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Martin DiCaro

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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.

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @MartinDiCaro

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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.

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @MartinDiCaro

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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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DC Bike Advocates See U-Turn Enforcement as a Good Sign

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The bicycle lanes in the middle of Pennsylvania Ave. are off-limits to cars (photo by Martin Di Caro/WAMU)

Anyone making an illegal U-turn across the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown D.C. will be subject to a $100 fine. District officials are wrapping up a public awareness campaign about the new law.

Employees with the District Department of Transportation were out on Pennsylvania Ave. Wednesday handing out fliers that to motorists that say, "Please help us stop the Pennsylvania Avenue U-turns."

The road is wide and drivers sometimes make mid-block U-turns across bike lanes. But as TN reported previously, almost 80% of the avenue's bike crashes are caused by cars making U-turns.

The practice is now illegal, and after 30 days of issuing warnings, police will now hand violators a $100 ticket. Bicyclists say cabbies are the worst offenders, making U-turns to pick up passengers hailing from the other side of the street.

"Well, you are going straight down Pennsylvania Avenue and you are pedaling along, you have green lights, you are going quick, and then all of a sudden a car that you are thinking is going straight all of a sudden whips around and you are looking at getting t-boned on your bicycle," says Maggie Benson. "It's very scary."

Benson rides her bike to work every day down Pennsylvania Avenue. Before the law was passed, there wasn't much she could do.

"You kind of throw your arms up, kind of yell a little bit and keep pedaling," Benson says.

But bicycle advocates also see the need for the enforcement as a sign of progress. If D.C. hadn't seen such growth in bicycling, there'd be no issues with cabbies crashing into bicyclists as taxi drivers and others make illegal U-turns. If D.C. weren't such a big bicycling city, there'd be no bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue in the first place.

"It's about the next steps in integrating biking as a major form of transportation in this city," says Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

There are now 56 miles of bike lanes in the District of Columbia, the most traveled being those on Pennsylvania Avenue, L Street and 15th Street. Farthing says the more bicyclists are on the road, the more drivers become accustomed to them.

"That's been proven to be true in cities across the country and the world, that the more cyclists you have the more motorists adjust and the safer cycling becomes overall," he says.

While police are responsible for enforcement, Farthing is focused on education for both motorists and cyclists, especially as D.C. adds even more bicycling infrastructure. "A lot of us took the driver's exam a long time ago when we didn't have things like center cycle tracks and dedicated bike lanes and things like that," he points out.

Pennsylvania Avenue is home to the city's only center bike lane, and it was prominently featured in this month's presidential inauguration.

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Va. Gov's Plan to End Gas Tax Goes Before Committee

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Workers complete one span of the track for the Silver Line to Dulles Airport. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is proposing a new structure to fund large state transportation projects. (Photo by Armando Trull/WAMU)

(Washington, DC - WAMU) A legislative committee in the Virginia House of Delegates will take up Governor Bob McDonnell's $3 billion transportation funding plan Wednesday. The governor expects his bill will go before the full House and Senate next week.

McDonnell's proposal has been picked apart since its unveiling three weeks ago, but he still says it's the best plan out there. McDonnell insists increasing the gas tax would be politically impossible, which is why he has recommended eliminating the gas tax and replacing it with a higher sales tax to fund transportation.

"I can only tell you that the poll that was done last week by two independent sources said that 2-1, Virginians favored this approach over tax increases," McDonnell said. "So I think I've found the right economic and political model that can actually get the job done and can pass."

Virginia would be the first state to eliminate its gas tax, dumping what has become a rule of transportation funding: use the roads, pay the tax that's supposed to maintain them. But it's not outrageous — it's just different, says Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.

"We are one of the few nations on earth that uses gas taxes to directly fund transportation," he says. "Most countries have much higher gas taxes than we do, which sends a signal to users and discourages gasoline consumption and encourages smaller vehicles and more public transportation. So they have much higher gas taxes than we do but they don't dedicate that money to transportation."

But Schank calls the governor's plan 'inconsistent' because it maintains a user fee on trucks by continuing the diesel tax and a user fee for electric vehicles by increasing the registration fee to $100.

