Wednesday, January 23, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The agency that runs Dulles and Reagan National airports is being sued by one of its former officials.
George Ellis, a former vice president at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, has filed a $10 million defamation suit, claiming the authority breached a severance agreement attached to his controversial departure last April.
MWAA is responsible for overseeing the ongoing construction of the $5.6 billion Dulles rail link, one of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects in the nation. Last year the MWAA board came under federal scrutiny for unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices.
Ellis claims the authority told federal auditors he was fired. He disputed that charge, saying he actually retired with benefits.
An audit by the Department of Transportation's inspector general alleged that Ellis -- who was referred to by title, not name, in the report -- and members of his MWAA staff accepted more than 25 free trips from a company with a major contract with the authority, as well as expensive gifts and Super Bowl tickets.
MWAA is not commenting on the lawsuit.
Ellis denies any wrongdoing and claims senior executives tried to make him a scapegoat for the bad publicity generated by the audit.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
By Kate Hinds
Monday's inauguration went off without any serious hitches. Sure, there's some Tuesday morning quarterbacking. It turned out that Beyoncé lip-synched the national anthem. Michelle Obama might have directed a sarcastic look at John Boehner during the post-inauguration luncheon. That could be a Supreme Court justice nodding off during the proceedings.
But the District's Department of Transportation (DDOT) couldn't have been happier.
"See that?! See that?! NO, not that great coat, the bike lanes!!!" the agency tweeted, referring to a photo of the First Couple walking on the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes.
The photo, which was circulated by the First Lady's Twitter account, quickly made waves among bike advocates.
"One of the things that we were most proud about was that the inaugural parade was the chance to show off our bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue," said DDOT spokesman John Lisle. The lane, which was installed in 2010, did not exist during the last inauguration.
Lisle added that about 600 bikes were parked in the DDOT's bike corrals and bike parking lots as well -- a lower number than the 1,000 bikes parked during the 2009 presidential inauguration -- but then again, Capital Bikeshare didn't yet exist.
As it turned out, fewer people rode Capital Bikeshare than expected. According to Lisle, there were 4,572 total trips on Inauguration Day -- but 5,772 the day before.
Meanwhile: D.C.'s Metrorail recorded 779,787 trips during the 2013 inauguration. That's about 70% of the ridership reached during the 2009 inauguration.
The transit agency chalked up the lower crowds to Monday's federal holiday, which cut down on work commuters.
(with reporting from Martin DiCaro)
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood expressed optimism a federal loan would be approved to help finance the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project, funding that would help slow down projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road.
“This is one of the first [projects] under the new TIFIA loan program that was passed by Congress in transportation bill, which gave us an enormous amount of money, almost $2 billion over the next two years,” LaHood said. “I would say right now things look good.”
Tolls on the Dulles Toll Road are currently set to finance roughly half the Silver Line’s cost.
After swearing in two federally appointed members to the board of directors of the agency that oversees the Silver Line’s construction, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, LaHood praised the authority’s work to overhaul its ethics, hiring, and contracting practices. Last year an audit by the Department of Transportation revealed a litany of shady dealings at MWAA.
“Since then MWAA has done everything that we have asked them to do,” LaHood said. “That included passing new travel and ethics policy for its board and staff, terminated contracts with former board members and employees that are not competitively bid, adopt employment and nepotism restrictions, improve board transparency, began to make quarterly acquisition reports and forecasts to the [U.S. DOT], and approve an amendment to the lease with DOT to give us oversight of MWAA policies and procedures permanently.”
This progress is a factor in determining whether MWAA will receive a loan through the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program.
Last year Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D) said he expected the loan could amount to 25 to 30 percent of the project’s cost. When asked on Wednesday how large a TIFIA loan would be for the Silver Line, LaHood declined to speculate, and he offered no estimate on when the final decision would be made.
“You’re the only one that would really care about that, and I’m not going to get into the details about the loan application,” LaHood said. “We are working with MWAA on this and as soon as we finalize the work we will announce what percent we’re going to give and how much money it involves.”
Drivers who use the Dulles Toll Road also care about how much funding the Silver Line may receive. Additional funding would bring down the projected toll rates, currently scheduled to rise over the next four decades.
Tolls on the road increased on January 1. The full, one-way toll increased by 50 cents to $2.75. To the commuter who takes the road every day, that will amount to an extra $260 in 2013. The tolls are scheduled to increase again in January 2014 by another 75 cents.
MWAA CEO Jack Potter said he’s also optimistic MWAA would receive the additional funding.
“We are working very closely with the Department of Transportation, Loudoun County, Fairfax County to put our application in and we are very positive of a good outcome,” Potter said. “I’d like to get as much as we possibly can.”
Potter has been lobbying for more state funding. Virginia lawmakers have approved only $150 million for the Silver Line so far. On Monday Potter met Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton as well as a group of lawmakers who control the purse strings in Richmond.
