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A TRANSPORTATION VISION, STRATEGY AND ACTION PLAN FOR THE NATION'S CAPITAL

The most recent comprehensive transportation plan for DC was developed as an outgrowth of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, which required each state (plus DC!) to produce a comprehensive transportation plan for the next twenty years. DC's report was produced by the DC Department of Public Works over a 24-month period and published in March of 1997. There has been no update of this plan, and NARPAC summarizes it here to illustrate the extent of formal planning within DC for this basic element of DC's future.

Like many strategic plans, the title and stated objective--"to use transportation to help reverse current downward trends in population and employment, making Washington, DC, a vibrant, world-capital city"--tend to disguise a 'laundry list' of potential developments giving virtually "equal time" to every possible transportation mode upgrade. More discouraging, however, is the failure to prioritize the various options, or to analyze their individual impacts on DC's future. A few good and novel ideas thereby become lost in the pages of the catalogue, and none are directly linked to the stated objective. Nevertheless, the federal requirement is met and the pursuit of federal grants under ISTEA funding can begin.

After exploring four different scenarios to best represent the city's future growth, tourism is selected as the most likely, while the most desirable ultimately is to become a world capital. Both require elements of a third scenario focused on improved city/federal partnership. This somehow devolves into the following verbatim transportation vision:

By 2020, the District of Columbia's transportation system will be widely viewed as one of its principal assets. Designed, built, operated, and maintained to world-class standards, the transportation system will play a major role in the City's enhanced quality of life, its attractiveness as a residential and business location, the opportunities it offers for entrepreneurship, and its position as the capital of the free world and the cultural and entertainment core of the region.
The plan then outlines several dozen specific action items under eight generic categories as summarized below:

Transportation Information

Some 20 different "gateways" would be established where existing roads enter the DC boundary, and each is provided better signs, landscaping, lighting, etc. Three major information centers would be provided at different key locations where tourists would enter by car, and 11 new "interactive" kiosks would be provided at sites for visitors on foot. Some $10 million would be spent on better signage, Special traveler information maps would be made widely available.

Public Parking, Roadway Safety, and Improved System Connections

Far more important (in NARPAC's view) would be the provision of additional parking facilities around the city. Fifteen major locations were selected, but only six were proposed for initial funding, and each of these would provide only 400 spaces. Total costs in excess of $40 million were estimated, or $16,700 per space. The basic concept of encouraging visitors to the city to "park once" and then use public transportation throughout their stay seems eminently sensible, but the plan surely does not belly up to the real costs.

Equally important is the need for tour bus parking (as many European cities have found). Four relatively remote sites were selected (Georgetown, RFK stadium, under the Southeast Freeway, and off the Anacostia Freeway near South Capitol Street). Such locations assume that the buses drop off and retrieve their passengers at other locations around the city, perhaps several times a day. They are hence excluded from the "park once" concept.

Three major new roadway interchanges are also proposed for both safety and decongestion (East Capitol Street at Benning Road; and along New York Avenue at both Bladensburg Road and Florida Avenue), as well as several "connector" roads of which the most important is the Barney Circle Freeway to connect the Southeast Freeway and the Anacostia Freeway. These items strike NARPAC as at best the tip of the iceberg for a 20-year program.

New/Expanded Transit Systems

A variety of different initiatives are offered here, varying from nine water taxi docks along the banks of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers for commercial water-based transportation initiatives (only one is on the East Bank of the Anacostia) for $500,000, to three light rail corridors (Georgetown to Navy Yard, Adams Morgan to Minnesota Avenue, and Georgia Avenue to Barney Circle), totalling 20 miles and $500 million. The latter is intended to help with cross-town travel, though its advantage over improved bus service is lost on NARPAC.

One new (radial) Metrorail line is proposed to run from a western terminus in Georgetown to Fort Lincoln at DC's eastern edge and on out into Prince George's County. The cost of the 6.5 mile segment within DC is estimated at $1.2 billion--just under $200M per mile--but the costs are not specifically included in the plan. One new Metro station is suggested at New York Ave and Florida Avenue, and this has now been endorsed by the DC Government for joint funding with federal authorities (though at a price of $50M vice $20M in the plan!). For a twenty year "vision", NARPAC finds these limited objectives to be half-hearted. In particular, the absence of any expanded plans for Metrorail "East of the Anacostia" is discouraging.

