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Martin DiCaro

WAMU

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Proposed Silver Line Toll Hike Vexes Virginians

Friday, September 07, 2012

Higher tolls are coming to the Dulles Toll Road next January. The question remains how high.

The public had its first chance to weigh in on projected toll increases at an open house Thursday night organized by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the agency running the Silver Line rail project that will heavily rely on increased toll revenues for its financing.

The Silver Line is a 23-mile rail link connecting Washington, D.C to Dulles International Airport and beyond into the Virginia suburbs. Its projected cost is $5.5 billion.

Effective January, the one-way full toll would increase to $2.75, then to $3.50 in 2014, and $4.50 in 2015, under current toll projections.  Rates would continue to rise two dollars every five years for the next four decades unless other sources of funding are secured to mitigate the toll increases.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Bayush Radadaya of Ashburn, who drives the Dulles Toll Road to work. “Right now I can afford it but once it doubles I cannot because gas prices are so much.”

Unlike a typical public hearing where residents take turns speaking into a microphone to a panel of officials, the event inside a high school cafeteria in Ashburn was informal. MWAA officials were on hand to answer questions, residents could read about the project on posters displaying charts and maps, and submit written comments into a cardboard box.

“You can throw a comment on a card but I’m not quite sure you necessarily have input,” said Pete Sabbatino of Ashburn. “The most input you are going to get is if someone read’s your comment card.  It’s being dictated to you.”

The Airports Authority says public feedback will be taken seriously when establishing the new toll rates later this year.

“The benefit of the [open house] is that we have an opportunity to educate people about the project,” said MWAA CEO Jack Potter.

Toll revenues are projected to cover about 50 percent of the Silver Line’s total estimated $5.5 billion cost.  The project was split into two phases; the tolls would cover 75 percent of Phase 2’s cost of $2.7 billion, under current projections.

Critics of the financing arrangement point to the lack of federal funding ($900 million for Phase 1, none for Phase 2) and relatively small contribution by the state of Virginia ($150 million).  Potter says the airports authority is working to increase those figures, which would reduce the toll increases and give drivers a break. MWAA is requesting a loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program.

“It’s a 2.4 percent loan versus what we’re able to get in the open bond market of about six percent, so that would significantly lower our cost for financing the debt,” said Potter, who said Virginia’s contribution of $150 enabled MWAA to delay the $4.50 one-way, full toll rate until 2015. It was originally projected to take effect next year.

To Loudoun County resident Daniel Davies, the plan to finance a rail project out of the pockets of car commuters is unfair.

“"The toll rates plus what the toll avoidance is going to do to our communities and the traffic along Route 7 and Route 28 is just going to be gridlock,” said Davies, referring to drivers who will dodge the higher tolls on the highway by clogging already congested local and state roads.

Davies said he opposes the Virginia state legislature providing any additional funding for the Silver Line because the state already handed over the Dulles Toll Road to MWAA, an asset valued at more than $3 billion during the administration of Gov. Tim Kaine.

Read more TN coverage of the Silver Line here.

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Pending Budget Cuts Could Hit FAA Hard

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

An air traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport

While the concern over the possibility of steep federal budget cuts in January mostly focuses on the Washington metropolitan region’s defense contractors, representatives of the aviation industry say sequestration – the Washington term for automatic budget cuts – could worsen your experience at airports and damage the economy.

The Federal Aviation Administration faces a $1 billion cut from its $15.9 billion budget if Congress cannot reach a deal on long-term deficit reduction by the end of the year. Sequestration would take effect Jan. 2.  About three-quarters of the potential budget cut would affect the FAA’s day-to-day operations.

“It would be between 1,200 and 1,500 controllers that would be laid off.  There would be the closing of some towers.  You simply can’t operate the whole system at full speed if you don’t have the money,” said Marion Blakey, the head of the Arlington-based Aerospace Industries Association, a group that lobbies for the manufacturer and suppliers of aircraft.

While the safety of air travelers would be safeguarded, service at airports would suffer with fewer possible flights and longer lines to get through security, said Blakey, a former FAA administrator.  The region’s economy would also take a hit, according to a report released by the Blakey’s group.

“An airport like BWI (Baltimore Washington International) generates over $5 billion in economic activity for the state of Maryland.  You are going to lose some of that under this situation,” she said.

To what extent large and small airports would be affected remains to be seen. Congress could pass legislation to avoid sequestration or even defer it for several months, but if the budget cuts occur in early January it is unclear how many, if any, air traffic control towers would close. A spokesperson for the FAA referred reporters to a memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t think I subscribe to the notion that they will shut down service in smaller communities.  That’s a very unlikely scenario,” said Todd Hauptli, a vice president at the American Association of Airport Executives in Alexandria, which lobbies on behalf of airport managers and operators.

“My prediction is [sequestration] would end up being shorter rather than longer in part because of the impact on aviation and the traveling public,” Hauptli added. “I don’t think the American people will end up being very patient and I think Congress will be forced to act.”

The FAA may be forced to cut money from its ongoing endeavor to complete a satellite-based navigation system designed to improve the efficiency of airports’ operations, known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.

“Sequestration could deal a real body blow to NextGen because when you are trying to find money in a reduced budget, you tend to go to the investment accounts and the new developments because you have to keep the current operations,” said Blakey, who helped launch the NextGen project while at the FAA.

Whether you are a lobbyist with an interest in keeping the FAA’s operations at full speed or just a traveler taking a vacation, sequestration could result in the same frustrations borne from lawmakers’ failure to compromise.

“I referred to sequestration as the sword of Damocles that was supposed to be hanging over the head of Congress forcing them to act,” said Hauptli. “It hasn’t worked so far but I’m still hopeful that it will work before it has to kick in.”

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Freight Carrier's Ad Campaign Aims To Make Infrastructure A Hot Topic During Presidential Election

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


One of the largest freight carriers in the country is riding into the presidential election with a nationwide television advertising campaign designed to spark debate about infrastructure.

Virginia-based Norfolk Southern’s CGI-laden, Toy Story-esque advertisements show a boy falling asleep in his bedroom while his toys come to life, creating a thriving city that his train set races around. The release of the media campaign is timed to coincide with the Republican and Democratic national conventions, where the freight company will have a strong presence. According to AdWeek, Norfolk Southern is also a sponsor of CNN's election coverage.

“Wherever our trains go, the economy comes to life,” says the narrator.

"One of the points Norfolk Southern likes to make is that they invest in their own infrastructure,” says Jim Lansbury, creative director at RP3, the ad agency behind the campaign. "Airlines don't build airports and trucking companies don't build highways."

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ estimates that $2.2 trillion over five years is needed to modernize the country's infrastructure, from levees and dams to highways and bridges. The federal government's primary funding source for transportation projects is the gas tax, but there's little chance it will be raised.

“Gas tax revenues and receipts have been lagging behind what we want to spend on transportation at the federal level,” says Rachel MacCleery, a transportation expert at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, who says about 25 percent of all transportation spending nationwide flows from Congress.

“The Obama administration, early in the administration, has taken the gas tax off the table,” MacCleery adds.  The 18-cent-per-gallon tax has not been raised since 1993.

With funding for projects tight, states like Virginia are turning to public/private partnerships to build major highways.

Funding major transportation projects that promise to create jobs has become a partisan issue, especially during a presidential election season. There is little enthusiasm for a new stimulus bill.

“Where you see lots of progress in infrastructure investments it definitely is a bipartisan effort,” says MacCleery.  While overall spending figures are important, where the investments are made is equally critical.  “Are we building the kinds of infrastructure systems that will help sustain the 21st century economy and really thinking about conservation? Are we maintaining the infrastructure we have now?”

