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Martin DiCaro

WAMU

Martin DiCaro appears in the following:

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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Northern Virginia Road Expansion: Betting on Dulles Airport as Freight Hub (Part 2)

Friday, December 21, 2012

There's already construction in the area, building new lanes, but planners are contemplating an entirely new highway. Pictured: Express Lane Construction on I-495 at Route I- 66 (Photo by Trevor Wrayton, VDOT)

This is the second of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 1)

To elected officials and Virginia transportation planners, Dulles International Airport is an untapped well of economic growth. However, maximizing its potential will necessitate major improvements of the surrounding road network.  That includes completion of a “north-south” corridor which is now in the conceptual stages.

On Dec. 12 the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unveiled its intentions to pursue development of airport properties, including 400 acres on Dulles’ western side and sixteen acres around the future Rt. 606 stop of the Silver Line. The goal is to enhance the airport's industrial capacity as a freight hub.

“We are the only airport on the east coast with that kind of land available to us for development purposes. Cargo is down at Dulles right now, but it is down because of the economic uncertainty in Europe,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn). “The problem we have today is there is no easy access from the airport. The only access we have today is Rt. 28 and 28 is very limited.”

At their monthly board meeting, MWAA officials emphasized the importance of both expanding the Dulles Loop – Routes 606, 28, and 50 – and eventually connecting it to the north-south corridor.  Studies to expand all three roadways are underway.

MWAA CEO Jack Potter indicated the agency would take a cautious approach to development.

“We do not want to make an investment either at Rt. 606 or in the western lands to put a lot of infrastructure in there. We are not going to build something and hope that somebody comes,” he said during a presentation to the MWAA board.

Elected officials in Loudoun County who support the “north-south corridor” concept see Dulles as a key to future economic growth and the roads it will require as relief for traffic-weary commuters.

"Anybody who lives in Loudoun County knows that more road capacity is necessary,” said Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles). “Keeping roads small doesn't prevent growth from happening.”

Environmental groups opposed to the construction of a multi-lane, divided highway west of Dulles Airport question whether the expansion of freight is the right goal.

“There are only so many pounds of freight that you can move on an airplane in an economical way. I think it is less than one-tenth of one percent of freight in Virginia comes by air. It is going to be an important economic activity but it is not the major way to move freight in the United States,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

In his view, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Northern Virginia master plan and MWAA’s development ideas amount to a move in the wrong direction, toward sprawl-inducing road expansions that could undermine the ongoing investment in the Silver Line rail project, scheduled for completion in 2018.

“I think the people who move west of Dulles Airport aren’t looking for another interstate highway with trucks on it to serve their neighborhood,” Miller said.

Miller uses the term “outer beltway” to describe the north-south corridor concept, a term that chafes supporters.

“If you want to unlock the potential of our economic engines – and Dulles is the biggest economic engine that we have in Northern Virginia – you’ve got to be able to tie it back to the other industries. If you look on the other side of the river, we have a large biotech industry in the I-270 corridor,” said Supervisor Buona.

“If you are able to create a [transportation] link between that industry and the IT and government contracting set, and that link connects to the airport, what you’ve done is create a corridor of commerce. You have not created an outer beltway,” he added.

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Northern Virginia Planning Big 'Outer Beltway' Road Expansion (Part 1)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Approximate rendering by the Piedmont Environmental Council, a group that opposes the plan.

This is the first of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 2)

In a massive undertaking that would transform the face of Northern Virginia, state transportation planners are unveiling plans to create a “north-south corridor of statewide significance.” Some are calling it a potential beginning of an "outer Beltway," others say it's essential infrastructure for the region's economy. Critics call it a big waste of money, unnecessary and poorly planned.

The proposal would add a path between I-95 in Prince William County to Route 7 in Loudoun County, arcing west of Dulles International Airport and connecting to I-66, Rt. 50, and the Dulles Greenway.

Neither the exact route of a new highway, the cost, nor the number of lanes has been decided, but the agency’s objective is coming into focus: to dramatically expand Northern Virginia's road capacity to benefit commerce, namely the growth of Dulles Airport into the east coast's largest freight hub.

“I'm concerned that they are going to build a road at six lanes going 60 miles an hour much like the Beltway or Highway 28. They are going to need to do four lanes and they will have to slow it down,” said South Riding, Virginia resident Todd Sipe, who pointed out his home on a map of one of the proposed corridor routes at the first of two public open houses on Tuesday night.   “I believe nothing is settled yet.  They are collecting public comment now.”

Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation greeted residents inside a high school cafeteria in Loudoun County filled with maps, charts, and bullet points about a regional master plan that is still in its conceptual stages.

 Residents attending the event were skeptical of the need for a major north-south highway west of the airport, running along the western edge of Manassas Battlefield State Park.

“It seems to be more aimed at industry and transporting freight to Dulles Airport,” said Sterling resident Bill Roman. “In terms of our needs here in the county, people commute east-west mostly, not north-south. There are no north-south issues.”

“I think the state could spend its money in much more effective ways. The way this is shown right now, it ends on Rt. 7. That isn’t the place where you can end a road like this,” said Emily Southgate of Middleburg, referring to mounting pressure to extend a corridor north of Rt. 7 in the form of a new Potomac River crossing, an idea supported by Virginia state officials but not by their counterparts in Maryland.

One lawmaker who conceptually supports the creation of the corridor is convinced additional highway capacity would help commuters. Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) says concerns about a sprawl-inducing new highway could be addressed by limiting access, building fewer exits and entrances.

“When you talk about limiting access you have two main benefits,” he said. “It makes it easier to privatize the road to get it paid for, which is what I think VDOT is primarily interested in. The other benefit is that you can limit development in areas that are undeveloped."

In Letourneau’s view, new housing development is coming to Loudoun County, so the board of supervisors has to responsibly accommodate it.

VDOT officials say a limited-access highway that improves access to Dulles Airport and incorporates HOV lanes and bus lanes would serve the most people.

