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Martin DiCaro

WAMU

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Following Public Pressure, Metro Will Add More Bus Service to DC's Busiest Corridor

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Commuters at 16th and U Streets NW

Commuters at 16th and U Streets NW

Additional morning rush hour service is coming to Metro’s busiest bus corridor in Washington after the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission took commuters’ complaints to the transit authority.

The S bus line on 16th Street NW, a historic gateway into downtown D.C., is struggling to meet ridership demand. Buses are often packed before reaching the southern stretch of the route and cannot squeeze additional passengers aboard, leaving rush hour commuters waiting in long lines at bus stops in Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and near Dupont Circle. Some commuters eventually give up and hop in taxis.

“I went out to the bus stops and I saw taxicabs pull up to the long lines, seeing a business opportunity and offering to take them downtown, because the buses weren’t working for our city,” says Kishan Putta, a commissioner on the Dupont Circle ANC.

Putta tried to solicit commuters’ concerns on Facebook and Twitter but drew his largest response the old fashioned way: he put up posters at bus stops asking commuters to contact him.

“We took those stories and those complaints to Metro and they agreed to meet us,” in January, Putta says. “They had to admit in public this is a big problem.”

Putta provided the following example of a typical commuter complaint about crowding on the S line.

“I actively chose to walk 45 minutes to work during every day this week rather than take the bus despite the temperatures in the teens and howling winds,” the commuter’s complaint said. “On the one day when I decided it would be better for my health and well-being to take the bus I waited at the bus stop for 20 minutes.”

“Just this week it has taken me 45-50 minutes to get from 16th & V to 14th & I, and anywhere from 4 to 6 buses have passed the stop each morning because they are too crowded to accept any more passengers,” another complaint said.

Metro has been aware of S line bus crowding for years but its efforts haven’t kept up with growing ridership. In 2009 the S9, which makes limited stops on 16th Street NW, was added during morning and evening rush hours to alleviate crowding.

“Bus ridership remains strong especially with all the new residents moving into the district,” says Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. “There are new residential units along this corridor and so we want to make sure we are providing service for the folks who want it.”

Stessel says Metro has yet to decide on a name for the new S service, but says it will begin on Monday, March 25. An additional bus will arrive at 16th Street and Harvard NW every 12 minutes from 7:30 to 9:15 weekday mornings. A total of nine additional trips will go down 16th Street, then left on I St to 14th Street. Then the buses will head back to Columbia Road NW. The extra capacity will carry between 400 and 500 commuters on a busy morning.

“This issue didn’t just crop up two months ago. We’ve been working on the S line and broader issues related to the S line for more than a year now,” Stessel says. “That said, the relationship we’ve had over the last two months with the ANC has been nothing but constructive.”

“I will take my hat off to Metro,” says Putta. “They were responsive. We worked together on coming up with possible options.”

Still no answer to 16th Street traffic

Putta concedes that while the additional morning rush hour bus service will help move commuters south on 16th Street, the district faces a bigger task in mitigating the corridor’s notorious traffic congestion.

“As with a lot of these long-term solutions, you would need to do a transition so that you would hopefully get less people driving. And of course, the physical limitations of the road are definitely an issue,” says Putta, referring to the possibility of creating a bus-only lane on 16th Street during rush hour.

Metro’s Stessel says the transit authority is working on a solution.

“It’s an ongoing dialogue that we have not only with DDOT but with all of the jurisdictions,” Stessel says. “A major milestone will be achieved about a year from now when we launch what is true BRT (bus rapid transit) in the region for the first time. That will be on the Virginia side of the river in partnership with Alexandria and Arlington.”

The Route 1 Transitway will run buses every six minutes in dedicated lanes from Braddock Road in Arlington north to Crystal City.

“We hope that will spark other jurisdictions to consider, if not true BRT, perhaps traffic signal prioritization or more bus lanes,” says Stessel. “From a public policy perspective, if you have a vehicle that has 50 people in it, that really should get priority over a car that has one person in it.”

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DC Metro Wants Smarter Fare Card, Including FarePhones

Saturday, March 16, 2013

(Photo CC by Flickr user Mr T in DC)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Metro is working on a system that would ease the process of paying for bus or train fare, turning it into a tap of a smart phone or credit card at a turnstile. While such a system would no doubt simplify the transit process for many, it is still years away.

Boarding a Metro bus or train now is a bit like visiting a foreign country, at least in one respect: you have to convert your dollars into Metro currency, either by using a SmarTrip card or a paper fare card. Metro wants to bring its payment system into the 21st century, even if some long-time riders feel the SmarTrip is just fine.

"I think [SmarTrip] was one of the best ideas Metro has ever put into existence since I've been riding the bus, and I've been riding the bus most of my life," says Greg Olden in Columbia Heights.

SmarTrip may have been a great idea at one time, but it costs the transit authority millions annually to maintain. That is why Metro is now accepting bids from tech companies to develop a new system that would let you tap your credit card or mobile phone to pay your fare.

"The way transportation agencies are looking at this market now is, 'Why don't we allow people to use the existing payment options that they have in their pockets, like the credit cards and debit cards they currently carry to make other purchases, and use those to access the transit system?'" says Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of Smart Card Alliance, which advocates modern payment technologies in a variety of industries. "That way, we don't have to inconvenience consumers, nor do we have to maintain the system that converts that money into transit fare dollars."

Vanderhoof says that while a new system would require installing new fare gates and computers, eliminating the cost and services of the SmarTrip system would save WMATA millions every year.

Metro declined to comment on this story because the transit authority is in the final stages of a competitive bidding process to design a new payment system.

Metro hoped to award a contract early last year, but, as The Washington Examiner reported, the process has been delayed a year.

Once that is finally taken care of, it will likely take about three years to phase in a new payment system.

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DC Metro Says Fare Increase & Loss of Tax Benefit Caused 2012 Ridership Dip

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Buying fare cards at Metro's Smithsonian Station (photo by Ian Muttoo via flickr)

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) says the one-two punch of last year’s fare increase coupled with a temporary lull in a tax benefit is behind a six-percent drop in rail ridership during the last half of 2012.

At Thursday’s board meeting, Metro general manager Richard Sarles said Hurricane Sandy, the federal holiday on Christmas Eve and weekend track work were other factors that contributed to fewer riders --  but said the increase in fares was the most significant.

“You saw that especially in the second half of the year,” Sarles said. “With the federal transit benefit being restored, we are seeing in the first month or two ridership going back up to what we expected.  Clearly, the federal transit benefit, when it was cut almost in half, had a significant impact on our ridership.”

The provision allowing for $230 a month in tax subsidies for transit riders expired at the end of 2011, reducing the eligible amount to $125.  In January Congress returned the federal transit benefit to $240.

Metro is rehabilitating its aging infrastructure as part of a multi-billion dollar capital improvement program. The track work requires closing some stations and single-tracking at others nearly every weekend, although track work will be postponed for the upcoming cherry blossom festival.

While necessary to repair the transit system, weekend track work is the target of endless complaints, and Sarles says it has scared some riders away. “On the weekends there is a decrease is ridership especially when we close down a set of stations for very necessary work,” he said.