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Highway Expansions Are Only A Short-Term Solution: Expert

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Highway construction in Virginia (photo by bankbryan via flickr)

When the express lanes projects on the I-495 Beltway and I-95 in northern Virginia are ready for commuters, they will be designed to serve a dual purpose: encouraging carpooling by giving HOV-3 vehicles a free ride, and reducing congestion by also giving motorists the option of paying a premium toll to escape the usually jammed non-toll lanes.

The first of those goals is attainable. But the second is not, according to an expert on drivers’ behavior, who says expanding two of the busiest highways in the Washington metropolitan region will produce the unintended consequence of more congestion in the long term.

“The biggest potential problem is that we’re building more roads that will provide very short-term congestion relief and will cause other kinds of traffic and travel problems,” says transportation consultant Rachel Weinberger, the co-author of Auto Motives: Understanding Car Use Behavior.

Weinberger believes enough drivers will be willing to pay the tolls so Transburban, the private entity building the 495 and 95 Express Lanes, will make a profit.  However, she says, there's little evidence to suggest expanding highways will solve a region’s congestion woes.

“First we have to ask, do we really need this road? All of the research shows that when you add capacity to highways, rather than relieving congestion in the long run, you actually create more congestion in other parts of the system,” she says.

In short, wider highways induce more traffic. Those new users ultimately have to exit the highway somewhere, producing more traffic on secondary roads where expansion is not possible. “Now you have dumped more cars onto the streets on Washington D.C. because you’ve added this capacity on I-495,” Weinberger says.

Earlier this week, TN asked Virginia governor Bob McDonnell if northern Virginia is becoming overly reliant on highway expansion projects to solve congestion problems. McDonnell responded that the state is trying different solutions. “We are trying to do everything,” he said, adding that Virginia is investing in transit projects like the Silver Line.

Backers of the Express Lanes projects are relying on drivers’ willingness to pay pricey tolls for a faster, more predictable ride.  They are also calling the possible increase in carpooling a win-win, even though more free rides on the new lanes mean less toll revenue for Transurban.  However, in the contract with the state of Virginia, Transurban is protected in the event the number of free rides rises dramatically.

The state is required to subsidize ride sharing if the number of carpoolers on I-495 reaches at least 24 percent “of the total flow of all [vehicles] that are… going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day… during which average traffic for [the toll lanes] going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour…”  The threshold on I-95 will be 35 percent under similar conditions.

In Weinberger’s view, there will enough new carpoolers and toll payers to provide the appearance of relief -- but it won’t last.

“We sit in traffic and we fume about it and we think that the easy solution is to build more lanes and then we won’t have so much traffic, but I am sure the Beltway has been expanded several times and there continues to be traffic,” she says.  "Typically when we build more capacity we make somebody’s trip a little bit faster, but it’s very rare that people actually conserve their travel-time savings. Instead they’ll make some other adjustment like they may move further out, creating more sprawl."

 

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Virginia Breaks Ground on I-95 Express Lanes

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

(photo by Martin DiCaro/WAMU)

Virginia broke ground on a plan to improve and expand 30 miles of High Occupancy Toll lanes along a stretch of the state's I-95 corridor.

Like the 495 HOT lanes, the I-95 Express Lanes will be located adjacent to the regular, non-toll lanes, giving drivers a choice: take the chance of getting stuck in traffic or pay a dynamically-priced toll for a faster ride. The goal is to enhance existing lanes while adding a third HOT lane to 14 miles in the northern most stretch of the corridor and two new lanes to the nine miles at the southern end.

The $1 billion project is scheduled for completion in December 2014. The I-95 Express Lanes are the result of another public-private partnership between the state and Fluor-Transurban, the company that is building the soon-to-be completed 495 HOT lanes. Transurban is paying for nearly 90 percent of the project while applying for a federal loan of $300 million to assist in the financing.

Under the agreement, Virginia gets an expanded commuting corridor with fully electronic toll lanes connecting Fairfax to Stafford County for contributing less than 10 percent of the project’s cost, while Transurban will receive the toll revenues for 75 years. The state's financial exposure is limited.

“The contract we signed with the state is a very equitable contract. We are taking the traffic risk,” said Transurban General Manager Tim Steinhilber. “Once we build the road, if no one comes to use the road then we don’t make any money. We lose money.”

Naturally, Transurban expects to turn a profit.  If profits exceed a certain threshold, the state may share in toll revenues. At the other end of the spectrum, if HOV-3 carpoolers exceed a thirty-five percent threshold under certain circumstances, the state would have to subsidize those trips to ensure Transurban doesn’t take a bath on the free rides. There is a similar safety net in the 495 HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes contract.

“Traditionally across the country, HOV lanes are underutilized. We are working with the state to encourage carpoolers because that takes cars off the road and reduces congestion for everyone,” said Steinhilber. “If we get to the point where the state would start [subsidizing] the HOVers, it’s a win-win.”

At a groundbreaking ceremony at the Dale City rest area Tuesday, state and federal officials -- including Virginia Governor (and possible Republican Vice Presidential choice) Bob McDonnell -- touted the project’s estimated economic benefits: 500 construction personnel with an overall impact of $2 billion by supporting 8,000 regional jobs. One thousand trees will also be planted along the corridor that is designed to eventually seamlessly connect to the Capital Beltway at I-495, quickening trips to job centers in Tysons Corner, Va. Express buses will also have free access to the toll lanes.

(photo by Martin DiCaro/WAMU)

“If you can’t move people and you can’t move goods quickly to market, you are not going to get businesses coming here and you aren’t going to get tourists.  It’s going to impair the quality of life for all of us,” said Gov. McDonnell.

When asked by Transportation Nation if northern Virginia is becoming overly reliant on highway expansion projects to solve its dreadful congestion problems, McDonnell responded that the state is trying different solutions.

“We are trying to do everything,” he said. “We are going to have a number of projects up here that will use mass transit. We’ve been advocating rail to Dulles.”

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Why Transportation Planning Gets It Wrong

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

(photo by Martin DiCaro/WAMU)

The completion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project connecting Virginia and Maryland in one of the region’s most congested corridors is the latest in a number of major infrastructure projects that are unfolding in the Washington metropolitan area.

The Silver Line rail link to Dulles Airport, the HOT lanes projects on I-495 and I-95 in Virginia, and the ICC and Purple Line in Maryland all raise an issue government agencies, planners and transit advocates have been grappling with for decades: how to connect a growing population with job centers in one of the nation’s most economically vital regions, where low unemployment rates and continued growth defy the national trend.

Moreover, at a time when funding for transportation projects is increasingly difficult to obtain, choosing the wrong solution to traffic congestion is all the more costly; there is no way to undo a $2 billion dollar road or rail link if it ultimately does not meet a region’s needs. Urban planners have argued that widening major highways will only temporarily relieve bottlenecks.

“If you have job centers that are accessible from a wider geographic span, you are going to get the best talent to your job center,” said John Undeland, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s part of the Wilson Bridge project. “But if congestion is constricting those opportunities, so you are only able to draw a talent pool from a smaller geographic area, it doesn't work as well.”

On Monday, after a decade of construction, five lanes were opened in each direction between the busy Telegraph Road interchange in Virginia and the bridge connecting to Maryland, ending a terrible bottleneck that routinely caused traffic jams that stretched for miles.

“It’s a soul-killing experience to be sitting there day after day,” Undeland said.

While the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has improved the driving experience, transit advocates say it is a missed opportunity that speaks to a larger issue: whether the regional economy will continue to prosper through a reliance on highway expansion.  Once-promising plans to use the Wilson Bridge’s center lanes for rail transit were never realized.