“We are going to work the best transportation system that we can and meet the needs of the public. There has to be political consensus to do that,” said Garrett Moore, VDOT’s Northern Virginia District Administrator.  “We can limit access. One of the things we'd like to do is get predictable and fast transport, additional capacity and carpools to include express and bus rapid transit.”

Some environmental groups are adamantly opposed to building a north-south highway west of Dulles Airport, especially if it would absorb any property on the periphery of the Manassas battlefield.

“In the context of our limited resources in Virginia, this is one of the worst expenditures we could make,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.  “The fact that it might be a public-private partnership doesn't change that analysis.”

Building through a public-private partnership would likely mean new tolls on the highway. To Miller, VDOT’s plans amount to an “outer beltway” that would lead to new development in 100,000 acres of farm land and rural subdivisions.

“There’s a big choice this region is going to make over the next ten years,” Miller added. “Are we going to take advantage of the investment in the Silver Line, or are we going to allow development to occur in this large 100,000 acre range from I-66 to Rt. 7 west of the airport. We don’t think it is inevitable. The McDonnell administration is encouraging sprawl by encouraging this highway.”

The second part of this series deals with Dulles as a freight hub. 

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D.C. Airports Board Spent $1.5 Million Defending Former Board Member

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The agency managing the construction of the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project in Northern Virginia spent more than a million dollars in legal fees in two lawsuits defending one of its board members in a battle with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.

In a confidential memo obtained by WAMU 88.5, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board details the $1.5 million in legal fees spent defending Dennis Martire, a labor union official who agreed to resign from the MWAA board of directors in September.

In June the McDonnell administration tried to oust Martire from the board.  He sued to keep his seat, and the airports authority agreed to reimburse his legal expenses. He was reimbursed $855,000, according to the memo.

In an interview with WAMU, Martire said he was entitled to legal assistance under MWAA policy.

“We have an indemnification policy that every board member has the right to due process and every board member has the right to face their accusers if you are accused of anything,” said Martire, who drew intense criticism after it was revealed he had spent $38,000 traveling to five conferences while MWAA director.

In his view, however, Martire was targeted for political reasons: the McDonnell administration wanted greater control of the MWAA board.

“The governor was removing me for booking a plane ticket two weeks before a trip, and we spent $1.5 million dollars of MWAA money to defend that case. It's ludicrous,” Martire said. “There is a movement afoot to make it an all-Virginia board. There is a movement afoot to create a Republican-dominated board.”

The confidential memo says the airports authority also spent $360,000 to defend itself and one of its top officials, and nearly $200,000 was spent defending three other board members – Rusty Conner, Todd Stottlemyer, and former Va. Congressman Tom Davis – who were subpoenaed during the litigation.

MWAA chief counsel Phil Sunderland did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
MWAA Legal Fees

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D.C. to Start Testing Streetcars Next Spring

Friday, December 14, 2012

The first three streetcars to roll downs tracks in the District of Columbia since 1962 will be ready for testing next spring, DDOT officials said at a news briefing on Thursday.

The district is building a track in Anacostia to test its streetcars with the goal of launching them into service late next year or early 2014 on the planned H Street/Benning Road corridor, a two-mile, ten-stop segment of a planned 22-mile trolley system that will take five to eight years to complete -- barring further delays.

“From a safety standpoint, we have to start what we call burning in the cars, to get them used to the traffic systems,” said DDOT chief engineer Nick Nicholson. “We have to make sure everything, especially the emergency response, is working well. Sometime after that we complete that burn-in period and get a safety certification, we will begin revenue service.”

Fares and operating hours have not been decided, but officials said they are looking into seamless fare payment technologies, including using Metro’s SmarTrip cards. The final pieces of infrastructure have to be completed, too, on H Street/Benning Road.

“You will start seeing us build our switches in so we can switch the cars from track to track.  You will see power plants starting to come in to run the cars.  You will see the upgrades of the overhead wires and reinforcement of the Hopscotch Bridge to be a stop for the streetcar and we will build a maintenance facility,” said DDOT director Terry Bellamy.

Between now and the day the first passengers climb into a D.C. streetcar in fifty years, DDOT will employ a public awareness campaign to help businesses in the emerging H Street corridor.

“We think pedestrians will probably be used to streetcars because they are used to buses. Our real concern is the automobile driver, because he is used to having the road to himself,” Nicholson said. “Those cars in the district that like to double (park) or just stop and wait, in a streetcar path they're going have to move on.”

Nicholson said delivery trucks will have to alter their schedules or find alleyways to idle because the fixed-rail streetcar system cannot swing around them like buses. The streetcars will flow from the H Street’s median to pick up passengers outside the parking lane.

The district’s ambitious vision for a trolley system that will help residents and visitors efficiently move within the city, as opposed to Metro’s outside commuter-oriented design, foresees streetcars crossing east-west from Benning Road to Georgetown and from Buzzard’s Point to Anacostia, and north-south from Takoma to Buzzard’s Point.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has pointed to the transformation of Portland, Oregon by a new streetcar line as a model of economic growth, and district officials are depending on the H Street/Benning Road line to increase property values and enhance shopping and entertainment options in the corridor.

Progress may have a cost. A study by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University found  that neighborhoods that get new rail transit systems like streetcars experience a significant increase in housing prices -- leading to renters and low-income households getting priced out.

In a prior series, WAMU examined the relationship between transit and gentrification in D.C.’s Ward 7, where a plan to extend the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line east of the Anacostia River is under consideration.

To learn more, check out D.C. Streetcar's latest media briefing here.

 

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D.C. Unveils Four New Taxicab Colors (Updated)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

No, it's not an ode to the Brazilian flag: it's one of four possible color schemes for D.C.'s taxi cabs (photo by Martin Di Caro)

D.C. could eventually have one cab color to rule them all. Or stripes.

