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.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Metro Shutdowns Will Come Sooner for Prince Georgians

Photo by WMATA.
Under WMATA’s revised SafeTrack schedule issued last week, the 16-day planned shutdown of Metrorail service across the Anacostia River on the Orange, Blue, and Silver (OR/BL/SV) lines will now occur two months earlier—from June 18 to July 3.

This shutdown, one of 15 planned “safety surges” of major Metrorail infrastructure repairs set to occur over the next year, will cause the greatest disruption to Prince George’s County riders. More than 20,000 people commute daily between Prince George’s County and downtown Washington, DC, or northern Virginia on the OR/BL/SV lines. About 5,000 additional commuters east of the Anacostia River (EOTR) in the District’s Ward 7 also rely on these lines. Thus far, however, county and District officials have not yet communicated any concrete plans for how they will assist these impacted individuals.

Metro had originally scheduled this shutdown for mid-August. But the agency had to move up this project in response to a May 11 directive from the Federal Transit Administration, which told Metro to prioritize certain repairs, including at a junction point on the elevated tracks east of the Stadium-Armory station.

County and District Officials Must Develop Mitigation Plans Now

With less than a month left before this major shutdown, local officials are running out of time to come up with plans to avoid a major commuter disaster for EOTR residents. We need a strategy, and we need it now.

Earlier this month, Prince George’s Urbanist strongly urged Metro to work with MARC, CSX, and/or Amtrak to develop a temporary commuter rail shuttle between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza along the old Baltimore & Potomac Railroad lines that parallel parts of the Orange Line. WMATA’s alternate board member for Prince George’s County, Malcom Augustine, indicated Metro was exploring this option; however, we have not received any further updates from Metro or MARC officials. Given the newly truncated timeline for this OR/BL/SV segment shutdown, it is unclear whether that shuttle could even be established in time.

In response to inquiries late last week by Prince George’s Urbanist, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T), Paulette Jones, indicated that the agency was still reviewing the revised SafeTrack plan but expected to have additional information to share in the coming days. Specifically, we asked DPW&T the following questions (among others):

  • Has DPW&T been in discussions with the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Maryland’s State Highway Administration (SHA) about coordinating the dedication of bus lanes (e.g., along Central Ave and East Capitol St, Addison Rd and Silver Hill Rd, and Pennsylvania Ave)?
  • What is the current capacity of the county’s local bus system (“TheBus”) to provide mitigation during SafeTrack, and has DPW&T explored expanding current capacity?
  • Who specifically at DPW&T is coordinating the mitigation efforts?

Photo by ifumth on Flickr.

To Spur Things Along, We Should Also Suggest Ideas

Hopefully, we will have additional information to report from DPW&T soon. In the meantime, perhaps we should help crowdsource some ideas for them. Here are some ideas that immediately come to mind:

►Direct (Nonstop) Bus Shuttles to Eastern Market Along Dedicated Lanes: DPW&T should urge Metro to alter its current shuttle bus plan so that it provides free direct shuttle service for EOTR commuters between Benning Road or Minnesota Ave stations and Eastern Market station. Currently, Metro is proposing a shuttle that would make intervening stops at Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue, which will both be closed for rail service during the shutdown.

Given the high number of EOTR commuters who will be depending on these shuttle buses, it is highly unlikely that there will be additional space to pick up additional riders at Statium-Armory or Potomac Avenue. Additionally, stopping at these stations will only further delay EOTR commuters from reaching a working Metrorail station. Besides, there are already ample Metrobus routes that can connect riders at those two stations to downtown Washington. And the Potomac Avenue station is also in easy walking or biking distance to the Eastern Market station.

To facilitate the journey, these buses should travel in dedicated lanes along East Capitol Street, 14th Street, and South Carolina Avenue.

►Direct Bus Shuttle Between Addison Road and Suitland: In addition to the OR/BL/SV shuttles provided from Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road stations, Metro and DPW&T should establish a free shuttle bus service from Addison Road station to Suitland station. The shuttle should run in dedicated lanes, where possible, along Addison Road South, Walker Mill Road, and Silver Hill Road.

