Momentum is growing for dedicated revenue, and possibly associated reforms, for the struggling Metro system. A group of 21 business associations issued a statement last week calling for action to save Metro. So did 18 nonprofit organizations. And so have five local faith-based organizing groups and Metro’s largest union.
Will legislators follow?
The faith-based push came from the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of local faith-based and community organizations each of which has a clever acronym: Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), Action in Montgomery (AIM), Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), People Acting Together in Howard (PATH), and Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagements (VOICE). The five IAF affiliates teamed up with ATU Local 689 to push for $1 billion a year in new dedicated funding for Metro.
Last week, the Federal City Council, a DC-based group of business leaders, teamed up with the Greater Washington Board of Trade, five other business groups, and 14 chambers of commerce to issue a letter calling for ongoing funding and reforms. In addition to “multi-year commitments … for operating funds,” “a dedicated source for capital funding,” and “a continuing funding commitment from the federal government,” the business letter asks for reforms to WMATA’s governance, in line with what the Federal City Council has been pushing for. (Disclosure: FCC’s deputy director and leader on Metro, Emeka Moneme, is a member of the GGWash Board of Directors).
The business letter recommends shrinking the number of directors on the board, requiring expertise in a relevant field, and a rule that the “sole fiduciary duty” of board members be to WMATA. People have criticized the way members sometimes push for procurements or real estate deals which benefit their particular jurisdictions, and even create opportunities for corruption. It’s likely that elected officials, which make up some of DC’s and Virginia’s board members (but not Maryland’s, per state law) would not be able to sit on the board under such a rule.
Besides the chambers of commerce of DC, Virginia, Northern Virginia, Arlington County, Prince William, Greater Springfield, Greater Reston, Greater McLean, Maryland, Montgomery County, Prince George’s, Greater Bethesda, Greater Silver Spring, and the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, other signatories to the letter include 2030 Group, the Apartment and Office Building Association, the Consortium of Universities, and the DC Building Industry Association.
Nonprofit organizations, including many that work on transportation and the environment, have teamed up as well with their own statement. Led by the Coalition for Smarter Growth, they endorsed a “fund it, fix it” statement of principles which calls for dedicated funding, frequent transit service, and bus priority with dedicated bus lanes where possible.
That group includes Maryland organizations CASA, Action Committee for Transit, the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, League of Women Voters Montgomery County, Friends of White Flint, and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance; the Virginia Conservation Network, Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, Piedmont Environmental Council, Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, and the Arlington Coalition for Sensible Transportation; the Sierra Club chapters and groups in DC, Virginia, Montgomery County, and Great Falls; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
The League of Women Voters of the National Capital Area (an umbrella group of all LWVs in the area), 1000 Friends of Maryland, and Central Maryland Transportation Alliance also joined for an announcement issued Monday from the nonprofits.
In the public sector, there have been funding calls and reform plans from WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, a group of Maryland legislators, ATU Local 689, and a working group from the Council of Governments.
Who’s not here?
At this point, with advocacy, environmental, business, faith, and about every other policy organization in DC, Maryland, and Virginia agreeing about much of what WMATA needs, the question becomes, who’s not on board?
So far, some Virginia legislators still aren’t. Some in Loudoun County still want more study and feel Loudoun shouldn’t have to pay even more after just joining WMATA formally (and not even having any stations yet). It’s sort of like buying into a condo and then being hit with a big assessment to fix the roof. But is the alternative to let the roof collapse?
Loudoun may try to negotiate a different funding commitment, and that’s really up to Virginia to work out internally. One way or another, though, Metro needs funding and appropriate reform.
Virginia legislators outside Northern Virginia may be the toughest sell, as many downstate delegates don’t ride transit and have signed anti-tax pledges which include not allowing Northern Virginia to raise its own taxes, even if there’s no impact outside the region.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has said he won’t stand in the way of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties taxing themselves to fund Metro, but won’t help out of the state budget. This despite pulling money away from those counties to build more roads in rural parts of the state right after taking office. The Baltimore area, which was most robbed by Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line, may want to know how it can fund needed transit as well.
