Author: Will Reckley

Virginia Wants To Talk To Maryland About A New Potomac River Bridge — Again

Virginia’s influential Commonwealth Transportation Board wants to open discussions with officials in D.C. and Maryland about improving congested Potomac River crossings, with priority given to expanding the capacity of the American Legion Memorial Bridge and Metro’s Rosslyn tunnel, which is the bottleneck for the Silver, Blue, and Orange lines.

The long-running idea of building a new bridge west of the American Legion — which carries I-495 over the river — also was included in the board’s resolution, although Maryland repeatedly has refused to go along with it. Opponents of adding a bridge west of the American Legion derisively say it would be part of an “outer Beltway.”

“We have had indications from Maryland that they are not opposed to discussion,” said Gary Garczynski, the Northern Virginia representative on the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB), which voted Wednesday in favor of opening discussions again.

“There should be dialogue about any one of those crossings or all of them, because in total they would certainly effectuate a much more connected region,” he said.

Studies by the Virginia Department of Transportation have identified the American Legion Bridge as the most important choke point for car commuters. A study of 11 Potomac crossings released in July recommended extending Virginia’s HOT lanes on I-495 across the bridge north to the I-270 spur.

More than 300,000 commuters per day use the bridge, the study said. More than 44,000 people travel through the Rosslyn tunnel on Metrorail into Virginia.

Opponents of an “outer Beltway” say there is relatively light demand for a new bridge upriver.

“There are certain lobbyists who continue to push this. There are certain parts of the business community that keep putting pressure on Gov. McAuliffe and Gov. Hogan. They are totally off base,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a long-time foe of building a new bridge between the American Legion and Point of Rocks bridges over the Potomac.

“There is no funding available for upriver bridges and no demand based on VDOT’s own study. So to us it is a waste of time,” he added.

A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation said the agency would continue to talk to Virginia officials about its concerns with a new crossing.

Also on Wednesday, the CTB formally approved VDOT’s plans to toll I-66 inside the Beltway staring in 2017, accepting a deal with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission to allow local representatives to decide where to spend toll revenues to improve mobility in the I-66 corridor.

Read at WAMU >>

I-66 tolling plan wins Commonwealth Transportation Board approval

The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) on Dec. 9 approved the McAuliffe administration’s proposal to allow single-occupant vehicles to use Interstate 66 inside the Beltway during rush hour, so long as they’re willing to pay for the privilege.

State Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, who chairs the board, called the unanimous vote a victory for both commuters who use I-66 and those who travel on surrounding roadways.

“The data is showing that all people will benefit, all people’s lives will be enhanced,” Layne said at the CTB meeting, held in Alexandria.

But critics kept up their drumbeat that unless I-66 eastbound is widened – sooner rather than later – the latest proposal is merely a stopgap that avoids the bigger questions.

“The issue isn’t tolling or transit, but how soon widening can be achieved,” said Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “This proposal kicks the well-documented need for widening down the road.”

Under the proposal OK’d by the state transportation panel, driving on I-66 eastbound during the morning rush and westbound during the evening rush will still be free, so long as there are two or more passengers in the vehicle (a number that eventually will rise to three). Those with one occupant, currently banned during rush hour, will be able to use the road in return for paying tolls whose amounts remain uncertain.

Some of the funds raised through the tolling will go to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which will parcel them out for improvements along the corridor.

The proposal has drawn pushback from advocates and lawmakers in the outer suburbs, who say their residents shouldn’t be forced to pay to use the road. But Layne countered that using excess capacity on I-66 will both raise funds and take drivers off surrounding arteries.

Saying that he understood the frustration of the plan’s opponents, and has taken some of their concerns into account, Layne said the Commonwealth Transportation Board and Virginia Department of Transportation do not have magic wands to solve all problems.

“Our role is to deal with the resources we have, and continue moving forward,” he said. “Our charge is to use [resources] as efficiently and as wisely as we can.”

Under the proposal, consideration of widening I-66’s eastbound side from the Dulles Toll Road to Ballston will not be considered until the 2020s, and only will go forward if certain thresholds are met.

Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said those promoting widening as a panacea are stuck in a 1950s mindset.

“We should do our transportation-management smart,” Schwartz said. He noted that even if that portion of I-66 is widened, “there is no place for the cars to go” because Potomac River bridges and roadways in the District of Columbia can’t be widened to accommodate the increased traffic flow.

State officials say that once the project is up and running in 2017 – the last year of McAuliffe’s term – they will monitor what transpires and make adjustments as needed.

That’s a good idea, said Joung Lee of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He told CTB members that, based on past experience across the country, they should anticipate teething pains.

“You’re not going to find that sweet spot right away,” Lee said. “It will take some tweaks and some experimentation.”

Read at Inside NOVA >>

Profiting from transit systems?

Employers explore a new route in recruiting millennial workers

A good transit system can do more than move people around, says David Green, CEO of the Richmond-based GRTC Transit System. It can also attract people that companies want to hire.

Richmond is next up in Virginia to find out how far a transit network can go in spurring economic growth. Under GRTC’s leadership, the city is close to breaking ground on a $54 million, 7.6-mile bus rapid-transit line (BRT) that will run from Henrico County in the west, down the city’s Broad Street corridor to Rocketts Landing, a mixed-use development on the James River east of downtown.

