Tag Archives: Metro

BREAKING: Brookeville to Open Montgomery’s First Casino

brookeville-acadBrookeville Academy

Comptroller Peter Franchot’s discovery that the Town of Brookeville owes $7.2 million to the State of Maryland due to his office’s miscalculation of municipal tax receipts for many years placed the Town in quite a bind, as the municipality of just 134 souls had no idea how it could repay the debt.

Today, Brookeville Commission President Katherine Farquhar announced that, after working on the issue with the County and the State, Brookeville will open a casino in historic Brookeville Academy (pictured above), which is owned by the Town, to raise monies to pay off the debt to the State.

Franchot praised the decision, stating that he “appreciates the Town’s gratitude to my office for finding the errors” and plans to award the Town the Comptroller’s Medal for its “creative solution” to the Town’s financial difficulties.

Members of the County Council had initially expressed concerns regarding the project. But Council President Roger Berliner (D-1) has now announced that the casino will be the first recipient of the microloan program he has advertised on Facebook in anticipation of his 2018 County Executive bid.

In a press release, Berliner said “I’m so pleased that the microloan program will make the casino possible. It will help jump start Federal Realty’s development of the outbuildings for future expansion, showing the importance of partnerships like these.”

After initial opposition, Councilmember Tom Hucker (D-5) came on board once the Town agreed to hire MCGEO workers transferred from county liquor stores. “They know as much about gaming as beer, wine and liquor, so this is a great opportunity,” said MCGEO President Gino Renne.

Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gigi Godwin agreed with the union president, as she commended the County for brushing aside development concerns with the adoption of a special Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) over the objection of the Civic Federation. “We need the County to take a more proactive approach on business.”

Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-AL) also applauded the project, saying that he was happy to learn that Brookeville “is open to serving craft beers” that an official taskforce determined were crucial to revitalizing nightlife in the County.

The sole casino opponent, Councilmember Marc Elrich (D-AL), pointed out that Georgia Ave. is already a parking lot and that the development violated County traffic tests. His statement was interrupted by George Leventhal, who brusquely asked Elrich “Why do you care about people coming from Howard County? Haven’t you figured out we ignore you yet?”

In contrast, Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-AL) expressed optimism regarding transportation: “SafeTrack has been such a success. We should use the projected savings on Metro to initiate a study on extending the Purple Line to Brookeville.”

The casino will have a War of 1812 theme, reflecting Brookeville’s role as the “U.S. Capital for a Day” in 1814 during the British occupation of Washington. The building’s exterior will be preserved as the interior is redesigned in a “modern Madisionian” style.

(P.S. I think most have figured out by now, but yes, this is satire. Happy New Year.)

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.

Moving Forward on Public Transit

WMATA_Metro

Making This Work Should Be Our #1 Priority

In a series of posts, I’ve outlined how the major light-rail and streetcar projects are in deep trouble and why. Today’s final post completes the more recent portion of the series on what we should do to spend smart to produce workable, effective transit.

Fix Metro

Members of the Maryland General Assembly have rightly come to the conclusion that they have had enough of the failing WMATA status quo and want to grapple in a serious way with the issue. Fixing the Metro system should be our #1 transit priority because it remains the lungs of the region’s public transit network. We need a serious assessment of how to turn the corner on this one because the problems have only been getting worse. MTA also has major problems that need attention and merits more oversight.

Reorganize Existing Bus Lines

I love solutions that don’t cost any money. This isn’t a case of getting something for nothing (that just doesn’t happen) but getting a lot more out of our existing budget. Houston just showed the way by reorganizing its bus routes in a smart way:

The old system, like many bus routes in the United States, expended a lot of resources on very low-ridership routes for the sake of saying there’s “a bus that goes there.” The new plan says that the focus should be to provide reasonably frequent service on routes where reasonably frequent service will attract riders. That does mean that some people are further than ever from a transit stop. But it means that many more Houstonians will find themselves near a useful transit stop.

Just check out the before and after maps. I’ve often heard advocates of light-rail claim that we need it because there is no bus route that does not connect place A to place B. But this is, after all, an easily solvable problem without building light rail. In Houston, the difference is amazing and it didn’t cost the city any more money. Now that’s smart growth.

Bus-Rapid Transit

Bus-rapid transit (BRT) has real cost-benefit advantages over other more expensive modes. You can build an equivalent mode of transit at a far cheaper price. Montgomery County has already moved forward tentatively in this area. I hope they will continue.

Build Only What We Can Afford to Maintain

The key lesson from Metro is that transit systems take a lot of money to operate and to maintain. Governing recently highlighted an even more disastrous example from the Boston area. Though Boston is a slow-growing area, it embarked on very fast paced transit growth that it could not afford either to build or to maintain. Beyond the system’s collapse this winter:

Today the MBTA owes nearly $9 billion in debt and interest, which translates into more than one-quarter of its operating revenue going to debt service. And since money that should have funded maintenance had to be diverted to the legally mandated expansions, the system faces an estimated $5 billion maintenance backlog.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build anything. It means that we need to spend smart because money is always tight and we need to build future operation and maintenance costs into the plan before we begin construction.

Final Word

The point of this series was not just to discuss how and why we arrived in our current cul-de-sac of overly expensive projects but how we can get out of it through transit that provide more in the way of transit and economic benefits at a much lower cost and will be more sustainable over the long term.

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.

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.

