Finance Washington DC

As Virginia Governor Demands Seats on Metro Board, State Transit Involvement in Question

» If a state contributes its funds to the operation of a transit system, should it acquire decision-making power?

WMATA, the organization that oversees Washington’s Metro transit agency, is one of the nation’s premier providers of rail and bus services, but it faces a number of obstacles to efficient management because its operations extend across a region that comprises two states and the District of Columbia. Its sixteen-member board includes four members from each of those governments and two more from the federal government (which also has two slots yet to be filled).

Now Virginia’s Governor is hoping to shake up his state’s involvement in WMATA by adding state-appointed members.

Though the government-by-government makeup of the board is set in stone, the way each member finds his or her way into the agency’s management structure depends on each respective government. For the District of Columbia, this means two elected councilmen and two mayoral appointees; for Maryland, two appointed by the governor and two appointed based on local concerns; and for the federal government, four appointed. Virginia’s four slots are determined by the Northern Virginia Transportation Committee (NVTC), whose 20 members generally pick two representatives from heavily populated Fairfax County, one from Arlington County, and one from the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax. The State has one vote on the NVTC board.

New Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) has cried foul about this arrangement, arguing that his government’s contribution of a large share of WMATA’s six-year, five billion dollar capital plan should give him the right to directly appoint two of Virginia’s four board members. Local transit advocates are up in arms about this, calling it a blatantly partisan move against an organization whose board is currently entirely made up of Democrats. They also argue that local officials in Virginia pay a large share of Metro’s funds themselves and that they’re more responsive to rider needs than would be an isolated and inaccessible state appointee.

Governor McDonnell’s decision to make a big deal of the board’s makeup now, right before the federal government was supposed to chip in $1.5 billion to the system, is also wildly inappropriate timing, putting in jeopardy those Congressionally allocated funds. This could make Metro’s recent purchase of 428 new rail cars more difficult.

Local urban advocate David Alpert suggests that the fairest compromise would be to allow riders, who pay a large percentage of operating funds through fares, to vote for their own representatives.

Whether Governor McDonnell’s demand is politically motivated or appropriate, however, is beyond the broader point, which is that states are taking an increasingly important role in funding the operation and maintenance of transit systems, in the national capital region and elsewhere. Do they have a right to be involved in making decisions about transit agencies as a result? Or are state governments too isolated from the needs of riders to have authority over public transportation services, even if they’re contributing money to them?

In the abstract, it would be difficult to argue that the state of Virginia should have no say in WMATA’s organization, since Virginia’s taxpayers as a whole are contributing to its functioning after the state government made a political decision to come to its aid. On the other hand, one could argue that locally elected politicians are representing the state’s interests, if we are to assume that the state’s goals align themselves with those of localities.

But it does seem difficult to continue to push the state away from direct involvement in the management of the transit system; the federal government received four WMATA board members in exchange for its contribution — why shouldn’t the state of Virginia expect the same? Governor McDonnell’s insistence on the right to appoint two members may be poorly timed, but it’s not especially unreasonable. Indeed, there’s some merit to the idea that local governments and the state and riders all make some contribution to the board; WMATA’s decision-making should be as inclusive as possible.

Streetcar Washington DC

Washington Comes Closer to Bridging the Gap with its New Streetcar Network

» After tumultuous council session last week, first line is mostly funded and will be ready for service in 2012. Eight more corridors in the District are also planned.

Compared to the massive, multi-billion dollar investment made over thirty years in the construction of Washington’s Metrorail network, the 37-mile streetcar system that the city’s Department of Transportation is planning pretty much spare change. These more limited ambitions are a reflection of tighter times, a realization of the fact that save some unforeseen technological advance, the era of big expansions of American rapid transit networks has mostly come to an end.

Yet the decision by District DOT chair Gabe Klein to announce a framework last year for the construction of eight streetcar lines illustrates a maturing of thinking about the American city in general. By highlighting eight routes spread out along 37 miles that plug holes between Metrorail stops and that provide access to now rail-less portions of the inner-city, the city will be making it increasingly feasible to live without a car throughout Washington. And with streetcars, the District is choosing to emphasize occasional and non-work users in a way not nearly as simple as with the commuting-focused, downtown-oriented subway system.

Washington began construction on the first line last year along H Street and Benning Road in the northeast quadrant of the city, choosing to include new tracks (but not catenary) along with an overall street renovation project. But that corridor, which would ultimately extend east to the Benning Road Metrorail station across the Anacostia River and west to Union Station with services by 2012, has been subject to numerous debates in the U.S. capital city. Most importantly, a ban on overhead wire in parts of the historic core is still in effect, making the installation of traditional streetcars impossible.

