, with just a book and glass of water to simulate an in-flight experience.
Overcoming One's Fears
When they’re ready, Ratner even accompanies clients on short flights…Caggiano, who counts herself as a success story, has now flown with Ratner twice.
“I have found typically, they don’t need me on those flights – but they know I’m there. It gives them that feeling of just in case they panic,” Ratner says.
“It’s kind of crazy, my family thought I was nuts,” Caggiano remembers. “They didn’t understand. They’re like, ‘You flew to Chicago, and just came back.’ You fly there and come back the same day.”
Whether it’s nuts or not – Caggiano has slowly been conquering her fears.
Ratner says it’s important for those with fears like Caggiano’s to practice their coping skills – whether it’s breathing or visualization exercises – as they go about their daily lives.
And she says even if a fearful flier feels he or she has conquered the fear of being trapped in an airplane cabin – the battle isn’t likely to go away forever.
“Most people really need to take three to four flights – even short ones – that year. The repetition – locking it in – is really important. If they let even 6 months go by before they take that second flight – they start to relapse,” she says.
Kathleen Caggiano says she’s still working up the nerve to ride the Metro again – but she does have a vacation planned for February with some friends. They don’t know exactly where they’re going to go – but it’ll be someplace warm – and yes, they will be flying.
“For the first time I’m actually excited to fly again – so I’m excited about that,” she says, “and that’s been a long time coming.”
To hear the radio version of this story, click here.
(Washington, DC WAMU) Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has announced a $940 million deal with private contractor Fluor-Transurban for the construction of High Occupancy Toll lanes on Interstate 95.
The in-principle agreement was negotiated between Fluor-Transurban, VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley, and Virginia’s new Office of Transportation Public-Private Partnerships (OTP3). The project is being financed and constructed under Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act with 90 percent of the cost financed by Fluor-Transurban. The final ten percent will be financed by Virginia, and Fluor-Transurban expects to recoup its investment by collecting the tolls.
The project will expand the existing HOV lanes on I-95 to create nearly 30 miles of HOV/HOT on I-95 in Northern Virginia from Fairfax County to Stafford County. Carpoolers will be able to use the lanes for free, while solo riders will be able to use the the lanes if they pay the tolls. Construction on HOT lanes for the Capital Beltway, also known as I-495, is already underway.
The Governor's office also says the state will invest $200 million in expanded bus service in four Northern Virginia counties to help maximize the benefits of the new HOT lanes network.
Governor McDonnell says the project will bring "congestion relief and new travel choices to Northern Virginia, supporting nearly 8,000 jobs during the construction period and stimulating $2 billion in economic activity."
The system is also expected to use a dynamic tolling system, with rates changing based on demand.
(Jonathan Wilson - WAMU, Washington, D.C.) Residents in the D.C. area may have heard about the long-discussed “Outer Beltway,” but many don’t know about the smaller loops once proposed for the heart of Washington during the 1950's and 60's.
“The inner loop of this three-loop plan, would have been around the central core of the city, and actually about a half a mile north and south of the White House,” Cultural Tourism DC Historian Jane Freundell Levey says.
The southern part of the loop would have approached the Mall, and the northern end may have cut a path somewhere near Dupont Circle.
So what stopped the highways plans from becoming a reality? Freundell Levey says the mix of neighborhoods that would have been disproportionately affected by the highways – from predominately African-American areas around 3rd St NW, and others in SW D.C., to more affluent, whiter neighborhoods in Cleveland Park and Georgetown – created a powerful coalition that was able to push back against the business interests in favor of the plan.
“This being Washington, D.C., we had so many marvelous lawyers here who got involved, and then we had activists. We had people who took to the streets, and picketed, and disrupted city council meetings and brought an incredible amount of attention to the injustices that they saw in the plans for the routes of these highways.”
After a fight that lasted decades, D.C. and the federal government eventually decided to pour more resources into rapid transit – and the Metro system. But Freundell Levey says the story isn’t as simple as highways versus mass transit.