"And then he's getting rid of the so-called user fee for passenger vehicles by getting rid of the gas tax," he says. "It's not a strategy based on thoughtful analysis about how we should be paying for our transportation system."

Schank acknowledges the governor has to deal with political realities. McDonnell says neither the General Assembly nor Virginia residents want to pay more at the pump.

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A Pay-Per-Mile Road Tax Could Target Transpo Funding -- But It's Years Away

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

(photo by Richard Masoner via flickr)

As federal and state governments struggle to adequately fund their transportation networks, a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax has potential to increase revenues -- but the establishment of the tax is probably years away.

To cite one example, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s major transportation funding proposal would eliminate the state gas tax and replace it with a higher sales tax. There is no mention of VMT. In fact, no state currently charges drivers a VMT tax, which tracks all miles traveled and charges a fee based on distance.

“The technology is generally there but there are an awful lot of political, institutional, and general public policy concerns that we still have to deal with,” said Rob Puentes, a transportation policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

One big concern may be privacy. A study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board released last week found that 86 percent of area commuters oppose having a GPS device installed in their vehicles to track all their miles traveled.

“There are lot of measures that can be put in place to insure that personal information is not being used or exploited, but you really have to do a good job of convincing the motoring public that privacy concerns are going to be dealt with in a very clear way,” Puentes said.

At a time when governments are looking for dedicated revenue streams for transportation systems and projects that often run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, VMT offers an opportunity to direct money to the most troublesome roads, said Puentes, who said a VMT tax would mark a fundamental change to transportation funding.

“If you are driving on the Beltway during rush hour consistently adding to the traffic on those highly congested roads, you’d be paying more, and then those revenues would go back to the road you are using,” he said.  Under the current gas tax system, revenues are placed into central transportation funds and allocated more evenly.

Politically, few politicians have shown the willingness to try to convince drivers of the merits of VMT.

"Oregon is generally considered to be the state that's pioneering most of the research and the policy analysis around this. A state law requires them to look at this,” said Puentes, referring to a state pilot program.

A University of Iowa study examined VMT on a pilot basis in Oregon and 12 U.S. cities. In Congress, Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer is pushing a bill that would mandate that the Treasury Department study VMT.  In 2009 a national commission recommended VMT as one possible solution to the nation's transportation funding crisis.

But pay-as-you-drive is gaining acceptance in other circles. In 2010, California approved it as a method of pricing car insurance, and now State Farm is using it.

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DC Commuters Want Less Traffic, More Transit -- And No Congestion Pricing

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

(photo by NCreedplayer via flickr)

Commuters are skeptical that congestion pricing will reduce traffic in the metropolitan Washington area and raise revenues to fund transportation projects. Instead, they favor alternatives to driving -- commuter rail, express bus service, or bicycling/walking.

report released Wednesday by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) weighed the attitudes of 300 area residents who participated in five forums: two in Virginia, two in Maryland, and one in the District of Columbia. The participants were asked to consider three scenarios: 1) placing tolls on all major roadways, including interstate highways; 2) charging a per-mile fee measured by GPS systems installed in cars; and 3) creating priced zones similar to a system in London that would charge motorists to enter a designated area.

These attitudes are being probed at a delicate time for transportation funding in the region: Virginia's governor is proposing the elimination of the state gasoline tax -- while Maryland is looking at increasing theirs. Meanwhile, the area's largest transit project, the Silver Line, has yet to be fully funded.

But the funding scenarios posed to study participants received tepid support.

“This study shows people are cautiously open to concepts of congestion pricing, but they really need to see if it’s going to work, and they have doubts about that,” said John Swanson, a TPB planner.

“They really want to make sure that there are clear benefits, that [congestion pricing] is going to fund new transportation alternatives… particularly transit and high quality bus [service],” he added.

Scenario one – charging tolls on all major roadways – was supported by 60 percent of study participants, who engaged in extended exchanges of ideas and opinions. Scenario two – using GPS to track miles traveled – was opposed by 86 percent, even though drivers’ actual routes would not be tracked, only the number of miles.