Over three-quarters of all jobs in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. are located in neighborhoods with transit service, according to a research paper by Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

“The reality is in terms of sustainability, we cannot endlessly build roads forever. We can't continue to take up endless amount of land space for highways,” said Tomer, who said highway expansion can be an effective as part of a multi-modal solution to congestion.  For instance, the I-495 HOT lanes project in northern Virginia will charge motorists a premium toll to avoid the normally congested non-toll lanes while also promoting carpooling and some express bus service.

“The solutions that work in each community are so different. Transit can only work in certain communities. In others, private automobile use or carpooling is going to be the preferred commuting mode,” Tomer said.

As important as finding the right mix of transportation infrastructure is where corporations decide to locate their job centers. In Tomer’s view, different jurisdictions are better served thinking regionally as they compete to attract corporate headquarters within their boundaries. Wherever a company decides to locate, the offices should be near a regional transit network so people from further distances may easily commute there.

“A whole suite of investments is what will help this metropolitan economy prosper. We need to continue to invest in public transportation. Fortunately, we are doing that here,” he said.

But large companies still have to make the right decisions, at least in the view of smart growth advocates. They point to the example of Northrop Grumman, which rejected a transit-adjacent site in Ballston in favor of a suburban office park near the Beltway and Route 50 when choosing a location for its headquarters.

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Woodrow Wilson Bridge Construction Complete, Without Transit Lanes

Monday, August 06, 2012

Capital Beltway at the Telegraph Road, VA interchange west of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Ten years after construction began with the dredging of the Potomac River, the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge improvement project opened to motorists on Monday morning in what has been one of the most congested commuting corridors in the country. The daily clogged three lanes mess of cars is over.

“We had backups of three, four, five miles on a regular basis. It’s a soul-killing experience to be sitting there day after day,” said spokesman John Undelan of the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The stretch of highway is now five lanes in each direction on I-495 Capital Beltway from the Telegraph Road interchange across the Wilson Bridge into Maryland. The bridge, improved with two new spans, is also five lanes each way, ending what had been a terrible bottleneck. The bridge used to have only three lanes in each direction.

“The Beltway is Washington’s main street. This is how we get around, and this had been a constriction for more than a decade,” Undeland said.

Transit and environmental advocates say the improvements are a missed opportunity. Once-promising plans to use the bridge’s two center lanes for rail transit never came to fruition, despite investments to stabilize the bridge to handle the weight of rail cars.

“It’s another example of our short-sighted transportation policy,” said Josh Tulkin, the state director of the Sierra Club Maryland chapter. “We need long-term investments in rail or we will be expanding freeways lane by lane well into the future.”

Weekend drivers will have to wait a few more weeks for the full benefit of the project, as there will be single-lane closures on two to three weekends for paving and striping.

 

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What's the Best Way to Build New Highways: Private? Public? Tolls? Magic?

Friday, August 03, 2012

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) As the opening of the Interstate 495 Express Lanes on northern Virginia's Capital Beltway draws closer, backers of the $2 billion project say they cannot guarantee the four new HOT lanes will achieve the goal of reducing traffic congestion while simultaneously returning a profit for their private sector operator.

The admission is noteworthy because there was enormous investment made by a private entity. The tolls revenues that are supposed to supply its profit are off limits to the state of Virginia for the next seven decades.

The HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes will run next to the Beltway's non-toll lanes between the Dulles Toll Road and I-95 in Springfield, Va., one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. The project is the result of a public-private partnership between the state of Virginia and Fluor-Transurban, a company that has built similar facilities in the United States and abroad.

In the deal, the state received four new lanes of traffic capacity, a repaving of the Beltway, and a fully electronic toll facility for individual commuters and HOV-3 carpoolers. Transurban gets the toll revenues for the next 75 years, but company officials say they may not turn a profit at all.

"The private sector is responsible for paying back the debt and paying to operate and maintain the lanes," said Jennifer Aument, a Transurban spokeswoman, at a recent press conference to promote the new E-ZPass Flex device that will be necessary for HOT lanes carpoolers to have.

Transurban provided about 75 percent of the capital necessary to build the new lanes and toll gantries. Public money was necessary to cover about one-fourth of the costs and finalize the partnership because projected toll revenues were not sufficient for Transurban to finance the entire project itself.

HOT lane popularity has been mixed in other cities. Houston is currently considering additional promotion and advertising to get more drivers using new HOT lanes that are under capacity.

"If the traffic doesn't come and we can't generate the revenue, we are taking the risk on this project," Aument said of the Virginia plan. "But we believe because the 495 Express Lanes will provide a faster, more reliable trip which is much needed in this great region, it will be a success for us, for VDOT, and for travelers."

Not your normal toll road

The idea behind the 495 Express Lanes is not that commuters will use them every day; commuters are expected to pay the potentially pricey toll on days when they need the reliability and predictability that a congestion-free highway would present.

The tolling will be dynamically priced; the more commuters that use the toll lanes at a given time during the day the higher the toll will be. Raising the toll during peak travel periods will prevent the new lanes from getting congested, as is usually the case during rush hour in the adjacent non-toll lanes.

Carpoolers may use the HOT lanes for free as long there are at least three occupants in the vehicle. If carpooling is too successful, Virginia taxpayers will wind up subsidizing some HOV-3 trips.

The contract between Virginia and Transurban requires the state to pay subsidies if the number of carpoolers reaches at least 24 percent "of the total flow of all [vehicles] that are... going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day... during which average traffic for [the toll lanes] going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour..."

During peak travel times -- if carpoolers make up about one-fourth of all vehicles in the HOT lanes -- the state will have to pay Transurban 70 percent of the lost toll per vehicle. Both VDOT and Transurban are downplaying the possibility that taxpayers will have to subsidize carpoolers.

"Is there a back stop? The answer to that is yes. Do we think we will get there? The answer to that is no. And if we do, we still consider that a success," says Charlie Kilpatrick, VDOT's chief deputy commissioner. "That's a success story because we would have such a great usage in HOV, much further beyond what we ever imagined."

"Carpooling could expand by more than 10 times on the Beltway before this provision would go into effect," says Aument, who says the subsidy will not be paid if Transurban clears a certain profit on toll revenue, about 12 percent. "It's there as a stop-gap in the extraordinary circumstance that there are so many carpoolers that we can't collect enough toll revenue to operate and maintain the road."

Public-private partnerships are the future

Without the capital of Transurban the 495 Express Lanes would have remained just an idea. To build the $2 billion road, however, the state agreed to Transurban receiving the toll revenues for the next 75 years, even though the company hopes to have paid off its project debt in 30 years.

"It is frankly unrealistic to believe that there are sufficient public funds for these enormous projects in Virginia," says Kilpatrick.

Virginia has been one of the most active states in the country in signing public-private partnerships, according to Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former assistant secretary of transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"The private sector is putting a lot of money into this only with the assurance that they will get a return on their investment to service the debt that they have incurred to construct it," Frankel says. "So the public had to give up something to get this built."

"If you like the Beltway the way it is and you don't want anything built at all, then it's a bad deal," says Frankel. "Most of the residents of Virginia wanted this increased capacity. By taking some of the traffic off the free lanes, it should improve the flow of traffic on the free lanes as well." Express buses will also have access to the HOT lanes.

Private entities take the risk

Some private highway ventures have not gone as planned. The Pocahontas Parkway near Richmond, an 8.8-mile tolled freeway between the junction of I-95 and VA-150, has yet to meet traffic projections and may have to go through another financial restructuring. The Dulles Greenway saw its finances restructured for the first time in 1999 after projected levels of traffic and tolls didn't materialize. Frankel expects 495 to be more successful than the aforementioned toll roads because the HOT lanes were built directly adjacent to congested travel lanes.

"You are getting increased capacity on a crowded, unreliable facility," says Frankel, who says the 91 Express Lanes, which run for 10 miles in southern California, are an example of a successful dynamic tolling and HOV-3 system.

Better options?