The plan is to begin construction next spring on the project, called the GRTC Pulse, and start operation in October 2017. The Pulse will have dedicated lanes and 14 stations, along with synchronized traffic signaling. During peak demand, buses will run every 10 minutes. Green and others want to extend the system eventually nine miles west out to the rapidly growing Short Pump area in western Henrico.

The project has been approved in principle by Richmond City Council and is backed by Mayor Dwight Jones, but it is not a done deal yet. A group representing 11 neighborhoods called the RVA Coalition for Smart Transit is seeking to delay the plan for a year. City council must approve an operating agreement governing The Pulse in coming weeks for construction to begin.

“This is what businesses are going to be looking for,” Green predicts. There’s a generation influence going on, with millennials in particular attracted to mixed-use, transit-oriented places, he says. Employers are noticing. “If you don’t have these things, if we can’t provide it here in Richmond, we’re going to lose all this talent,” he says.

The Marriott move
Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International Inc., cited those kinds of pressures back in February when he announced the hotel company is looking for a new headquarters location. About 2,000 employees work at its current headquarters in Bethesda, Md. “I think, as with many other things, our younger folks are more inclined to be Metro-accessible and more urban,” he told The Washington Post. Those comments have set off competition for the headquarters among Washington-region localities.

Sorenson was acknowledging a trend well underway in many urban markets as suburban office parks empty out in favor of major transit corridors. But his comments “sent shock waves around the country” because it showed even giant companies were feeling competitive pressures to get and keep the best workers, says John Martin, CEO of Southeastern Institute of Research, a Richmond-based firm with a background in community planning and transportation. “We’ve reached a tipping point in moving to a multimodal society.”

Martin says millennials, in particular, prefer the work, play, live environment that transit systems can support. “Technology has hyper-wired them together,” he says. Community is important, and they “are much more interested in being in activity centers. We’ve found they really can’t have an experience unless they’re sharing it.”

So the quality of the community makes a difference. “We’re seeing sort of emerging millennial hotspots, where some cities are getting a decided advantage,” Martin says. “Companies are saying, ‘Gosh I want to be in those places.’ It’s incumbent upon Virginia’s economic development community … you’ve got to invest in place.”

Developments in technology and in the function of transit systems are part of this change, Martin says. Fare cards are common instead of cash, for example, and there are apps that can tell riders when the next bus or train will arrive. Some transit systems have free WiFi. Traffic lights can be synchronized to let buses move through intersections with fewer delays. Plus, teleworking is more common, as is the rise of a “freelance economy” in which workers are less tied to one employer. “So people are really going to pick a place” based on the quality of life and not necessarily on how close it is to their job, he says.

Martin was to be part of a Dec. 1 event being held in Henrico, called “Transit Means Business,” which had support from transit interests and groups like the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. A similar event was held in Northern Virginia in May. The Henrico event also was to include a panel moderated by Selena Cuffee-Glenn, Richmond’s chief administrative officer. Scheduled panel members included Ted Ukrop, who opened the Quirk Hotel on Broad Street in September, and an executive from Stone Brewing Co., which is opening a new location near the James. Among others who spoke at the event was Aubrey Layne, the state’s secretary of transportation, and Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors.

Good timing
Richmond got lucky when it came to funding the BRT project. About $25 million of its funding came from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program (which stands for transportation investment generating economic recovery). The state’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation is providing about $17 million; Richmond is contributing $7.6 million; and Henrico will pay $400,000.

Green says “the planets lined up” for the project because a long study on how to do a BRT system in Richmond had just been  completed when the TIGER grant option came along. “We were ecstatic when they announced the opening for applications,” he says. Gov. Terry McAuliffe threw his support behind the project as well.

The Broad Street corridor was chosen for the Pulse system because it has the “highest existing and projected population and employment densities and the most transit supportive land use in the Richmond region,” according to RVA Rapid Transit, an organization that would like one day to see four BRT lines reaching into surrounding counties and intersecting in downtown Richmond. Within a half-mile of the planned BRT line, there are 33,000 people and 77,000 jobs with the potential for more, the group says.

In Virginia, new rapid transit systems have favored rail, which is far more expensive than BRT. The biggest is the D.C. region’s Metrorail system, which last year opened new stations in Tysons Corner and is continuing extension of the new Silver Line to Washington Dulles International Airport. In Norfolk, a light rail project, The 0, opened in August 2011 on a $318 million 7.4-mile corridor. It may be extended to Virginia Beach.

While transit has the power to drive economic growth, it’s still possible for smaller communities who can’t support that kind of investment to create places that will attract people and employers, says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. Thriving downtowns can have the same kind of success. “It may not be the big employers who come, but it’s still happening with smaller companies, and it doesn’t necessarily require transit,” he says.

But, for bigger regions, “if they’re going to remain competitive, using good transit and transit-oriented development is the key,” Schwartz says.

The Pulse is a major step for the Richmond region and a new test of the appeal transit systems can have, if done well. “Richmond’s never seen anything like this before,” Green says. “We need to make sure we do it right.” As far as expanding into the counties and creating a true regional BRT network, Green thinks the project will sell itself. “Once they experience it, the counties are going to want to expand.”