One city councilperson almost managed to remove funding to install overhead catenary last week in an overnight move, though an intense citizen campaign restored $47 million in local funds over the course of the next two years. Along with the expected receipt of a federal urban circulator grant later this year, that will be enough to get streetcars running from Union Station to Benning Road — though there won’t be enough vehicles for full service initially. Meanwhile, twelve of the council’s thirteen members announced their support for a resolution that would allow overhead wires on this first corridor, though that bill won’t be up for a vote for some time.

Washington must come up with a long-term plan for streetcar vehicles that do not rely on overhead wire (some alternatives have recently been presented by vehicle manufacturers Alstom and Bombardier). Combined with the need to find an estimated $1.5 billion in financing to construct the complete eight-line network and buy an adequate number of vehicles, D.C. has a number of milestones to pass before it will benefit from a full-scale streetcar system.

But the District’s project, if implemented correctly, could play an important role in the development of this newly growing metropolis. The eight lines highlighted for construction are relatively well-planned and will hit the right spots for this city.

As the map to the left above demonstrates, the existing Metrorail system has a number of major gaps in Washington itself, and it fails to provide efficient crosstown routes. Its service to the relatively densely populated near Northeast (such as to the Trinidad neighborhood) is entirely absent, and inhabitants of areas along north Georgia Avenue and many of the sections of the city on the south side of the Anacostia have no rail connections. Meanwhile, you can’t get from one side of town to the other without going through the central business district — an especially big problem for people trying to get from Congress Heights to Deanwood, for instance.

The streetcar lines planned, as the map on the right above shows, will fill in many of those gaps, allowing neighborhood-to-neighborhood connections currently not simple by rail. Most of the lines — with the notable exception of the southern portion of line I’ve referred to in the top map as Route 5 — would provide services to areas currently without easy rail transit access. In a place hoping to expand its population further and spur new development, these new streetcar lines seem well laid out.

None of the chosen corridors is likely dense enough to merit a new Metrorail connection, which means that the choice of streetcars is both fiscally sound and proportionate to demand.

The overall network, as shown below, provides much greater transit coverage of the region’s center city, though certain dense areas, specifically those along Wisconsin Avenue between Georgetown University and Tenleytown Metro Station, would remain unserved by rail even with the streetcar system’s full implementation. That said, the city is considering just that extension, along with a continuation of the Georgia Avenue line to Silver Spring and a connection further into Southeast D.C.

(I’ve included on the maps shown here the Columbia Pike Streetcar and Potomac Yards Transitway Rapid Bus proposed for Northern Virginia.)

Despite the justifiable excitement about getting this streetcar network off the ground, the District has a lot of work to do before it makes it a vital and well-used portion of the region’s transit system. Metrorail has been incredibly successful relative to most other new United States transportation systems; these streetcar lines should be designed to reinforce that high transit ridership.

Current plans, however, do not provide adequate demonstration of the city’s resolve to do just that. The way that streetcar tracks have been installed along H Street and Benning Road thus far has been sub-par: streets designs will ensure that vehicles are stuck within, behind, and between traffic when they begin running in 2012. These problems could have been avoided had steps been taken to seal the streetcar corridor from surrounding automobiles, something that can be accomplished relatively cheaply. I hope that future corridors will avoid future problems of this sort.

I also want to emphasize the importance of legibility in transit network design. One of the significant upsides of Metro is the system’s clear signage; its maps make figuring out how to get from one place in the region to another quite simple. Streetcar lines should be directly incorporated into the Metro map and labeled as simply as possible. I’ve provided an example for how that might be done at the top of this post. The streetcar names (#1-10) are my invention, but something of that sort must be instituted to encourage ease of use for occasional and frequent passengers alike.

I’ve avoided here the whole question of whether streetcar technology makes a good investment; it’s a discussion with meritorious arguments on both sides. Washington has been pushing actively to improve its express bus services, and recently won a national grant to do just that. But streetcars do have two major advantages over buses that could be particularly applicable to Washington’s plans: One, they’re more politically palatable, enough to make full funding and support from governmental leaders actually conceivable, not nearly as true for a series of bus lanes; Two, they have the potential to offer higher capacity than buses at lower operations costs.

But Washington — at least as of now — has not demonstrated itself particularly interested in taking advantage of the latter asset. The streetcars the DOT has purchased are only 66 feet long — about the length of an articulated bus, far shorter than, say, the Parisian T3 vehicles, at 143 feet long. District planners may be underestimating demand for some of their routes — some could produce high ridership if planned correctly — but they may also be constrained by the fact that these trains will be sharing lanes with cars. Either way, relying on such short vehicles negates some of the benefits of this rail-based technology.