But whether it’s a 1% sales tax or another method; whatever deal has to be worked out with the rest of Virginia and Maryland; the calls within all quarters of our region for some action to save Metro are getting louder and louder. The need is clear.
More parking restrictions could be coming to 16th Street NW as part of the ongoing changes to prepare the corridor for rush-hour transit lanes, expected by 2020.
The D.C. Department of Transportation says it is moving to lengthen 22 bus zones along 16th Street to better accommodate articulated buses. In the process, it would remove up to 66 parking spaces.
City planners are studying additional impacts on parking that could result from adding dedicated transit lanes to one of the city’s busiest commuter corridors. Parking now allowed in the off-peak direction during rush hour could be removed to allow for travel in all traffic lanes during the morning and evening commutes.
DDOT also is evaluating a proposal to extend rush-hour parking restrictions along the corridor to ease bus travel. Next week, however, the agency plans to bring back regular rush hours to this and other corridors where the agency extended parking restrictions by 30 minutes to ease congestion during SafeTrack. Metro’s yearlong maintenance program ends Sunday, and parking prohibitions will return to normal: 7 to 9:30 a.m. and 4 to 6:30 p.m.
The ongoing changes could reduce parking availability on 16th Street, but transit advocates say they are necessary to prioritize bus use in the corridor that carries as many as 20,000 commuters on a typical weekday. Some say it is a luxury to have any parking available on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.
The bus lane plan has been embraced by bus riders and city residents, who say dedicated lanes could help solve chronic problems on the S-Line, including crowding, bunching and delays.
The improvements would benefit thousands of riders who are often stuck behind traffic traveling at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour. The S-Line transports more people than cars during rush hour, making the corridor an ideal testing ground for the type of improved bus service that transit advocates and riders say would make Metrobus more efficient and attractive to commuters.
“People love their 16th street bus service and they love riding,” said Cheryl Cort, an advocate for bus lanes with the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Without bus lanes, she said, the problems will continue or worsen. Sometimes, buses are so crowded, she said, that four buses pass her before she can board one.
Metro has invested in the line, adding trips and restructuring service to provide extra buses along the southern portion. But as service was added, ridership grew.
DDOT began design work on the lanes last year, along with other enhancements to the road infrastructure, such as adjusting the timing of traffic lights and more frequent buses. Parking restrictions are next in the process, which also calls for the elimination of bus stops and more upgrades to the bus fleet. Plans also call for an off-board payment system and all-door entry on S-Line buses to reduce dwelling times at bus stops.
The bus lanes would run peak-direction during rush hour, from Arkansas Avenue in the upper Northwest area to H Street in downtown.
Earlier plans to extend the center reversible lane from Arkansas Avenue to K Street by installing a fifth lane south of U Street may not be possible because parts of the corridor are 2 to 3 feet short of the 50 feet needed to have five, 10-foot traffic lanes, officials say.
Still, the city said it is moving forward with rush-hour transit lanes throughout the length of the corridor. DDOT will present alternatives for how to do that in the segment that has only four lanes at a meeting next month.
As the project advances, the most controversial part has been the potential elimination of eight bus stops: southbound stops at Newton, Lamont and V streets; and northbound at L, Q, V, Lamont and Newton streets.
Residents and community leaders said at a meeting last week that taking away stops would impact riders, many of them elderly and with young children, who already walk four or five blocks to get to their bus stops.
Kishan Putta, a community activist who has been pushing for the transit lane for the past four years, said the consolidation of bus stops could alienate riders and the time savings is not worth it. Instead, he said, DDOT should consider whether it makes sense to have some buses uses different stops.
As part of the ongoing changes in the corridor, Metro will add more rush-hour trips on the S9 buses starting Sunday. In recent months, the limited-stop route tested transit signal priority, a system that allows the bus extra green time at the light so it can stay on schedule.
City officials say they are still evaluating the program’s success, and whether significant time savings are accomplished, before implementing on the S1, S2 and S4.
With regards to parking, DDOT spokesman Terry Owens said the city plans to begin work with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions on the parking spaces that will be removed to make bus zones longer. He said the minimum length of a bus zone on an articulated bus route is 110 feet. Twenty-two bus zones don’t meet that guideline and will be lengthened by 40 to 60 feet, which means two to three parking spaces at some locations.