“Planners wanted both rapid transit and highways,” she says. “[President] Lyndon Johnson, who was very powerful, ended up releasing funds from the money for the highways and diverting them to the Metro.”
There are still remnants of D.C.’s lost highway plan. Freundell Levey says they are most clear near the 3rd St. Tunnel, where the government began buying up land in preparation for a highway extension, and near the Kennedy Center, which is still separated from much of the city by four lanes of freeway traffic. I-295, also known as the Southwest Freeway, and I-495, the Capitol Beltway, stand as two parts of the plan that were actually completed.
“When you come downtown and you see a big parking lot, that’s a signal for you to think, ‘Well, what happened here?’”
For more on highway proposals that were -- and weren't -- check out our documentary "Back of the Bus: Mass Transit, Race, and Inequality."
Metro riders in D.C. are getting to see the first fruits of the transit system's $150 million plan to rebuild or replace the system's notoriously aging (and long!) escalators: this week marked the first time in a year that all three escalators at the Foggy Bottom entrance have been operational.
Over the past year, Metro has replaced the three entrance escalators at its Foggy Bottom station with new units and refurbished seven escalators at Union Station. Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles says these 10 "new and like-new" escalators represent significant progress in the plan to overhaul or replace 153 escalators at 25 stations on all five rail lines.
Union Station is the first Red Line station under the current capital plan to have all seven of its planned escalator units rehabilitated.
The number of broken or stopped escalators in the Metro system and the slow pace of repair has angered commuters in recent years. D.C.'s transit system has a total of 588 escalators -- more than any other subway system in the country -- and the third largest number of any system in the world.
Metro's Superintendent for Escalators and Elevators, Rodrigo Bitar, has said 75 percent of them are 25 years or older. Because Metro has relied on multiple manufacturers, many of which are out of business, Bitar said "getting parts to maintain this equipment gets harder everyday."
(Washington, DC - Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) Millions of Americans are hitting the highways for the Thanksgiving holiday, and on the East Coast, many motorists hoping to get anywhere hop on I-95.
Overlooking some of the busiest traffic in the region -- if not the nation -- is a landmark, one whose creators hope may give drivers a little peace even if the traffic threatens their sanity.
Instead of looming over drivers from its hillside perch, it simply seems to be watching. But Father Michael Murray says it's unmistakable.
"It is a visual, even if people don’t know the history or the significance of it, or the background behind it. Anyone who travels this part of the interstate network with any frequency knows exactly where this is," he says.
Murray, the Superior of the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales, is referring to the 12-foot statue of the Virgin Mary that faces northbound traffic on I-95 in Childs, Maryland. Black letters mounted on a low brick wall beneath the statue proclaim her "Our Lady of the Highways."
Most people who pass the statue have no idea who the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales – a Catholic, apostolic order, dedicated to education – are. Father Murray says that’s okay.
"Friends of mine – like in Northern Virginia and D.C. – they say, now where is that again?" Murray says. "And I say if you’re driving on I-95, just before you hit the last exit in Maryland -- and they usually stop me and say, 'Oh, is it the place with the statue?' And I say, 'Said same.'"
But the statue that’s become such a recognizable landmark isn’t the first to sit on this hillside. Brother John Dochkus remembers the original erected in 1971.
"It was five feet tall, made of cement, and it did not hold up very well in the Maryland winters with the rain and the weather," he says.
The motivation behind the shrine's construction occurred three years earlier, in October of 1968.
Back then, the interstate was just a few years old. In the early morning hours of October 2, there was a 17-car collision which killed three people. Oblates on this campus ran down to the highway to help. Brother Dochkus says poor visibility was likely to blame.
"This area, a fog used to settle over it, because a paper mill that was in the area. It used to change the temperature of the creek that runs through here, and it would form a fog," Dochkus recalls.
The memory of that day lives on with the statue. The Oblates replaced the original in 1986 with the 12- foot, Vermont carrara marble figure so many drivers recognize today.
