Tuesday, November 27, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Planners are looking for ways to improve the commute for the more than 56,000 people currently working at Fort Meade in central Maryland.
A top transportation planner at Fort Meade says there are a couple possible strategies to consider to reduce regional traffic congestion. One would be to build major highways at an estimated cost of $50 billion over 25 years. A second option is to use "transportation demand management," which is another way of saying increasing car pooling, rail and bus use.
Howard Jennings is a researcher at Arlington (VA)-based Mobility Lab, which specializes in commuter services. He says a multi-pronged approach is more feasible and less expensive than laying down miles of asphalt.
"Experience has shown that over the years if you build a highway, usually it is going to fill up in just a few years, and we can cite many examples of that," says Jennings.
Jennings favors the "transportation demand" approach, which also includes encourages more telecommuting. Add all these measures up, and Jennings says there will be significantly fewer single-occupant vehicles on the roads around Fort Meade.
"Peoples' commutes are very individualized," says Jennings. "There is no one-size-fits-all. We find that when offering up options to people, they will self-select what will work for them."
Jennings says what would work near Fort Meade, where the typical commuter now travels 20 miles alone in a car, would work around any of the region's 20 major job centers that hold 40 percent of the region's jobs.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The Virginia Department of Transportation will study traffic volume over the Potomac River in an effort to determine where the most people and goods will cross as the region’s population grows, the agency said Tuesday.
The study – scheduled for completion next spring – will not recommend a solution but instead provide a basis for consultations with transportation officials in the District of Columbia and Maryland about how best to improve transportation across the river from Point of Rocks in the west to the Route 301 bridge in the east.
“We want to essentially gauge and develop the data from which we can make some informed decisions regarding the best alternatives to deal with the current traffic conditions and what we expect in the future,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton in an interview with Transportation Nation.
Connaughton downplayed the possibility his office would push for the construction of a new bridge over the Potomac.
“We’re really not prejudging anything. In fact, we’re not really getting into what’s the best alternative,” he said.
The study already has its critics, who say the Republican administration of Governor Bob McDonnell has been pushing for a new Potomac River bridge for years.
“They are pushing for another bridge even though the real fixes we need to make are at the American Legion Bridge,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports expanding mass transit instead of road expansions. To Schwartz, a new bridge connecting Virginia and Maryland would lead to more congestion and sprawl. He favors implementing transit options on the American Legion Bridge.
“In the near term, that can be buses on dedicated bus lanes with frequent service, connecting the Red Line and the Silver Line, connecting Tysons Corner and Fairfax County job centers with the Montgomery County job centers,” he said. “Fortunately, Fairfax County and Montgomery County have already met and are pursuing the transit investments that are needed both short term and long term.”
Connaughton disputes the allegation the McDonnell administration is after a new “outer beltway” at the expense of mass transit investments.
“This is one of the things that will be the hallmark of the McDonnell administration, is that we are pursuing increased transit opportunities, as well as dealing with congestion on our roadways, and looking for bike paths and pedestrian paths. We are doing everything. This is not a one-solution-fits-all,” he said.
If Virginia officials privately favor building another Potomac River span, they may meet resistance across the river. In an October letter to Secretary Connaughton, Acting Maryland Secretary of Transportation Darrell Mobley clarified his agency’s position.
“The Maryland Department of Transportation’s (MDOT's) highest priority remains the preservation of our existing infrastructure and the safety of the traveling public. MDOT does not intend to revisit the years of debate regarding new crossings of the Potomac River,” the letter said. “We are interested in the study of potential improvements to existing crossings, including: the Governor Nice Bridge along the US 301 corridor, the American Legion Bridge on the Capital Beltway, and the potential addition of transit across the Wilson Bridge.”
Connaughton said he believes D.C. and Maryland officials are in agreement that a study of future traffic volume is necessary. As far as a possible solution, he said, “we haven’t gotten there yet.”
Monday, November 19, 2012
By Kate Hinds
Top officials at the agency in charge of the $6 billion Silver Line testified before a U.S. House oversight committee on Friday after an audit exposed its unethical hiring, travel, and contracting practices.
Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee grilled MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto and CEO Jack Potter about personal roles and agency policies in the granting of no-bid contracts and the rampant nepotism detailed in the audit. The chair of the house committee, John Mica, called the agency a "poster child for corrupt practices." While acknowledging the agency's missteps, both men pointed to recent measures designed to overhaul MWAA's ethics, travel, and contracting practices.
An audit released earlier this month by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General took the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for "ambiguous policies and ineffectual controls." In addition to overseeing the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, the MWAA also manages Dulles and Reagan National Airports.
Curto and Potter also said many of the transgressions outlined in the audit took place before they assumed their current positions.
There were, however, cases that directly involved them: the law firm that employed Curto's wife was granted a $100,000 no-bid contract to provide legal counsel. Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards (D-4th) asked Curto to explain how such a large contract could be awarded without the approval of the board of directors.
"I was not chairman at the time. I was not on the legal committee at the time. The general counsel for the authority made the decision to retain the law firm. My wife at the time was an employee at that law firm... she had no direct or indirect financial interest in the law firm," said Curto, who said in retrospect the contract should not have been granted on a no-bid basis. "Although it wasn't an actual conflict of interest it certainly was an appearance of a conflict of interest," he said.
Potter was questioned about the hiring of former MWAA board member Mame Reiley to a job created for specifically for her at an annual salary of $180,000 without proper vetting or board approval.
"My judgement was not good in terms of the hiring of that person," said Potter, who said the creation of the job was necessary to meet the challenges created by rising costs at Dulles International. Rep. Edwards asked the officials if they should remain in their positions given the agency's record.
