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Martin DiCaro

WAMU

Martin DiCaro appears in the following:

Virginia County Wants To Re-Envision Roads For City Rising West of Washington

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Tysons Corner (photo via wikimedia commons)

With four new Metrorail stations coming to Tysons Corner next year -- as well as a 40-year plan to to bring high-rise condos and gleaming corporate offices to the area -- local lawmakers are considering rethinking the road network.

The Fairfax County (Virginia) Board of Supervisors dug into a report Tuesday from Planning Commission member Walter Alcorn that includes about $1 billion in taxes on current and future developers to cover the costs of infrastructure for cars, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians.

“Right now Tysons has a super grid of very, very large blocks which are not walkable,” Alcorn said in an interview with Transportation Nation.  The county's plan states the "vehicle-based road network will need to transition into a multi-modal transportation system that provides transportation choices to residents, employees and visitors." That means, in part, building smaller, more walkable blocks.

County officials say they want the population of Tysons Corner to increase fivefold by 2050. Currently, the community has 20,000 residents.

The infrastructure redevelopment cost is $2.3 billion, and to pay for it, the planning commission wants to levy new taxes on developers and increase existing property taxes. However, tapping general fund revenues, issuing bonds, and adding a commercial and industrial tax are also under consideration.

“The actual street in front of the development that’s being constructed should be paid for by that developer. However, larger transportation projects that have a major benefit inside and outside of Tysons probably should be paid for by the public sector,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

“These are extrapolations,” said Bulova, referring to the revenue figures. “We’re looking ahead to an extent we’ve never done before to look at what it is going to take to support the new development.”

And Alcorn says it's worth it. “The point of all these improvements is not to facilitate traffic through Tysons or across Tysons, but frankly to help Tysons become more of a walkable, transit oriented community,” he said. “It’s a grid of streets. It’s also new connections from surrounding roads into Tysons, for example, new connections from the Dulles Toll Road, and improved connection to the Beltway.”

The board will take up the proposal next at its scheduled meeting later this month.
See Fairfax County's "Transforming Tysons" slideshow:

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Bike Advocates Wonder Where the Completed Met Branch Trail Is

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

More than two years after its southern segment opened, bicycling advocates are asking District and Maryland transportation officials why there has been no progress extending the 8-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) that is supposed to run between Union Station and Silver Spring, Md.

The southern segment is a completed, off-road bicycle path running straight north from Union Station through Northeast Washington to the Brookland neighborhood, but the remaining three segments are a combination of off-road and “interim routes” that force cyclists to leave the path and crowd onto city streets.

“In a couple of places it actually goes up relatively steep hills. In one place it goes against traffic,” says Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. The group is urging the District Department of Transportation to begin work on the northernmost segment inside the district, from Riggs Road to the Montgomery County line.

“We’d like to see DDOT pushing harder on that,” Farthing says.

But starting work on the MBT’s center segment in D.C. is more complicated: there are outstanding land-use issues that have to be resolved by the National Park Service, DC's transit agency (WMATA), and the DDOT concerning federal property around Fort Totten, where the proposed trail makes a sharp left turn in the vicinity of a trash transfer station.  That is where bicyclists face the thorniest part of their ride as two-way bicycling traffic has to squeeze into one of the “interim trails,” a one-way street for cars.

“For kids and novice cyclists who might want to try this connection, I do think where you are sent into oncoming traffic it is intimidating,” says Farthing, who gave an interview at the noisy intersection of Fort Totten Drive NE and Gallatin Street NE.

“All of the area around Fort Totten is National Park Service land, and there are certain agreements that WMATA has with rights of use to get the Red Line through. So they have to make sure (that) all those different legal agreements on land use work together to allow for the trail access,” he added.

The partial completion of the MBT is not stopping bicyclists from using it as part of their daily commutes or for recreation. There were 11,503 trips on the MBT last year, a nearly three-fold increase from 2010, according to DDOT figures.

Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director for policy, planning, and sustainability, said funding and land use issues have delayed progress.

“Some of what we face is a challenge of resources and dealing with multiple trail projects moving forward at the same time,” he says, adding that the Fort Totten area “is probably one of the most challenging sections of the trail in terms of dealing with competing needs of the right of way.”

Zinbabwe countered criticism that the DDOT isn't prioritizing the project.

“We don’t feel that we are [idle]. I think that we continue to try to move it forward,” he says.  Although Farthing says he believes the entire bike trail could be finished in two to three years, Zimbabwe called that goal “optimistic.”

In Montgomery County, where the proposed trail would end at Silver Spring, there are also outstanding conflicts concerning land use.

The group Montgomery Preservation Inc. is unhappy with a plan to run the trail between its building that houses a B&O Railroad museum and Metro’s Red Line tracks.  The plan also calls for building a bicycling bridge over Georgia Avenue that would block views of the historic railroad bridge.  The MBT is part of the county’s master plan and the Montgomery County Council has approved funding.