“I am very much focused on output. The output is dollars coming to the rail project,” Potter said. “How the Commonwealth generates those dollars is strictly Commonwealth business. I am strictly focused on the output of $300 million dollars or more that could come to the rail project.”
In a major transportation funding plan unveiled earlier this month, Governor Bob McDonnell proposed using sales taxes revenues to provide $300 million for the Silver Line over three years. That plan, however, is expected to face opposition in the General Assembly among lawmakers who say the rail project should not compete for general fund revenues normally used to pay for education and public safety.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
No matter your mode of transportation to the second inauguration of President Barack Obama you will have to do a lot of walking, as D.C.'s police force will establish a large “hard perimeter” around the parade route closed to vehicular travel and bicycles. (A map of the restricted area is here.)
Before you begin to hoof it, however, the easiest way to get close to the National Mall may be on a bicycle. Bicycling advocates expect thousands of people to pedal into downtown D.C. on Monday morning, and DDOT is taking steps to accommodate them.
For starters, there will be a large bicycle parking area established at 16th Street and I Street NW starting at 7 a.m.
“That’s going to hold about 700 bikes but you are going to want to bring your own lock. It’s not valet parking but it will be supervised all day,” said DDOT planner Jim Sebastian.
As for Capital Bikeshare, there will be two special docking areas – corrals – that will accept an unlimited number of bikes: at Farragut Square in Northwest and at the USDA building at 12th Street and Independence Avenue Southwest.
“It’s essentially a bottomless station where you can come down and not have to worry about there being an empty space,” Sebastian said.
Starting today six bike share stations along the inaugural parade route will be temporarily dismantled. To make up for the closed stations, CaBi will open a temporary corral to accept bikes. You can see the list here.
For bicycling advocates, Monday presents an opportunity to show how much progress D.C. has made in becoming a bike-friendly city.
"This is going to be the first year that we have bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue during an inauguration, so President Obama is going to be riding down Pennsylvania Ave. and those bike lanes are going to be in all those photos,” said Greg Billing at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “This is a great time for us to show off to the nation that D.C. is a bike city and that we are setting an example that other cities around the country can follow.”
Remember the kerfuffle over bike share stations on the National Mall? Take a trip to March 2012 here.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
(Michael Pope, Alexandria Virginia -- WAMU) What happens when the principles of smart growth collide with transit planning? That's the case on Jefferson Davis Highway in Alexandria, where a new affordable housing complex is planned, but it comes saddled with a paid parking lot.
Land-use attorney Duncan Blair presented the application to council members as an unusual sort of "Easter egg."
"Probably this is the number one issue in the city," Blair says. "It's the number one issue on the campaign trail. So I'm like the Easter Bunny bringing you exactly what you want, which is 78 new units of affordable housing for a 60-year period."
But some neighbors say this is a case of rotten eggs.
"Duncan, why does the Easter Bunny have to park his car on East Lynhaven Drive?" asks Joe Bondi, president of Lynhaven Citizens Association.
He and many of his neighbors are concerned about the city's decision to separate parking fees from rent. The idea is to discourage the use of automobiles, but Lynhaven residents say they are concerned the new residents will park on the street.
"The choices that people make who will live in this building are different than the choices that people make who live in market-rate buildings," Bondi says.
Alexandria's two new council members opposed the city s efforts to charge extra for parking. Councilman John Taylor Chapman says many of the lower income residents who live in the building may not be able to use the bus rapid transit system to get to work.
"Maybe they are a school teacher, and maybe they don't work in Alexandria," Chapman says. "Maybe they work in Fairfax or Loudoun County or wherever. Our BRT is not going to get them to their job. They are going to need a car."
Chapman and newly-elected Vice Mayor Allision Silberberg voted against the proposal, but a majority of elected officials sided with the developer's plan to charge separately for parking and rent.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A coalition of homeowners groups is ready to celebrate a victory in defeating a proposal to build a highway through the last sliver of nature still standing in the concrete jungle of Tysons Corner, Virginia.
Today the transportation committee of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is expected to kill a plan to build a road down the middle of Old Courthouse Spring Branch Park, a 33-acre green space, the last buffer between urban development and hundreds of single family homes.
The park is a border between two urban environments. As shown in this satellite imagery, the city meets the park like a tide of concrete at the shores of nature. On the other side of the narrow park, it's orderly suburbs laid out like a microchip. Two ways of living protected from each other by forest, a forest it seems, both sides want to keep.
The board is responding to the protests of the group Save Tysons Last Forest, which pleaded with county transportation planners and supervisors to pick one of the other two options under consideration; the proposed highway is part of the county’s plan to enhance the road network around Tysons Corner as its population is expected to increase dramatically over the next several decades to 100,000 people.
“I think we are going to win, although you never know. It’s never done until it’s done, but we are very confident that the county supervisors, the congressional delegation, everyone has looked at this and said, we can’t destroy this,” said Tom Salvetti, who lives next to the park, where he walks his German Shepherd Kelsey daily.