"I would hope so," Curto said, pointing to the measures MWAA has approved to revamp its ethics, travel, and contracting policies as well as terminate contracts granted to former or current board members.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified that MWAA has indeed revamped its policies, adding that its leaders understand reforms must be successful if the agency is going to receive additional federal funding to pay for the Silver Line, whose first phase of construction is scheduled for completion late next year.
"Phase I has worked pretty well. It really has. I think Phase II will work equally well because when you talk to these folks now in charge of MWAA, a new CEO and president, a relatively new chairman, they get it," said LaHood. "These people get it. They do. They know this has to be done correctly."
"They have pending before us a TIFIA loan. We're not going to give them a TIFIA loan if they are not doing things correctly. They know that," added LaHood, referring to the federal loan program for major transportation projects.
In August, LaHood sent the MWAA a blistering letter questioning the board’s ethics and laying out steps the authority must take to get in line.
Phase II construction of the Silver Line is supposed to begin next year.
Watch a video of Friday's hearing here.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The agency managing the largest public rail expansion in the nation voted to increase tolls on a Virginia highway in part to help fund construction of the Silver Line.
On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority unanimously approved raising the full, one-way toll on the Dulles Toll Road to $2.75 effective January 1, an increase of $.50. In January 2014 toll will increase to $3.50.
The toll increases are a major part of the financing plan for the Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport, a 23-mile, $5.5 billion project whose first phase is scheduled for completion late next year. The MWAA board put off a decision to increase tolls again in 2015 because of the possibility of obtaining additional state and/or federal dollars.
MWAA has two avenues to secure additional funds: Virginia’s General Assembly, which has provided only $150 million to date, and the federal TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loan program.
“Our project is, bar none, (one) of the more worthy projects in the country for TIFIA loan financing,” said MWAA Board Chairman Michael Curto in remarks to reporters after the agency’s vote. “We’ve seen the enhanced TIFIA loan program so we’re positioned well, given that the project is shovel ready. We’re ready to move."
Curto is not the only public official who has expressed optimism a federal loan with come through. However, MWAA has a lot of competition for TIFIA dollars. Nineteen major transportation projects totaling $27 billion are currently applying for loans, and Congress has authorized $1.75 billion for TIFIA the next two fiscal years.
“The pool is very small compared to what the needs are just for our rail system,” said Terry Maynard, a board member of the Reston Citizens Association, which represents 58,000 residents in a Fairfax County tax district. “It's going to be very hard to get a significant contribution.”
The association opposes not the Silver Line’s construction but its financing plan, which leaves fifty percent of the entire project’s cost on Dulles Toll Road users (75 percent of Phase II).
“We really want this to get built and succeed,” Maynard said. “We are pressing that all the money [MWAA] receives relieve the burden on toll road users.” Fairfax County residents have relayed their concerns to MWAA that drivers looking to avoid higher tolls will opt for already congested secondary roads, further clogging their communities with traffic.
Curto promised that MWAA will lobby Richmond for additional funding. He declined to criticize the McDonnell administration’s spending priorities, which have seen hundreds of millions of dollars allocated for highway expansions.
“We are going to reach out, work closely and hope to encourage the governor’s administration and the folks in Richmond that Dulles Rail should be the recipient of additional funds. As Secretary LaHood said, it is a model project,” Curto said.
Thursday, November 08, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
As the one-year anniversary of the Inter-County Connector approaches, the Maryland Transportation Authority says the highway is meeting its traffic volume and revenue projections. But critics of the $3 billion road don't trust the state's data.
Greg Smith of Maryland-based advocacy group Community Research is one of those critics. As he looks at the ICC at the New Hampshire Avenue interchange right before rush hour, what he sees is a relatively empty highway.
"Well, it is remarkably light for a six-lane, $3 billion interstate highway," Smith says.
Smith, whose group fought the construction of the ICC, believes the 18-mile highway cutting across Montgomery County to connect I-270 in the west with I-95 in the east was a waste of money and -- that the state's traffic figures are nonsense.
"They are cherry-picking their numbers. The Transportation Authority knows full well that the volumes they are getting on the ICC today are far lower than the volumes they had in their official document of record, the Environmental Impact Statement where they ran the numbers for 2010 and 2030," Smith says. "They were projecting much higher volumes, in the order of 100,000-plus vehicles per day on the western end, in the opening year."
But the MTA disputes Smith's claim. Traffic volume is higher than projected on the western-most segment, and slightly lower on the eastern-most portion of the ICC, according to MTA numbers. Weekday traffic averages more than 35,000 vehicles per day between Interstate-370 and Georgia Avenue in the west; 26,000 vehicles per weekday between Route 29 and Interstate-95 in the east.
"Daily traffic volumes are consistent with our projections and are growing at a rate of about three percent on average per month," says MTA spokesman John Sales.
When the ICC first opened to traffic last year, tolls weren't charged until December -- at which point traffic volumes dropped. And it still hasn't exceeded the volume from the last day of toll-free traffic that month.
"Nobody looking at this road and seeing how virtually empty it is would say this was worth $3 billion and taking 60 families' homes," Smith says.
But the ICC was not designed to be at full capacity immediately after opening, Sales says, adding it takes about three years for traffic volume to ramp up on a new toll road. In addition, he says E-ZPass toll revenues have actually exceeded projections.
Tuesday, November 06, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
A homeowners’ group in Alexandria is fighting a proposal by Virginia transportation planners to build a highway ramp near their homes.
Concerned Residents of Overlook, an upscale community adjacent to I-395, wants the Virginia Department of Transportation to relocate a ramp that will serve as the northern terminus of the 95 Express Lanes, 30 miles of high-occupancy toll lanes extending from the Edsall Road area in Fairfax County to Garrisonville Road in Stafford County. The $1 billion public-private project is scheduled for completion in December 2014.
“The ramp is going to be about 75 feet from my house,” said Mary Hasty, who has lived in Overlook for ten years. Hasty says she's learned to live with the constant din of highway traffic but did not expect VDOT would ever build an exit ramp so close to her residence.
