Wednesday, July 24, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
ROCKVILLE, Md. —
First it was cracked concrete, now it's a fiscal rift hindering the future of the Silver Spring Transit Center in Maryland. Montgomery County Officials and Metro leadership appear no closer to solving key problems plaguing a facility already years behind schedule and millions over budget.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
D.C.'s streetcar won't be taking passengers for several more months, but engineers are already putting the vehicles through their paces, testing braking and acceleration -- and a feature called "dead man."
Friday, April 05, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Nearly five months after opening, the operators of the 495 Express Lanes are struggling to attract motorists to their congestion-free toll road in a region mired in some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.
Transurban, the construction conglomerate that put up $1.5 billion to build the 14-mile, EZ Pass-only corridor on the Beltway between the I-95 interchange and Dulles Toll Road, will let motorists use the highway free this weekend in a bid to win more converts.
“It takes a lot of time for drivers in the area to adapt to new driving behaviors. A lot of us are kind of stuck on autopilot on our commutes. That trend might continue for a while, too,” said Transurban spokesman Michael McGurk.
Light use of HOT lanes raises questions
McGurk says some drivers are confused about the new highway’s many entry and exit points. Opening the Express Lanes for free rides this weekend will let motorists familiarize themselves with the road, he said.
After opening in mid-November, the 495 Express Lanes lost money during its first six weeks in business. Operating costs exceeded toll revenues, but Transurban was not expecting to turn an immediate profit. In the long term, however, company officials have conceded they are not guaranteed to make money on their investment. Transurban’s next quarterly report is due at the end of April.
To opponents of the project, five months of relatively light traffic on Virginia’s new $2 billion road is enough to draw judgments. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has not recovered since the recession knocked millions out of work and more commuters are seeking alternatives to the automobile, according to Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
“They miscalculated peoples' time value of money. They overestimated the potential demand for this road,” said Schwartz, who said the light use of the 495 Express Lanes should serve as a warning.
“We should not have rushed into signing a deal for hot lanes for the 95 corridor, and we certainly shouldn’t rush into any deal on I-66,” he said.
Transurban is counseling patience.
“We’re still in a ramp-up period. You’ve probably heard us say that since the beginning, too, but with a facility like this it’s a minimum six months to two years until the region falls into a regular pattern on how they’re going to use this facility,” McGurk said.
In its first six weeks of operations toll revenues climbed on the 495 Express Lanes from daily averages of $12,000 in the first week to $24,000 in the week prior to Christmas. Traffic in the same period increased from an average of 15,000 daily trips to 24,000, according to company records. Despite the increases, operating expenses still outstripped revenues.
It is possible that traffic is not bad enough outside of the morning and afternoon rush hours to push motorists over to the EZ Pass lanes on 495.
“It may also show that it takes only a minor intervention to remove enough cars from the main lanes to let them flow better,” said Schwartz, who said the 14-mile corridor is simply pushing the bottleneck further up the road.
Even Transurban’s McGurk says many customers who have been surveyed complain that once they reach the Express Lanes’ northern terminus at Rt. 267 (Dulles Toll Road), the same terrible traffic awaits them approaching the American Legion Bridge.
Express Lanes a litmus test for larger issues
The success or failure of the 495 Express Lanes will raise one of the region’s most pressing questions as it looks to a future of job and population growth: how best to move people and goods efficiently. Skeptics of highway expansions, even new facilities that charge tolls as a form of congestion pricing, say expanding transit is cheaper and more effective.
“An approach that gives people more options and reduces driving demand through transit and transit-oriented development may be the better long-term solution. But we’ve never had these DOTs give us a fair comparison between a transit-oriented investment future for our region and one where they create this massive network of HOT lanes,” said Schartz, who said a 2010 study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments pegged the cost of a tolled network of 1,650-lane miles of regional highways at $50 billion.
Transportation experts say a form of congestion pricing, either tolled lanes or a vehicle miles traveled tax, may be part of a regional solution to congestion. The public, however, needs to be explained why.
“As long as the majority of system remains non-tolled and congested then you are not going to solve the problem,” said Joshua Schank, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based think tank.
“Highways in this region are drastically underpriced. People are not paying enough to maintain them and they certainly are not paying enough to pay for the cost of congestion. The American people have been sold a bill of goods because they have been told that roads are free. Roads cost money,” he added.
The 495 Express Lanes are dynamically-priced, meaning the tolls increase with demand for the lanes. The average toll per trip in the highway’s first six weeks of operations was $1.07, according to Transurban records. As motorists enter the lanes they see signs displaying how much it will cost to travel to certain exits, but no travel time estimates are displayed. “It is important to be very clear to drivers about the benefit of taking those new lanes, and I am not sure that has happened so far,” said Schank, who said it is too early to conclude if the Express Lanes are working as designed.
