Tag Archives: Greater Greater Washington

Setting the Record Straight: the Post Got it Wrong in their Anti-Elrich Editorial

The Washington Post sure has done a number on Marc Elrich.

In a second editorial endorsing David Blair for county executive, the Post quoted Elrich stating “I prefer to put jobs in Frederick” as proof that he “wants to focus employment elsewhere” – seemingly a damning charge against a candidate for Montgomery County executive.

Setting the Record Straight

The quote is taken from the Greater Greater Washington (GGW) blog post arguing that “Marc Elrich is not the right choice for Montgomery County Executive.”

Broadly, Elrich isn’t convinced Montgomery County needs to add many new homes or residents, or jobs. Many people with jobs in Bethesda or DC are now living in Frederick County and other outlying areas and driving through Montgomery to get to work. We asked Elrich what he’d do for these folks, and his answer was, “I prefer to put jobs in Frederick.” He’d encourage the growth of both households and jobs to happen there, and in Prince George’s County, and elsewhere.

I listened to the GGW interview with Elrich and the quote is taken out of context and utterly distorts the record. Marc makes clear that he wants economic growth, indeed that it is vital to the county’s future because our current budget trajectory is not sustainable into the future. If there is no money, he realizes that there will be no way to pay for efforts to do more to help people in poverty and others try to get a leg up.

So what did Marc Elrich mean when he said “I prefer to put jobs in Frederick”?

It was part of a much larger discussion of housing policy but the broader point was that it would be good to have jobs in many locales, including Frederick City, so the people up there don’t have to commute so far, which would also help alleviate traffic in Montgomery – an enormous concern – and help the environment.

He’d like to see more people have shorter commutes and more jobs near them around the region. That includes Montgomery, where many people suffer in traffic on the American Legion Bridge every day and probably would just assume not live their life stressing about whether traffic on the bridge is going to prevent them from picking the kids up. Moreover, the discussion was taking place in the context of the regional Council of Governments’ goal for housing and jobs around the region, which unsurprisingly includes plans for more of both in Frederick.

More broadly, Elrich doesn’t see economic activity as a zero-sum game where Frederick’s gain is necessarily Montgomery’s loss. Ironically, the Post has repeatedly lamented that DC, Maryland and Virginia didn’t come together on a bid for Amazon, an idea in the same vein, so I would have thought they’d appreciate this bow toward regional cooperation. The late Kevin Kamenetz didn’t bid for Amazon because he thought it belonged in Baltimore City and that Baltimore County would nevertheless benefit.

Both the Post and GGW have distorted the record. They clearly think Elrich is wrong for Montgomery County. But they shouldn’t twist his words out of all recognition to make their argument. It just undermines their case.

George Leventhal’s GGW Problem

Voters would find many of the ideas that GGW pushes hard in their interview far more shocking than Marc’s points. GGW’s version of “smart growth” doesn’t focus primarily on areas close to transit hubs and stations but promotes much higher density at almost any location with a bus line or they deem bikeable.

The heavily trafficked River Road Corridor is a prime example of where they’d like to see far more housing units built. They’d like to have seen far more density at Westbard, and to extend the Purple Line down the Capital Crescent Trail there. Previously, they’ve attacked the Kentlands as insufficiently dense, so their vision of “smart growth” is quite different from what many argue is good suburban development.

They also want Elrich to support allowing people to sell single-family homes to be torn down for high density buildings. Elrich sensibly pointed out that people who buy homes want some security in the neighborhood and that people who don’t want to move just end up next to a tall building with super high property taxes that they can’t pay. My guess is that GGW’s platform would not exactly get people to flock to their endorsed candidate, George Leventhal.

Most bizarrely, while smart growth advocates heavily pushed for more density around Metro and the Purple Line because there is no more room to build, GGW turns that on its head in its post inveighing against Elrich, claiming that he would open up far too little of the county to development. In my view, that’s not smart growth. It’s just development writ large.