“You get used to the hum of traffic, but I certainly never anticipated that I’d have cars 75 feet from my house and my patio and garden,” she said.
The group claims VDOT failed to adequately study noise and air quality impacts that will result when traffic exits the new express lanes onto I-395 or local roads. The neighbors fear exiting highway traffic will back up and idle on the exit ramp.
“Our biggest issue is that they moved the end point, called the terminus, of the HOT lanes from Crystal City, Arlington County to our backyard and they did not do any studies specifically to determine the impact on our communities,” Hasty said.
Hasty’s friend and neighbor, Sue Okubo, said the ramp will ruin property values, too.
“Already a number of neighbors are putting their houses on the market,” Okubo said.
“Maybe there won’t be an impact. I don’t believe that. That’s why we are having independent studies to determine what the impact is. We are late in the game and it is a David vs. Goliath scenario, but we are pushing really hard.” Hasty added.
Construction of the ramp is already underway. Relocating it is unlikely, according to state officials.
“It would be very difficult to make a change at this point having gone through a lot of the studies and approvals at the state, regional, and federal levels,” said John Lynch, VDOT’s regional transportation director for Virginia megaprojects. Lynch refuted the homeowners’ claims that the state failed to study traffic and pollution scenarios.
“We went through the federal requirements and developed an environmental assessment which includes analysis for both noise and air quality,” Lynch said. “The bottom line is those studies met all the federal requirements and it was reviewed by both the Federal Highway Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. We wouldn’t have gotten approval to move forward with this project if it didn’t meet those requirements.”
Lynch said VDOT responded to residents’ concerns by extending auxiliary lanes to mitigate traffic congestion at the future interchange, adding that all the pertinent documents have been shared with the Overlook community.
“We have been very transparent in providing all of the information that they requested,” Lynch said. “We’ve met with the community multiple times both in 2011 and 2012 during project development.”
Friday, November 02, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The agency that operates Dulles International and Reagan National Airports and the $6 billion Silver Line rail project engaged in unethical hiring and questionable contracting practices and its officials accepted lavish gifts in violation of the agency's own policies – all enabled by a “culture of favoritism” and lacking internal checks – according to an audit released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general.
The audit detailed questionable dealings at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority from January 2009 to June 2011. During that period, MWAA awarded 190 contracts that exceeded $200,000 but only 36 percent were awarded with full and open competition, the audit said. These contract awards failed to comply with MWAA’s own contracting manual and were inconsistent with the intent of the Airports Act of 1986, the audit said.
MWAA’s hiring practices were also criticized. “In some cases, senior officials abused MWAA’s student program to hire employees who were not students, using personnel documentation that falsely showed student status. MWAA’s lack of oversight also resulted in employees with known criminal convictions working at the Authority in sensitive and management positions for more than a year,” the audit said.
While the audit did not name names, it named positions. For instance, MWAA’s Vice President for Human Resources hired two relatives to work at the agency and then denied it. The vice president, Arl Williams, resigned in advance of the audit’s release.
While Williams’ individual behavior was troublesome, the problems at MWAA also resulted in structural deficiencies.
"According to MWAA’s ethics code, MWAA employees may not hire, supervise, or work with family members. However, MWAA lacks controls to detect and prevent these prohibited relationships… which makes it difficult to determine whether the relationship would constitute nepotism…” the audit said.
MWAA’s vice president for information and telecommunications, George Ellis, received two tickets to the 2009 Super Bowl among other expensive gifts from a contractor in clear violation of established MWAA policy. Ellis was fired in the spring.
In another case mentioned by auditors, a former board member, Mame Reilly, was hired by MWAA CEO Jack Potter to fill a vaguely defined position for an annual salary of $180,000. Reilly stepped down after a public outcry but was paid a year’s severance. Neither Reilly nor Potter was mentioned by name. None of the contractors who received lucrative no-bid contracts was named, either.
The 51-page report is loaded with examples of contracting practices that, while not explicitly illegal, raise serious questions about decision making at the powerful agency. One unnamed former board member received 16 no-bid contracts. The MWAA board of directors was not consulted about any no-bid contracts that totaled $6 million dollars.
The DOT auditors closed their report by issuing twelve recommendations while acknowledging that MWAA has already taken steps to overhaul its policies and put in place internal checks.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Potter and MWAA board chairman Michael Curto addressed the audit’s findings, promising to work to regain the public’s trust while defending their record in handling the 23-mile Silver Line project.
“We are gratified that the final report acknowledges the actions we have taken since the May Interim Report, as well as our ongoing initiatives, to bring greater transparency and accountability, efficiency, and integrity to our operations and governance,” Curto said.
“We are extremely transparent,” said Potter, referring to the rail project. “There is definitely a firewall between the toll road and rail project and the authority.”
“There is work to be done,” added Potter. “I see it as my job that we restore the trust in this institution through very solid policies. I’ll be embarrassed if two years from now these same things are a problem.”
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The ominous forecasts of what Sandy might do has Metro officials feeling fortunate for the relative ease with which they will be able to reopen.
"Given the magnitude of the storm, the potential for high winds, the potential for flooding conditions, we view ourselves as very lucky," says Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.
The lack of widespread commercial power outages helped, too. Overall, there was minimal damage to the rail lines.
"Construction fencing blowing onto tracks.We had some water infiltration in several stations, we had water pooling in elevator and escalator maintenance rooms underneath the units," says Stessel. "But nothing that would prevent us from re-opening."
Rail and bus will operate on Sunday service levels starting at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
"It may take up to 30 minutes for trains to filter through the system so you want to give it a little bit of time from two o'clock," says Stessel.