►Nonpeak Fares For Any Impacted Rail Line: To encourage continued ridership and goodwill, WMATA should waive peak fares for any segment of the Metrorail system that is projected to experience a greater than 20 percent reduction in peak service due to SafeTrack.

Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr
►Rent School Buses to Increase Capacity: It's not glamorous, but school buses are actually a cheap and effective way of safely transporting people of all ages. They seat as many adults as traditional commuter buses—sometimes more—and are perfectly appropriate for short-distance trips. Many companies have large fleets of charter school buses available for rental. For example, a simple Google search uncovered this company, which boasts a fleet of 17,000 buses. If DPW&T and DDOT could rent, say, 100 of these school buses for use during the 16-day shutdown, to augment WMATA's planned 40 additional shuttle buses, EOTR commuters might realistically be able to continue relying on public transit to get to and from their jobs.

What other ideas do you have? Please leave them in the comments.

(This article was modified on 05/24/2016 to include additional suggestions.)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Here's How MARC and CSX Could Help Lessen the Burden of Metro Shutdowns

Photo by Ryan Stavely on Wikipedia
The entire Washington metropolitan region let out a collective groan on Friday, when WMATA's new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, announced his ambitious plan to repair Metrorail’s aging and increasingly unreliable system over the next year. Deep down, we all know that these repairs absolutely need to happen and that we’ve put them off for far too long.

But as we begin the hard work of restoring our Metrorail system to its former glory, we also need to make sure that the region’s commuters can continue to rely on other modes of public transit to get them where they need to go reliably and speedily. To that end, one strategy that Maryland and DC officials should seriously consider is establishing a temporary MARC commuter rail shuttle route between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza via the CSX freight rail lines. Such a route could greatly alleviate the congestion that Metro riders on the Orange, Blue, and Silver (OR/BL/SV) lines east of the Anacostia River (EOTR) would otherwise experience during the next year.

Metro’s repairs will significantly impact Prince George’s riders

WMATA’s “SafeTrack” plan will require complete shutdowns of certain segments of Metro’s 118-mile rail system for weeks at a time. Even when stations aren’t shut down, many will have extended periods of single-tracking or will experience significantly reduced train service levels. Beginning in June and continuing for nearly a year, Metro will carry out 15 of these long-term “safety surge” projects.

In Prince George’s County, the most significant impact of SafeTrack will occur late this summer, between August 20 and September 6, when Metro plans to shut down OR/BL/SV service between Eastern Market and Benning Road (BL/SV) / Minnesota Avenue (OR). This will sever the Metrorail connection to downtown Washington for nearly half of Prince George’s Metro stations and three of the four Metrorail lines in the county.

Image from WMATA

Similarly, in November and December of this year and March of next year, Metrorail service on the OR/BL/SV lines EOTR will be significantly reduced because of single tracking and closures on other segments of those lines.

To help mitigate the impact of the track work and shutdowns, WMATA plans to have 40-50 additional buses on hand to provide alternate service. It will also run more eight-car trains, since service will be less frequent. Finally, Metro has requested the support of the affected jurisdictions (Maryland, Virginia, the District, and the counties and cities where Metro operates) to implement the necessary traffic control measures to facilitate increased bus and private automobile traffic. But is that enough?

For the types of large-scale, long-term repairs that WMATA is envisioning over the next year, it is going to take more than a few extra buses, dedicated bus and HOV lanes, and traffic cops to avert a commuter crisis. The Chicago Transit Authority, for example, marshaled over 400 buses and had a months-long public outreach campaign before embarking on its five-month shutdown of part of its rail network in 2013.

Similarly, it may not be realistic to ask governmental and private employers to allow significant chunks of their workforce to work remotely for weeks at a time. Those measures may work for a short-term shutdown, such as the 29-hour emergency repair that Metro did in March, but they are not a long-term strategy.