“The county council, county executive, and bicycling community are all interested in completing the design and construction and opening up this important part of this heavily used trail,” says Bruce Johnston, the chief of MCDOT’s division of transportation engineering.

Although frustrated by the slow progress, Farthing looks forward to a day when commuters can ride their bicycles all the way from Silver Spring to Union Station without squeezing past moving vehicle traffic.

“The ability to take your bike on and off Metro, the ability to mix it with bike share, we’ve got a lot of different ways that you can integrate biking into daily life, but it is important to have the trail so the people can do it safely and easily,” Farthing says.

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How D.C.'s Green Line Changed a Neighborhood from Blight to Big Box Stores

Monday, October 01, 2012

The 20010 zip code in Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C. is one of the ten fastest gentrifying in the country. (Photo by Martin DiCaro)

This is the third part in an ongoing series of reports about the metropolitan Washington region’s changing neighborhoods.  Read Part I and Part II )A recent study by a George Washington University real estate expert called the D.C. region a pioneer in creating WalkUPs, walkable urban places.  In this report, WAMU’s Martin Di Caro visits the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Ward 1.

When Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham sat down for lunch at Red Rocks Firebrick Pizzeria on a weekday afternoon it was easy for him to remember what the neighborhood used to be like here around Park Road and 11th Street, about three miles north of the White House.

“A few years ago this would have been unthinkable, unimaginable,” he says, considering his new neighbors.

The pizza place is situated in one of the D.C. region’s 43 WalkUPs designated by George Washington University’s Chris Leinberger, and in a zip code that has seen dramatic demographic changes through gentrification. The 20010 is tenth fastest gentrifying zip code in the country, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

“Where we are sitting right now was a house that was taken over by squatters who lived here without running water,” Graham said. “You wouldn’t have had any daytime restaurant opportunity. In fact, these restaurants and bars that are around us right now weren’t open.”

Chain stores and freshly built apartment buildings line once neglected streets in Washington, D.C.'s Columbia Heights. (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

The opening of Metro's Green Line in 1999 was the catalyst for so many of the positive changes that include rising property values.

“The Green Line made an enormous difference in terms of transforming what were vacant lots with chain link fences which gave rise to crime and other undesirable activities. So the Metro was key,” the councilmember said.

In Leinberger’s study Columbia Heights is considered an urban commercial WalkUP, meaning it is dominated by for-sale housing but has significant blocks of office, retail, and rental space.

Columbia Heights has experienced the challenge of retaining affordable housing as prosperity took hold.

“We’ve obviously brought a lot of newcomers into this neighborhood with the new apartment buildings… but it is very useful to keep in mind that we have the whole length of 14th Street starting at W [Street] and running all the way to Oak [Street], we have three thousand units of very low-income affordable housing,” Graham said.

Ward 1 is known for its ethnic diversity, the center of the district’s Latino, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese communities.  Graham said the government has actively worked to preserve those communities and resist the real estate pressures brought by gentrification.

“This is all quality housing that we now have for extremely low-income persons," Graham said of the housing 14th street housing stock. "Each and every one of those could have been a condo easily because of the real estate pressures,” said Graham who added D.C. has some of the most progressive affordable housing laws in the country.

“It took a determined effort. It just didn’t happen willy-nilly. What you see at 14th and Irving and 14th and Park was something very carefully understood and bought into by everyone who was a stakeholder,” Graham added, referring to the retail center built up around the Columbia Heights Metro station, including a large Target.

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Some Air Travelers Are Actually Happy. Yes, You Read That Right

Thursday, September 27, 2012

“It's game-changing. Amazing. It's the best.”

In the 11 years since Al-Qaeda terrorists used passenger planes as weapons on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, air travelers have rarely used such words to describe the airport security experience. But that could be changing at airports across the country.

“It honestly has changed everything,” says Neal Lassila, a tech company executive, describing how easily he sails through security now thanks to the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program.

Lassila was interviewed by Transportation Nation after taking all of 90 seconds to pass through a new screening checkpoint at Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington that was built specifically for PreCheck “known travelers.”

“I travel quite a bit so getting in and out of security was a bit of a hassle,” the Los Angeles resident said.

Lassila didn’t have to take off his shoes or belt -- or even open his bag -- on the way through the checkpoint.  He had been pre-screened after successfully applying for the TSA program through his airline as a frequent flier.  His ‘known traveler’ number is now embedded in the bar code of his boarding pass.

TSA officials invited reporters to attend a news conference inside the Dulles main terminal on Tuesday to check out the new checkpoint and interview travelers who have been accepted into the PreCheck program, which marks a shift in the one-size-fits-all security template used on all travelers after 9/11.