“It’s hard to know if it works by looking whether the lanes are making money. I don’t know if that is the right metric. It’s the right metric for Transurban, but it’s not necessarily the right metric from a public sector perspective,” he said. “The real metric is to what extent does it improve economic development and regional accessibility, and that’s a much harder analysis that takes some real research and time.”
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Maryland's Montgomery County Council approved an additional $7 million to pay for construction work already completed at Silver Spring Transit Center, which is already two years behind schedule and about $80 million over budget.
The $7 million approved by county lawmakers has nothing to do with major design and construction problems detailed in a county report released two weeks ago.When it comes to who will pay to repair those problems, county officials say it will likely be determined in litigation with the project’s contractors.
“We will move expeditiously to make sure that we make the necessary repairs and that the taxpayers of Montgomery County will not have to pay for the flaws of the contractor,” says County Executive Ike Leggett, who has threatened to cancel the county’s contract with Foulger Pratt and other contractors and sue to recover any funds paid to fix the transit center’s construction issues, like inadequately thick concrete.
“Whatever we spend we will get back because we are going to pursue to the ultimate degree of the law and the legal process to make sure the county is reimbursed for anything we may have to put out in advance,” says Leggett.
Council President Nancy Navarro echoed Leggett’s vow to go to court, if necessary, to protect taxpayers but left open the possibility the county is also responsible for the mess at the transit center.
“I have not said at any moment that the county could not have some responsibility in this. It is possible,” says Navarro, who says the transit center could open to the public while any litigation proceeds.
No lawsuits have been filed yet.
Contractor Foulger Pratt has said the county’s design plan was flawed from the start. Company executive Bryant Foulger has said any safety issues concerning concrete and reinforcing steel bars are the county’s responsibility.
Tuesday, April 02, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Meanwhile, legislators in Richmond -- and push for legislation making texting while driving a primary offense in Virginia.
"I think we're getting to the point where people are starting to understand and recognize that, but I'm not sure people are quite aware of how dangerous it is,” says Debbie Pickford, chair of the board of Drive Smart Virginia.
Just how dangerous? Texting while driving increases your risk of a crash by 23 times, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Eighty percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near crashes involve driver inattention within three seconds before the accident. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has been known to honk at drivers he sees talking on cell phones, has called distracted driving "an epidemic on America's roadways."
Despite these findings, Pickford says, it has been difficult convincing teenagers as well as adults to drop their gadgets and keep both eyes on the road. “The problem is getting worse,” she says. Her group is encouraging drivers to sign a pledge in which they publicly commit to eschewing cell phones while driving.
According to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, teen driver deaths went up in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period the prior year, and Pickford says a big reason is driver distractions like smart phones.
“We’re a multitasking society. We’re a busy society,” Pickford says. “I think multitasking has become a way of life, so people are just trying to get things done when they are in their cars and there is a lot more you can do now on a smartphone.”
Distracted Driving Awareness Month was once just one week, and advocates plans to extend their activities well past April into the “dangerous months” for teenagers when proms and graduation parties increase the potential for risky road behaviors.
Ultimately, safety advocates would like society to view distracted driving the same way it now sees drunk driving, but Pickford concedes that will take many years.
“It took a while for society to get to the fact that drinking and driving is really very dangerous, so I think it will take a few years to build this campaign and make people aware,” she says. “It doesn’t happen over night and it’s why we have gone from a week to a month. We are hosting a distracted driving summit in September in Richmond.”
Advocates are also looking to Richmond lawmakers for help. This week state legislators are expected to approve legislation that would make texting while driving a primary offense.
“Right now a policeman can pull someone over if they see something else going on in the car. They cannot pull them over if they see you texting while driving,” Pickford says.
Drive Smart Virginia says youth education starts in the car with parents. Children as young as five begin to pick up their parents’ driving behaviors, so she is urging parents to set good examples and refrain from using hand-held cell phones at the wheel.
Friday, March 29, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The general contractor leading the construction of the Silver Spring Transit Center is publicly defending itself against alarming charges of building defects in the delayed transit hub, pointing to evidence that it followed Montgomery County's design plans.
Rockville-based Foulger Pratt released copies of daily inspection reports under the letterhead of the firm Montgomery County hired to perform field inspections on the Silver Spring Transit Center, Owings Mill-based Robert B. Balter Company. The signed reports state: "Prior to concrete placement reinforcing steel was inspected and found to be installed as per specifications."
The charges center on insufficient amounts of concrete, reinforcing steel and post-tensioning cables — high-strength steel strands or bars used to strengthen concrete — according to Montgomery County's findings of design and construction flaws released last week to intense news coverage. Foulger Pratt managing principal Bryant Foulger says he would like his side of the story to receive as much attention.
"It feels like from the county executive's comment, that we've been indicted and tried and convicted without realizing there is another very compelling side to this story," Foulger said. "If there is an issue with safety here, it is related to design. That's the county's issue, not ours."