Though that paper mill and the fog it spawned are now gone, Dochkus fears certain aspects of travel on the nation’s roads have gotten worse.
"We’ve lost a great civility towards each other in driving," he says. "If you don’t put your foot on that gas pedal in a nanosecond, someone’s yelling at you, someone’s honking their horn."
Father Murray says he hopes motorists driving past “Our Lady of the Highways” can cast a glance toward her and remember to be calm -- no matter how fast, or slow, the traffic is moving that day.
"You know, your hands are burning through the steering wheel, but maybe just looking at the statue of the Blessed Mother just reminds you, ‘Well, you know, as frustrating as this is, and as important as it was for me to get to where I hoped to go two hours ago – there’s a bigger picture,'" Murray says.
Brother Dochkus says you don’t have to be Catholic to get the message the statue is sending.
"It’s a reminder to be a bit more kind, a bit more humane, Christian – if that’s your belief," he says. "Whatever your belief is, to remind yourself within that belief to be a little kinder, a bit more civil and a bit more courteous on the road."
And let’s face it: on some days it seems like bringing just a little civility to the roads would take a miracle.
To hear the audio of this story, click here.
A proposal to revamp the structure of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) made it through the legislative process as part of the spending bill that funds the U.S. Department of Transportation and was signed by the President on Friday.
The plan was pushed by Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Northern Virginia who had grown frustrated with MWAA's decision making process and lack of transparency.
But even some of MWAA's critics have expressed concern that Wolf's plan could be bad news for regional cooperation, since it gives Virginia, which already had the most members on MWAA's board, an even larger share of control.
The New Structure
Wolf's plan gives the governors of Virginia and Maryland and the mayor of D.C. the power to remove appointed members at any time for cause. The President of the United States, who appoints three members of the body, has always had that power. Members will also be prohibited from serving past the end of their terms; currently board members serve until their replacement is appointed. Wolf had complained earlier this year about a member whose term had ended in January of 2009, but continued voting by proxy from Africa because a replacement had not been named.
The plan also increases the size of the Authority from 13 to 17 members, and gives Virginia a larger share of membership. In the 13-member structure, five members were appointed by the Governor of Virginia, three members were appointed by the mayor of D.C., two by Maryland's governor, and three by the President.
The 17 member board will include seven members from Virginia, four from D.C., three from Maryland, and three Presidential appointees.
MWAA Faces Off with NoVa County Leaders
Wolf was far from MWAA's only critic; the Authority had come under increased scrutiny because of ballooning cost projections for the more than $6 billion Rail-to-Dulles project, and a perceived lack of cooperation with elected officials in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties -- where the Metrorail extension will be located.
Relations between the counties and MWAA reached an all-time low after MWAA refused to reconsider a decision to place the planned Metrorail station at Dulles International Airport underground.
County leaders wanted the station above ground because that option was cheaper, by about $500 million. The standoff put funding for the second phase of the gargantuan project in jeopardy.
Eventually, U.S. Transportation Secretary stepped in to bring the two sides together -- and MWAA's board agreed to ditch the underground plan.
Wolf says his plan is fair.
"Both of the airports [Dulles International and Reagan National] are in the state of Virginia," he says. "That rail system will be in the state of Virginia. The tolls that are paying for the rail system are all going to be paid for by Virginians."
(Leesburg, VA -- Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) The plan to bring a rail line to Dulles airport got another vote of approval this week. A Virginia county has approved the latest funding plan for the second phase of the Rail-to-Dulles project.
The new agreement brings the price tag of phase II down from $3.8 billion to $2.8 billion for the ambitious project to connect the Washington, D.C. Metro system with the capital's closest international airport. Much of the savings are from moving the proposed Metro station at Dulles International Airport above ground, as local leaders in Virginia had requested.
The $2.8 billion-price tag is still hefty, but Scott York, the chair of the Loudoun County board of supervisors, says anyone who thinks that this project is a white elephant -- meaning "expensive and useless" -- should remember that people were once saying the same things about Dulles International Airport.