One reason why Salvetti and his neighbors love Tysons “last forest” is its abundance of wildlife. A WAMU reporter walking the park’s leafy trails with Salvetti on Monday spotted a small herd of deer.
“And there are at least four bucks in these woods as well,” said Salvetti, who said he regularly sees fox, turtles, aquatic birds, woodpeckers, and other creatures near the forest’s stream which runs underneath Pike 7 Plaza and all the way to the Potomac.
“Having woods here in Tysons Corner is very important. Walk around Tysons. It’s all concrete and this is green space. This is dirt. This is nature,” he said.
Neighbor Lance Medric praised county leaders for listening to the complaints of residents, more than 600 of whom signed a petition, who opposed the highway plan.
“It means saving the few last trees that are still around. Everybody talks about it but it’s a lot easier to get rid of them. And this is a natural barrier between thousands of single family homes and a city,” he said.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors are expected to take the proposal to build the connection to the Dulles Toll Road through the forest off the table today. The ramp would have connected the Toll Road to an extended Boone Boulevard.
Friday, January 11, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Here's a strategy for growth. Build new housing where the action is. And that means around transit lines.
In the Washington D.C. area, regional planners have mapped out nearly 140 "activity centers" around the capital that they say should be the focus of future job and population growth.
An activity center is a densely-built housing, office, and retail space located on a major transportation corridor. Many of the 139 dots on the map unanimously approved by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments are located within D.C. city limits; others branch out into Maryland and Virginia along existing and future Metro lines.
It's a suggested guide for future growth mapped in stipple and meant to guide the coming population growth to areas like Mary Hynes' neighborhod. Hynes is vice chairman of the council's Region Forward coalition and resident of an activity center. "I live a block from the Clarendon Metro," she says. "The practical effect is I get in my car about once a week. I can walk to grocery stores or I can walk to the dry cleaner. I can walk to my job or take a bus to my job. It s a great quality of life."
While Arlington County is well known for building mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods around Metro stations, other places are catching up. Prince George's County has 15 Metro stations, but some are undeveloped.
"By focusing growth around those Metro stations, we will be able to receive some return on that investment and we will build on an infrastructure that already exists," says Al Dobbins, the county's Deputy Planning Director. "That precludes the need to go out and build even more transportation infrastructure."
The activity centers map was drafted in 2002 and last updated in 2007.
Wednesday, January 09, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Virginia would become the first state in the country to eliminate its gasoline tax if a major transportation funding plan proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell (R) is approved by the General Assembly.
Revenue from the state gas tax of 17.5 cents per gallon, last raised by lawmakers in 1986, would be replaced by an increase in the state sales tax. That rate is currently 5 percent; the governor wants to raise it to 5.8 percent.
McDonnell’s proposal would also increase by half the portion of the sales tax already dedicated to road maintenance and operations. However, during the first three years, that tax would provide $300 million for the Silver Line rail project to Dulles International Airport -- a $5.5 billion project that Virginia has funded only $150 million to date.
“Transportation is a core function of government. Children can’t get to school; parents waste too much time in traffic; and businesses can’t move their goods without an adequate and efficient transportation system,” said McDonnell at an afternoon news conference, flanked by members of the General Assembly who will dissect his sweeping proposals during the 45-day legislative session.
If lawmakers pass the governor’s entire plan, which also includes higher vehicles registration fees and a $100 charge on electric and natural gas vehicles, Virginia would receive more than $3 billion over five years to fund road construction and transit development, including intercity passenger rail.
A primary aim of the funding package is to stop the yearly transfer of construction dollars from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund to required maintenance projects, a process that will leave the fund empty by the end of the decade.
“My transportation funding and reform package is intended to address the short and long-term transportation funding needs of the Commonwealth. Declining funds for infrastructure maintenance, stagnant motor fuels tax revenues, increased demand for transit and passenger rail, and the growing cost of major infrastructure projects necessitate enhancing and restructuring the Commonwealth’s transportation program,” McDonnell said.
The governor has indicated in recent weeks that the state gasoline tax’s diminishing returns minimizes its effectiveness in raising new revenues. Higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards, among other factors, have eaten into the tax’s buying power. The 17.5 cents per gallon tax currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, although the tax has lost 55 percent of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation since 1986, the last time it was raised.
Instead of raising the tax or pegging it to annual inflation adjustments, the governor wants to eliminate it, although the state diesel tax would remain in place. Virginia would then abandon a fundamental premise of transportation funding: motorists who use the roads pay for the roads in the form of taxes.
“If this were adopted it would mean there would be no relationship to the extent to which people use the transportation network and what they actually pay for it," said Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which favors road construction as a solution to traffic congestion.
"It's a dramatic proposal to shift funding from the gas tax to the sales tax, and we're going to have to look at what it means when you disconnect the tax from the actual use of the roadways,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and frequent critic of the McDonnell administration’s funding priorities.