Read at Virginia Business >> 

Maryland Remains Serious About Maglev, Despite Skeptics

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s dream of building a magnetic levitation train — known as maglev — has taken two key steps, placing Maryland among a small number of states slowly moving toward establishing the first high-speed rail systems in the U.S., a half century after Japan operated its first bullet train.

On Nov. 7, Maryland received a $28 million federal grant to study the engineering and planning of a 40-mile line connecting Baltimore and Washington, a critical part of the federal environmental approval process. And on Nov. 17 the state’s public service commission transferred a passenger railroad franchise to The Northeast Maglev, the private sector firm contributing $7 million to the engineering study.

“This is big news,” said Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn. “This goes beyond the feasibility study and goes into its planning and engineering. This is a big step. This is a requirement necessary for a project to actually occur.”

Trying maglev again

Indeed, Maryland is further along than the last time the state considered maglev at the beginning of the last decade. The project failed to secure public support or the necessary funding, and a 2004 state statute blocked further work.

More recently, Pennsylvania gave up on its maglev studies, returning the grant money to the Federal Railroad Administration three years ago. That opened up an opportunity for Maryland to apply for the funds.

Why will this time be different? Sec. Rahn points to the private sector taking the lead with support from Japan.

“If you look around the country, there have been an awful lot of proposed maglev projects that just have fizzled as they moved down the path,” Rahn said. “What is interesting in this case is the pledge of funding coming from Japan.”

The Japan Bank of International Cooperation has pledged — pending the outcome of the federal environmental reviews of the project — a loan to cover half the estimated cost of about $10 billion. The Northeast Maglev (TNM) also has reached a deal with the Central Japan Railway Company to use its super conducting maglev technology, which moves trains well over 300 miles per hour. Central Japan Railway’s maglev is the fastest train in the world.

“We already have an agreement with the [railroad] that they would transfer that technology to us,” said Wayne Rogers, the chief executive of TNM. “We’ve looked over the entire world, and the Japanese technology is the newest, the best, the fastest, and the safest technology for high speed rail transportation.”

Rogers expects the engineering and planning studies to take about three years.

“We are very far along in what is a marathon and not a sprint. We have yet to finish the environmental impact statement work and yet to get all the state and local approvals, and the federal government approvals we need for the safety of the project,” he said.

High-speed rail in the United States

If Maryland and its private sector partners are able to see a Baltimore-to-D.C. maglev line through to completion, they would be among a small but growing number of states progressing on a long-stalled project: high-speed rail in the United States.

As mentioned, Japan has been running bullet trains for 50 years and is building out its maglev line that will eventually connect Tokyo and Nagoya.

China has 10,000 miles of high-speed rail, and started running a maglev in Shanghai in April 2004 at speeds of 267 miles per hour. Its inaugural ride was on New Year’s Eve in 2002, less than two years from the contract signing.

Several other nations — Korea, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and England — have been running trains over 200 miles per hour for years. (The international measurement for high-speed rail generally is considered cruising speeds of at least 150 miles per hour).

In the U.S., Amtrak’s Acela in the Northeast Corridor is the closest thing to high-speed rail, but it barely qualifies. It reaches 150 miles per hour for a few minutes on a single 30-mile stretch of rail in Rhode Island. Between D.C. and New York, Acela’s average speed is about 80 miles per hour, and plans to straighten the right-of-way to improve Acela’s efficiency would take years and many billions of dollars.

“We don’t have a big history of that here in the United States,” said Rob Puentes, a transportation policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

“We are just barely now starting to experiment with high speed rail investments. There are really good projects underway in California, in Texas, and in Florida.”

Construction of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line started in January. But its budget reportedly will exceed the planned $68 billion because of tunneling issues along earthquake fault lines.

Building maglev — where trains float above a magnetic guideway — would also present physical challenges.

“We know that it certainly works in other parts of the world,” said Puentes, referring to the Japanese and Chinese systems. “The challenge is how do you do it here in the United States? Particularly, how would you do it in a congested corridor between Washington and Baltimore? The challenge with maglev is it has to be straight and it has to be flat, and that usually means tunneling.”

“It is going to happen.”

Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who made funding high-speed rail a priority during President Obama’s first term, said maglev’s expense of initial construction has been the biggest obstacle in the U.S.

“But when the Japanese came into the United States and made a huge investment it became clear that now it was incumbent upon maglev advocates to find money to match that,” said LaHood in an interview with WAMU 88.5.

“I think maglev is the next generation of transportation,” LaHood said. “When you have the Japanese willing to invest $5 billion you have to take that seriously because they have the expertise.”

More broadly, LaHood expects high-speed rail (the usual steel-on-steel technology) to take off in the coming decade. At the Obama administration’s urging, Congress appropriated close to $11 billion for the projects.

“For the naysayers and the detractors that want to continue to talk about traditional means of transportation, they are living in the past. They need to look to the future,” LaHood said.

“It is going to happen in California. It is going to happen along the Northeast Corridor with maglev. It is happening in Texas between Dallas and Houston. There are a number of projects that will put the United States on the map.”

The Brookings Institution’s Puentes said the U.S. does not lack opportunities for such projects. High-speed rail makes sense when it connects two major economic hubs that are too far apart for driving but too close for flying.

“High-speed rail is getting caught up in the larger infrastructure challenges we’re having in this country,” he said. “A lot of cities and states would love to have this done.”

