Author: Veronica Miniello

How Governor Hogan Slimmed Down The Budget For The Purple Line

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has touted his Purple Line cost-cutting as a victory for taxpayers. On March 2 the state hired a private-sector team, Purple Line Transit Partners, led by the firm Fluor Enterprises, to build the light rail system at a construction cost of $1.9 billion, about a half-billion less than earlier estimates.

The administration estimated its new total costs would reach $3.3 billion after six years of construction and 30 years of passenger service, with the majority of the funds paid in annual installments to the company that operates the light rail system.

The deal led the Maryland transportation secretary Pete Rahn to defend the decision to put the project on hold last year to negotiate a lower price with the private contractor teams competing for the bid.

“Absolutely this was worth the time that we took in which we are saving $550 million for the taxpayers in delivering an excellent project for the Washington area,” Rahn said.

What was lost in the savings?

The largest single cost-saver in Hogan’s slimmed-down Purple Line can be found in Silver Spring. That is where the Purple Line was supposed to arrive in an elevated structure between Metro’s Red Line station and the Silver Spring Transit Center, a new bus hub.

Under the new design, the Purple Line stop will be built on the opposite side of the transit center, saving $30 million. Advocates who once feared the governor might cancel the Purple Line altogether are willing to accept the changes.

“It’s possibly a bit of wash,” said Greg Sanders of the group PurpleLineNow!

“It saves about $30 million. There’s a longer transfer, but if you have been to New York, let alone Tokyo, there’s any number of places in both systems where you have a longer walk between transfer stations than here.”

Also among the money-saving decisions, the railcar supplier CAF, a Spanish firm, will build single-car trains at a reduced length of 136 feet instead of two-car trains. And because of the earlier decision to lengthen the headways (intervals between trains) from six to seven-and-a-half minutes, fewer railcars will be needed when the Purple Line in expected to open in 2022.

“This was something the private concessionaire proposed” Sanders said. “A lot of the savings are things lay people wouldn’t necessarily see, but the concessionaire has the option of putting through. That is the kind of deal where we are getting the benefits of private enterprise for a public purpose.”

The Maryland Department of Transportation also touted other “new elements” of the Purple Line contract: significant reduction in the number of traction power substations, new entrance into Glenridge Shopping Center from Veterans Parkway, and reuse of site-excavated materials.

“If we get the line built, if we get construction started this year, and we get these communities connected and people moving, I am entirely willing to make this sort of compromise,” said Sanders.

Fewer stations = smaller price tag?

The Hogan administration did not consider eliminating some of the 21 stations along the 16-mile route running east-west between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Cutting stations could have reduced construction costs and, by speeding up operations, would have required purchasing fewer railcars to maintain the headways.

Ten of the stations are forecast to serve no more than 2,000 passengers per day even 25 years out, according to theproject’s final environmental impact statement. Two stops have ridership projected below 1,000 per day. For instance, the Dale Drive stop is listed at 960 boardings in 2040. By comparison, the Bethesda station is expected to serve 14,990 passengers per day.

The stations were estimated to cost $109 million, or 10 percent of the construction cost, according to a 2013 technical report. So cutting a few could have trimmed several million dollars of the Purple Line’s price tag.

Why build a light ridership station at all? The answer, according to land use experts, is the development potential around the station. The federally approved ridership estimates are based on each locality’s current zoning rules, not on potential future changes to allow mixed-use development of residential, office, and retail space.

“The important thing to keep in mind is we don’t build transportation to move people. That is not the goal. The goal is economic development. The means is by moving people,” said Chris Leinberger, a real estate expert at The George Washington University.

For instance, the stop in the Chevy Chase Lake area is forecast at about 2,200 daily passengers by 2040. But Montgomery County has approved big plans for the area, including condos, rental apartments, and office high-rises near the station.

“They have a lot of potential to build out more development that will increase the ridership,” Leinberger said.

That is why transit advocates have gotten behind the project, whose total estimated ridership is listed at about 70,000 by 2040.