A temporary MARC shuttle could ease a lot of the pain

Fortunately, the CSX-owned freight rail lines that parallel the WMATA Orange line tracks EOTR may provide a workable solution. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), which runs the MARC commuter rail system, could work with CSX, Amtrak, and DDOT to establish a temporary MARC shuttle between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza from at least August 2016 through April 2017.

The L’Enfant commuter rail station is currently used by Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Amtrak. A separate branch of CSX railway connects the L'Enfant station to Washington’s Union Station from the south.

MARC currently serves Union Station via three other routes from the north, including its most popular Penn Line service via Baltimore and New Carrollton, on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. But that existing service is already oversaturated and would not be able to accommodate the masses of additional OR/BL/SV line Metrorail passengers in Prince George's County that will be impacted by the SafeTrack shutdowns.

Currently, there is no MARC station or platform at Deanwood, but as the pictures below show, there are three CSX freight rail tracks directly adjacent to the northern (inbound) track of the Deanwood Metro station:

Deanwood Metro Station. Image from Google Earth.

Deanwood Metro Station Platform. Photo by author.

That segment of the CSX freight rail network, called the Landover Subdivision, is not currently used for passenger service, although it was originally the main Baltimore & Potomac Railroad passenger route between Baltimore and Washington, DC. CSX has at times been reluctant to allow passenger service on its freight lines. But in light of the impending regional transportation crisis resulting from WMATA's planned SafeTrack initiative, we should not assume that CSX would not be willing to make the necessary accommodations to allow for passenger service along the Landover Subdivision.

CSX is a good corporate citizen and has worked with District, Maryland, and federal officials to allow passenger service on its other rail lines in the region. Additionally, under federal law, Amtrak has the ability to prioritize passenger service over any freight rail line, and it could be called in to work with MTA and CSX to establish such temporary regional service in this situation if necessary.

Establishing temporary MARC service can happen quickly

This modular platform at a Chicago Metra rail station
 was erected in three days. Photo by Composite Advantage.
Within a matter of days, MTA could quickly erect a modular platform (like this, this, or this), stairway, and ADA-compliant ramp on the northern side of the CSX tracks, at Polk St NE, which is connected to the Deanwood Metro station via an existing underpass.

Similarly, with a little additional effort, a second elevated platform with stairs and even a temporary elevator could be erected at the southern end of the CSX tracks at the L’Enfant station, along Virginia Ave SW, between 6th and 7th Streets, to provide additional capacity for passenger boarding and alighting there. (As an example, look at these great photos of a temporary elevated platform at Chicago's Pulaski Station.)

The MARC shuttle could run every 15-40 minutes between Deanwood and L’Enfant, depending on the time of day. Orange line customers could ride the Metro from New Carrollton, Landover, or Cheverly to Deanwood and then transfer to MARC. Blue and Silver line customers could ride Metro to the Addison Road station and then take a free express shuttle bus to the nearby Deanwood station.

Each of the OR/BL/SV Metro stations in Prince George's has ample commuter parking, which should be free or heavily discounted during this emergency period to encourage commuters not to drive into the District. Similarly, those commuters transferring back into the Metrorail system at Deanwood or L'Enfant from the MARC shuttle should receive a credit for the Prince George's portion of their Metro fare.

L'Enfant VRE Station. Photo by VRE.

This temporary MARC shuttle could effectively transport thousands of impacted Prince George’s OR/BL/SV line riders per day to and from downtown, and it would do so much more efficiently than 50 additional Metro buses could ever hope to do.

To encourage ridership, the cost of the MARC shuttle should be minimal (e.g., not more than $2.50 each way, and with eligibility for the $0.50 SmarTrip discount for inter-modal transfers from Metrorail or Metrobus). Conductors should use handheld on-board fare collection devices that allow for customers to pay with their SmarTrip, debit, or credit cards.

Over an extended period of repairs, such as those we will face during the SafeTrack program, this temporary MARC shuttle could provide a realistic rail alternative that would keep the region’s commuters out of their cars and committed to transit. WMATA and governmental officials owe it to the public to consider these kinds of creative options.