“I had to give them my driver’s license, a working passport, and I had to show them my birth certificate to prove who I was and that the documents matched me,” said Rich Hubner, a Virginia resident who travels frequently for his environmental science career.

Hubner applied for the PreCheck expedited screening program through the government’s Global Entry system which requires a short, in-person interview with security personnel to verify his identity.  Becoming eligible for the program removed all the hassle of long lines at security checkpoints.

“Cooler minds have prevailed finally,” he said.

Dulles is the 26th airport where PreCheck is operating.  TSA hopes to expand the program to 35 airports by the end of the year.  Three million passengers have been screened through PreCheck to date, according to TSA administrator John Pistole.  But he said Dulles is a special case. “Dulles International is the first airport in the nation to build a new checkpoint that is dedicated only to TSA PreCheck operations,” he said at the news conference. “If we have determined that a passenger is eligible for expedited screening, that information will have been embedded on the bar code of your boarding pass.”

There are some caveats: only frequent fliers of certain airlines, like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, US Airways or Alaska Airlines are eligible right now.  And pre-screened passengers won't necessarily fly through security every time. The TSA website warns that the agency "will always incorporate random and unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual will be guaranteed expedited screening."

To see a list of airports that have PreCheck, go here.

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"From the Draconian to the Inane:" Uber Taxi App vs D.C. Regulators

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

(photo by Martin DiCaro)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A pitted battle in Washington, D.C. over taxi technology, rights and safeguards turned testy Monday, with hints at compromise as well.

The chief executive of a rising, internet-based sedan-for-hire service accused D.C. regulators of pushing “crippling requirements” that threaten to drive its partners out of business, during a day-long hearing before a city council panel.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said proposed regulations range from “the draconian to the inane,” pointing to one rule that would require sedan companies with which it partners to possess fleets of at least 20 vehicles.

Uber allows customers to order rides directly from its smart phone app, a work around to regulations common in many cities that license and regulate which cabs can be "street hailed." In D.C. "black cars" may not be hailed on the street, but with Uber they can be summoned through a few clicks. Passengers are billed to their credit cards and receipts are emailed. Uber charges a base fare of $7 plus time and distance; drivers keep 80 percent of the total fare.

Kalanick criticized a slew of proposed regulations, saying “grey areas” could lead to interpretations that would harm his business. The CEO’s testimony reflected his faith in the marketplace: if Uber drivers don’t do their jobs well there will not be demand for his product.

“It sounds like hyperbole but so many of our customers literally feel like we have changed their lives,” Kalanick testified. “We hear from families that chose to sell their second car, couples who can finally go on date night in hard-to-reach areas, and from women who feel totally comfortable heading out of their office late at night because they have a photo, license plate and phone number of their driver.”

Monday’s testimony marked the latest move by Uber and district lawmakers to find common ground as the D.C. Taxicab Commission (DCTC) attempts to protect the city’s own regulated taxi industry from a completely unregulated enterprise.

Uber announced it would equip yellow cabs in New York City with the service pushing the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission to remind its drivers they cannot accept prearranged rides, nor use mobile devices while driving, pending a review of regulations. Uber plans to find a way to expand in New York City.

D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Ronald Linton has called Uber “arrogant.”

“The commission is in the process of adopting a regulation to add a new class of public vehicle-for-hire known as the sedan class for consideration and approval. This new class of service shall provide for rules to provide minimal regulatory requirements,” Linton testified on Monday. “I would also emphasize that this is a proposed regulation.”

D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chaired the Environment, Public Works, and Transportation Committee hearing, sought a conciliatory tone during Kalanick’s testimony, but the CEO refuted her claim that the district is attempting to work with Uber, not against it.

Cheh conceded that some of the proposed regulations may not make a lot of sense and suggested that Kalanick might be misreading the proposal to require sedan companies own at least 20 vehicles.

“The attorney general has read those regulations… you don’t have to have 20 taxis. So I’m not defending that. I’m just saying the rhetoric about the [regulations] being designed to put companies out of business or eliminate them is a little over the top and not correct,” Cheh said.

“I’ve read the regulations,” responded Kalanick. “And we’ve had my attorneys read them and I’d say at best it’s a grey area,” referring to confusion about rules governing the differences between taxis and sedans.

“That may be true,” Cheh said. “But I just wanted to make a statement… that these regulations are not law. I don’t want the rhetoric of the taxi commission trying to put people out of business to take hold.”

“But that is the reality of it,” Kalanick responded, adding that the DCTC “has been on the attack since the moment we got here.”

Proposed restrictions on makes and models and requirements that sedans only be painted by the manufacturers would add unnecessary layers of regulations that serve no purpose other than to make doing business in the district difficult, Kalanick said.

Uber sedan driver Saad Hamadi, who owns a single town car, testified that fleet requirements would drive him out of business. “The requirement for most cars to be 2009 and newer would cause me hardship because it is a 2008 model. It’s clean, looks nice inside and out, and my customers have never complained about its age.”