The General Assembly has for years evaded the responsiblity of injecting significant new tax revenue into transportation. While all observers agree the state’s needs total in the billions, there is no consensus on the best way forward. To Schwartz, prioritizing road construction amounts to squandering precious funds that could be used to develop public transit systems.
"Instead of addressing metropolitan area needs, the administration is spending $1.2 billion on Rt. 460, $200 to $400 million on the Charlottesville Bypass, and proposing to spend billions on the Coalfields Expressway and an estimated $2 billion on a Northern Virginia outer beltway,” he said.
Tuesday, January 08, 2013
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. - WAMU) More than two years after adopting a plan to modernize Tysons Corner, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will decide Tuesday night whether to raise real estate taxes to help pay for the area's new transportation grid.
Both businesses and residential properties in Tysons Corner would be taxed to raise $250 million over 40 years to help pay for road improvements to accommodate expected population and job growth. Although commercial real estate developers are not objecting to the creation of this special tax district — they will benefit most from Tysons' growth — residential property owners are very unhappy.
While the board had contemplated making residential property owners exempt from the new taxes, that may not actually be possible, says Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova.
"We were all a little bit surprised when we discovered that wasn't a possibility because of recent legislation at the state level," Bulova says.
At least one Virginia state lawmaker says he will introduce legislation to exempt residential properties or allow them to pay a lower tax rate. Bulova believes that would make it fair for apartment dwellers who don't stand to financially gain from future economic growth around the four planned Silver Line Metro stops in Tysons.
"If you are an existing residential homeowner, you are not going to be able to redevelop your property and you are not going to see the same kind of benefit as a developer," Bulova says.
The $250 million in new taxes is part of a total $2.3 billion needed to build a multi-modal transportation grid at Tysons Corner, county lawmakers say. Planners expect 100,000 people to live and 200,000 to work in Tysons Corner by 2050.
Monday, December 31, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The Washington D.C. metropolitan region saw major developments in transportation that included progress toward completing the largest public rail project in the country, the opening of a new highway on the Beltway, and an update on D.C.’s coming streetcar system. 2012 also raised questions critical to the region’s economic future. In a region plagued by some of the worst highway traffic congestion in the nation and a public rail system crowded to capacity, how can transportation planners and real estate developers maximize the region’s economic potential in a climate of finite funding for major projects.
1) The Silver Line
When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors gave final approval to the county’s involvement in the $5.5 billion project that will connect D.C. to Dulles International Airport, lawmakers removed the last major obstacle to completing the Metro rail line by 2018. Outstanding issues remain, however. The most controversial issue is the Silver Line’s financing plan, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Without further federal or Virginia state funding, motorists on the Dulles Toll Road will cover half the Silver Line’s costs.
2) I-495 Express Lanes
A new highway is big news in this region. After six years of construction, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes opened on Nov. 17 on the 495 Beltway between the Dulles Toll Road and the I-95 interchange in Fairfax County. Drivers using the HOT lanes may get a faster ride, but the project raised questions about the wisdom of highway expansion as a method of solving congestion as well as the pitfalls of funding megaprojects: without the public-private partnership between Virginia and the international road building company Transurban, the road would not be built. Virginia gets a $2 billion road, and Transurban gets the toll revenues for 75 years.
3) Transit and Gentrification
Washington, D.C. is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the United States. While rising property values, economic development, and a growing number of residents living a car-free existence are transforming the District for the better, gentrification has its costs.
4) The Uber Battle for the Ages
After months of contention, the D.C. Council finally approved legislation legalizing the popular sedan car service Uber. This battle was strange -- and it got personal. Legislators and regulators seemed to tie themselves in knots figuring out to handle the unregulated Uber while the district’s own taxicab industry struggled to modernize. In the end Uber won. And so did smartphone-using, taxicab-hailing residents of D.C.
5) MWAA’s woes
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates two major airports, rarely caught the public’s attention. But after the authority took control of the Silver Line, however, the public’s attention intensified – and not for good reasons. Audits by the U.S. Department of Transportation and news reports unearthed a litany of shady contracting, hiring, and travel policies and practices. Critics have relentlessly pressed for changes to the plan to raise tolls significantly to pay for the Silver Line. MWAA is making changes but has not yet recovered the public’s trust.
Friday, December 21, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
This is the second of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 1)
To elected officials and Virginia transportation planners, Dulles International Airport is an untapped well of economic growth. However, maximizing its potential will necessitate major improvements of the surrounding road network. That includes completion of a “north-south” corridor which is now in the conceptual stages.
On Dec. 12 the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unveiled its intentions to pursue development of airport properties, including 400 acres on Dulles’ western side and sixteen acres around the future Rt. 606 stop of the Silver Line. The goal is to enhance the airport's industrial capacity as a freight hub.