Metro is also tracking ridership swings at individual stations.  Dupont Circle saw the largest drop in riders entering the system last year, mostly because the station’s south entrance was closed for months for an escalator replacement. Navy Yard on the Green Line, where Nationals fans disembark to watch their favorite baseball team, saw the most growth, according to WMATA figures.

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DC's Metro Takes Silver Line Plans to the People

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Metro is starting to familiarize its customers with the service changes that will arrive with the opening of the Silver Line out to Reston, Virginia, a suburb west of Washington, D.C., expected by the end of the year.

The first of three open houses took place in Capitol Heights, Md. on Tuesday. "The first question people ask us is, 'When is it going to be here?'" says Metro's Jim Hughes. As he explains, the first phase of the $5.5 billion project is scheduled to open by the end of the year. "Particularly on the Virginia side, they've dealt with the construction for four years. They want it to happen."

The Silver Line has been a big story for a long time, because it will extend rail west into Virginia, eventually to Dulles International Airport and beyond into Loudoun County once Phase II of the rail extension is completed in 2018. Even so, some folks at Metro's open house who live at what will be the eastern end of the Silver Line — Largo Town Center in Maryland — have heard little to nothing at about it.

"I live in Largo and I know that the Silver Line will have an impact on my community," says 65-year-old Yvonne Alston. "And I just wanted to see exactly when it was opening and exactly where it would go."

Hughes, WMATA's director of intermodal planning, is also responsible for making sure there is enough bus service to get Virginia commuters to the four new rail stops that will open in Tysons Corner, where there will be no new parking lots.

The opening of the Silver Line will come at the cost of other Metro lines. It will reduce Blue Line service during rush hour by two trains an hour, or one every twelve minutes. Hughes expects that change to inconvenience 6,000 to 8,000 passengers per day.

"There will also be less service on the Orange Line between Vienna and West Falls Church, the end of the line, where we are expecting a lot of people to switch over to the Silver Line," Hughes says. "So we don't need as much service between those last couple stops."

Two more public meetings on the Silver Line are scheduled. The first is at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 14 at the Reston Community Center in in Reston, Va. The second is at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 16 at the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel in Arlington.

Residents can find out more about these meetings or submit comments online on WMATA's website.

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Car Sharing, Transit and Bike Access Could Render D.C.'s Parking Minimums Moot

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A parking garage in Georgetown (photo by AlbinoFlea via flickr)

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Downsizing parking is necessary to reduce car dependency in D.C., says one real estate expert.

Chris Leinberger, a George Washington University professor and advocate of new urbanism, says D.C. planners’ proposal to eliminate mandatory parking space minimums at new development in transit-rich corridors or downtown D.C. is forward-thinking.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we are still making buggy whips when in fact the market has moved on,” Leinberger said. “Bike lanes and pedestrian activity is a sign of civilization."

Since TN first reported on the proposed zoning change, some motorists have expressed frustration with the possibility it may be more difficult to park in certain neighborhoods. As new development – residential, retail, and office – attracts more residents, shoppers and workers, some motorists believe parking spaces may be tough to find if developers opt not to build underground garages beneath their buildings.

One reason D.C. planners believe new parking structures will not be needed is the growth of car sharing services, like Car2Go, that make car ownership unnecessary.

Car2Go, which charges users $.38 per minute, is marking its first anniversary in Washington this month.  The company says it has 19,000 registered customers in Washington who have taken 350,000 collective trips in the past year.

Leinberger says car sharing services reflect D.C.'s transition to a walkable urban environment that provides options like bike sharing, too.

“If you were to say, certainly ten years ago, but even five years ago that we would have in this city and fifty percent of folks go to work without a car and that forty percent of the households do not have a car, they would have had you committed,” Leinberger said.

Less emphasis on parking spaces also makes fiscal sense, he added.

“We are massively subsidizing the car, massively. All these parking spaces… here in downtown D.C., every one of these parking spaces is worth between $50,000 and $70,000. And we are charging as if they’re worth $10,000,” he said.

What motorists pay to park, either on the street with a residential pass or inside an underground garage, doesn’t come close to the expense of constructing and maintaining the parking spaces.

In his view, motorists will adjust to whatever zoning changes are approved, no matter how unreasonable they may now seem. Alternatives to driving and parking – Metro rail and bus, car sharing, bicycling – are gaining steam.

“If the car drivers are saying, give me everything that I want before you peel my fingers off of the steering wheel, you are not going to get it. You couldn’t build the interstate highway system in a year. It’s going to take time,” Leinberger said.

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Bicyclists in D.C. Lobby for Safety

Thursday, March 07, 2013

(image by Katie Harbath via flickr)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) In the basement of a Lutheran church a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol bicycling advocates gathered on a rain-soaked Wednesday afternoon to prepare to meet their congressional representatives. On the third day of the National Bike Summit in Washington, bicyclists from across the country took their message to lawmakers: as more bikes share the roads with cars, more bicyclists are being killed or injured.

“In order for people to feel safe they have to have their own space,” said Karen Overton of New York City, who owns two bike shops. She had a face-to-face meeting with her congresswoman, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, to talk about improving street safety through federal investments in bicycling infrastructure.

“It’s getting easier. Ten years ago it was like we were aliens on the hill. So there has been change in the right direction,” Overton said.

Less than 0.5% of federal highway safety funds are spent improving bicyclist and pedestrian safety, say advocates, at a time when the streets are becoming more dangerous for people not in cars. Pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities have increased from 12% of all roadway deaths in 2008 to almost 16% in 2011, according to the federal government's fatality analysis reporting system (FARS).

In addition to increasing federal spending on bicycling and walking infrastructure (traffic calming structures, separated bike lanes, cycle tracks), advocates are asking their representatives to follow through on efforts to require state transportation departments to set statistical goals to reduce biking and pedestrian incidents, part of a “performance measures” initiative of the MAP-21 legislation signed into law by President Obama on July 6, 2012.

“While there may be a broad safety target set for the number of lives that are lost on the roads, there isn’t a specific one for bicyclists, for pedestrians, and we feel it's a big enough issue that there should be a specific target,” said Andy Clarke, the president of the League of American Bicyclists. He is a signatory on a letter urging U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to convince states to use federal funding to make non-motorized transportation safer.

Letter to LaHood on Performance Measures

LaHood is a favorite among bike and pedestrian advocates, and he dropped by the National Bike Summit earlier this week.

Overall roadway fatalities have dropped significantly, according to federal data. The number of people killed has dropped from 37,423 in 2008 to 32,367 in 2011. But roughly 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclists are killed annually.

“The numbers have been going up slightly for those two means of travel,” Clarke said. “They’ve been going down for people who are in cars and are belted and buckled up. We want to see a similar level of attention paid to crashes that are happening involving bicyclists, involving pedestrians, even motorcyclists.”

Anthony Siracusa of Memphis was among the advocates who trekked to the hill on Wednesday. He successfully pushed for a $15 million grant to build a bicycle and pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River. He says once lawmakers should visit bicycling and walking projects in their home districts to see for themselves how cities are becoming more livable.

