Monday, September 11, 2017

Bring Amazon’s “HQ2” to Prince George’s County

Amazon's Seattle HQ. Photo by Kiewic.
Online retail giant Amazon is shopping around for a second headquarters location in North America that is transit-adjacent and has enough land to accommodate up to 50,000 employees. The Morgan Boulevard Metro station area in central Prince George’s County, Maryland, could be a very viable contender in the National Capital Region.

Amazon’s bombshell solicitation dropped early Thursday morning. The company wants to create a co-equal headquarters—dubbed “HQ2”—in a large metropolitan area with more than a million people and with ample access to a talented technical/professional workforce. The ideal campus site would be adjacent to mass rail transit, within two miles of major highways and arterial roads, within 30 miles of a population center, within 45 minutes of an international airport, and large enough to accommodate 8,000,000 square feet of office space at full buildout. In terms of urban design, Amazon is prioritizing walkability, sustainability, and internet connectivity.

The company plans to invest over $5 billion in the lucky community over the initial 15 years of the project, and it wants to move quickly. To that end, Amazon is prioritizing sites that are already zoned for commercial and mixed-use development and that have the requisite utility infrastructure in place. They also want the permitting process to be quick. And, of course, they also want to know what incentives the jurisdiction is willing to offer for this huge opportunity.

Think Regionally, Not Locally

Naturally, large urban areas across the United States and Canada will all be clamoring for Amazon’s attention. Several pundits, including Brookings, place the Washington Metropolitan Area high in the rankings of possible contenders. Already, several area jurisdictions have expressed interest, but the question is whether and how these jurisdictions will be able to put their parochial concerns aside and advocate in the best interests of the Washington region as a whole.

Amazon has requested that each metropolitan area coordinate with its respective jurisdictions and submit one consolidated RFP response that identifies the best suitable sites that the region has to offer. All proposals are due October 19.

If there is to be any hope of the region’s jurisdictions acting as a team, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) probably should take the lead in preparing the regional submission to Amazon. These are the bodies usually charged with setting and articulating regional priorities.

Morgan Boulevard Station Checks All of Amazon’s Boxes

Setting aside all the jurisdictional posturing, there are really precious few locations in the Washington region that have existing rail transit access, land area, and proximity to downtown Washington, DC, that Amazon’s HQ2 proposal requires. The Morgan Boulevard Metro Station area in central Prince George’s County is one of them.

Morgan Blvd Station Area. Click for Interactive Map.

Morgan Boulevard easily meets all of Amazon’s location criteria. As you can see from the purple and brown shaded areas on the interactive map linked above, the station sits virtually undeveloped on 56 acres of land zoned for mixed-use development. It is adjacent to one of the county’s major arterial roads, Central Avenue (MD-214) and within one mile of the Capital Beltway. Additionally, the station is only 9.5 miles and 20 minutes from downtown Washington via Metrorail’s Blue and Silver lines.

BWI-Thurgood Marshall International Airport is a short 30-45 minute drive away from Morgan Boulevard. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is even closer, and it is directly accessible via Metrorail. Once construction Metro’s Silver Line is complete, Morgan Boulevard will also directly connect to Dulles International Airport.

Across Central Avenue, slightly southwest of the station and within its half-mile walkshed, sits a vacant 27-acre parcel of commercially zoned land that may be developed with mixed uses. (This is the red shaded area on the map.) This area could provide additional expansion capacity for Amazon in future phases of HQ2’s development. And if that’s not enough, the yellow shaded area directly across Central Avenue from the station provides another approximately 54 acres of industrially zoned space that the county’s land use plans envision for walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented redevelopment.

Image by Tape.

Locally, Prince George’s County has begun to improve its historically labyrinthine permitting process around its 15 Metro stations. Amazon would be able to avail itself of the county’s expedited transit-oriented development procedures.

In terms of financial benefits, Prince George’s County has some of the lowest property values in the Washington region; thus, Amazon would be able to keep its land acquisition costs to a minimum. Also, much of the Morgan Boulevard site is controlled by WMATA or the county, which significantly lessens the need for property assembly. Finally, there are a host of existing incentives available to Amazon from the state and county for developing around Prince George’s inner-Beltway Metro stations.

