Category: CSG in the News

CSG in the News: MetroNow releases progress report to refocus region’s leaders on urgency of better bus

The MetroNow Coalition—comprised of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Federal City Council, Greater Washington Board of Trade, Greater Washington Partnership, Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, the 2030 Group and Tysons Partnership—released the MetroNow Bus Transformation Project Progress Report. 

CSG in the News: Prince George’s Zoning Rewrite Stalls Over Unique Ethics Rule

CSG in the News: Prince George’s Zoning Rewrite Stalls Over Unique Ethics Rule

UPDATE 4/12/2021: The revised bill, HB 980, passed both the Maryland House of Delegates and the Senate. Thanks to all those who took action! The final bill was amended (changes we supported) to address concerns and ensure broad support. View final bill here.

“First on FOX 5: Prince George’s County has spent millions of dollars over six years on a massive countywide rezoning plan. Leaders say it’s crucial to make the county more competitive and business friendly, but after all that time and money, the process has hit a hurdle.” View FOX 5 story here.

CSG testified in support of the state bill because adjusting the County’s unique ethics rules for the Countywide Zoning Map amendment will be the final step in implementing the years-long update to the zoning code. Adopting the modern, updated zoning regulations is a once in a generation opportunity. Montgomery County and Baltimore City do not have this ethics rule, unique to Prince George’s, and have already adopted their next-generation zoning regulations.

View CSG’s testimony in support of completing the Countywide rezoning here. View our action alert here. The proposed legislation can be viewed here and final bill is here.

Photo Credit: C. Cort

CSG in the News: Tenleytown Group Files Court Appeal Over 86-Unit Church Redevelopment

By Jon Banister | Bisnow, Washington, DC | March 18, 2020

A plan to redevelop a church in upper Northwest D.C. and add senior housing has received opposition from a neighborhood group, and it is now taking the project to court. 

The Tenleytown Neighbors Association filed an appeal Friday with the D.C. Court of Appeals contesting the approval of the redevelopment of the Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church site at 3920 Alton Place NW…

The project was supported by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E. In its resolution of support, ANC 3E said the applicant made changes in design and agreed to mitigation efforts around traffic and noise.

It was also supported by groups including Ward 3 Vision and Coalition for Smarter Growth. CSG Policy Director Cheryl Cort submitted written testimony for the November 2018 hearing detailing the project’s benefits.

“We support this project given the need by Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church to renew its outmoded facility for religious uses,” Cort wrote in the letter. “We support the project because it is sensitively designed, requiring only modest relief from zoning requirements. We support the project because we believe it is important to provide assisted living and memory care for DC and DC area families.”…

Residents across the city have appealed dozens of projects in recent years, delaying projects that would create thousands of new housing units. The appeals come as Mayor Muriel Bowser is pushing toward a goal of building 36,000 new units in D.C. by 2025, with a focus on adding housing in upper Northwest neighborhoods like Tenleytown. 

Read the full story in Bisnow here.

CSG in the News: New transportation dollars will soon flow into Central Virginia. But, what will it be used for?

By Wyatt Gordon | Greater Greater Washington | March 4, 2020

With the unanimous blessing of the Virginia Senate’s Finance Committee, the creation of a new Central Virginia Transportation Authority is all but a done deal. The projected $170 million the tax hikes are expected to raise will transform the region, but will Greater Richmond use the money to fund smart growth or sprawl?

After the passage of a transportation funding deal for the I-81 corridor last year, Central Virginia felt like the hole in a donut with regions to its east, north, and west all raking in dedicated transportation dollars. To ensure the nine localities which make up Plan RVA—also known as Planning District 15 (Hanover, Ashland, Goochland, Powhatan, Richmond, New Kent, Chesterfield, Henrico, and Charles City)—did not get left behind, Delegate Delores McQuinn introduced HB1541 this session right before the filing deadline.

Central Virginia’s new transportation monies will flow in from increases in two taxes. Residents of the nine localities will pay an additional 0.7% on sales and use taxes and an extra 2.% on the wholesale gas tax. Half of those new dollars will remain in the hands of localities to do with as they see fit. Thirty-five percent will be disbursed under the auspices of a newly created Central Virginia Transportation Authority (CVTA) and its 16 member governing board. The smallest portion of the new funding—just 15%—is allocated to transit.