“I don’t want to discount privacy concerns,” Swanson said. “I don’t think, however, the concerns were simply the classic ‘big brother’ concerns. There was a lot of code language for broader anxieties.  It was a complicated proposal that was hard to understand.  It seemed to be hard to implement.  A lot of people said it looked like it would be expensive to implement and, frankly, they are right.”

The study participants spoke of congestion in personal terms -- family time robbed, the stress of dealing with incessant traffic. Most commuters said driving is not a choice.

“The availability of other options besides driving—such as transit, walking and biking—increased [the] receptiveness to pricing. Participants also spoke favorably of proposals that would maintain non-tolled lanes or routes for those who cannot or do not want to pay,” the report said.

Transit advocates say the report shows shaping land use strategies to improve access to transit and create walkable, densely built environments is the best way to mitigate the region’s traffic jams.

“Newcomers to the region are very frequently choosing the city or a place near transit rather than a place where they have no option but to drive,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“What’s most interesting about this report is that it was an effort to seek public support for congestion pricing, but what it documented was the much stronger support for transit and improvements in how we plan land use in order to give people more choices to get around,” Schwartz added.

The study’s authors – the TPB partnered with the Brookings Institution – found most participants were unaware the federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon) hasn’t been raised since 1993.  However, they also favored raising the gas tax as an easier, fairer alternative to implementing a congestion pricing program.

Support for increasing the gas tax increased over the course of the sessions --  from 21 percent when the study convened to 57 percent upon its completion.

The gas tax “is a hidden fee,” said Swanson. “We learned that people actually like that. There is a general sense of the invisibility of the gas tax being a problem and potentially a benefit, something that’s strangely attractive to people.”

Eighty-five percent of study participants identified transportation funding shortfalls as a critical problem, yet expressed doubts the government would make the right choices if additional revenues were made available through congestion pricing.

TPB board member Chris Zimmerman, who's also a member of the Arlington (VA) County Board, took exception to the wording of the study’s questions using the word “government” because he felt it provoked a negative response.

“If you are trying to interpret what people say, you have to be careful of what question you ask them,” Zimmerman said. “I think people get that there is a lack of funding.  They also get the fact there are a number of other problems.  There aren’t alternatives. For many in this region, they drive not because that’s what they are dying to do, but because they have no choice.”

Zimmerman, who background is in economics, said it should be no surprise people are lukewarm about congestion pricing proposals, given the lack of alternative modes of transportation in some places.  He is also unsure congestion pricing will work.

“The way roads are run is there is basically no pricing of them at all. Even if you are paying a gas tax it’s not related to your use of any particular road.  An economist looks at that and says of course you are going to get inefficiency and congestion,” Zimmerman said.

“You are not talking about going from the current situation to instantly pricing everything perfectly.  You are talking about implementing costs on particular segments of roads and that gets a lot more complicated because there are secondary effects," Zimmerman said. "We price one thing and many people shift to some other place.  Well, where is that some other place?”

“In practice, implementing that is very difficult.”

The Washington region saw two major highways shift to congestion pricing in 2012. Maryland's Inter-County Connector charges variably priced tolls; the 495 Express Lanes charge dynamically priced tolls and offer free rides to HOV-3 vehicles.

In the case of the Express Lanes, the state of Virginia will not receive toll revenues for 75 years as per its contract with its private sector partner, Transurban, and it remains to be seen if the new toll lanes will ultimately reduce congestion in the heavily traveled corridor. The ICC also has its critics, who say the recently constructed highway was a waste of money.

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Former DC Airports VP Sues For Defamation

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Dulles Airport (photo courtesy of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority)

The agency that runs Dulles and Reagan National airports is being sued by one of its former officials.

George Ellis, a former vice president at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, has filed a $10 million defamation suit, claiming the authority breached a severance agreement attached to his controversial departure last April.

MWAA is responsible for overseeing the ongoing construction of the $5.6 billion Dulles rail link, one of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects in the nation. Last year the MWAA board came under federal scrutiny for unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices.

Ellis claims the authority told federal auditors he was fired. He disputed that charge, saying he actually retired with benefits.