Smart growth advocates are unhappy with the deal the state received in losing access to toll revenues for 75 years, and argue that VDOT should have considered alternatives to Beltway expansion.

"I think we should be looking at all alternatives upfront, and look more objectively at transit and transit-oriented development and lower cost approaches," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We should look at public ownership of the toll lanes so we have access to those revenues in the future."

"VDOT rejected at the earliest stages a transit alternative for this corridor. They were prevailed upon to do another transit study, but they promptly put it on a shelf. They never took seriously a transit-oriented development for this corridor," says Schwartz, who says Virginia could have considered something similar to the Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile light rail line that will extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

"Our concern is the rush to do these public-private deals has been reducing the consideration of alternatives in project corridors," Schwartz adds. In his estimation, if the new lanes on 495 eventually attract more commuters, congestion could increase on secondary roads when those added vehicles ultimately exit the highway.

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No More Cash for Carpoolers, Virginia Requires E-Z Pass for HOV Drivers

Sunday, July 29, 2012

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Ready to flex that E-ZPass? Washington, D.C area commuters who want to use the new Capital Beltway express lanes will have to, according to Virginia transportation officials and the operators of the new lanes. The integration of technology facilitates savings for some, and hassle for others, but it could be the standard to come from HOT/HOV lanes.

The lanes, which run down the middle of the Capital Beltway in Virginia from the Dulles Toll Road (Route 267) exit to the I-395/495/95 interchange known as the "mixing bowl," will be free to vehicles carrying three people or more during rush hours — if they have the new E-ZPass Flex device.

The lanes are expected to open by the end of the year. When they do, drivers will qualify to carpool if there are at least three people in a car — but they'll need the new E-ZPass Flex device first. (The flex version of the E-ZPass will also cost customers $1 per month under a new state fee structure, but that's another story.)

Although it's new for commuters and officials alike, the new transponder is easy to use, according to Virginia Department of Transportation Chief Deputy Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick.

"A switch on the transponder goes from non-HOV toll paying mode, with a beep and a throw of the switch, to the HOV mode and non-toll paying," Kilpatrick said while demonstrating the new device at a press conference Wednesday.

The police will be equipped with technology to catch toll cheats in these all-electronic toll lanes.

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A Third Battle of Manassas? Virginia Proposes New Highway Near Civil War Battlefield

Friday, July 27, 2012

Virginia transportation officials are drawing closer to an agreement with the National Park Service as part of a plan to build a major four-lane divided highway connecting Route 7 in Loudoun County to Interstate-66 in Prince William County, what opponents charge will be the first piece of an outer beltway in northern Virginia.

Just as Confederates and Yankees 150 years ago both claimed to be fighting for freedom, the two sides today both claim they are fighting for the same thing: the future of Manassas, and better transportation in northern Virginia. There are no Stonewall Jacksons or heroic stands on Chinn Ridge this time around, but the outcome of this battle will bring lasting changes to historic ground nonetheless.

You can listen to an audio version of this story here.

Negotiations with the Park Service involve a proposal to build the new road along the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park in exchange for closing -- except to visitors -- the two heavily traveled roads (Routes 234 and 29) that currently crisscross the park.

The new bi-county parkway would pave over 12 acres of the Manassas historic district and four acres of actual battlefield land on the periphery of the property away from where most of the fighting occurred during the Second Battle of Manassas from August 28-20, 1862. As the 150th anniversary of that key Confederate victory approaches, opponents say the new road will create more sprawl and development, turning the hallowed ground into a "median strip."

"Imagine the precedent," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The Park Service would potentially be agreeing that highway agencies can take historic battlefield land or other park land for other highway projects."

Schwartz says plans to build major highways in northern Virginia have been pushed for decades. In the late 1980s, a study that examined the possible construction of a Washington Bypass west of the capital was rejected by the governors of Virginia and Maryland.

"Very clearly they are putting together the pieces of a circumferential highway in northern Virginia, and they've pressed Maryland for bridge crossings," Schwartz says.

Manassas Park superintendent supports the plan

"It becomes a balancing act between what you are giving up and what you are gaining," says Ed Clark, the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park.

For giving up a few acres out of seven square miles of battlefield ground, the National Park Service hopes to gain a better experience for tourists.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board understands that the National Park Service will not agree to a new highway along the Manassas battlefield's western edge unless Routes 234 and 29 are closed through the park, Clark says.

"The road we are primarily interested in is the Manassas Battlefield Bypass," he says, referring to a separate project that would circle the western and northern park boundaries, overlapping a future north-south highway along the battlefield's western side.

"It would enable us to remove all of the [park] traffic, as most folks in northern Virginia are aware how serious the traffic is along the I-66 corridor," Clark says. "That traffic does detract significantly from the battlefield experience from this hallowed ground."

A Battle over growth

While opponents believe a new highway from Loudoun to Prince William County will open up new lands for development, supporters, including Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, say anyone who looks at Google Earth can see that residential growth is already crowding the Manassas battlefield.

In Connaughton's view, a four-lane divided highway would serve several purposes. "Prince William and Loudoun Counties are two of the fastest growing jurisdictions in the country," he says. "We are trying to make better connectivity between the counties to deal with current and future population growth, and to also open up the commercial development area on the back side of Loudoun County."

Virginia is also working with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to establish Dulles Airport as a cargo hub, which new road infrastructure would help facilitate.

"When you put all these together, it makes sense for the state to move forward and try to make this thing a reality," Connaughton says. "It's been on the books for a very, very long time. It's not an outer beltway."

"I really encourage folks to go on Google satellite and see that this isn't about opening up areas for future growth. Look at the map. Look at the reality of what is there today. The growth is there."

Better options?

Smart growth advocates say there are better ways to deal with current growth and traffic congestion. The proposed highway is not the answer. "You could wind up with the worst of all worlds, which is a new highway, more development sparked on the western and northern boundaries of Manassas battlefield, more traffic, and political pressure to never close the roads through the park," Schwartz says.

Developers are pushing for more roads in order to lobby for zoning changes that would clear the way for more homes and commercial properties to be built in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, Schwartz says.

As evidence, Schwartz points to a February 2011 meeting of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board. Board member and developer Gary Garzinski made clear his intention to seek a major north-south connection "from 95 or 234 extended up to a corridor, up to and including Route 50... that would extend Route 234 to Route 50 to join what is called the Dulles Loop that gives access to Dulles Airport to more people from the south," according to a transcription of the board meeting.

In a letter to the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in February, smart growth advocates proposed several alternative solutions to address east-west traffic congestion in northern Virginia.

The proposals included "improving I-66, including the extension of HOV and bus lanes; funding and expanding the capacity of the Gainesville Interchange... co-locating Route 29 onto the improved I-66 to allow Route 29 to be closed through the Battlefield; upgrading Pageland Road west of the Battlefield with shoulders, roundabouts at intersections, and turn lanes..."

"Bi-County Parkway" moving forward

The state's environmental impact study of the new highway is expected by the end of the year. A deal with the National Park Service about the location of the road along the western edge of the battlefield is expected this summer.

The project should have been completed years ago, Connaughton says.

"Because of bad policies and bad decisions in the past, we've ended up with residential development and not the transportation infrastructure we need to support it," he says.

 

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UPDATED: Here's What a Revamped D.C. Union Station Would Look Like

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Rendering of planned renovations for Washington, D.C.'s Union Station (Courtesy of Amtrak)

UPDATED 6:30 p.m EST (Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A wavy roof and shimmering glass atriums would join the stately dome of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station if the new $7 billion master plan from Amtrak comes to be. The proposal would convert Washington, D.C.’s main transit terminal from an aging, over-capacity station that dates to 1907 into a modern transportation hub of high-speed rail that will double the number of trains and triple the number of passengers in gleaming, glass-encased halls.