A transit conundrum

Twenty-five million in dedicated dollars is an exciting prospect for a transit system that has for decades been fully reliant on year by year funding decisions from the localities it serves. The changes outlined in HB1541 will mark the first time the Greater Richmond Transit Company will achieve any level of budget autonomy. However, the bill fails to fully free GRTC from the caprices of the localities. In fact, HB1541 creates a surreal loophole that could tank transit funding for what is already America’s worst-funded public transportation system per capita.

In exchange for the CVTA’s two tax increases, the bill mandates all nine localities continue to spend at least half of what they currently alot for transportation expenditures. The benchmark date to determine their 50% “maintenance of effort” is July 1st, 2020.

By signing off on a date in the future, lawmakers established a loophole through which the County of Henrico or the City of Richmond (the only two localities that currently fund GRTC) could scrap their transit funding altogether in this spring’s budgets and lock themselves in with no obligation to continue locally funding transit at all.

The anticipated $25 million GRTC will receive from their 15% allocation in the CVTA bill isn’t even enough to cover even half of their current budget. If that happened, Richmond’s award-winningtrend-bucking transit system could face service cuts this summer.

Spending on sprawl

What is guaranteed to receive funding out of the CVTA bill is sprawl. The original version of HB1541 included language which only allowed the new regional authority to spend its budget on new road construction. Lacking any mandated provisions for bike, pedestrian, or multimodal infrastructure—let alone maintenance of existing roadways—Delegate McQuinn’s bill could potentially result in 85% of the new funding flowing directly into new highways.

That means as much as $145 million annually could go to build out further sprawl. Chesterfield County, the largest locality in Planning District 15, already has a litany of new highway projects it plans to fund with the new tax dollars. A proposal to extend Powhite Parkway out to US Route 360 is projected to cost a half a billion dollars alone.

In an op-ed in the Virginia MercuryStewart Schwartz— Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth—warned lawmakers, “We are not confident that Richmond’s suburban jurisdictions are yet committed to transit-oriented land use and the rural land conservation necessary to reduce traffic and preserve the livability of the region. Instead, with a big infusion of tax dollars for road expansion and accompanying auto-dependent growth, the region could repeat the mistakes of traffic-choked Northern Virginia.”

View the full story in Greater Greater Washington here.

CSG in the News: “Could free Metro in D.C. be expanded to Maryland and Virginia?”

A ‘transformative’ plan has transit advocates looking beyond D.C. Council

By Pete Muntean | WUSA9 | March 3, 2020

WASHINGTON — D.C. Council will now decide if it will pay for its residents to ride Metro for free.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen officially introduced his plan on Tuesday. If it passes, those in the District could get a hundred dollars on their SmarTrip cards each month.

“It’s great for businesses, great for employees,” said Allen of the Metro For D.C. 2020 Amendment. “But really, most important for those who have the least amount of access but have to pay the most for Metro, this can be transformative for working families.”

Allen says the program would be rolled out in stages. 

He says low-income families would be able to apply first. A family of four making less than 80-thousand dollars a year would qualify. Those behind the plan stress it includes extra bus service putting the total cost between $50 million and $150 million each year — a cost city council supporters say D.C. can afford.

“It’s an innovative approach that Councilmember Allen has proposed,” said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He said the idea could be expanded to Maryland and Virginia, but neither state legislature has proposed such a bill.

“We have to bring Virginia and Maryland on board,” said Schwartz, who said that free transit regionwide will benefit everyone with less traffic and cleaner air. He said that is the next step, but the District has the chance to take the first step.

“I’d love to be able to get to that,” said Allen. “This is going to be incredibly important to District of Columbia residents, but to be able to do free fare, we’re going to have to get Maryland, Virginia and the District all on the same page.”

Metro has not said what it thinks of this idea.

Those behind this bill also cannot say when this would go into effect. They tell WUSA9 this is a big effort — and say it could take a year and maybe longer.

CSG in the News: “Metro Might Charge Bus Riders More For Paying In Cash. How Will It Affect Low-Income Riders?”

CSG in the News: “Metro Might Charge Bus Riders More For Paying In Cash. How Will It Affect Low-Income Riders?”