But Puentes expects the straightening out of the Acela tracks could be the closest the Northeast Corridor comes to getting high-speed rail for the foreseeable future. A Baltimore-to-Washington maglev line could take ten years to finish, and extending the maglev up to New York could take decades longer.

In the meantime, critics contend Maryland has other, more important transit priorities.

“Certainly there are huge transit needs,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a public transit and environmental advocacy group.

Schwartz calls the maglev project a “distraction.”

“Maryland has done a significant study of MARC commuter rail needs. People would love to have all-day, two-way service between Baltimore and Washington and what better thing to jump start the continued revitalization of Baltimore,” he said.

Read at WAMU >>

The problem with Ted Lerner’s lifetime achievement award

Washington has no greater homegrown real estate executive than Ted Lerner. From World War II to today Lerner redefined the places where locals work, shop and live, whether it was Wheaton Plaza, White Flint or Dulles Town Center. He turned a sleepy crosssroads in then-rural Fairfax County into the regional retail destination Tysons Corner Center, returned Major League Baseball to local ownership in the nation’s capital and amassed an estimated $6 billion along the way.

He did not, however, do everything that was said of him last week when he received a lifetime achievement award from the Urban Land Institute.

Lerner accepts few of the awards he is offered and makes few public appearances. He said in a brief interview before dinner at the gala dinner Thursday at the National Building Museum that he agreed to only after being convinced by his 13 grandchildren.

“They are the reason I’m here,” he said. In his acceptance speech, Lerner said he was proud to have developed 20 million square feet of real estate while remaining relatively anonymous.

“I guess I have a different approach to real estate than Donald Trump,” he said.

At the gala Lerner’s partners in business and at ULI pulled out all the stops for the 90-year-old magnate. Wolf Blitzer of CNN, a family friend, introduced him. Lerner Enterprises filled nine tables up front and countless partners and associates bought advertisements in the awards brochure congratulating him.

A nearly 9-minute video extolling his life’s accomplishments played featuring warm compliments from Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, former George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg, former baseball commissioner Bud Selig and current commissioner Rob Manfre.

Real estate magnate and Nationals owner Ted Lerner received a lifetime achievement award from the real estate group ULI. (Urban Land Institute)

Some of the testimonials take liberties with the facts. For instance, columnist George F. Will gestures to Nationals Park in the background behind and congratulates Lerner for having built it. Actually the D.C. government oversaw construction of Nationals Park and paid for nearly all of it as well, at a cost of $670 million to D.C. taxpayers.

Will also praises Lerner for having opened the Nationals Baseball Academy, in Southeast D.C. The Nationals and its charitable arm paid for $3 million of that project, about 20 percent of the cost (and about what they pay pitcher Max Scherzer for a third of a season). D.C. taxpayers put in $10.2 million and Major League Baseball paid $1 million.

There’s no crime in employing a touch of hyberbole when lauding such an accomplished entrepreneur. But there is a question why ULI so celebrated a man whose building practices are now being critiqued by many of its members.

Though it is a real estate association, ULI often acts as a think tank for those interested in revitalizing cities. It has grown in membership and influence as people and companies have flocked back to urban areas in recent years. It is dedicated to “the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.”

Lerner is rightly credited with doing more to create Tysons Corner than anyone but the modern Tysons — one of the most congested, sprawling suburban areas anywhere in America — isn’t the sort of thing ULI members generally celebrate. Indeed, much of the work in Tysons today has to do with undoing the single use suburban malls and office parks that made Lerner and his table mate Thursday, zoning king Til Hazel, so wealthy.

ULI specializes in considering how to remake places with Tysons-like problems into flourishing urban areas. It frequently publishes work and holds forums on how to retrofit places like Tysons (“Not Your Parents’ Suburbs”) and Landover Mall, which Lerner built but had to demolish after it failed, into other things.

Unlike many ULI members who extol the virtues of public transit, Lerner has sometimes held a different view. When Metro agreed to build a Silver Line station on his doorstep in Tysons, he sued Virginia over how much he would be paid for the staging area (a jury sided with the commonwealth). When a Nationals playoff game ran late into the evening, his team refused to pick up the $30,000 tab to run extra cars.

Lerner plays hardball in more ways than one, and in real estate that sometimes means lawsuits. Lerner sued the District over ballpark construction, asking $100,000 a day in damages because he said work was still not done two months after it opened. He sued Fairfax County five years ago over development rights in Reston. When Lord & Taylor officials asked that he not tear down White Flint Mall in violation of his contract with them, he did it anyway. A jury awarded the department store $31 million in damages. (This was after Ted’s brother Lawrence sued him over the mall as well.)

Some ULI members have quietly questioned whether this constitutes award-winning behavior. In an e-mail Lisa Rother, executive director of ULI Washington, explained why Lerner was chosen:

ULI Washington is honored to present its Lifetime Achievement Award to Ted Lerner because of the tremendous impact he and his family have had on this region.  As a visionary real estate developer, generous philanthropist, MLB team owner, and a pillar of the community, Mr. Lerner has positively changed the face of the region over his decades of commitment to making the area the best that it can be.  His integrity, high standards and commitment to excellence are evident in everything he has done.  Residents proudly wear the Curly W to show their pride in the Washington Nationals.  They shop, live and work in the buildings and communities that Ted Lerner envisioned and built  and benefit from his generous philanthropy in universities and other civic amenities.