An audit by the Department of Transportation's inspector general alleged that Ellis -- who was referred to by title, not name, in the report -- and members of his MWAA staff accepted more than 25 free trips from a company with a major contract with the authority, as well as expensive gifts and Super Bowl tickets.

MWAA is not commenting on the lawsuit.

Ellis denies any wrongdoing and claims senior executives tried to make him a scapegoat for the bad publicity generated by the audit.

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Sec. LaHood Says Loan for Silver Line "Looking Good"

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ray LaHood, the caffeinated U.S. transportation secretary, says a TIFIA loan for the Silver Line looks like a go (photo by Martin DiCaro)

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood expressed optimism a federal loan would be approved to help finance the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project, funding that would help slow down projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road.

“This is one of the first [projects] under the new TIFIA loan program that was passed by Congress in transportation bill, which gave us an enormous amount of money, almost $2 billion over the next two years,” LaHood said. “I would say right now things look good.”

Tolls on the Dulles Toll Road are currently set to finance roughly half the Silver Line’s cost.

After swearing in two federally appointed members to the board of directors of the agency that oversees the Silver Line’s construction, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, LaHood praised the authority’s work to overhaul its ethics, hiring, and contracting practices. Last year an audit by the Department of Transportation revealed a litany of shady dealings at MWAA.

“Since then MWAA has done everything that we have asked them to do,” LaHood said. “That included passing new travel and ethics policy for its board and staff, terminated contracts with former board members and employees that are not competitively bid, adopt employment and nepotism restrictions, improve board transparency, began to make quarterly acquisition reports and forecasts to the [U.S. DOT], and approve an amendment to the lease with DOT to give us oversight of MWAA policies and procedures permanently.”

This progress is a factor in determining whether MWAA will receive a loan through the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program.

Last year Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D) said he expected the loan could amount to 25 to 30 percent of the project’s cost.  When asked on Wednesday how large a TIFIA loan would be for the Silver Line, LaHood declined to speculate, and he offered no estimate on when the final decision would be made.

“You’re the only one that would really care about that, and I’m not going to get into the details about the loan application,” LaHood said. “We are working with MWAA on this and as soon as we finalize the work we will announce what percent we’re going to give and how much money it involves.”

Drivers who use the Dulles Toll Road also care about how much funding the Silver Line may receive. Additional funding would bring down the projected toll rates, currently scheduled to rise over the next four decades.

Tolls on the road increased on January 1. The full, one-way toll increased by 50 cents to $2.75.  To the commuter who takes the road every day, that will amount to an extra $260 in 2013. The tolls are scheduled to increase again in January 2014 by another 75 cents.

MWAA CEO Jack Potter said he’s also optimistic MWAA would receive the additional funding.

“We are working very closely with the Department of Transportation, Loudoun County, Fairfax County to put our application in and we are very positive of a good outcome,” Potter said. “I’d like to get as much as we possibly can.”

Potter has been lobbying for more state funding.  Virginia lawmakers have approved only $150 million for the Silver Line so far. On Monday Potter met Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton as well as a group of lawmakers who control the purse strings in Richmond.

“I am very much focused on output. The output is dollars coming to the rail project,” Potter said. “How the Commonwealth generates those dollars is strictly Commonwealth business.  I am strictly focused on the output of $300 million dollars or more that could come to the rail project.”

In a major transportation funding plan unveiled earlier this month, Governor Bob McDonnell proposed using sales taxes revenues to provide $300 million for the Silver Line over three years.  That plan, however, is expected to face opposition in the General Assembly among lawmakers who say the rail project should not compete for general fund revenues normally used to pay for education and public safety.

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Your Guide to Biking to the Inauguration

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

(photo by Martin DiCaro)

No matter your mode of transportation to the second inauguration of President Barack Obama you will have to do a lot of walking, as D.C.'s police force will establish a large “hard perimeter” around the parade route closed to vehicular travel and bicycles. (A map of the restricted area is here.)