DDOT’s project timeline puts bus lane in the corridor by 2020. Under DDOT’s proposal, buses would have a southbound dedicated lane from 7 to 10 a.m. and a northbound one from 4 to 7:30 p.m.
The lane could save nearly six minutes of travel time during the morning commute for some southbound buses and the same for the northbound traffic in the evening, but general traffic would see modest increases in travel time, according to a DDOT study.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth celebrated its 20th anniversary last week at an event that captured the diverse coalition helping to shape a more sustainable path for regional growth. Founded in 1997 by the D.C. region’s leading regional conservation groups, CSG today partners with housing, transit, and bicycle/pedestrian groups, neighborhood activists, the development, architecture, and planning sectors, and local governments to promote mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-oriented development.
We’ve supported millions of square feet of development and tens of thousands of housing units in smart growth locations. We’ve also pressed for the policies necessary for these projects to be sustainable and inclusive, including good design, reduced parking, affordable housing, “complete streets” designed to be safe for all users and modern stormwater management. The market has responded:
- 86 percent of new office development is within ¼ mile of Metro;
- Marriott, Nestle, Hilton, Choice Hotels, and many other corporations are moving to Metro station locations;
- The JBG Cos. and Vornado Realty Trust are merging and concentrating their entire portfolio at Metro; and
- D.C. has added 120,000 new residents over the past 12 years.
Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova has said “transit-oriented development is Fairfax’ future.” So have leaders of most other jurisdictions, who have incorporated transit-oriented development as the core of the Council of Government’s Region Forward vision plan.
We’ve learned a lot along the path:
- The demand for convenient urban living has helped revitalize neighborhoods but also created major affordability challenges. We need more housing closer to jobs, bigger housing trust funds, inclusionary policies, and more rapid planning and zoning changes – especially for commercial strip corridors.
- Neighborhoods are concerned about rapid change and the addition of medium- to higher-density development. We need everyone at the table in planning for the future, excellent architecture, community benefits including town greens and pocket parks, and parking reform and demand management to ensure walking, biking, and transit are the predominant travel modes.
- Partnerships are critically important. We would not have made this much progress without working with other nonprofits, smart growth developers, progressive architects and land use and transportation planners.
- Transportation planning changes far too slowly and too few recognize the limitations of highway expansion – that new highways and additional lanes induce travel pattern changes and more auto-dependent development which fill up the new lanes in as little as five years.
- Pricing matters – low gas prices and free or reduced-price parking encourage longer commutes and more driving while adding to congestion, while higher gas prices, market-priced parking, and affordable, frequent transit encourage transit use and living in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.
- Leadership by elected officials, local planners and the private sector is essential. That’s why our annual award event recognizes the critical role of our democratically elected leaders, the technical skills of local planners, and the commitment to well-designed projects by the private sector.
Our region faces challenges, which we intend to help tackle in the same spirit of partnership that got us here. These include Metro’s aging infrastructure and a transit funding crisis, ongoing neighborhood concerns about medium and higher density development near transit, housing affordability, and the urgent need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.
Purple Line supporters Monday described a federal judge’s latest ruling in the long-running Purple Line lawsuit as “ludicrous” and “terribly flawed,” while the plaintiffs called it a “victory for everybody.”
Both sides were quick to react after Judge Richard Leon issued a ruling Monday morning that called for the Federal Transit Administration to conduct a new environmental review that thoroughly considers the possible impact of Metro’s ongoing ridership decline and safety issues on the planned 16.2-mile light-rail project.
The long-awaited ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by two Town of Chevy Chase residents—John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua—and the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called the ruling “incredibly disappointing, but not entirely surprising,” and said the state “will continue to pursue any and all legal action to ensure that the Purple Line will move forward.”
Leon took about five months to issue the ruling after receiving information from FTA and Maryland Transit Administrations that stated Metro’s woes wouldn’t significantly impact ridership on the Purple Line. It could take several months or more than a year to conduct the new environmental analysis ordered by the judge, which requires public hearings, if the state accepts the ruling and doesn’t appeal it.