“The Purple Line is perhaps the most significant economic investment that Maryland can make in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“It’s really important to think of this investment in the context of where the market is going now. The demand to live in urban, walkable, and transit-accessible areas is booming and there is no end in sight.”

It is also important to remember that ridership estimates are often wrong, according to transportation policy experts. It is more art than science, said Joshua Schank, the former head of the Eno Center for Transportation who is now the chief innovation office at the Los Angeles Metro.

“It’s very difficult to predict any number of things that can happen: economic downturns, changes in gas prices, where the development is going to be. There are so many variables…The mistake is we think whatever the ridership number is, that is what it actually is going to be. It’s just a guide,” said Schank.

Two recent studies of new transit projects, cited by the Washington Post, actual ridership often falls short or even exceeds the initial estimates.

A Federal Transit Administration study in 2008 found that estimates improved, but that “only half of 18 recently built U.S. transit projects had reached their projections or stood a “good chance” of getting close,” the Post reported.

A Maryland Transit Administration study examined seven light rail systems that opened in the past decade. They “averaged 8 percent higher ridership than predicted.”

But individual systems produced figures far from the average. Three projects’ “riderships were as much as 45 percent below forecasts while four exceeded projections — one by as much as 79 percent,” according to the Post’s report.

The Purple Line’s ridership estimates also have grown over successive gubernatorial administrations, with the O’Malley administration coming to the highest figure of about 70,000 boardings per day.

High ridership forecasts are necessary to win federal grant dollars. The Purple Line was approved for $900 million under the FTA’s New Starts program.

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Officials tout East End street project at Fulton Hill meeting

The proposed design of a nearly $8 million street project that officials say will improve the East End of Richmond’s transportation network and parking while providing better access to the riverfront went before the public at a meeting Wednesday night in Fulton Hill.

The project includes widening East Main Street and potentially adding a roundabout at its intersection with a relocated Dock Street. Dock, currently alongside the James River, would be moved north, potentially opening the doors to more development and public access near the river.

East Main would be widened to include parking, sidewalks, bike lanes and landscaping, and to accommodate bus rapid transit pullouts.

“That area of the city is growing. There’s a lot going on over there, and we want to make sure that it’s able to accommodate the volume of traffic as it continues to increase,” said Sharon North, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Public Works. “We also want to make it an area that people go to, that they have access to the riverfront and businesses.”

City engineer M. Khara said a new Dock Street would run north of its current footprint and connect with East Main at Ash Street, where a roundabout is proposed. The shift is needed because of the closure of Water Street between Nicholson and Ash as part of the Stone Brewery Development.

The relocated Dock Street would have bike lanes, sidewalks and two vehicle travel lanes, officials said.

During the public meeting, illustrations of the proposed plan were on display and experts were on hand to answer questions from the few dozen residents who attended.

The project is designed in part to better connect downtown with east Richmond as far as Rocketts Landing, creating links by vehicles, mass transit and bicycles, while also recognizing the river as a major attraction.

Kimberly Winn, who lives on Dock Street, said that the project will have a major impact on the city and that she would like for the community to be more involved in the process.

Stewart Schwartz, a board member of Partnership for Smarter Growth and the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said a big concern is that city has been asking the public to look at bits and pieces of the riverfront plans separately. He suggests the city do a better job of explaining all of the pieces of the various proposals along the riverfront and how they tie together.

“Why isn’t the public being shown the big picture of what is being considered?” Schwartz asked.

Elsewhere in the plans, the widened portion of East Main, which would run from its intersection with the new Dock Street to Gillies Creek, would sport parking spaces on each side, bike lanes, a 6-foot median and sidewalks.

Also included: sidewalks and landscaping along Nicholson Street to the railroad bridge and bus rapid transit pullouts on Main Street between Gillies Creek and Nicholson Street.

The project is expected to go before the city’s Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission for a preliminary meeting in May, with final approval possible in July.

Construction is expected to start in February or March of next year, with completion tentatively scheduled for December 2017.

