Washington DC

On Board Members and Transit Ridership

Half of Washington Metro’s board doesn’t use the system.

The idea that six of the twelve board members of Washington’s Metro rarely if ever use the train and bus system they manage astonishes me. The Washington Post article reports this awkward exchange with Chairman Jim Graham, who is also a D.C. council member:

“Graham said that last year he rode ‘on various occasions, both bus and rail.’ His most recent bus trip was in December. Train? ‘Every time I went to a Nationals game, because it’s a direct shot from the Columbia Heights Metro to the uh,’ he said, fumbling for the station name. An aide supplied it. ‘Right,’ Graham said. ‘Navy Yard.'”

Mr. Graham, who plays a major role in running the Metro system, should be riding Metro more than simply “on various occasions.” As a board member, he also shouldn’t have to hesitate before remembering the name of a subway station named after the D.C. district recognizable to virtually everyone in the city. Even worse, his apartment, as far as I can tell, is less than a mile from the Woodley Park/Zoo-Adams Morgan Station on the Red line and very close to a number of bus lines. So why is he only an occasional rider?

But he’s not alone. Another board member, William Euille, is the Mayor of Alexandria. It just so happens that Mr. Euille’s office is located at 301 King Street, less than a mile away from the King Street Metro station. Here’s another coincidence: the Yellow line, which serves the station, heads directly to the Gallery Place-Chinatown station in downtown Washington, which happens to be immediately adjacent to Metro headquarters, where the board meets. What is his excuse for not riding?

Mr. Graham’s Red line, by the way, also serves Gallery Place directly.

Just one more. Board member Neil Albert is a deputy mayor in D.C. and lives less than a mile from the Silver Spring Metro Station – also on the Red line – and lives very close to the heavily-used 16th Street bus lines. And yet he, according to the Post, also rarely rides the system. Where is the outrage?

The fundamental point is this: we should expect our leaders to practice what they preach, especially if it takes very little effort to do so. Washington has a fantastic subway system and a relatively well-managed bus network, so these board members have no excuse not to at least ride transit on the weekends – supposing that their day jobs are so difficult to get to on the public transportation system more than a million people use everyday. If board members don’t feel like riding the very convenient Metro, they shouldn’t be on the board.

Washington isn’t alone, of course. Last year, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Vice Chairman David Mack told the following to the New York Post:

“Why should I ride [the train] and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?”


Chicago Minneapolis Montréal New York Philadelphia Toronto Washington DC

Big News Day: DC, NYC, Chicago, Philly, Minnesota, and Canada

Chicago Bus Rapid Transit Corridors» Today’s Big News Day Update, from Washington, New York, Chicago, Rochester, Philadelphia, and Ottawa