“It’s one thing to talk about it across a board room table,” he said. “It’s another thing for them to actually experience it and see the number of stakeholders who come together around these projects, and the relatively small investment it takes to make a profound difference in the community.”

Follow @MartinDiCaro on Twitter.

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DOT Head Questioned Over Support of MWAA Leadership

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

After U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood praised the beleaguered Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority at a Congressional hearing last autumn, two Democratic members of Congress did a slow burn and sent separate letters to him, stating they were "troubled" and "disappointed and concerned" by his support for MWAA.

MWAA oversees the D.C. area's airports -- and is in charge of the massive $6 billion Silver Line rail project. In recent months the agency has been trying to repair its image after a federal audit that found the agency had unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices. The agency also battled Virginia's governor, who sought to oust a member of its board, and it's being sued by a former employee. Now, it's hiring an outside public relations firm.

Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards and West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote LaHood following his November 16 testimony in which he expressed “a lot of confidence in” MWAA’s CEO Jack Potter and MWAA board chairman Michael Curto.

Potter, Curto, and MWAA board vice-chairman Tom Davis were all called to testify about the findings in an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general.  The audit revealed a litany of questionable hiring and contracting practices – a “culture of nepotism” – inside MWAA.

“In light to these admissions to serious missteps, and those highlighted in the Inspector General’s (IG) report, I am troubled by the support you expressed in their continued leadership,” Edwards wrote LaHood. “I would appreciate a more complete explanation of your support for the current leadership of MWAA despite their admission and the IG’s report.”

Edwards Letter to LaHood


Congresswoman Edwards declined to comment on this story, but Secretary LaHood’s office provided the following statement:

“Secretary LaHood met with Congresswoman Edwards on January 23, 2013 to respond to her letter.  They had a productive discussion of the steps the Department of Transportation has taken to improve accountability and transparency at MWAA, and the Secretary promised to work with the Congresswoman and other interested Members from the Washington Metropolitan area on this issue moving forward.”

Congressman Rahall’s February 15 letter to Sec. LaHood expressed the same concerns about the federal transportation’s chief stated confidence in Potter and Curto.

“I was disappointed and concerned by your testimony that you ‘have a lot of confidence’ the chairman of MWAA’s board of directors and MWAA’s chief executive officer, particularly in view of the fact that these individuals, by their own acknowledgement, were involved in some of the questionable conduct identified by the Inspector General,” wrote Rahall, the committee’s ranking member.

Rahall Letter to LaHood

In their November testimony, the two MWAA leaders said many of the transgressions outlined in the audit took place before they assumed their current positions. There were, however, notable cases in which they were directly involved: a law firm that employed Curto’s wife was granted a $100,000 no-bid contract to provide legal counsel.

“I was not chairman at the time. I was not on the legal committee at the time. The general counsel for [MWAA] made the decision to retain the law firm. My wife at the time was an employee at that law firm… she had no direct or indirect financial interest in the law firm,” explained Curto. “Although it wasn’t an actual conflict of interest it certainly was an appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Potter was questioned about the hiring of former MWAA board member Mame Reiley to a job created specifically for her at an annual salary of $180,000 without proper vetting or board approval.

“My judgement was not good in terms of the hiring of that person,” said Potter, who said the creation of the job was necessary to meet the challenges created by rising costs at Dulles International.

Following these admissions Edwards asked Curto if he belonged in his leadership position.

“I would hope so,” Curto responded. “I think the body of the report, most of the findings and conclusions of the inspector general's report occurred prior to my time on the board and certainly prior to my tenure as chair.”

When reached to comment on this story, Curto provided a statement.

MWAA’s "leadership continues to work diligently to address the issues and concerns reported on over the past year. We have made significant progress and believe the organization is moving expeditiously in the right direction."

Rep. Rahall’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Follow @MartinDiCaro on Twitter.

 

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D.C. Considering Lifting Mandatory Parking Minimums

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

(photo by vpickering via flickr)

The District of Columbia’s Office of Planning is considering a proposal to potentially squeeze the supply of available parking spaces in some neighborhoods as new development attracts more residents and jobs. If successful, it will mark the first major change to the city's zoning code since it was first adopted in 1958.

It's part of a growing city attempt to reduce congestion by offering its residents alternatives to the automobile – from bikes to buses to making walking more attractive.

Planning officials may submit to the zoning commission this spring a proposal to eliminate the mandatory parking space minimums required in new development in transit-rich corridors and in downtown Washington.  The idea squares with the vision of making the district less car-dependent and would let developers decide how many parking spaces are necessary based on market demand.  However, opponents say the plan denies the reality that roughly 70 percent of Washington-area commuters drive and removing off-street parking requirements in apartment and office buildings would force motorists to circle city blocks looking for scarce spaces.

“This is a very dangerous proposal.  We think it threatens the future of Washington, D.C.,” says Lon Anderson, the chief spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which represents motorists and advocates road construction as a solution for traffic congestion.

A city where a car isn’t a necessity

Thirty-nine percent of D.C. households are car-free. In some neighborhoods with access to public transit, more than 80 percent of households are car-free.  Some recent developments wound up building too much parking to adhere to the mandatory minimums, including the D.C. USA shopping center in Columbia Heights, which is right next to a Metro station and busy bus corridor.

“The parking garage there is probably as twice as big as it needs to be, and the second level is basically not used so the city has had to scramble to find another use for it,” says Cheryl Cort, the policy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and advocate of the zoning change.

“Rather than having the government tell the private sector how many parking spaces to build, we think it’s better for the developer to figure out how it best wants to market those units," Cort added.

Developers favor eliminating the mandatory parking minimums because the construction of parking garages, especially underground, is enormously expensive.  Each underground space adds $40,000 to $70,000 to a project’s cost, according to Harriet Tregoning, the director of D.C.’s Office of Planning, who is working on the overhaul of D.C.’s zoning code. The code was last updated in 1958 when planners assumed the automobile would remain the mainstay of individual transportation.

“No matter how much mandatory parking we require in new buildings, if the landlord is going to charge you $200 per month to park in the building and the city is going to let you park on the street for $35 per year, you may very well decide… to park on the street,” Tregoning says. “Many developers are finding they have parking that they can’t get rid of, that they don’t know what to do with.  That’s really a stranded asset.”

Parking-free building coming to Tenleytown

On the corner of Wisconsin Avenue NW and Brandywine Street NW stands what used to be a billiards hall. The property, just a block from the Tenleytown Metro station, has been an eyesore for years. Douglas Development is expected to redevelop the site this year, turning it into a mixed-use retail and residential space with 40 apartment units and no on-site parking.

“When the Zoning Commission looked at this site and DDOT did some analysis, they found a lot of availability of both on-street parking and off-street parking.  There are actually hundreds of parking spaces around this Metro station that go dark at night,” says Cheryl Cort, whose group contends the construction of parking spaces drives up housing costs an average 12.5 percent per unit. If developers can't find a market for those parking spaces, they pass the costs onto tenants.