All the talk about streetcars avoids a pressing problem facing D.C.: Metrorail is reaching capacity, and there are a number of significant expansion projects both in Washington and in the near suburbs that would greatly enhance and improve the existing system. Yet with the recession pulling tightly at the purse strings of both Maryland and Virginia, the potential for regional agreement on new projects seems unlikely. This is particularly true because of those states’ respective huge commitments to the Purple Line and Silver Line projects, both of which will be under construction over the next few years.

So Washington’s government is making the right choice in choosing to invest in this cheaper mode for the time being. If regional transit demand is greater over the long-term, a multi-state solution for funding must be found — but in the meantime, this focus on locally-funded streetcars makes sense.

Finance Social Justice Washington DC

As Congestion Mounts, Transit Agencies Consider Varying Pricing

» Washington Metro considers charging customers more to use system’s most congested stations, increasing peak-hour commute costs.

Downtowns play a primary role in organizing the daily lives of millions of Americans. Despite increasing suburban sprawl and the more recent comeback of inner-city housing, downtowns remain the single largest work centers of virtually every U.S. metropolitan area.

In the biggest of those center cities, rail rapid transit plays a vital supporting role; by hauling in tens of thousands of people to a limited number of downtown stations every morning, these systems allow the creation of dense urban cores that would not be possible were everyone to rely on private automobiles. Just as importantly, most urban rail systems would make little sense if they didn’t serve highly attractive destinations; it’s not a coincidence that almost every American urban rail line reaches the job center of its respective region. Downtowns and rapid transit are mutually reinforcing.

Why make this seemingly obvious point? Because private interests and the public sector have spent the last century working together to build these jobs centers, and the congestion now experienced daily on major rapid transit systems from New York to San Francisco is not unexpected: It was planned.

There’s nothing sinister about this fact: From a social equity perspective, there are good reasons to concentrate employment growth downtown and there are positive effects of economic accumulation that result from dense downtown cores. But that clustering — in addition to the standardized work hours enforced by most employers — ensures that rail lines and especially their downtown stations are packed in the morning and full in the evening, only to be frequently empty at midday. It’s not a particularly efficient distribution of ridership, but it’s what happens when thousands of people are working in close quarters downtown.

Facing a tough budget year and little hope of significantly more money from local, state, or federal sources, the managers of Washington, D.C.’s Metro system are considering adding a 50¢ surcharge for customers using or passing through the network’s busiest stations in the center city during peak hours. It’s an approach that has been promoted by a coalition of transit advocates and smart growth proponents who argue that some combination of additional fees would aid in the budget crisis, affect mostly wealthy riders, and reduce congestion by encouraging people to go to work during off-peak hours.

Similar schemes have been proposed over the years for a number of American transit agencies suffering from congestion at downtown stations.

Washington’s Metro already charges varying fares based on distance and hour traveled; a trip between suburban Bethesda and Union Station, for instance, varies between $3.00 at peak times and $1.95 other times. Metro requires customers to pay more for the train than the bus, likely resulting at least partially in the very different demographics of the city’s rail and bus systems. This is quite different from New York’s Subway and city buses, for instance, which charge a single, set fare at all times and for any journey, no matter the distance.

The “congested core” surcharge now under study for implementation for Washington could go into effect at the “peak-of-the-peak,” between 7:30 and 9:00 AM, and between 4:30 and 6:00 PM, when Metro is packed with riders. The mode of implementation has not yet been determined — nor has the funding device been approved at all — so I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of specifics.

Though this fee would likely reduce congestion at some stations and perhaps induce several thousand employees to change their work hours, its primary effect will be simply increasing the fares of most system users. This would provide immediate financial benefits to the cash-strapped transit agency, but it seems unlikely to solve long-term capacity problems with the Washington Metro or substantially increase the number of off-peak commuters. Most people, it turns out, still need to get home to their families at a reasonable hour, which means that most people will choose to pay the extra fare instead of changing their work schedules.

Thus the fee won’t reduce congestion dramatically — especially since the system continues to see ridership growth.

But more fundamentally, one should ask whether it makes sense for a transit system to charge extra for exactly the service it is supposed to provide best: journeys to and from the downtown core at peak hours. Should the District of Columbia push for years to increase the number of office jobs downtown if it decides to reverse the game later on and disincentivize the use of the region’s primary transit service to get there? Why penalize the people who are using the system in exactly the way that the system was designed to work?