MetroAccess service remains cancelled and is expected to be restored tomorrow, along with full service for bus and rail.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) It’s the heart of the morning commute. A professional pulls his laptop computer from his brief case and begins typing emails to start his work day before arriving at the office. Minutes later the laptop is set aside for the newspaper, opened wide in front of his face so he can leisurely peruse the headlines. This scene plays out on mass transit systems every morning. It would be impossible while driving a car unless one is gifted with extra pairs of hands and eyes.
In the not-too-distant future, however, drivers who now grit their teeth while gripping the steering wheel may be able to sit back, relax, and use their car commuting time productively.
Three states, Florida, California and Nevada, have legalized testing of autonomous cars already and today, the federal government made a small show of support. “The development of automated vehicles is a worthy goal,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland told a forum in Washington. He said the government is beginning to research what safety regulations are needed for a world where cars drive themselves.
Designers of self-driving – or autonomous – vehicles are promising the technology is moving closer to reality, creating a future where crashes, speeding tickets, congestion, poor fuel efficiency, and all the stress they cause will be history.
“It gives you the freedom to do what you are already doing in the car today but unsafely. Today people sit in the car and they are texting. We have seen people on the freeway practicing the trombone. It is unbelievable what people do in a car,” said Chris Urmson, the leader of Google’s self-driving vehicle project based in California, who spoke at a seminar on the policy implications of autonomous vehicles at the Swedish embassy in Washington on Tuesday.
The seminar’s host, Volvo, a leader in autonomous vehicle research, tests its cars in Sweden and Spain. Google tests its cars in stop-and-go traffic in San Francisco as well as freeways in the Bay Area and Nevada.
Self-driving vehicles are years from becoming commonplace on U.S. roads, so it is impossible to fully grasp the dimensions of the changes that would be caused by the technology. Because the cars are being designed to navigate traffic more safely and smoothly than any human being can, developers see a future with fewer crashes and traffic violations and with dramatically reduced congestion. That would affect car insurers, law enforcement, safety regulators, and transportation planners.
“If you look at the carrying capacity of U.S. freeways when they are at maximum throughput – the most vehicles moving by per hour – they are only using about 8 percent of the road,” Urmson said. “If you imagine a vehicle that is reacting more quickly and steering more accurately than a person, then you can pack those vehicles more closely and you can take the same infrastructure we have today and easily double the throughput on it, removing congestion completely.”
More efficient use of existing highways would ease the pressure to build new ones, allowing planners to focus finite resources on other pressing infrastructure needs, Urmson said. In practice, congestion is unlikely to vanish for any technological reason, even if capacity is increased; research consistently finds that new drivers take to the roads once traffic time drops and over time, similar congestion levels resume.
Still, the promise of driver-less cars could brig many benefits. Future motorists would not have to relinquish complete control of their cars. They would have a choice between driving themselves or letting the computers, radar, laser, and image processing technology do it for them.
“It’s no fun to be in traffic jams at all,” said Peter Mertens, a senior vice president at Volvo, referring to a scenario when drivers might be happy to let the auto-pilot take over. “But when you are on a highway maybe you really enjoy driving.”
The primary goal of autonomous vehicles is saving lives by reducing the staggering number of traffic fatalities that happen in the U.S. Relieving congestion is one way to make driving safer.
“[Autonomous vehicles] can be closer together and they can be optimized in the way they drive. You have a very smooth flowing traffic flow and no ups and downs and radical changes,” Mertens said.
Neither Mertens nor Urmson was able to estimate what a self-driving vehicle might cost compared to a regular car, but they said the technology is likely to be introduced into the U.S. vehicle fleet incrementally. Volvo and other carmakers already install adaptable cruise control in some vehicles, for instance.
Transferring driving responsibility from a person to a machine will raise legal issues. What if an autonomous car malfunctions and crashes or just violates a traffic law? To whom would a police officer write a ticket? Google is already in talks with U.S. regulators about it's autonomous car technology.
“If there is a malfunction, we have pretty established law about what that means,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford Law School. “A manufacturer or anyone else who is responsible for the malfunction will pay. The more difficult question about automated vehicles is what actually constitutes a malfunction.”
If autonomous vehicles actually do avoid crashes, auto insurers would have to adjust their rates, he said, potentially charging lower premiums to drivers who use the new technology.
“The hope in the long, long term is that insurance goes down as crashes go down. What that also means is that manufacturers end up paying a greater share of crash costs, then you could see prices for the car or navigation services increase.”
Monday, October 22, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) When you sit on the bus or stand on a train platform nonchalantly holding your smart phone inches from your eyes, you are an easy target. Thefts of mobile devices are soaring in major cities across the country with many of the robberies occurring in mass transit systems.
In the District of Columbia, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier estimates 60-70 percent of robberies are cell phone related. Thieves often leave the victims’ wallet or other valuables while demanding – or snatching – a smart phone, said Lanier in an interview with WAMU. Exact robbery statistics are not available but Lanier said they are in the process of being compiled.
In the Metro system, roughly half of robberies involve high-end mobile devices including smart phones and tablets, said WMATA Deputy Chief Ronald Pavlik.
“We’re reminding our customers to be aware of their surroundings,” Pavlik said. “Try not to use it in plain view. Don’t sit near the train doors. A lot of the robberies occur near the train doors. The thief times it perfectly as the doors are opening and closing.”
Anyone who owns a smartphone understands why they are targeted by thieves. Stolen devices can be resold for hundreds of dollars and they store loads of personal information ripe for identity crimes.
“It’s my lifeline, all my numbers, everything,” said Andrea Caulfield as she rode a Green line train Monday afternoon. “I do have it passcode protected. When I take it out I just take it for granted that it’s still going to be there when I put it away.”
In the first nine months of 2012 Metro police reported 314 thefts of mobile devices, a slight increase from the same period last year. Fifty-five additional “thefts” resulted in arrests as a result of WMATA’s “crime suppression teams” that consist of undercover officers holding smartphones acting as decoys in troublesome areas.