"[Dulles] is not a white elephant -- it is essentially credited with producing the economy that we have in Northern Virginia," York says.
York predicts a similar impact for the rail project. A final vote to approve Loudoun funding for the project comes in March. Leaders in neighboring Fairfax County will address the latest agreement at a regular meeting on Dec. 6.
The agreement was brokered with the help of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, after local county leaders in Virginia had grown furious at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing the project. The Airports Authority had made several recent decisions pushing the cost of the project higher, including plans to put the rail station at Dulles underground.
This week's vote in Loudoun amounted to little more than a thumbs-up from the county regarding LaHood's brokered deal, which also includes low-interest federal loans for all parties involved in the project.
But there is still a lot of skepticism about the financial feasibility of the project for Loudoun -- some supervisors believe the plan still relies too much on increased toll revenue on the Dulles Toll Road. If tolls go up too much, they say, more drivers will search out non-tolled routes, making traffic worse in Loudoun neighborhoods, and eventually bankrupting the Toll Road itself. Then, some fear, Loudoun will have to find other ways to pay for the project.
Loudoun supervisors still have a chance to nix their portion of funding for the project. The board is awaiting several environmental and engineering studies, and expect to take a final vote in March of next year.
(Washington, DC - Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) A study of all the registered vehicles in the Metropolitan Washington area reveals that the region’s vehicle fleet is getting older. Vehicle owners are keeping vehicles longer before replacing them.
The study, commissioned every three years since 2005 by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), found that the vehicle fleet grew 4 percent from 2008 to 2011 with more than 3.8 million vehicles registered in the Washington region.
It also found that the number of hybrid vehicles in the region has been steadily increasing since their introduction in 2000. There was a one-time drop in hybrid vehicle sales in 2009 in the region -- MWCOG staff suspect this is due to the relatively high sticker price of those vehicles at the onset of the recession, moderate gasoline prices at the time, and the Cash-for-Clunkers Program.
The study found “modest” increases in emission rates for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), NOx and PM2.5 (pollutants mainly associated with diesel fuel).
For a closer look at what kinds of vehicles people in the region are driving, see the report here.
(Washington, D.C. -- Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) Each morning, people across the Washington D.C. pick up red bike share rentals and peddle away on their morning commute. What they might not know is that it takes a team of people working through the pre-dawn hours to make sure those bikes are exactly where they're needed.
Well before sunrise, on a brisk weekday morning, Alejandro Fuentes checks in with a member of the crew he manages for Capital Bikeshare. Fuentes has been with the company since it launched last May, and he's in charge of the morning street team responsible for getting those now-ubiquitous red bicycles to the right places for morning commuters.
Officially, Capital Bikeshare calls them "rebalancers," but Fuentes also refers to the members of his team as sprinters, and things don't always go as planned as these guys are running around town.
Fuentes keeps track of where bikes are needed with a computer program similar to the one the public has access to on the Capital Bikeshare website. He says things can get particularly hectic at stations near McPherson Square and Adams Morgan.
"You can put 10 bikes, 12 bikes... in 5 minutes, you turn around and they're all gone," he says.
The trick during the morning commute is to make sure the bikes are where people live, and the empty docking spaces are near where they work. So, Fuentes makes sure the docking stations outside of downtown have a steady supply of bikes while downtown stations get cleared out so people arriving have a place to dock.
"When everybody has to be at work at 9 o'clock and everybody's looking for a space to park their bikes, it's a big challenge," says Fuentes.
Smiles and gratitude at the end of a route
Fuentes drives around in the company's all-purpose vehicle, a small SUV equipped with a bike rack that can hold four bikes. Nick Hritz, another employee, drives a larger van that can hold dozens of bikes. "I think the toughest days are when the weather's really lousy, and you're just bored because there's not much moving," says Hritz.
He says most of the time he's busy making right turns, to avoid red lights so he can make it to his next station, but he says even if he's late, Bikeshare users, so far, have been waiting with a smile.