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After a Metro shut down, new ways to move from Point A to Point B

 Chances are if you’re reading this, you or someone you know was affected directly by last Wednesday’s transportation nightmare in the D.C. area. Just months after being ranked the No. 1 transit system in the country, hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians were forced to find a new way to commute to work – be it via car, taxi, bike, bus or what have you – as an unprecedented 29-hour Metro shutdown ground the entire system to a halt.  Many chose to telework or take off altogether. While it’s impossible to quantify, the loss in business productivity must be staggering. Imagine if this took place during the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Fortunately, Metro has resumed normal service, but not before delivering a gut-check to those that rely on its services every day.  The shutdown exposed flaws in the system and demonstrated a clear need for investing in our current infrastructure and supporting innovative and alternative modes of getting around, whether for everyday or emergency use. Merely maintaining our existing fixer-upper infrastructure isn’t likely to make the difference we seek. We need an all-of-the-above strategy.

To ease the literal gridlock on our roads, we need to look critically at all modes of transportation, including public transit and rail, as well as new and disruptive concepts such as ride-share and bike-share services.

We need to listen to voters, those clamoring for new solutions and sparking a transportation sea change with their life choices. And we need to emulate and encourage the cities and companies that have taken steps, collaboratively in some instances, to begin to meet that demand.

At the center of this new world of transit is an idea, two words, a mouthful: Multimodal transportation.

Some businesses in cities across the country are already doing this.

DART – the Dallas Area Rapid Transit authority – has partnered with ride-hailing company Uber to streamline commuting via its GoPass app. You can order an Uber ride and buy a train ticket all in one place, eliminating questions of how to get from point A to B if conventional transportation lacks flexibility — all through the convenient use of smartphones.

Advances in mobile technology are certainly driving innovation. GoogleMaps automatically updates with local transit information, helping you make an informed decision regarding whether you should hop on the train or a bus or hail a ride.

Carshare services like Zipcar and Car2Go stash their vehicles along public transit lines. Inside the Beltway, you can overlay a map of Zipcar’s inventory on a map and easily identify Metro stations by the concentrated clusters of cars.

With carshare on the scene, cities like Boston and Chicago have seen a significant uptick in public transit ridership, decreasing the number of private cars clogging the roads. Chicago in particular has embraced this, marrying the two modes with an all-in-one transit card that allows access to both Enterprise CarShare and the CTA.

Ride-hailing company Lyft has built an entire campaign around connecting you to transit systems, such as in Friends With Transit, with an eye toward filling the first mile/last mile void in your public transit itinerary.

Lyft rival Uber has taken ride-hailing to the next logical step by slashing its taxi-slaying rates still further with UberPool, a several-minute blind date that gets you to dinner 40 percent cheaper than the default UberX.

Americans are finding themselves, more than ever, engaging in multimodal transportation, even if they don’t know it.  They’re walking to Metro stations, using ride-hailing services and arriving at airports in one smooth motion, dramatically changing the way we move about — and it’s never been easier.

So easy, in fact, that millions of Americans increasingly view car ownership as entirely optional; however, this is only possible with a robust transportation system. Convincing an increasingly mobile population to leave their cars at home takes significant coordination, but some of the country’s smartest cities, transit agencies and businesses are finding the benefits of that effort.

So, if you’re among the countless people frustrated by lengthy Metro delays or seemingly endless gridlock on our area’s roads, it’s in your – and all of ours – best interest to encourage development of some of these alternatives.

Fortunately, local organizations such as Voices for Public Transit and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are helping our policymakers think about the next generation of transportation and the need for input from the community.  If we can take any lesson from the gridlock on the roads and in Congress, it will take all of us to make a difference.

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Metro is dead. Long live BRT! (Or so some say)

Metro’s total shutdown Wednesday forced many people onto buses for the day.

But maybe that’s just the way things should be. All the time.

So say some transportation analysts anyway. They argue that Metro’s climactic failure is another sign that the bus–the lowly bus, so often seen as the clumsy and homely understudy to light or heavy rail–should once again play a starring role in mass transit.

