New Year's Post #2: DC area top transportation stories of 2014
Every year the Post's Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, has a column ("Top 10 traffic, transit stories of 2014 in the D.C. region") on the top transportation stories of the year. Here is his list:
- 95 Express Lanes open
- Silver Line starts
- Streetcar dumped [in Arlington]
- ICC finished
- Metro fare [increases]
- DC willingness to close part of I-395 to facilitate a construction project
- Rebuilding of the Route 50 interchange with Courthouse Road and 10th Street in Arlington County
- expansion of bike lanes in DC
- construction on the expansion of the Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road interchange in Montgomery County
- continued problems with the Silver Spring Transit Center
I had begun preparing such a piece, but was sick much of the month of December, and mislaid the notes. (Note also that Dug Begley, transportation columnist for the Houston Chronicle, has a particularly good sum up piece of transpo issues in Houston, "Fifteen transportation things to watch in 2015," which is a model for such writing.)
Mike Neibauer from Washington Business Journal also has his contribution ("in Review 2014: The Silver Line is our top local story of the year").
Here's my list, but after a certain point, the ordering is pretty subjective: This one from 2009 is pretty good, "29 of the DC region's top transportation stories of the decade."
1. The Silver Line opening in Fairfax County. This is important not so much in terms of eventually providing subway access to Dulles International Airport, but in enabling Fairfax County particularly to repattern and intensify land use along more "urban" lines. Reston is already a strong competitor to other major activity centers-submarkets in the metropolitan area and this will only intensify with subway access.
Silver Line heavy rail, WMATA, line alignment and routing map. Washington Post graphic.
The Silver Line extension is particularly damaging to Arlington County, because it provides Metrorail access to a great number of office buildings priced more cheaply than comparable space in Arlington.
Sure the buildings are farther out, but with Metrorail access that becomes less of an issue. This will also lead to more federal offices locating further from the core outward in the metropolitan area attracted by lower prices and Metrorail access, adding to sprawl even as certain other trends have favored centralization ("Companies Say Goodbye to the 'Burbs," Wall Street Journal).
In the short run, ridership increases haven't been particularly significant, and it is unclear how many riders have merely been diverted from the Orange Line. Biggest use has been at the Wiehle Station, the end station of the first phase, and weekend use of the station serving the Tysons shopping centers.
2. Arlington County drops plans to introduce streetcars. This is significant for many reasons (I have a separate piece in preparation on Arlington and its economic future). The biggest is in how it leads to a crisis of confidence for the County and calls in question its identity and definition as one of the nation's leading jurisdictions committed to smart growth.
Planning for improvements in Columbia Pike started around 2000 and were kicked off by a big public planning event in September 2002. From the Columbia Pike Smart Code.
What's happened is that residents in North Arlington, already enjoying great transit access are balking at paying more money to improve transit access elsewhere in the county, failing to recognize that to maintain the county's identity as a smart growth-transit focused community, they must continue to strengthen and extend transit and land use planning actions that enhance walkability and intensity and activity.
So much for the streetcar in Arlington and by extension, in Fairfax County too.
As demand for office space in the region declines (organizations merge, more people telework, organizations reduce the square feet per worker), and as more submarkets/activity centers become more competitive and seek to recruit the same potential residents and businesses, Arlington County can't backslide, instead it has to up its game just to remain in the same place on the same playing field as other jurisdictions.
As alluded to in the previous point about the Silver Line, other jurisdictions are upping their game as evidenced by the redevelopment of the White Flint district in Montgomery County, Alexandria's poaching of the National Science Foundation (abetted by Congressional unwillingness to authorize higher lease rates for federal agency office space), and the continued addition of population and improvement of neighborhoods in DC.
By ceasing planning on the streetcar, Arlington County takes a big step backwards towards the future, reminding me of DC more than a jurisdiction nationally renowned for its robust land use and transportation planning.