Unlike automobile congestion zones, which are meant to increase the number of people using public transportation and other alternatives to driving (and, in turn, encourage the further densification of core land use), a transit congestion zone serves the opposite role. By increasing the cost of getting downtown by train, it degrades the value of the transit system’s primary use, which is to get from the outskirts to downtown during rush hour. It encourages car use and the build-up of areas outside of the core instead of within it.

Washington’s proposed fee is relatively minor and its global effects would be minimal, but there remains a conceptual gap between the idea of charging more to use center-city stations and the way in which American cities are currently designed. If we’re going to continue the concentration of center-city offices, we need to provide transit that reinforces it, not that works against it. Transit systems play an essential part in organizing regional developmental geography; their fare policies must reflect broader land use goals, not defeat them.

Ferry New York Washington DC

Using the River for Transportation

» Can ferries play a useful role in the broader public transportation system?

Most major cities are situated along some body of water — usually a river or two, often a lake or the ocean. There’s a good reason for this: waterways played an important role historically as transportation links for people and freight. They also allowed connections across barriers insurmountable by ground-based transportation; in the early 1900s, for example, ferries were the only mode of transport between Manhattan and Northern New Jersey. But new technologies allowing the construction of underwater road and rail tunnels and the general improvement of ground-based transportation systems have reduced the importance of boats for the average commuter in the urban environment.

In some cities, of course, the ferry never died out as a transportation mode — Venice’s Vaporetto water bus continues to be the primary mode of transit in that pedestrian city; in North America, both Seattle and Vancouver have extensive operations because of their water-bound geography. But for the most part, cities that grew up around their respective rivers have come to ignore them as potential corridors for transit service, citing the slow speed of water-bound travel and the difficulty of getting from the waterfront to business or residential districts.

Yet the transformation of many inner-city waterfronts from industrial zones to parks surrounded by walkable dense neighborhoods has reawakened an interest in using boats for transportation operations. With water views and fresh air, water taxis could be an appealing alternative to more mainstream forms of transit. The news this week that a company called American River Taxi plans to begin transit operations later this year between several of Washington, D.C.’s major waterfront zones is only the latest example of such an initiative.

The Potomac Riverboat Company currently operates a route between Alexandria and National Harbor.

Boats provide a unique opportunity to improve urban transportation because their use requires very little construction spending: unlike trains or buses, they can take advantage of a natural resource to move about, rather than having to rely on a built rail or road route. The only capital expenses required are in the erection of ferry terminals and the purchase of the boats themselves. Replacing some ferry routes with bridges or tunnels for ground-based transportation would cost billions of dollars.

From this perspective, the investment in new boat routes between Georgetown, the Southwest Waterfront, the Navy Yard, Alexandria, and National Harbor could provide significant new connections to areas of the Washington region that don’t have direct transit links today. Each of these neighborhoods has seen significant redevelopment over the past decade, already features a ferry dock, and may be able to attract enough traffic for the service provider to stay afloat.

On the other hand, urban water taxi operations typically have higher operations costs than equivalent trains or buses because they carry a relatively small number of people per vehicle and they consume large amounts of diesel fuel per mile. The ferry between New York’s Rockaway Peninsula and Lower Manhattan costs a total of $26 to operate per passenger trip, of which passengers are charged $6 — all for a trip that takes longer than an equivalent subway ride. In terms of ecological consequences, the high energy consumption levels of boats don’t make them particularly environmentally friendly, either.

These efficiencies improve significantly when passenger demand is higher and the size of boats increase. New York’s free Staten Island Ferry carries about 60,000 passengers a day on a 5-mile route and has operating costs per passenger trip of about six dollars. The city’s subway system, on the other hand, costs about $2 per passenger trip to operate, mostly covered by fares.

Thus even busy ferries suffer from relatively high operations costs. But these expenses are easier to bear than would be the construction of new routes for ground-based transportation, frequently extraordinarily costly. If capital and operations costs were put into the same pot, ferries would come out looking more economical than buses or trains.

Nonetheless, water taxis face a fundamental challenge resulting from the fact that most people aren’t interested in traveling from one waterfront to another, which is really all that a boat can do. Indeed, ferries work best in cities like Hong Kong where the city’s core is directly adjacent to the water. Companies like New York Waterway operate connecting bus shuttles between ferry docks and surrounding neighborhoods to make up for the problem, but this required connection increases overall travel time and reduces the appeal of the ferry, no matter how nice the ride across the river may be.