At a press conference at Union Station Wednesday, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman said the project will be completed in four phases over the next 15 to 20 years in order to minimize disruption to northeast corridor customers at the station.

The Central Concourse as viewed from the south showing waiting areas, reconstructed tracks and platforms, the first class lounge & retail. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

The massive overhaul of one of the busiest stations in the country – 100,000 passenger trips daily – is also designed to benefit the city and region through job creation, increased tax revenues, and economic development. It all looks beautiful on paper now, but it remains unclear if the plan will actually come to be.

Missing from the images of modern concourses that were put on display at the press conference were any concrete plans to finance the project.

The proposed new "train shed" as seen from H Street. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

“You got to have a vision to get anything done. If you don’t have a vision or a plan of where you are going, you are not going to get anything funded,” said Boardman, who stressed that he is confident the federal government will come through with a significant portion of the financing.

“When you build highways you can expect to get 50 to 80 percent of the funding,” Boardman said. “When you do a transit system you can expect that same kind of percentage."

Phase 1 is scheduled to start next year with improvements to existing concourses, two new tracks and platforms. Subsequent phases will involve the construction of below ground platforms, tracks and shopping space that will be naturally lit.

“Today is about the vision that will serve this country here at Union Station for the next 50 years,” said John Porcari, a deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “You get to that by having bite-sized segments of projects that we can fund one at a time. The federal government has been a funding partner. We believe the private sector can and will be.”

Concourse A looking northwest showing the waiting areas, skylights and mezzanine bridges. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

Amtrak’s plans to make Union Station a high-speed rail hub envision trains bolting at more than 200 miles per hour, cutting the trip from D.C. to New York City to about 90 minutes. The high speed rail would take someone from Washington to Boston in about three hours. Read our summary of the full Northeast corridor high-speed rail plan here, including renderings of the New York station upgrade plans.

Also unveiled Wednesday was a proposal by a private developer to make over the neighborhood around Union Station with three million square feet of office, residential, hotel, and parking space.

 

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D.C. Battle with 'Arrogant' Uber Continues: To Regulate Internet Cabs or Not?

Monday, July 16, 2012

A traditional Washington, D.C taxi. (Photo CC by Flickr user Matt Peoples)

Elected officials in Washington, D.C. are having a tough time trying to regulate an upstart taxi company. The Uber sedan car service escaped the District's first official attempt to bring the  internet-based company  limiting city rules last week when Council member Mary Cheh dropped a proposal to establish a minimum fare for the luxury alternative to traditional cabs. Still, Uber's independence may not last.

(Listen to the WAMU radio story here)

Traditional Washington, D.C taxis are metered and charge a fee based on distance regulated by the local government. Livery limousine services in D.C. must agree on a fixed price before they pick up a passenger. (See regulations here.) Uber cars are in between. They are luxury sedans that charge a fluctuating, and unregulated rate calculated by a GPS meter held by the driver. The rate depends on the time of day and the number of available cars, passengers pay at the end of the ride, so ... is it a taxi or a black car, or something else? And how to regulate it, if at all?

That freedom to charge anything irks some elected officials like Cheh who plans to revive her proposal in the fall. The chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission says Uber will not be allowed to operate unregulated in the city, especially after the company introduces a cheaper, hybrid car service at an unknown date. It's a fight the Washington Post characterized as a clash of philosophies between Silicon Valley and Washington.

More broadly, the policy fight is a testing ground that might serve up important data on how much regulation is right for taxis. Will more competition and new tiers of taxis raise or lower the average fare and average customer satisfaction city wide? Will a tech-based upstart shake up the phone and street hail-based system that has reigned for decades? And is it fair for a regulated taxi to compete with an unregulated one if their price scales overlap? All of these questions are compounded because Uber and D.C. government just don't get along.

Commission Chairman Ron Linton says Uber is an "arrogant" company that "believes it should have total freedom from any government interest." Linton previously made statements hinting that he wanted to shut down Uber all together.

Uber is growing in popularity in D.C., as it has in other cities, because it's use of technology makes it easier to reserve or hail a car. Customers use Uber's smartphone app and make payments digitally with a credit card. A receipt is emailed after they reach their destinations.

The sedans are more comfortable and modern than many city taxicabs. They are also significantly more expensive, with fares climbing to $20 or more for short trips, sometimes as much as 6.5 times the metered rate. But enough working professionals are willing to pay.

"When I'm taking Uber, I want to be in comfort or I want to know it will be there when the bars are closing, says Tim Shea, 25, a project manager at George Washington University, who says he uses the car service frequently despite its high price. "They are in a completely different class of vehicle, in my opinion."

A proposal earlier this year to upgrade the District's 6,500 taxis angered taxi drivers.

Council member Cheh's proposal attempted to establish a sedan classification for taxis under would force Uber to offer a minimum $15 fare and a require Uber to provide an estimated total fare before a transaction is completed, she says. A $15 minimum would price out Uber for many short trips, giving a regulated monopoly to metered taxis. A proposal to allow street hails of livery cabs in New York drew intense criticism from existing metered drivers.

Uber did not return multiple emails seeking comment.

"I thought we were all on board," says Cheh. "It would have given Uber its legality, which was crucially important."

Both she and Chairman Linton insist they are attempting to protect consumers, not only the city's regulated taxicab industry.

"It is not necessarily the fare that has to be regulated," Linton says. "What has to be regulated is the protection of all the parties involved. There has to be recourse to resolve disagreements."

Uber is currently relieved of any liability between the driver and the passenger under the contract it signs with drivers, Linton says.

"We find that it is in the best interest of all the parties if the driver is licensed and knows all the rules he or she has to adhere to," he says.

Customers have complained to the Taxicab Commission about exorbitant fares after receiving receipts showing they were charged significantly more than they thought they agreed to pay. The confusion over fares stems from Uber's use of market-demand, or surge, pricing and hand-held meters. The commission was unable to pursue the complaints because Uber was unregulated.

A $5 ride in a traditional metered cab can cost $10 or even $20 or more with Uber depending at bar closing time, or from Union Station on a rainy night.

But Shea says the company has improved its system of notifying customers when fares may double or triple during peak demand.

"When Uber is in surge pricing there is a little logo in the corner that says 'surge' and when you click 'request a car' a big screen pops up to notify of the higher fare," Shea says. "It will show a chart that says if the normal fare is $18, it will be $36."

Uber's flexible pricing policy is considered by regulators to be unfair to the city's taxicab industry, whose fleet charges a set minimum fare plus mileage and time measured by dashboard meters.

"That's why I want to hold a hearing," says Cheh. "What demarcates taxis from the Uber service? Then we shouldn't regulate the taxis, either, and let that be a free-for-all."

While the controversy over Uber's sedan service festers until the D.C. Council returns from recess this fall, Uber is preparing to launch a new product that promises to invite another confrontation with regulators: an inexpensive service using hybrid-electric cars. The service has started in San Francisco and New York.

It's unclear if an opening for such service will be available. Chairman Linton is not granting additional taxicab licenses, and he vows that Uber will not be able to become a "predator" by running unregulated hybrid vehicles in the city that charge very low fares to undermine the city's regulated taxicab fleet. "This is a public policy issue," he says. "The community has to decide through its elected representatives if they want to allow a business operation that can change its prices any time it wants to, and you never know what you are going to pay."

As far as Tim Shea is concerned, the marketplace is working and Uber should be left alone. The more competition with city cabs, the better. "Let Uber bring in the hybrids, and I think you would see very quickly taxicab drivers learning to provide what people want," he says.

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Is BRT Coming to D.C. Suburbs?

Friday, July 13, 2012

(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Officials in Montgomery County, Md. are considering approving the construction of a $1.8 billion bus rapid transit system that would be composed of  23 BRT corridors and take as many as 20 years to build in three phases.