Despite the testy exchanges, Councilmember Cheh sought to emphasize that the district wants to welcome innovative companies as the landscape of vehicle-for-hire services changes. Earlier this year a survey posted to Cheh’s website revealed deep dissatisfaction with D.C. taxis among the public, a reason Uber supporters say the sedan service should be left alone: if the city-licensed taxis were more dependable Uber sedans wouldn’t be so popular.

Uber’s flexible pricing policy is considered by regulators to be unfair to the city’s taxicab industry because it allows Uber drivers to raise their prices during periods of high demand while traditional taxis charge a set minimum fare plus mileage and time measured by dashboard meters.

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Streetcar Could Make Virginia's Community Pike Neighborhood More Walkable

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

This is the second part in a series of ongoing reports about the metropolitan Washington, D.C. region’s changing neighborhoods. Listen to the radio version of this story here. The first part highlighted Southeast D.C.'s Capitol Riverfront neighborhood.

Columbia Pike stretches three and a half miles through the center of densely populated Arlington County, Virginia just west of D.C.  The corridor, extends southwest of Arlington National Cemetery, into an evolving landscape of mixed-use development that builders and community activists alike are hoping to improve into more livable communities. But unlike the nearby Rosslyn-Ballston corridor that was built up around Metro rail, the Columbia Pike has no rail link to attract real estate development. The future does hold plans for a streetcar.

“We’re working toward implementing light rail in the form of the Columbia Pike Streetcar which will connect the density at the west end in Fairfax to Pentagon City and Crystal City in the east end,” said Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member who has been heavily involved in the county’s transit-oriented planning. He said the county just submitted its application to the Federal Transit Administration for streetcar grant dollars.

The future path of a light rail line is currently used by the busiest bus service in the Commonwealth of Virginia at roughly 15,000 daily riders.  While residents have access to transit – a key requirement to be considered a thriving WalkUP in a study by George Washington University professor Chris Leinberger – Columbia Pike’s population is missing some important elements. For one, the corridor needs more people.

“We need more density. Density is sometimes viewed by people as the antithesis of what you want in development, but what density has proven to do in Arlington is create places where you can move around easier,” said David DeCamp, a real estate developer, who accompanied a WAMU reporter on a tour of the pike along with John Murphy, the vice president of the board of directors of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization.

The corridor also lacks commercial development.

“Mixed-use has three components: residential, office, and commercial," Murphy said. "The pike sorely misses office right now.”

A streetcar line will not be a cure-all, so county planners implemented two other measures to spur development along Columbia Pike: zoning laws were changed to make development easier, and the housing overlay zone was altered to double the unit density. Landowners will be required to maintain roughly one-fourth of their new apartment units as affordable housing; the county will build a streetcar line so their tenants can move easily up and down the corridor.

The combination of maintaining some affordable housing and expanding access to transit will allow the pike to avoid some of the negative consequences of gentrification, namely population displacement, Zimmerman said.

“Our goal is to make it possible for everyone who lives there today to live there tomorrow,” he said. “We believe it’s possible to accommodate the same number of people who make, say, 60 percent of the area median income or less, if we build it into our planning.”

Zimmerman said thirty years ago, when the county began planning for the Orange Line, it was so focused on attracting affluent residents to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor it neglected affordable housing units. That lesson is serving Columbia Pike planners today, he said.

“The community is very supportive of this because people understand that a lot of what they like about the Columbia Pike corridor is its diversity,” he said. “We don’t want it to become homogeneous. We don’t want it to become a place that is just for affluent people.”

Arlington County is considered a national leader in urban planning and land use. Although the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor on the Metro's Orange Line covers about 10 percent of the county’s land mass it produces 55 percent of its tax base, according to George Washington University professor Chris Leinberger.

“If you were to look at it 25 years ago you’d say, this may become a slum. All the obsolete strip retail was vacant,” Leinberger said in an interview with WAMU. “Today they have fabulous public schools. It’s a very diverse community and it’s extremely walkable.”

Murphy and DeCamp believe the same will be said for the Columbia Pike corridor.

“I’m excited about the potential of the pike to save the diversity of residents we have here,” said Murphy, who said the goal of zero population displacement is attainable. “They’ve made that happen. It’s going to be an incredibly dynamic, diverse, energetic engine with the streetcar in combination with the housing overlay.”

 

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BREAKING: Federal Money Could Stave Off Dulles Toll Road Toll Hike -- If the Loan Comes Through

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

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

The federal government may provide a substantial loan to the agency running the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport, enabling the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) to lower projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road that are expected to cover 75 percent of the rail project’s estimated Phase 2 cost of $2.7 billion, a Virginia congressman said.

MWAA, along with Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, plans to submit a letter of interest by September 30 to the federal government for a loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation (TIFIA) Act, which established a program that lends money for major transportation projects throughout the country.