"You come up to a station where someone's waiting to dock or someone's looking for a bike, and they say, 'Perfect timing! Thanks! And sometimes they just say... Thanks for doing your job, and that's really great. But it happens all the time.'"
Hritz says that kind of reaction may start to fade as the program expands and the honeymoon period ends, but that'll just mean more people are relying on bikes to get around, and that's just fine with him.
(Washington, DC -- Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) Depending on which Metro station you're trying to emerge from, broken escalators can certainly be a hellish sight.
A couple of recent outages at the Bethesda station even prompted an emergency meeting last week between residents, county leaders and Metro officials.
The recent meeting of the Montgomery County Council's transportation committee started with some wry humor from council member Roger Berliner, who chairs the committee.
"When we sent out the notice with respect to tonight's meeting, my staff had prepared it and it said, 'If you take Metro, take the escalator up,'" Berliner said. "I turned to my staff and said jokingly, 'put in the phrase, cross your fingers.'"
Either not enough people heeded the council's tongue-in-cheek advice, or the finger-crossing just didn't work -- because there was another escalator outage on the day of the meeting. That prompted fresh outrage directed at Metro's Superintendent of Escalators and Elevators, Rodrigo Bitar. Berliner set the tone.
"None of us want to be talking about three escalators out at the same time, 175 stairs to climb," he said. "It is not acceptable."
Bitar gave the crowd a detailed presentation, complete with timelines and graphs, aimed at explaining why Metro's 588 escalators -- the largest number of any transit system in the country, and the third largest of any system in the world -- are deteriorating.
"Seventy-five percent of our units are 25 years old, or older," he said. "We have multiple manufacturers, many of whom are no longer in service, so getting parts to maintain this equipment gets more difficult everyday."
Bitar also told the crowd that Bethesda's escalators -- some of the longest at any station -- were last refurbished in 2001 and 2002. He says the life cycle for a rehabilitated escalator is about a decade, so Bethesda's escalators are at the limit of their reliable lives.
The three longest escalators at the Bethesda station -- escalators 2, 3, and 4 -- are the ones that have commuters concerned. Bitar told the crowd that escalator 4 has a service record above the system-wide average. But escalators 2 and 3 have had more problems, and if two escalators break down, it usually means that all three will be stopped: there isn't a staircase at Bethesda, so Metro stops the third to be used as a staircase while it repairs the other two.
Of course, for commuters, it doesn't really matter if an escalator is shut down on purpose or not. If all three are stopped it means a lot of walking. Regular rider Raymond Nelson has bad knees and says climbing a stopped escalator at Bethesda just wouldn't be an option.
"If that happened me they'd have to cart me away in a wheelchair, because my knees would never handle this long run," Nelson says.
During a heat wave in 1998, a man named Richard Hadaway Smith died from a heart attack he suffered after climbing a stationary escalator at Bethesda on an especially hot day.
There are elevators at the Bethesda station, but they're not set up to handle all the people coming through.
Commuter Mike Thorp says the escalator issue is starting to cast another dark cloud over Metro's future.
"It's hurting Metro, it's hurting the confidence in the Metro system -- it's fraying our nerves," Thorp says.
Back at the meeting, Jon Weintraub of the Bethesda Urban Partnership warns that Metro's failure to fix or replace aging equipment will start affecting entire communities.
"Development in the county is targeted at Metro stops," he says. "This development strategy will fail unless we can figure out a way to improve the reliability of escalators and our Metro trains."
What the crowd didn't hear at the meeting were many solutions. Rodrigo Bitar says Metro has what it calls an aggressive $148 million modernization plan over the next five years. But that plan doesn't call for Bethesda's escalators to be replaced until the spring of 2015.
Ben Ross, with the Action Committee for Transit, is outraged about the escalators -- but he still puts his faith in the mass transit system.
"The roads are worse," Ross said at the meeting. "I think people still like Metro because the roads are worse."
It's hardly a ringing endorsement, but it's one Metro has to live with, at least for now.
You can listen to the radio version of this story here.