Elrich’s Growth Agenda

Elrich’s promotion of a bus-rapid transit system for the county is probably the most pro-growth and pro-smart growth initiative launched in recent years, which makes GGW’s opposition all the stranger. My hope is that it would help start to break the Gordian knot of conflict between civic associations and developers by providing a real transit system for Montgomery that addresses transportation issues even as we grow.

GGW touts Leventhal as a proponent of “real” BRT because he wants it wholly in separate lanes, which would require more property takings, make it much more expensive, and therefore unlikely to happen. Marc argues sensibly for reversible BRT lanes, as there is no need for a separate lane going against rush hour traffic. That’s spending smart, something our government badly needs.

Just four years ago, I watched George Leventhal taking a passive aggressive negative approach towards Elrich’s BRT proposal without outright opposing it during a debate. He also lambasted now Council President Hans Riemer for the seemingly mild proposal to spend more on and improve Ride-On Bus service, an idea that David Blair now wants to put on steroids. I understand GGW applauds George for his staunch Purple Line support. But as on the minimum wage, he has been highly changeable on taking their transit vision into the future.

Conclusion

We have a lot of excellent candidates for county executive beyond  David Blair and Marc Elrich, including former Rockville Mayor Rose Krasnow, Councilmember Roger Berliner and Del. Bill Frick. There are excellent cases for all of them and plenty of room to critique Elrich’s housing and other policies. I haven’t voted yet and am still looking closely at them. Let the debate continue but based on their actual records and positions.

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Are Transit “Advocates” Their Own Worst Enemy?

Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert’s went off on Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn in a recent blog post, accusing him of wanting to “slash and burn” WMATA:

Meanwhile, Pete Rahn, the new Maryland transportation secretary who insists he’s not a “highway guy,” wants to cut costs much more deeply. He wants WMATA to completely shelve any talk about expanding the system or even increasing the number of eight-car trains.

Only in the Greater Greater Washington bubble is failing to build new lines or stations for Metro a “slash and burn” approach or cutting costs. Alpert continues:

Rahn told Hauslohner and McCartney that “Discussions of expansion have to be deferred for maintenance, and it means saying ‘no’ to some popular things until [Metro] has addressed throughout its system the issues of performance and safety.”

While maintenance is extremely important, it’s also dangerous to completely ignore anything else. While Metrorail ridership has declined slightly, the overall trend is toward hitting capacity ceilings—not to mention the Blue Line, which is suffering right now.

People who ride Metro with any frequency are going to view Rahn’s  focus on getting the system working again as just plain common sense. Yesterday’s shutdown of the Bethesda Metro Station due to a lack of working escalators only emphasized the point if endless single tracking hadn’t already.

Alpert wants to call the stagnation in Metro ridership a blip but it has been going down since 2009. I bet that would change if the system worked better. At that point, I’d be glad to push for more eight-car trains–and so would the public and maybe Rahn.

Alpert tops it off with an out-of-touch analogy:

Rahn would certainly not say that Maryland should cancel any plans for even the smallest local road capacity increase project until every road and bridge is in tip-top shape and nobody ever dies on the roads, period.

Forehead hits keyboard.

Metro is not falling just short of “tip-top shape.” It’s seen as failing to do its job. For public transit to attract riders and provide the economic and transportation benefits, it has to be dependable. And Metro just isn’t anymore.

Indeed, Rahn’s notion that the financial and operational mismanagement must end before expanding the system will strike many as the arrival of rational voice. As the Washington Post pointed out, Metro didn’t even manage to spend its capital budget last year:

Rahn complained that Metro hasn’t been spending all of the money it has available to buy or modernize equipment while saying it needs more money.

Last year, Metro failed to spend $207 million, or 21 percent, of its 2014 capital budget that was meant to go toward maintenance, program management and vehicles, among other projects. According to the transit authority’s latest figures, Metro had only spent about 26 percent of this year’s capital budget by the time it was midway through the fiscal year.

Moreover, even when they manage to spend it, there are no often no real improvements. For example, little progress has been made on the escalator front with many breaking down soon after being rebuilt.

Echoing Alpert’s critique of Rahn for wanting to get a handle on costs and fix the system we have seems an excellent way to assure that approval ratings for Rahn’s boss, Gov. Larry Hogan, go up and he wins reelection in 2018.