In its rebuttal to the county's claims, Foulger Pratt is zeroing in on the facility's concrete pour strips that the county's investigation said lacked proper reinforcement. The contractor contends all concrete was poured in compliance with design documents.
"They accused us of leaving out things that they didn't include in the design in the first place," Foulger said. "The only area where they've identified as a safety concern are these pour strips, and as you can see by these reports and as you can see by the drawings, we built them in accordance with plans and specs."
The fate of the Silver Spring Transit Center, which is over budget and behind schedule, remains up in the air. Both sides have said their differences can be worked out, but Foulger Pratt claims the transit hub would have opened already had it not been for the county's stonewalling.
"For over a year, Foulger Pratt has been asking the county to sit down around the table, to work together with us in a professional dialogue, first and foremost to determine what if anything needs to be done to open this facility for the public and to get it open," said Judah Lifschitz, an attorney for Foulger Pratt. "It flies in the face of fundamental fairness for the county to not talk to us for a year about these issues, to not engage in a professional dialogue."
Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett has threatened to cancel its contract with its hired design and construction firms unless they pay for whatever mediation will be necessary to fix the transit center's structural problems.
In a statement released after issuing the results of the county's investigation, Leggett said, "These deficiencies not only compromise the structural integrity of the facility, but could also begin to impact the Transit Center's durability far earlier than expected, thus shortening its useful life. At worst, if no changes are made, some of the facility's elements may not withstand the loads they are intended to support, thereby putting the many users of the center at potential risk."
A Washington Post report said Balter Company "improperly tested the strength of concrete, apparently failed to measure its thickness and didn't raise sufficient concerns when the concrete started to crack, according to independent engineers and county officials."
Thursday, March 28, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
A bipartisan group of 68 members of the U.S. House, responding to the advocates’ safety concerns, has signed a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood asking him to order the Department of Transportation to follow through on two aspects of the MAP-21 legislation signed into law last year.
The representatives, including D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, are asking Sec. LaHood to establish a national goal to reduce bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities and to push individual states to set “performance measures” to accomplish the same.
“If we don't set performance goals for states and cities there will be no incentive for them to look at what many don't even recognize,” Norton said in an interview with WAMU 88.5. “More people are walking and more people are taking their bikes. Thus, there will be no incentive to try to make the roads easier to navigate.”
As overall roadway fatalities have dropped significantly the number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed has increased, according to federal data. Total fatalities have dropped from 37,423 in 2008 to 32,367 in 2011. But roughly 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclists are killed annually, from 12 percent of all roadway deaths in 2008 to almost 16 percent in 2011, according to the federal government’s fatality analysis reporting system.
Safety advocates see the establishment of performance measures as an opening for additional federal funding directed to bicycling and walking infrastructure. Currently less than one percent of federal highway safety funds are spent improving bicyclist and pedestrian safety.
“We urge USDOT to set separate performance measures for non-motorized and motorized transportation,” says the letter signed by the 68 House members. “This will create an incentive for states to reduce bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities, while giving them flexibility to choose the best methods to do so.”
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Thursday, March 28, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) On colorful maps spread out over long tables the planned path of the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail extension to the D.C. area Metro system, was shown to residents and business owners at a ‘neighborhood work group’ meeting Wednesday night. But the maps reveal, progress to some, means bankruptcy fears to others.
While the maps conjure images of what might be if the $2.2 billion rail system supported by transit advocates and real estate developers ever gets built, to some the plans are the harbinger of personal hardship.
“I’m not happy at all,” said Dario Orellana, the owner of a Tex-Mex restaurant in busy Silver Spring. “We’ve been there for 14 years and moving is going to be really hard on us.”
Orellana is one of about a dozen businesses on 16th Street that would be displaced by the Purple Line’s proposed route through Silver Spring, Maryland. Officials from the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) explained that the planned right-of-way will also absorb part of business-friendly Bonifant Street, making it a one-way street with parallel parking on one side.
“We have to take up a good part of the street, roughly 25 to 30 feet of it, for the Purple Line to come along here,” said Michael Madden, the MTA’s Purple Line project manager. “We work very hard to minimize those impacts.”
Orellana’s lawyer said no matter how much money the state provides his client in compensation for moving his restaurant, he and other entrepreneurs displaced by the Purple Line will struggle to attract the same clientele to new locations.
“I am looking at the map right now and a number of these businesses will probably have to go somewhere. They are right there in the way of the line,” said attorney Dmitri Chernov.
No one will have to move their businesses anywhere if state lawmakers currently in session in Annapolis fail to approve additional funding to replenish Maryland’s transportation trust fund.
“This is the make or break year, so we know that we need additional revenue, the state needs additional revenue in the trust fund to actual build the Purple Line,” said Madden. “So far we are optimistic, based on the discussions going on, that will happen.”
Madden said the MTA is also preparing to negotiate a permanent federal funding agreement because the Purple Line has been accepted into the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.