By Margaret Barthel | WAMU | February 25, 2020

Metro will hold three public meetings this week to solicit feedback on its proposed 2021 budget. The agency is suggesting a number of significant service changes, including fare changes, cuts to bus routes, free transfers between bus and rail and the return of late-night rail service.

In one proposal, Metro is suggesting a 25-cent surcharge — on top of the regular fare — for people paying cash to board the bus, or using cash to add value to their SmarTrip cards on the bus.

That’s been the subject of some concern from advocates worried about the way the proposal could affect low-income riders, especially those who are unbanked or under-banked. More than half of Metrobus riders make less than $30,000 per year, and a significant majority are people of color.

Speeding Buses Up

Metro wants to make bus trips more efficient, which could make the bus a more appealing transit option — one of the goals of the Bus Transformation Project, a vision for the region’s buses that the Metro Board endorsed last month.

But last year, a report found that buses on some of the system’s busiest routes arrive on schedule just 60% of the time and move less than 10 miles per hour, on average. Bus ridership has declined by 12% in the past 5 years, and the agency hopes to recoup its losses.

One way to do that is to minimize the “dwell time” a bus spends at a stop, waiting for passengers to board and pay for their ride. According to Metro research, payment takes 2-4 seconds with a SmarTrip card, but as long as 20 seconds for people paying in cash or loading a SmarTrip card with cash. About 96% of Metro passengers use SmarTrip cards, with 4% paying in cash on the bus.

A 25-cent surcharge on paying in cash would penalize those riders and, Metro hopes, would incentivize them switching over to SmarTrip cards instead.

“You could position it as a $2.25 bus fare with a 25-cent discount for using SmarTrip,” said Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel.

General Manager Paul Wiedefeld pointed out at a D.C. Council oversight hearing that a SmarTrip card can help riders unlock other savings, too, in the form of passes.

One such discount is also included in Metro’s proposed budget: a decrease in the price of a 7-day bus pass from $15 to $12. But that still requires riders to come up with $12 upfront, a fact Wiedefeld acknowledged.

“Now we’ve got to figure out how we get that done — how do we come up with that $12,” he said.

He suggested that Metro might work with the District to spread the word, perhaps through “book mobile-type things.” Another option Wiedefeld mentioned: a program modeled after Kids Ride Free, where the District could subsidize transit passes for low-income residents.

George Jones, who leads the nonprofit Bread for the City, told WAMU that the low-income residents his organization serves would be hard-pressed to switch to paying upfront for Metro passes.

“You’re talking about people who predominantly use buses, who probably aren’t just readily paying for transportation in advance, in long-term blocks, like those of us who have a Metro card we reload every month,” he said.

‘This Is Not The Way’ 

While some advocates agree that speeding up buses is an important priority, they also raise concerns about how the proposed cash surcharge could affect low-income riders.

“We all agree we need to speed up the boarding process, but this is not the way,” said Cheryl Cort, the policy director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a transit advocacy group.

“Some people don’t have easy access to load a SmarTrip card other than on the bus,” said Katherine Kortum, a transit policy expert and member of the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council. “Not everybody has access to the credit cards and the online access needed in order to top up a card online.”

About 8% of D.C. households are unbanked, and 21.2% are underbanked, according to a 2017 analysis from the FDIC.

“We’re talking about folks who are, at any moment, struggling just to figure out how to get from one place to another,” said Jones. He noted that Bread for the City spent around $50,000 last year in transportation assistance.

Kortum also notes that many bus riders don’t have close by Metro stations where they might add money to a SmarTrip card with cash. In addition to its own Commuter Stores, Metro has retail partnerships with some CVS and Giant locations to provide riders with additional places to add cash value to a SmarTrip. Just three of those places are east of the river.

Metro officials told the D.C. Council that there are about 500 retailers across the region where riders can buy or reload SmarTrip cards, predominantly CVS locations.

Cort told WAMU she hopes Metro will ultimately go cashless — but that that would be paired with deeply discounted or free fare passes for low-income residents, as well as many more options for fare loading.

View the full story on WAMU here.