Before you begin to hoof it, however, the easiest way to get close to the National Mall may be on a bicycle.  Bicycling advocates expect thousands of people to pedal into downtown D.C. on Monday morning, and DDOT is taking steps to accommodate them.

For starters, there will be a large bicycle parking area established at 16th Street and I Street NW starting at 7 a.m.

“That’s going to hold about 700 bikes but you are going to want to bring your own lock.  It’s not valet parking but it will be supervised all day,” said DDOT planner Jim Sebastian.

As for Capital Bikeshare, there will be two special docking areas – corrals – that will accept an unlimited number of bikes: at Farragut Square in Northwest and at the USDA building at 12th Street and Independence Avenue Southwest.

“It’s essentially a bottomless station where you can come down and not have to worry about there being an empty space,” Sebastian said.

Starting today six bike share stations along the inaugural parade route will be temporarily dismantled. To make up for the closed stations, CaBi will open a temporary corral to accept bikes. You can see the list here.

For bicycling advocates, Monday presents an opportunity to show how much progress D.C. has made in becoming a bike-friendly city.

"This is going to be the first year that we have bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue during an inauguration, so President Obama is going to be riding down Pennsylvania Ave. and those bike lanes are going to be in all those photos,” said Greg Billing at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “This is a great time for us to show off to the nation that D.C. is a bike city and that we are setting an example that other cities around the country can follow.”

Remember the kerfuffle over bike share stations on the National Mall? Take a trip to March 2012 here.

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A "Last Forest" Fights Off a Suburban Highway

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The forest, as viewed from above, is a border between urban environments.

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A coalition of homeowners groups is ready to celebrate a victory in defeating a proposal to build a highway through the last sliver of nature still standing in the concrete jungle of Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Today the transportation committee of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is expected to kill a plan to build a road down the middle of Old Courthouse Spring Branch Park, a 33-acre green space, the last buffer between urban development and hundreds of single family homes.

The park is a border between two urban environments. As shown in this satellite imagery, the city meets the park like a tide of concrete at the shores of nature. On the other side of the narrow park, it's orderly suburbs laid out like a microchip. Two ways of living protected from each other by forest, a forest it seems, both sides want to keep.

The board is responding to the protests of the group Save Tysons Last Forest, which pleaded with county transportation planners and supervisors to pick one of the other two options under consideration; the proposed highway is part of the county’s plan to enhance the road network around Tysons Corner as its population is expected to increase dramatically over the next several decades to 100,000 people.

Tom Salvetti and his dog Kelsey. (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

“I think we are going to win, although you never know. It’s never done until it’s done, but we are very confident that the county supervisors, the congressional delegation, everyone has looked at this and said, we can’t destroy this,” said Tom Salvetti, who lives next to the park, where he walks his German Shepherd Kelsey daily.

One reason why Salvetti and his neighbors love Tysons “last forest” is its abundance of wildlife. A WAMU reporter walking the park’s leafy trails with Salvetti on Monday spotted a small herd of deer.

“And there are at least four bucks in these woods as well,” said Salvetti, who said he regularly sees fox, turtles, aquatic birds, woodpeckers, and other creatures near the forest’s stream which runs underneath Pike 7 Plaza and all the way to the Potomac.

“Having woods here in Tysons Corner is very important. Walk around Tysons. It’s all concrete and this is green space. This is dirt. This is nature,” he said.

Neighbor Lance Medric praised county leaders for listening to the complaints of residents, more than 600 of whom signed a petition, who opposed the highway plan.

“It means saving the few last trees that are still around. Everybody talks about it but it’s a lot easier to get rid of them. And this is a natural barrier between thousands of single family homes and a city,” he said.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors are expected to take the proposal to build the connection to the Dulles Toll Road through the forest off the table today. The ramp would have connected the Toll Road to an extended Boone Boulevard.

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D.C. Planners: Regional Job Growth Should Focus On 'Activity Centers'

Friday, January 11, 2013

(Photo CC by Flickr user Metal Chris)

Here's a strategy for growth. Build new housing where the action is. And that means around transit lines.

In the Washington D.C. area, regional planners have mapped out nearly 140 "activity centers" around the capital that they say should be the focus of future job and population growth.