“We have planned and designed the project so that it meets all the federal requirements,” Madden said.
A federal grant would provide matching dollars splitting the bill with the state on a 50/50 basis each year of construction, which Madden hopes will begin in 2015 and wrap up in 2020.
“We would not start the project until we know we would have the assurance of sufficient funding to complete the project,” he said.
The Purple Line may be years from carrying its first passengers but the state is close to completing both its preliminary engineering and environmental impact statement, which are due this fall.
The 16-mile light rail system would be powered by overhead cables between Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County, connecting to WMATA’s Red Line’s east and west branches and crossing over Connecticut Avenue. Rider estimates are 74,000 per day by 2040, Madden said.
Some residents at Wednesday night’s meeting – after taking in the MTA’s pretty topographical maps – focused on what they viewed will be the Purple Line’s negative effects on downtown Silver Spring.
“It’s going to take away parking on one side of the street and on Saturdays and Sundays around here on Bonifant Street everything is packed solid,” said Bob Colvin, the president of a local civic association.
Colvin was not impressed with the rail system’s potential to reduce car dependency, thus mitigating the loss of road. “I think people are still going to drive. They are going to come from afar and I’m sure this Purple Line is not going to cover all venues from wherever these people come from.”
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Tuesday, March 26, 2013
(Michael Pope -- WAMU) Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has offered a compromise on his transportation funding plan in response to a legal objection by the state's attorney general. Virginia needs new and additional revenue for upkeep it's network of highways (about 58,000-miles worth) and mass transit systems. As cars get more fuel efficient, gas tax revenues are falling in many states.
McDonnel has already signed a bill that replaces the state's 17.5 cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gasoline and a 6 percent levy on diesel fuel. That won't change. The portion of the plan under scrutiny involves sales tax.
Virginia attorney General Ken Cuccinelli had raised concerns about a provision that would have levied higher taxes on some more densely populated areas, including Northern Virginia.
The bill members of the General Assembly sent to the Governor's Mansion had a long list of localities from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that would have been subject to a higher sales tax rate. The two-tier tax system was intended to raise money for road building, but Cuccinelli said it may have been unconstitutional.
Now the governor has a fix: ditch the parts about the two urban areas and extend the taxing authority to the entire state. McDonnell is sending an amendment back to the General Assembly that would create regional taxing authority to all 21 of the commonwealth's regional planning districts — two of which are Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
That means the other 19 districts could create taxing authorities for transportation dollars if they wanted to, but they don't have to.
The governor's amendments also cut the controversial $100 fee on hybrid cars to $64 a year, cut taxes paid on hotel stays, and reduced the titling tax on vehicle purchases.
McDonnell's 52 amendments will be considered by the General Assembly in a veto session April 3rd.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) While the District of Columbia grapples with proposed changes to its parking and zoning policies, last updated in 1958, nearby Arlington County, Virginia seems to have triumphed in its effort to minimize traffic congestion. Commuters are shifting from cars to transit and bikes.
What's more, traffic volume has decreased on several major arterial roads in the county over the last two decades despite significant job and population growth, according to data compiled by researchers at Mobility Lab, a project of Arlington County Commuter Services.
Multifaceted effort to curb car-dependence
Researchers and transportation officials credit three initiatives for making the county less car-dependent: offering multiple alternatives to the automobile in the form of rail, bus, bicycling, and walking; following smart land use policies that encourage densely built, mixed-use development; and relentlessly marketing those transportation alternatives through programs that include five ‘commuter stores’ throughout the county where transit tickets, bus maps, and other information are available.
“Those three combined have brought down the percentage of people driving alone and increased the amount of transit and carpooling,” said Howard Jennings, Mobility Lab’s director of research and development.
Jennings’ research team estimates alternatives to driving alone take nearly 45,000 car trips off the county’s roads every weekday. Among those shifting modes from the automobile, 69 percent use transit, 14 percent carpool, 10 percent walk, four percent telework and three percent bike.
“Reducing traffic on key routes does make it easier for those who really need to drive. Not everybody can take an alternative,” Jennings said.
Arlington’s success in reducing car dependency is more remarkable considering it has happened as the region’s population and employment base has grown.
Since 1996 Arlington has added more than 6 million square feet of office space, a million square feet of retail, nearly 11,000 housing units and 1,100 hotel rooms in the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor. Yet traffic counts have dropped major roads: on Lee Highway (-10%), Washington Boulevard (-14%), Clarendon Boulevard (-6%), Wilson Boulevard (-25%), and Glebe Road (-6%), according to county figures. Traffic counts have increased on Arlington Boulevard (11%) and George Mason Drive (14%).
“Arlington zoning hasn’t changed a great deal over the last 15 years or so. It’s been much more of a result of the services and the programs and the transportation options than it has been the zoning,” said Jennings.