The Washington region would be hard pressed to come up with potential Amzaon HQ2 locations that provide more of an all-around good deal than the Morgan Boulevard Metro Station area. At a minimum, this area should be included among the top three sites in any regional RFP response to Amazon.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Purple Line is Not What Prince George’s Needs

Image adapted by author; original from MTA
With 15 Metrorail stations and 8 MARC stations, Prince George’s County already has substantial rail transit infrastructure to facilitate tremendous economic growth, walkable urban development, and regional connectivity. Yet, virtually all of these station areas have remained underdeveloped and poorly utilized for decades.

The solutions to this predicament are multifold, but they certainly do not include introducing 11 new Purple Line light rail stations to the county mix. Instead, the county should invest in a more robust local bus system and in its exiting rail transit station areas.

The Purple Line is a 16-mile, 21-station light rail project proposed by the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) to provide more direct east-west connections between Bethesda, Silver Spring, College Park, and New Carrollton. Ten of the stations would be in Montgomery County, and eleven would be in Prince George’s. The light rail system would connect to WMATA’s Red, Green, and Orange Metrorail lines, but would not be owned or operated by Washington’s regional transit authority.

Last August and again earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) could not move forward with awarding federal funds to the Purple Line until the agency conducts the requisite study to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS). Senior U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon’s orders provide that the SEIS must address what impacts WMATA’s continuing ridership decline (including this year) and ongoing safety issues might have on the Purple Line.

Move Beyond the “Purple Haze”

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, MTA, and many public officials and citizens in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties were outraged by the court’s rulings, and they fear that the Purple Line project may well be permanently derailed by the delays that an SEIS would cause.

Yesterday, Maryland appealed Judge Leon's decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. No one knows yet how quickly the appellate court will rule or whether the state's appeal will ultimately be successful.

If the Purple Line is indeed dead, perhaps that is a blessing in disguise for Prince George’s County. The Purple Line has always been more of a “purple haze”—an extravagance and distraction that the county does not need and that diverts essential public resources and attention away from the real solutions to the county’s transit and economic development inadequacies.

Image adapted by author; original by Michael Phams 
This is not to say that light rail is never an appropriate transit solution. Indeed, I have previously enthusiastically supported light rail expansion in my childhood hometown region. But adding a multibillion dollar light rail system in this particular area of northern Prince George’s County—which is already quite well served by WMATA heavy rail, MTA commuter rail, and regional and local buses—is an imprudent use of public resources.

(The nonprofit group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and others have offered many reasons why the Purple Line also may not be a good deal for Montgomery County, the bi-county region, and the State of Maryland as a whole; but this post is focused specifically on Prince George’s County.)

Fund a Better County Bus System

If Prince George’s officials are genuinely concerned with improving transit access in the county, the first thing they should do is improve the county’s anemic local bus system. Local and express buses have the capacity to serve even the most densely populated areas in the county that are not already within a half-mile of an existing Metrorail or MARC station. Indeed, buses are better equipped to reach the county’s current scattered population.

Currently, Prince George’s “TheBus” system has only 28 routes to serve its 487-square-mile area. It generates a meager 3.7 million trips per year, or 4 trips per capita, and does not operate in the late evenings or on weekends.

By contrast, in similarly-sized and -populated Montgomery County, the local “Ride On” bus system has 78 routes serving its 494-square-mile area, and generates an impressive 26 million trips per year (with 86,000 trips on a typical weekday), or 27 trips per capita. Even in tiny Arlington County, the “ART” local bus system has 17 routes covering its 26-square-mile area, and generates 2.8 million trips annually, or 13 trips per capita.

Prince George’s annual operating budget for bus transit services is approximately $25 million, as compared to Montgomery’s $125 million. Over the next six years, Prince George’s plans to spend only about $2.1 million in capital expenditures on bus transit, as compared to the $98.2 million that Montgomery plans to spend on buses and bus stops alone over that same period.

Meanwhile, Prince George’s has agreed to pay $120 million over the next six years toward the construction of the Purple Line, which will run only in a small sliver of the comparatively affluent northern part of the county.

Stated another way, over the next six years, Prince George’s County is planning to spend less than two percent of its planned capital investment in the Purple Line on countywide bus transit. This shocking inequity in transit expenditures should have true transit advocates picketing in droves at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.

Image by Ben Schumin
It’s also worth noting that federal funding for buses and related infrastructure is available from FTA, at the same 80% match rate as light rail funding. Thus, if Prince George’s focused more of its attention on developing a robust local bus system, it would likely find a willing partner in the federal government.