Gas Tax No Silver Bullet

The Washington Post recently printed an editorial stressing the vital necessity of completing a contract to buy more cars for Metro, explaining that their purchase is vital to prevent massive overcrowding in 2020 and beyond. Yet, they also express concern that the cost may be beyond Maryland’s means:

The 220 new rail cars, with the infrastructure to support them, will cost nearly $1.5 billion over six years, on top of existing funding commitments for modernizing the system from Metro’s main local benefactors: the District, Virginia and Maryland. A particular question mark is Maryland, which, despite new gas tax revenue, looks to have over-promised for the above-ground Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the Red Line in Baltimore and an array of highway projects.

But despite these real cost issues, the Post has been pressing heavily for these exact transportation projects despite also editorializing about the high cost (see here, here, and here). And, as they point out, the recent hike in the gas tax in not nearly enough.

Gaining the full benefit from our past investments in public transit requires regular maintenance expenditures. Maintenance is not sexy compared to a new project. Lack of funding has forced Metro to defer substantial maintenance–a chicken coming home to roost in a variety of ways obvious to riders (see Washington Post articles here, here, here, and here).

Beyond maintenance, Metro also needs to invest in adding cars to maximize the investment costs already sunk and keep it an attractive option. Additionally, Metro also constantly faces the costs associated with upgrading technology–the switch from Farecards to SmartTrip will likely soon be followed methods that allow consumers to pay using their phone.

As Democratic Delegate Nominee Marc Korman (D-16) has emphasized in his campaign, Metro needs a dedicated funding source. We need to fund investment in Metro infrastructure maintenance and upgrades on a constant basis–not only when a crisis creates public demand to fix it.

Similarly, Maryland needs to plan how it’s going to fund planned  projects on a long-term basis. Beyond finding the money to build them, Maryland needs ongoing funding sources for the Purple Line and the (Baltimore) Red Line light rail projects.

Gov. Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly took the first bite in taking the politically courageous step of raising the gas tax–an unpopular but necessary and pro-environment step to address our State’s transportation needs. However, as the Post points out, it’s not enough. More serious global transportation budgeting is needed. It would force Maryland’s government to weigh its choices and thus make more intelligent ones.

Addressing transportation needs is critical to Maryland’s economic future. We need to plan for expenditures in a cohesive manner and also for the revenue stream not just to build but to maintain them. How our leaders plan to do this strikes me as a good question to ask candidates in this political season.

Moving Forward with RTS in Montgomery

RTSMap

Proposed Rapid Transit System Map

Montgomery County has adopted plans for a bus rapid transit system (RTS) of nearly 96 miles. This system includes not only the long planned Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT) of 15 miles but a separately planned system of nearly 81 miles.

Proposed and pushed relentlessly by at-large Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, the plan to add 81 miles is the most ambitious effort to expand public transit in the area since Metro. While other jurisdictions, including DC and Alexandria, are ahead of Montgomery in moving ahead with RTS, Montgomery’s is the most extensive network.

The above schematic map shows the proposed routes as well as the planned light-rail Purple Line and CCT. The map produced by Communities for Transit, an RTS advocacy group, uses the familiar Metro system design, which makes it look attractive but also misleadingly suggests that RTS is heavy rail like Metro. It’s not. Repeat: map looks like Metro; system is not Metro.

On the other hand, I understand the drive by proponents to avoid the word “bus.” In the DC area, people associate the buses with Metrobuses–the slowest still moving form of transportation ever invented. Drivers perceive buses as barely moving hulks to avoid and to pass. Though RTS is not heavy rail, it is also definitely not Metrobus.

RTS buses move much faster and are much nicer, more analogous to light or heavy rail cars. These buses are also designed to approach platforms at level–again like Metro or light rail–so there is no climbing up or down.

Greater speed than conventional buses is achieved because RTS buses usually travel in their own dedicated lanes. There can be two lanes on either side of the street along the curb or two in the median. Alternatively, in tighter areas, there may just be one lane that switches direction. Buses traveling in the direction of heavy traffic use the dedicated lane while buses going in the other direction travel with regular traffic.

In some areas with little room, the buses may have to travel in regular traffic in both directions. However, even in these areas, RTS buses can go faster than regular buses because they communicate to hold the traffic lights so that they can make the lights if they are close to the light but it’s about to change.

People often wonder why we don’t just expand Metro, like the delayed Silver Line in Virginia, or build light rail, like the planned Purple Line, instead. They reason is cost. RTS is far cheaper than either of these methods. This item from the Communities for Transit presentation caught my eye:

SLC BRT

In Salt Lake City, light rail would have been ten times as expensive as the RTS alternative. The price difference means that Montgomery can get far more bang for the buck with RTS. Indeed, the CCT was originally planned as a light rail but is now expected to be a bus rapid transit system, so that it is financially feasible.

The low cost is critical because, even with the Governor’s successful  drive to take measures to expand Maryland’s transportation fund, there is not nearly enough money for all of the State’s transportation priorities from roads and Baltimore’s Red Line to MARC and Metro (those elevators. . . ).

One of the most appealing aspects of RTS is the potential, and it remains just potential, to help weaken the battles between civic groups and developers. Developers want greater density while civics worry about the impact on infrastructure, especially the increased traffic.

The Montgomery RTS plan allows more growth to occur in the context of a system designed to address heightened traffic and also to spread development, along with its benefits and problems, around a much larger area rather than one or two nodes. It recognizes that Montgomery remains a spread out suburban area even as we develop multiple new urban centers.

According to Communities for Transit, RTS does produce additional investment:

Cleveland

And growth needs to occur to provide jobs and income, as well as to pay the taxes to regenerate our aging infrastructure and expand it. The key is to invest the public transit money wisely.