It’s easy to say simply that things were different when Lerner was making his name. Shopping malls at the time were where people wanted to shop and office parks were where they wanted to work. People preferred driving so of course they needed more roads.

Lerner is surely not to blame for all the region’s ills. But that type of development is one of the reasons that Washingtonians now endure some of the worst traffic and most polluted air in the country.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a transit advocacy group, said he appreciated the way Lerner had come around later in his career toward more environmentally sustainable practices.

“In the first decades that Mr. Lerner was developing the region, few understood the negative impacts of separated uses and completely auto dependent development,” Schwartz said. “We certainly face traffic and environmental challenges today due to the way the region grew.”

In Schwartz’s view, it may be difficult to condemn Tysons and shopping malls while celebrating Ted Lerner. But not impossible.

“Mr. Lerner has had a huge influence on regional development and we are pleased to see the commitment he has made to the new generation of transit-oriented development in Tysons, White Flint and the Nationals Stadium,” Schwartz added. “In this next generation for his firm, it will be critical that they include a focus on walkable urban design and creating great places as experienced by the pedestrian.”

Read at The Washington Post >>

Tuesday’s Elections Prove There’s No Such Thing as “Purple Virginia”

Northern Virginia is going a different way from the rest of the state, particularly on density and transportation.

The results of Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, leaving the commonwealth with a term-limited Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, are surely fodder for hacks who want to pump up the notions of bipartisanship and political enemies working together. Surely, Governor Terry McAuliffe will have to find some way to negotiate his desires for a Medicaid expansion and limits on gun ownership with a General Assembly run by GOP members from the southern and western parts of the state.

“That makes collaboration and good-faith negotiation—oriented toward crafting sound policy, rather than partisan gain—even more vital to lawmakers’ ability to represent Virginians’ interests in the coming legislative session,” reads a morning-after editorial in the Virginian-Pilot in Virginia Beach.

But stripping away the fact that scuffling with a Republican legislature might distract McAuliffe from his top priority for 2016—delivering Virginia’s electoral votes to his friend Hillary Rodham Clinton—Tuesday’s results were actually pretty good for progressive interests in the DC suburbs. Two retiring members of the Arlington County Board were replaced by Democrats, leaving independent John Vihstadt as the body’s singular minority; Loudoun County voters elected a Democratic county chairwoman and two Democrats to a board that was previously all-Republican; and voters in a suburban state Senate district rejected a candidate who made his campaign about opposing proposed tolls on Interstate 66.

Even if McAuliffe’s hopes for expanding low-income healthcare access and imposing some level of gun control are dashed next year by rural conservatives, Northern Virginia separated itself further from the rest of the commonwealth, particularly with respect to density and transportation.

“I think that indeed you are seeing sustained support for smart growth,” says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarther Growth, which advocates for greater implementation of transit and dense, urban development.

Arlington’s newest board members, Christian Dorsey and Katie Kristol, both ran on pro-transit platforms, perhaps giving the county a chance to pull away from the brink of becoming a soulless suburb. The Fairfax County Board’s incumbents mostly swept on Tuesday, leaving in power a group that has favored increased infrastructure spending in the county’s commercial corridors, especially on Metro and, most recently, Capital Bikeshare, which is coming to Reston.

Even Alexandria’s mayoral race might not be so bad for pro-growth idealists. Alison Silberberg, who favors “thoughtful, appropriate” projects—a blow to the developers seeking to rebuild the city’s waterfront as well as advocates of multi-modal transport—beat four-term incumbent Bill Euille’s write-in campaign. But Alexandria’s other incumbent council members were re-elected, and Silberberg’s biggest selling point was the rather broad promise of improving the city government’s community engagement. “That appears to be an endorsement in the direction Alexandria was going, balancing growth and historic preservation,” Schwartz says.

But the most encouraging result for the smart-growth set in Fairfax County might be in the state Senate race in which Jeremy McPike beat Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish. The Republican Parrish bombarded airwaves with ads stating his rigid opposition to a McAuliffe proposal to implement tolls I-66 during rush hours to relieve congestion on the typically clogged highway. While McPike also said he opposed the toll plan, Parrish’s message didn’t stick with voters; other local Democratic legislators who were hit with similar anti-toll attacks also won.

“Trying to do complicated transportation policy in an election year isn’t easy,” Schwartz says. “When you look at the options for 66 inside the Beltway, [the Virginia Department of Transportation] has come up with the best option for that corridor. It’s not an option to widen that corridor from Ballston in.”

The VDOT plan currently proposes collecting tolls from vehicles with fewer than three occupants traveling in peak directions during rush hours, with some of the revenue being used to pay for Metro and other alternative modes of transportation. Schwartz says simply widening the highway would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, result in the destruciton of numerous communities bordering the road, and funnel even more traffic onto DC roads that cannot handle the additional volume. While the toll proposal will almost certainly be tweaked many times, Schwartz says implementing it inside the Beltway could set a strong example for the outer suburbs, where officials favor building additional highway lanes, which are expensive and almost always result in more congestion by encouraging more cars to get on the road, a phenomenon transportation planners call “induced demand.”