Purple Line supporters may rightly argue, “Why can’t we just do both—have the Purple Line and improve our bus system?” Well…we could, in theory. But there hasn’t been much political will over the years to improve the county’s bus infrastructure, so it is hard to see how that resolve would magically appear after the county shells out $120 million for the Purple Line. The better strategy would be to take care of the longstanding countywide need for more and better buses first and then evaluate whether the Purple Line still makes sense.

Manage Sprawl and Strategically Invest in Existing Station Areas

Similarly, with so many underdeveloped rail transit stations around the county (including in the Purple Line corridor), it strains credulity for officials to suggest that the county needs light rail in order to spur economic development. In fact, according to the county itself, the opposite is true: the Purple Line could actually harm Prince George’s economic growth prospects.

The county’s current comprehensive plan, Plan Prince George’s 2035, discusses the somewhat enviable dilemma the county currently faces by having too many mixed use activity “centers,” most of which are located near existing Metrorail stations. The plan contends that having too many centers can actually “undermine economic growth” by spurring scattered development that will make it difficult “to achieve the density, intensity, and form necessary to support successful mixed-use, walkable communities and economic generators” at any one center.

Image by M-NCPPC
Already, without the Purple Line, the county has 28 designated centers, 19 of which are located at existing Metrorail and MARC stations. The county predicts that it will not have enough projected growth over the next 20 years to develop all of those stations. So logic dictates that building 11 new Purple Line stations is actually contrary to the county’s stated land use and growth policies.

One thing the county could and should do to improve its ability to grow its exiting transit station areas is to reduce its pipeline of dead sprawl projects and redirect some of that projected growth capacity to its existing Metro station areas. The county should also take more of a leading role (including financially) in redeveloping and revitalizing its neighborhood-scaled gateway station areas near the District of Columbia border.

Prince George’s future transit prosperity begins not with light rail, but with more local buses—running frequently, on time, seven days a week, and connecting citizens countywide to important county destinations and to the 23 Metrorail and MARC stations already constructed in the county. Likewise, Prince George’s economic development potential does not depend on new light rail transit stations, but rather lies in its existing Metrorail and MARC stations. So instead of brooding over the possible demise of the Purple Line, let's rise up and fight like hell for the county’s true transit and economic development priorities!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Prince George’s New Planning Director Is Not Actually a Planner

M. Andree Green
In a curious move, somewhat reminiscent of President Trump’s recent cabinet appointments, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) has selected someone with no formal training or professional experience in planning to serve as the director of the Prince George’s County Planning Department. No other jurisdiction in the Washington region has made such a choice, and for good reason: such a decision defies common sense, and it likely contravenes Maryland law.

Attorney M. Andree Green (Checkley), of Upper Marlboro, began her tenure as Planning Director on January 18. She replaces Dr. Fern V. Piret, who retired after serving 26 years in that position. For the past six years, Green worked as the County Attorney for Prince George’s. Before that, she worked for approximately eleven years in the legal department of M-NCPPC, the quasi-independent state agency responsible for planning, zoning, parks, and recreation in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Without question, Green is an experienced government lawyer, with nearly two decades of experience working in Prince George’s County. But Green is not a planner. She has never worked as a planner as has no educational background in planning. So how and why is she now being paid $192,000 a year to be the county’s Planning Director?

Green is Unqualified for the Planning Director Position

The Prince George’s County Planning Director is supposed to be an experienced planning professional. The position description for the job, which we obtained from M-NCPPC, states that the minimum qualifications are “at least 12 years of progressively responsible and broad-ranged planning experience that includes four years of planning experience at the managerial level, preferably five years at the department manager level.”

Green has zero years of professional planning experience, either at the managerial or non-managerial level. The American Planning Association’s American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) is the national body that verifies and certifies the professional qualifications of planners. According to AICP standards, Green lacks even the minimum level of professional planning experience to be eligible to take the certification exam.

Thus, Green did not meet the minimum qualifications for the job when she was hired. Indeed, Green does not even meet the minimum qualifications for the currently-posted position for Deputy Planning Director, which requires 10 years of professional planning experience and preferably two years at the managerial level.

By contrast, nearly all of the other planning directors in the Washington metropolitan area had more than 15 years of prior management-level experience in planning before assuming their respective positions, and most are AICP-certified. [UPDATE: For a comparison of the qualifications of the region's planning directors, see this chart.]

