Martin DiCaro


Martin DiCaro appears in the following:

Streetcar Tracks on DC Streets Restored -- Evoking a Bygone Era of Urban Transit

Friday, June 01, 2012

(Washington, DC -- WAMU) Older D.C. residents may remember their city's streetcar era. The trolleys stopped operating in 1962, a full half-century ago. In Georgetown, where streetcars started running in the late 19th century, the tracks remained in place on O and P Streets. The roads, however, became an obstacle course for cars as the underground conduit that used to contain electric cables eroded, sinking the streets into uneven, tire-tearing, pothole-filled paths. Now, after more than a year of work and much public support, a project to restore the streets is nearing completion.

Since last March, O and P Streets have produced a cacophony of construction. Men wielding shovels, back hoes, circular saws, and a very loud machine called a plate tamper, have reconstructed the roadways made of granite stones and trolley tracks to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood. Construction is slated to finish this fall.

"We're reusing as much of the old material as absolutely possible," says project spokeswoman Dara Ward.

The work has been painstaking. All the granite pavers (their actual name is setts) were excavated and inspected for reuse. About 90 percent were deemed good enough to be power washed and then, one by one, hammered into place. Sand and gravel were swept over the setts to fill the cracks and crevices. The last step is handled by the operator of a plate tamper, a loud machine that can be heard a couple of blocks away. The tamper levels out the roadway so it can accommodate vehicular traffic.

Before the $11.8 million project began, the trolley tracks rose above the grade of the road, forcing drivers to "surf" the narrow railings to keep their tires from tearing.

"There were pieces of jagged metal sticking up," says Georgetown resident Stephen Martin. "I'd say I was replacing the tires on one of my cars every year. They never made it through the tread life."

"We have actually been getting one complaint in particular from the residents who live on these blocks that are newly done, and it's that the cars are driving too fast," says Ward. "They don't have to go so slowly because the road has been evened out now."

Residents are looking forward to the end of construction and their new "old" roads.

"I like the fact that it is so quaint looking," says resident Rebecca Clay. "That's why we live in a historic neighborhood. It would be sad to make it plain old asphalt again."

The P and O Streets of another era

While real streetcars are making a comeback in other parts of D.C., the restored trolley tracks on O and P Streets only evoke memories of a bygone era. The streetcar system reached Georgetown in 1872 and lasted until 1960, says Jerry McCoy, the special collections librarian and historic preservationist at the Peabody Room of the D.C. Public Library.

"The community was already over 100 years old before the streetcar system was authorized by Congress," says McCoy, who says the Metropolitan Railroad Company, chartered in 1864, operated the first trolleys in Georgetown.

The first streetcars were pulled by horses. In 1892, Congress decided to eliminate horse-drawn trolleys from the District.

"Congress deemed that all horse-powered vehicles had to cease and some other form of power had to be found," says McCoy. "That was the period when cable cars were introduced into history, just like those in San Francisco."

Georgetown's electric cables were run underground in the conduit that remained long after the trolleys stopped running. That empty, rotting conduit was what led to O and P Streets collapsing over the past 50 years.

"You're talking about almost 150 years of rainwater and salt and people losing their coins and purses and everything down here. The time really took a toll on this underground chamber between the tracks," says McCoy.

The streetcar operators briefly experimented with another type of propulsion: batteries.

"They were storage batteries," says McCoy. "Like when we complain about our smartphones not lasting very long on batteries, it was the same problem back then in the 19th century. These power storage batteries were not capable of holding charges long enough."

There were three main reasons why streetcar service ended in Georgetown in 1960 and across the District in 1962: Congress wanted to open the roads to car traffic, create a city-wide bus system to replace the trolleys, and follow the example of other cities attempting to modernize their transit systems.

"Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York were all ripping up their streetcar tracks at the time," says McCoy.

The tracks on O and P Streets are only for show, but McCoy says they are still important to Georgetown nonetheless.

"I think it is really important that this small piece of time be preserved in Georgetown," he says. "Georgetown isn't only about 18th century colonial America. There is really some important 20th and 19th century history embodied here."

As for motorists who may not be aware of the streets' rich history, they will be grateful for the smooth ride.

Listen to the story here.

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Big Plans for Public Transportation in Virginia. It's called Super NoVa.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bus rapid transit, light rail, car and van pooling, and bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure are all in the works for Northern Virginia, under the so-called "Super NoVa" transportation plan for the next three decades, to be released in September.

Planners envision the construction of cross-jurisdictional networks to connect people to their jobs in the metropolitan Washington area, and to employment and tourist locations within northern Virginia and neighboring states. The goal is to help commuters avoid the region's notorious traffic congestion.

"It's really looking at the major travel patterns of people throughout this region and trying to understand where they are and where they want to go," says Amy Inman, the manager of public transportation planning at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, a post she has held for four years. Inman is the head planner for Super NoVa.

With the growing realization that only paving more highways would not satisfy the demands of region's population and job growth projections, Inman says localities 50 or 75 miles away from Washington need more public transportation options. The study will evaluate the needs of future population and employment centers.

The unofficial border of northern Virginia as outlined on a map today contains several counties including Fairfax, Alexandria, Arlington, and Loudoun, among others. Under Super NoVa, northern Virginia would extend as far south as Caroline County and as far west as Culpeper and Frederick counties.

"We are envisioning mobility beyond boundaries," Inman  says. "As we all know, there isn't just one mode of transportation that's going to be the solution, but we want to be able to provide people with travel options."

Inman says planners are focusing on maximizing the capacity of existing infrastructure in current corridors; for instance, transforming part of a major roadway into a bus rapid transit corridor instead of building a new road.

Super NoVa is gathering information from people traveling to Virginia from Maryland, West Virginia and Washington. A second round of public hearings has been held this month; officials held their first round of hearings in February. The public will get another chance to weigh in after September when the first recommendations are released. The study is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Inman says the public feedback has been useful.

"We have learned that the growth of this region is very great," she says. "In the future, the areas of Fauquier, Culpeper, and Winchester will have a developing demand for different types of public transportation, so we're learning from the localities what kinds of solutions will be necessary to address their particular transportation issues."

In some places, bus rapid transit may work. In others, light rail or increased car-pooling may be the answer. Super NoVa is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Planners are trying to ascertain which modes of transport are supportable in a given location.

"Even beyond Culpeper County there are folks who are traveling 100 miles or greater into D.C.," she says. "It's phenomenal the distance people will travel to get to their employment. We also know that we're reaching or exceeding the capacity of many of our transportation transit systems today."

Inman says Virginia's political leaders, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, have been supportive of the plan.