“The fact that it took a federal judge this long to reach the conclusion that more study is needed is completely baffling and, if allowed to stand, will cause irreparable harm to this vital project and cost the state hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars,” Hogan said in a statement issued Monday afternoon. He said the ruling ignores the opinions of federal and state transportation experts as well as environmental advocates who support the project.
“This is not a political issue—it’s an important transportation and transit priority for Maryland and the region that has strong bipartisan support,” Hogan said.
Opponents of the project were pleased with the ruling.
“Obviously, it’s a victory of substantive analysis over agency arrogance,” Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, said Monday. “Before Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and the state continue to push this fiscally irresponsible and environmentally damaging project, we should focus on Metro’s woes.”
He said the state and the two counties that are contributing funding to the project should shift that money to help the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority fix Metro and to other projects that could reduce traffic congestion in the area.
“This really is a victory for everybody,” Bhatt said.
Fitzgerald, who also serves as an attorney on the case, said in a statement the judge’s order requiring the FTA to conduct a new Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement “should provide the public with a chance to put up-to-date facts on the record.”
Leon’s decision is likely to further delay the start of construction, which was scheduled to begin late last year. A spokeswoman for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office said officials are reviewing Leon’s order before determining whether they’ll take additional legal steps. Earlier this month, Attorney General Brian Frosh requested a legal maneuver in D.C.’s federal Court of Appeals to try to force Leon to issue a ruling by June 1.
State officials have warned in court filings that further delay could result in losses of $13 million per month and possibly lead to the cancellation of the project. Leon previously vacated the project’s federal approval in an August ruling, preventing the state from securing $900 million in federal funding needed to pay for construction, which is expected to cost more than $2 billion.
The entire project is estimated to cost $5.6 billion over the 36-year contract with the state’s private partner—Purple Line Transit Partners—which is a group of finance and construction companies working with the state to design, build, operate and maintain the light-rail line.
The state has also estimated that it stands to lose about $800 million that’s already been spent on planning and designing the project as well as for contractual penalties that must be paid to the private partner if the project is cancelled.
In his ruling, Leon said the federal and Maryland transit administrations failed to adequately analyze the potential impact of Metro’s ridership decline on the future ridership of the Purple Line.
However, the transit agencies found that even if no Metro riders used the Purple Line, the light-rail line would still have about 50,000 weekday riders by 2040, compared to the 69,300 including Metro riders that is currently projected. Ridership at that level would still be enough to meet the line’s purpose—to create a reliable east-west transit system between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, according to the agencies.
Metro’s ridership problems are among about two dozen environmental issues that the plaintiffs claimed the agencies failed to account for in their 2014 environmental review of the project.
Leon said he’ll “issue an opinion on these remaining issues in the next few weeks”—raising the possibility that additional roadblocks besides Metro’s issues could be raised. It’s not immediately clear if the state can appeal Monday’s ruling given that Leon hasn’t ruled on the other pending issues in the case.
Meanwhile, Purple Line supporters believe Leon’s decision provides the state with an opportunity to appeal his order.
Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner called the ruling “a terribly flawed decision, one that I am confident will be reversed by the Court of Appeals—and the sooner the better.”
Berliner added that Leon’s opinion is “profoundly lacking in logic” because it says Metro’s current travails will have a profound impact on ridership on the Purple Line in the year 2040, when FTA provided evidence that shows if there was not a single rider from Metro, and in effect no Metro system at all, that the Purple Line would still be in the public interest.
The Purple Line would be operated by the state’s private partnerer, not WMATA, but the line is designed to connect with Metrorail at five stations where riders are expected to transfer between the two transit systems.
County Council member Hans Riemer, an ardent Purple Line supporter, said he was not surprised by Leon’s decision.
“I think it’s good that we got this decision now, rather than six months from now,” Riemer said. “I think the judge probably would have sat on it as long as he possibly could.”
The judge wrote in his order that the decision took a considerable amount of time because he had a large caseload. He noted that since late January he has issued more than 22 written opinions and presided over 60 hearings in other cases.