3. The election of Larry Hogan as Governor of Maryland and his campaign planks to drop light rail plans for Suburban Maryland (Purple Line) and Baltimore City and County (Red Line). The relative success of Maryland's suburban counties in the DC metropolitan area comes from access to Metrorail. The relative decline of Baltimore comes from its lack of a well defined and expansive transit network (I am preparing a separate piece on this particular topic).
Purple Line map. Washington Post graphic.
The election of a Republican as Governor of Maryland was unexpected and caught the transit community by surprise. While exurban Maryland resents the urban sections of the state, the reality is that Rural Maryland is dependent on state funds derived from Montgomery County taxpayers. And much of the economic success of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties has a lot to do with transit access.
Governor-Elect Hogan has to realize that hopes for reelection (it's funny to think that far in advance when he hasn't even been inaugurated) are dependent on not "disrespecting" those counties--Montgomery and PG Counties are the two most populous counties in the state--and their economic and mobility priorities.
Depending on who Governor-Elect Hogan appoints to be Transportation Secretary, he could in fact drop light rail plans, not unlike Arlington, although the costs would be great. However, some of the potential candidates for the Secretary position are in fact pro-transit, not unlike how Republicans in Utah support transit or former Mayor of Charlotte, now Governor of North Carolina Pat McCrory is a transit proponent (although he's backslided as Governor).
In any case expect at least a one year delay in the Purple Line planning, and there is a good chance that the Red Line--which doesn't have the best business case anyway, and Baltimore County is not super-committed--will not move forward under a Hogan Administration.
For example, younger cohorts appear to be more willing to use transit, car sharing, and mobile-enabled ride services like Uber rather than traditional taxi services, which have tended to be laggards for innovation depending on how innovative the regulatory regime of particular cities.
I'm old (54) and I see no reason why Uber shouldn't be regulated like taxi services. While I think having a demand upcharge is reasonable (what Uber calls "surge pricing") I can't in a million years see how a surge pricing upcharge should produce fares equal to the cost of an airplane trip but for a 13 mile trip on the ground.
Almost $250 for 13 miles: Uber’s ‘surge pricing’" from The Highwayman blog/Houston Chronicle.
That isn't even getting at Uber's neoliberal anti-government hardball approach to regulation, the failures in vetting drivers, an unwillingness to take responsibility for driver failures, and the reality that the only reason that the company--probably not the drivers--makes money is because they take 20% of the fare. Without surge pricing they'd make no money.
Fracking and the increase in US oil production (it has increased 80% over the past few years as a result of use of hydraulic fracturing techniques in production) has led to the drop in prices and also has international implications as many oil producing nations need high prices to generate the revenue needed to maintain current political and social commitments. There could be greater social unrest internationally as this shakes out.
Plus, states like Texas and North Dakota that have experienced an economic boom because of oil production increases will in the intermediate term, experience economic decline from reduced revenues and reduction in investment in oil production in the face of lower prices. See "The Petro States of America" from Businessweek.
6. WMATA ridership is falling. While bus fares are in line, if not lower than other cities, subway fares--based on distance--are amongst the highest in the country, comparable in some cases to railroad commuter fares (which makes sense because in the outer parts of the metropolitan area, Metrorail service is more comparable to railroad passenger service than to an inner city subway).
The quality of service has declined significantly in the face of reconstruction, especially on the weekends, and as subway cars age.
Fares are high and the reduction of the federal transit benefit and impacts of the Federal shutdown and budget cuts have reduced federal employment which are the major reasons for the decline ("Metro ridership down over the last two years," Washington Business Journal).
Ridership is down one-ninth, to 200 million trips per year.
7. But APTA reports that nationally, transit ridership is still increasing ("Five signs America is falling in love with public transit," CNN) and maybe what that means is that we are moving towards a more pronounced differentiated land use/transit paradigm, where transit ridership in those cities that have developed a reasonably robust sustainable transportation infrastructure may maintain and rise, despite gasoline prices, because of substantive shifts in behavior between metropolitan cores and their outskirts.