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Reporters v. Data: Millennials Edition

On March 29, the Washington Post published yet another of many stories on how millennials love the city and hate the suburbs:

Transit-centric millennials . . . who were born between 1980 and the early 2000s, are causing angst in traditionally car-dominant suburbs such as Montgomery County. Suburbs nationwide have long lured companies — and the high-skilled workers they seek to attract — with good schools, relatively low crime and spacious corporate campuses surrounded by vast parking lots near major highways.

A realization is growing among those communities’ business and civic leaders that the traditional suburban brand needs an overhaul.

The story had several anecdotes but had no actual data to support its conclusion that people are no longer moving to the suburbs. One reason for that omission is that it isn’t true, as reported on FiveThirtyEight:

According to U.S. Census Bureau data released this week, 529,000 Americans ages 25 to 29 moved from cities out to the suburbs in 2014; only 426,000 moved in the other direction. Among younger millennials, those in their early 20s, the trend was even starker: 721,000 moved out of the city, compared with 554,000 who moved in.1 Somewhat more people in both age groups currently live in the suburbs than in the city.

Indeed, for all the talk of the rebirth of American cities, the draw of the suburbs remains powerful. Across all ages, races, incomes and education groups, more Americans are still moving out of cities than in. (Urban populations are still growing, but because of births and immigration, not internal migration.)

There have been some important changes but they’re about delaying moves to the suburbs

The common narrative isn’t entirely wrong about the long-term trend lines. Millennials are moving to the suburbs at a much lower rate than past generations did at the same age. In the mid-1990s, people ages 25 to 29 were twice as likely to move from the city to the suburbs as vice versa. Today, they’re only about a quarter more likely. But even that slowdown appears to be mostly about people delaying their move to the suburbs, not forgoing it entirely. Today’s 30- to 44-year-olds are actually heading for the suburbs at a significantly faster rate than in the 1990s.

And the move to the suburbs isn’t being driven by moves to new urban areas like Bethesda and Silver Spring. The home with a yard for the kids to play remains popular. Indeed, the exurbs are still the fastest growing areas:

But a survey released earlier this year found that most millennials still want a traditional suburban experience, complete with big single-family homes. The American Community Survey, which provides a more granular look than the data released this week, tells much the same story, said Jed Kolko, chief economist of the real estate site Trulia.

“The fastest population growth right now is in the lowest-density neighborhoods, the suburb-iest suburbs,” Kolko said.

FiveThirtyEight hypothesizes why this story has gained traction even though it’s not true:

So why has the “city-loving millennials” story gained so much traction? Kolko has a theory: As American cities have become safer and more expensive, they have become increasingly dominated by the affluent and well-educated — exactly the people who drive the media narrative.

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Legislators Working to Make Metro Better

firemen in metroJust More Media Hysteria, So Chillax

Denial from Greater Greater Washington

Greater Greater Washington’s response to the series of problems with both the Metro and the DC streetcar was to blame “media hysteria” and remind us that transit is still safer than driving. So pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Better Response from the General Assembly

Fortunately, like the public they represent, legislators in the General Assembly think the continuing rot in Metro not only needs to be stopped but reversed. I don’t think this weekend’s repeated problems will persuade them otherwise.

Freshmen Del. Marc Korman (D-16) and Del. Erek Barron (D-24) have real interest in transit issues and have organized an informal Metro working group as part of an effort to figure out how to fix WMATA and exert more effective pressure to do so.

Special kudos to Del. Tawanna Gaines (D-22) who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Transportation for supporting the effort. It’s terrific to see leaders like Del. Gaines working to support reform efforts.

The people involved realize that these are long-term problems with no quick fix. Hopefully, they can (1) improve oversight of Metro, (2) get Metro to address some specific problems, and (3) start to address some of the central questions around WMATA’s management and funding.

Fortunately, the interest in these questions extends even beyond the Metro area. Great to hear that Del. Brooke Lierman (D-46) and Del. Bob Flanagan (R-9B) joined many legislators from Montgomery and Prince George’s to attend the group meetings. Del. Flanagan was a former Secretary of Transportation in the Ehrlich administration.