"Everyone understands we have to think of multiple solutions to address the transportation issues, especially in the Super Nova region, an economic engine for the commonwealth and neighboring states," she says.

Although Super NoVa is not planning new highways, Inman says the group's recommendations will square with the plans of the Virginia Department of Transportation for new roadways.

"VDOT has plans in place that we are building upon," she says, referring to VDOT's proposal to increase roadway capacity along the I-95 corridor.

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Washington Hits Top-Ten Bicycling Ranking -- Big Cities Climb on List

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bikeshare users in Washington, DC (Photo: Tara Bahrampour)

A report in Bicycling Magazine ranking the top 50 most bike-friendly cities places Washington fourth. In the magazine's last ranking, in 2010, Washington didn't break the top ten.

See the entire list 2012 here.

Then, as now, the list was dominated with more predictable cities like Portland, Minneapolis, Boulder, Madison, and Eugene. Seattle and San Francisco also made both lists.

But the big story of  this year's  list is the prominence of big cities --like Chicago and New York, which, like Washington,  both climbed in ranking.

Most of the changes that the magazine credits in Washington, DC -- including bike share and more bike lanes -- began under DC's former transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, who now has that job in Chicago (up to #5 from #10 on the last Bicycling Magazine list.)

The magazine examined cities with populations of at least 95,000 for "a robust cycling infrastructure and a vibrant bike culture."

The magazine reports that bicycle ridership increased in Washington "80 percent from 2007 to 2010."  The capital city's bike share program is growing in popularity and recently clocked its two millionth ride.


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D.C. Subway Doors Open While Train Is in Motion

Friday, May 18, 2012

 (Photo by Martin Di Caro)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) Subway doors shouldn't open while the train is in motion. But they did recently in Washington D.C. Scary stuff.

D.C. Metro's investigation team was able to replicate the mechanical problem that led to two incidents of uncommanded door openings on a Red Line train this week.

On Tuesday morning, riders told a Metro worker the doors were opening on their Red Line train while it was moving. That car — one of six in that train — was emptied of passengers and closed off. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel says the rest of the train was kept in service.

"There was no indication that it was a broader issue," said Stessel. "It was thought to be an issue just with a particular set of doors in that one car."

Later in the journey, the doors on another car in that same six-car train opened en route, and then the entire train was taken out of service. It's not uncommon during rush hour to see people packed right up against the doors of Metro cars. That's why some passengers wonder whether the problem that happened on two 1000 series rails cars could happen again.

Patricia Smith was thinking about it on her Red Line train commute today: "On a morning rush hour, I guarantee you people are packed against that door and it's scary to think it could open on you. That is why I am sitting down."

According to the Metro investigation, they were able to replicate the incident, focusing on a misalignment of the contact head that transfers information between cars. Stessel said this particular train consisted of two 5000 series cars in the front, two 1000s in the middle, and two 6000s in the rear. The problem appeared to stem from the connection between the 5000 and 1000 series cars, which caused an electrical short.

Metro will begin in inspection of all 5000-series cars for similar issues.

No one was injured in either incident.

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DC's Transportation Network -- How Does it Compare to the rest of the World?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Montgomery County officials are considering building a bike center that can accommodate a large number of cycling commuters. (Photo by Marin Di Caro)

(Washington, DC -- WAMU) Compared to major U.S. metropolitan areas, Washington D.C. is one of the best when it comes to the choices available to commuters who want to avoid the congestion of the Beltway. We have the Metro, buses, and a new, popular bike share program. Compared to other cities across the globe, however, Washington is somewhat lacking in transportation innovation, but advocates and government officials say that is slowly changing.

Benefits of bus rapid transit systems

From the Silver Spring Metro station, Michael Replogle and a WAMU reporter traveled downtown via Georgia Avenue, one of the most congested north/south roadways in the city, one that Replogle would like to see transformed into a more efficient facility.

Replogle is global policy director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy,  an organization that promotes sustainable transportation programs around the world.

"This could be a bus rapid transit corridor," he says. "You might have buses running down the center of the street and basically getting rid of the parked cars on the sides."

George Avenue has three lanes running in each direction. The outside lane both ways is often taken by parked cars. Buses regularly get stuck behind turning vehicles. A bus rapid transit, or BRT, system, would free buses to travel down exclusive bus lanes in the center of the road with the traffic lights programmed to hit green block after block.

"Bus rapid transit in Guangzhou, China is carrying 850,000 passengers a day on a single 20-mile corridor moving 28,000 passengers per hour per direction, which is more than any of the Metro lines here in Washington, D.C.," says Replogle. "They were able to build that system at a cost of less than $10 million a mile, which compares to several hundred million dollars a mile for building Metro."

BRT is being considered in Montgomery County, where County Councilman Marc Elrich has given several presentations on its benefits.

"Ideally, we would like to add more rail lines but at $300 to $400 million per mile for heavy rail like Metro and $50 to $100 million per mile of light rail, we cannot afford to build much of a next generation public transportation system," says Councilman Elrich in a statement posted to his website. "At $10 to $25 million per mile, bus rapid transit (BRT) is less expensive and allows for more interconnecting routes."

Bus rapid transit systems exist in some American cities, including Eugene, Ore. and Cleveland, Ohio. "People could have a one-seat ride from the mid- or upper Montgomery County all the way into the city," says Replogle. "There is now a growing realization that we can't afford to build Metro to everywhere in the region. We're struggling to come up with money to finance things like the Purple Line."

The benefits of BRT would extend beyond faster commutes. The improvements brought with better transportation systems extend to the design of neighborhoods (more mixed-used development closer to transportation hubs; fewer large car parking lots) to the local economy.

"For every dollar Americans spend to buy gasoline to drive their car to work something like 85 cents of that dollar leaves the local and regional economy and goes to other countries," he says. "For that same dollar to be spent on bus fare, 80 percent of that goes into paying the wages for the driver."

Metro has opened a new bicycle parking area at the College Park station with plans to open two more bike-and-ride facilities next summer. Construction is expected to be completed later this year at a new transit center in Silver Spring where there will be three bus services, shuttles, Kiss and Ride access, and a new transit store where commuters can buy fare cards and maps.

Replogle says Silver Spring's new transit center will be lacking in one area: it won't have a bike center.

"Unfortunately that is a plan that has long been thwarted," says Replogle.

Montgomery County officials say they are considering building a bike center that can accommodate a large number of cycling commuters at a nearby park, but that plan is in the early stages.

"I think this is something that may yet turn around. There are certainly some in the agencies who are fighting to get the project back on track," says Replogle, who says other cities have extensive bicycling facilities and road infrastructure to make bicycling safe.