An activity center is a densely-built housing, office, and retail space located on a major transportation corridor. Many of the 139 dots on the map unanimously approved by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments are located within D.C. city limits; others branch out into Maryland and Virginia along existing and future Metro lines.

It's a suggested guide for future growth mapped in stipple and meant to guide the coming population growth to areas like Mary Hynes' neighborhod. Hynes is vice chairman of the council's Region Forward coalition and resident of an activity center. "I live a block from the Clarendon Metro," she says. "The practical effect is I get in my car about once a week. I can walk to grocery stores or I can walk to the dry cleaner. I can walk to my job or take a bus to my job. It s a great quality of life."

While Arlington County is well known for building mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods around Metro stations, other places are catching up. Prince George's County has 15 Metro stations, but some are undeveloped.

"By focusing growth around those Metro stations, we will be able to receive some return on that investment and we will build on an infrastructure that already exists," says Al Dobbins, the county's Deputy Planning Director. "That precludes the need to go out and build even more transportation infrastructure."

The activity centers map was drafted in 2002 and last updated in 2007.

Click to enlarge

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Virginia Governor Proposes Eliminating State Gasoline Tax

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (photo via flickr)

Virginia would become the first state in the country to eliminate its gasoline tax if a major transportation funding plan proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell (R) is approved by the General Assembly.

Revenue from the state gas tax of 17.5 cents per gallon, last raised by lawmakers in 1986, would be replaced by an increase in the state sales tax. That rate is currently 5 percent; the governor wants to raise it to 5.8 percent.

McDonnell’s proposal would also increase by half the portion of the sales tax already dedicated to road maintenance and operations. However, during the first three years, that tax would provide $300 million for the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport -- a $5.5 billion project that Virginia has funded only $150 million to date.

“Transportation is a core function of government.  Children can’t get to school; parents waste too much time in traffic; and businesses can’t move their goods without an adequate and efficient transportation system,” said McDonnell at an afternoon news conference, flanked by members of the General Assembly who will dissect his sweeping proposals during the 45-day legislative session.

If lawmakers pass the governor’s entire plan, which also includes higher vehicles registration fees and a $100 charge on electric and natural gas vehicles, Virginia would receive more than $3 billion over five years to fund road construction and transit development, including intercity passenger rail.

A primary aim of the funding package is to stop the yearly transfer of construction dollars from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund to required maintenance projects, a process that will leave the fund empty by the end of the decade.

“My transportation funding and reform package is intended to address the short and long-term transportation funding needs of the Commonwealth. Declining funds for infrastructure maintenance, stagnant motor fuels tax revenues, increased demand for transit and passenger rail, and the growing cost of major infrastructure projects necessitate enhancing and restructuring the Commonwealth’s transportation program,” McDonnell said.

The governor has indicated in recent weeks that the state gasoline tax’s diminishing returns minimizes its effectiveness in raising new revenues.  Higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards, among other factors, have eaten into the tax’s buying power. The 17.5 cents per gallon tax currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, although the tax has lost 55 percent of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation since 1986, the last time it was raised.

Instead of raising the tax or pegging it to annual inflation adjustments, the governor wants to eliminate it, although the state diesel tax would remain in place. Virginia would then abandon a fundamental premise of transportation funding: motorists who use the roads pay for the roads in the form of taxes.

“If this were adopted it would mean there would be no relationship to the extent to which people use the transportation network and what they actually pay for it," said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which favors road construction as a solution to traffic congestion.

"It's a dramatic proposal to shift funding from the gas tax to the sales tax, and we're going to have to look at what it means when you disconnect the tax from the actual use of the roadways,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and frequent critic of the McDonnell administration’s funding priorities.

The General Assembly has for years evaded the responsiblity of injecting significant new tax revenue into transportation. While all observers agree the state’s needs total in the billions, there is no consensus on the best way forward. To Schwartz, prioritizing road construction amounts to squandering precious funds that could be used to develop public transit systems.