More promising is an FCC initiative that takes effect October 31. Smartphone owners will be able to register their devices in a database that police will use to identify and disable it if it’s stolen, rendering it useless for resale on the black market. Both the MPD and WMATA police are partners in the FCC initiative.
Owners will need basic information about their phones to register, according to Deputy Chief Pavlik. “They’ll have to know their own phone number, the serial number, date of purchase, things of that nature,” he said. The database, compiled by wireless carriers, is supported by the wireless advocacy group CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association), based in Washington, D.C.
CTIA vice president Christopher Guttman-McCabe calls the database a “key component” of an effort to dry up the black market for stolen phones. He said police chiefs, carriers, and the FCC approached his organization seeking a solution to the rise in cell phone-related robberies.
“The goal is to find a way to take a device and make it valueless after it’s lost or stolen,” he said. “We are also starting a concerted effort to try to get consumers to use PINs or passwords to lock the phone if it gets lost or stolen.”
The Associated Press reported the problem is growing in other major cities, too. In San Francisco nearly half of all robberies involve cell phones. In New York City the figure is forty percent.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The operators of Virginia’s I-495 Express Lanes unveiled the highway’s incident command center on Wednesday where traffic monitors will watch the flow of vehicles on a widescreen monitor displaying a dozen camera angles. The new lanes are expected to open by the end of fall.
The center will operate 24/7 with staffers monitoring traffic volume in order to compute toll rates. The new roadway – connecting the Dulles Toll Road to the I-395/I-95/Springfield interchange 14 miles to the south – will charge drivers dynamic tolls, meaning the price will change depending on traffic volume. The more traffic, the higher the toll.
The express lanes’ private sector operator, Transurban, is required to keep traffic moving at least 45 m.p.h., so if traffic slows due to heavy volume tolls, will be significantly increased to deter further drivers. Transurban invested $1.5 billion into the lanes as part of a public-private partnership with Virginia, and will receive toll revenues for the next 75 years.
“Three times per mile we will have detector stations that will give our control center here information regarding what is the volume of traffic and what is the speed of traffic,” said Transurban operations manager Rob Kerns. “Our dynamic pricing is scheduled to update every fifteen minutes.”
Transurban has not released precise toll rates because of the dynamic nature of the pricing system. Moreover, once the highway opens, staffers will need some time to determine what rates work best.
“The tolls are set minute to minute based on what's actually happening out there. We won't know until the road opens how drivers are reacting to different toll prices,” said Jennifer Aument, a project spokeswoman.
The average toll will be between $3 and $6 during busy periods, said Aument, who said the Express Lanes are designed for use a couple times a week when drivers need a dependable ride. The new lanes will run parallel to 495’s regular travel lanes that are often clogged bumper-to-bumper.
Aument is encouraging drivers to familiarize themselves with the coming changes to the Beltway at 495ExpressLanes.com and to sign up for an E-ZPass as soon as possible. Only E-ZPass will be accepted in the new lanes, with HOV-3, buses, and motorcycles riding free. However, carpoolers will still need to obtain an E-ZPass Flex transponder.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Dennis Martire and the agency he worked for would be paid little attention – if not for the responsibility running one of the largest public transportation projects in the country: the Silver Line Metro rail to Dulles International Airport.
Wednesday morning Martire officially resigned from his position as a member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) after months of criticism directed from high places at both his professional behavior and the conduct of the airports authority itself.
In his first interview since settling a costly legal dispute with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's administration and agreeing to resign, Martire -- a high-ranking official with the labor union LiUNA -- defended the agency’s record and denied any wrongdoing.
‘We have a policy that allows us to go to airport conferences. It’s not like we pull out a globe, spin it, and say 'we’re going here today,'” Martire said.
A Washington Post editorial in May accused Martire of spending more than “$38,000 attending five conferences in 2010 and 2011,” including a nine-day trip to attend a 36-hour conference in Sardinia.
“It was a three-day trip [the editorial board] made into a nine-day trip. The conference was only three days. I flew from there to somewhere else on my dime, not on MWAA’s dime,” he said.
In August, the federal Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sent MWAA a letter expressing outrage at “ongoing reports describing questionable dealings including the award of numerous lucrative no-bid contracts to former Board members.” MWAA (pronounced "em-wah") has publicized reforms of its spending, travel, and contracting practices, but Martire believes the board of directors and the agency’s leadership allowed their opponents to turn such issues into a distraction from MWAA’s stewardship of the Silver Line.
“The airports authority has handled this project remarkably well,” said Martire, who said a project labor agreement (PLA) -- a pro-union provision voluntarily undertaken by the prime contractor in the Silver Line’s Phase 1 construction -- kept the project on-time, on-budget, and with a strong record of worker safety.
“Compared to other major infrastructure projects in northern Virginia like the Springfield interchange or the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, it’s a model project. Those projects were all hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. The taxpayer is the one who has to eat that money,” he said.
Martire said “it’s a disgrace” that the state of Virginia has provided only $150 million dollars for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which has an estimated price tag of $3 billion, and he urged the federal government to provide additional funding to bring down the projected toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road. Under the current financing arrangement, those tolls will cover 75 percent of Phase 2’s costs. A full, round-trip toll would rise to $9 in 2015 under current MWAA projections.
“You’re going to have rail to Dulles and beyond, but the tolls are still my major concern. This could be a boondoggle if it’s built out there with $10 tolls,” Martire said.
Martire also shrugged off criticism for supporting the use of a non-voluntary PLA in planning process for Phase 2, accusing its critics of opposing organized labor.
“I do work for a labor union,” Martire said. “There’s no doubt that the governor of Virginia and Congressman [Frank] Wolf, both Republicans, do not like labor. They don’t like what labor stands for.”