While I look forward to seeing the group’s action plan as they learn more about WMATA, it is a good start that those involved know there are serious problems and want to figure out how to fix them in a more systematic, effective way.

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Getting to Yes on Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT)

circulatorFormer Bethesda Circulator

Yesterday, I detailed some advantages of bus-rapid transit (BRT) over the much more pricey streetcar and light-rail options that the Greater Greater Washington blog plugs very aggressively (yesterday’s example here) but now appear to be going nowhere.

So what is the barrier to BRT gaining more traction?

Paying Far More for Image Not Substance

Josh Barro on The Upshot blog at the New York Times put his finger on the source of the problem:

“Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.”

That fact, laid out in a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, isn’t surprising, but it has led to a perverse outcome: Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus.

Barro details how New York is now planning to spend $1 billion on an AirTrain from LaGuardia Airport that will go no faster than the existing bus connections. He reports similar investments in streetcars and trains elsewhere that go no or little faster than existing bus routes.

Corporate Welfare

In Washington, the proposed streetcar slows down far more people on buses than will ride the streetcar. This isn’t “greater” but grandiose public policy that wastes billions of transit dollars.

Indeed, it’s really corporate welfare masked as social justice as it benefits property developers. There is nothing wrong with benefiting developers or other companies if we think that makes good transit policy and economic sense. But it just becomes corporate welfare when we can get the benefits much more cheaply through another similar technology.

Improving BRT’s Image

The good news is that FTA has found that gaining acceptance for lower cost BRT occurs with the adoption of straightforward design and marketing solutions:

That 2009 transit report gives reason to believe it’s possible. The researchers conducted focus groups with “choice riders” in Los Angeles: people who have cars but sometimes use transit. These riders had an unsurprising preference for trains.

“Riding the bus carries a ‘shame factor,’ ” the researchers found. “Most of the choice riders would not consider using it, or if they did, they would feel ashamed and keep it a secret.”

But what the local transit agency marketed as the “Orange Line” — really just a bus route in the San Fernando Valley with high frequencies on a dedicated right of way — managed to gain acceptance among “choice riders.”

As it turns out, making buses look as good as light rail or streetcars is just not that hard as this photo from the Montgomery Planning website shows:

brt-photo1

We can even make them look like streetcars, complete with hard and uncomfortable benches, as the former Bethesda Circulator bus (shown at top) demonstrated for many years. People still ride it even though it now looks like a bright red bus.

These design features and marketing simply have to be far less expensive than the literally billions of dollars more that streetcars and light-rail cost to do the same thing. The good news is that BRT is expanding around the country and so hopefully the unfamiliarity with it will decrease.

Conclusion

Public officials along with transit advocates need to get past the idea that trains are better and more elite or equivalent to faster, heavy rail Metro. They’re not. They just waste dollars that could used be to provide more public transit or something else useful. The sooner they realize it, the sooner we might stop spinning our wheels and build something useful and affordable.

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Greater Greater Replies

Between the ad hominem snarks at me and Chevy Chase, Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert has a cogent response to my critique. Read it to check out their point of view on my recent series.

Ironically, the demonization of Chevy Chase just demonstrates vividly what I wrote about earlier today in terms of GGW’s negative view toward existing communities. Rather than assuming that reasonable people can and do disagree, this is the standard approach taken by GGW to dissenters.

My objections to the Purple Line are hardly a secret as I’ve written about it many times on this blog. You’d never know from reading GGW, but I don’t belong to a country club, my home won’t be affected by the Purple Line, and I very much favor smarter smart growth–the final upcoming portion of the series.

So why do I object to it? It’s far too expensive. The costs keep rising suspiciously fast, it places the State’s credit rating at risk, and the ridership numbers calculation remain a secret. The BRT alternative would capture almost all of the benefit at much less cost. This leaves more money for other projects–liking fixing Metro–which sounds like a good deal to me. Most of the planned development will occur even if no version of the line is every built. And this transit line will do nothing for traffic.