"In a number of places in Europe like Münster and Bonn, in Amsterdam, in Switzerland, in Scandinavia, you find bicycle parking halls that store thousands of bicycles at the station entrances," says Replogle. "Hangzhou, China has 50,000 public bikes available throughout the city so that people can take a bicycle from one place and leave it at another place."

Union Station has the only large bicycle parking area in the city--a glass building that can hold about 100 bikes per day with around-the-clock security. Washington's Capital Bikeshare program has about 1,500 bicycles.

"In the Netherlands there are several towns where there are bike stations that hold over 6,000 bicycles," says Replogle.

Bus Rapid Transit in Guangzhou, China

A model of a sustainable transportation system

You don't have to look across the ocean for examples of sustainable transportation systems on a large scale. Look across the Potomac River at Arlington County, considered a regional leader in transit innovation.

"The most important things that Arlington has done right start with land use and the decisions that were made by my predecessors beginning in the '60s and '70s to invest in the Metro system in the way that no one outside of D.C. did," says Chris Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board with 20 years of expertise in sustainable transit.

The county is a partner in the Capital Bikeshare program and has worked to design the areas around the Rosslyn Metro Station, to name one, to be more bike-friendly.

"We were the first to put bike lanes on the street and we have about 30 miles of bike lanes. We also have bike trails that connect to them," said Zimmerman in an interview outside the Rosslyn station. "We created bike parking. A lot of the work this shop does is to make sure people have provisions in their buildings. I can bike to work because there is a place to put my bike in the building."

Arlington provides an array of resources online, from websites to help commuters who choose to walk or bicycle, to its Mobility Lab (  The county also runs several one-stop shops for commuters called Commuter Stores, where people can access transit schedules, bike/walk maps, and car and van pool information, as well as purchase fares.

Zimmerman says the county's efforts to get people moving more efficiently have garnered a lot of attention with the United States, but he looks to other continents, too.

"I went to Copenhagen about 11 years ago on a study tour," he says. "I saw what rush hour looked like in a place in which a third of the people were moving on bicycle in a place that's farther north than we are, tough winters and all that, a third of the people were moving on bicycle. They had become more car-oriented and they had to re-orient themselves to walking and bicycling."

In order to facilitate more walking and biking in Arlington, officials needed data. Commuter-counters were employed at key junctures. The results were eye opening--6,000 people were crossing the Key Bridge daily, to name one major roadway, on foot or on bike.

"No one was counting for years," says Zimmerman. "In many places in this country we are already moving large numbers of people without cars. We ultimately save money, we even build tax base."

In a few weeks Zimmerman will depart for France to visit three cities roughly the size of Arlington to study how they are becoming less car-dependent. The goal, he says, is to create a seamless transportation system in which commuters know they can travel around the region without wasting time. They would be aware of plentiful bus routes, bike lanes, and train schedules.

"In European cities they've been doing this for many more decades," says Zimmerman. "They've built up more of it, and so you can get all over the place in a combination of transit and bicycle; you can pretty much travel anywhere. It is hardly ever an option in the United States."

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Why So Few Walk or Bike to School

Friday, May 11, 2012

(Washington, DC -- WAMU) What was routine a couple generations ago is now relatively rare.  Nearly 50 percent of Americans kids walked or biked to school in 1969.  Today the figure is 13 percent.

The decline in children’s physical activity is blamed on an array of factors, from the design of road systems to accommodate automobiles instead of pedestrians and bicyclists, to poor parenting.

Whatever the reasons, the results are alarming: approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents are obese.  Supporters of more walking- and bike-friendly neighborhoods partly blame rising the obesity rates on the drop in the number of kids who walk or pedal to school.

In the greater Washington area, determined parents and advocacy groups are trying to get kids moving again.  The solutions, however, are not as easy as simply telling kids to get up and go.  There are concerns about the safety of streets, including missing sidewalks, heavy traffic congestion around schools during morning rush hour and, in some places, crime.

It’s also a matter of convenience and time.  Some kids live too far from their schools to make walking or bicycling practical; some parents find it more convenient to drop their kids off at school while driving to work.

“Kids just aren’t used to it right now.  They are used to getting bused or being in the car.  It’s really about teaching kids.  That’s the education part,” says Christine Green, the regional policy manager at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a group that encourages communities to address this issue by making streets safer.

“My job as the regional policy manager is to bring all the players in the community together.  That’s the school system, the transportation engineers, the planners, the public health folks, and the community advocates,” Green says.  “We bring everybody together under this common mission of not only kids walking and biking but entire communities being able to walk and bike for all their trips.”

Communities apply for federal Safe Routes to School grants.  “You must complete a school travel plan before you do an application,” Green says.  “A school travel plan requires you to look at the infrastructure around your school, it requires you to do some counts about the numbers of kids walking and biking to school currently.”

The entire budget of the Safe Routes to School program covers only seven percent of all schools in the United States, according to Barbara McCann, the executive director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, based in Washington.

“There’s just a tremendous need to change the way we design our roads so that the people who need to use the roads do so, and that includes kids,” says McCann, who organization largely faults road designs over the last half century for the decline in peoples’ physical activity.

“When parents are looking at going with their kids to school they have to think about is there a sidewalk, is there a safe crosswalk, is there a signal?” McCann says.  “It should be a priority of the community to have safe routes to school.  Sidewalks make a tremendous difference in safety.  They can reduce pedestrian crashes exponentially.  In many communities it hasn’t happened and hasn’t been a priority.”

In the Forest Hills neighborhood of northwest D.C., sidewalks are the focus of Robin Schepper, a mother of two young boys and leader of the Safer Routes to School program at Murch Elementary School.  She has successfully fought to have sidewalks built on several streets, but some homeowners have also successfully resisted.

“There are a lot of people who really don’t want sidewalks,” says Schepper.  “They have landscaped all the way to the curb even though the city owns four to five feet up. They don’t want sidewalks because they don’t want to disturb their landscaping.”

Schepper and a WAMU reporter made the 17 minute walk from her home west to Murch Elementary.  On some streets there are no sidewalks on either side.  She accompanies her sons, 6 and 10, on their walk to school every day.

“I was stopped by a police officer about two months ago and she said, “Hey, you got to be careful.  This is not safe for your children.”  And I said, “I know.  I’ve been trying to get a sidewalk here for years,” Schepper says.

Missing sidewalks (and landscaping crews whose trucks make the streets even narrower) are not the biggest concern among neighborhood parents, says Schepper.

“We did a survey at Murch Elementary School when we got a ‘Safe Routes to School’ grant and we did a survey of what were parents’ biggest fears of letting their kids walk and bike to school.  And the number one reason was speeding cars,” she says.