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
The Fairfax Board of Supervisors has given final approval to a massive transportation funding plan for the future Tysons Corner.
The Tysons Plan looks 40 years into the future, anticipating 113 million square feet of new development by 2050 in a modern city rising west of Washington. The board on Tuesday approved $2.3 billion to build a new transportation network for the future Tysons Corner, which includes a grid designed for buses, pedestrians, and cars -- as well as four new Metro Stations. It will be paid for in part by commercial and residential taxes.
Fairfax County Board chairman Sharon Bulova heralded the move, calling it "a major step in the right direction" for the area. “Investing in Tysons is an investment in the future of Fairfax County," she said. "Never before has such a long range, comprehensive plan been developed to support a major redevelopment initiative."
But the vision of high-rise condos and gleaming corporate offices doesn't mean much to Lucille Weiner, a senior citizen who lives in a condo in Tysons and who spoke at a public hearing Tuesday before the board approved the plan. She said the tax increases on residential properties in Tysons Corner would make her life more difficult.
"As I read the reasoning around taxing the neighborhood that is Tysons Corner, I read the phrase 'the folks that will benefit the most,'" said Weiner. "It sure isn't me who will have to move if this happens. I appeal to my elected representatives to help stop this frivolous idea on the extra tax on the people who live in Tysons."
Michael Bogasky, the president of the residents association in Weiner's condominium, agreed with that assessment. "Let's create a new tax district so that we can pay more in taxes than anyone else in Fairfax County," he said.
Weiner believes the new taxes should not be on homeowners at all.
"When the Metro reached Greenbelt [Maryland], residents of Greenbelt did not get taxed, nor did residents of Vienna [Virginia]. when the Metro reached Vienna," she said.
Developers stand to gain the most from Tysons' future growth. One of them, CityLine Developers, supports the tax plan.
"If I ever thought there was a day that I would come and ask you to approve $13 a square foot in transportation proffers and ask you for a 7- to 9- cent tax on top of that, I probably should have retired," said Thomas Fleury a CityLine vice president, with a laugh. "That's what it takes to get the job done."
Other critics argue there is a risk to predicting tax revenues over 40 years and if the county's projections don't work out, the plan will fall apart.
But lawmakers say the plan is flexible enough to adjust to swings in the economy and the real estate market.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
For the thousands of commuters who spend too much of their lives sitting in traffic on the Washington area’s hopelessly congested roads, the future may not look much better than the present. Despite some large investments in mass transit projects, like the Silver Line rail link to Dulles Airport, about three-fourths of all economic activity – from shopping to commuting to work – will be the result of automobile trips in 2040, virtually unchanged from present day, according to a report by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis.
In 2007, 74 percent of gross regional product (GRP) – a measure of all income -- was the result of car travel. By 2040 it will be 73 percent, according to the study’s authors, who forecast total GRP by that year to potentially amount to $1.8 trillion, up from the current $429 billion. The projections are based on where the study places the region’s major job centers: in the outer suburbs, implying that a regime of road building will be necessary to accommodate the region’s growth. The study was prepared for the 2030 Group, a group of real estate developers.
The study is flawed, according to mass transit advocates.
“I think it is out of sync with changing demographics and the huge market demand to live not just in the city but to live in neighborhoods that are walkable and near transit,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates transit-oriented development. “This is a report that seems to, through some magic they have applied, allocate significant portions of regional growth to outer suburban job centers. They are arguing for more highway investment over transit investment in the region.”
The study designates the Tysons Corner-Dulles corridor as the most prominent “activity center” that will see significant changes in transportation use thanks to the arrival of the Silver Line, but the overall forecast allows for minor shifts in mode changes, including bicycling/walking. Schwartz says the forecast overlooks surging demand for living in urban, walkable places.
“We are changing our land uses and have shown that compact, walkable neighborhoods with transit generate far fewer car trips and shorter car travel distances,” he says. “A younger generation is driving less, living in cities and an older generation of downsizing empty nesters and retirees will not be driving as much. They are out of touch with the trends. They are trying to justify more outer suburban growth,” referring to suburban real estate developers in the 2030 Group.
Whatever transportation infrastructure will be necessary for the expected population and job growth, current levels of government investment are grossly inadequate, according to Bob Chase, the president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that supports highway construction.
“What the study shows is that most of the economic activity centers are heavily dependent upon a good road network, but roads also move buses. It’s not just about cars,” Chase said. “We’re not going to have the transportation network to support that type of economy. If we don’t invest more in transportation, we’re not likely to have the economic future that most people would want.”
One possible source of funds would be an increased state and/or federal gas tax, something few politicians are willing to publicly endorse. The current federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has not been increased since 1993.
“The cost of construction and the cost of maintenance have gone up. The cost of just petroleum products that go into asphalt has gone up 350% in the last ten years,” Chase says. “If you want to have a strong economy, if you want to have jobs for your kids, you need to make a greater investment in transportation, and the failure to do so is going to cost every person far more in terms of lost wages, lost opportunities, and a deteriorated quality of life, than paying a few more pennies on the gas tax.”
Chase says Virginia and Maryland could also raise sales taxes or create surcharges on income taxes to pay for infrastructure investment.
Monday, October 15, 2012
(Ashley Dejean -- Washington, D.C., WAMU) In the capital region, more people die of gunshots than from motor vehicle accidents and crashes.
The study by the nonprofit Violence Policy Center compares gun and vehicle deaths in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Kristen Rand, the group's legislative director, says the numbers come from the National Center for Injury and Prevention Control.
"What we found is that in each of those jurisdictions, gun deaths outpaced motor vehicle deaths," she says. "There were a total of 1,512 gun deaths and 1,280 motor vehicle deaths in 2010, which is the latest year for which figures were available."
Rand calls it a public health crisis.