Arlington serving as a regional model
Across the Potomac, the D.C. Office of Planning is considering the controversial proposal of eliminating mandatory parking space minimums in new development in transit-rich corridors and in downtown Washington to reduce traffic congestion. In Arlington, transportation officials say parking minimums have not been a focus.
“When developers come to Arlington we are finding they are building the right amount of parking,” said Chris Hamilton, the bureau chief at Arlington County Commuter Services. “Developers know they need a certain amount of parking for their tenants, but they don’t want to build too much because that’s a waste.”
Hamilton says parking is available at relatively cheap rates in the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor because demand for spots has been held down by a shift to transit.
“In Arlington there are these great options. People can get here by bus, by rail, by Capital Bikeshare, and walking, and most people do that. That’s why Arlington is doing so well,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton credited a partnership with the county’s 700 employers for keeping their workers, 80 percent of whom live outside the county, from driving to work by themselves.
“Arlington Transportation Partners gives every one of those employers assistance in setting up commute benefit programs, parking programs, carpool programs, and bike incentives. Sixty-five percent of those 700 employers provide a transit benefit. That’s the highest in the region,” Hamilton said.
“There’s been a compact with the citizens since the 1960s and when Metro came to Arlington that when all the high-density development would occur in the rail corridors, we would protect the single family neighborhoods that hugged the rail corridors,” he added.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) If the effort to modernize D.C.’s taxicab fleet has moved at a snail’s pace, the snail crawled another couple inches on Wednesday.
Officials revised a proposal to install credit card payment machines in all cabs this summer at a special meeting of the D.C. Taxicab Commission. Barring any further setbacks, commission chairman Ron Linton expects the amenity that has been the norm in other major cities to start appearing in D.C. June 1.
“I thought originally by last November we would have had credit card machines in every taxicab. The big disappointment was losing the contract we had,” Linton said in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
In November the District's Contract Appeals Board overruled a contract awarded to Verifone Systems to install the credit card machines, setting the District's modernization plan back several months.
The new proposal protects cabbies by increasing customers’ fares $.50 to cover the costs associated with installing and maintaining credit card payment technology.
The base fare will increase from $3.00 to $3.25; the driver will keep that extra quarter. A proposed per-ride surcharge was decreased from $.50 to $.25, a fee that will be collected by the District. Drivers will be allowed to charge an extra dollar per ride if more than one passenger climbs into the cab. About 20 percent of all rides currently involve more than one passenger, Linton said.
”Numbers two, three, four, doesn’t make any difference how many you got, you only get one additional dollar for any additional passengers,” said Linton, who said the District will allow drivers to choose from one of nine possible payment processing vendors.
While most District residents have called for credit card payment options in taxis, some cabbies have resisted them.
“Because of the fee,” explained cabbie Solomon Nessibu as he took a break in Tenleytown. “The credit card company charges you and you have to pay for the machine, pay for repair, extra receipt. It's cost-related. Other than that it's no problem.”
If the taxicab commission’s new proposal clears the final regulatory hurdles, Chairman Linton expects every cab in the district to have credit card payment machines by the end of August.
- Smartphone App Offers What DC Cabs Can’t Yet — Ability to Take Credit Cards (link)
- Proposal Would Put Smart Meters In D.C. Cabs By End Of Year (link)
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Thursday, March 21, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Montgomery County executive Isiah Leggett is vowing that taxpayers will not be left on the hook for the problems delaying the completion of the Silver Spring Transit Center.
Leggett says if the contractor Foulger-Pratt, the subcontractors, and design firms fail to rectify construction problems at the $112 million transit hub, the county will cancel the contract and sue.
"We will pursue every legal and administrative remedy that we think is available, so that we make certain that the county taxpayers do not foot this bill for the additional costs that may have to be born as a result of remediation," Leggett says.
The county hired engineering consultants to investigate the transit center's structural problems. They issued a report Tuesday that found excessive cracking in concrete, missing cables, inadequate reinforcing steel, and concrete of insufficient strength and thickness. Leggett says these problems can be fixed.
"It's simply right now a question of how much and how long it will take to do those," Leggett says.
The transit center is already two years behind schedule.
In a statement, the contractor Foulger-Pratt says it will take time to review the county's report, and says the county has refused to cooperate, "forcing taxpayers to pay for a $2 million report conducted without any input from us or our engineers."
Leggett says the contractors will pay for the repairs, not taxpayers.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
(Matt Bush -- Washington, D.C., WAMU) An independent report on the yet-to-be-opened Silver Spring Transit Center shows the transit hub is plagued by flaws that will render it unfit to open unless fixed.
The transit hub, which will connect commuters to rail, Metro, buses, bikes and cabs, was scheduled to have opened two years ago, but has been dogged by construction errors and cost overruns. After seeing cracks in the concrete last year, Montgomery County commissioned a report on the SSTC from structural engineering firm KCE.