M-NCPPC Likely Violated State Law By Hiring Green

The state law creating M-NCPPC specifically provides that the Planning Director and Deputy Planning Director in Prince George’s County “shall have education or professional experience in a field relevant to the responsibilities of that department.” As judged by the agency’s own criteria, as set out in the job descriptions, Green does not possess the requisite education or professional experience for either position. Therefore, M-NCPPC’s hiring of Green was arguably arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to Maryland law.

M-NCPPC spokeswoman Andrea Davey stated that the Planning Director position was posted on a variety of websites for approximately three months, from August 2–October 31, 2016, and that a total of four candidates were selected for interview. The agency would not disclose the identity of the other three candidates, citing confidentiality laws. However, Davey did indicate that the agency “did not deem it necessary to employ an executive search firm” in connection with this position.

Dorothy Bailey, Vice-Chair of M-NCPPC’s Prince George’s County Planning Board and a member of the selection committee, stated that Green was “second-to-none in her commitment to Prince George’s County, and in her know-how of the critical nuts and bolts involved in the planning process.” Board chairwoman Elizabeth M. Hewlett also cited favorably to Green’s “proven managerial experience and keen legal acumen.”

Green may well be a committed public servant, and she certainly has relevant legal knowledge and managerial experience. But she lacks any prior professional experience or training in planning—and that makes her selection as Planning Director untenable, and possibly unlawful.

How Can M-NCPPC Fix This?

Green’s employment contract is for two years, and it contains a “sweetheart” severance provision requiring the agency to pay her 12 full months of salary ($192,000) if it breaks the contract without cause. However, M-NCPPC could likely still void the contract without penalty, since Green did not have the requisite experience for the job to begin with. Additionally, the severance provision could itself be unlawful, since state law requires that the Planning Director and Deputy Planning Director shall “serve at the pleasure of the Prince George's County Planning Board.”

Ideally, M-NCPPC should consider reopening the Planning Director position and conducting a national search for a truly qualified and experienced professional planner with a proven track record in leading a large urban planning department. If possible, Green could be offered another position within the agency that meets with her actual qualifications and experience (e.g., a position in the legal department or in intergovernmental affairs).

Perhaps more than any other jurisdiction in the Washington region, Prince George’s County needs an experienced and innovative professional planner to lead its planning department—someone who can advocate effectively against the county’s overdependence on outer-Beltway sprawl development, help develop a workable plan for transit-oriented development and revitalization around the neighborhood gateway Metro stations near DC’s border, and oversee the implementation of a new 21st century zoning ordinance, among other priorities. Let’s hope M-NCPPC will make that happen.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Prince Georgians Should Vote “No” on Question D

The Prince George’s County Council could benefit greatly from having some at-large members who could advocate for the interests of the county as a whole, rather than simply focusing on the parochial and sometimes competing interests of the various council districts. But the council’s currently-proposed ballot measure—Question D—is a highly flawed and somewhat pernicious way of accomplishing that goal.

County residents should therefore vote “No” on Question D in this election, and then work to craft a more sensible proposal for at-large representatives that can be voted on in 2018.

Question D (CB-40-2016) would amend the county charter to create two new at-large council positions and increase the overall size of the council from nine to eleven members. It would also allow current and future district-based council members who would otherwise be term-limited to be elected to two additional consecutive four-year terms as an at-large representative. In other words, a single person would be allowed to serve for a grand total of 16 consecutive years on the council.

Whatever one feels about the propriety of having at-large representation on the council, there are enough red flags surrounding Question D to give anyone who knows anything about Prince George’s politics ample reason not to support it.

Low Public Engagement and High Public Opposition

First, like far too many pieces of consequential and controversial legislation, the county council rushed this ballot initiative through the process with hardly any public engagement. There were no town hall forums held, no informational brochures mailed, and no opportunity for true collaboration with civic and community associations as to whether and how to include additional at-large members on the council.

Second, at the one public hearing that the council did have on the bill, nearly every ordinary citizen and civic leader who spoke expressed significant opposition to the bill. One of the only civic leaders to speak in favor of the bill was Dr. Douglas Edwards, a longtime resident of the county and current president of a local civic group. Yet, Dr. Edwards—who was not speaking on behalf of his civic group—failed to mention two affiliations that might color his favorable testimony: he is currently (1) the chairperson of the political action committee that is advocating for the passage of this ballot measure and (2) the chairperson of a local nonprofit that receives nearly all of its revenue from the county and from which he earns an annual salary in excess of $73,000.