But the outer suburbs might be taking steps that would surprise inner-Beltway eggheads. Two of the Democrats elected last night in Loudoun County are black, including County Chairwoman-elect Phyllis Randall; previously, the county’s current leadership is made up entirely of white Republicans. In Sterling, Koran Saines, a human-resources manager with Aramark, knocked off long-time incumbent Eugene Delgaudio, who is known best for his often toxic right-wing agitprop. Saines ran on expanding public transportation and building more transit-oriented real-estate developments; Delgaudio once called the Silver Line “a crazy circumstance in which the general public is going to get raped or not get raped.”

“I think what you have here is as much a reflection of changing demographics as anything else,” Schwartz says. “It reflects the diversity that is Loudoun today.”

To be sure, Democratic wins in Northern Virginia do not guarantee tolls on I-66, a wholesale expansion of express bus lines and Capital Bikeshare stations, or a solid timeline for Metro’s extenstion to Dulles. Many facets of those issues will continue to be negotiated in Richmond, which remains under the control of exurban and rural delegates far from Washington and who openly loathe McAuliffe and Clinton. But the results suggest that Northern Virginia continues to tilt toward greater adoption of alternative modes of transportation like rail and cycling, denser commercial and residential development particularly near transit hubs, and the will to pay for it.

The great northern Virginia toll controversy, explained

Hal Parrish, the Republican state Senate candidate for Virginia’s 29th District (which includes Manassas and some of Prince William County), is making a very inflammatory claim here: that Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, and Parrish’s Democratic opponent Jeremy McPike would impose a new $17-a-day toll on a portion of I-66, which runs from northern Virginia (including Prince William, Manassas, Fairfax, and Arlington) to Washington, DC.

For someone commuting from Manassas to DC for work 250 days out of the year, that’d mean $4,250 more in tolls annually. Even though the 29th District leans left — President Obama won it by 28 points in 2012, and McAuliffe won it by 18 in 2013 — that sounds like a massive enough toll hike to make even many Democrats tempted to vote GOP. And the election’s tomorrow.

Here’s the thing, though: The claim is not true.

What McAuliffe is proposing is an optional fee for single drivers who want to use a stretch of I-66 during peak hours — something they’re currently barred from doing. No one’s tolls would increase unless they chose to take advantage of that service.

What McAuliffe is actually proposing

Currently, between the Capital Beltway and DC, I-66 bars single-occupancy vehiclesduring peak hours: between 6:30 and 9 am on the way to DC, and from 4 to 6:30 pm on the way from DC. There are some exceptions — notably for traffic going to Dulles International Airport, and for hybrid or electric vehicles registered before 2011 — but in general, if you’re commuting on that part of I-66, you need to be carpooling.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is proposing a number of changes to this. The basics, per a presentation the department released in September, are:

  • Stop banning single-occupancy vehicles, and instead allow them to pay a toll to use I-66 during peak times.
  • Have that toll vary with traffic so as to minimize congestion.
  • Expand the affected hours to 5:30 to 9:30 am and 3 to 7 pm.

The plan initially called for transforming I-66 from HOV-2 — that is, vehicles with two or more people can ride free — to HOV-3, where only cars with three or more people can ride free during peak hours. It would’ve also imposed a mild toll on cars going against traffic during rush hour that currently don’t pay to use I-66. Both of those changes have since been abandoned.

The DOT estimates that, assuming I-66 stays HOV-2, morning tolls would peak at $9 and evening tolls would peak at $8. That’s where the $17-a-day figure comes from. But that’s pretty misleading. Those are the absolute peak figures, for someone who manages to hit the worst traffic going both to and from work on a given day. That’s not especially likely, and some days tolls would never go that high. Also, for what it’s worth, the tolls would be lower if I-66 became HOV-3, as originally planned.

But the most important caveat is that we’re talking about fees for single-occupancy vehicles on I-66, whereas such vehicles are currently illegal during peak hours. There’s no constituency that’s currently using I-66 toll-free that’s going to be forced to start paying for it. Everyone currently using I-66 with high-occupancy vehicles will keep doing that for free. But people currently commuting via other routes will now have the option to pay to use I-66 if that would be faster for them.

Transportation wonks like the idea

This might all seem arcane, but transit advocates are generally fans of the proposal. Greater Greater Washington’s Richard Price and Canaan Merchant note that the plan’s congestion pricing could make traffic flow more easily during peak times. The I-66 plan also includes more bus service for northern Virginia — and if traffic is flowing well, that makes bus service faster and more reliable. GGW’s David Cranor notes that the toll revenue would go not only to improved bus service but to pedestrian and biking improvements as well.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has endorsed the proposal as well. The group notes that the tolls are pretty competitive with pricing for the Metro. Taking the Metro from the Vienna station to Metro Center, including parking, costs $10.30, compared with a $9 peak fare for taking I-66 from Vienna to DC. Similar toll lanes on I-95 and I-495, two other major DC-area interstates, have seen maximum tolls of $20.90 and $15.05, respectively. Next to that, the $8 to $9 one-way toll in the I-66 proposal looks quite reasonable.

CSG and GGW’s Price and Merchant also note that the proposal would head off proposals to widen I-66, which have surfaced over the years. Widening, transit activists argue, would only encourage more cars to get on the road, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and would disrupt numerous homes and quite possibly the commuter bike trail in northern Virginia.