Listen to this full radio story here.

The county's transit task force envisions designated bus lanes hauling at least an estimated 165,000 commuters daily. But that vision is making some county residents squint.

"Every proposal has had one thing in common: disrupt our neighborhoods to make it a shorter, easier commute for those living farther out to drive along Route 29," says county resident James Williamson, who testified at a public hearing before the task force Thursday night.  "None have ever worked. This one won't either."

Skeptics question whether BRT will really ease traffic congestion on Montgomery County's clogged roads, because there will be fewer lanes available for car traffic. The dedicated lanes devoted to the bus corridors will have traffic signal priority, with lights synchronized to allow buses to travel through many intersections without a red light.

Resident James Zepp, who once sat on transportation advisory committees for the D.C. and federal governments, says there are too many unknowns in the plan for him to feel confident it'll be worth the investment -- and the higher taxes that could result.

"These important operational aspects that the task force chose not to address that could increase congestion across the county," says Zepp.

Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, testified in favor of BRT, calling it an essential component of the county's transportation future, along with Metro and the Purple Line project.

"Interconnecting and expanding transit for Montgomery County residents and workers, enhancing access to jobs, addressing traffic, improving energy efficiency and maintaining economic competitiveness," says Schwartz.

The task force is actually calling its plan RTV, for rapid transit vehicle, instead of BRT. Either way, the system will be expensive to operate with projected yearly costs of $176 million, or about $1 million per mile.

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Craft Brewers Work Hard To Get Suds To Thirsty Masses in Sweltering Heat

Friday, July 06, 2012


Beer inside DC Brau's brewery in Washington, D.C.  needs to keep cool. For small brewers in blistering heat, shipping becomes make or break for in the beer business. (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

Hear this story in audio (with catchy music too) at WAMU

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Environmentally aware consumers choose to eat vegetables and meat produced at local farms to avoid foods hauled over long distances by tractor trailers. Buying close to home also helps the local economy. It tastes better, too ... usually. Produce is fresher if eaten the day after it's picked and sold at a local farmer's market, unlike fruits and vegetables hauled across the country on a truck.

In many cities, consumers do not have such options at their liquor store. But the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area's emerging craft beer market is now catering to their tastes.

"The less time the product has to travel the fresher it will be," says Jeff Hancock, the co-founder and head brewer at D.C. Brau, the city's first microbrewery since 1956. Hancock and co-founder Brandon Skall opened D.C. Brau last April.

As small business owners with just five full-time and six part-time employees, they face formidable tasks of coordinating the shipments of their ingredients over long distances, and then getting their finished product to the market fresh.

"One of the big issues related to transportation that we have... is making sure that the beer stays cold from the time it leaves here to the time it gets to the account," says Skall. "It's really, really important to us since our beer is unfiltered that our beer stays cold."

Keeping D.C. Brau's four flagship beers (named Corruption, Citizen, Public, and Penn Quarter Porter) cold while they are at the brewery is not a problem. Hancock and Skall lose control the moment the brews leave the brewery.

"So you want to make sure your distributor has refrigerated trucks, your distributor has a working cold box, things that are going to keep your beer the way it needs to be as it goes through that transportation stage to finally arrive at the account," says Skall.

Before D.C. Brau can brew an ounce of beer, the ingredients need to arrive on time from hundreds of miles away. Hancock orders his barley (to make malt) from the Midwest and hops from the Pacific Northwest. It takes days for shipments to get to D.C.

"We mainly get our barley out in the Midwest because of the plains out there," says Hancock. "It's great for growing barley, wheat, and rye; a lot of the grains used in brewing, and hops come from a moist climate like the Pacific Northwest. Hops take five days from Washington state."

(Ror more on Washington, D.C.'s growing microbrew industry, see the full story from WAMU)

Port City Brewing Company opened last year in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Founder Bill Butcher says, "Really, nobody has enough cold space," referring to sellers. "They will end up putting a display out of 15 to 20 cases where it is not refrigerated. That doesn't make the beer go bad. It's just not going to stay as fresh as long. We deal with it by keeping inventories short and making sure nobody buys too much that they can't sell in a very short period of time."

D.C. Brau and other brewers have to coordinate the import of ingredients over long distances.

"We search over the globe for our ingredients, and quality is the first concern," he says. "Our pilsner malt comes from Germany. The hops come from England, Germany, and the Pacific Northwest." It takes six weeks for hops ordered in Heidelberg, Germany to arrive in Alexandria.

When Butcher opened last February, he ordered what he thought would be a three-month supply of packaging, bottles, labels, and six-pack carriers, among other items. He used them up in two weeks, causing an unexpected logistical dilemma difficult for a small business to overcome, especially since there were no other microbreweries around.

"It wasn't like we could call our neighbor up and borrow some supplies," he says.

Butcher was motivated to found a brewery for the same reasons someone may only eat vegetables sold at a local farmer's market.

"It was about four years ago when we realized that we buy all of our groceries from local producers, our meat from local farmers, but the beer we were buying was coming from the west coast," he says.

Butcher's brewery lost power during the severe storm that hit the D.C. area on June 29. More than 2 million people were without electricity following the storm. Fortunately, Butcher was able to save 13,000 gallons of beer he had on the premises, thanks to a generator he snagged for the brewery. He did, however, cancel Fourth of July-related beer tastings.

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Loudoun County Votes Yes On Silver Line To Dulles Airport

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

(UPDATED 7:56PM) The final political obstacle to completing the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport and west into the suburbs was removed on Tuesday when the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted 5-4 to “opt in” to the Phase 2 of the 23-mile, $6 billion commuter rail line.

The affirmative vote was greeted with a degree of relief.  Had Loudoun County opted out, the project would have been delayed by at least 18 months.  The remaining stakeholders would have been left to redesign the proposed route in order to eventually connect the Silver Line to the airport but no further into the county, where two Metro stops were planned.

“I’m relieved. It’s a big day for Loudoun. It’s a big day for my constituents,” said Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), whose district will be the location of the last of 11 stops once the Silver Line is completed in 2018.

Buona can thank Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) for providing the decisive swing vote.  Reid had been leaning toward voting to opt out for weeks, but late last week moved to supporting the project once the board decided to create special tax districts around the future Metro stops to finance the county’s $270 million commitment to the Silver Line.

“I didn’t change my mind,” Reid said.  “What happened was that we did a motion for the tax district, so I didn’t change my mind. The tax district takes the risk off the county’s taxpayers.”

In the special districts, commercial properties will be taxed at a high rate, sparing residential properties, because they stand to benefit the most from the presence of Metro.  But supervisors who opposed “opting in” argued the tax revenue projections are flimsy.

“Everything I have looked at… really turns my stomach.  There are so many aspects of [this project] that are not going to help the county.  In fact, if you list the pros and list the cons, the cons far outweigh the pros at this time,” said Supervisor Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge), who joined Supervisors Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin), Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian), and Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) in voting against the county’s participation.

The months of contentious political debate did not reflect public opinion.  While the county supervisors battled (and a vocal minority pressured elected officials to opt out), public opinion polls showed overwhelming support for bringing Metro to Loudoun.

The agency running the project, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, may now proceed with seeking bids from contractors.

“We’ve worked very closely with Loudoun to give them the information they needed to make this important decision and we are very happy that they are going to be a partner with us and Fairfax to move this important project forward,” said Patrick Nowakowski, who runs the rail project for MWAA. “In the next few weeks we will initiate the procurement process to hire a firm to design and build this project for us.”

MWAA will also begin setting the higher toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road, which are expected to finance 75 percent of Phase 2’s costs.  Starting next year tolls are projected to increase to $9 round trip for a full toll.