"I think people really should think about how often are you exposed to the two products during the term of your usual day," she says. "Most people ride in cars everyday, they walk in front of them. Whereas most people don't really encounter firearms at all."
The study says that in D.C., there were 99 firearm deaths reported in 2010. Eighty-four of those were homicides and 13 were suicides. That same year, there were 38 motor vehicle deaths in the District.
The center found more people died from guns than from motor vehicles in 12 states and the District.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
One of the biggest gripes about D.C.'s taxicabs is that so few of them accept credit cards -- but that could be about to change.
The D.C. Council passed regulations last spring requiring all cabs to have credit card machines, but since then the changeover has been mired in red tape: the city is still trying to settle a dispute among contractors who bid on the $35 million contract to install new credit card readers in the city's cabs.
Meanwhile, a new app launching in D.C. allows customers to order a ride on a smartphone — much like the smartphone-based Uber service, which has caused some consternation among the city's cab drivers. myTaxi's GPS will locate the nearest taxi and send the driver a notification on his smartphone, and the driver has five seconds to accept. Payment is made at the end of the trip using the passenger's previously approved credit card.
"We support Visa and Mastercard, or if you are with PayPal you can also store your PayPal account," says Lina Wuller, spokesperson for the Germany-based company. She notes that the GPS feature of that app means that a person doesn't need to have an exact address to order a taxi — which is the case with Uber.
Passengers can begin downloading the app today, but it's still unclear how many taxis are actually participating. Wuller declines to disclose how many taxi drivers have signed up, but she says one of them is taxi driver Masood Medgalchi.
Medgalchi is also active in the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, which opposes the Taxicab Commission's proposed reforms, including the plan to install the credit card machines.
"We were trying to be proactive about what the government of the District wanted us to do without having the government impose on us," he says.
Medgalchi's group calls the credit card system the district is attempting to push into taxis "antiquated." It's also on hold until the District clears up a dispute over what company should install the card readers.
Thursday, October 04, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
An outgoing member of the agency running the Silver Line rail project is accusing U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood of “coercive” and “heavy-handed” oversight that has created a distraction from finding funding for the second phase of the rail link to Dulles Airport.
In a letter sent to LaHood’s office on Tuesday, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board member Robert Brown, whose tenure on the board of directors is expected to end this month, says the transportation secretary has taken unprecedented steps of questionable legality to monitor the airports authority following reports of profligate spending and unethical practices.
In August, Secretary LaHood sent MWAA a letter of his own, signed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, expressing “outrage” at “ongoing reports describing questionable dealings including the award of numerous lucrative no-bid contracts to former Board members.”
“I haven’t disputed that there have been some questionable governance practices at the airports authority. I think those by and large have been addressed and corrections put in place,” said Brown in an interview with Transportation Nation.
In defending MWAA’s record, Brown is attempting to draw attention to projected toll rate increases on the Dulles Toll Road that would pay for 75 percent of Phase 2’s costs. More federal and Virginia state funding would lower the projections, he said.
“There is no other transportation project of this scale anywhere in the country where the local community bears such an inordinate share of the total project cost,” he said.
There is currently no federal funding for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which has an estimated cost of roughly $3 billion. The state of Virginia has provided $150 million, a sum Brown describes as “paltry.”
“That is not the kind of contribution Virginia is making to any of the other transportation projects in the state. It is funding 20 to 25 percent of project costs on three other megaprojects in Virginia and it is funding 6 percent of the cost of this project,” Brown said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said the agency received Brown’s letter but had not had time to review it.
MWAA had come under intense scrutiny for months leading up to LaHood’s critical letter. The overseas travel expenses incurred by some MWAA board members, especially Dennis Martire, led to charges of profligacy. Martire recently settled a legal battle with the administration of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who tried to remove him from the board of directors. Martire agreed to resign his post this month.
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
With four new Metrorail stations coming to Tysons Corner next year -- as well as a 40-year plan to to bring high-rise condos and gleaming corporate offices to the area -- local lawmakers are considering rethinking the road network.
The Fairfax County (Virginia) Board of Supervisors dug into a report Tuesday from Planning Commission member Walter Alcorn that includes about $1 billion in taxes on current and future developers to cover the costs of infrastructure for cars, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians.
“Right now Tysons has a super grid of very, very large blocks which are not walkable,” Alcorn said in an interview with Transportation Nation. The county's plan states the "vehicle-based road network will need to transition into a multi-modal transportation system that provides transportation choices to residents, employees and visitors." That means, in part, building smaller, more walkable blocks.
County officials say they want the population of Tysons Corner to increase fivefold by 2050. Currently, the community has 20,000 residents.
The infrastructure redevelopment cost is $2.3 billion, and to pay for it, the planning commission wants to levy new taxes on developers and increase existing property taxes. However, tapping general fund revenues, issuing bonds, and adding a commercial and industrial tax are also under consideration.
“The actual street in front of the development that’s being constructed should be paid for by that developer. However, larger transportation projects that have a major benefit inside and outside of Tysons probably should be paid for by the public sector,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
“These are extrapolations,” said Bulova, referring to the revenue figures. “We’re looking ahead to an extent we’ve never done before to look at what it is going to take to support the new development.”
And Alcorn says it's worth it. “The point of all these improvements is not to facilitate traffic through Tysons or across Tysons, but frankly to help Tysons become more of a walkable, transit oriented community,” he said. “It’s a grid of streets. It’s also new connections from surrounding roads into Tysons, for example, new connections from the Dulles Toll Road, and improved connection to the Beltway.”
The board will take up the proposal next at its scheduled meeting later this month.
See Fairfax County's "Transforming Tysons" slideshow:
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
More than two years after its southern segment opened, bicycling advocates are asking District and Maryland transportation officials why there has been no progress extending the 8-mile Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT) that is supposed to run between Union Station and Silver Spring, Md.