Douglas Development, which declined to comment on this story, received an exemption from the zoning commission to avoid the parking minimum at the Tenleytown property. Situated close to Metro and planning to market the apartments to car-free residents, the developers escaped having to build 20 spaces under the current regulations in the zone (C-2-A).

Douglas’s plan may look sensible given the conditions in the neighborhood, but AAA’s Anderson says it will cause problems.

“Are you going to have any visitors who might drive there to visit you?  How about your mom and dad, are they going to be coming in? Do they live locally or are they going to be driving in? If so, where are they going to park?” says Anderson, who says the past three years have seen 16,000 new car registrations in Washington.

Fewer cars in D.C.’s future?

In its fight against the parking policy change, AAA is being joined by community activists who claim their neighborhoods will be clogged by drivers looking for parking. Sue Hemberger, a 28-year district resident who does not own a car, says Tregoning’s proposal is too harsh. In her view, district officials are making car ownership a hassle.

“What I see us doing in the name of transit-oriented development is pushing people who won’t forgo car ownership off the edge of the transit grid,” Hemberger says. “I’m worried about the future of certain neighborhoods and I’m worried about the future of downtown.”

Anderson says D.C. is waging a “war on cars,” but Tregoning says changes to zoning regulations are not designed to make motorists’ lives miserable.  On the contrary, the planning director anticipates the number of drivers in the district will grow but they will have enough options to do away with car ownership, like the car sharing services of Zipcar and Car2Go.

“How does your walking, biking, or taking transit affect his ability to drive, accept to make it easier?” Tregoning says in response to Anderson. “The national average household spends 19 percent of income on transportation. In the district, in areas well-served by transit, our number is more like 9 percent of household income. So we happen to think lots of choices are a good thing.”

In 2012 the city of Portland, Oregon, commissioned a study to look at the relationship between car ownership and new development, after apartment construction with little to no on-site parking in the city’s inner neighborhoods raised concerns about the potential for on-street parking congestion.

The study found “that 64 percent of residents are getting to work via a non-single-occupant vehicle. Almost a third (28 percent) of those surveyed belong to car-free households; however, cars are still the preferred mode of travel for many of the survey respondents.”

About two-thirds of the vehicle owners surveyed in Portland’s inner neighborhoods “park on the street without a permit and have to walk less than two minutes to reach their place of residence, and they spend only five minutes or less searching for a parking spot,” the study found.

To Hemberger, the Portland study’s key finding is that people don't give up car ownership just because they commute to work via public transit.  In a city like Washington, Hemberger says, there will not be enough street spot to accommodate new, car-owning residents.

Decision could come this spring

The Office of Planning will submit the proposed removal of parking minimums to the Zoning Commission later this month or early April, where it will go through the public process again before a final decision is made.

“We are a really unique city because we have an amazing number of transportation choices. Our citizens end up paying a lot less for transportation than the rest of the region,” Tregoning says. “I don’t understand why that would be considered a war on cars to try to give people choices, the very choices that actually take automobiles off the road to make it easier to park, to make it easier to drive with less congestion.”

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City of Alexandria Joins Homeowner Battle Against Location of I-95 Ramp

Friday, March 01, 2013

Outside the Overlook community in Alexandria (photo by Martin Di Caro)

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) For the first time since they began fighting the construction of a highway ramp near their homes, a coalition of eight homeowners’ groups in Fairfax County and Alexandria are getting some official help in their battle with the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Alexandria city leaders are pledging to lobby state transportation officials to reconsider the placement next to the homeowners’ properties of the planned northern terminus of the future I-95 Express Lanes, 30 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes extending from the Edsall Road area in Fairfax County to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The $1 billion public-private project is scheduled for completion in December 2014.

Before winning the public support of Alexandria city hall, the group Concerned Residents of Landmark had been rebuffed by public officials in their bid to convince VDOT to stop construction.

One of the group’s leaders, Mary Hasty, whose home in Alexandria’s Overlook community will stand just 75 feet from the completed exit ramp, says time is running out.

“We’re racing against the clock, yes. And my understanding is that VDOT has accelerated the building project of the ramp because they want it to be done so the opposition will stop,” Hasty said.

VDOT will begin pile driving at the site next week, a significant step in the building process, but Hasty remains steadfast.

“Even if they’ve driven the piles, when the public health issue comes to light, they can stop,” she said.

Alexandria Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg says the city has a responsibility to represent its constituents.

“Science is convincing, and they had an outside firm that’s very prestigious do this research and it is very convincing,” Silberberg said. “We are certainly going to make the case from an environmental and health perspective.”

Concerned Residents of Landmark spent more than $70,000 to hire the national law firm of Shrader & Associates to perform a traffic and environmental analysis of the project. Their study found backed up traffic on the exit ramp will spew a cloud of pollution in excess of federal safety standards, the group said.

“My biggest concern with VDOT is that they failed to fulfill their requirements under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act,” said Hasty, who said VDOT did not perform localized studies of pollution impacts on her community.

VDOT officials dispute the homeowners’ accusations.

“Our studies were approved back in the end of 2011 which met all federal and regulatory requirements and that is why we are proceeding with construction today,” said John Lynch, VDOT’s Northern Virginia megaprojects director.  “Their study used a different modeling technique and so we are trying to see why there is a big difference in the outcome of the two models.”

The Shrader study says 80,000 people in Fairfax County and Alexandria will be affected by pollution from vehicles exiting I-95, especially from particulate matter equivalent to what was spewed by the coal-fired GenOn electric plant that was closed down last year after a long battle with Alexandria.

“This is a health issue.  It’s incumbent on our elected officials to carry this message to Richmond,” said Herb Treger, the vice president of the board of directors of Watergate at Landmark, a community of 4,000 residents that joined Hasty’s coalition. “It’s a government project. Government projects can always be stopped. I worked for the government for 40 years.  I know they can be halted until the proper studies are done,” he added.

In order to determine if the project’s environmental impacts met federal safety standards, VDOT studied the location with the most traffic volume in the project corridor, the Springfield interchange, Lynch said.  That “worst case scenario” conformed to federal standards clearing the way for construction throughout the corridor, Lynch said.

“For the localized ‘hotspot’ analysis there are guidelines from the EPA to choose different locations for your project and typically you choose the worst place,” Lynch said. “It’s a qualitative analysis.  If you do it at the worst case scenario then you assume that it is fine everywhere else.”

VDOT has no plans to stop construction.

“We have no intention of going away,” Treger said.

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Lawmakers Warn of Severe Air Travel Disruptions from Sequestration

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The airport experience will get more aggravating if Congress does not avoid the automatic budget cuts called sequestration, three Virginia Democratic lawmakers said Monday at a news conference inside Reagan National Airport, predicting fewer flights available and longer security lines.

Representatives Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran and Senator Tim Kaine, flanked by members of air travel and pilots’ groups, issued a warning for every American who plans to fly: cuts to the FAA and TSA budgets would affect key personnel who now man air traffic control towers and security screening checkpoints.