Friday, February 12, 2016

BREAKING: Prince George’s Council Wants Its “Call-Up” Authority Back

The Prince George’s County Council is asking the local county delegation of the Maryland House of Delegates to pass a bill that would allow the council to resume its destructive practice of interfering with the county Planning Board’s decisions on individual development projects. A subcommittee is holding a another hearing on the bill tomorrow, February 12, at 4:00 pm on February 18 at 9:00 am in Annapolis, to consider the bill and possibly move it forward for the full delegation’s consideration.

This bill seeks to overturn a recent unanimous decision by Maryland’s highest court, which held that the County Council is only permitted to overturn Planning Board decisions if they lack evidentiary support or are arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise illegal.

The court held that the Planning Board—part of a bi-county planning and zoning agency formally known as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC)—has the legal authority and responsibility to render final decisions on individual development projects. The County Council, on the other hand, is responsible for appointing the Planning Board members and setting the general zoning and land use regulations that the Planning Board must interpret and apply.

Prior to last summer’s decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, county council members would routinely use a discretionary “call-up” procedure to force a review of the Planning Board’s rulings on individual development projects, even when no one else complained about them, or even if there was nothing legally wrong with how the Planning Board decided the case. During these reviews, council members would often impose additional conditions on developers, even if those decisions were not required by the Zoning Ordinance, and even if those conditions contradicted the Planning Board’s analysis.

Sometimes council members used the “call-up” procedure in response to complaints from constituents or citizen groups who were dissatisfied with the Planning Board’s decisions. Other times, council members would unilaterally call projects up if they didn’t like them, for whatever reason. And all too often, corrupt council members have historically used this power to exact campaign contributions, political favors, and even under-the-table cash payments from developers, as part of an insidious “pay-to-play” scheme.

Council “Call-Up” is Bad for County's Development Prospects

Whatever the reasons for its use, the “call-up” procedure renders the county’s development review process arbitrary, uncertain, and usually more expensive—which is the exact opposite of what should be happening if the county wants to attract quality development, particularly around its Metro stations. Many respected developers have refused to consider development opportunities in Prince George’s County because they don't want to be subjected to the political whims of individual council members. And why would they, when they can just go to the adjoining county and have a much more certain understanding of how a development application will be processed?

Prince George's County Council
The only people who win under the old “call-up” regime are the greedy and power-hungry County Council members, who unfortunately cannot seem to look beyond themselves and make decisions that are in the best interests of moving Prince George’s County forward. Even if the council were motivated solely by a desire to respond to constituents’ concerns about particular developments (which is totally not the case), it’s still a bad idea to reinstate the “call-up” procedure, because of the politicization and arbitrariness it brings to the development process.

If council members really want to help out constituents and developers alike, they should focus on making the zoning rules clearer, simpler, and easier for the Planning Board and the county permitting office to administer. (This, by the way, is the goal of the Zoning Rewrite Project that M-NCPPC is currently engaged in.)

Hopefully Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker will speak out on this and urge the county delegation and/or the legislature to kill this awful bill. Bringing back “call-up” review certainly won’t help his efforts to bring more transit-oriented development to the county’s largest Metro stations, or anywhere else for that matter.

The county delegation needs to hear from you if you oppose this bill—and you should definitely oppose it! Please reach out to the subcommittee members and the full county delegation and tell them to reject Local Bill No. PG/MC 111-16 (HB 1025).

Saturday, January 30, 2016

WMATA Gives Pedestrians a Serious Snow Job

Addison Road Metro Station
If anyone should know the importance of providing safe pedestrian paths to transit stations, it’s a transit authority. But apparently, WMATA can’t be bothered with all that.

Metro’s Addison Road Station, a Blue and Silver line stop in Prince George’s County, has about a quarter-mile of street frontage on one of the county’s main arterial roads, Central Avenue (MD-214).

On Friday, January 29—5 days after the last snowflake fell from #Snowmageddon2016—the sidewalks abutting Metro’s property along Central Avenue were still slicked over with snow, slush, and ice. Metro knew it, and customers had complained about it, but the transit agency just didn’t seem to care.