Why the issue matters

The toll attacks have a lot of money behind them. House Republicans have spent $850,000 on attack ads involving the toll proposal, which is a huge amount for state legislative races. Parrish, the state Senate candidate, has raised $1.4 million alone, and is spending on attack ads on the issue even though McPike, his Democratic opponent, opposes the tolling plan. Democrats have spent even more cash pushing back in these races, especially if you include the millions that Everytown for Gun Safety — the Michael Bloomberg–backed pro-gun control group — has poured into the state, including funding the anti-Parrish ad above. As a Washington Post headline put it last week, the election increasingly boils down to “tolls v. guns.”

While Republicans will almost certainly maintain control of the state house, the fate of the state Senate hangs in the balance. Control of the chamber has flipped twice in the past two years, with a special election tipping the balance to Democrats in late January 2014 and a Democratic senator’s resignation in June tipping it to the Republicans. The GOP still has a majority, but with a razor-thin 21-19 margin, and the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor means that Democrats only need to make it 20-20 to take control again. McAuliffe has said that a Democratic Senate could be enough for him to finally push through Medicaid expansion in the state. That’s doubtful given GOP control of the House, but it certainly would help his policy agenda on the margins.

Side note: Off-year elections are bullshit

Any post about Virginia’s 2015 elections wouldn’t be complete without noting that they shouldn’t exist at all.

Virginia is one of five states to hold gubernatorial elections on odd years. But it also holds legislative elections on odd years when the governor is not up for reelection. It’s like a midterm election to a midterm election. And the consequence is that basically no one votes in these things. In 2012, when there was a presidential election, turnout was a whopping 71.78 percent. In 2014, when there was a US Senate race and US House elections, it was 41.6 percent. In 2013, when there was a governor’s race, turnout was 43 percent, or around midterm levels. But in 2011, the last year when these kind of weird state-level midterms happened, turnout was only 28.61 percent.

In an ideal world, midterms wouldn’t exist at all, and the larger, more diverse electorate that turns out during presidential elections would get to vote for every office. But the least Virginia could do would be to move Senate elections so they’re aligned with gubernatorial elections and extend House terms to four years so they sync up as well. As it stands, a pathetically small chunk of the voting population is deciding these races.

Read on Vox >>

Report: Metro to Name New General Manager

WASHINGTON — It’s been more than a year since Richard Sarles announced he would be retiring as Metro general manager in January of 2015. Now, the agency is finally on the cusp of naming a permanent successor.

NBC 4 broke the news that Metro’s board is extending an offer to Neal Cohen, the chief financial officer and executive vice president at the Dulles-based aerospace firm Orbital ATK. Cohen does not have public transit experience, but he did work for 16 years at Northwest Airlines and US Airways.

“I think it’s great that he has transportation experience in the airline industry, his finance background is going to be very helpful. But, we also want to make sure he can manage the operational side of the business, especially something as technologically complex as Metro,” says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Metro has been under financial restrictions imposed by the Federal Transit Administration since last year. That’s when an audit exposed the questionable handling of billions of dollars in federal grants.

In July, Metro Board Chair Mortimer Downey released a letter announcing the field would be opened up for candidates with “financial management experience and those outside government and the transit industry.”

Cohen’s selection meets that criteria with the bonus of some transportation experience.

Emil Frankel is the interim CEO and President of the Eno Center for Transportation and says he’s not commenting specifically on Cohen until the selection is formally announced, but he points out that versatility is important for a general manager.

“I think the most important qualification is the strength of leadership and general management skills,” Frankel says. “WMATA has faced a lot of problems over the last few months and couple of years, and across a range of things: operational, safety, financial.”

Schwartz says setting up a good team is critical, especially for someone who may not have the operational experience in a public transit agency.

“Like any new commanding officer, if he has areas where he’s not as strong, hiring someone who is strong in that particular area would be helpful,” Schwartz says. “Transit operational managers, safety experts and others within his staff, amongst his deputies, would certainly be important.”

The Coalition for Smarter Growth along with ATU Local 689, the Action Committee for Transit and the Greater Washington Board of Trade sent a letter to local leaders earlier this month outlining their wishes for a new general manager.

The letter calls for the jurisdictions to “commit to backing up the new General Manager with the political support, organizational authority, and funding needed to do the job successfully.”

Frankel agrees that the next Metro general manager needs to have political backing to be successful.

“The first, and most important, and continuing task for the new general manager, the new CEO, is to build on the consensus that hopefully is represented by his or her selection for the job,” Frankel says. “To bring the jurisdictions together in shaping a program of renewal and restoration and good operations for WMATA.”

It’s the pattern established by one of the people Frankel cites as a hero for him in the transportation field: former New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair Richard Ravitch. Ravitch is often credited for turning around New York’s subway and bus system in the 1980’s, thanks in large part to his political ability.

And Schwartz says that ability to get everyone on the same page is one of the crucial needs if a new general manager hopes to turn Metro around.

“At the outset be a good listener,” Schwartz says. “There are a lot of stakeholders with Metro. Metro is a part of all of us in the Washington, D.C. region, and so I certainly hope that he will listen to all of those customers, unions, management, elected officials, other government staff and businesses.”