It’s more environmentally harmful than the alternatives. The trains will actually generate more greenhouse gases than the cars they replace. It will destroy the Capital Crescent Trail east of Bethesda by turning it into a narrow treeless bike path between sound walls and and the Purple Line.

But hey, it’s a free country. GGW is entitled to their view. Even if sometimes unpleasant, debate is healthy because it informs people and improves the decision-making process.

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New Urbanism Succeeds Yet the Greater Greater Washington Agenda Does Not

kentlandsdowntown

Downtown in the Kentlands–a Succssful Example of New Urbanism in Montgomery County

Part I (“They’ve Come Undone”) in this series overviewed the area’s recent rejection of several pricey transit projects. Part II (“Why has the GGW Agenda Stalled”) began to explain why, focusing on their high cost and Metro’s ills. Today, I look at the disconnect between Greater Greater Washington’s vision for high-density transit-oriented development and the new urbanism that has been embraced by many suburbanites.

The reaction against suburban sprawl, well-detailed in Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, led to many thoughtful efforts on how to build more workable communities and the new urbanism movement.

Despite its many excellent contributions–and they are numerous–Greater Greater Washington’s (GGW) more extreme vision that ultimately rejects less dense versions like the Kentlands shown above have helped undercut support for its agenda for expensive light-rail and streetcar projects.

The American Dream

The ideal for most American families is not a Manhattan apartment but remains a single-family residence with a yard. Parents still envision their kids playing in the yard rather than running down to Busboys and Poets.

That home doesn’t necessarily have to be on the type of large lot associated with suburban sprawl. For many, the dream can be a townhouse, as long as they still have their own piece of grass to call their own and hold barbecues. Even people who move back into central cities often choose these sorts of homes over new apartments.

Urban Living is Expensive

Many people who like the urban dream, however, still have trouble realizing it. Precisely because it is desirable for reasons oft-outlined by GGW, they cannot afford it. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the very success of areas like Bethesda and Silver Spring.

This trend only accelerates as urban areas develop and become more sought after. The addition of many new apartment buildings in Silver Spring and Bethesda has not made either place a bargain. Moreover, it encourages renovation of older, more affordable housing into more expensive units.

Additionally, apartments and close-in townhomes are often more expensive than single-family homes due to the condo fees that go with them. Even if the price to buy is cheaper, condo fees can render the monthly cost unaffordable. And condo fees aren’t tax deductible and don’t go towards acquiring an asset like mortgage payments. A friend recently explained to me that this is why he couldn’t and didn’t move into downtown Wheaton.

GGW is aware of these problems and laments them but does not get that the high cost an inevitable part of the project. Indeed, from the perspectives of governments that support transit-oriented growth, it is the central point because higher land values and high-income residents provide more tax revenues.

Residents often do understand, which is why they some are resistant to new transit-oriented development even as others are excited. Renters rightly sense that they are going to have to move eventually. Small business owners will find commercial rents too high as the area catches fire. Homeowners worry that their taxes will increase along with home value–and the former matters a lot if you’d like to stay in your home awhile.

The Kentlands Vision of New Urbanism

The urban vision exemplified by the Kentlands–one of the earlier new urbanist developments–has proved very attractive to suburbanites. Central to this vision was to make suburban living a more community-oriented experience by taking what worked in older towns and applying it to the suburbs.

Density should be highest closer to the central shopping area but decline as you move away from the center to town homes and then close together single-member homes. Instead of dead-end cul-de-sacs that feed into a single artery, there is a more natural old-style town traffic plan.

Streets are tighter, which gives a more neighborly feel and slows down drivers–much like in Chevy Chase or Kensington. Garages are given less pride of place. The central shopping area or “downtown” provides people quick access to the necessities.

Other developments similar to the Kentlands have proven very popular in Montgomery. Unlike the Kentlands, several have the potential to be linked to transit, which should only increase their livability–good for residents–and desirability–good for the tax base.

Greater Greater Washington Rejects the Kentlands

Despite grudgingly acknowledging some positive aspects of the Kentlands, Greater Greater Washington is fundamentally less keen, envisioning much more dense developments with few, if any, single-family homes.