Mayor Vincent Gray unveiled four new color schemes on Monday, one of which will be chosen next year as the new paint job for the district’s 6,500 taxicabs, a process that will take years to fully implement. The multicolored striped patterns are one piece of a larger modernization effort that is coming together slowly -- too slowly for D.C.’s top taxi regulator.

One D.C. city council member said he was "appalled" by the color choices.

“I’m a very impatient person and I would like to speed it up,” said Ron Linton, the head of the Taxicab Commission.

Although district lawmakers passed a taxicab modernization bill this year, the most important changes have yet to come to fruition: GPS smart meters, credit card payment machines and touch screen monitors for customers in the back seat.

The new paint jobs will be introduced when taxi drivers replace their aging vehicles; by 2018 no cab on Washington’s streets will be older than 7 years, as per a new regulation, Linton said.

“The people who ride in the cabs were pushing and pushing for a modernization program,” said Linton, referring to a survey undertaken by the office of D.C. Council member Mary Cheh that found widespread dissatisfaction with the current conditions of taxicabs. That survey also found the public’s preferred color to be yellow (38%).  Red was second (15%).

Linton’s office will choose the winning color scheme next year, taking into consideration public opinion.  The public may vote for their favorite inside Verizon Center through January 7 where two sample future taxicabs are on display, or choose designs online.

(UPDATE, 12/11/12 1:30pm: Two D.C. city council members -- one of whom said he was "appalled" by the color choices - say they will consider legislation to end the public vote so a new color scheme can be chosen.)

Last month a panel of administrative law judges killed the district’s plan to install credit card machines in cabs because of problems with the contract awarded to VeriFone, which beat out seven other tech firms. Linton says the matter is still being resolved by the District Office of Contracting and Procurement.

“We selected Verifone on the basis of what was, in my judgment, an honest evaluation and a cost analysis,” he said.

At a news conference to unveil the proposed color schemes and encourage the public to vote on their favorite, Mayor Gray said changes to the district’s taxis are necessary not only to improve the hospitality industry but for the cabbies, too.

“The changes have to come,” Gray said. “This industry has got to change to be competitive. I actually think the cab drivers will make more money as a result of this.”

Gray said touch screen monitors that offer riders the option of tipping 15, 20, or 25 percent will induce larger tips.

“As opposed to what you have now where people in a cash business sometimes give nothing or give a meager sum, I think the cab drivers will ultimately do better as a result of the changes we’re proposing.”

When those changes ultimately arrive is unclear, although Gray and Linton said it will take years to fully implement the new color scheme.  Roughly one-third of taxicabs have installed credit card machines on their own, Linton said.

As for D.C.’s cabbies, some have been reluctant to accept changes that are commonplace in other cities.  A common complaint is credit card processing fees will bite into a day’s pay. Others say GPS smart meters are an invasion of privacy. As for the proposed color patterns, one cabbie waiting for customers outside Union Station on Monday was not impressed.

“It looks ugly. It’s no good for the city color,” said B.K. Anthony, who drives a light blue SUV. “It looks junky.”

For the record, Mayor Gray called the colors “funky.”

 

 

: The multi-colored patterns of yellow and green OR red and white are – in the words of some D.C. councilmembers – appalling!  And now two lawmakers say they will consider legislation to end the public vote so a new color scheme can be chosen.  Councilmembers prefer a solid color like yellow or red to the striped patterns unveiled by the D.C. Taxicab Commission yesterday, which would have the final say on a color regardless of what the public picks. A survey conducted by Councilmember Mary Cheh on the state of the district’s cab industry found that 38 percent of respondents want all-yellow cabs, 15 percent want red.

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Virginia Governor Promises Action on State's Transportation Funding Woes

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Interstate 495 - Virginia (photo by Doug Kerr via flickr)

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell offered no specifics in his “comprehensive transportation funding and reform” plan to raise an additional $500 million per year to prevent the state from running out of money to build roads by 2017.

Speaking in Fairfax County at his annual transportation conference, Governor McDonnell called on lawmakers to stay in session next year until they find a solution to Virginia’s long-term funding woes, which are exacerbated by the transfer of money from the state’s construction fund to required highway maintenance projects.

“I don’t think we can wait any longer,” McDonnell said. “I don’t think I can continue to recruit businesses to Virginia and see the unemployment rate go down unless we are able to get a handle on and provide some long-term solutions this session to that problem.”

The Republican governor, who is one year from leaving office, did not specify what he will ask lawmakers for when they convene in Richmond in January.

“I’ll tell you when we’re ready… before the session,” the governor said in brief remarks to reporters following his speech. “These are plans that take a lot of work to put together.”

He refused to take a position on whether the state’s gas tax should be increased, although he indicated that doing so alone would not generate adequate revenue. The tax of seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon, which currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, was last increased in 1986. It has lost 55% of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation.

Improved automobile fuel efficiency and the rising costs of highway construction materials have reduced the gas tax’s buying power, McDonnell said.

“A key ingredient of asphalt has increased by approximately 350% over that same time,” he said.

Critics contend the McDonnell administration cannot be trusted to direct new revenues wisely. One of the most vocal critics points to a record of highway construction instead of transit projects as evidence, especially from the $4 billion dollar package approved for the administration by the legislature.

“He squandered most of that,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s gone to rural highway projects that have very low traffic demand and are not high priorities given the traffic congestion within northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”

Schwartz listed State Rt. 460 in southern Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway, bypasses in Charlottesville, and plans for an “outer beltway” in northern Virginia as examples of poor spending priorities by the administration, while transit projects like the Silver Line Metro rail and existing roads like I-66 need help.

“They are not targeting the areas of greatest need. You are not getting the best bang for your buck. You are spending a few billion dollars on the wrong things,” said Schwartz.

New revenues would likely be directed to construction projects under the state’s transportation trust fund, which currently loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually to required maintenance.  The trust fund’s formula directs fifteen percent of its monies to transit projects.  The remainder is for road building.