Self-Serving Politicians’ Full-Employment Act

Third, it is clear from the text of the proposed charter amendment that the council members had themselves, not the public interest, in mind when they crafted Question D. Why else would they feel the need to specify that the two-term-limit provision that currently appears in the county charter wouldn’t apply to incumbent district-based council members who want to extend their tour of duty on the council to 16 years? The Washington Post rightly panned this measure as a “job-protection program—for Prince George’s County Council members.”

Worse still, the council is trying to mislead the public by suggesting in a FAQ that Question D will not change the current two-term limit provision in the county charter.

Just two years ago, voters rejected another council-proposed ballot measure that would have amended the county charter to allow council members to serve a maximum of three terms instead of two. Why would the council believe there is now public support for a maximum of four terms?

Funded Almost Exclusively By Developers

Fourth, like the failed ballot measure in 2014, this year’s Question D is being funded almost exclusively by developer interests. Dr. Edwards’ PAC, the “Committee for Recharge At-Large,” recently reported a total of $35,000 in contributions, all but $500 of which are from major real estate developers in Prince George’s County.

Those developer contributions were used to fund a misleading “2016 Democratic Sample Ballot” mailer—complete with the Democratic Party donkey logo—which suggests that loyal Democrats should vote in favor of Question D. In fact, the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee expressly declined to endorse Question D.

Million-Dollar Boondoggle

Finally, county officials have determined that the addition of two additional council members and staff would increase the county’s budget by $1.14 million each year. While this may seem like a relatively inconsequential amount to some, keep in mind that in 2015, the council convened a “blue ribbon commission” to address Prince George’s County’s projected structural budget deficits. According to that commission’s preliminary report, the County will already have an annual budget shortfall of between $65 and $250 million beginning in Fiscal Year 2017. Do we really need to add to that looming deficit by creating two additional seats on the county council?

A More Sensible Approach

Last year, I suggested that restructuring the current nine-member county council to include four at-large representatives and five district representatives was a good idea. I still believe that. That is the structure that the Montgomery County Council currently has, and it has worked well there.

Several of the citizens who spoke at the public hearing on Question D also stated that they could support the inclusion of at-large council members if they could be accommodated in a revenue-neutral manner, within the existing nine-member framework. District 1 council member Mary Lehman, who voted against authorizing Question D, also would have favored this approach.

Rather than settling for Question D, Prince George’s residents should instead work to craft a new ballot measure for the 2018 general election that incorporates at-large council members within the existing nine-member framework. If that measure passes, county residents and candidates would have plenty of time to adjust to the new structure, since the next council election would not occur until 2022.

For now, though, the choice is clear: Vote No on Question D.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Commuters Need More Public Transit Alternatives to Survive SafeTrack Surge #2

Image by WMATA
As WMATA begins its 16-day shutdown of all Metrorail service across the Anacostia River, it is hoping that 60-70 percent of its ordinary ridership east of the river will simply abandon the rail transit system in favor of alternative modes of transportation.

That’s not likely to happen, though, unless officials provide more realistic public transit alternatives, such as additional bus shuttles to the Green Line and designated HOV lanes.

This second safety surge of Metro’s yearlong SafeTrack program of major repairs will run through July 3. During that time, Potomac Avenue and Stadium Armory stations on the Orange, Blue, and Silver (OR/BL/SV) lines will be completely closed. That means the approximately 25,000 commuters in Prince George’s County and in DC’s Ward 7 who normally ride those lines will need to find some other way to get to and from downtown Washington and Northern Virginia.

Metro’s website has compiled a detailed list of the current mitigation plans that WMATA, District, and Prince George’s officials have developed. The plans include 40 shuttle buses from Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road to Eastern Market and expanded Metrobus service on several key routes into the District.

That's a great start. However, officials readily acknowledge that the current mitigation plans are not sufficient to meet existing demands. They have stressed that commuters should avoid the Metrorail system if they can, particularly during peak periods. They suggest telecommuting, carpooling, and bicycling as potential alternatives, in addition to Metrobus.

But not everyone can telecommute or change their work schedules, and it’s unreasonable for officials to expect that employers will allow their workers to stay home for two full work weeks. Similarly, biking and carpooling are often not realistic options for many commuters.

Local Government is Ultimately Responsible for Providing Effective Transit Solutions

Fundamentally, SafeTrack is a public transportation crisis, and it needs a public transportation solution. A mitigation plan that relies on 60-70 percent of the relevant population disappearing from the public transit system for more than two weeks is simply not an adequate or effective plan.