And now that report concludes the problems with the center go far beyond cracked concrete.
In a statement, county executive Isiah Leggett says the center as currently constructed is "severely compromised." According to his statement: "The facility contains significant and serious design and construction defects, including excessive cracking, missing post-tensioning cables, inadequate reinforcing steel, and concrete of insufficient strength and thickness. These deficiencies not only compromise the structural integrity of the facility but could also begin to impact the Transit Center’s durability far earlier than expected, thus shortening its useful life. At worst, if no changes are made, some of the facility’s elements may not withstand the loads they are intended to support – thereby putting the many users of the center at potential risk."
Read the full report here.
Earlier this year contractor Foulger-Pratt said the county has needlessly delayed the opening of the center as it awaited this report.
At this time, there is no timetable as to when the center will open.
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Tuesday, March 19, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The nation’s infrastructure received a D+, a slight improvement from the D issued in 2009, in an infrastructure report card released by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), a group whose members stand to benefit from increased spending on the construction of roads, bridges, levees and dams.
The report grades infrastructure in sixteen sectors and prescribes a funding level necessary to bring each up to a B grade. That will require spending $454 billion annually over the next eight years, according to the group’s figures. However, the society estimates only $253 billion annually is currently earmarked for infrastructure repair and improvements, leaving a yearly funding gap of $200 billion.
At a news conference at the Earth Conservation Corps Pump House in southeast Washington – with a view of the structurally obsolete Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge spanning the Anacostia River – advocates of infrastructure spending sought to convey their message in easy to understand terms, acknowledging that ordinary citizens often do not see the costs associated with outdated infrastructure.
“The real goal is that Americans would have this conversation about infrastructure at their kitchen table,” said ASCE president Greg DiLoreto. “They’d sit down and they’d say, you know what? I was driving home last night, hit a pothole, and I ruined the front end of our car. What can be done about that?”
Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, the co-founder of the bipartisan group Building America’s Future, said more Americans are beginning to realize that infrastructure is not free and does not last forever. Still, there is a large difference between what a group of civil engineers believes should be spent and what Congress and state and local governments are willing to spend.
“Members of both parties feel this way, predominately Republicans, that we can’t spend money on anything. That’s wrong,” Rendell says. “We’ve got to get away from this idea that investing in infrastructure is wasteful spending. There are some projects that are bad and we should ask for stricter accountability and transparency, but we’ve got to invest in growth.”
The sector with the highest grade (B-) is solid waste. Inland waterways and levees both received the lowest grade, D-. Grades were poor to mediocre in transportation sectors: aviation (D), bridges (C+), rail (C+), roads (D), and transit (D).
“First we have to repair the quality of the roads,” Rendell said. “But then we have to expand. We have to do additional ramps. We have to widen lanes. A good hunk of the money should be spent on mass transit. There’s got to be a balance.”
The report card breaks down infrastructure state by state. In Washington, D.C., for example, 99 percent of roads are rated poor or mediocre. The report card says driving on roads in need of repair costs District of Columbia motorists $311 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs – $833 per motorist.
Winning the public’s support to raise revenues for infrastructure spending will depend on convincing the public they have to pay more, whether its taxes or user fees, according to Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former Assistant Secretary of Transportation under the George W. Bush Administration.
"The challenge is being able to make the case about specific facilities that people know and understand, and what the implications would be if they have to close that facility,” said Frankel, who said the ASCE’s figures are sound, even if they are unrealistic in terms of what governments are willing to spend.
“We’re not going to raise that money. People acknowledge we have to invest more but there’s disagreement about how much we need to invest. Whatever funds are available we have to make better choices, prioritize and target,” Frankel said.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Additional morning rush hour service is coming to Metro’s busiest bus corridor in Washington after the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission took commuters’ complaints to the transit authority.
The S bus line on 16th Street NW, a historic gateway into downtown D.C., is struggling to meet ridership demand. Buses are often packed before reaching the southern stretch of the route and cannot squeeze additional passengers aboard, leaving rush hour commuters waiting in long lines at bus stops in Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and near Dupont Circle. Some commuters eventually give up and hop in taxis.
“I went out to the bus stops and I saw taxicabs pull up to the long lines, seeing a business opportunity and offering to take them downtown, because the buses weren’t working for our city,” says Kishan Putta, a commissioner on the Dupont Circle ANC.
Putta tried to solicit commuters’ concerns on Facebook and Twitter but drew his largest response the old fashioned way: he put up posters at bus stops asking commuters to contact him.
“We took those stories and those complaints to Metro and they agreed to meet us,” in January, Putta says. “They had to admit in public this is a big problem.”
Putta provided the following example of a typical commuter complaint about crowding on the S line.
“I actively chose to walk 45 minutes to work during every day this week rather than take the bus despite the temperatures in the teens and howling winds,” the commuter’s complaint said. “On the one day when I decided it would be better for my health and well-being to take the bus I waited at the bus stop for 20 minutes.”