Governor McDonnell denied his administration is neglecting transit and other modes of transportation.  “It’s going to be a multi-modal approach.  Road, rail, and mass transit, all of those will be beneficiaries of a funding plan,” he said.

 

 

 

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Homeowners Group Notches Up Fight Against Billion Dollar Highway Expansion

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A state project with federal money is meeting with local opposition, in a sign that construction and infrastructure expansion often sparks not-in-my-backyard resistance. A homeowners group in a Washington, D.C. suburb says studies performed by traffic and environmental analysts it hired show the construction of a highway ramp near their homes will ruin their quality of life.

Members of Concerned Residents of Overlook, an upscale community adjacent to I-395 in Alexandria, Va., pleaded with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Tuesday night to support their request that the Virginia Department of Transportation suspend construction of the ramp, which is the planned northern terminus of the future 95 Express Lanes, 30 miles of high-occupancy toll (HOT) 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.

“VDOT has usurped its responsibility. It has provided only a regional analysis of the impact of pollutants and traffic congestion. They haven't evaluated the public health risk to the residents,” Sue Okubo, an Overlook resident, told the board.

“This ramp, if it goes through as proposed, will bring major congestion as well as major amounts of pollution,” said Mary Hasty, Okubo’s neighbor.

The county supervisor who represents their neighborhood, Penelope Gross, rebuffed their plea, telling them to contact VDOT because it is a state project on state property, although staff of Board Chairman Sharon Bulova briefly met privately with Okubo to listen to her concerns.

The Overlook group claims VDOT failed to adequately study noise and air quality impacts that will result when traffic exits the new express lanes onto I-395 or local roads. The neighbors fear exiting highway traffic will back up and idle on the exit ramp.

“Our experts say that they will be standing for extended periods of time. That’s going to cause a concentration of pollutants that well exceeds EPA standards for safety for humans,” Hasty said. “One of the pollutants exceeds EPA standards by four-thousand percent.”

Concerned Residents of Overlook hired the national law firm of Shrader & Associates to manage their independent analyses. Shrader has litigated cases involving plaintiffs who claimed they were harmed by toxic chemicals and dangerous products.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has denied that it failed to adequately study the environmental impacts on the 95 Express Lanes project.

“It would be very difficult to make a change at this point having gone through a lot of the studies and approvals at the state, regional, and federal levels,” said John Lynch, VDOT’s regional transportation director for Virginia megaprojects, in a prior interview.

“We went through the federal requirements and developed an environmental assessment which includes analysis for both noise and air quality,” Lynch said.  “The bottom line is those studies met all the federal requirements and it was reviewed by both the Federal Highway Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. We wouldn’t have gotten approval to move forward with this project if it didn’t meet those requirements.”

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(UPDATED) Uber Now Legal in D.C.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

(photo by David Carmelo via flickr)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The battle between Uber the taxi hailing app and the District of Columbia is over.

After clashing for months over proposed regulations that Uber's CEO once claimed would cripple his business, the D.C. Council voted Tuesday to approve legislation creating a sedan class of vehicles-for-hire – separate from taxis – that will allow Uber to charge its customers fares based on distance and time as "digital dispatch" vehicles.

D.C. had been one of the more drawn out and contentious efforts to expand for Uber, and that says a lot. Uber has taken a confrontational approach to growing it's business from it's start in San Francisco a few years ago. Chicago sued the company for violating local regulations on pricing disclosure and safety. San Francisco has fined the company for breaking regulations on driver insurance. This summer Boston issued a cease and desist order to Uber.  New York chased the company out of it's iconic yellow cabs saying it violated safety regulations among others. Taxi unions in several cities have also filed suit against the upstart tech company.

The D.C. ruling isn't likely a harbinger of amity between those other cities and Uber. The D.C. council created a separate class of cab that can use Uber. Official metered city taxi cab drivers still can't use the app to snag passengers. New York, for example, already has such a category for non-metered livery cars that are permitted to use Uber all they want.

The ruling is, however, is certain to embolden Uber's confrontational growth strategy.

“Today was a fantastic victory for Uber but also for innovation, for our consumers here, and the drivers that partner with us,” said Rachel Holt, Uber’s general manager in Washington, D.C.  She thanked customers for helping convince the council as well as the District’s taxi cab commissioner to back away from more stringent regulations CEO Travis Kalanick once described as “from the draconian to the inane.”

“It's not about anything we did or won. I think what really won was that the fact that we have a passionate consumer base here,” she said. Over the past several months Uber customers flooded council members with complaints about proposals that threatened the company’s business model.

Uber’s black sedans are not hailed on the street. Instead, customers use Uber's smart phone app to order a car to their location using the phone’s GPS and pay with a registered credit card number.

The new legislation requires greater pricing transparency.

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Prediction: D.C. Area Highway and Transit Crowding Will Get Worse

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Washington DC - I-395 from D NW (photo by thisisbossi via flickr)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The Washington metropolitan region faces worsening traffic congestion and transit crowding as its population and job growth expand over the next three decades, according to a forecast released on Wednesday by a regional planning group.

The forecast by transportation planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments says large investments in infrastructure and improved land use policies are necessary to reduce the burden on an overtaxed highway and rail system.

“We’ve had a long period of time of inadequate funding for transportation,” said Ron Kirby, the director of the council’s Department of Transportation Planning, whose forecast says transit and roadway congestion will increase despite the expected billions of dollars in investments between now and 2040. It will take even more money, he said.

“The issues of Metro’s rehabilitation are well known but perhaps less well known is the lack of capacity expansion. We haven’t gotten to eight-car trains on Metro rail,” Kirby said, referring to Metro’s ongoing multi-billion dollar rehab project that does not include the addition of rail cars.

If 50 percent of Metro trains consist of eight cars by 2040, the forecast says the red, orange, yellow, and green lines will be congested (100-120 passengers per car) or highly congested (120+ passengers per car). Only the blue line would be rated satisfactory. If 100 percent of Metro trains consist of eight cars by 2040, the orange, yellow, and green lines will still be congested, according to the forecast, which is an aggregation of statistics and projections provided to the council by its member jurisdictions.