“This is the way the [funding partners] came up with up to make this project and we are just trying to be good stewards of the public money and deliver the project as inexpensively as we can,” said Nowakowski.

There is no federal money involved in Phase 2 of the Silver Line (Phase 1 had $900 million federal dollars).  The plan did not meet federal criteria for ridership and population density, so the financing burden fell further on users of the Dulles Toll Road, who will be faced with significantly higher tolls without access to Metro until 2018, when the Silver Line is supposed to be finished.

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Silver Line Vote Tuesday Could Stunt Rail-to-Dulles Plan

Monday, July 02, 2012

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The Silver Line project is a 23-mile, $5.5 billion rail link to connect Washington, D.C to Dulles International Airport and beyond into the Loudoun County, Virginia suburbs.  When completed there will be 11 rail stops between the capital and the final stop in Ashburn. (See full specs here as a PDF.) It's an ambitious transit extension, one of the largest in the nation currently underway, and a critical vote Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET may shrink the plan significantly.

Phase I of the project is nearing completion.  Phase 2 is scheduled to start next year.  However, there is one more obstacle to overcome before construction may begin on time.

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to participate in the project.  The county’s commitment to Phase 2 is $270 million.  If the county decides to opt out, the project will be delayed by at least 18 months and will likely never extend beyond the airport.

Fairfax County and the state of Virginia are also committing funds to the Silver Line, but the bulk of the project run by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) will be financed by increased tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. Those tolls are projected to cover 75 percent of the $2.7 billion cost.

If Loudoun opts in, the project will start on time.  MWAA will begin setting higher toll rates this fall and begin soliciting bids from contractors.

Loudoun County’s board asked for an extension to decide if it will “opt out” of Phase 2 because of concerns over how financing the project would impact the county’s taxes. Last week, the board gave tentative approval to creating special tax districts around the future Metro stops west of the airport.

Check back to TN for updates after the vote.

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter for live updates.

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DC Bike Shop Owners See Big Returns From Bike Share

Friday, June 29, 2012

(photo by Martin Di Caro)

Listen to the audio version of this story here.

When the District of Columbia and Arlington County partnered to establish a bike sharing system in 2010, offering more than 1,500 bikes at 165 stations, local bike shops got a little nervous. Why would someone buy a new bike for hundreds of dollars when they could hop on a bike any time they wished for just $50 per year?

It turns out their fears were for naught. Bike store owners say bike sharing is actually helping their businesses by fueling an explosion in bicycling enthusiasm. Moreover, bike shops say they are witnessing a culture change in their neighborhoods as more people leave their cars at home and hop on two-wheelers.

"We've seen all kinds of people out on the streets," says Erik Kugler, the owner of Bicycle Space, a new shop on 7th Street NW. "Streets are becoming safer. Drivers are becoming more courteous. The city is becoming a much more fun place."

Kugler says customers are buying bikes because of Capital Bikeshare.

"We've had plenty of those people," he says. "In fact, when you contacted me about the story I put it out on Facebook and Twitter, and we were just inundated with responses from people who said, 'I was a Bikeshare member, and it encouraged me to get a bike.'"

Kugler's and other bicycle users' Twitter posts about this story produced a flood of responses in just a few minutes. Jon Renaut tweeted that he hadn't ridden a bike more than a half dozen times since high school, tried Capital Bikeshare, and then bought his own bike. He says he's ridden about 1,500 miles already, just this year.

Laurance Alvarado tweeted, "bought a #Brompton after a great experience with @Bikeshare." Daniel Colbert tweeted, "I did exactly that. Loved Bikeshare. Bought a bike as a direct result."

Bikeshare proved to be a gateway drug that fueled an addiction. After bike sharing first, Kristin Frontiera, 25, bought her own bike online for $40.

"Bikeshare has gotten really, really popular," says Frontiera, a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer. "I'm so happy for it, but if I need to leave my house at 8:30 in the morning with the rest of America and go to downtown with the rest of America, there's no way. There aren't bikes."

Bike share program leads to more bike owners

Indeed, Bikeshare's shortcomings have led its users to buy bikes of their own. The cycles are a bit heavy and slow. On busy days there may be no bikes available at a nearby dock, or no open slots to return a bike, forcing a user to find another dock.

"When I started riding Bikeshare, there was a phase when I'd see another person and we'd say hey, Bikeshare! This is awesome!" says Frontiera. "Now I see them and I feel like I need to pedal faster to get to the dock before them."

Kugler is seeing more customers, and more significant changes, in his neighborhood that he credits to the rising popularity of bicycling.

"AAA estimates that people spend on the average [$9,000 per year] related to their car," he says. "So if you can build an area where people don't need to spend that money every year, that money becomes available for the local economy. You see new restaurants open up, cafes, niche shops, and small businesses like ours. We employ 18 people here."

The story is the same at City Bikes in Adams Morgan, which has been in business for 25 years.

"You are getting more and more people that loved using Bikeshare and now are saying wait, I want something that's my own," says marketing manager Ben West. "[They] want something that is custom designed for the kind of riding [they are] doing."

West says bicycling is achieving "critical mass" in Washington. There are enough bicyclists on the streets that motorists have to be courteous and accommodate them, even where there are no bike lanes.

"In some areas of the city, there is almost a traffic jam of cyclists," says West.

Bicycle community grows in D.C.

Any worries that Capital Bikeshare would ruin business for neighborhood bike shops are long gone. There were similar concerns in Paris when the Vélib rental system started. However, a 2008 report in Bike Europe, a website for bike professionals, cited a 39 percent growth in sales of city bikes possibly attributed to the huge popularity of the Vélib system.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association endorses Bikeshare's program for that reason.

"We often hear that once Capital Bikeshare members find the joys of bicycling in the D.C., they go on to purchase a personal bike," says Gregory Billing, the association's outreach and advocacy coordinator. "Local bike shops have seen both an increase in sales of bikes and also repairs of old bikes. Owners and managers report seeing an increase of old bikes being pulled out of the basements or garages, brought to the shop for a tune-up and to be outfitted with a cargo rack for commuting."

Russell Martin, 25, enjoyed bike sharing so much that he bought three bikes of his own at local bike shops. "I ended up selling my car and buying a couple more bicycles, and I haven't looked back," says Martin, a sales manager at a boutique hotel who commutes on a bicycle daily.

He fell in love with bicycling again, but the limitations of Bikeshare also persuaded him to get his own cycle.

"I actually had a problem last night where every station within a mile of where I want to go was full, and there was nowhere to dock the bike," he says.

Annah Walters, 25, says she wanted her own bicycle only after trying Bikeshare first.

"One of the great things about Bikeshare is it's sort of a gateway drug to biking. You don't have to make a several hundred dollar investment," says Walters, who works at Habitat for Humanity. But Walters didn't have to make the big purchase when it came time to get her own two-wheeler. Her boyfriend bought her one for her birthday.

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MWAA to Loudoun County: No Extension on Silver Line Deadline

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s CEO says the agency will not grant a request by three members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors to extend a deadline for a critical decision affecting Phase 2 of the Silver Line rail project to Dulles Airport.

In an interview with Transportation Nation, CEO Jack Potter said MWAA will not extend Loudoun County’s deadline to December to decide whether to opt out of the $2.7 billion rail link. The current deadline is July 4; the board of supervisors is expected to vote the day before.

On Monday the three board members issued a list of 21 “considerations” upon which their support may ride and requested a six-month deadline extension. If the nine-member board votes to opt out, the start of Phase 2 would be delayed at least 18 months.

“We are looking forward to a decision on July 3,” said Potter, who said Loudoun officials were already granted a 30-day extension that pushed the final decision into next month.

Although only four of nine county supervisors currently support Phase 2, Potter said he was optimistic Loudoun will opt in.