GGW attacked the Montgomery County Council’s decision to appoint the Kentlands developer over Ben Ross, one of its own contributors and former head of the Action Committee for Transit (ACT).  Ben Ross is critical of single-family homeowners in extreme terms that led councilmembers to repudiate his book:

A major obstacle, he says, is the resolve of owners of single-family homes to preserve “their privileged place in the residential pecking order.”

Probably not the way most Montgomery residents would like their Planning Board or County Council to view them. In another post, GGW writer Dan Reed takes Suburban Nation author Andres Duany to task and attacks new towns like the Kentlands for lacking diversity and being too affluent:

Despite having everything from one-room granny flats to million-dollar mansions, it’s still a homogeneous, affluent, predominantly white place. And now, twenty years later, much of D.C. is starting to look like Kentlands.

Again, the movement of high income, often but not necessarily white, residents into areas like Silver Spring and Washington is the intended result of the urban transit policies, not an accidental or surprising byproduct.

Make no mistake, GGW thinks developments like the Kentlands are better than traditional suburban sprawl. But, at heart, they view them as second rate. Dan Reed labels them “compared to places like DC, Arlington, or Silver Spring, they are relatively isolated, homogeneous, and car-dependent.”

At best, as one of his GGW co-bloggers writes, the Kentlands can be some sort of gateway drug to embracing true urbanism:

Thus, in a twist of fate, new urbanism’s main lasting benefit may be that it’s a gateway for suburbanites to become urbanitesa baby step towards regular urbanism. A necessary step, to be sure, but one quickly passed by.

The problem for GGW is that most people in Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Fairfax live in suburban developments and will continue to do so. Though it may shock GGW, they even like them and are proud of their homes–just like people in the city.

It is difficult enough to convince residents of neighborhoods who will not benefit from these very expensive transit lines to pay for them since they will not ease traffic and they will take away money from their transportation needs. Explanations that berate people for being affluent or privileged (read: almost all of Montgomery County) for making different choices than the GGW high-rise dream will hardly facilitate it.

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Traffic Keeps Growing, So Why Has Greater Greater Washington’s Agenda Stalled?

Metro Declines

Declines in Metro Ridership (Source: Unsuck DC Metro)

While Part I (“They’ve Come Undone: The Demise of the Greater Greater Washington Agenda“) overviewed the recent collapse of many plans to build new streetcar and light-rail lines across the region, today I look at why this happened.

Metro

The Metro system used to be Washington’s pride and joy. It is clean, well-designed and feels not just less dangerous but a cut above most other systems. The National Airport stop is easy and a dream location. It rightly became a key part of the identity of what it means to be a Washingtonian for many.

But Metro’s once sterling reputation now lies in tatters. While it’s still clean and well-designed, it is no longer reliable–the critical element for any transit system. The litany of complaints is well known. The escalators are perpetually broken–I can’t recall the last time they were all simultaneously working in Bethesda.

Single tracking on weekends is now the norm, so many are reluctant to ride it during these periods. Dr. Gridlock seems to oddly celebrate when only a few lines are doing it. Even during normal service, trains increasingly don’t keep to their schedules. The tragic 2009 train collision and recent death from smoke inhalation of a woman trapped on a train stopped in a tunnel have heightened safety concerns.

The key problem, however, for streetcar and light-rail proposals is that the situation is not getting better. All of the concerns outlined here have persisted for years. Twitter feeds and blogs like Unsuck DC Metro that would have once been unimaginable now have very large followings that naturally take a more jaundiced view of new transit projects proposed by Greater Greater Washington.

People are voting with their feet. In Silver Spring, average weekday boardings in 2014 were down to 13% from 2008. They’re also down 14% in New Carrollton, though decreased less at 8% at Shady Grove and even in Bethesda. Metro ridership is down so much despite strong population increases that it will be below its high point even with the addition of new Silver Line stops.

People wonder not just why we are building new transit lines when the old one needs fixing but why we should trust our local governments to run and to manage them. These new proposals would be in much better shape if Metro worked.