The forecast for the region’s highways is similar. Morning congestion traveling in the direction of the region’s core will worsen along I-95 in Prince William County, I-70 East in Frederick, I-270 South in Frederick and Montgomery Counties, I-66 East in Prince William and Fairfax, and the Dulles Toll Road Eastbound in Loudoun and Fairfax. The inner and outer loops of the Beltway will be more congested in Maryland, the forecast says.

“Carpooling is expected to increase some, because we do have some facilities coming on line,” said Kirby, referring to the just-completed 495 Express Lanes and under-construction 95 Express Lanes. “But there’s been relatively limited new highway capacity. At the same time, we are having very strong growth in the outer jurisdictions where there is relatively little transit. So those trips, whether they are work trips or non-work trips, are very dependent on the road system.”

The forecast says the region’s population will grow by 24 percent to 6.5 million by 2040. Employment is projected to grow by 37 percent, adding 1.1 million jobs.

As people and jobs flock to D.C. and its suburbs, choice of transportation mode will not dramatically change, according to Kirby’s projections. By 2040, 57 percent of all commuting trips will be made by people driving on their own, a four percent decrease from current levels. Carpooling is expected to increase from 11 to 14 percent of commuting trips, transit will remain steady at 24 percent, and biking and walking will increase from four to five percent.

Some lawmakers who sit on the Council of Governments board take issue with the forecast, saying its extrapolations do not account for changes in policy and other factors.

“It would be a mistake to think that’s what the future is going to be,” said Chris Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board and proponent of transit-oriented development.

Zimmerman disagrees with the forecast’s projection that employment will grow fastest in the outer jurisdictions of Virginia, although the highest concentration of jobs will remain in D.C., Fairfax County and Montgomery County.

“The real question is where do you want the growth in jobs and population to be? That’s not a foregone conclusion,” Zimmerman said.  “Almost all the growth in this region and the rest of the country is happening in more developed areas because the market is pushing it that way. If land use regulations change in ways that accommodate what the market wants to do, we’ll see an accelerated trend.”

Zimmerman says the future should not be seen as a competition between either cars or transit; transit-oriented development that combines retail, office, and residential properties in close proximity to a Metro station also encourages more walking.

“The reason for doing transit-oriented development is not simply to get more people on transit, but to get more people out of having to use any kind of vehicle for five, six, seven trips a day,” he said.

Zimmerman acknowledges the highway system will always need significant funding for maintenance and improvements, but if a million more jobs are coming to the region by 2040 it makes more sense – in his view – to attract them to places that workers can reach without a car.

Kirby’s forecast says the average number of jobs accessible within 45 minutes by transit will increase from the current 419,000 to 499,000 in 2040, a projection Zimmerman says will change with better land use policies.

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D.C.: Car U-Turns Through a Bike Lane Are, In Fact, Illegal

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane (photo by Elvert Barnes via flickr)

Almost 80% of bike crashes on Pennsylvania Avenue -- home to the city's only center bike lane -- are caused by cars making U-turns. But until recently, there was some confusion over whether the maneuver was illegal or not.

Earlier this month, DCist reported there were apparent inconsistencies in D.C. law regarding when and where U-turns are permissible.

On Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray ordered an "emergency rulemaking" to leave no doubt: cars can't drive across a bike lane to turn around.

"This is an effort to ensure the safety of our increasing numbers of cyclists in the District by closing a regulatory gap,” Gray said. “This action is in line with my efforts not only to protect public safety, but also to encourage a greener, healthier, more sustainable District through my Sustainable DC plan.”

(As he put it in a tweet, "U-turns across bike lanes are illegal. Fine=$100.")

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, said "in 2010 and 2011, 11 of the 14 bike crashes on Pennsylvania Avenue involved vehicles making those U-turns."

Mid-block U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue are one of the biggest safety concerns in the District. Dave Salovash bikes on the street every morning with his ten year old daughter. When he noticed the frequency of the mid-block U-turns, he decided to bring his camera one day.

"So I picked one spot and just stood there for half an hour and counted U-turns made across the bike lanes. I saw about 25 people doing it and managed to get pictures of about 20 of them," Salovash says.

The bike lanes have been in Pennsylvania Avenue's center median since 2010.

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Build Highways or Increase Transit? Planners Tackle Fort Meade Traffic

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fort Meade is home to a number of defense organizations, including the National Security Agency, and most workers commute by car. (Photo courtesy of NSA.gov)

Planners are looking for ways to improve the commute for the more than 56,000 people currently working at Fort Meade in central Maryland.

A top transportation planner at Fort Meade says there are a couple possible strategies to consider to reduce regional traffic congestion. One would be to build major highways at an estimated cost of $50 billion over 25 years. A second option is to use "transportation demand management," which is another way of saying increasing car pooling, rail and bus use.

Howard Jennings is a researcher at Arlington (VA)-based Mobility Lab, which specializes in commuter services. He says a multi-pronged approach is more feasible and less expensive than laying down miles of asphalt.

"Experience has shown that over the years if you build a highway, usually it is going to fill up in just a few years, and we can cite many examples of that," says Jennings.

The Fort Meade workforce has grown from 35,000 to 56,000 over the last ten years -- three times the size of the Pentagon -- and will grow more as its new Cyber Command mission gains traction.

Jennings favors the "transportation demand" approach, which also includes encourages more telecommuting. Add all these measures up, and Jennings says there will be significantly fewer single-occupant vehicles on the roads around Fort Meade.

"Peoples' commutes are very individualized," says Jennings. "There is no one-size-fits-all. We find that when offering up options to people, they will self-select what will work for them."

Jennings says what would work near Fort Meade, where the typical commuter now travels 20 miles alone in a car, would work around any of the region's 20 major job centers that hold 40 percent of the region's jobs.