In most American cities, where business centers are separated from the water (often by large highways), it is unclear whether water taxis will ever produce significant ridership. Serving similar routes between Manhattan and New Jersey, New York Waterway carries about 30,000 daily passengers, compared to 250,000 on the PATH railway. Of course, part of the difference is that while PATH is subsidized, the Waterway is not and therefore charges much higher fares necessary to make up operations costs. Should the government agree to subsidize operations costs for ferries, just as they do for trains and buses? Is there a good reason why ferries are not incorporated into the broader public transportation systems of most cities?

If the routes proposed for Washington turn out to be a financial bust, should the city step in to ensure that the people using the boats continue to receive services at a reasonable fare?

The answer largely depends on whether the city wants to use transportation as a tool to develop land near the waterfront, since the ferries are probably not going to play a significant role as transit. Water taxi service could help Washington encourage new construction along its rivers; a high operations subsidy may be the price to pay to attract private investors onto once inhospitable sites.

Image above: New York Water Taxi, from Flickr user WEST-ULTRA (cc)

Bus Washington DC

Washington’s Investment in Faster Bus Service Should be a National Model

» Simple, cheap tools can dramatically improve day-to-day transit operations.

Of the projects selected yesterday to receive TIGER discretionary grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the national capital region’s proposed improved bus service investments, which picked up a total of $58.8 million, may be the least sexy. Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland won’t be getting streetcars with the cash, as are Tucson or Dallas; nor will they see the creation of a big new transportation center, like New York City or St. Paul.

But the region will see significantly improved bus service on thirteen transit corridors as a result of the new funding. At a relatively minimal cost, commuters who rely on the Metrobus system will be able to take advantage of added information and faster commutes on some of the area’s most traffic-prone streets. The amelioration of operations will make the District’s buses all the more convenient.

But the improvements made possible here shouldn’t be seen as special: they should be standard on bus systems from Washington to Wichita. The federal government should be handing out grants to perform similar upgrades for every urban bus transit system.

The total of $83 million committed to the improvements (of which local governments will contribute $25 million) is split roughly in thirds between Washington, Maryland, and Virginia. The central city will see upgrades on the four primary bus corridors heading away from downtown, including Wisconsin Avenue, 16th Street, Georgia Avenue, and H Street; access for buses coming across the Potomac River from Virginia will be eased as well. Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties are in line for improvements for circumferential routes along Veirs Mill Road and University Boulevard, as well as along the radial corridors of U.S. 1 and Addison Road. In Virginia, spending is planned for Route 7 between Tysons Corner and Alexandria, which sees heavy transit traffic (and deserves a more significant upgrade) and the Crystal City/Potomac Yard Transitway, which will connect a newly developing zone to Metro service.

The DOT is also paying for a new transit center at Langley Crossroads in Prince George’s County to allow commuters faster transfers between bus lines and eventually with the Purple Line light rail.

Though each of the funded corridors will see a specific set of improvements, the general idea is the same: use technology and lane separation to improve the service provided by buses. In some places, that will mean independent transitways in which buses are able to operate entirely outside of the automobile lanes. In other corridors, buses will get signal priority and jump lanes at intersections, cheap investments that can make transit faster than cars during rush hour. Customers will benefit from a cleaned-up and information-infused commuting environment with new buses, expanded shelters, and automatically updating signage that shows when the next bus will arrive.

Unfortunately, these conveniences are not typical in most American bus networks, even on the most popular lines. But they should be. Indeed, while next bus information, high-quality shelters, and reserved running ways are in the United States typically associated with the nebulous and rare “bus rapid transit” concept, in other wealthy countries they’re considered part of the standards of typical bus service.

This isn’t to disparage Washington’s investment, it’s simply to point out that we need much more of the same, in every city from coast to coast. The federal government would do well to invest in a bus upgrades fund in the next transportation bill.

Of course, getting the specifics right is essential. Buses can be incorporated into the streetscape in a number of ways, with widely diverging results. The District has not shown itself to be perfect at getting street construction right, considering the less-than-ideal design of a new streetcar line on H Street that is currently underway.

Several D.C. commentators were disappointed by the lack of funds for the $76 million K Street Transitway, which if built would be something of the core of the regional Metrobus network. But that project isn’t fully thought-through. The city’s parallel investment in a 37-mile streetcar system, three of whose lines would converge on K Street, would produce an overrun corridor incapable of handling the number of vehicles using it. That project deserves a once-over before it’s implemented; the DOT was probably right not to finance it with a TIGER grant.

Bus Improvements for the Washington Region

Image above: Washington Metrobus, from Flickr user JLaw45 (cc)