CSG in the News: “Program Helps DC Homeowners Provide Low-Cost Housing — and Build Wealth”

by JARED BREY, Next City, FEBRUARY 18, 2020

…With the ADU D.C. program announced last August, UPO [United Planning Organization] is trying to find ways to make ADUs cheaper and easier to build for moderate-income homeowners like [homeowner Lawrence] Foster. The program is starting as a small pilot: just two handpicked homeowners are participating so far, according to Kay Pierson, director of the community reinvestment division at UPO. It was created in partnership with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and supported with a $180,000 grant from Citi Community Development. (Note: Citi Community Development also provides funding to Next City.) A lot of UPO’s programs are focused on helping people in poverty, with services like emergency rental assistance, Pierson says. But the ADU D.C. program is part of a series of efforts aimed at “asset development” — helping build wealth in lower-income communities — she says. The organization went looking for homeowners who earned up to 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI is $121,300 for a family of four in Washington), and who had good credit, steady employment history, and equity in their homes. And the partners are hoping that the pilot program demonstrates ways that the city and others can help moderate-income homeowners create more ADUs….

The Coalition for Smarter Growth in Washington had been advocating for those kinds of rule changes for several years. The benefits just pile on top of one another, says Cheryl Cort, the Coalition’s policy director: ADUs can take advantage of partially developed and underused space, provide space for seniors to age in place or for family members with special needs, provide rental income for homeowners, and promote small-scale living, which has a smaller impact on the environment.

“And adding rental housing options can bring new types of housing to established neighborhoods that might have few rental options today, including high-priced neighborhoods close to the Metro or in-demand schools and other amenities,” Cort says. “It’s natural diversification of the housing stock, rather than just being uniform.”

Still, Cort says, it can be expensive to build a new unit, even when taking advantage of existing space. She says she’s talked to a lot of architects who are approached by homeowners to consult about adding an ADU, only to have the homeowners walk away when they hear the cost, which is typically around $150,000, according to Cort. (Other cost estimates for ADUs here.) As part of the ADU D.C. program, the Coalition is producing a manual for homeowners to help navigate the permitting process, and the partners are also working with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs about ways to make permitting easier and faster for accessory dwelling units. And they’re exploring how financing programs might be scaled up to provide financial help for more moderate-income homeowners.

Last fall, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a goal of producing 36,000 new homes in the District by 2025, with at least 12,000 of them being affordable to low-income residents. The city’s Housing Equity Report released at the same time has specific affordable-housing production targets for 11 different areas of the District. Those targets will help focus the city’s efforts, Cort says. And accessory dwelling units can be part of the mix of new housing that helps meet that goal, especially if the city can find ways to help moderate-income homeowners house lower-income tenants. The ADU D.C. program is meant to help show that tailored assistance and financing can produce more units.

“It’s a retail game,” Cort says. “We’ve got to be working individually with homeowners.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our thrice-weekly Backyard newsletter.

View the full story in Next City here.

CSG in the News: Reaction to the New American Legion Bridge Announcement

CSG in the News: Reaction to the New American Legion Bridge Announcement

‘We are distressed’ | New American Legion Bridge will amplify traffic, experts say

by Pete Muntean, WUSA9, November 12, 2019

WASHINGTON — The Governors of Maryland and Virginia are promising an end to crippling congestion over the American Legion Bridge, but opponents say the idea will make Beltway traffic even worse traffic for years to come.  

“We are distressed,” Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He criticized Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s announcement that the traffic-choked Potomac River crossing would be rebuilt and widened. “There’s a natural feeling that adding capacity to roads will make a difference and what we’re seeing is it doesn’t,” Schwartz said.

Read the full story by WUSA9 here.

CSG in the News: “Better Buses, Better Cities” breaks down how transit advocates can win

CSG in the News: “Better Buses, Better Cities” breaks down how transit advocates can win

The new book “Better Buses, Better Cities” breaks down how transit advocates can win

by David McAuley, Greater Greater Washington, November 12, 2019

Author Steven Higashide describes his new book Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit as “half technical backgrounder, half political field manual” for public transit – especially bus – advocates. 

Local transit activists (and GGWash contributors) Cheryl Cort, Aimee Custis, Kishan Putta, and Dan Malouff all get shout-outs, mostly for pushing forward the 16th Street NW dedicated bus lane, scheduled for next year. 

Read the full story on Greater Greater Washington.