Connecticut Avenue runs north/south through Schepper’s kids’ route to school.  The posted speed limit is 25 miles per hour, but motorists were seen speeding at about 45 or 50 miles per hour during her interview with WAMU.

“We have traffic coming from Maryland so Connecticut Avenue in the morning is like a speedway,” she says.

While Schepper fights for sidewalks in D.C., in Vienna, Virginia Jeff Anderson is waging a different crusade: getting kids on bicycles.

“I started here at Wolftrap Elementary by asking our principle for a bike rack one day,” says Anderson, who has three young kids with whom he bikes to school.

Once a month Anderson organizes a bike train – a caravan of bicycling students – to encourage more kids to eschew the back seats of their parents’ cars for a two-wheeler.

“I usually have between 10 and 15 kids who join me.  We take the back roads and avoid the main roads,” says Anderson, who started the bike trains about 18 months ago.  “There was no bike rack.  We now have four.  The goal is to get them to see that it is easy to do.  Eventually they don’t do the bike train anymore. They just ride on their own.”

Anderson says getting more kids on bicycles or walking is not as simple as he’d like.  Parents are concerned about traffic congestion, and some just want to talk with their kids in the car for those precious few minutes before the busyness of the day takes over.

“Everyone is rushed these days to get out for all kinds of reasons.  People err on the side of convenience and ease versus taking 15 minutes with your child walking to school,” he says.  However, there is a downside to choosing convenience, says Anderson, a member of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling.

“In the ‘60s, fifty to sixty percent of kids biked or walked to school.  We didn’t have Type 2 diabetes in children.  We didn’t have an obesity problem in children.  And now only 13 percent of children walk or bike to school nationally.  That’s the same number we see here at our school on any given day, too,” he says.

Anderson’s daughter Laurel, 9, is happy to be in the minority.  “I like doing it because we are not using energy, it’s a lot of fun, and I like getting exercise,” she says.  Younger brother Eric, 7, says he feels better at school after he bikes in the morning.  “You can think better,” he says.

Awareness of the benefits of safe streets is not lacking in Kentlands, a community of about 5,000 residents in Montgomery County, Maryland.  A model of ‘new urbanism,’ the Kentlands was designed for walking, not only driving.  Sidewalks are wide and roads are narrow.  Front steps meet the sidewalks.

“Narrow roads calm traffic, keep cars going more slowly, and keep the houses closer together which creates neighborliness.  They also provide for wider sidewalks on each side,” says John Schlichting, the chairman of the Kentlands Community Foundation.

The children of the Kentlands were raised as walkers.  Their schools, friends, and favorite hang-outs are close by.

“I always cross in the crosswalks, and there are lots crosswalks and sidewalks in the Kentlands, so it’s not like you’re walking in the middle of the street.  But if I were somewhere else I might not feel as safe,” says Elena Dietz, 11.  Here sister Hannah, 13, says she notices a big difference between the way she lives compared to friends from other towns that rely on their parents for transportation.

“They have to get parent permission for everywhere they go, everything they do.  Whereas I can be like, mom, I going to walk three doors down and go to my neighbor’s house,” Hannah says.

Another child of the Kentlands, Sebastian Zeineddin, 8, says he is lucky to live there.  “I like walking to school because I also have friends that I can walk and talk with, too.”

Sebastian’s observation raises an issue any parent can relate to: no responsible adult would let their child walk to school, especially alone, if they believe the roads aren’t safe.  Thirty percent of traffic deaths for children up 14 years old happen when they are walking or bicycling.

In the Kentlands no child has to walk by himself.  The close proximity of neighbors produces camaraderie among the kids.  Thus, advocates like Barbara McCann and Christine Green believe that the effort to get more kids walking and bicycling cannot succeed without major changes to the design of their neighborhoods and towns.

At the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, engineer Fred Lees is in charge of improving the ‘walkability’ of roads.  The head of the traffic engineering section, Lees is working on creating walking routes to the county’s schools.

“One of the biggest problems we have with schools in general is parents dropping off kids, buses, and kids walking, all converging in the same fifteen minute period,” says Lees.  In fact, 20 to 30 percent of morning traffic is children being driven to school, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

“We’ve found that along some of the designated walking routes some of the crosswalks are not there or are in bad condition, so we will certainly go out there and mark those and remark ones that are faded,” says Lees.

Getting half of all American school kids walking or biking to school again may seem like an improbable task, but advocates say it is possible through a multi-pronged effort to improve the design of communities, educate parents and children, and encourage physical activity.

In D.C. Robin Schepper is determined to make a difference one street at a time.

“The proudest moment I have in doing this type of work is that when [my kids] point to sidewalks, they say that’s mommy’s sidewalk,” she says.

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Tolls Still a Sticking Point in Dulles Rail Project

Friday, May 04, 2012

Silver Line construction near Tysons Corner, VA (photo by cizauskas via flickr)

A Virginia citizens group says the most critical issue surrounding the construction of Phase 2 of Metro's Silver Line to Dulles Airport is tolls.

A pro-union provision proposed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) received most of the attention this week when federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held a closed-door meeting with the Silver Line stakeholders to try to resolve disputes over the $2.7 billion dollar project. The Reston Citizens Association, which represents 58,000 residents in Fairfax County, says the controversy over whether bidding contractors should receive a preference for choosing union labor is not as important as toll projections on the Dulles Toll Road.  Those tolls are supposed to pay off the project’s debt over the next forty years under the current funding structure.

In a letter sent Friday to Secretary LaHood, Terry Maynard, who sits on the association’s board of directors, said this week’s efforts to resolve the dispute over union labor “barely touch on the most critical issue of the construction of Phase 2 of the Silver Line: three-quarters of the cost of Phase 2 of the rail line’s construction will be borne by the 100,000 or so users of the Dulles Toll Road, many of them Reston residents. The result will be that toll road users will end up paying more than half of the nearly six billion dollar total cost of the Silver Line.”

In an interview with WAMU, Maynard said projected high tolls are one of many outstanding issues surrounding Phase 2 of the largest mass transit project in the country at the moment.

“It is not being addressed. That’s specifically the reason why I wrote this letter on behalf of our committee to Secretary LaHood,” said Maynard, who said motorists' tolls would pay for three-quarters of the project's cost unless the funding structure is changed.

“We’ve always called for toll road users to pay a quarter of the cost. This goes back to the 2004 federal environmental impact statement that had that percentage in it,” he said.

In his letter, Maynard said “a regular commuter who now pays less than $1,000 per year in tolls will see that cost rise to more than $8,000 per year in 2048 or more than $3,000 per year by 2028 in today’s dollars.”