On Thursday, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker rightly chastised the State of Maryland for not doing enough to help mitigate SafeTrack. Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn has been noncommittal on what, if any, services and funds the state will offer its DC metro-area counties in connection with these Metro repairs. To be sure, the state’s aloofness in the face of this crisis is troubling. Nevertheless, it can’t absolve the county from taking primary responsibility for providing workable transit solutions.

For its part, WMATA has consistently stressed that it needs the local jurisdictions to share in the pain of SafeTrack by providing additional resources and coordination—including bus support and traffic controls such as HOV lanes. WMATA is already significantly underfunded by the region; therefore, it is not surprising that it has only limited additional resources of its own to provide.

Bottom line: County Executive Baker, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, and their respective transportation departments are principally accountable for ensuring that SafeTrack will not cripple their residents. This is a quintessential local public safety and welfare issue that cannot be delegated to anyone else, including WMATA or the State of Maryland.

We Need Designated HOV/Bus Lanes

Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr
Thus far, Mayor Bowser and District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Director Leif Dormsjo have rejected the idea of establishing temporary bus lanes to facilitate bus bridges across the Anacostia River. They claim that such lanes would require more study and might adversely limit lane capacity for other motorists.

Prince George’s Department of Public Works & Transportation (DPW&T) and the Maryland State Highway Administration are similarly leery of HOV lanes along the county's arterial roads, according to DPW&T spokesperson Paulette Jones.

This is a transportation emergency that calls for transportation officials to make quick and effective decisions, using the best information they have at the time. There is simply no time to do lengthy transportation studies.

Common sense dictates that the county and the District will need to rely heavily on buses to bridge people around closed Metrorail stations during this safety surge. Accordingly, transportation officials should establish quick ways to move those buses over the roads. The priority should go to buses and carpools, rather than single-occupancy vehicles. Saying that buses will have to wait in traffic is ignoring a problem, not creating a solution.

We Need Better Green Line Connections

Because Prince George’s County’s seven Green Line stations will remain open and running on a normal schedule during this OR/BL/SV line segment shutdown, it makes sense for the county to leverage those stations to the greatest extent possible.

Image by WMATA
Right now, DPW&T has no plans to provide bus shuttle service between the Blue and Green lines in the less affluent central part of the county (e.g., from Addison Road to Suitland).

Yet, on the wealthier northern end of the county, DPW&T has secured 10 charter buses to provide a free shuttle between New Carrollton and Greenbelt. This is a striking inequity that can and should be corrected immediately.

Similarly, the county should be prepared to establish additional satellite commuter parking and bus shuttles at available locations near Green Line stations if existing station lots fill up.

All of these measures will empower commuters to make alternative transportation decisions that they otherwise would not be able to.

County Executive Baker has repeatedly assured the public that the county will do everything it can to assist its commuters during SafeTrack. Now is the time for the county to make good on that promise.

* * * * *

UPDATE (06/19/2016, 3:55 pm): Good news! Prince George's County has now decided to add a new, free bus shuttle connecting the Blue and Green lines. The shuttle will run between Largo Town Center and Suitland stations. Ten buses will run during peak hours, and five buses will be used during non-peak hours. See the press release issued earlier this afternoon:

It's unclear why DPW&T chose to run the shuttle from Largo station instead of the much-closer Addison Road station; however, one possible advantage to Largo is that the adjacent and nearly-empty shopping center, the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, provides the possibility for overflow commuter parking in the event the Largo parking deck fills up.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Take Two: Prince George’s Develops a SafeTrack Plan After All

County Executive Rushern Baker. Photo by Author.
In a welcome reversal of course last week, Prince George’s County officials announced that they had developed a comprehensive action plan to help the county’s public transit riders navigate around the upcoming shutdowns and disruptions of Metrorail service during SafeTrack, WMATA’s yearlong plan of major infrastructure repairs.

Two of Metro’s fifteen planned “safety surges” will most directly impact Prince George’s County commuters. The first will occur on June 18-July 3, when all Metrorail service across the Anacostia River on the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines will be shut down due to the closure of Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue stations. The second will occur on November 12-December 6, when there will be continuous single-tracking on the Green and Yellow lines between Greenbelt and College Park stations.