A set of seven potential bus trunk routes with "priority corridors" are identified that would provide special bus by-pass lanes at intersections and the technical capability to "preempt traffic signals" by getting an early green light for their lane only--when needed. This leap-frog notion, novel at least to NARPAC, may deserve further testing though it may well turn out to be a serious non-bus traffic retarder, as well as a source of increased bus accidents with Washington's notorious red light runners. In addition, the use of local feeder and alternative bus services would be encouraged to collect passengers for the major mass transit links. The Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle (GUTS) is highlighted as a successful mode for some 750,000 passengers annually.

Two mass transit funding issues are raised, the first of which strikes NARPAC as of singular importance. According to this report, the jurisdictional usage formula for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has not changed since 1975, despite the extraordinary changes in population, employment, and transit ridership patterns. The resulting regional imbalance has caused a 26% reduction in DC Metrobus service. This report strongly supports the adoption of the separate regional transportation authority with taxing powers. In addition, a common fare system for all transit systems is suggested, along with later hours for transit service. A 7-month test program for a one-hour weekend extension (midnight to 1:00 AM) for Metrorail has recently been introduced.

Finally, promotion of greater use of commuter rail lines is suggested with various infrastructure improvements and common ticketing with WMATA--for Amtrak, Maryland Commuter Rail (MARC) and Virginia Rail Expressway (VRE). The latter two served 30,000 commuters per day in 1996, and usage has been increasing. Minor improvements in airport shuttle service are also proposed, but these appear to have been preempted by Virginia's more recent decision to extend Metrorail to Dulles Airport, as well as other destinations.

Bicycle and Pedestrian Corridors

As interest in the environment and physical fitness appears to increase--and formality in dress code appears to decrease--better accommodation of walkers, joggers, and bikers seems appropriate. The plan suggests an ambitious new bicycle spine network for use by commuters, students, and others that would focus on 17 new and existing trails, some street redesign, and some major "connectors" across existing impediments. The National Park Service would have to be deeply involved. In addition, nineteen separate streets are singled out to be made more "walker friendly" with pedestrian corridors in the process of reconstructing the streets themselves.

Improved Goods Movement

Three proposals are devoted to moving and distributing goods within the city. The first (and to NARPAC, least likely) suggests the greater use of rail for wholsesale delivery to intermodal storage and handling sites within the city for transfer to smaller retail delivery trucks. The second proposes some curtailment of curbside auto parking to permit additional loading and parking zones for the ubiquitous delivery trucks of all sizes. The use of debit cards in electronic parking meters by the delivery personnel is suggested as a means of recovering some of the costs, and also possibly of encouraging off-peak and night-time deliveries. Finally, some 23 different heavily utilized truck routes are identified for improved travel lanes, paving, and landscaping buffers to minimize "negative impacts on the community". This extensive program, involving over 140 of DC's 1100 miles of roads and emphasizing its basically "multi-modal" nature, appears primarily directed towards qualification for federal ISTEA grants. More serious, however, is the apparent disregard for the plans, programs, and requirements of the surrounding suburban jurisdictions (see below).

Coordinated Multi-Modal Transportation Decision-Making

But the heart of this planning report lies in its recognition of four serious limitations to the current transportation and decision-making process in DC. Report language is closely paraphrased concerning problem scope and possible solutions:

1. Lack of resources (and will?) to coordinate overall transportation needs with federal, regional and state agencies; private groups; citizens and citizen associations;

DC's multiple roles as central city with a major metro region, seat of the federal government, and independent jurisdiction with many state functions requires coordination with an extraordinary number of agencies. Some efforts with surrounding jurisdictions takes place through committees of the MWCOG, but no similar mechanism exists to coordinate with federal agencies such as the National Park Service, the Architect of the Capitol, the Secret Service, the Fine Arts Commission, and the National Capital Planning Commission. There should be a designated liaison person at DPW (!).