“We are the only airport on the east coast with that kind of land available to us for development purposes. Cargo is down at Dulles right now, but it is down because of the economic uncertainty in Europe,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn). “The problem we have today is there is no easy access from the airport. The only access we have today is Rt. 28 and 28 is very limited.”
At their monthly board meeting, MWAA officials emphasized the importance of both expanding the Dulles Loop – Routes 606, 28, and 50 – and eventually connecting it to the north-south corridor. Studies to expand all three roadways are underway.
MWAA CEO Jack Potter indicated the agency would take a cautious approach to development.
“We do not want to make an investment either at Rt. 606 or in the western lands to put a lot of infrastructure in there. We are not going to build something and hope that somebody comes,” he said during a presentation to the MWAA board.
Elected officials in Loudoun County who support the “north-south corridor” concept see Dulles as a key to future economic growth and the roads it will require as relief for traffic-weary commuters.
"Anybody who lives in Loudoun County knows that more road capacity is necessary,” said Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles). “Keeping roads small doesn't prevent growth from happening.”
Environmental groups opposed to the construction of a multi-lane, divided highway west of Dulles Airport question whether the expansion of freight is the right goal.
“There are only so many pounds of freight that you can move on an airplane in an economical way. I think it is less than one-tenth of one percent of freight in Virginia comes by air. It is going to be an important economic activity but it is not the major way to move freight in the United States,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
In his view, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Northern Virginia master plan and MWAA’s development ideas amount to a move in the wrong direction, toward sprawl-inducing road expansions that could undermine the ongoing investment in the Silver Line rail project, scheduled for completion in 2018.
“I think the people who move west of Dulles Airport aren’t looking for another interstate highway with trucks on it to serve their neighborhood,” Miller said.
Miller uses the term “outer beltway” to describe the north-south corridor concept, a term that chafes supporters.
“If you want to unlock the potential of our economic engines – and Dulles is the biggest economic engine that we have in Northern Virginia – you’ve got to be able to tie it back to the other industries. If you look on the other side of the river, we have a large biotech industry in the I-270 corridor,” said Supervisor Buona.
“If you are able to create a [transportation] link between that industry and the IT and government contracting set, and that link connects to the airport, what you’ve done is create a corridor of commerce. You have not created an outer beltway,” he added.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
This is the first of a two-part series on plans to expand Northern Virginia’s road network and freight capacity of Dulles International Airport. (Part 2)
In a massive undertaking that would transform the face of Northern Virginia, state transportation planners are unveiling plans to create a “north-south corridor of statewide significance.” Some are calling it a potential beginning of an "outer Beltway," others say it's essential infrastructure for the region's economy. Critics call it a big waste of money, unnecessary and poorly planned.
The proposal would add a path between I-95 in Prince William County to Route 7 in Loudoun County, arcing west of Dulles International Airport and connecting to I-66, Rt. 50, and the Dulles Greenway.
Neither the exact route of a new highway, the cost, nor the number of lanes has been decided, but the agency’s objective is coming into focus: to dramatically expand Northern Virginia's road capacity to benefit commerce, namely the growth of Dulles Airport into the east coast's largest freight hub.
“I'm concerned that they are going to build a road at six lanes going 60 miles an hour much like the Beltway or Highway 28. They are going to need to do four lanes and they will have to slow it down,” said South Riding, Virginia resident Todd Sipe, who pointed out his home on a map of one of the proposed corridor routes at the first of two public open houses on Tuesday night. “I believe nothing is settled yet. They are collecting public comment now.”
Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation greeted residents inside a high school cafeteria in Loudoun County filled with maps, charts, and bullet points about a regional master plan that is still in its conceptual stages.
“It seems to be more aimed at industry and transporting freight to Dulles Airport,” said Sterling resident Bill Roman. “In terms of our needs here in the county, people commute east-west mostly, not north-south. There are no north-south issues.”
“I think the state could spend its money in much more effective ways. The way this is shown right now, it ends on Rt. 7. That isn’t the place where you can end a road like this,” said Emily Southgate of Middleburg, referring to mounting pressure to extend a corridor north of Rt. 7 in the form of a new Potomac River crossing, an idea supported by Virginia state officials but not by their counterparts in Maryland.
One lawmaker who conceptually supports the creation of the corridor is convinced additional highway capacity would help commuters. Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) says concerns about a sprawl-inducing new highway could be addressed by limiting access, building fewer exits and entrances.
“When you talk about limiting access you have two main benefits,” he said. “It makes it easier to privatize the road to get it paid for, which is what I think VDOT is primarily interested in. The other benefit is that you can limit development in areas that are undeveloped."
In Letourneau’s view, new housing development is coming to Loudoun County, so the board of supervisors has to responsibly accommodate it.
VDOT officials say a limited-access highway that improves access to Dulles Airport and incorporates HOV lanes and bus lanes would serve the most people.
