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.