An analyst from the right-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute went so far as to suggest that Metro is dead, and it’s time to pull the plug in favor of bus rapid transit (BRT). But so did an analyst over at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, who suggested that rail – and maybe even buses too – should be scrapped for private sector solutions coming into widespread use, including ride-sharing (like Uber) and driverless vehicles.

“Why isn’t now the time to ask whether we should keep investing in this system?” asks Thomas A. Firey, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. “Any reasonable metric shows it’s not a good form of transit compared to other ones. ”

If Firey had his way, he said he would close Metro and fill its tunnels with dirt.

Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also thinks public subways and bus systems have been so mismanaged for so long, it’s probably time to find alternatives.

“Both urban bus and urban rail are socially undesirable in most cities–that is, their operating and capital subsidies exceed benefits to users,” Winston said.

Both argue that Metro represents the transit option of yesteryear, and that the vast capital investments and operating subsidies that governments must plow into fixed rail systems no longer make sense compared with the flexibility and relatively low cost of BRT or ride-sharing and other innovations. This is particularly true at a time when buses and cars are cleaner and more fuel-efficient than ever. How much carbon, rail skeptics ask, went into the atmosphere to build the underperforming Silver Line?

In this view, the love affair for Metro is a holdover from the days when monumental projects were equated with the public good, and the preference for rail over buses was driven at least partly by middle-class tastes and anxieties. A federally-funded study by the National BRT Institute of mass transit options in Los Angeles suggests buses have an image problem that’s affected more by intangibles, such as perceived comfort, than tangibles, such as their reliability moving people around. Those intangibles also depend at least in part on the “urban context” a bus network serves – that is, the communities it transits — and this can be affected by the perception that the buses travel through low-income neighborhoods, the study says. You find Ralph Cramden behind the wheel of a bus; you find Tom Cruise on a train.

In a paper published in the 2013 edition of the Journal of Economic Literature, Winston argued that the United States has almost always been in flux between public and private approaches to maintaining its transportation infrastructure. But the time has come to either overhaul government’s stewardship of public transit or allow the private sector more of a share, because the current system is riddled with inefficiency and inequality.

Despite the notion that Metro is egalitarian, for example, studies show the federal government is subsidizing rail systems for riders who already have above-average incomes, compared to those who use the bus. The average income of a bus rider is $42,550 (in 2008 dollars); for rail, it’s $85,100. The 2016 median salary for Washington is $69,235, according to the Census Bureau.

Federal employees alone receive, free of charge, up to $255 a month to ride Metro. That’s the maximum a pretax subsidy anyone can receive; for people outside the federal government, it’s deducted from his or her pretax wages. For a federal employee, that’s the equivalent of a $3,060 annual bonus for them and $15 million a year for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. (The average pay for a federal employee is about $79,000, according to the Office of Personnel Management.)

Low-income commuters, or those who make less than $15,000, use rail for only 9.6 percent of their work trips – probably because transit reaches less than one third of metro-area jobs, Winston found.
“Fortunately, innovations in the private sector, including Uber in the short run and autonomous vehicles in the medium run, can improve urban transportation, and will likely eliminate public transit’s drain on the public purse and its patience,” Winston said.

Firey spelled out his reasoning along these lines in a policy paper that he admits sounds “radical.”

In his view, Metro is a dinosaur, built when 1960s urban planners and engineers still harked back to the hundred-year-old success of the London and New York subway systems and believed that electricity – thanks to things like nuclear power, among other things – would be the cheapest source of energy in the future.

Come ride with me: Washington D.C.’s Metro in the 1970s and ’80s
View Photos A look back at D.C.’s Metro to commemorate the Silver Line opening.
People are still habituated to the idea that trains can carry more people and at greater cost efficiency than buses when, he argues, the opposite is true.

This is partially because the real cost of rail is hidden from Metro users, whose fares cover less than half of the system’s operating and maintenance expenses and almost nothing of its capital costs, he said. Plus, now that Metro’s critical infrastructure is sputtering toward the end of its 40-year functional lifespan—as has become more and more obvious to the public –the cost of rebuilding the system will be daunting.