Connolly said, “47,000 [FAA] employees could be furloughed one day per two-week pay period, the equivalent of ten percent of their workforce. That number includes 15,000 air traffic controllers. That will affect the scheduling of flights and the availability of flights.”  He added, the sequestration cuts would not force a simple belt-tightening but instead affect staffing levels at airports across the country.

Some Republicans are questioning why the possible $689 million FAA budget cut, which amounts to about four percent of the agency’s $15.9 billion budget, would cause so many problems. Moran said sequestration provides no flexibility to Congress or President Obama.

“The cuts are being concentrated on what’s called discretionary programs, which is a minority of the entire federal budget, and they are also being squeezed into a seven month period out of the fiscal year,” Moran said. “So if you had 12 months in which to spread them out, if you had the ability to identify which programs are a higher priority than others, if you didn’t have to cut every program, project and activity equally, and if you could deal with the entire federal budget, the effect would not be anywhere near as severe.”

“We can fix this.  It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact it’s not that hard to fix,” said Kaine, who said congressional Republicans oppose a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction that includes tax increases and spending cuts.

Some Republicans disagree with that assessment.

Virginia Republican Congressman Frank Wolf was invited to the news conference but did not attend.  In a statement released by his office, Wolf urged both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to embrace “bipartisan plans to turn off sequestration.”

In his letter to the president, Wolf said the best solution is to enact the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which he said would reduce the deficit and prevent the automatic federal budget cuts.

The possibility of additional hour long waits on security lines caused by cuts to the TSA’s budget is not sitting well with travelers. Some are angry Congress has failed to reach a deal to avoid disruptions to air travel.

“They ought to go back to school and learn how to add and subtract.  This wouldn’t have happened in the first place,” said one woman at Reagan National Airport who declined to provide her name. “I’m totally disgusted with government.”

Others travelers weren’t buying the dire warnings about 90-minute flight delays.

“I feel that decline in services will be fairly minimal, except perhaps for business travelers. I feel like the amount of money being cut is a small percentage of the total,” said Ed Evan as he sat in the US Airways terminal.

If sequestration takes effect, Congress can act later to restore some of the cuts, but Connolly warned the process will be difficult.

“We have a continuing resolution funding the federal government that expires March 27, so there is an opportunity… to try to fix some of these problems,” Connolly said. “But you have to remember that once sequestration kicks in, that creates a new baseline for the continuing resolution. In other words, the new number is minus the sequestration.”

It remains unclear how much wiggle room the FAA and TSA will have to adjust air traffic controllers’ and security screeners’ work schedules to maintain adequate staffing during peak travel times and the coming summer vacation months.

“The fact is no one knows right now what the impact of the sequester will be,” said Geoff Freeman, the chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association.

 

 

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"It's Not Perfect" but Virginia House Reaches Compromise on Transpo Funding

Friday, February 22, 2013

Six roller coaster weeks after Governor Bob McDonnell proposed a major transportation funding overhaul, the Virginia House of Delegates has approved a compromise measure to raise $3.5 billion over five years for roads and rails.

The House voted 60 to 40 -- with 25 Democrats providing key "yes" votes -- to send the measure to the state Senate. House minority leader David Toscano said, "it's not perfect but better than not approving any new money for transportation."

"There are things that I don't like about this, but I am willing to support it because I do think that even though it doesn't solve every problem, it solves a lot of problems," he said.

The bill replaces the 17.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax you pay at the pump with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gasoline AND a 6 percent tax on diesel. The state sales tax would also increase to 5.3 percent, with that additional revenue earmarked for transportation.

Republican Delegate David Albo of Fairfax says Northern Virginia will eventually receive $350 million a year for its needs. "The three funding sources are a .7 cent sales tax, a .25 percent fee when you sell a home, so on a $500,000 that's $1250, and a three percent hotel [tax]."

The legislation also imposes a $100 registration fee on hybrid and electric vehicles. State Senate approval is needed to approve these proposals.

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Virginia House and Senate Negotiators Strike Transportation Funding Deal

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Virginia capitol building (photo by Thruhike98 via flickr)

In a final attempt to reach a compromise on measures to raise substantial new revenues for transportation before the scheduled adjournment of the legislative session, Virginia House and Senate negotiators struck a deal that replaces the state’s gas tax with a lower tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, but raises the sales tax.

The deal eliminates the state’s seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon gas tax, replacing it with a three-and-a-half percent wholesale tax. It also raises the state sales tax to pay for roads, but not by as much as the governor wanted.  The sales tax would increase from 5 to 5.3 percent under the deal reached by a conference of ten legislators. A $100 registration fee for hybrid and electronic vehicles is also included.

The deal, which would raise approximately $869 million a year when fully implemented, now heads to the House and Senate for floor votes by the end of the week.  While passage in the Republican-led House seems certain, the deal may run into trouble in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans each hold 20 seats.  Some Democrats remain unhappy with the plan to use general fund (sales tax) revenue to pay for transportation.

“The reduction in the gas tax makes no sense to me,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). “Obviously I want to raise money for transportation… but it’s a little bit of a shell game, quite frankly. Historically we’ve used sales tax for education and this is a major step in the other direction.”

Petersen calls the $100 registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles “asinine.”

“We want people to drive fuel efficient vehicles.  Why would we penalize them?” he said.

To appease Northern Virginia lawmakers, the negotiators included Governor McDonnell’s proposal to use $300 million in increased sales tax revenue to finance the Silver Line rail extension to Dulles Airport.

The $5.5 billion Silver Line project is managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has lobbied Richmond for funding in order to offset projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road.  Those tolls are supposed to pay for 75 percent of Phase II of the Silver Line’s construction cost under the current financing arrangement.

‘When it comes to the Silver Line the $300 million is vital to future toll mitigation.  I would hate to think this opportunity would be lost,” said MWAA chief executive Jack Potter.

The negotiators’ deal created an unexpected potential difficulty for the Silver Line extension. The agreement requires that Loudoun County approve a countywide commercial and industrial tax (C&I) in order to be eligible for state transportation dollars for local projects. However, in 2012 the county created two special tax districts around its future Silver Line station stops.  Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles District) says an additional C&I tax would make the county uncompetitive with surrounding jurisdictions in attracting businesses.

“If the Legislature moves forward with this proposal it would force us to reexamine our funding mechanism for Metro [Silver Line] and create a great deal of doubt,” Letourneau said in an interview with WAMU 88.5.

Loudoun's participation in the Silver Line project is vital to eventually extending rail to Dulles International Airport.

In addition to the special tax districts for the coming commuter rail, Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors has in place a special tax district for businesses along its busy Rt. 28 corridor. A C&I tax of 12.5 cents per $100 assessed property value would render the county at a steep disadvantage to neighboring Fairfax, Letourneau said.

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D.C. Metro Employees Will Soon Be Able to Anonymously Report Safety Hazards

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

(photo by Susan Sermoneta via flickr)

Metro employees will soon be able to anonymously report "close calls" and other safety hazards.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is working with the federal government to set up  a hotline. It's one of the recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board after a deadly 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured 80 others. That crash was the deadliest episode in Metro history, and ensuing investigation uncovered rampant safety problems at the transit agency.