In those communities with walking city/transit city spatial urban design patterns--cities like DC, San Francisco, New York City--and where transit, walking and biking trips are often competitive with trips by car, transit can hold its own.
However, transit expansion will be hard, as proven in DC and Arlington, because even in areas with robust transit systems, a great many people and often the most vocal of civic activists, are automobile-centric in their approach to urban questions, especially as they age and feel unable to walk, bike, or use transit.
8. Meanwhile, WMATA is seeking more funds from local jurisdictions to pay for various increased costs, without having to increase fares. See ""Let's Talk" -- What to do when your transit authority needs more money?: Washington region edition."
Sadly, the initiative promoted by President Obama to increase federal transportation funding calls for general fund sources too, like Virginia, rather than just a hefty increase in the gas tax and calling it a day ("FACT SHEET: President Obama Lays Out Vision for 21st Century Transportation Infrastructure," White House press release).
However, the recent decline in gasoline prices is a good example of the economic implications of not having different indexes for gas tax calculation. As prices fall, taxes could increase, generating more money for transportation infrastructure, without causing as much economic dislocation.
10. Various developments--good and bad--concerning transportation policy and practice in DC.
- Councilmember Mary Cheh proposes a deconsolidation of transportation functions in the city, which is a step backwards and counter to best practice transportation management in world class cities ("Rival bureaucracies are not the way to manage traffic," Washington Post).
- DC finishes the MoveDC transportation plan, but the City Council hasn't yet adopted it as a master plan. (Interestingly, the city's new parking planning policies seem to copy recommendations I made in the blog and privately in communications to DDOT higher ups.)
- DC didn't manage to launch the streetcar in 2014. Service is now supposed to start the week of January 19th. See "A crisis in confidence and the capacity of local government to execute transit projects."
(I am preparing an entry on the impact of the streetcar on H Street in terms of sparking hundreds of millions of dollars of new development, an effect that can't be ignored.)
- the lesson is that you can't punt on having quality leadership in important agencies like the Department of Transportation. The person likely to be nominated by Mayor Bowser to be the agency director comes from Maryland's DOT and has a lot of project management experience.
11. Poorly articulated arguments about streetcars "not being transit" rather than focusing on how streetcars are better at short trips, or what I call intra-district transit, rather than long trips. See "The argument that streetcars are "good enough" but "imperfect transit" is flawed" and "STREETCARS ARE ABOUT TRANSIT, just in a different way from how most people are accustomed to thinking about it." People writing that stuff "aren't helping" and need to up their game.
12. Decline in Dulles Airport usage relative to National and BWI Airports ("Dulles International Airport struggles to find its footing," Post). Partly the problem is too much capacity, relative to demand, because Dulles was created to focus on international travel, which isn't growing at the same rate as domestic airline travel, and its far out location from the core. I've argued that we need a real regional airport plan (""Economic impact of National and Dulles Airports") which we don't have.
Dulles at Dusk by Andrew Rhodes, on Flickr.
Personally, I think Dulles is fine for international travel but isn't well positioned to increase its share of the domestic travel market all that much given the existence of other airports in the region and the fact that other airports in the Mid-Atlantic, like Newark, are more significant hubs.
The State of Virginia has to think really hard about how much it wants to invest in Dulles, how much ability it has to become an aerotropolis compared to BWI Airport, which is better positioned to serve industry because it is proximate to the Port of Baltimore and a more significant proportion of the region's manufacturing base.
Plus there is the issue of the management of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. It has "broken trust" with residents who use the Dulles Toll Road, because rates have been jacked up significantly to fund the Silver Line. (The State of Virginia did this deliberately, but MWAA gets the fallout.) But there are other management issues. Plus Virginia wants more control because the airports are located in Virginia, even though they were built with federal funds.