A Two-Day Quest to Clear Snow from Metro's Sidewalks

I first encountered the problem the day before, on Thursday, January 28, as I was heading back to my office in DC for the first time in nearly a week. As I left my house, which is about a 10-minute walk to the Metro station, I approached Central Avenue with a healthy sense of trepidation about getting to the station safely. That’s with good reason, since people have been struck by cars and killed in Prince George’s while walking in the roadway to get to a Metro station after a snowstorm, because the sidewalks were blocked with snow.

When I got to Metro’s property, I expected to be able finally to have a relatively peaceful walk for the rest of my trip, because I just knew the transit authority’s sidewalks would be clear, right? Wrong! The sidewalks were in atrocious condition.

I alerted the station manager to the situation, and she first told me that it wasn’t Metro’s responsibility to clear the sidewalks. I told her that wasn’t true, that those sidewalks were along Metro’s property line, and that Metro had to clear its walkways just like everybody else. With a somewhat skeptical facial expression, she told me she’d follow up on it.

Just to be sure, I also went online to Metro’s website and reported the problem myself. And even though I reported it as a safety issue, the automated response I got back from Metro said they would get back to me in 5-7 business days. Because…you know…why would Metro ever need to address a safety problem right away?

I didn’t return home via Metro that Thursday evening, so my next trip to the Addison Road Station was on Friday morning. To my shock, the sidewalks along Metro’s property were still a mess. The poor lady walking ahead of me in this photo was slipping and sliding all over the place, and I wasn’t doing much better:

Once I finally got to the station, I approached the same station manager I had spoken to the previous day and asked her, somewhat incredulously this time, whether she had followed up as she said she would. She said she had, and that it was her understanding that the county or the state was supposed clear the sidewalks.
Seeing that I was getting nowhere with the station manager, I tweeted the above picture and tagged Metro, Prince George’s County Executive, Rushern Baker, and a Washington Post reporter.

Metro replied to the tweet a few minutes later, told me it wasn’t their responsibility to clean the sidewalk, and forwarded me an article about who’s responsibility it was to clean bus stops.

After clarifying that I wasn’t talking about a bus stop, but rather Metro’s own property, the Metro rep thanked me and tweeted that he would report the problem.

So when I got back to Addison Road nine hours later, the sidewalk was definitely all clear, right? Wrong! Here’s how it looked on my return trip:

Metro boasts on its website that it has all the equipment and personnel it needs to handle snowy weather:
Metro has nearly 600 pieces of snow equipment available to tackle snow and ice accumulation at stations, rail yards, parking garages, and bus facilities. Hundreds of employees and contractors can be called upon to respond to snow conditions.
And in fact, there is plenty snow removal equipment at Addison Road Metro Station. I’ve seen it. I saw it yesterday, even. And I know it’s being used, because the parking decks, bus loops, and surrounding vehicle infrastructure at the station are never snowy or icy. Also, the area directly in front of the station entrance is usually well plowed and salted. So why the disconnect with the sidewalks?

Late Friday evening, County Executive Baker replied to the series of tweets and asked one of Metro’s Maryland board representatives, Malcolm Augustine, to follow up on this matter. Mr. Augustine promptly replied, apologized, and promised to follow up:

I very much appreciate County Executive Baker’s stepping in to address this matter, and likewise appreciate the prompt response of Metro’s board member, Mr. Augustine. But seriously, it should not take the county’s chief executive and a Metro board member’s personal involvement to clear a sidewalk after a snowstorm.

Metro is required under its interstate compact to comply with local laws, including sidewalk clearing laws. But setting that aside: Metro’s whole raison d’ĂȘtre is to provide and facilitate safe, convenient transit ridership in the region. It should be a community leader when it comes to ensuring that pedestrians can come and go safely to and from their facilities.

Just as Metro is recommitting itself to improve safety in its rail and bus network, it must also do a better job in the future to ensure that its stations and surrounding areas, including sidewalks, are safe and accessible to all of its customers.