“We are going to work the best transportation system that we can and meet the needs of the public. There has to be political consensus to do that,” said Garrett Moore, VDOT’s Northern Virginia District Administrator. “We can limit access. One of the things we'd like to do is get predictable and fast transport, additional capacity and carpools to include express and bus rapid transit.”
Some environmental groups are adamantly opposed to building a north-south highway west of Dulles Airport, especially if it would absorb any property on the periphery of the Manassas battlefield.
“In the context of our limited resources in Virginia, this is one of the worst expenditures we could make,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “The fact that it might be a public-private partnership doesn't change that analysis.”
Building through a public-private partnership would likely mean new tolls on the highway. To Miller, VDOT’s plans amount to an “outer beltway” that would lead to new development in 100,000 acres of farm land and rural subdivisions.
“There’s a big choice this region is going to make over the next ten years,” Miller added. “Are we going to take advantage of the investment in the Silver Line, or are we going to allow development to occur in this large 100,000 acre range from I-66 to Rt. 7 west of the airport. We don’t think it is inevitable. The McDonnell administration is encouraging sprawl by encouraging this highway.”
The second part of this series deals with Dulles as a freight hub.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
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Tuesday, December 18, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The agency managing the construction of the $5.5 billion Silver Line rail project in Northern Virginia spent more than a million dollars in legal fees in two lawsuits defending one of its board members in a battle with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.
In a confidential memo obtained by WAMU 88.5, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board details the $1.5 million in legal fees spent defending Dennis Martire, a labor union official who agreed to resign from the MWAA board of directors in September.
In June the McDonnell administration tried to oust Martire from the board. He sued to keep his seat, and the airports authority agreed to reimburse his legal expenses. He was reimbursed $855,000, according to the memo.
In an interview with WAMU, Martire said he was entitled to legal assistance under MWAA policy.
“We have an indemnification policy that every board member has the right to due process and every board member has the right to face their accusers if you are accused of anything,” said Martire, who drew intense criticism after it was revealed he had spent $38,000 traveling to five conferences while MWAA director.
In his view, however, Martire was targeted for political reasons: the McDonnell administration wanted greater control of the MWAA board.
“The governor was removing me for booking a plane ticket two weeks before a trip, and we spent $1.5 million dollars of MWAA money to defend that case. It's ludicrous,” Martire said. “There is a movement afoot to make it an all-Virginia board. There is a movement afoot to create a Republican-dominated board.”
The confidential memo says the airports authority also spent $360,000 to defend itself and one of its top officials, and nearly $200,000 was spent defending three other board members – Rusty Conner, Todd Stottlemyer, and former Va. Congressman Tom Davis – who were subpoenaed during the litigation.
MWAA chief counsel Phil Sunderland did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
MWAA Legal Fees
Friday, December 14, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The first three streetcars to roll downs tracks in the District of Columbia since 1962 will be ready for testing next spring, DDOT officials said at a news briefing on Thursday.
The district is building a track in Anacostia to test its streetcars with the goal of launching them into service late next year or early 2014 on the planned H Street/Benning Road corridor, a two-mile, ten-stop segment of a planned 22-mile trolley system that will take five to eight years to complete -- barring further delays.
“From a safety standpoint, we have to start what we call burning in the cars, to get them used to the traffic systems,” said DDOT chief engineer Nick Nicholson. “We have to make sure everything, especially the emergency response, is working well. Sometime after that we complete that burn-in period and get a safety certification, we will begin revenue service.”
Fares and operating hours have not been decided, but officials said they are looking into seamless fare payment technologies, including using Metro’s SmarTrip cards. The final pieces of infrastructure have to be completed, too, on H Street/Benning Road.
“You will start seeing us build our switches in so we can switch the cars from track to track. You will see power plants starting to come in to run the cars. You will see the upgrades of the overhead wires and reinforcement of the Hopscotch Bridge to be a stop for the streetcar and we will build a maintenance facility,” said DDOT director Terry Bellamy.
Between now and the day the first passengers climb into a D.C. streetcar in fifty years, DDOT will employ a public awareness campaign to help businesses in the emerging H Street corridor.
“We think pedestrians will probably be used to streetcars because they are used to buses. Our real concern is the automobile driver, because he is used to having the road to himself,” Nicholson said. “Those cars in the district that like to double (park) or just stop and wait, in a streetcar path they're going have to move on.”
Nicholson said delivery trucks will have to alter their schedules or find alleyways to idle because the fixed-rail streetcar system cannot swing around them like buses. The streetcars will flow from the H Street’s median to pick up passengers outside the parking lane.
The district’s ambitious vision for a trolley system that will help residents and visitors efficiently move within the city, as opposed to Metro’s outside commuter-oriented design, foresees streetcars crossing east-west from Benning Road to Georgetown and from Buzzard’s Point to Anacostia, and north-south from Takoma to Buzzard’s Point.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has pointed to the transformation of Portland, Oregon by a new streetcar line as a model of economic growth, and district officials are depending on the H Street/Benning Road line to increase property values and enhance shopping and entertainment options in the corridor.