13. Expansion of High Occupancy Toll lanes in Maryland and Virginia. In December, HOT lanes went operational on I-95, in Virginia, from Springfield to Gainesville (photo below), and in Maryland, north of Baltimore. They join existing HOT lanes on I-495 in Virginia, and tunnel and bridge tolls in Norfolk, Virginia, which were imposed to pay for the construction of a new tunnel.
The criticism of HOT lanes is that they promote single occupant vehicle trips, automobility, rather than sustainable transportation.
14. Problems with tolling systems for HOT lanes (and bridges). With the system for 495 and the Elizabeth River Tunnels in Norfolk, Virginia, there are many examples of drivers being screwed "ERC: Toll problems have improved, but work remains," Norfolk Virginian-Pilot).
To speed up throughput and to reduce costs, tolling is now being implemented without tollgates. It's done automatically. But the companies can assess fines, big fines, and they aren't really taking responsibility for prompt billing.
And there needs to be some consideration for people who are low income users of the facilities, and providing assistance in acquiring transponders at the very least. For example, this piece from a tv station in Norfolk, "Unpaid toll bills land family in court," discusses a family facing many thousands of dollars of charges (they claim they didn't receive notice) but the tolls would have been cheaper by half if they would have had an EZPass transponder. Although they were crossing the South Jordan Norfolk Bridge, a different facility from the tunnels. Locally, WTTG-TV has reported on problems with tolling on I-495.
15. DC resident opposition to reconstruction of the Virginia Avenue Railroad Tunnel abetted by lawsuit by the Committee of 100 on the Federal City ("Committee of 100 files lawsuit to derail rail project," WJLA-TV). Related are other examples of organized, ongoing, vociferous opposition to transit:
- aforementioned opposition to streetcars in Arlington
- and in DC ("D.C. should hit the brakes on any streetcar expansion," Post). For both, see "A crisis in confidence and the capacity of local government to execute transit projects."
Cars parked along 26th Street in Baltimore fell onto CSX rail tracks when the road bed collapsed. (Photo credit: Stacey Mink via Associated Press.)
I believe in infrastructure investment and I do believe that certain types of state-regional-national infrastructure shouldn't be held hostage to local planning concerns. (There are some provisions in federal law, such as for railroads, that limit local oversight.) On the other hand, you do need to ensure that local interests are protected.
That being said, there is little negative impact on the city for CSX Transportation expanding the capacity of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel to facilitate freight transportation.
DC residents benefit from access to freight transportation as does the nation. And the collapse of a tunnel in Baltimore earlier in the year ought to communicate to us that we should be fostering such investments rather than hindering them.
So residents fighting the tunnel project, which will have minimal impact on them, offering spurious suggestions such as waiting for a DC railroad transportation plan--which wouldn't make recommendations any different concerning the expansion of this tunnel--seem pretty pointless.
But the city's only long term citizens planning organization sees things differently, and is suing over the agreement to move the project forward.
Seems like a waste of time to me. However, it reminds me of a long ago email conversation, where the point was made that when cities get sued it often cows officials in terms of actions on other projects in the future--they become more timid.
Maybe the intent of the suit isn't to win on the Virginia Avenue Tunnel but to cause grief on transportation officials, so they won't have the audacity to support other important projects which may cause some short term discomfort while they are being constructed, but which people concerned with short term gratification don't want to put up with.
But it's also a reminder of what I see as the biggest problem in public participation in planning, where residents tend to take on circumscribed responsibility, only for what we might call "neighborhood concerns," while discharging their responsibilities as citizens to acknowledge constraints and to be concerned simultaneously with the need to resolve "citywide" and "regional" or "national" concerns as well.
16. Bike share. This is more of a national issue. Bike share systems continue to launch across the country. Expansion in NYC has run into budget issues. Seeking working capital, Alta Bike Share sold itself to a much better funded outfit ("Alta Bicycle Share sold to New York firm," Portland Business Journal,"). But I don't see the new company putting money out in system expansion, except in NYC where they are required to do so.