  • The Overhead Wire brings us news we’ve been expecting for a while: the Dulles Rail Project, extending Washington‘s Metro system from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue, via Tysons Corner, is approved and will start construction soon. This project has been the subject of manipulation, deception, and outright lies by the Bush Administration over the past several years. Here’s the WaPo article.
  • But the Bush administration, whether we like it or not, will remain in office for the next week and a half, and so it continues to wreak havok. Chicago‘s $153 million plan for bus rapid transit lines across the city has been cancelled by Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters after the city council failed to enact downtown congestion reduction fees on parking and deliveries by the deadline of December 31st. No extension was given – the funds were simply forfitted by the city’s mayor, Richard Daley. This makes the city’s Summer Olympic bid for 2016 seem a bit shaky, especially considering that transportation problems in the Windy City already had the bid on the rocks. By the way, this money (as well as $300 million more) was once designated for New York City before its congestion reduction plan failed.
  • Ben over at Second Avenue Sagas describes the State of the State Address given by David Paterson, Governor of New York. Though the state is facing a giant budgetary mess, the Governor pushed the Ravitch Report recommendations, the Second Avenue Subway, and the reconstruction of the Tappen Zee Bridge as part of a “brighter future.” Here’s the NYT interpretation.
  • Rochester, Minnesota‘s Mayor is interested in developing a high-speed rail link from Chicago to Minneapolis, via his city. Meanwhile, Canadian Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro is pushing for a link between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montréal, which would shorten travel times between the cities by half. Both are good plans – we’ll be coming out with a high-speed rail plan for North America as a whole, including these links, next week.
  • Montréal-based Bombardier, a train (and airplane)-making company, is considering how it might expand in the wake of the upcoming economic stimulus in the United States. The company is banking on the stimulus paying for new rail cars in Chicago, San Francisco, and New Jersey, all of which are in the process of refreshing their fleets. Meanwhile, Amtrak, whose funding has recently shot up, has already signed Bombardier for the renovation of its Acela Express trains, and replacements for the decades-old fleet of rail cars in the next few years is likely. Though the company currently has factories in New York and Pennsylvania, it may need to build new ones in the U.S. to handle the extra business.
  • The Delaware River Port Authority’s plan to expand the PATCO Hi-Speed Line from Downtown Philadelphia to Southern New Jersey has advanced a bit, with a locally preferred alternative being selected. The project, which may also involve the creation of a new LRT line instead of a simple expansion of the existing heavy rail PATCO, will follow the Conrail Right-of-way from Camden to Glassboro. The expected $3 billion cost of the project, however, is a real limitation: the project has received a $500 million commitment from the State of New Jersey, but that’s about it so far.
  • The Washington Post, finally, reports that light rail is overwhelmingly the preference for the Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton, via Silver Spring, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Though LRT will cost more to construct than the BRT alternative being considered, it will likely attract more riders and more transit-oriented development. Prince George’s and Montogmery Counties – on the poorer, eastern side of the line, and on the rich, western side, respectively, will vote individually on the matter in February or March. If one voted for LRT and the other BRT, trouble could ensue, but an LRT preference is looking increasingly universal.

Above: scuttled plans for the Chicago Bus Rapid Transit Program, from the Chicago Transit Authority.

Baltimore Bay Area New York Norfolk Seattle Washington DC

Big News Day: DC, Balto, Seattle, SF, Norfolk, NYC

There’s so much news today, we’re just going to summarize it quickly:

  • There’s increasing support in Baltimore for the construction of the $1.6 billion Red Line light rail system. It will run partially underground, partially overground, and complement the existing light and heavy rail systems in the city.
  • Sound Transit in Seattle got a huge rebate on its plans for an extension of its light rail line underconstruction: bids for the University extension were under estimates by $10 million.
Bus Detroit Seattle Streetcar Washington DC

Streetcars in Seattle & Detroit; Rapid Busses in Maryland

After a prolonged debate, Seattle’s City Council approved yesterday a $600 million streetcar network that will redefine the inner city’s approach to getting around. This will make Seattle the second city in the United States, after Portland, to develop a modern downtown streetcar system from scratch. This news comes after last year’s opening of the South Lake Union Streetcar (aka the SLUT), and its successful meeting of ridership estimates.

Seattle’s system has been funded by the recent passage of the Sound Transit ballot passage, which will provide $120 million for a line between downtown and the Capitol Hill neighborhood, but funding for other lines isn’t as obvious, though some of it may come from state money for the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The replacement of the former Waterfront Trolley, which was shut down for a sculpture garden, is a priority.

The streetcar system will be an efficient way of connecting the light rail line currently under construction with destinations throughout the inner city. Here at the transport politic, however, we’re big proponents of streetcars not so much for the frankly limited improvements in mobility they provide but rather the fact that they stimulate dense development near stops, as the case of Portland’s Pearl District demonstrates. Streetcars allow for the development of transit-oriented districts far more cheaply than either light rail or heavy rail lines, and they provide downtown dwellers an easy manner to avoid driving – not so much true for busses, which often follow confusing routes and offer substandard service.

We’ll be following the development of Seattle’s system with excitement (along with that of its light rail system). The real question is whether Portland (which has its own large system (PDF) under development) or Seattle will have a bigger network in the years to come!

In Detroit, after days of speculation, the City Council has finally approved a regional mass transit plan. The network considered by the City will provide a number of lines: 1. a streetcar line along Woodward Avenue, the city’s main street; 2. a commuter rail system connecting Detroit with Ann Arbor; and 3. an improved system of suburban bus lines. As we’ve discussed several times before on this blog, Detroit faces unusual circumstances in the development of a transit system. Unlike Seattle, for instance, Detroit has a quickly declining population, with fewer jobs every year as the auto industry contracts. Recent Census estimates show that the city’s population has declines from 950,000 in 2000 to 917,000 today – and that’s down from 1.85 million back in 1950.