“They are starting to address some of the more challenging issues with Phase 2. One of the biggest issues they have is how to finance Phase 2. The fact that they are actively engaged in discussions about tax districts and finding other means of dealing with the funding, I find that encouraging.” Potter said.

The extension request had little chance of being realized.  There may not even be enough support on the Loudoun Board to make a formal request to MWAA even if the agency were willing to grant it.  The request for more time to weigh the Silver Line does illustrate, however, that just two weeks from the big vote there remain serious questions among enough board members to place the project in peril."

A proposal to create a special tax district around the planned Metro stops west of the airport was one of three ideas the Loudoun board agreed to consider to pay for the county’s $270 million Phase 2 commitment. The board has scheduled a work session on June 29 to decide on a financing framework before the final vote. The tax district would levy taxes on commercial properties that stand to benefit from the presence of a Metro stop nearby.

In response to Potter's remarks, Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) said he would support Metro rail-to-Loudoun if the board approves the proposal for the special tax district. Reid has been on the fence, saying he would not support the project unless the board demonstrates it can be paid for.  He was among the three Supervisors who signed the "opt in consideration."

“Looking at the numbers it looks to me that it will help pay for the cost of Dulles rail without burdening the rest of the county,” said Reid, who maintains that the Silver Line would not solve the county’s transportation problems.

“I still think that some of our conditions… are things the Airports Authority and WMATA should be discussing with us,” said Reid, who said he never intended to make the 21 considerations a list of ultimatums.

“I think that many of the issues there are beyond anyone’s control,” said Potter. “It’s great for someone to have a wish list for what they would like to have in a perfect world, but much of what they wrote down is unattainable.”

In an email, supervisor Geary Higgins, who also asked for an extension of the July 3 deadline, said Potter's remarks were "unfortunate." Currently only four supervisors on the nine-member board support the Silver Line. One more supporter is necessary for a majority to prevent the county from opting out of the project.

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Loudoun Leaders Leaning "No" on Silver Line to Dulles Airport

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

After four hours of debate Monday night,  the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors only inched closer to deciding how to fund its $270 million commitment to Phase 2 of the Silver Line rail project to Dulles Airport and west into the county, leaving some Metro-to-Loudoun supporters on the board visibly frustrated and raising the probability that a majority of supervisors will decide to opt out of the project when a final vote is held in two weeks.

“I’ve been saying all along it’s 50/50. I still think it’s 50/50,” said Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), a Phase 2 supporter, after Monday night’s marathon work session.

If the county opts out of the $2.7 billion dollar project, construction of the rail link to connect Washington DC with the international airport would be delayed by at least 18 months.

The supervisors met to determine how the county would finance the project but only settled on submitting three options to the board staff for further consideration: creating 1) a county-wide commercial and industrial tax, 2) special tax districts around the two future Metro stops that
would levy taxes on commercial properties, 3) tax districts based on the borders of the county’s planning sub-areas.

“In my view we eliminated too many options from the table. The board took off the table any use of the general fund whatsoever, which I think is a mistake. We could fund the entire project our of general fund revenue with an impact of $98 a year for the average homeowner,” Letourneau said.

On the nine-member board four supervisors are considered “opt in” votes, but it’s not clear if they will be able to sway any of their colleagues to reach the five-vote majority necessary to support Metro rail-to-Loudoun. Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) made a show of voting against every financing option, declaring “Metro is evil.” When asked to clarify his remarks by a reporter Delgaudio declined to comment, saying he was “very busy.”

Of the four remaining supervisors leaning toward “opting out,” three signed and submitted just hours before the work session began a list of 21 demands they would like satisfied in order to support the project.

Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) initiated the “opt-in consideration” which included proposals outside the Loudoun board’s power. For instance, Higgins is asking the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to seat two additional Virginia board members. When asked how the proposal relates to Phase 2’s financing, Higgins responded, “The [MWAA] board doesn’t have the greatest reputation for openness and the way they have approached things. If it’s no big deal why have they refused to seat those people?”

The board’s three Phase 2 supporters who were present (Chairman Scott York was absent) touted the findings of a new survey conducted by the University of Virginia. Using a sample of 1,000 county residents in mostly suburban zip codes, the survey found that 77 percent want access to Metro rail. In rural areas support is 57 percent; in non-rural areas support rises to 81 percent. However, supervisors who are leaning toward opting out questioned the survey’s methodology, implying that the questions were designed to prompt favorable answers.

"There were no specifics with respect to [supporting rail]… if it means raising your taxes,” said Board Vice-Chair Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge). “That’s what this board is grappling with."

The supervisors plan to hold one final work session to determine if they can provide a financing framework before deciding the county’s ultimate participation in a public meeting scheduled July 3. Letourneau said opting out would hurt the county for decades, let alone delay construction by
at least 18 months.

“It is possible the project would get completed to Dulles Airport, but it will stop at Dulles Airport. There will be a rail line behind it which would make it impossible for it to ever be continued into Loudoun County. That’s the worse case scenario for us, where we are paying very high tolls, we are getting no economic benefit, our commuters have no access to the airport station, and they will have very limited access to the station’s in Fairfax County,” he said.

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Virginia County Still on the Fence about Funding Silver Line to Dulles

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Construction crews work on the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport in Virginia.  (Photo CC by Flickr user Wayan Vota)

With time running down to a critical deadline, the Loudoun County, Virginia Board of Supervisors is weighing a range of options to pay for the $270 million commitment to Phase 2 of the Silver Line Metro rail project to Dulles Airport.  The alternatives under consideration — and the scant time to reach a decision — are raising questions long asked by the project's critics, who say the multi-billion dollar undertaking is poorly planned and unfair to local taxpayers.

Loudoun County lawmakers have until July 4 to decide whether to opt out of the $2.7 billion project that would complete the rail link between the Washington D.C. Metro system, the airport and beyond it into the county suburbs.  Phase 1 of the Silver line will end short of the airport at Wiehle Avenue in Reston.

The Loudoun County Board will hold a work session Monday, June 18 on the proposed funding options, which include creating special tax districts to tax developers around the planned Metro stops, a countywide transportation service district that would provide money for both rail and road improvements and a commercial and industrial tax.

Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), who is leaning toward voting to opt into the project, released a letter to his constituents on Tuesday in which he laid out the financing options and his reasons for supporting the county's participation in the project.

"Depending on exactly how we finance the project, the amount that we'll have to spend each year is fairly easily absorbed in the budget without having to do anything significant to raise taxes," said Letourneau, who has argued that the county's general fund could  possibly cover the Phase 2 costs.

The board would not have adequate time to actually implement any long-term financing plan before the July 4 deadline, but may present to the public a framework of its intentions.  Some supervisors say a mere framework is inadequate considering the potential burden on taxpayers for years to come.

"It's going to take a combination of having a dedicated funding for highways, buses, and rail for me to support the project," said Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg), who is leaning toward voting to opt out.  "I would love to have a special tax district. The problem is there are not a lot of tax ratables there to keep the rate reasonable," referring to the current lack of development around the future Metro stops west of the airport, a sentiment shared by Letourneau.

"Frankly, those [tax districts] would not generate a tremendous amount of revenue, especially in the next couple years, because our areas are not developed," Letourneau said. However, as he described in his letter to constituents, Letourneau is satisfied the county can afford the project and should opt in while still figuring out the financing.

Supervisor Reid said the process is backwards.  "If you don't get economic development, which is very likely because it is at the end of the rail line, then taxpayers are stuck holding the bag," he said.

Reid also doubts a tax only on businesses would work. "If you tax our businesses only to pay for Metro, it puts them at a disadvantage to businesses in Fairfax, Prince William and other jurisdictions," said Reid, pointing to Loudoun's less densely developed landscape. "The promise of Metro for Loudoun County is not what a lot of people think it will be."

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