Virginia Delegate Barbara Comstock (R), who sponsored legislation to withdraw her state’s funding commitment over the pro-union provision, said Phase 2 will not happen if MWAA maintains a PLA, or project labor agreement, which would give contractors a ten percent bonus on their technical evaluation scores if they opt for a union workforce.

“The law requires that they have to have a level playing field to compete.  It is not something that negotiable,” she said.  “The governor has said from the outset that they would have to have a level playing field.”

An MWAA spokeswoman said CEO Jack Potter was not available for comment today, but she did release a statement.

“We’re working with our partners on the PLA issue and no decisions have been made regarding tolls at this time,” said MWAA spokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs.

Comstock said no major decisions should be made about Phase 2’s fate until a midterm audit by an inspector general is released May 15.

“It will be a critical time to stop and take a look at what this audit is telling us about [MWAA’s] management practices so we can make improvements, do the best for the taxpayers to keep tolls down, and keep the costs of the project down,” she said.

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Dulles Rail Silver Line in Jeopardy Over Labor Pay Dispute

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

(Washington, DC - WAMU) Loudoun County officials say Phase 2 of the Metro Dulles rail project known as the Silver Line may be delayed.  Phase 1 is expected to be completed in August 2013, but disputes over funding and the potential use of union labor are jeopardizing Phase 2, which would connect Reston, Va. to Dulles Airport and beyond into Loudoun County.

Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors is now controlled by Republicans who have raised questions about the county’s commitment to the project.  Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R) tells the Washington Post, “There is a very legitimate and real chance that this project might not go forward.”

Among the contentious issues is a decision by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to provide bidding contractors a ten percent bonus on their technical evaluation scores if they choose to hire union construction workers through a project labor agreement (PLA).

The dispute pits Virginia Republicans who control the state's General Assembly against the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's (MWAA) Board of Directors and labor union leaders. The assembly members claim a decision by the MWAA violates Virginia's right-to-work law.

The Republican-led Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that threatened to withdraw the state's $150 million contribution, claiming the PLA discriminates against the state's non-union workforce. The legislation also claims the PLA will lead to out-of-state construction workers outnumbering Virginia's on the project, and increase the project's cost.

Gov. Bob McDonnell intends to sign the legislation, effective July 1. Virginia's construction workforce is 97 percent non-union.

If Virginia withdraws the $150 million contribution, tolls on the Dulles Toll Road could double to about $9 round-trip next January, according to MWAA CEO Jack Potter.

"The position that we have evolved to is a very reasonable position," Potter says. "I believe that it would be a real shame if this project were to be delayed because of the project labor agreement."

The dispute has left opposing sides claiming to be the true defenders of tax and toll payers.

Republican Dels. Barbara Comstock and Tim Hugo, the chief sponsors of the legislation, say big labor unions, namely the Laborers' International Union of North America (LiUNA), influenced the adoption of the PLA. LiUNA accuses Republicans of doing the bidding of "anti-union" groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors of Virginia.

In an interview at ABC Virginia headquarters, the association's president Patrick Dean denied charges of "anti-unionism."

"We believe at ABC that all competition should be free and open," says Dean. "Everyone should have the right to compete based on a fair price and quality work. We don't believe the government or any authority authorized by the government should pick winners and users."

Since the first year he ran for office, Hugo has received $1,500 in campaign contributions from the Associated Builders & Contractors of Virginia, which lobbied in favor of the bill that would withdraw the state's funding. From all general contractors, Hugo has received $12,250 since 2002.

"The money that ABC members and our association gives to elected officials to support their campaigns is minuscule compared to what the labor unions give to elected officials throughout the country and throughout Virginia," says Dean.

Hugo says donations by contractors did not influence his position whatsoever, and that his concern is with making sure union and non-union companies have a level playing field.

Since Comstock ran for office in 2009, she has received $1,500 in campaign contributions from the ABC of Virginia. From all general contractors, she's received $19,500 since 2009. Comstock also denied she was influenced by donors.

"That is absolutely false," she says. "We are doing the work for Virginia workers to make Virginia workers and Virginia taxpayers get the most out of their tax dollars."

A review of political contributions to Hugo and Comstock revealed that donations from contractors accounted for relatively small proportions of their campaign war chests.

Moreover, their donors have used both union and non-union workers over the years. For instance, the CEO of Bethesda-based Clark Construction, Peter Forster, has given Comstock $10,000, her largest individual donor from the general contracting industry. But Clark, which is expected to be among the bidders for Dulles Phase 2, has used varied workforces in many of its large projects.

In the view of Hugo and Comstock, the PLA, not general contractors, is the problem.

"My bill specifically says you can't discriminate against union or non-union, so everybody has to be treated equally," Comstock says. "I think the union workers have no problem competing equally. They are not afraid of this. It is the union bosses who want to control this and dictate this, get more money in their coffers. That's not money that will help Virginia taxpayers or Virginia workers."

In a statement released Feb. 21, MWAA defended its decision to adopt the PLA. It referred to MWAA's initial decision to make the PLA mandatory for contractors, a decision that was reversed after protests from Virginia lawmakers and some officials in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

The new approach to adopt a voluntary PLA did not satisfy MWAA's opponents. A letter sent to MWAA's chairman, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, as well as the Fairfax and Loudon county executives, urged the authority to reverse its decision.

"Right now what we are asking for is no discrimination in awarding the contract based on whether a company or contractor uses union or non-union labor," said Secretary Connaughton in an interview with WAMU.

"We want them to be focused on competency and cost. We do not want to see a requirement for unions or a prohibition against unions."

PLAs can increase the cost of public works projects 12 to 18 percent, according to studies conducted by the ABC of Virginia. Wages are not the issue, says Dean, but pension and health care costs are.

"If non-union companies work on the project, those companies have their own benefit programs, health and welfare pension programs," Dean says. "They would have to pay benefits into the union pension program for which those employees would never be vested. The union pension fund gets nice and healthy. The overarching goal of project is bolstering union pension funds."

MWAA's CEO contends the project's cost will not be adversely affected by the PLA.  "You'd be hard pressed to say that it makes more than a $5 million difference in either direction on a [$2.7] billion project," Potter says.

Under the Davis-Bacon Act, all workers will be paid prevailing wages regardless of their union affiliation. Potter's position is echoed by LiUNA.

"MWAA already knows that there are about 8 teams who are planning to put in bids. Eight teams is robust competition on a project of this size," said LiUNA general counsel Brian Petruska. "There is going to be a competitive, rock bottom, market price based on competitive bidding and the people who have the best teams and the best technology."

If Virginia makes good on its threat to pull its Phase 2 funding, motorists may end up among the losers. A $2.25 toll on the Dulles Toll Road for a one-way trip could jump to $4.50, according to a report prepared for MWAA.