Earlier, the county’s Department of Public Works & Transportation (DPW&T) stated that it was not able to provide any additional services during SafeTrack and that county commuters would need to take it upon themselves to make alternative transportation arrangements. After Prince George’s Urbanist and others decried the county’s initial response and local media outlets began asking hard questions about the county’s plans, officials began to rethink their approach to this looming transportation crisis.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” County Executive Rushern Baker declared at last week’s press conference. “We’re going to do everything we can” to help commuters survive SafeTrack safely. Here are some of the particular elements of the county’s mitigation plan, as laid out by DPW&T Director Darrell Mobley:

  • Prince George’s will increase local rush hour express bus service on TheBus route 15X, which connects New Carrollton and Greenbelt stations.
  • WMATA will have 40 shuttle buses that will operate every 5-10 minutes during peak periods from Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road stations to Eastern Market, with interim stops at Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue.
  • WMATA will double its rush hour bus service on Metrobus routes 97 (Capitol Heights to Union Station, U Street, Woodley Park, and Tenlytown) and T18 (New Carrollton to Rhode Island Avenue).
  • WMATA will run the Metro Extra express bus route X9 (Capitol Heights to Metro Center via Gallery Place) all day, instead of just during rush hour.
  • The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has agreed to provide additional railcars on MARC’s Camden Line.

In addition to those mitigation efforts, the county is planning a robust public outreach program, including the deployment of “street teams” of DPW&T employees at affected Metro Stations. These teams will directly engage with transit riders and provide them with information on alternative transportation options.

The county stressed that its mitigation efforts “will not remove inconvenience” related to SafeTrack and are being provided primarily for those who have no choice but to take public transit. DPW&T is urging everyone who can telework, bike, or carpool to work to do so.

More Mitigation May Be Necessary

County Executive Baker stressed that this initial action plan may need to be adjusted in response to evolving traffic conditions: “We’re going to look at how the situation is unfolding, and we’re going to make the best decision for the residents of Prince George’s County to get back and forth…We’re going to make the adjustments we need to make to make people’s commutes as easy as possible.”

In the event the county’s mitigation efforts need to be enhanced, officials would do well to consider these specific proposals:

  • The county should run a free shuttle bus between Addison Road and either Suitland or Naylor Road, to provide a safe and reliable connection between the impacted Blue and Silver Line stations and the Green Line.
  • The county should establish HOV/bus lanes along selected arterial streets, to facilitate the quick movement of bus shuttles and carpools.
  • The county may need to arrange for additional satellite commuter parking lots and bus shuttles near southern Green Line stations, in case the parking lots at those stations fill up. Usually, there is excess parking capacity at several of the stations, but that may not be the case during the upcoming safety surge, when Orange, Blue, and Silver line riders may flock to the Green Line as an alternate.

Without question, the upcoming SafeTrack repairs will be a hassle for all concerned. However, the pain should be a little easier to bear now that Prince George’s County officials are thinking seriously about mitigation efforts.

UPDATE (06/14/2016 @ 6:20 pm): DPW&T issued an alert earlier this evening stating that WMATA is calling for a 60-70% reduction in Metrorail transit riders on the OR/BL/SV lines during SafeTrack Surge #2. If that is true, it seems even more likely that Prince George's will need to employ additional mitigation efforts to avoid perpetual gridlock.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Prince George’s Tells Commuters to Fend for Themselves During SafeTrack

Photo by russelljsmith on Flickr
Metrorail’s yearlong program of major infrastructure repairs and service disruptions, called SafeTrack, begins June 4. Many area localities have announced details for how they plan to assist their residents with mitigating the impact of this impending transit calamity. But not Prince George’s County.

The county with the largest number of Metro stations outside of the District of Columbia has told its residents that they should not expect any serious help when WMATA shuts down or curtails its rail services. That decision reflects a colossal failure of leadership and crisis management on the part of County Executive Rushern Baker and the leaders of the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T).

“One of the true tests of leadership,” according to the late American businessman and humorist Arnold H. Glasow, “is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.”

Image from WMATA
It is readily apparent from even the most cursory review of Metro's SafeTrack surge schedule that the planned repairs to the Metrorail system will cause huge problems for the region’s commuters over the next year. The pain will be particularly acute for Prince George’s commuters between June 18 and July 3, when all Metrorail service across the Anacostia River on the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines will be shut down due to the 16-day closure of the Potomac Avenue and Stadium-Armory stations.