When you visit the city, it’s obvious that it’s just a shell of its former self; the huge downtown, dense as hell, is empty and marked with a lot of vacant buildings (not to mention random vacant lots). How can a city like this, which looks like it is closer to abandonment than anything else, sponsor an effective transit network, whose primary goal in other cities is to stimulate economic development?

But to argue that the City Council shouldn’t invest because the city is loosing population is self-defeating. Doing so would mean giving up on the city, which its own elected officials just aren’t going to do. But for a new transit system to work, the city’s going to need to attract a few more jobs and start finding ways to rebuild its population.

Finally, Maryland’s Montgomery County, which forms the northwestern border with the District of Columbia, is finally recognizing that it is developing into an increasingly urban place, and its council members are considering how to ramp up transit service to meet that densifying profile. Council member Marc Elrich has recently discussed constructing a rapid bus system that would serve east-west trips in the county, which is currently served by two branches of the north-south only Metrorail Red Line. To get from Bethesda to Silver Spring, for instance, residents must either take a slow local bus or ride the Red Line all the way through downtown D.C. and back out.

Elrich’s proposal makes sense; any improvement of bus service in the provision of bus-only lanes, better stop shelters, and increasing frequency, would be good for the county’s population. But the real solution would be the full funding of the Purple Line as light rail. That system, which would connect Montgomery and Prince Georges’ County, would transport 66,000 riders a day and ensure easy cross-county transport that would avoid transferring in downtown Washington. Acting together with a newly efficient bus system, the Purple Line would provide greatly enhanced mobility for the county.

Bay Area Chicago Washington DC

Expansion in Chicago and DC; BART service for Baseball?

Looks like Chicago’s long-proposed vision to expand its Red Line south to the far South Side may be coming closer to reality. The CTA transit authority is beginning public hearings, which are the first steps towards the ultimate implementation of the project. It would mean bringing the line, which runs down the center of the Dan Ryan expressway, from 95th Street to 134th Street. Though the proposal suggests either BRT or metro service, the latter option seems more likely because it would act simply as an easy growth of the current line.

Because the Red Line’s southern branch is stuck in the middle of a heavily-trafficked highway, transit-oriented development around stations is virtually impossible. And getting to stations is an unfriendly process, requiring an approach over the highway on bridges. But the extension would act differently, diverging from the highway route. If Chicago officials are smart, they’ll take advantage of this expansion to focus development on much of the undeveloped South Side of the city.

In Washington, DC, or rather – in Northern Virginia – the Federal Government has given its final approval to the Dulles Metrorail project. This $5.2 billion project, to be built in two phases, would be an overhead extension of the DC Metro, serving the business-heavy Tysons Corner area in Fairfax County and then Dulles International Airport, way out in the city’s suburbs.

This approval has come after years of fights and represents a significant achievement for the people of Fairfax and Loudon Counties, who will now have direct Silver Line service into downtown Washington. It’s not the best project in the world. After all, just like Chicago’s existing Red Line, much of the new service would operate in the median of a highway, meaning that the line will be more of a commuter rail line than an economic generator, as the DC metro has been in the past in Arlington and Bethesda Counties. Also, an effort to tunnel the line through Tysons Corner, which would have made that district significantly more transit-friendly, now seems completely dead.

That said, this project, which has been proposed since the 1960s, is a necessary improvement to areas of Northern Virginia that simply do not have good transit access. It will mean better service to Dulles Airport, which isn’t a bad thing, and it will mean fewer Fairfax and Loudon County inhabitants choosing to drive into DC, rather than taking the Metro. As a result, it’s overall a pretty good investment for the region as a whole.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Oakland A’s Baseball team, which had been planning a new stadium far from transit access, are now seriously considering a new site, this time in Warm Springs, just steps from the site of a future BART metro station. This is an excellent idea, as it would make both of the region’s baseball teams very easy to access by transit. It might also make the transit-oriented development proposed for the station site actually a reality.