Cost

Streetcars and light rail are very expensive and governments have many transportation needs. Arlington’s cancelled street car would have cost $550 million. In Maryland, the proposed light-rail Purple Line is $2.4 billion and the Red Line clocks in at $2.9 billion.

Moreover, the costs keep rising in manner that makes many (rightly) suspicious and leery. As Metro has taught us, these projects have to be both operated and maintained.

While some may want to kill off all public transit projects, others seem reluctant to apply reasonable cost-benefit analysis to these projects in their eagerness for the project. Critics have homed in on these problems. In DC, the (permanently?) delayed streetcar was projected to carry 1500 people per day–even as it slows down the buses on a similar route that already carry 12,000.

More in Part III.

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They’ve Come Undone: The Demise of the Greater Greater Washington Agenda

baltwash2

Greater Greater Washington’s Fading Dream

Greater Greater Washington (GGW) is one of the Washington metropolitan area’s best and most influential blogs. Geared towards promoting smart growth, it provides a wealth of information. Even people who disagree with their perspective will still find lots of interesting nuggets of information.

But where it leads, Washington isn’t following.

Central to the GGW agenda is the construction of a number of high profile new public transportation projects. Since the high point of the opening of Metro’s Silver Line, however, things appear to have gone off the rails. The area has begun to reject key components of GGW’s vision. Consider:

(1) Arlington has cancelled its two proposed $550 million streetcar projects after an election in which they were front and center. This liberal bastion voted twice for independent John Vilstadt–the first non-Democratic member of the county’s board in 15 years–as a means of saying no to the projects. After the election, the board voted 4-1 to scrap the projects.

(2) Former Washington Mayor Vincent Gray envisioned a 37-mile streetcar network. In May, however, the City Council voted to shift one-half of the monies budgeted for the streetcar to tax cuts. In October, the Council then “radically scaled back” the planned 20-mile streetcar network to just eight miles.

Many wonder whether even the repeatedly delayed inaugural 2.2 mile streetcar line, described as an unworkabletrainwreck,” will ever open. One of the very first decisions of Mayor Muriel Bowser was to delay its opening and review its operational plans. Read: the Mayor wanted to avoid a fiasco in her first month as mayor.

(3) In Maryland, the light rail Purple Line in the Washington suburbs and the Red Line in Baltimore are all but dead. In November, the State rejected light-rail proponent Anthony Brown and voted in Gov. Larry Hogan, who would prefer to build roads and is highly suspicious of the costly $2.4 billion Purple Line and $2.9 billion Red Line.

Supporters hold out hope the Governor will build them and Maryland’s new Transportation Secretary says he has an open mind. But it makes zero political sense–Brown’s former supporters will never vote for Hogan and he’ll tick off his own base while reducing his ability to spend money on his own priorities.

In any case, most Prince George’s legislators are far more focused on a hospital and ready to see the Purple Line go. Upcounty Montgomery legislators and the County Executive are increasingly focused on protecting the cheaper and less controversial Corridor Cities Transitway.

Expect the bodies to be carted away once the General Assembly leaves Annapolis and the Governor can avoid a confrontation with legislators as they grapple with the budget.

(4) A core belief of GGW smart growthers is that parking lots are bad, as we should walk, bike, or use public transit. Yet the avowedly pro-smart growth Montgomery County Council is building tons of new parking–particularly in transit-oriented high density developments–in tacit acknowledgement of the reality that they expect most people are still going to drive.

In downtown Bethesda, a spanking new lot with over 750 new public spaces (with additional spaces slated for the apartments being constructed above) just opened. The new high density transit accessible North Bethesda Market (aka as where the Whole Foods across from White Flint is) has plenty of parking. GGW’s Ben Ross has decried a new planned 300-space lot in Wheaton.

. . .

Project after project promoted by GGW has gone by the wayside in some among the most liberal jurisdictions in the country, so it’s difficult to blame the shift on the Tea Party. Moreover, most of these projects have had frequent and unremitting support from the establishment Washington Post.

In Part II of this series, I’ll examine why the GGW “smart growth” agenda has run aground.

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