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Inside An Epic Road Trip, by Bike

Friday, April 27, 2012

Boris Mordkovich and Anne Mostovetsky are on a 4,000-mile journey across on the country... on their electric bicycles. (Photo Martin Di Caro)

Part personal adventure, part act of environmental consciousness, best friends Boris Mordkovich and Anna Mostovetsky chose a challenging way to raise awareness about the benefits of bicycle commuting at a time of $4 gasoline: a 4,000-mile cross country tour.

Mordkovich, 26, and Mostovetsky, 25, would not strike the casual observer as trans-continental bicyclists. He is a director of Evelo, an electric bicycle start-up based in New York. She has a degree in environmental science and has worked on salmon restoration in her home state of Washington. He sports a stereotypical nerdy look; tall, skinny, and bespectacled. She is slight in build with wavy black hair and deep blue eyes. But Boris and Anne must both have, or soon will have, legs of iron.

"For us, it was an interesting opportunity to see a lot of the different cities in our country and understand what are the transportation challenges in each one," says Mordkovich, who has known Mostovetsky since their high school days a decade ago.

"We've done a lot of traveling internationally and we both cycled together in New Zealand," says Mostovetsky. "We went on a one-month cycling tour in the south island and it was a great experience, and we thought what better way to see the country than to cycle."

Journey across the country

The two coast-to-coast adventurers will ride electric bikes that supply additional power to make it up steep hills and mountains. The tour from New York to San Francisco is expected to take two-and-a-half months, winding and weaving its way over roads urban and rural, stopping in 15 cities where the travelers will give presentations on electric bicycles and the benefits of green commuting.

"Our average is going to wind up being about 80 miles per day, and the number of hours that takes just depends on the terrain that we will be passing through," says Mostovetsky.

WAMU interviewed the bicycling buddies after their tour stop in the greater Washington area. They had spent the better part of the morning traveling south from Baltimore, attended a gathering in Tacoma Park, and made arrangements to spend the night at their host's home in Cabin John, Md. As they travel county-to-county and state-to-state, Mordkovich and Mostovetsky are booking their lodgings online with people who rent bedrooms or couches to travelers.

"They are only strangers for the first few minutes," laughs Mordkovich.

They won't spend any nights sleeping under the stars, but their long voyage to San Francisco will be challenging nonetheless.

"The best stories are the ones where while they are happening you are thinking, why in the world did I decide to do this?" says Mordkovich, who says the trip had gone smoothly during the first week after leaving New York. "There were a couple hiccups here and there. For example, you end up on an interstate just because the GPS sends you in the wrong direction."

They attached trailers to each of their bicycles, each weighing about 70 pounds. They contain tools and spare parts, electric battery chargers, some food and a few changes of clothing.

"So this is our electrical box, and this is where we keep all our chargers and other electrical gadgets for charging batteries," says Mostovetsky as she unzips the fabric covering the trailer's top. "Every evening we look for an outlet and charge them up. And this box which came in handy today is our emergency tools, a first aid kit, some bungee cords, a zip lock bag full of spare tubes and anything else we need."

Mordkovich pulled out two large boxes of Cliff bars, a gift from his brother. Their bicycles were provided by his start-up, Evelo, and they have also received sponsors to help cover the trek's estimated cost of $10,000.

Commuting by bicycle in America

While they hope to gain much personal fulfillment from their long voyage, Mordkovich and Mostovetsky also want to make a point about the way most Americans get to work.

"There are tons of bicycles sold in Holland, Switzerland and Germany and many people use them for commuting and getting around," she says. "Half a percent of the population in the United States uses them as a means of commuting. We could do a lot better, especially in this day in age when oil is peaking and we need to find alternative energy sources."

Mordkovich says Washington D.C. has strong bicycling potential.

"From what we've seen you have a very good bicycle infrastructure," he says. "Furthermore, I think it is very interesting that starting last year you added the Capital Bikeshare."

Listen to this story here.

Follow the bicyclists on their odyssey here.

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Metro Approves Fare Hike

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gallery/Chinatown DC Metro Station (photo by Jill Robidoux)

The WMATA board of directors approved the transit agency's first fare increase in two years at a board meeting heavily attended by disabled users of Metro Access transportation.

Despite the pleas of the physically and developmentally disabled,  Metro's board approved a maximum fare of $7 one way for Metro Access.  All fares will go up effective July 1:  the average rail fare will increase by about 5 percent, ten cents for off peak and fifteen cents for peak times.  Bus fares are increasing a dime to $1.60 with SmarTrip cards.

While Metro officials say the agency need the increased revenue to close a budget gap as well as pay for ongoing maintenance costs connected to the agency's six-year capital improvement plan, disabled riders rose from their seats and wheelchairs to tell board members that they simply cannot afford to pay a higher fare.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Metro Access fare may be no more than twice the equivalent fixed route SmarTrip fare based on the fastest trip.

"Please do not raise the fare on us.  We have fixed incomes.  We have high rent to pay," pleaded Josephine Johnson, who used Metro Access in D.C.  "Also, we are disabled, handicapped, and on dialysis."

Disabled Metro riders are also unhappy that their fares remain unpredictable day-to-day.  For instance, fares can differ by several dollars for rides scheduled just 15 minutes apart.  Metro is attempting to make it easier for disabled riders to shop for the cheapest ride through the use of text messages and the internet, but some riders say technology is of little help.

"Only eight percent of the [disabled rider] community is using the on line reservations that are available to them," said Pat Spray, who sat in his wheelchair throughout the board meeting.  "Ninety-two percent of reservations are made by phone, not by internet."

"What the accessibility advisory committee is requesting is that when someone calls, they are given within a thirty minute window the cheapest rate.  That doesn't, however, address the fact that the same ride next week at the same time will be a different price."

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said he and the board carefully considered all the public input from a series of hearings on the fare hike proposal, but the agency had to act.

"What the fare increase does is provide additional revenue to us to provide additional rush hour service during the peak period, to improve bus service, and to improve maintenance," said Sarles.

As he waited for his train at the Farragut North station, commuter David Super said he would pay the higher fare, no problem.  "With less money service will get even worse.  I think their problems show the money is needed."

Others weren't as willing to hand over more cash for their commute.  "I think it is despicable because of the customer service that we get," said Gretchen Helm.  "They still have no system in place of refunding peoples' money when there is an issue with these smart cards."





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D.C. Brings Back Potholepalooza

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

(photo by Wayan Vota via flickr)

They come in a variety of shapes, are several inches deep, and can cost hundreds of dollars in car repair bills: potholes, the bane of every driver's commute. In an effort to eliminate some of them, the District of Columbia is launching its annual Potholepalooza.