“WMATA officials can try to nurse it along, but that will be costly and riders will face many more disruptions like today,” Firey wrote Wednesday. “Ultimately, costly and environmentally damaging reconstruction will be needed.”

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, thinks they’re both wrong.

Metro is the primary reason for the revitalization of the District and its inner suburbs, from Silver Spring to Bethesda in Maryland all the way over to to Arlington and now Tysons Corner in Virginia, Schwartz said. If anything, Metro’s troubles stem from a lack of concerted government attention and funding, Schwartz said. He agreed that the emergency shutdown this week demonstrates why the city should expand its reliance on dedicated bus lanes, but as a supplement to Metro, not a substitute.
“As our region grows, we need an efficient surface transportation network with dedicated right-of-ways to the maximum extent possible,” Schwartz said in an email. “It’s important for reaching areas Metrorail doesn’t go and is also an important [complement] to Metrorail.”

A network of dedicated bus lanes might even allow WMATA to shut down an entire Metro system for repairs. But Schwartz also said buses could never take Metro’s place, and the emergency shutdown Wednesday has now given people a taste of what it would be like if there were no subway system.

In other words, Metro isn’t dead. It just looked like it on Wednesday.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Gresko. Click here to read the original story.

Subway safety shutdown makes for a very long day in capital

Thousands voted, with more than three quarters saying no.

Metrorail tweeted out early Thursday morning that service had been resumed to all lines after the 29-hour shutdown. It was the first time since 1976 that Metro had shut down for something other than a hurricane or blizzard. He says the walk from Metro Center to Roslyn will take him more than an hour.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said this about yesterday’s closure of Metro: “It took years for Metrorail to end up in this situation, where maintenance underfunding left us with the problems we see today”. “The whole system shuts down, the whole city shuts down”. “What are folks waiting for?”

Metro’s Safety investigators are reviewing the history of the damaged boots and cables, and all findings will be shared with Federal Transit Administration and National Transportation Safety Board.

“Throughout this intense inspection deployment, our focus has been on effectively mitigating fire risks”, said Wiedefeld.

For years, Metro has failed to spend all of its allotted money for capital improvements, and Wiedefeld has said Metro needs more realistic goals.

A sign at the Rosslyn, Va., Metro station notifies riders that the system is closed for emergency inspection Wednesday, March 16, 2016.

Brian Kirchner, 46, a federal contractor, said he was delayed by two hours getting home to Hagerstown, Maryland, on Monday because of the fire.

Wiedefeld said the alternative of having workers “crawling around” while the system continued to operate would have resulted in weeks of work.

Many riders were eager to get back on the transit system and, while occasionally frustrated that it had closed for an entire day, were pleased that Metro appeared to be serious about addressing riders’ safety. On Wednesday, they didn’t have that option.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management said in a statement that federal agencies will also open, with employees able to perform “telework” from home or put in for unscheduled leave.

The work is scheduled to be complete by the time Thursday’s commute begins at 5 a.m. WMATA spent the day inspecting all 600 “jumper cables” in the Metro system. Some of the connectors were improperly constructed and installed, allowing moisture and other contaminants to build up, it said.

In addition to the electric cables, Foxx said he is concerned about red-light running, the use of emergency brakes, and track integrity.

Commuters in the nation’s capital can return to their regular routines after an unprecedented daylong shutdown of the Washington subway system. But he said no progress has been made on the issue of a dedicated funding source for Metro. “And your solution is to cut?”

“It’s always slow, always crowded”, Bob Jones, 26, of Arlington, Va., told the Associated Press about the troubled transit system he’s not too fond of on a normal day.

In addition to the death a year ago, a crash in June 2009 killed eight riders and a train operator. One user joked that the city should flood the subway tunnels to the level of the platforms and rely on Venetian gondolas rather than trains. A track circuit, part of an automated-train control system, failed to detect the stopped train.

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