Progress may have a cost. A study by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University found that neighborhoods that get new rail transit systems like streetcars experience a significant increase in housing prices -- leading to renters and low-income households getting priced out.
In a prior series, WAMU examined the relationship between transit and gentrification in D.C.’s Ward 7, where a plan to extend the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line east of the Anacostia River is under consideration.
To learn more, check out D.C. Streetcar's latest media briefing here.
Thursday, December 06, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell offered no specifics in his “comprehensive transportation funding and reform” plan to raise an additional $500 million per year to prevent the state from running out of money to build roads by 2017.
Speaking in Fairfax County at his annual transportation conference, Governor McDonnell called on lawmakers to stay in session next year until they find a solution to Virginia’s long-term funding woes, which are exacerbated by the transfer of money from the state’s construction fund to required highway maintenance projects.
“I don’t think we can wait any longer,” McDonnell said. “I don’t think I can continue to recruit businesses to Virginia and see the unemployment rate go down unless we are able to get a handle on and provide some long-term solutions this session to that problem.”
The Republican governor, who is one year from leaving office, did not specify what he will ask lawmakers for when they convene in Richmond in January.
“I’ll tell you when we’re ready… before the session,” the governor said in brief remarks to reporters following his speech. “These are plans that take a lot of work to put together.”
He refused to take a position on whether the state’s gas tax should be increased, although he indicated that doing so alone would not generate adequate revenue. The tax of seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon, which currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, was last increased in 1986. It has lost 55% of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation.
Improved automobile fuel efficiency and the rising costs of highway construction materials have reduced the gas tax’s buying power, McDonnell said.
“A key ingredient of asphalt has increased by approximately 350% over that same time,” he said.
Critics contend the McDonnell administration cannot be trusted to direct new revenues wisely. One of the most vocal critics points to a record of highway construction instead of transit projects as evidence, especially from the $4 billion dollar package approved for the administration by the legislature.
“He squandered most of that,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s gone to rural highway projects that have very low traffic demand and are not high priorities given the traffic congestion within northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”
Schwartz listed State Rt. 460 in southern Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway, bypasses in Charlottesville, and plans for an “outer beltway” in northern Virginia as examples of poor spending priorities by the administration, while transit projects like the Silver Line Metro rail and existing roads like I-66 need help.
“They are not targeting the areas of greatest need. You are not getting the best bang for your buck. You are spending a few billion dollars on the wrong things,” said Schwartz.
New revenues would likely be directed to construction projects under the state’s transportation trust fund, which currently loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually to required maintenance. The trust fund’s formula directs fifteen percent of its monies to transit projects. The remainder is for road building.
Governor McDonnell denied his administration is neglecting transit and other modes of transportation. “It’s going to be a multi-modal approach. Road, rail, and mass transit, all of those will be beneficiaries of a funding plan,” he said.
Wednesday, December 05, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) A state project with federal money is meeting with local opposition, in a sign that construction and infrastructure expansion often sparks not-in-my-backyard resistance. A homeowners group in a Washington, D.C. suburb says studies performed by traffic and environmental analysts it hired show the construction of a highway ramp near their homes will ruin their quality of life.
Members of Concerned Residents of Overlook, an upscale community adjacent to I-395 in Alexandria, Va., pleaded with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Tuesday night to support their request that the Virginia Department of Transportation suspend construction of the ramp, which is the planned northern terminus of the future 95 Express Lanes, 30 miles of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes extending from the Edsall Road area in Fairfax County to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The $1 billion public-private project is scheduled for completion in December 2014.
“VDOT has usurped its responsibility. It has provided only a regional analysis of the impact of pollutants and traffic congestion. They haven't evaluated the public health risk to the residents,” Sue Okubo, an Overlook resident, told the board.
“This ramp, if it goes through as proposed, will bring major congestion as well as major amounts of pollution,” said Mary Hasty, Okubo’s neighbor.
The county supervisor who represents their neighborhood, Penelope Gross, rebuffed their plea, telling them to contact VDOT because it is a state project on state property, although staff of Board Chairman Sharon Bulova briefly met privately with Okubo to listen to her concerns.
The Overlook group claims VDOT failed to adequately study noise and air quality impacts that will result when traffic exits the new express lanes onto I-395 or local roads. The neighbors fear exiting highway traffic will back up and idle on the exit ramp.
“Our experts say that they will be standing for extended periods of time. That’s going to cause a concentration of pollutants that well exceeds EPA standards for safety for humans,” Hasty said. “One of the pollutants exceeds EPA standards by four-thousand percent.”
Concerned Residents of Overlook hired the national law firm of Shrader & Associates to manage their independent analyses. Shrader has litigated cases involving plaintiffs who claimed they were harmed by toxic chemicals and dangerous products.