More than 25,000 riders a day who commute by Metrorail from Prince George’s County and DC’s Ward 7 on those lines will be completely cut off from downtown Washington and northern Virginia during that period.

County Ignores Metro’s Calls for Additional Help

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld stressed that SafeTrack “will require regional coordination, resources, communication, and shared pain.” Specifically, Wiedefeld requested that local jurisdictions provide additional support and input in the form of “traffic control, parking restrictions, bus support, HOV restrictions, etc.

Fairfax and Arlington counties heeded Metro’s call by pledging to provide additional support and resources. Specifically, in response to the first scheduled SafeTrack surge, Fairfax County will provide supplemental express buses from Reston and Vienna to the Pentagon.

Arlington County will use higher-capacity buses on selected routes. Additionally, to facilitate increased Metro and regional buses traveling through the corridor, Arlington will convert some streets to bus-only, eliminate some street parking, and adjust traffic signal operations as needed.

In stark contrast to its sister jurisdictions, Prince George’s County is doing virtually nothing that Metro has asked it to do. It is making almost no effort to address the very foreseeable problems created by the SafeTrack surges before they become an emergency.

In effect, the Prince George’s County government is signaling that it doesn’t plan to share in Metro’s pain, or in the pain of the county’s commuters.

County Doesn’t Appear to Understand Mitigation

In response to our inquiries regarding the county’s plans for SafeTrack, DPW&T spokeswoman Paulette Jones stated that “Metrorail plays an unparalleled role in regional mobility” and that “Prince George’s County cannot replicate or significantly supplement [Metrorail’s] function” without making dramatic, costly, and inconvenient changes to the county’s current transportation system.

DPW&T’s Associate Director of Transportation, D'Andrea Walker, added that Prince George's County does not have the same resources as Fairfax and Arlington and that DPW&T cannot afford to do anything other than try to inform residents of alternative transportation options such as ride sharing, teleworking, and working during off-peak hours.

Sadly, DPW&T is missing the point. No one is suggesting that Prince George’s County can instantaneously replicate Metrorail’s service, even if it had unlimited resources. But it can and should do a better job of mitigating the impact of Metro's service disruptions. And the county can do so without breaking its piggy bank.

Image by PGCPS

For example, as suggested earlier, the county could use school buses to provide supplemental shuttle service during the 16-day shutdown period. The Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Transportation Department maintains a fleet of 1,247 school buses and employs 2,006 drivers and attendants. Those buses will be idle, since school won't be in session. Why can't DPW&T work with PGCPS to place some of those buses, drivers, and attendants into service to assist with SafeTrack mitigation?

Sure, the county will need to spend some money to run these buses and do the other things required to provide effective mitigation. That's what government has to do when responding to any crisis. We seem to understand that intrinsically when it comes to things like snow removal. Well, this is just a different kind of transportation crisis.

County Argues That HOV Lanes Threaten the Public

Incredibly, DPW&T states that it has not explored the option of creating bus lanes on certain arterial roads because it believes such lanes “would dramatically increase congestion, idling time, and pollution within [those] corridors.” That’s nonsense, and DPW&T could not come up with any legitimate facts or studies to support its contention when asked.

As the graphic below shows, buses transport people much more efficiently than single-occupancy vehicles. And while some have questioned the environmental benefits of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, most serious studies show that they result in reduced emissions and better air quality.

Image by Jeff Moser on flickr

Tell County Leaders We Need a Real Plan

Prince George's County's response to SafeTrack thus far has been abysmal. DPW&T has not even begun to think seriously about how it could actually help solve this transportation dilemma. They have essentially thrown their collective hands in the air and told county residents, "Good luck with that."

And instead of holding his administrative heads accountable and demanding more from DPW&T, County Executive Baker has been equally dismissive and unhelpful, telling residents they should "be proactive in seeking alternative transportation solutions," all while taking no responsibility for providing any real assistance to the constituents he is charged with leading.

There is still time for County Executive Baker and DPW&T to come up with real and workable solutions to avoid this looming transportation crisis. The public should make every effort to encourage them to do so. You can help by emailing them directly with your concerns and/or participating in the Coalition for Smarter Growth's SafeTrack email action alert.

UPDATE (6/4/2016): After receiving some pointed inquiries from the media in the wake of this post, Prince George's officials are beginning to rethink their original (non-)response to SafeTrack. Take a look at this report from NBC Washington's Prince George's Bureau Chief Tracee Wilkins.