Bike shed as an element of station maps. I haven't yet got a screenshot of an entire map, but in a "new development" in urban wayfinding mapping, the area map at each Seattle Pronto bike share station distinguishes between the walk shed and bike shed within a neighborhood, making very clear that in the same amount of time as walking, you can cover more ground by bike. Photo from Geek Wire.
But I think that bike share will only be successful in cities that already have a significant level of interconnected sustainable mobility options (walking, biking, transit, car share, bike share) supported by density and a walking-transit city urban design spatial pattern.
And financial success defined as "without significant subsidy" will only come in odd situations, like in DC, where tourists generate extranormal revenues from what we might call "late fees." Regular members don't rack up such fees. But without such revenues it's hard for a system to break even on operations.
That's why we see much higher membership fees being imposed in systems where there is no local subsidy, like in NYC and San Diego. Perhaps in San Diego the high fees will hinder ridership, but the system will be able to operate on a break even basis.
DC was innovative the past year by buying some "used" stations at a good price from Ottawa, which switched to a different system, to be able to add more stations while new equipment is not being manufactured. (For example, Seattle uses non-Bixi equipment in their bike share program because of this problem.) That's resulted from the bankruptcy and change in ownership of the organization that developed the Bixi system originally.
And I think it's interesting that Jersey City, NJ, rather than joining in a Hudson County effort, prefers to join in the Citibike system in NYC, to further cement the mobility interconnections between Hoboken and Manhattan ("Jersey City snubs North Hudson bike-share program for NYC's Citi Bike program," Newark Star-Ledger).
2012-2013 actions that became more significant in 2014
17. The Washington Post ran a big section on plans for Union Station's expansion ("Reimagining Union Station | The Washington Post") which is derived from the 2012 Amtrak Master Plan ("Union Station Master Plan, Washington, DC. Note that in the next couple months I plan to have a big piece/position paper on this, in part shaped by a trip to Germany, especially to Hamburg and my experience with how they deliver integrated transit service operations.
18. MARC weekend rail service on the Penn Line launched in 12/2013. Ridership and service expanded over the course of 2014 and MARC has just added facilities for bicycles for weekend service ("MARC Bike Car Now on Select Penn Weekend Trains," MARC press release).
19. In 2013, the Georgetown Business Improvement District came out with a 2028 Vision Plan, which is heavily focused on transportation (Final Georgetown 2028 Plan | Georgetown DC). In 2014, I became more enamored with their idea of aerial tram service between Rosslyn and Georgetown. More on that within the next few months.See the ULI article, "Transit Planners Look to the Sky with Cable Cars, Gondolas."
20, The Silver Spring Transit Center continued failure to open, but I think the bigger issue is its uninspired design. See "Maybe the ideal solution for the Silver Spring Transit Center would be to start over."
21. Various efforts around the country, many failed (e.g., in Florida), to increase transportation funding for local transit expansion. As well as efforts (e.g., Michigan, Missouri) at the state level, etc.
22. Failure to increase the Federal Gasoline Excise Tax.
23. Failure to invest in infrastructure when interest rates are so low.
24. Vision Zero traffic safety initiatives.
25. Successful transit expansion in Seattle (streetcar, light rail), Portland (streetcar, light rail), Salt Lake City (streetcar as part of a larger system), Los Angeles, Tucson (streetcar), Atlanta (streetcar), San Francisco (light rail/streetcar + BART in the Bay Area), Denver, Minneapolis
26. Privately funded high speed rail projects move forward in Texas and Florida
27. While high speed rail development continues to be controversial and languish in California.
28. The transportation of oil in the face of high volatility of the shipments (train car safety) and the failure to have adequate national regulations. (It's a state function, sort of.)
29, Amtrak's ridership is increasing. But the quality of train cars is low. You can see this in those systems where the state, such as California's funding of the Pacific Surfliner, provide extra funds for better equipment. The Surfliner is a much better ride than the regional cars on the Northeast Corridor.
30. Calls in Chicago and Toronto for changes in how those metropolitan areas organize, operate, and fund transit.