Based on recent discussions with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he expects a loan to come through soon

“I’m very confident we’re going to be able to lock down a TIFIA loan for a fairly substantial percentage of the cost of the construction of Phase 2 by the end of this year,” Connolly said. “We know that [the loan] can’t exceed 33 percent of the cost of the project. It is my hope that it will be somewhere between 25 and 30 percent, but we have to see. We are in competition with other projects around the country as well.”

Effective January, the cost of a one-way, full toll is projected to rise to $2.75. In 2015, it increases to $4.50, with scheduled increases of $2 every five years.

“One of my goals is to move us from zero federal assistance to a substantial federal assistance so we can get the pressure of the toll users and the toll rates,” Connolly said.

There is currently no federal funding for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which is expected to begin construction next year. The state of Virginia is providing $150 million.  Fairfax and Loudoun Counties have allocated substantial sums, but three-quarters of the cost is expected to come from Dulles Toll Road users.

Because the project, which will extend to the airport and beyond into Loudoun County by the end of the decade, did not meet Federal Transit Administration criteria for expected ridership, the federal government was reluctant to provide any funding at all. After the project was split into two phases the government allocated $900 million for Phase 1, which will end at Wiehle Avenue in Reston, Va.

“One of the flaws in the financing of this project is that the Commonwealth of Virginia really hasn’t put up its own money. It has used our money in the form of toll revenue to finance its share and airports' [authority’s] share of this project, and that puts real upward pressure on toll rates,” Connolly said.

The Reston Citizens Association, which says it represents 58,000 Fairfax County residents, sent a letter on Monday to the MWAA’s chief executive officer, calling the recent public hearings the agency held “inadequate” considering the anticipated impact of higher tolls. The association is asking the MWAA to reduce the toll burden to 25 percent of the Silver Line’s Phase 2 cost.

The letter “details the harm the proposed toll hikes will do to the well being of toll road users, to the already serious congestion on local roads, and to the potential economic and tax revenue growth in the Dulles Corridor.” Opponents of the current financing structure say drivers attempting to avoid the higher tolls will seek alternate routes to work, further congesting already jammed secondary roads.

“[The] MWAA has a responsibility to address the variety of community concerns we enumerate and more.  It is a far broader responsibility than building a 16-mile railroad. We are anxious to help you find new funding sources,” the RCA writes.

“The public needs to be heard. I think the Reston [Citizens] Association is absolutely correct,” Connolly says.  “I share the Reston Association’s concern about the lack of accountability at MWAA.”

The MWAA's proposed toll hike is also the subject of a recent class action lawsuit, which argues that the agency does not have the legal right to raise tolls on drivers to pay for trains.

In recent months the embattled MWAA has publicized measures it has taken to improve transparency after reports of profligate spending and unethical practices by some members of its board of directors.

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Gentrification and Transportation in Washington: Part II of a Special Report

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Caoital Bikeshare station in DC's Deanwood neighborhood (photo by Martin DiCaro)

This is the second of a two-part series on the relationship between gentrification and access to transit in Washington D.C.'s rapidly changing neighborhoods. Part 2 examines the Deanwood and Kenilworth neighborhoods in Ward 7. Part 1 examined the Shaw and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods in the Georgia Avenue corridor in Ward 1.

Despite the presence of three Metro stations -- four when counting the station just over the border in Prince George's County -- redevelopment has been slow to take hold in D.C.'s Ward 7. If you take the train east of the Anacostia River and arrive at the Minnesota Avenue Metro station in the Deanwood area, you will arrive in what looks like a different city in one significant respect: while other parts of Washington are exploding with new high-rise apartment buildings and retail space, this neighborhood is only starting to grow.

"We still like the small-town feel of this area, and we have an older population," says Dennis Chestnut, 62. He runs the grassroots community group Groundwork Anacostia. "We like to retain a little bit of that as the growth takes place, so I think that very rapid growth has its drawbacks."

"When you look at this Metro station and all of the space that is available here, there is opportunity here for Metro and transit-oriented retail that could support the community in a lot of ways," Chestnut added.

That section of the city has remained underserved for decades, and developers are now beginning to take advantage of what is fertile ground for real estate projects. At the very busy intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road, ground has been broken on the Park 7 development, a $67 million mixed-use real estate project that will include 20,000 square feet of new retail space and mostly affordable rental housing among its 370 apartment units, a key to protecting existing residents from rising property values as gentrification takes root.

"The people who are most vulnerable are renters because their rents can keep going up," says Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "D.C. does have a moderate rent-control law for older buildings, but there are ways for building owners to get around that, so renters are most vulnerable to rising prices."

In July, about 100 affordable housing units for residents 55 and older opened at Victory Square on Barnes Street NE, a component of the ward's Parkside master plan. Tenants with moderate incomes will pay rents ranging from $775 to $960, according to a statement by the Banc of America Community Development Corporation.