“[Leon] is so wrong that in my opinion it proves that he’s biased,” Riemer said. “The state has already responded that a reduction in Metro ridership is irrelevant to the core decision of whether this is a cost-effective project. Even if Metro doesn’t exist, there’s still enough Purple Line riders to make it a good federal, state and local investment.”
However, Bhatt said state officials should be held accountable for signing the contract with the private partner while the federal lawsuit was still pending.
“Who’s going to be held accountable for the state’s decision to sign the $5.6 billion contract while the federal lawsuit hadn’t yet had its day in court?” Bhatt asked.
Pro-transit groups on Monday universally panned the judge’s decision.
“The slapdash and tardy ruling outright ignores much of the expert testimony that has already answered questions raised again by the court,” Ralph Bennett, president of Purple Line NOW, said in a statement. “Still, we are relieved to finally have a ruling, as Judge Leon has given ample grounds for appeal and we trust that the fundamental strength of the project will be vindicated in higher court.”
The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which supports transit-oriented development projects in the D.C. region, maintained the Purple Line will spur economic development along its east-west route between Bethesda and New Carrollton in Prince George’s counties.
“The Purple Line is a badly-needed east-west transit connection for access to jobs and revitalization, and significant ridership will be driven by that demand, as well as the revitalization inside the Beltway that the project will spur,” Executive Director Stewart Schwartz said in a statement.
Once upon a time, we headlined a story “The Purple Line Is Really Happening,” after Republican Governor Larry Hogan gave it a surprise green light and the Maryland Department of Transportation selected a firm to build and operate the 16.2-mile light rail line. Construction was slated to begin in late 2016.
But we should have known not to count wealthy NIMBY neighbors out.
The Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail filed a lawsuit that already resulted in one major delay, when U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon ruled last August that the MTA needed to recalculate its ridership projections in the wake of WMATA’s issues. Now, that same judge ruled today that federal transit officials failed to sufficiently take Metro’s safety and ridership problems into account and has ordered another study.
“After careful consideration of the motions, the applicable law, and the entire record in this case, I find that defendants have failed to take the requisite ‘hard look’ at the potential impact that WMATA’s ridership and safety issues could have on the Purple Line project,” Leon wrote in a 12-page opinion.
While the 16.2-mile, $2.4 billion light rail line isn’t a part of the Metro system, it will have connections to the Red, Green, and Orange lines among its 21 stops (should it ever get built).
Transit advocates argue that the Purple Line is a vital link for the corridor and that the connections to Metro are only a part of its benefit for the region.
“We already know that Metro ridership will make up only a limited percentage of Purple Line ridership,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, in a statement. “The Purple Line is a badly-needed east-west transit connection for access to jobs and revitalization, and significant ridership will be driven by that demand, as well as the revitalization inside the Beltway that the project will spur.”
On the other side, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail argues that Maryland should be focusing on coming up with its portion of the billions necessary to make badly needed repairs for Metro.
Maryland will pay $160 million in construction costs for the Purple Line, and has sought $900 million in federal transit aid along with contributions from local jurisdictions. Today’s ruling puts already appropriated federal funds in jeopardy, and could conceivably even spell the end for the project. From The Washington Post:
“How much more delay the Purple Line project can withstand is hard to say. Maryland officials can’t secure federal funding until Leon or another judge reinstates the light-rail project’s federal environmental approval, which Leon revoked in August.
State officials have said they need that environmental approval restored by June 1, or they would have to suspend much or all of the rail project’s planning and design work because state money would run out. The state would then have about 60 days before it would have to cancel the project, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said in a court filing.
If the state canceled the Purple Line, Rahn said, it could lose more than $800 million: $545 million already spent on planning and design, more than $200 million in contract termination costs and up to $150 million in delay costs.”
Metro’s current safety and ridership issues may doom the Purple Line.
A U.S. District Court judge said in a ruling on Monday that the Federal Transit Administration has failed to take a “hard look” at how Metro’s ridership and safety issues will impact the 16.2-mile Purple Line. That means, under his order, a new study and perhaps a lengthy delay — and maybe the final death blow — to the light-rail project, which is expected to serve as a major east-west transit connection between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
In the 12-page memorandum, Judge Richard Leon wrote that Maryland and federal officials must produce a supplemental environmental impact statement “as expeditiously as possible.” The ruling is an extension of what Leon told the parties in November, when he declined to reinstate the Purple Line Record of Decision, a federal environmental document that would allow construction on the $5.6 billion project to proceed.