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Virginia to Study Traffic over Potomac River

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge, stretching over the Potomac River in Virginia (photo by catface3 via flickr)

The Virginia Department of Transportation will study traffic volume over the Potomac River in an effort to determine where the most people and goods will cross as the region’s population grows, the agency said Tuesday.

The study – scheduled for completion next spring – will not recommend a solution but instead provide a basis for consultations with transportation officials in the District of Columbia and Maryland about how best to improve transportation across the river from Point of Rocks in the west to the Route 301 bridge in the east.

“We want to essentially gauge and develop the data from which we can make some informed decisions regarding the best alternatives to deal with the current traffic conditions and what we expect in the future,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton in an interview with Transportation Nation.

Connaughton downplayed the possibility his office would push for the construction of a new bridge over the Potomac.

“We’re really not prejudging anything. In fact, we’re not really getting into what’s the best alternative,” he said.

The study already has its critics, who say the Republican administration of Governor Bob McDonnell has been pushing for a new Potomac River bridge for years.

“They are pushing for another bridge even though the real fixes we need to make are at the American Legion Bridge,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports expanding mass transit instead of road expansions.  To Schwartz, a new bridge connecting Virginia and Maryland would lead to more congestion and sprawl.  He favors implementing transit options on the American Legion Bridge.

“In the near term, that can be buses on dedicated bus lanes with frequent service, connecting the Red Line and the Silver Line, connecting Tysons Corner and Fairfax County job centers with the Montgomery County job centers,” he said.  “Fortunately, Fairfax County and Montgomery County have already met and are pursuing the transit investments that are needed both short term and long term.”

Connaughton disputes the allegation the McDonnell administration is after a new “outer beltway” at the expense of mass transit investments.

“This is one of the things that will be the hallmark of the McDonnell administration, is that we are pursuing increased transit opportunities, as well as dealing with congestion on our roadways, and looking for bike paths and pedestrian paths.  We are doing everything.  This is not a one-solution-fits-all,” he said.

If Virginia officials privately favor building another Potomac River span, they may meet resistance across the river.  In an October letter to Secretary Connaughton, Acting Maryland Secretary of Transportation Darrell Mobley clarified his agency’s position.

“The Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT's) highest priority remains the preservation of our existing infrastructure and the safety of the traveling public. MDOT does not intend to revisit the years of debate regarding new crossings of the Potomac River,” the letter said. “We are interested in the study of potential improvements to existing crossings, including: the Governor Nice Bridge along the US 301 corridor, the American Legion Bridge on the Capital Beltway, and the potential addition of transit across the Wilson Bridge.”

Connaughton said he believes D.C. and Maryland officials are in agreement that a study of future traffic volume is necessary. As far as a possible solution, he said, “we haven’t gotten there yet.”

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MWAA Votes to Raise Fees on Dulles Toll Road

Thursday, November 15, 2012

(photo by bankbryan via flickr)

The agency managing the largest public rail expansion in the nation voted to increase tolls on a Virginia highway in part to help fund construction of the Silver Line.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unanimously approved raising the full, one-way toll on the Dulles Toll Road to $2.75 effective January 1, an increase of $.50.  In January 2014 toll will increase to $3.50.

The toll increases are a major part of the financing plan for the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport, a 23-mile, $5.5 billion project whose first phase is scheduled for completion late next year. The MWAA board put off a decision to increase tolls again in 2015 because of the possibility of obtaining additional state and/or federal dollars.

MWAA has two avenues to secure additional funds: Virginia’s General Assembly, which has provided only $150 million to date, and the federal TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan program.

“Our project is, bar none, (one) of the more worthy projects in the country for TIFIA loan financing,” said MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto in remarks to reporters after the agency’s vote. “We’ve seen the enhanced TIFIA loan program so we’re positioned well, given that the project is shovel ready.  We’re ready to move."

Curto is not the only public official who has expressed optimism a federal loan with come through.  However, MWAA has a lot of competition for TIFIA dollars. Nineteen major transportation projects totaling $27 billion are currently applying for loans, and Congress has authorized $1.75 billion for TIFIA the next two fiscal years.

“The pool is very small compared to what the needs are just for our rail system,” said Terry Maynard, a board member of the Reston Citizens Association, which represents 58,000 residents in a Fairfax County tax district.  “It's going to be very hard to get a significant contribution.”

The association opposes not the Silver Line’s construction but its financing plan, which leaves fifty percent of the entire project’s cost on Dulles Toll Road users (75 percent of Phase II).

“We really want this to get built and succeed,” Maynard said. “We are pressing that all the money [MWAA] receives relieve the burden on toll road users.” Fairfax County residents have relayed their concerns to MWAA that drivers looking to avoid higher tolls will opt for already congested secondary roads, further clogging their communities with traffic.

Curto promised that MWAA will lobby Richmond for additional funding. He declined to criticize the McDonnell administration’s spending priorities, which have seen hundreds of millions of dollars allocated for highway expansions.

“We are going to reach out, work closely and hope to encourage the governor’s administration and the folks in Richmond that Dulles Rail should be the recipient of additional funds.  As Secretary LaHood said, it is a model project,” Curto said.

 

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D.C. Beltway Opens HOT Lanes to Breeze Past Traffic for a Price, but Strapped Gov't Won't Get Revenue

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Heralded as the Beltway’s largest expansion that will provide drivers in Northern Virginia congestion relief for a price, the 495 Express Lanes ceremoniously opened Tuesday morning as Governor Bob McDonnell (R-Va.) cut the ribbon on the $2 billion project.

“So many said that expanding the Beltway was just not a possible task given the multiple challenges. It would consume VDOT’s entire budget, some would say at the time. It would take an immense amount of property. And yet the private sector came up with this concept of a high occupancy toll lane,” the governor said at a ceremony in Tysons Corner.