There are at least seven major real estate projects in Ward 7 receiving city subsidies.

New transit and gentrification

Coming changes could cause unintended consequences for the ward's poorest residents. A plan to extend the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line east of the Anacostia River is under consideration. 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. In some places, renters and low-income households have been priced out.

"A streetcar or light rail can lead to gentrification here," says Peter Tatian, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. "It has in other places. It brings investment into a community and new people who are attracted by the new transportation. What the city needs to do is think about how it can take advantage of the benefits of light rail as well as mitigating the negatives that might exist, particularly for renters."

While many residents may welcome the streetcar line, Octaviah Holt, a 21-year-old professional, has her doubts about whom it will benefit.

"Who would put a trolley in this neighborhood?" says Holt. "I don't feel as though there is a lot of crime, but a lot of people wouldn't want to ride a trolley, the people that I know. I feel as though it's not for us, the people in the neighborhood. It's meant for the newcomers."

The perception that Ward 7 is not a place where developers want to build or people want to move is fading, according to Tatian.

"People who come out here will see the changes, but the problem is getting the people to come out here in the first place," he says. "There is still this perception that this is not a good place to be, but that is starting to change slowly."

New pedestrian bridge over I-295

One can get a bird's eye view of the traffic roaring by on Route 295 by standing on the old, narrow, poorly lit pedestrian bridge connecting Deanwood to Kenilworth. The latter neighborhood has been isolated from its neighbors since the highway was built through here, Chestnut says.

"This bridge is the only connection for this community to Minnesota Avenue and the Metro," he says. Now that Kenilworth is starting to grow, a new pedestrian bridge will be necessary to accommodate increased foot traffic.

"This pedestrian bridge was built a while ago, and it is time for it to be rebuilt," says Cheryl Cort. "It doesn't feel like a very safe place. We talk to residents and there's a tendency to use it during the daylight hours and take the bus home at night. The new pedestrian bridge will be designed to be a much safer place. It will deter crime."

Preparing for change

Whether the neighborhood Dennis Chestnut has called home his entire life can avoid the negative consequences of gentrification remains to be seen. The addition of affordable housing units amid new apartment buildings will certainly help. He says the late development of Deanwood has also turned out to be "a blessing."

"It wound up being a blessing in disguise for this particular area because of how rapidly it happened in some of the other areas," he says. "On the east side of the city, Ward 8 was one example of how rapidly it took place there. It has allowed the residents here in Ward 7 to witness that and to prepare to some extent. This is where the local engagement has been very important to get involved with the process."

Resident O'Neal Odom, 70, who has lived in the ward for 40 years, welcomes the expected transformation as major real estate projects are realized.

"We're finally starting to get some services," he says. "You know, streets fixed, getting stores, we are getting government. It's becoming a better place to live. I have no problem with gentrification. It's going to change like that anyway. Once they start building new houses and new things like that, people will stop being afraid of us."

For more on how gentrification has affected DC residents, listen to the TN documentary "Back of the Bus: Mass Transit, Race and Inequality."

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DC "Pioneer" in Walkable, Transit-Friendly Neighborhoods

Thursday, September 13, 2012

(photo by Martin DiCaro)

(Washington, DC - WAMU) D.C. is known for its great tourist attractions -- not to mention political scandals -- but among real estate developers the metropolitan area is receiving attention for what one expert says is a pioneering approach to the development of neighborhoods.

The D.C. metro area is leading the nation in the creation of WalkUPs --Walkable Urban Places -- according to a report released by George Washington University professor and smart growth advocate Christopher Leinberger.

In Leinberger’s view, developers are reversing decades of thinking about how people want to live, work and be entertained by creating anti-sprawl: densely-built office space, housing, and retail space in urban settings where residents can have most of their daily needs met within 1,500 to 3,000 feet of where they live.  While WalkUPs may differ in many respects from neighborhood to neighborhood, they all share one thing in common: access to multiple modes of transit, including commuter rail, bus, and bike sharing.

“There are 43 regionally significant WalkUPs in this region and they total only 17,500 acres, less than 1 percent of the land mass,” said Leinberger, who heads the political advocacy group Locus. “But this is the future of where most regionally significant job growth and development will go over the next generation.”

(photo by Martin DiCaro)

How walkable is your neighborhood? Leinberger developed a zero-to-100 scoring system at walkscore.com.

“These walkable urban places that I have been studying have a walk score that is a minimum of 70. As [a neighborhood] gets more walkable we have found that its economic performance goes up, and this is why developers are so fascinated by these places. Greater walkability, higher rents. But there is a downside to higher rents and that is basic affordability.”