The Virginia Department of Transportation has denied that it failed to adequately study the environmental impacts on the 95 Express Lanes project.
“It would be very difficult to make a change at this point having gone through a lot of the studies and approvals at the state, regional, and federal levels,” said John Lynch, VDOT’s regional transportation director for Virginia megaprojects, in a prior interview.
“We went through the federal requirements and developed an environmental assessment which includes analysis for both noise and air quality,” Lynch said. “The bottom line is those studies met all the federal requirements and it was reviewed by both the Federal Highway Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. We wouldn’t have gotten approval to move forward with this project if it didn’t meet those requirements.”
Wednesday, December 05, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) The battle between Uber the taxi hailing app and the District of Columbia is over.
After clashing for months over proposed regulations that Uber's CEO once claimed would cripple his business, the D.C. Council voted Tuesday to approve legislation creating a sedan class of vehicles-for-hire – separate from taxis – that will allow Uber to charge its customers fares based on distance and time as "digital dispatch" vehicles.
D.C. had been one of the more drawn out and contentious efforts to expand for Uber, and that says a lot. Uber has taken a confrontational approach to growing it's business from it's start in San Francisco a few years ago. Chicago sued the company for violating local regulations on pricing disclosure and safety. San Francisco has fined the company for breaking regulations on driver insurance. This summer Boston issued a cease and desist order to Uber. New York chased the company out of it's iconic yellow cabs saying it violated safety regulations among others. Taxi unions in several cities have also filed suit against the upstart tech company.
The D.C. ruling isn't likely a harbinger of amity between those other cities and Uber. The D.C. council created a separate class of cab that can use Uber. Official metered city taxi cab drivers still can't use the app to snag passengers. New York, for example, already has such a category for non-metered livery cars that are permitted to use Uber all they want.
The ruling is, however, is certain to embolden Uber's confrontational growth strategy.
“Today was a fantastic victory for Uber but also for innovation, for our consumers here, and the drivers that partner with us,” said Rachel Holt, Uber’s general manager in Washington, D.C. She thanked customers for helping convince the council as well as the District’s taxi cab commissioner to back away from more stringent regulations CEO Travis Kalanick once described as “from the draconian to the inane.”
“It's not about anything we did or won. I think what really won was that the fact that we have a passionate consumer base here,” she said. Over the past several months Uber customers flooded council members with complaints about proposals that threatened the company’s business model.
Uber’s black sedans are not hailed on the street. Instead, customers use Uber's smart phone app to order a car to their location using the phone’s GPS and pay with a registered credit card number.
The new legislation requires greater pricing transparency.
Tuesday, December 04, 2012
(Armando Trull - Washington, D.C., WAMU) A lack of parts is putting the brakes on the expansion of the Capital Bikeshare program in the District, according to a District Department of Transportation official.
Existing plans to add 54 bike share stations this fall will likely come up short, department spokesman John Lisle told The Washington Post, because they have not been able to get all the needed equipment from a supplier.
The system, launched in 2010 in the District, Arlington and Alexandria, has about 175 stations. It has struggled to keep up with demand at times.
The expansion delay has also raised questions about whether supplier Alta Bicycle Share can keep up with growing demand from cities for bike share programs. New York City's bike share program, which will also be operated by Alta, has been delayed due to software problems, as has Chicago's program. Meanwhile, Alta picked up another big contract earlier this year: it will be the vendor for Portland's bike share. And in the D.C. region, Maryland's Montgomery County unanimously approved measures to expand bike share, most of which is expected to integrate with Capital Bikeshare.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Almost 80% of bike crashes on Pennsylvania Avenue -- home to the city's only center bike lane -- are caused by cars making U-turns. But until recently, there was some confusion over whether the maneuver was illegal or not.
Earlier this month, DCist reported there were apparent inconsistencies in D.C. law regarding when and where U-turns are permissible.
On Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray ordered an "emergency rulemaking" to leave no doubt: cars can't drive across a bike lane to turn around.
"This is an effort to ensure the safety of our increasing numbers of cyclists in the District by closing a regulatory gap,” Gray said. “This action is in line with my efforts not only to protect public safety, but also to encourage a greener, healthier, more sustainable District through my Sustainable DC plan.”
(As he put it in a tweet, "U-turns across bike lanes are illegal. Fine=$100.")
Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Gray, said "in 2010 and 2011, 11 of the 14 bike crashes on Pennsylvania Avenue involved vehicles making those U-turns."
Mid-block U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue are one of the biggest safety concerns in the District. Dave Salovash bikes on the street every morning with his ten year old daughter. When he noticed the frequency of the mid-block U-turns, he decided to bring his camera one day.
"So I picked one spot and just stood there for half an hour and counted U-turns made across the bike lanes. I saw about 25 people doing it and managed to get pictures of about 20 of them," Salovash says.
The bike lanes have been in Pennsylvania Avenue's center median since 2010.