WMATA is working with the rail worker's union to establish the confidential “close call” reporting system. The goal is to catch potential safety hazards that would otherwise go undetected by Metro’s usual safety reporting systems. Metro employees would be able to report problems without fear of retribution.

“This is a partnership with our union, Local 689 Amalgamated Transit Union, and we are working out a memorandum of understanding with the union to determine the parameters of the program,” said Andrea Burnside, Metro’s chief performance officer. “It is very important to have it confidential because employees will not be willing to participate in the program.”

Exactly what would constitute a “close call” is being hammered out in negotiations with the union, Burnside said.

Improving safety -- and convincing the public their safety on the rail lines is being taken seriously -- ranks as a Metro priority since the Red Line crash. WMATA approached the U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics for help in creating the reporting program.

"Systems that allow confidential reporting of safety violations are an important part of creating a safety culture in an organization," said DOT spokesman Justin Nisly in an email to Transportation Nation. "The Bureau of Transportation Statistics currently operates a similar safety reporting system for rail that analyzes safety issues to identify trends, new sources of risk, and helps develop preventive safety actions to address them.  Because of that expertise, WMATA approached the BTS to help set up their close call reporting program."

New Jersey Transit was the first passenger rail system in the country to establish a confidential reporting system, back in 2009.

“We are getting a positive response,” said New Jersey Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder, who said their program is creating a culture where employees are more apt to report problems from the serious to the more routine. “When they see some infrastructure issues they report it to us. They don t have to worry about any type of reprimand,” Snyder said. “Rail yard efficiencies have improved. We‘re getting improved safety in and around our yards as well as operational efficiencies during our morning rush hours and afternoon rush hours.”

Based on New Jersey Transit's program, the U.S. DOT estimates it may receive 400 close call reports each year in D.C. But Burnside cautions that Metro's system is different than New Jersey's, and the definition of what would constitute a "close call" on Metro rail has yet to be determined.

A potential start date for Metro's program has not been established.  The "close call" program is part of Metro's long-range strategic plan.

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How Hundreds of Passengers Got Stranded in D.C. Metro Fiasco

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Metro passengers on a stranded Green Line train last month exited the tunnel through this vent shaft, in an open field near Anacostia station (image from WMATA)

(Washington, D.C.) The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says miscommunication among emergency responders contributed to the January 30th fiasco on Metro's Green Line that left hundreds of passengers stranded on dark, overheated trains, while others 'self-evacuated' into tunnels.

A formal report on the incident was presented at the transit agency’s board meeting Thursday, and it recounts what happens when two packed Green Line trains heading outbound toward the Anacostia station in Southeast D.C. shortly before 4:30 p.m. ran into a problem. A malfunctioning electrical insulator was smoking, so the trains had to be single-tracked around it -- a fairly routine procedure.  But what happened next was not.

“Due to a miscommunication between Metro transit police officials and their liaison in the rail control center, police on the platform at Anacostia were unaware of the planned train route, and when they saw the train lights coming in on Track 2 believed there was an immediate life safety threat to the track personnel repairing the insulator,” said Dave Kubicek, Metro’s deputy general manager of operations. He presented a report, entitled "Green Line Incident, Anacostia," (pdf) at the transit agency’s board meeting Thursday.

So police shut down the power to the third rail -- causing the two rush hour trains to stop in the tunnel, the first not far from the Anacostia platform. A short time later, Metro was ready to turn the power back on. Except: “They received reports of self-evacuations and determined it was no longer safe to restore power or move the trains,” Kubicek said.

Metro’s report says the last of the stranded passengers were de-boarded at Anacostia an hour and 20 minutes after power was lost -- but not before experiencing hellish conditions. "Several medical emergencies were reported to the operator via the intercom, mostly
related to heat and stress. However, one passenger had a seizure and the operator rendered aid to her," reads a section of the report.

The investigation found that the agency’s response to the trains “was faster than in prior incidents and improvements were evident in several key areas of emergency response.” Some Metro board members said the most dangerous aspect of this episode was the decisions by passengers on both stranded trains to escape and walk down the tunnels against the wishes of the train operators.  On the train further from the platform, the report says “one passenger challenged the operator by demanding information about when power would be restored. Against the operator’s urging, this passenger and others began self-evacuating.”

Metro also reviewed its attempts to communicate with stranded passengers during the incident and found many passengers were frustrated with incomplete information. While Metro staff sent out 79 service update Tweets, and one of the train operators was commended, the report also found "Metro officials on the scene who failed to make their presence known to customers throughout the train (and) made inadequate announcements to share information with passengers."

The incident forced Metro’s General Manager to issue an apology to customers via email. Among the investigation’s recommendations is to reinforce proper procedures for transit police after the activation of an Emergency Trip Station, which can shut down third rail power in the area of a mechanical problem.

Read the report here.

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @MartinDiCaro

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Investigation: Washington Airport Agency Leadership Targeted Pro-Labor Board Members in Rail Line Fight

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dulles Airport (photo courtesy of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority)

(Washington, D.C, - WAMU) A former board member of the authority in charge of airports in the Washington, D.C. region is accusing the agency's leaders of not telling the whole truth in testimony before Congress, and internal emails suggest three current authority board members worked with officials in Richmond, Va. to remove one of their colleagues, an investigation by WAMU has found.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is trying to rebuild the public's trust after a tumultuous 2012. But key officials who remain in their MWAA posts were involved in the political maneuvering that ended in the resignations of two pro-labor, Democratic board members who, their opponents say, were threatening the completion of the Silver Line: Mame Reiley and Dennis Martire, who supported a controversial pro-union provision for the construction of the rail project's second phase.

Twenty-three pages of emails obtained by WAMU suggest that Republican board members Tom Davis and Todd Stottlemyer, as well as Democrat Rusty Conner, were aware of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s intention to remove Dennis Martire from the MWAA board and communicated with Republican officials in Richmond to secure Martire's removal.

And former MWAA board member Bob Brown, a Democrat, says agency CEO Jack Potter and board vice-chairman Tom Davis did not tell the whole truth when they told members of a House subcommittee last November that the hiring of Mame Reiley to a staff position was only Potter’s idea.

The emails, along with Brown's allegation, suggest that an agency designed to be insulated from political pressures was riven by them.  The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is comprised of four jurisdictions: D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government (three board members are presidential appointees). The board members terms are staggered to prevent any single mayor or governor from exerting excessive influence over the appointment process.  Yet it appears the Republican administration of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell sought to replace members of the board of directors not when their terms expired but through political pressure exerted by its allies.

‘Not illegal, but against the grain’

Reiley resigned from the board in February, citing health concerns, and began a new, $180,000 per year position shortly thereafter.

“Nobody did anything illegal, but it goes against the grain, of the notion of these kinds of non-political regional agencies,” said Brown.

Brown says Davis, who was appointed by McDonnell, orchestrated the hiring of Reiley to a special position created for her. Brown says he knows this because both Reiley and Davis told him so.