Capitol Riverfront neighborhood Southeast -- near Navy Yard Metro (photo by Martin DiCaro)

The Capitol Riverfront neighborhood in Southeast D.C. may demonstrate the success of the WalkUP model. A blighted industrial landscape of oil storage tankers and trash transfer stations that was scarred by crime, prostitution and poverty, Capitol Riverfront – just five blocks from the U.S. Capitol building with two miles of riverfront real estate – has witnessed a rapid transformation over the past decade. The catalyst for change was the completion of the Navy Yard Metro Station in 1999, according to Michael Stevens, the executive director of the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID), a non-profit that performs planning and infrastructure analysis.

“It was only until the Navy Yard Metro station opened in 1999 that I think people started to understand this could be an in-town neighborhood,” said Stevens, who said once the redevelopment of downtown D.C. was accomplished, developers could “jump” into adjacent neighborhood ripe for change.

In the past decade, the Green Line corridor has caught up to -- and exceeded -- the Rosslyn-Ballston Orange Line corridor in attracting the coveted 18-34 demographic, according to data compiled by the BID.  From 2000 to 2010, the Green Line corridor attracted more than 3,400 new households in that age group, slightly more than Rosslyn-Ballston.  In the previous decade such growth was nearly non-existent along the Green Line.

“We survey residents living down here on an annual basis and year in and year out the most important factor for them choosing to live in the neighborhood has been the access to multi-modal transit and the Metro station,” said Ted Skirbunt, the BID’s director of real estate research.

(photo by Martin DiCaro)

The WalkUP model has thrived because there's been an attitude shift among young professionals. Less interested in living in drivable suburbs where the costs of home ownership are incompatible with college debt bills, this cohort has been seeking smaller living spaces where cars -- and the parking spaces they require -- are unnecessary.

“We call it the five-minute neighborhood. Within a five-minute walk you can be at the grocery store, at the park where your kids are going to play or where you’re going to hear a concert. You can walk to your job. You can walk to a restaurant, a bar or entertainment venue,” said Stevens.

During an interview with Transportation Nation, Stevens pointed to an explosion of development taking place in an area covering just a couple square blocks: new loft apartments with ground floor restaurants, an old industrial building being converted into a retail and restaurant cluster, a 50,000-square foot grocery store, and 30,000-square foot health club.  In a suburban setting, such development would require many more acres of space considering the parking lots that would be necessary.

“We are seeing a paradigm shift from an almost entirely suburban model to a generation that doesn’t necessarily want cars. They want multi-modal transportation choices. They want to live close to the urban cores where the action is and the jobs are,” Stevens said.

For more about DC's history with development, check out the TN documentary Back of the Bus: Race, Mass Transit and Inequality

To read more about this issue, check out How Transit Is Shaping the Gentrification of D.C., Part 1

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Lawsuit Says DC Airports Authority Can't Raise Tolls To Pay for Rail

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

(Washington, DC -- WAMU) The agency that's running the Silver Line rail project to Dulles Airport is holding public hearings on its plan to dramatically raise tolls on the Dulles Toll Road to pay for the project. But a Federal Court of Appeals will consider a lawsuit that could derail the project.

The class action suit argues the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) does not have the legal right to raise tolls on drivers to pay for trains. Only an elected legislature can raise tolls in order to pay for something other than the maintenance and operation of the Dulles Toll Road itself, the suit claims.

"A toll is a user fee. That means you are using something and you have to pay for the service," says attorney Robert Cynkar, who will argue the case before a federal appellate court in October. "A tax is anything above that where money is being taken from you to raise revenue for another project."

The lawsuit doesn't address whether the Silver Line should be built. It's focused only on whether the MWAA has the authority to raise taxes, which is how Cynkar characterizes the toll hikes.

Under the Virginia constitution, elected officials are the only people who can vote to raise taxes.

But is a higher toll really a tax? To the drivers who will be paying them starting in January, Cynkar says the answer might be yes.

"The issue of whether the Metro rail is a good idea, whether it makes sense for the economy, how much it should cost and all that, are different issues," Cynkar says. "We just say that if you are going to build this thing and you need to get revenue for it, you have to do it the constitutional way."

A lower court dismissed the case in July. According to Don Williamson, a professor of taxation at the Kogod School of Business at American University, the toll increases might legally be considered taxes — but that doesn't necessarily mean the airports authority is in the wrong.

"The public as a whole could interpret any collection of revenue for any purpose to be a form of tax that they are paying to the government," Williamson says. "And it becomes merely a technicality whether we call that collection a tax or a user fee."

For its part, the airports authority "continues to believe the appeal lacks merit, and we will respond appropriately in court," said a spokesman in a statement. The MWAA filed a response to the original suit in April. But Williamson says the appeals court will have room to draw a different conclusion.

"This is a legal issue, not a factual issue, so the Circuit Court of Appeals has more ability to interpret the law differently," he says, "and disagree with the district court."