Along one stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the Anacostia neighborhood of southeast D.C., the road looks like it used to be riddled with potholes but has been patched up with globs of asphalt. It's not a smooth ride, but resident Anthony Johnson says it's a minor improvement.

"They are getting better," Johnson says. "They have started working on it, but they have been bad for years. That's nothing new. There are still a lot of them that's not done."

Johnson says the District's Potholepalooza, which filled 5,000 potholes during a single month last year, is much needed again.

"See that truck over there? I want to keep it for a little while," he says.

Potholes are car killers. Portia Perkins says her friend hit one pothole on Pennsylvania Avenue in southeast that wound up blowing a huge hole in her bank account.  "It messed up her muffler, and so she had to get that fixed," says Perkins. "It cost her a couple thousand dollars."

The city is asking for help in locating potholes. Individuals can email repair requests, tweet them to @DDOTDC, call information at 311, or use the District's new smart phone app. The DDOT says it will work to repair identified potholes within 48 hours; normal response time is within 72 hours.

After hearing this report, a WAMU listener who identified herself as Karen said in an email, "I hit a pothole the morning of 4/12/2012 on 15th just north of Euclid, NW.  I was going about 15-20mph and the force of the impact cracked my oil pan and knocked the alignment out.  The car was towed and the repair was approximately $1,100."

Listen to this story here:

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D.C. Taxi Plan Would Revamp Aging Taxi Fleet

Monday, April 09, 2012

Washington, D.C. taxi waiting in front of Union Station (Photo CC by Flickr user tonnoro)

To hear the gruff voice of cabbie criticism for the proposed taxi plan in it's purest form, listen to the audio version of this story at WAMU. 

(Washington, D.C -- WAMU) Climbing into a taxicab in Washington, D.C. doesn't guarantee a pleasant ride. The cab may be old or dirty, the cabbie may not know his way around, and the rider better carry cash. City leaders say the current state of the taxi industry is embarrassing to a capital city visited by 20 million tourists annually.

The District's 6,500 taxicabs would undergo a major makeover under a plan awaiting the approval of the D.C. city council. A proposed 50-cent surcharge on all rides would pay for a slew of improvements: including smart meters with GPS that monitor routes and calculate fares; credit card payment machines; driver and passenger safety buttons that would call the police; and add driver ID panels and Internet screen displays in the back seats.

D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh sponsored the legislation. She also surveyed residents about D.C. cabs. The results showed residents support implementing the proposed improvements. Only 18 percent said the current state of service is good, while 42 percent said it is fair and 36 percent rated it poor. Compared to other cities, D.C. taxis were rated worse by 69 percent of survey respondents.

"I have taken the cab service here in Washington when I was working," says Gerry Horn of Port Washington, N.Y., as he waited for a ride outside Union Station. "I worked a lot down here even though I am from New York, and I was not all that excited about it."

D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton explains that all the changes would be mandatory, despite the loud complaints of some cabbies, and would be funded exclusively by the 50-cent surcharge. A 'Consumer Service Fund' would be created solely for collecting the surcharge and allocating monies to enhance the taxicab industry.

"What [the cab drivers] don't understand is... why are we regulating them? I had to inform them that as far I knew, there is no commercial operation in the District of Columbia that isn't regulated by the government," says Linton, who says he expects the D.C. Council to approve Cheh's legislation this summer. "These are people who are driving on the streets owned by the citizens of the District of Columbia."


Raising the cost to raise the quality

Linton expects the taxi overhaul to take about two years. Based on the estimate of 25 million taxi passengers per year, the surcharge would place millions of dollars at his and the city council's disposal. Some cabbies simply don't trust the city to make the right decisions.

"Everybody is in our business and not taking care of their business," says Willie Coleman, who has been driving a cab for 36 years in the District. He says he opposes mandatory credit card payment machines even though a majority of passengers want them.

D.C. residents also support painting all the cabs the same color, according to Cheh's survey, but Linton says creating a uniform color scheme would not be high on his agenda.

"From my stand point as a regulator, it is not a big ticket item," Linton says. "I don't oppose it, but I am not going to expend energy when we have more important things to accomplish."

If you ask cabbies what the city can do for them, they will tell you raise fares. A fare increase is coming. As early as April 20, the per-mile charge will rise from $1.50 to $2.16. Luggage surcharges and the extra passenger surcharge of $1.50 will end.

Before they see most of the service enhancements, passengers will feel the changes in their wallets. The proposed fifty-cent surcharge and pending fare increase would increase the fare of a typical 2-mile ride in light traffic from $7 to nearly $9.

Unlike in other cities where cabbies are required to accept credit cards, under this plan, the Consumer Service Fund would cover the cost of the credit card fees, not the drivers.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend says the higher fees will be worth it when you consider the current state of the taxicab industry.

"It's almost like you have entered a time warp when you enter a cab in the District of Columbia," says Townsend. "It's almost like looking at the vehicle fleet in Cuba, dilapidated, old, and antiquated. For so long, the cab drivers have been so poorly treated they have not had the resources or the wherewithal to upgrade their cabs unless they work for a big taxi service."

Linton said over the next two years further measures will be proposed to modernize the fleet, including increasing the number of hybrid and fuel efficient vehicles.

"So when people come here for conferences, conventions, and business meetings, they find this a very convenient and rewarding method for moving around this city," he says. "That is why it is so important for this city, as the capital of the nation, to have a really world class taxi system."

No matter what city officials say, some cabbies won't believe them until they see real results. Robert Scruggs, 81, who has been driving a cab in the District since the Eisenhower administration, says he doubts the new fund won't be raided to pay for other things.

"People have a thing of putting their hands in the cookie jar, especially here," he says.

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Dynamic Tolling Coming To Virginia Express Lanes

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

I-495 in Virginia (photo by Dougtone via flickr)

(Martin Di Caro -- Washington, DC, WAMU) You pay for electricity, your phone and Internet.  You pay for most, if not all, of the services you use every day.  Should highways be different?  Virginia says the future answer will be no -- and drivers should be ready to pay a premium for a faster ride on congested highway corridors.

Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) officials are banking on drivers' willingness to pay an electronic EZ Pass toll for a faster commute on the I-495 express lanes that are set to open late this year.  Tolls on the new section of the beltway will rise as traffic volume in the express lanes increases. Dynamic tolling, as this practice is called, is relatively new in the United States.

"The day of free highways is behind us," said Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and a former assistant transportation secretary under George W. Bush.  Frankel said governments need the revenue that tolls would provide, and charging a premium to use express lanes serves another purpose: turning highways into a commodity.

"When you think about highway space as a product, it's limited," said Frankel. "Supply is constrained. And the only way to control how that supply is going to be allocated is by pricing it."