“Tom was the one that conceived of the idea of how to persuade Mame Reiley to resign her seat and open up that prior Democratic appointment for McDonnell to fill,” Brown says.

By replacing Reiley on the MWAA board of directors with Todd Stottlemyer, the McDonnell administration secured another Republican vote against a pro-labor provision included in the bidding process for Phase 2 of the Silver Line. McDonnell and Republicans in the General Assembly fought against that provision, known as a PLA or project labor agreement, and the all-Republican Loudoun County Board of Supervisors threatened to pull out of the project over it.

MWAA had defended the pro-labor provision against these attacks for months, but bowed to this pressure and voted to kill the PLA on June 6.

Davis denies he orchestrated Reiley’s hiring. Reiley did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

“There are other people, who I am not going to get into, that basically initiated this conversation,” Davis said. “I didn't have a dog in that fight but I thought getting her off the board frankly at that point would be a win-win for everybody.  So I acquiesced and didn't raise an objection to it.”

Potter, the MWAA CEO, finalized Reiley's hiring and continues to take sole responsibility for the decision — a decision that was among questionable dealings highlighted in an audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year.

“I stand by what I testified in front of Congress. I made the decision on the hiring and it was my sole decision. I made the decision to hire Mame Reiley, period,” Potter told WAMU 88.5 in an interview this week.

Potter noted in his November testimony, “My judgment was not good in terms of the hiring of that person.”  He added, however, that the position was necessary to develop land to offset rising costs at Dulles International Airport.

Davis testified at the same hearing that he knew the job was being created for Reiley.

“I was aware. There were board members it was run by,” Davis testified. “This was a complicated situation.”

Board members emailed about Martire’s ouster

McDonnell on June 14, 2012 attempted to remove Dennis Martire from MWAA's board "for cause."  It was just one week after the board voted to remove the pro-labor provision from the Silver Line bid process. Martire supported the PLA but had also been embarrassed by accusations that he abused MWAA’s travel policy.

Emails sent by Davis, Stottlemyer, and board member Rusty Conner suggest they knew of the governor's intention to dump Martire in February — four months earlier, according to emails which were obtained from a Fairfax Circuit Court filing.

In an email sent on Feb. 18, 2012 Davis wrote to David Speck, a former MWAA board member and member of Virginia’s House of Delegates. “I think they will try to remove Denny so that means two more [board] openings,” the email from Davis reads. “ [Virginia Transportation Secretary] Sean Connaughton is the key decision maker. It may be helpful for them to keep this bipartisan.”

A Fairfax Circuit Court judge blocked the governor’s attempt to remove Martire. The board member eventually settled his legal dispute with the commonwealth and agreed to resign his board seat.

Davis admitted he wanted Martire off the board, but insists it was not for political reasons, and that there was nothing improper in him supporting the labor leader’s removal.

“My job was to try to get a rail system built. This board was dysfunctional. It wasn't just the PLA. It was the lack of transparency. There were 20 things going wrong at that point,” Davis told WAMU 88.5 in an interview.

One of those things going wrong was the insertion of the labor agreement into the bidding process for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which would have awarded contractors a bonus in their bidding scores if they agreed to enter into a voluntarily labor agreement with the workforce building the rail line. As a right-to-work state, Virginia’s General Assembly voted to withhold $150 million in funding if the PLA provision remained.

Project costs would have escalated under the project labor agreement, Davis argues. But Potter sees a value in such agreements; he credits the PLA Phase 1’s construction with keeping the project on time and on budget.

“The project labor agreement included a no-strike clause.  It assured that there was an available trained workforce for the project.  It produced an outstanding safety record. It provided management flexibility in the form of flexible work schedules that were very much needed given the nature of the type of work that was being done,” Potter said at an MWAA board meeting.

Bids for Phase 2 of the Silver Line construction are due by April 19.

In mid-May, Davis emailed fellow board member Conner, telling him that the PLA would be overturned June 6. "We all need to keep powder dry until then including Richmond," meaning the move to remove Martire should wait until after the PLA vote.

Conner emailed back,  "Call Sean [Connaughton] and tell him not to pull the trigger on Martire until the 7th,” referring to the Virginia transportation secretary.

But Connaughton says it wasn’t his call; the Governor had the final say on Martire’s removal.

“The airports authority members are supposed to be representing the interests of the people that they were appointed by,” Connaughton said. “Each one is governed by the laws of the jurisdictions that appointed them.  They are not supposed to be off doing things that are contrary to the interest of the jurisdictions in the region.”

In a June 1 email, Davis seems to joke that Martire may "keep his parking if he resigns, not if he is removed."

MWAA provided Martire $855,000 to pay his legal fees.  The authority also provided Davis, Stottlemyer, and fellow board member Rusty Conner $196,000 for their legal fees incurred fighting subpoenas for 700 emails requested by Martire’s lawyers. The emails cited in this story were part of that filing. The $196,000 was paid to the law firm DLA Piper, where board member Rusty Conner is a partner.

"A Clean Sweep"?

Despite MWAA’s efforts to turn over a new leaf on ethics and practices, one government watchdog said the continued political infighting will affect the agency’s ability to perform its duties.

“Given all that has gone in the past couple of years with the board, it really seems like the best course of action would be a clean sweep and an entirely new set of board members,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Both the MWAA board chairman Michael Curto and CEO Jack Potter should also resign after being implicated in the Department of Transportation audit, Sloan said.

“It’s impossible for the public to have confidence in board members who engage in conduct like that,” she said.

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Virginia Governor Now Says He's Willing To Compromise On Gas Tax

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Virginia highway (photo by bankbryan via flickr)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) For the first time Gov. McDonnell says he is willing to compromise on his plan to eliminate the state's gas tax, an idea Senate Democrats are unhappy with because it would shift transportation funding to general revenues.

"I think we can talk about that," says McDonnell. "I think this is the best solution to be able to eliminate it."

On Tuesday, the Virginia State Senate will take up Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation funding plan that passed the House of Delegates last week. But what the governor still calls the "best solution" is still dead on arrival in the Senate.

"We will have to compromise. There's no way I'm voting for a total elimination of the gas tax. That's absolutely insane," says Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. He says Democrats are open to a mix of solutions for paying for transportation, but the gas tax will have to be part of it.

Petersen says his colleagues are now more open to working with the governor since an unrelated but controversial redistricting measure was dumped.

"It can't help but improve things around here," says Peterson. "I think when that redistricting bill happened, it cast a shadow over the session."

If the Senate passes the measure, it will have to be conferenced with the House bill. The legislative session ends in about three weeks.

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Purple Line Design Will Stop if Maryland Doesn't Get More Transpo Funding

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The proposed Purple Line Route (image via Maryland Transit Administration)

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Local officials are asking Maryland's Department of Transportation not to divert funding from the Purple Line, the proposed light rail line that would connect Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The agency is considering reallocating $41 million dollars in Purple Line design funding to other sources if state lawmakers fail to pass a transportation revenue increase in this legislative session. The move would  put the rail project on hold, which would be "unacceptable," according to Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro. She sent a letter voicing her concerns to MDOT's acting secretary this week.