(Disclosure: one of the plaintiffs Cynkar is representing is an American University law professor. WAMU 88.5 is licensed to American University.)

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Special Report: How Transit Is Shaping the Gentrification of D.C., Part 1

Monday, September 10, 2012


This is the first of a two-part series on the relationship between gentrification and access to transit in Washington D.C.'s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Part 1 examines the Shaw and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods in the Georgia Avenue corridor in Ward 1. Listen to the WAMU radio version of this story here.

This two-mile stretch of Georgia Avenue NW, sandwiched between two Metro stations, looks like a construction zone. Every few blocks a new apartment building with ground floor retail space is under construction, surrounded by scaffolding or heavy equipment. A neighborhood that has changed dramatically in the past decade is in store for further gentrification.

"There were eight major development projects that were in various stages of planning," says Sylvia Robinson, 51, a community organizer who helped form a neighborhood task force to monitor proposals for new development over the past two years.

According to data compiled by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, the 20001 zip code -- which includes the Georgia Avenue corridor in Ward 1 -- was the sixth-fastest gentrifying zip code in the entire country last decade, based on the change in the share of the white population. In 2000, whites were only 6 percent of the population; by 2010 the white population had increased to 33 percent in the zip code, according to U.S. Census data. Washington has several of the fastest changing neighborhoods in the country.

Gentrification is an attitude

While gentrification is often simplified to mean the displacement of poorer black residents by wealthier white newcomers, Robinson says the change is more complicated where she lives.

"I consider gentrification an attitude," Robinson says. "It's the idea that you are coming in as a planner, developer, or city agency and looking at a neighborhood as if it's a blank slate. You impose development and different economic models and say that in order for this neighborhood to thrive you need to build this much housing, this much retail."

Robinson does not oppose gentrification; she wants her community to have a voice in the inevitable changes. "We are primarily an African-American, low-income community. Typically, we are not asked about changes that are coming," she says. For instance, in addition to new market-rate condominiums, neighborhood advocates are lobbying for new affordable housing units to prevent the displacement of long-time residents when property values ultimately rise.

Changes here have been dramatic. The Shaw and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods are safer, have seen property values increase and shopping opportunities multiply.

"It's an extraordinary change," says Peter Tatian, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. "I've been in D.C. over 25 years and I remember when that part of town was considered off limits by many people, that you wouldn't want to even go there. And now it's become one of the priciest areas." The median price of a home is over $500,000 in many parts of Ward 1, Tatian says.

The transportation angle

"The development of our community is really going to hinge on people being able to move up and down that segment of Georgia Avenue freely and easily," Robinson says.

The congested corridor connects two Metro stations in Northwest D.C: Petworth in the north and Shaw/Howard University in the south. Significant new development is being constructed close to the Shaw Metro station, leaving Robinson concerned that hundreds of new apartment units and thousands of square feet of retail space will focus economic activity there at the expense of older neighborhoods further away.

"[Developers] don't have a sense of what the natural boundaries are for the neighborhood," Robinson says. "Neighborhoods were here before the Metro Stations came in, so it's not like you are creating a new neighborhood. You are already in a neighborhood and that neighborhood can really benefit from that Metro station, but not if you are only focused on the station as a center of development."

When a "thriving neighborhood" is measured largely by how much money people are spending or how high rents are climbing, Robinson says gentrification causes damage.

"That is my main issue with all of this: everything is looked through the lens of shopping," she says.

Just a mile or so north of the Shaw Metro on Georgia Avenue, one will find shops and restaurants that are long-time establishments in the neighborhood. To get to them, Robinson says residents and Howard University students will have to rely on the 70 bus line.

"It's just notoriously unreliable and always has a very interesting set of characters on it," she says. "They're supposed to run every ten minutes, but what you'll get is three buses in a row and then nothing for half an hour."

Anika Rich, a Howard University senior who has witnessed the neighborhood's transformation, doubts the current bus service is adequate to connect people to different parts of the Georgia Avenue corridor.

"I don't think that people are going to be connected to it. I know that there are plans that Howard University has to lure us to the other side of the street, and have us patronize a section that doesn't necessarily get much attention from other people," Rich says.

Robinson worries that "isolated" pockets of economic development will be the result. Moreover, as the population of this part of the city continues to grow (14 percent increase in the 20001 zip code between 2000-2010), so will pressure on the existing infrastructure to efficiently move people between work and home, home and shopping.

"We're talking about improving the bus lines. We're talking about the Circulator bus... moving up this corridor. We're talking about possibly working with Howard University to have shuttles circulate further north," she says.

While Ward 1 has the look and feel of a dramatically different neighborhood, other areas of the city have not seen development follow access to transit. In part two of this series, we will visit the Deanwood and Kenilworth neighborhoods in Ward 7 to examine why development has been slow to rise up in an area that has had four Metro stations for many years.

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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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