Dynamic tolling is relatively uncommon in the U.S. compared to Europe and Australia.  In the U.S. it's been a success on State Route 91 in southern California, where critics said the so-called Lexus Lanes would only be used by rich people, Frankel said.

"In fact, the experience in California is quite the opposite.  The lanes are most frequently used by people with limited time," said Frankel, who said getting motorists used to paying tolls is hard because of the idea that highways should be free.

Commuter Bevin Bresnahan, who was gassing up in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, typifies that attitude.  "I think everything should be free," she laughed. "We pay enough in gas, we pay enough in taxes."

The company that will operate the tolls on the I-495 express lanes says the typical toll during rush hour will be between $5-6 dollars one way, the average trip length is expected to be about four to six miles, and motorists are expected to use the new lanes a couple of times a week.

Listen to a report on this issue here.


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Traffic Light Along New Maryland Toll Road

Friday, March 30, 2012

Photo: Martin Di Caro

(Washington, DC -- Martin Di Caro, WAMU) Traffic appears pretty light on the Intercounty Connector, especially now that electronic tolls are being collected, but the Maryland Transportation Authority says traffic volumes are on target.

The completion of the eastern segment of the Intercounty Connector in late November promised to transform commuting by opening an 18-mile toll road cutting east-west across Montgomery County, Md.

Approximately 20,000 vehicles travel the ICC on average on weekdays, with the western segment seeing more volume than the eastern one by about 10,000 vehicles per day.  It takes three years for volume to ramp up on a new toll road, according to an ICC spokeswoman.

Raw data show that traffic volume significantly dropped after the collection of tolls began in early December.  On December 4, a Sunday, more than 44,000 vehicles drove the western segment of the ICC.  The next day saw volume fall to fewer than 26,000 vehicles.

In the Tanglewood subdivision of Silver Spring the sounds of birds and crickets on pretty suburban streets is now mixing with the constant, distant hum of traffic.  But the sound is less distant for Ken Schmidt, who purchased his home on Trebleclef Lane two years ago.  A new sound barrier standing about 20 feet high runs right behind his backyard.

“There is the old saying ‘not in my backyard.’ But here it is,” Schmidt says.  “When we purchased the house, the state website for the ICC spoke of two plans that ran north and south of Rt. 198.  This plan was not on the main page.  I assumed it wasn’t an option.”

Schmidt says he might have done more thorough research, because he would not have bought his home had he known where the ICC would be built.  Instead he recently spent $13,000 for new windows to block the sound of traffic from filling his home where he lives with his wife and baby boy.

“It’s 100 times better than it used to be but unless we went with even more expensive windows with more layers of glass, even that wouldn’t have solved the problem completely,” says Schmidt, who says dust kicked up by passing traffic and carried by the wind often covers his home, another reason to keep the windows closed.

Two doors down Trebleclef Lane lives Jeff Owrutsky, who bought his home in the early 1990s.  Over the past 20 years he witnessed the long-running public process that ended with the construction of a highway he actively opposed.

“This has been on the books since the ‘50s so we got wind of it before we moved here.  Certainly everybody said they would never build it but I guess you can say they have now,” Owrutsky says.  “A lot of the problem with this road is that it cost so much money.  It’s busting the bank in terms of our whole transportation budget.”

Owrutsky says he is getting used to his new environs but misses what his backyard used to be like.  “It was dense, full of trees, and there’s also an auto park over there.  It used to be that the trees would shield us from all the lights of the auto park.”

The ICC was designed to reduce traffic congestion on heavily congested east-west roads in Montgomery County, but the Maryland Transportation Authority says traffic analyses will take months to complete and there are no studies available.

In interviews with, residents near one of those roads, Briggs Chaney Road., say it’s difficult to tell whether traffic has dwindled over the past four months.

“I don’t see a major difference since the ICC road has been open.  When I go to Rockville, I take Rt. 28 and I think it is more congested,” says Alfiya Akhmed, who has lived on Briggs Chaney for seven years.

Some have noticed a positive change.  “Before we were kind of congested but now there is less traffic on Briggs Chaney,” says Gladstone Botsoe, a commuter who uses the road three times per week.  But commuter Rob McKellar says the traffic seems about the same, and he blamed the tolls on the ICC for keeping people on the local roads.

“With the economy the way it is I don’t think people want to pay.  I wouldn’t pay to go on that road,” McKellar says.

About six miles southwest of where Briggs Chaney Road runs parallel to the ICC, a stream runs through Northwest Branch Park, where many trees have fallen or are tilting down, their roots exposed above the stream bank.  Environmentalists say the ICC will exacerbate the problem of storm water run off that has already caused so much damage to the ecosystem.

“It’s hard to say whether any particular thing has caused the increased damage, but you have to figure that all those acres of concrete with run off is going to have an effect that is different than acres of forest where the water seeps in slowly,” says Anne Ambler, the president of Neighbors of Northwest Branch.  She and Dave O’Leary, the chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, described to the cycle that may transform the forest permanently for the worse.

“When we have lots of pavement… the storm pours in really quickly and the streams will come up quickly and gouge out the sides of the streams.  This water level will bounce right up and could be two or three times as deep as it is now.  Where we have these sharp bends in the stream that water pounds against the sides, undercuts the banks, and trees will fall in,” O’Leary says.

As more trees tumble into the stream, roots and all, the stream grows wider, causing further erosion.  As more trees fall, more sunlight breaks through the canopy, causing the growth of invasive species which now blanket the forest bottom.  The invasive plants prevent the seeds of older trees from taking root, and the forest will fail to sustain itself.

“Over the next couple of decades we will see this whole area transform.  A forest will become a few trees, different vegetation on the ground, the water is polluted.  What was appealing in 1990 or 1995 is much less so in 2015,” O’Leary says.

The state has five ongoing storm water management projects just for the area of the Northwest Branch, but Ambler says the problem is to a considerable degree irreversible.

“Progress is not a question of putting down more concrete.  The situation where we find ourselves now with climate change, progress would mean concentrating preserving our fresh water which is scarce and investing in other forms of energy,” she says.

Listen to an extended audio report on this issue here.


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Double the Fees on the Dulles Toll Road?

Friday, March 09, 2012

Dulles Rail Under Construction (Fairfax County Photo)

(Washington, DC -- Martin DiCaro, WAMU) A game of political chicken has started over the Dulles Metro Rail project. Virginia Republicans have passed legislation threatening to withdraw the state's $150 million contribution to Phase 2 of the project, and claims the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is discriminating against non-union workers. In WAMU's  weekly transportation segment, Martin Di Caro explains why the political dispute could end in a doubling of fees on the Dulles Toll Road.

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