Read at WNEW >>

Campaign to Strengthen DC’s Inclusionary Zoning Affordable Housing Program Briefing

Event Materials:

Supporting Materials:

Event Description:
October 22, 2015 | held at DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI)


David Bowers, Enterprise Community Partners

Claire Zippel, DC Fiscal Policy Institute

Cheryl Cort, Coalition for Smarter Growth

DC Affordable Housing Alliance and the Campaign for Inclusionary Zoning convened a briefing for affordable housing and social justice advocates to learn how the city’s newer affordable housing programs, Inclusionary Zoning, can better serve the people it was intended to help.

The briefing covered how DC’s Inclusionary Zoning regulations are working, and how they can be improved to offer more affordable housing for lower income DC residents. The advocates briefing was in preparation for the January 28, 2016 public hearing by the DC Zoning Commission to consider changes to the IZ regulations to better serve low income people.

Interview: Stewart Schwartz

In 1997, Stewart Schwartz founded the Coalition for Smarter Growth to fight sprawl and support public transit and walkable communities in the Washington, DC region. Schwartz is also an attorney and a retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve duty. He has served with the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, the Land Trust Alliance and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman interviewed him in a scenic neighborhood near the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s offices in downtown DC.

EarthTalk: Okay, so what’s a quick definition of smart growth?

Schwartz: Smart growth is about where and how we grow, as a nation, as a region and in our local communities. In the Washington, DC region we see it as the revitalization of our city and our towns, interconnecting these with transit, high capacity transit like our Metro system, and each community is walking, biking friendly, with good access to transit, a mix of different activities so you can walk to school or the store. And of course we have great parks and public spaces and we preserve our rural areas and our stream valley.

E: Okay, great. And what’s the connection between smart growth and sustainability? Why should environmentalists care?

Schwartz: You know they’re sort of hard to separate. I certainly as an environmentalist c think smart growth lies at the core of many solutions to our environmental problems. Because smart growth is about using our land more wisely, not consuming it so we preserve farms and forest. It’s about driving less so we’re polluting less, putting down less asphalt, were helping fight climate change by reducing emissions form transportation. In our view it reduces the total amount of water pollution, storm-water running into our streams, through compact development. Sustainability, you might argue includes, other things, like recycling, green buildings, our energy sector, and so many other aspects of human society, including social equity.

E: Okay, but basically you have attractive compact growth with excellent transit and then you leave more of nature untapped, untrammeled.

Schwartz: Absolutely, and this is, my group the Coalition for Smarter Growth was founded by the region’s leading environmental groups like the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club and Audubon. And we were looking at the issue of where and how we grew as a region and how it was affecting the environment. So yes, basically environmentalists have become urbanists. And one person calling the term “save the city to save the country.” And essentially we’re working to save the city and suburbs, to fix them, to make them work better so that we can preserve our natural areas.

E: Great. How about your organization in specific, the Coalition for Smarter Growth? How are you working in the Washington, DC area?

Schwartz: Well, in keeping with our vision of a revitalized city and a network of transit oriented communities we spend a lot of time supporting walkable well designed transit oriented development with a mix of uses including affordable housing, good access to transit, good walking and biking. So that means we’ll be supporting a project at Takoma Metro which would put 160 to 200 units of housing on top of a Metro station. We think that is the most sustainable outcome. Folks who live there will own fewer cars, some might not own any cars at all. And they’ll walk, they’ll bike, and they’ll use Metro. In addition, you can’t have transit oriented development without the transit. We’ve got to fight to save our Metro system which is aging and needs reinvestment. So it needs the funding and the leadership and the fixes to continue to function. We simply can’t survive without Metro and basically giving up is not an option, so we need to fix it. In addition, we need expanded transit in the region, so we’re supporting route 1 and route 7 transit in Northern Virginia, transit in Alexandria, an 81 mile bus rapid transit system in Montgomery County, combined with the Purple Line light rail. We’re also supporting affordable housing, because that’s part of an equitable community. You know, we need to have the ability for all levels of our workforce to live close to transit and to work and with great services. And then lastly with our partners there’s the preservation of our farms and forests and rural areas, that we work with them on those issues. We also work on the benefits of redeveloping our commercial areas with their parking lots in the suburbs. There’s a great advantage to that in terms of reducing storm-water into our streams and so that’s another thing we’re working on as well.

E: The DC region has ambitious goals of at least halving carbon emissions by 2040. How is transportation affecting these goals and what impact might smart growth policies have on progress?

Schwartz: You know, honestly the transportation sector is not doing its part in the DC region. We’ve made a lot of progress in the energy sector as well as green buildings, largely because of state policies more than local policies. Some good local energy administrators however, and we lead the nation in LEED certified green buildings. We still have a transportation plan for the region that causes more spread out sprawling development, more driving, and doesn’t invest enough in transit. So we’re very critical of that plan. We pushed hard for a climate study this past year, and while they’re considering including a range of energy issues, they are making better land use changes to live and work near transit, they’re really not shifting the amount of funding we’re spending on highways over to transit, biking and walking like we should. So we have to do much more to address the transportation emissions that contribute to climate change in the DC region. I mean it is fortunate that we’re standing where we are. I have a capital bikeshare going by behind me right now, we’re standing by a bunch of bike racks at an elementary school in the city, and as we’ve been doing this interview we’ve had lots of people biking and walking past us. And so each one of the folks that are here that are going about their daily activities without driving are contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. So that’s a positive.

E: All right, well thank you very much.

Read and Watch on EarthTalk >>