“Just this week it has taken me 45-50 minutes to get from 16th & V to 14th & I, and anywhere from 4 to 6 buses have passed the stop each morning because they are too crowded to accept any more passengers,” another complaint said.
Metro has been aware of S line bus crowding for years but its efforts haven’t kept up with growing ridership. In 2009 the S9, which makes limited stops on 16th Street NW, was added during morning and evening rush hours to alleviate crowding.
“Bus ridership remains strong especially with all the new residents moving into the district,” says Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. “There are new residential units along this corridor and so we want to make sure we are providing service for the folks who want it.”
Stessel says Metro has yet to decide on a name for the new S service, but says it will begin on Monday, March 25. An additional bus will arrive at 16th Street and Harvard NW every 12 minutes from 7:30 to 9:15 weekday mornings. A total of nine additional trips will go down 16th Street, then left on I St to 14th Street. Then the buses will head back to Columbia Road NW. The extra capacity will carry between 400 and 500 commuters on a busy morning.
“This issue didn’t just crop up two months ago. We’ve been working on the S line and broader issues related to the S line for more than a year now,” Stessel says. “That said, the relationship we’ve had over the last two months with the ANC has been nothing but constructive.”
“I will take my hat off to Metro,” says Putta. “They were responsive. We worked together on coming up with possible options.”
Still no answer to 16th Street traffic
Putta concedes that while the additional morning rush hour bus service will help move commuters south on 16th Street, the district faces a bigger task in mitigating the corridor’s notorious traffic congestion.
“As with a lot of these long-term solutions, you would need to do a transition so that you would hopefully get less people driving. And of course, the physical limitations of the road are definitely an issue,” says Putta, referring to the possibility of creating a bus-only lane on 16th Street during rush hour.
Metro’s Stessel says the transit authority is working on a solution.
“It’s an ongoing dialogue that we have not only with DDOT but with all of the jurisdictions,” Stessel says. “A major milestone will be achieved about a year from now when we launch what is true BRT (bus rapid transit) in the region for the first time. That will be on the Virginia side of the river in partnership with Alexandria and Arlington.”
The Route 1 Transitway will run buses every six minutes in dedicated lanes from Braddock Road in Arlington north to Crystal City.
“We hope that will spark other jurisdictions to consider, if not true BRT, perhaps traffic signal prioritization or more bus lanes,” says Stessel. “From a public policy perspective, if you have a vehicle that has 50 people in it, that really should get priority over a car that has one person in it.”
Saturday, March 16, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Metro is working on a system that would ease the process of paying for bus or train fare, turning it into a tap of a smart phone or credit card at a turnstile. While such a system would no doubt simplify the transit process for many, it is still years away.
Boarding a Metro bus or train now is a bit like visiting a foreign country, at least in one respect: you have to convert your dollars into Metro currency, either by using a SmarTrip card or a paper fare card. Metro wants to bring its payment system into the 21st century, even if some long-time riders feel the SmarTrip is just fine.
"I think [SmarTrip] was one of the best ideas Metro has ever put into existence since I've been riding the bus, and I've been riding the bus most of my life," says Greg Olden in Columbia Heights.
SmarTrip may have been a great idea at one time, but it costs the transit authority millions annually to maintain. That is why Metro is now accepting bids from tech companies to develop a new system that would let you tap your credit card or mobile phone to pay your fare.
"The way transportation agencies are looking at this market now is, 'Why don't we allow people to use the existing payment options that they have in their pockets, like the credit cards and debit cards they currently carry to make other purchases, and use those to access the transit system?'" says Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of Smart Card Alliance, which advocates modern payment technologies in a variety of industries. "That way, we don't have to inconvenience consumers, nor do we have to maintain the system that converts that money into transit fare dollars."
Vanderhoof says that while a new system would require installing new fare gates and computers, eliminating the cost and services of the SmarTrip system would save WMATA millions every year.
Metro declined to comment on this story because the transit authority is in the final stages of a competitive bidding process to design a new payment system.
Metro hoped to award a contract early last year, but, as The Washington Examiner reported, the process has been delayed a year.
Once that is finally taken care of, it will likely take about three years to phase in a new payment system.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) says the one-two punch of last year’s fare increase coupled with a temporary lull in a tax benefit is behind a six-percent drop in rail ridership during the last half of 2012.
At Thursday’s board meeting, Metro general manager Richard Sarles said Hurricane Sandy, the federal holiday on Christmas Eve and weekend track work were other factors that contributed to fewer riders -- but said the increase in fares was the most significant.
“You saw that especially in the second half of the year,” Sarles said. “With the federal transit benefit being restored, we are seeing in the first month or two ridership going back up to what we expected. Clearly, the federal transit benefit, when it was cut almost in half, had a significant impact on our ridership.”