"Montgomery County, specifically, is relying on these projects to continue our economic development strategies through our different redevelopment projects," Navarro says. "Many of the redevelopment projects that we have already adopted, all the master plans that we have adopted will mostly likely not be realized."

MDOT agrees, says agency spokesman Jack Cahalan -- which is why it believes the legislature should approve more money.

"The bottom line is, without a revenue increase, the state will simply not have the money to construct any new highway or transit projects," says Cahalan. "That's the reality."

The 16-mile Purple Line carries a $2.4 billion dollar price tag. Montgomery County officials say engineering funding for the Corridor Cities Transitway, a proposed bus rapid transit system, is also on the line.

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Virginia Transportation Funding Plan Dies in State Senate

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Virginia capitol building (photo by Thruhike98 via flickr_

Governor Bob McDonnell’s five-year, $3.1 billion transportation funding package died on the floor of the Virginia State Senate on Tuesday night, as divided lawmakers decided to sent the proposal back to committee after defeating two Republican floor amendments.

After more than an hour of debate it became apparent there were not enough votes to support the governor’s plan to eliminate the state’s gas tax (17.5 cents per gallon) and replace it with a higher sales tax to fund road and rail construction and maintenance.

The bill was largely blocked by Senate Democrats from northern Virginia who were unhappy with McDonnell’s plan to use general fund revenue that also pays for schools, public safety, and other programs.

At least one senator’s frustration bubbled to the surface.  Republican Senator Frank Wagner, whose amendment to establish an eight percent gas tax was defeated as an alternative to the governor’s proposal, implored his colleagues to get behind some plan to create new revenues for the state’s immense transportation needs.

“You know, I told myself in 22 years I'd never get emotional over a bill. And I'm sorry I broke my own damn word. I'm emotional. We've been fighting this for ten years. Ten years now!” Wagner shouted. “I'm here tonight to get a transportation bill passed!”

The Senate is now left to consider a bill passed by the House of Delegates that maintains most of the key provisions of Governor McDonnell’s package, including the elimination of the gas tax. But the administration sounded pessimistic the House bill would fare any better.

“It was quite clear from the floor debate and from the fact they voted against every single transportation funding mechanism before them, and that they didn't even offer any solutions of their own, they have no intention of addressing transportation funding,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, who made it clear the administration blamed Democrats for the bill’s demise.

“We’re incredulous,” Connaughton said. “On a day that the Texas Transportation Institute comes out with its nationally known study that says the Washington region has the worst traffic congestion in the entire country, the Senate Democratic caucus voted against every Senate version of transportation funding to date.”

Without some form of compromise, the General Assembly will close its session in three weeks without approving any new transportation revenues.

“Unless the Democrats in the Senate work with us… things do not look very favorable right now,” Connaughton added.

“The governor can send down a bill at any time. That's his prerogative.  I would encourage him to find common ground among all the proposals that are out there and there are a lot of them,” said Delegate David Toscano, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House. “It looks like if the governor is not willing to compromise on very much, nothing is going to get done,” he said.

Toscano chided the governor's plan for relying on revenue from future Internet sales -- a marketplace equity bill --that Congress "probably won't pass." He added: "It was deficient in the first place."

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As Virginia Debates Transportation Funding Plan, EVs Put Gas Tax Under Microscope

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Chevy Volt at the 2012 NY International Auto Show (photo by Kate Hinds)

As both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly prepare to work to find common ground after passing different versions of Governor Bob McDonnell’s major transportation funding plan, critics say the governor’s proposal to eliminate the state gas tax and replace it with a higher sales tax would not provide enough revenue to satisfy the state’s transportation needs.

On Monday the House gave preliminary approval to a measure that keeps most of McDonnell’s proposals intact, including eliminating the state’s 17.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax.  In the Senate, a key Republican lawmaker is proposing a different solution: a 5.5 percent sales tax on the wholesale price of gasoline tied to inflation.

The bill approved by the House killed the governor’s plan to impose a $100 registration fee on alternative fuel vehicles.  The proposals are scheduled for a final vote today.

The McDonnell administration argues higher fuel efficiencies continue to eat into gas tax revenues so the tax should be replaced, especially as the adoption of hybrid and electric cars is expected to reduce gas consumption.

The latest hybrid and electric models are currently on display at the Washington Auto Show, where proponents say they have become much more practical for everyday use since the first generation models.

Mahi Reddy, the founder of SemaConnect, a manufacturer of electric vehicle charging stations based in Bowie, Maryland, says EVs are indeed becoming more popular, although they only represent less than one percent of all vehicles on the road today.

“Previous generations of electric cars struggled because they used lead-acid batteries. They used nickel-metal hydride batteries,” Reddy said. “The new generation all use lithium batteries, the same lithium technology that is in your cell phone. So that means these batteries are much lighter, they have much more range, and these cars are much better engineered so they are practical cars you can use to commute to the office.”

In his view, the biggest obstacle facing EVs is the lack of charging stations.

A report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found our region has strong potential for EV growth, but an "underdeveloped charging network" is one of several problems.

But while the governor views improving fuel efficiency as a reason to dump the gas tax altogether, the Council of Governments executive director Chuck Bean takes the opposite position.

“In terms of transportation funding all of the options need to be on the table; gas tax, sales tax. We are really in a crisis of transportation funding and need to be very creative,” Bean said. “I would hesitate to reverse or eliminate any taxes because there is simply a great need for more funding.”

The potential of these vehicles does raise another potential challenge to funding transportation: as the U.S. vehicle fleet is comprised of more EVs and regular vehicle fuel standards improve, the gas tax will lose even more of its purchasing power. That would leave states looking for other revenue streams like higher tolls, more borrowing, higher vehicle fees, or higher sales or property taxes to pay for roads and rails.

The smart growth community says there is no way for Virginia to build its way out of its infamous traffic congestion and taht the solution lies in changing land use policies and urban planning strategies to maximize the potential for transit, walking, and bicycling.

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Maryland to Raise Speed Limit on New Highway

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Intercounty Connector at down (photo by Jessica Jordan)

The speed limit on Maryland's new, $3 billion highway will be raised to 60 m.p.h. by March 31, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority. The current limit on the Intercounty Connector is 55.

The higher limit may satisfy some drivers but won't speed up their commutes significantly.

"Going from 55 to 60 really only represents a time savings of about a minute and a half," said MDTA Executive Secretary Harold M. Bartlett.

The agency studied the highway's geometry and performed a crash analysis for the ICC's first year of operations before deciding to bump the speed limit.

“We are confident that a 60 m.p.h speed limit is safe and justifiable based on the design speed and geometry of the roadway, as well as on the speed most motorists are comfortable traveling the ICC," Bartlett said.

There is no national speed limit. States are free to set their own limits guided by safety considerations. Texas recently posted the highest speed limit in the U.S. at 85 m.p.h. also for a new toll road, and did so in part for financial reasons.

 

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