"Instead of addressing metropolitan area needs, the administration is spending $1.2 billion on Rt. 460, $200 to $400 million on the Charlottesville Bypass, and proposing to spend billions on the Coalfields Expressway and an estimated $2 billion on a Northern Virginia outer beltway,” he said.

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Fairfax Board To Vote On Tysons Tax Hike

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Metro Rail construction from Tyson's Corner to East Falls Church station on Route 267 in Northern Virginia. (Photo by Trevor Wrayton, VDOT)

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) More than two years after adopting a plan to modernize Tysons Corner, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will decide Tuesday night whether to raise real estate taxes to help pay for the area's new transportation grid.

Both businesses and residential properties in Tysons Corner would be taxed to raise $250 million over 40 years to help pay for road improvements to accommodate expected population and job growth. Although commercial real estate developers are not objecting to the creation of this special tax district — they will benefit most from Tysons' growth — residential property owners are very unhappy.

While the board had contemplated making residential property owners exempt from the new taxes, that may not actually be possible, says Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova.

"We were all a little bit surprised when we discovered that wasn't a possibility because of recent legislation at the state level," Bulova says.

At least one Virginia state lawmaker says he will introduce legislation to exempt residential properties or allow them to pay a lower tax rate. Bulova believes that would make it fair for apartment dwellers who don't stand to financially gain from future economic growth around the four planned Silver Line Metro stops in Tysons.

"If you are an existing residential homeowner, you are not going to be able to redevelop your property and you are not going to see the same kind of benefit as a developer," Bulova says.

The $250 million in new taxes is part of a total $2.3 billion needed to build a multi-modal transportation grid at Tysons Corner, county lawmakers say. Planners expect 100,000 people to live and 200,000 to work in Tysons Corner by 2050.

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YEAR IN REVIEW Washington, D.C: Silver Lines, Express Lanes, Gentrification, and Scandal

Monday, December 31, 2012

(photo by Wally G)

The Washington D.C. metropolitan region saw major developments in transportation that included progress toward completing the largest public rail project in the country, the opening of a new highway on the Beltway, and an update on D.C.’s coming streetcar system. 2012 also raised questions critical to the region’s economic future.  In a region plagued by some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the nation and a public rail system crowded to capacity, how can transportation planners and real estate developers maximize the region’s economic potential in a climate of finite funding for major projects.

1) The Silver Line

When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the county’s involvement in the $5.5 billion project that will connect D.C. to Dulles International Airport, lawmakers removed the last major obstacle to completing the Metro rail line by 2018.  Outstanding issues remain, however.  The most controversial issue is the Silver Line’s financing plan, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.  Without further federal or Virginia state funding, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road will cover half the Silver Line’s costs.

2) I-495 Express Lanes

A new highway is big news in this region. After six years of construction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes opened on Nov. 17 on the 495 Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange in Fairfax County.  Drivers using the HOT lanes may get a faster ride, but the project raised questions about the wisdom of highway expansion as a method of solving congestion as well as the pitfalls of funding megaprojects: without the public-private partnership between Virginia and the international road building company Transurban, the road would not be built.  Virginia gets a $2 billion road, and Transurban gets the toll revenues for 75 years.

3) Transit and Gentrification

Washington, D.C. is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the United States.  While rising property values, economic development, and a growing number of residents living a car-free existence are transforming the District for the better, gentrification has its costs.

4) The Uber Battle for the Ages

After months of contention, the D.C. Council finally approved legislation legalizing the popular sedan car service Uber.  This battle was strange -- and it got personal. Legislators and regulators seemed to tie themselves in knots figuring out to handle the unregulated Uber while the district’s own taxicab industry struggled to modernize.  In the end Uber won.  And so did smartphone-using, taxicab-hailing residents of D.C.

5) MWAA’s woes

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates two major airports, rarely caught the public’s attention.  But after the authority took control of the Silver Line, however, the public’s attention intensified – and not for good reasons.  Audits by the U.S. Department of Transportation and news reports unearthed a litany of shady contracting, hiring, and travel policies and practices.  Critics have relentlessly pressed for changes to the plan to raise tolls significantly to pay for the Silver Line. MWAA is making changes but has not yet recovered the public’s trust.

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