The provision allowing for $230 a month in tax subsidies for transit riders expired at the end of 2011, reducing the eligible amount to $125. In January Congress returned the federal transit benefit to $240.
Metro is rehabilitating its aging infrastructure as part of a multi-billion dollar capital improvement program. The track work requires closing some stations and single-tracking at others nearly every weekend, although track work will be postponed for the upcoming cherry blossom festival.
While necessary to repair the transit system, weekend track work is the target of endless complaints, and Sarles says it has scared some riders away. “On the weekends there is a decrease is ridership especially when we close down a set of stations for very necessary work,” he said.
Metro is also tracking ridership swings at individual stations. Dupont Circle saw the largest drop in riders entering the system last year, mostly because the station’s south entrance was closed for months for an escalator replacement. Navy Yard on the Green Line, where Nationals fans disembark to watch their favorite baseball team, saw the most growth, according to WMATA figures.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Metro is starting to familiarize its customers with the service changes that will arrive with the opening of the Silver Line out to Reston, Virginia, a suburb west of Washington, D.C., expected by the end of the year.
The first of three open houses took place in Capitol Heights, Md. on Tuesday. "The first question people ask us is, 'When is it going to be here?'" says Metro's Jim Hughes. As he explains, the first phase of the $5.5 billion project is scheduled to open by the end of the year. "Particularly on the Virginia side, they've dealt with the construction for four years. They want it to happen."
The Silver Line has been a big story for a long time, because it will extend rail west into Virginia, eventually to Dulles International Airport and beyond into Loudoun County once Phase II of the rail extension is completed in 2018. Even so, some folks at Metro's open house who live at what will be the eastern end of the Silver Line — Largo Town Center in Maryland — have heard little to nothing at about it.
"I live in Largo and I know that the Silver Line will have an impact on my community," says 65-year-old Yvonne Alston. "And I just wanted to see exactly when it was opening and exactly where it would go."
Hughes, WMATA's director of intermodal planning, is also responsible for making sure there is enough bus service to get Virginia commuters to the four new rail stops that will open in Tysons Corner, where there will be no new parking lots.
The opening of the Silver Line will come at the cost of other Metro lines. It will reduce Blue Line service during rush hour by two trains an hour, or one every twelve minutes. Hughes expects that change to inconvenience 6,000 to 8,000 passengers per day.
"There will also be less service on the Orange Line between Vienna and West Falls Church, the end of the line, where we are expecting a lot of people to switch over to the Silver Line," Hughes says. "So we don't need as much service between those last couple stops."
Two more public meetings on the Silver Line are scheduled. The first is at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 14 at the Reston Community Center in in Reston, Va. The second is at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 16 at the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel in Arlington.
Residents can find out more about these meetings or submit comments online on WMATA's website.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) Downsizing parking is necessary to reduce car dependency in D.C., says one real estate expert.
Chris Leinberger, a George Washington University professor and advocate of new urbanism, says D.C. planners’ proposal to eliminate mandatory parking space minimums at new development in transit-rich corridors or downtown D.C. is forward-thinking.
“We don’t want to be in a position where we are still making buggy whips when in fact the market has moved on,” Leinberger said. “Bike lanes and pedestrian activity is a sign of civilization."
Since TN first reported on the proposed zoning change, some motorists have expressed frustration with the possibility it may be more difficult to park in certain neighborhoods. As new development – residential, retail, and office – attracts more residents, shoppers and workers, some motorists believe parking spaces may be tough to find if developers opt not to build underground garages beneath their buildings.
One reason D.C. planners believe new parking structures will not be needed is the growth of car sharing services, like Car2Go, that make car ownership unnecessary.
Car2Go, which charges users $.38 per minute, is marking its first anniversary in Washington this month. The company says it has 19,000 registered customers in Washington who have taken 350,000 collective trips in the past year.
Leinberger says car sharing services reflect D.C.'s transition to a walkable urban environment that provides options like bike sharing, too.
“If you were to say, certainly ten years ago, but even five years ago that we would have in this city and fifty percent of folks go to work without a car and that forty percent of the households do not have a car, they would have had you committed,” Leinberger said.
Less emphasis on parking spaces also makes fiscal sense, he added.
“We are massively subsidizing the car, massively. All these parking spaces… here in downtown D.C., every one of these parking spaces is worth between $50,000 and $70,000. And we are charging as if they’re worth $10,000,” he said.
What motorists pay to park, either on the street with a residential pass or inside an underground garage, doesn’t come close to the expense of constructing and maintaining the parking spaces.
In his view, motorists will adjust to whatever zoning changes are approved, no matter how unreasonable they may now seem. Alternatives to driving and parking – Metro rail and bus, car sharing, bicycling – are gaining steam.
“If the car drivers are saying, give me everything that I want before you peel my fingers off of the steering wheel, you are not going to get it. You couldn’t build the interstate highway system in a year. It’s going to take time,” Leinberger said.