The high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes will actually open to traffic November 17. Two new lanes will run in each direction for fourteen miles between the Dulles Toll Road and I-95 interchange in Fairfax County, Virginia.

If all goes according to plan, there will never be traffic slower than 45 miles per hour in the HOT lanes.

HOV-3 vehicles and buses may use the 495 Express Lanes for free. All other motorists must pay electronic tolls through EZ Pass that will be dynamically priced: the higher the traffic volume on the Express Lanes, the higher the toll. The highway’s operators are required to keep traffic moving at least 45 miles per hour.

The project was made possible through a public-private partnership with Fluor-Transurban, an engineer and construction conglomerate. Virginia gets a $2 billion dollar road; Transurban receives the toll revenues for 75 years as per its contract with the state. Virginia funded roughly one-fifth of the cost ($409 million); Transurban provided $1.5 billion with considerable help from a $589 million federal loan through the TIFIA program.

The use of public-private partnerships to complete massive transportation projects is raising questions about Virginia’s lack of tax revenue and conservative debt capacity to build needed infrastructure. The state’s gasoline tax of $.17 per gallon hasn’t been raised in 25 years; 85 percent of gas tax revenues are used for maintenance of existing roadways, according to Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.

“When you look at projects that are growing in cost and complexity it is becoming more difficult for the public sector to be able to design, build, and finance them,” Connaughton said. When pressed on whether the Republican administration of Governor Bob McDonnell would ask the state legislature to raise the gas tax, Connaughton would not commit to a position.

“The governor is working with his team right now as well as leadership in the general assembly to develop a consensus package to address our transportation funding challenges,” said Connaughton, who said gas tax revenues have been depleted by inflation and improved vehicle fuel efficiencies.

“People are buying more fuel efficient vehicles. They are buying alternative vehicles and hybrids, and we are actually seeing an impact on our gas tax revenues for vehicle miles traveled,” he said.

The gasoline tax’s diminishing returns are not a reason to avoid raising it, according to Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

“So long as the current administration in Richmond is unwilling to deal straightforwardly with the issue of declining revenue, we are going to starve the Commonwealth of any new infrastructure except for projects like this which are uniquely funded with massive amounts of federal aid,” Connolly said, referring to the large federal loan secured by Fluor-Transurban.

Connolly said both Virginia and the federal government should raise their gas taxes and index them to inflation. The federal gas tax has remained at $.18 per gallon since 1993.

If an attempt were made to finance such a project by floating bonds without leveraging private equity, Connaughton said the state’s debt capacity would not allow it.

“Almost all the debt capacity for the state is spoken for today and out into the future. If you want to get projects done, given the cost involved, you have to look for ways to bring in the private sector,” said Connaughton, who acknowledged public-private partnerships only work in cases where the private sector investor would have a dedicated revenue stream. In the instance of the 495 Express Lanes, that would be tolls.

“There are a limited number of projects that actually can generate the types of revenues that help offset the costs of the infrastructure. Public-private partnerships are a tool in the tool chest. We want to use them where they make sense… but at the end of the day we still have to look at the broader package of funding sources,” Connaughton said.

In Connolly's view, public-private partnerships have another limitation. "There is a limit to the public tolerance for new toll facilities," he said.

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Was It Worth It? Maryland Says New Highway Meets Expectations; Critics Aren't So Sure

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Intercounty Connector at down (photo by Jessica Jordan)

As the one-year anniversary of the Inter-County Connector approaches, the Maryland Transportation Authority says the highway is meeting its traffic volume and revenue projections. But critics of the $3 billion road don't trust the state's data.

Greg Smith of Maryland-based advocacy group Community Research is one of those critics. As he looks at the ICC at the New Hampshire Avenue interchange right before rush hour, what he sees is a relatively empty highway.

"Well, it is remarkably light for a six-lane, $3 billion interstate highway," Smith says.

Smith, whose group fought the construction of the ICC, believes the 18-mile highway cutting across Montgomery County to connect I-270 in the west with I-95 in the east was a waste of money and -- that the state's traffic figures are nonsense.

"They are cherry-picking their numbers. The Transportation Authority knows full well that the volumes they are getting on the ICC today are far lower than the volumes they had in their official document of record, the Environmental Impact Statement where they ran the numbers for 2010 and 2030," Smith says. "They were projecting much higher volumes, in the order of 100,000-plus vehicles per day on the western end, in the opening year."

But the MTA disputes Smith's claim. Traffic volume is higher than projected on the western-most segment, and slightly lower on the eastern-most portion of the ICC, according to MTA numbers. Weekday traffic averages more than 35,000 vehicles per day between Interstate-370 and Georgia Avenue in the west; 26,000 vehicles per weekday between Route 29 and Interstate-95 in the east.

"Daily traffic volumes are consistent with our projections and are growing at a rate of about three percent on average per month," says MTA spokesman John Sales.

When the ICC first opened to traffic last year, tolls weren't charged until December -- at which point traffic volumes dropped. And it still hasn't exceeded the volume from the last day of toll-free traffic that month.

"Nobody looking at this road and seeing how virtually empty it is would say this was worth $3 billion and taking 60 families' homes," Smith says.

But the ICC was not designed to be at full capacity immediately after opening, Sales says, adding it takes about three years for traffic volume to ramp up on a new toll road. In addition, he says E-ZPass toll revenues have actually exceeded projections.

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Election Night Call-In

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Join Brian Lehrer's (Mostly) Swing State Radio Network on this Election Night. Listeners call in to 646-829-3980 as polls close around the country. 

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Virginia Homeowners Fight 95 Express Lanes Ramp

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

A homeowners’ group in Alexandria is fighting a proposal by Virginia transportation planners to build a highway ramp near their homes.

Concerned Residents of Overlook, an upscale community adjacent to I-395, wants the Virginia Department of Transportation to relocate a ramp that will serve as the northern terminus of the 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.