The southern segment is a completed, off-road bicycle path running straight north from Union Station through Northeast Washington to the Brookland neighborhood, but the remaining three segments are a combination of off-road and “interim routes” that force cyclists to leave the path and crowd onto city streets.
“In a couple of places it actually goes up relatively steep hills. In one place it goes against traffic,” says Shane Farthing, the executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. The group is urging the District Department of Transportation to begin work on the northernmost segment inside the district, from Riggs Road to the Montgomery County line.
“We’d like to see DDOT pushing harder on that,” Farthing says.
But starting work on the MBT’s center segment in D.C. is more complicated: there are outstanding land-use issues that have to be resolved by the National Park Service, DC's transit agency (WMATA), and the DDOT concerning federal property around Fort Totten, where the proposed trail makes a sharp left turn in the vicinity of a trash transfer station. That is where bicyclists face the thorniest part of their ride as two-way bicycling traffic has to squeeze into one of the “interim trails,” a one-way street for cars.
“For kids and novice cyclists who might want to try this connection, I do think where you are sent into oncoming traffic it is intimidating,” says Farthing, who gave an interview at the noisy intersection of Fort Totten Drive NE and Gallatin Street NE.
“All of the area around Fort Totten is National Park Service land, and there are certain agreements that WMATA has with rights of use to get the Red Line through. So they have to make sure (that) all those different legal agreements on land use work together to allow for the trail access,” he added.
The partial completion of the MBT is not stopping bicyclists from using it as part of their daily commutes or for recreation. There were 11,503 trips on the MBT last year, a nearly three-fold increase from 2010, according to DDOT figures.
Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director for policy, planning, and sustainability, said funding and land use issues have delayed progress.
“Some of what we face is a challenge of resources and dealing with multiple trail projects moving forward at the same time,” he says, adding that the Fort Totten area “is probably one of the most challenging sections of the trail in terms of dealing with competing needs of the right of way.”
Zinbabwe countered criticism that the DDOT isn't prioritizing the project.
“We don’t feel that we are [idle]. I think that we continue to try to move it forward,” he says. Although Farthing says he believes the entire bike trail could be finished in two to three years, Zimbabwe called that goal “optimistic.”
In Montgomery County, where the proposed trail would end at Silver Spring, there are also outstanding conflicts concerning land use.
The group Montgomery Preservation Inc. is unhappy with a plan to run the trail between its building that houses a B&O Railroad museum and Metro’s Red Line tracks. The plan also calls for building a bicycling bridge over Georgia Avenue that would block views of the historic railroad bridge. The MBT is part of the county’s master plan and the Montgomery County Council has approved funding.
“The county council, county executive, and bicycling community are all interested in completing the design and construction and opening up this important part of this heavily used trail,” says Bruce Johnston, the chief of MCDOT’s division of transportation engineering.
Although frustrated by the slow progress, Farthing looks forward to a day when commuters can ride their bicycles all the way from Silver Spring to Union Station without squeezing past moving vehicle traffic.
“The ability to take your bike on and off Metro, the ability to mix it with bike share, we’ve got a lot of different ways that you can integrate biking into daily life, but it is important to have the trail so the people can do it safely and easily,” Farthing says.
Monday, October 01, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
This is the third part in an ongoing series of reports about the metropolitan Washington region’s changing neighborhoods. Read Part I and Part II )A recent study by a George Washington University real estate expert called the D.C. region a pioneer in creating WalkUPs, walkable urban places. In this report, WAMU’s Martin Di Caro visits the Columbia Heights neighborhood in Ward 1.
When Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham sat down for lunch at Red Rocks Firebrick Pizzeria on a weekday afternoon it was easy for him to remember what the neighborhood used to be like here around Park Road and 11th Street, about three miles north of the White House.
“A few years ago this would have been unthinkable, unimaginable,” he says, considering his new neighbors.
The pizza place is situated in one of the D.C. region’s 43 WalkUPs designated by George Washington University’s Chris Leinberger, and in a zip code that has seen dramatic demographic changes through gentrification. The 20010 is tenth fastest gentrifying zip code in the country, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
“Where we are sitting right now was a house that was taken over by squatters who lived here without running water,” Graham said. “You wouldn’t have had any daytime restaurant opportunity. In fact, these restaurants and bars that are around us right now weren’t open.”
The opening of Metro's Green Line in 1999 was the catalyst for so many of the positive changes that include rising property values.
“The Green Line made an enormous difference in terms of transforming what were vacant lots with chain link fences which gave rise to crime and other undesirable activities. So the Metro was key,” the councilmember said.
In Leinberger’s study Columbia Heights is considered an urban commercial WalkUP, meaning it is dominated by for-sale housing but has significant blocks of office, retail, and rental space.
Columbia Heights has experienced the challenge of retaining affordable housing as prosperity took hold.
“We’ve obviously brought a lot of newcomers into this neighborhood with the new apartment buildings… but it is very useful to keep in mind that we have the whole length of 14th Street starting at W [Street] and running all the way to Oak [Street], we have three thousand units of very low-income affordable housing,” Graham said.
Ward 1 is known for its ethnic diversity, the center of the district’s Latino, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese communities. Graham said the government has actively worked to preserve those communities and resist the real estate pressures brought by gentrification.
“This is all quality housing that we now have for extremely low-income persons," Graham said of the housing 14th street housing stock. "Each and every one of those could have been a condo easily because of the real estate pressures,” said Graham who added D.C. has some of the most progressive affordable housing laws in the country.
“It took a determined effort. It just didn’t happen willy-nilly. What you see at 14th and Irving and 14th and Park was something very carefully understood and bought into by everyone who was a stakeholder,” Graham added, referring to the retail center built up around the Columbia Heights Metro station, including a large Target.