This all comes in a response to a complaint from a Chevy Chase citizens group, Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, that has been in the courts since 2014.
“In effect, FTA boldly concluded that there is no need for an SEIS, and the Purple Line will meet its established purposes, no matter what happens to WMATA Metrorail,” Leon wrote. “To say the least, this is a curious conclusion when one considers that one of the three explicit purposes identified for the Purple Line was to ‘provide better connections to Metrorail services.'”
Ajay Bhatt, president of Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, said the ruling is an opportunity for state and federal officials to step back and re-evaluate transportation priorities.
“Better to re-evaluate than to continue to rush this fiscally irresponsible and environmentally damaging transit system,” Bhatt told the WBJ, adding that fixing Metro’s current issues should be the priority over the Purple Line.
The Purple Line is not a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority project, but it is designed to connect to the region’s subway system. Purple Line supporters say the project will create as many as 6,300 construction jobs and thousands of additional jobs, shave east-west travel times by as much as a half an hour and connect key employment nodes between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
An additional environmental review will delay the project further or even kill it. Maryland officials say they need the environmental approval restored by June 1 or they might have to suspend much or all of the rail project’s planning and design work because state money would run out, according to the Washington Post.
Leon notes that under current models, Metro ridership could decline anywhere from 3.7 percent to 27.4 percent by 2040. The Coalition for Smart Growth, a vehement Purple Line backer, said that it is certain Metro ridership will recover in the longterm.
“The Purple Line is a badly-needed east-west transit connection for access to jobs and revitalization, and significant ridership will be driven by that demand, as well as the revitalization inside the Beltway that the project will spur,” coalition Executive Director Stewart Schwartz said in a statement. “In an era of climate change, the most progressive transportation solution available is to build more transit.”
Gregory Sanders, vice president of rail advocacy group Purple Line NOW, said he hopes the FTA and the state of Maryland will appeal.
Leon took his time rendering a decision, driving Maryland officials to demand through the courts that he move faster. The judge addresses that issue in a footnote, writing that while Maryland’s “desire for a speedy resolution of the case is understandable,” it is his job to take his time, weigh competing interests and balance a heavy docket.
“The fact that I am issuing this opinion today, rather than as soon as Maryland would have liked, is not due to judicial neglect or disregard for the parties’ interests, but rather the byproduct of the very type of intricate docket juggling that is performed daily by District Court judges around the country,” Leon wrote.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 22, 2017
Stewart Schwartz, Coalition for Smarter Growth
Coalition for Smarter Growth STATEMENT on Judge Leon’s ruling on the Purple Line
MARYLAND – In response to US District Judge Richard J. Leon’s 12-page opinion calling for more study of Metro’s impact on Purple Line ridership, Coalition for Smarter Growth Executive Director Stewart Schwartz issued the following statement.
“We already know that Metro ridership will make up only a limited percentage of Purple Line ridership. The Purple Line is a badly-needed east-west transit connection for access to jobs and revitalization, and significant ridership will be driven by that demand, as well as the revitalization inside the Beltway that the project will spur. We are also certain Metro ridership will recover as the system completes repairs and reforms. In an era of climate change, the most progressive transportation solution available is to build more transit.”
About the Coalition for Smarter Growth
The Coalition for Smarter Growth is the leading organization in the Washington DC region dedicated to making the case for smart growth. Its mission is to promote walkable, inclusive, and transit-oriented communities, and the land use and transportation policies and investments needed to make those communities flourish. Learn more at smartergrowth.net.
John Smith’s commute from Rockville, Maryland to downtown D.C. is only 20 miles, but during the morning rush hour, it takes him an hour and 20 minutes. Smith, a finance professional, would rather take Metrorail’s Red Line, but he puts up with the traffic because his employer pays for his parking space.
“It’s just a bunch of traffic. If I leave really early, it’s not too bad, but to get here on time it’s stressful,” said Smith on a recent morning near his office.