“The ramp is going to be about 75 feet from my house,” said Mary Hasty, who has lived in Overlook for ten years. Hasty says she's learned to live with the constant din of highway traffic but did not expect VDOT would ever build an exit ramp so close to her residence.

“You get used to the hum of traffic, but I certainly never anticipated that I’d have cars 75 feet from my house and my patio and garden,” she said.

The group claims VDOT failed to adequately study noise and air quality impacts that will result when traffic exits the new express lanes onto I-395 or local roads. The neighbors fear exiting highway traffic will back up and idle on the exit ramp.

“Our biggest issue is that they moved the end point, called the terminus, of the HOT lanes from Crystal City, Arlington County to our backyard and they did not do any studies specifically to determine the impact on our communities,” Hasty said.

Hasty’s friend and neighbor, Sue Okubo, said the ramp will ruin property values, too.

“Already a number of neighbors are putting their houses on the market,” Okubo said.

“Maybe there won’t be an impact.  I don’t believe that.  That’s why we are having independent studies to determine what the impact is. We are late in the game and it is a David vs. Goliath scenario, but we are pushing really hard.” Hasty added.

Construction of the ramp is already underway.  Relocating it is unlikely, according to state officials.

“It would be very difficult to make a change at this point having gone through a lot of the studies and approvals at the state, regional, and federal levels,” said John Lynch, VDOT’s regional transportation director for Virginia megaprojects. Lynch refuted the homeowners’ claims that the state failed to study traffic and pollution scenarios.

“We went through the federal requirements and developed an environmental assessment which includes analysis for both noise and air quality,” Lynch said.  “The bottom line is those studies met all the federal requirements and it was reviewed by both the Federal Highway Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. We wouldn’t have gotten approval to move forward with this project if it didn’t meet those requirements.”

Lynch said VDOT responded to residents’ concerns by extending auxiliary lanes to mitigate traffic congestion at the future interchange, adding that all the pertinent documents have been shared with the Overlook community.

“We have been very transparent in providing all of the information that they requested,” Lynch said.  “We’ve met with the community multiple times both in 2011 and 2012 during project development.”

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Election Day Call-In: Voting After Sandy, and Voting in the Swing States

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

It's Election Day! We talk to reporters, look at the important story lines, and more importantly take your calls. With:

  • WNYC's Richard Hake and New Jersey Public Radio's David Furst with the latest news on voting and the Sandy recovery, with NJPR's Nancy Solomon and WNYC's Beth Fertig and Bob Hennelly

  • Your calls for our Informal, Unofficial, Thoroughly Unscientific Exit Poll: How is post-Sandy voting going? What does voting today mean to you? Call 646-829-3980 or post below!

Plus, reporters from crucial swing states discuss the latest polls and how their states are shaping up on Election Day:

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Audit Exposes Litany of Shady Dealings by Agency Running D.C. Area Airports

Friday, November 02, 2012

Accepting two tickets to the Super Bowl.  Hiring relatives. Awarding no-bid contracts worth millions.

The agency that operates Dulles International and Reagan National Airports and the $6 billion Silver Line rail project engaged in unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices and its officials accepted lavish gifts in violation of the agency's own policies – all enabled by a “culture of favoritism” and lacking internal checks – according to an audit released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

The audit detailed questionable dealings at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority from January 2009 to June 2011. During that period, MWAA awarded 190 contracts that exceeded $200,000 but only 36 percent were awarded with full and open competition, the audit said. These contract awards failed to comply with MWAA’s own contracting manual and were inconsistent with the intent of the Airports Act of 1986, the audit said.

MWAA’s hiring practices were also criticized. “In some cases, senior officials abused MWAA’s student program to hire employees who were not students, using personnel documentation that falsely showed student status. MWAA’s lack of oversight also resulted in employees with known criminal convictions working at the Authority in sensitive and management positions for more than a year,” the audit said.

While the audit did not name names, it named positions. For instance, MWAA’s Vice President for Human Resources hired two relatives to work at the agency and then denied it. The vice president, Arl Williams, resigned in advance of the audit’s release.

While Williams’ individual behavior was troublesome, the problems at MWAA also resulted in structural deficiencies.

"According to MWAA’s ethics code, MWAA employees may not hire, supervise, or work with family members. However, MWAA lacks controls to detect and prevent these prohibited relationships… which makes it difficult to determine whether the relationship would constitute nepotism…” the audit said.

MWAA’s vice president for information and telecommunications, George Ellis, received two tickets to the 2009 Super Bowl among other expensive gifts from a contractor in clear violation of established MWAA policy. Ellis was fired in the spring.

In another case mentioned by auditors, a former board member, Mame Reilly, was hired by MWAA CEO Jack Potter to fill a vaguely defined position for an annual salary of $180,000.  Reilly stepped down after a public outcry but was paid a year’s severance. Neither Reilly nor Potter was mentioned by name. None of the contractors who received lucrative no-bid contracts was named, either.

The 51-page report is loaded with examples of contracting practices that, while not explicitly illegal, raise serious questions about decision making at the powerful agency.  One unnamed former board member received 16 no-bid contracts. The MWAA board of directors was not consulted about any no-bid contracts that totaled $6 million dollars.

The DOT auditors closed their report by issuing twelve recommendations while acknowledging that MWAA has already taken steps to overhaul its policies and put in place internal checks.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Potter and MWAA board chairman Michael Curto addressed the audit’s findings, promising to work to regain the public’s trust while defending their record in handling the 23-mile Silver Line project.

“We are gratified that the final report acknowledges the actions we have taken since the May Interim Report, as well as our ongoing initiatives, to bring greater transparency and accountability, efficiency, and integrity to our operations and governance,” Curto said.

“We are extremely transparent,” said Potter, referring to the rail project. “There is definitely a firewall between the toll road and rail project and the authority.”

“There is work to be done,” added Potter. “I see it as my job that we restore the trust in this institution through very solid policies.  I’ll be embarrassed if two years from now these same things are a problem.”

 

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