Even with Metro’s problems, he would prefer to use mass transit instead of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic to and from work.“It’s less stressful, especially when the Metro is working well,” he said.
Smith may soon be able to cash in on his preferred mode of transport by cashing out his parking benefit.
Legislation proposed by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) would require any business that pays for a worker’s parking space to offer that same benefit — in cash — if the employee chooses to walk, bike or take transit to the office instead of driving.
This is not the pre-tax transit or parking benefit many employers already offer; Allen’s proposal deals with taxable cash paid out in addition to an employee’s salary or wages.
“It’s only fair that if you choose transit, you choose bike, you choose walk, some other way to get to work, that value should carry with you. It’s about fairness for our employees,” said Allen in an interview with WAMU.
If an employer provides a specific parking subsidy, for example, up to $350 per month for parking, the worker would be able to cash out the amount and use it to pay for their preferred mode of transportation, even walking. Where an employer does not specify a value, the bill calls for a maximum of $255, the same amount in tax-free parking benefits an employer can provide in 2017 under IRS rules.
Why would someone need money to walk to work?
“Well, you might buy a new pair of sneakers every six months,” said Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an advocacy organization that favors sustainable transportation over highway expansions. “But it is taxable cash,” she added. “So you can use it how you want. And the point is, rather than only incentivizing driving and parking, why not incentive healthier, sustainable commutes?”
Good for the environment, good for business?
Allen’s proposal appears to square with the District’s goal of getting commuters out of cars at a time when the city has ambitious goals to reduce downtown gridlock. The Council member said his legislation would not add costs to any employer’s operation.
“The employer was going to spend the money anyway,” Allen said. “But if the employee chooses not to drive their car or if they don’t have a car, then now that value can be transferred to help support their transit, their way of getting back and forth to work.”
Six percent of D.C. residents bicycle to work and 12 percent walk, according to Census data. Less than 50 percent of city residents drive alone to the office. An informal survey by the District Department of Transportation found that 34 percent of D.C. employers pay for employees’ parking.
Matt Klein, the president of Akridge, a major real estate developer with offices in downtown Washington, said it remains to be seen if the business community will embrace Allen’s legislation, even if it brings no additional costs.
“It’s important to look at the total weight of regulation on businesses in the District,” Klein said. “This is really smart policy. This is something we should explore fully relative to how we improve road capacity within Washington. But my business sense is that we really have to also understand what it means to have the District start to become more involved in the interaction between employer and employee.”
Some employers may welcome Allen’s proposal as a way to become more competitive. The downtown architecture firm ZGF already offers the pre-tax transit benefit. Otto Condon is an executive at the firm.
“We need to actually look at a benefits package which does address getting to work, whether that’s bike assistance, transit assistance, even shoe subsidies for people who walk,” Condon said.
There is evidence such incentives are effective. Donald Shoup, an expert on sustainable transportation at UCLA, contends that employer-paid parking is an invitation to drive to work alone, and it is single-occupant vehicles that cause congestion. A parking cash-out law approved in California in 1992 has produced benefits, Shoup said.
“What it has done in some cases is encourage people to live closer to where they work and use the cash payment as a rent subsidy,” said Shoup, who has researched the effect of the parking cash-out law in Los Angeles, a city known for horrific congestion. “Out of every 100 employees, it shifted 13 out of solo driving into carpooling or mass transit,” he said.
In a March 28 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, Shoup wrote: “Of those 13 former solo drivers, nine joined carpools, three began to ride public transit and one began to walk or bike to work. Overall, the share of commuters who drove to work alone fell from 76% before the cash option to 63% afterward,” Shoup wrote in a March 28 editorial in the Los Angeles Times.
Some Washington workers said the Council proposal sounds good — almost too good to be true.
“I think encouraging people not to drive is a great idea. I wonder if this legislation would have that effect,” said Erica Handloff as she walked to her office at a think tank one morning. Handloff lives in the District, takes a bus downtown and then walks the rest of the way. “If somebody was offering $250 or whatever the benefit is, that would be fantastic. I also think there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It sounds too good to be true.”
She and other skeptics could get answers to their questions soon. Council member Allen’s bill could get a hearing before the Council takes its summer recess in July.