2. Lack of DC influence in directing regional resources towards specifically urban issues;

While DC is represented on all regional agencies such as MWCOG, WMATA, and WMAA, its influence on decisions continues to decrease. (See NARPAC's survey of COG members.) DC needs to improve relationships with surrounding jurisdictions and to form strategic alliances with the inner ring jurisdictions (Arlington County, City of Alexandria, Prince George's County, and Montgomery County on a broad variety of transportation-related needs and developments.
3. Lack of coordination between various transportation modes, from pre- planning to construction--just within District agencies; and

The lack of a formal pre-project planning process that crosses responsible agencies results in serious inefficiencies. DC must re-establish the now-defunct formal planning process that involves all relevant DC agencies within and beyond DPW. This would permit such simple improvements as revamping parking, pedestrian and bicycle needs, and bus stop locations as part of street reconstruction processes (!).
4. Lack of a formal pre-planning and prioritization process with DCDPW.

DPW needs to develop regular means to communicate with the public beyond receiving complaints when things go wrong. Town Hall meetings, surveys, early community inputs, etc. would promote a constructive dialogue with 'the customer'.
Funding DC's Transportation Needs

This report contains an interesting--albeit underplayed--section on difficulties in obtaining adequate funding for DC's transportation needs. Underspending for transportation began as early as the mid 1980's, and continued through the end of the Barry administration in 1998. There are problems at both the federal and local levels:

At the federal level, DC's status as a quasi-state does not serve it well, and produces three anomalies:

a) Because three-quarters of the vehicle miles traveled on DC streets are by non- residents (i.e., interstate?), the number of roadways that qualify for Federal aid should be increased above the current 10-20%;

b) (Because all city streets are so closely interwoven?,) there should be more flexibility in using Federal funds for all DC streets rather than those normally qualifying for federal support; and

c) Because, unlike most states, DC has little use for all-new roads, Federal new- road funds should be made available for maintaining/upgrading the existing DC infrastructure.

At the local level, DC transportation-related revenues fall far short of needed transportation expenditures:

a) Transportation related fees (vehicle registration, excise taxes, parking meters, traffic fines, commercial parking taxes, and bus shelter franchises) accounted for $113M in FY97, while the DC contribution to WMATA amounted to $183M, thus leaving a significant net deficit in transportation funding to be made up from DC's General Fund. If these WMATA funds were raised by a separate regional authority (such as recommended in the stalled Metro Washington Regional Transportation Act), the above fees could contribute to a significant (albeit not adequate) Transportation Trust Fund; b) Other potential DC transportation revenue sources include right-of-way utility use fees, curb use fees for permit parking, additional air rights agreements over public rights-of-way, and a several-cent increase in gasoline taxes to match those of the surrounding jurisdictions.

The report concludes with a rough estimate of the 24-year funding requirements of $9.09B, of which some 18% would be spent to "preserve" DC's current transit systems, 74% would be required for DC's other transportation systems (primarily roads and bridges), while less than $750M, or 8%, would be used for the new capital improvements projected in this report--nominally some $30M per year. It is of some interest to note that the four largest programs in that capital improvement program were to be $467.5M for the proposed light rail systems (!), $107.8M for roadway safety and connection improvements, $40.8M for 2400 public parking spaces, and $32.5M for two intermodal centers for goods. Only $2M was included for Metrorail expansion feasibility studies.

Estimated annual expenditures would grow slowly from #325M annually in the late '90s to $46M by 2020. It then acknowledges that spending would be some $1.8B less than needed to offset all desired system maintenance.

DoT's Views of Transportation in a World Class Capital

Within a few months, another report emerged as a cooperative effort between the US Department of Transportation and the DC DPW, subtitled "Multimodal Transportation Needs and Candidate Actions and Investments". This joint study was timed to coincide with the completion of the Strategic Transportation Plan discussed immediately above, although to NARPAC analysts, the correlation seems shaky at best.

This federally guided report begins with an assessment of the current condition of DC's transportation assets, and builds the case for no longer deferring preventative maintenance and infrastructure "preservation". In this regard, it assesses DC's 1100 miles of roads as being 28% poor or mediocre, compared to a national urban average of 24%; and that 24% of DC's 229 bridges are structurally or functionally deficient, compared to 28% in other urban areas. On the equipment side, the average age of DC buses is 12.2 years, compared to a national average of 8.6 years. Moreover, 31% of the regional bus fleet is beyond a useful life of 12 years, compared to 20% nationally. It also notes that 40% of the Metrorail car fleet is in need of major rehabilitation to reach its useful life.

On this basis, it strongly recommends a program to a) stabilize the system to ensure current conditions do not worsen, compromising system safety and operational integrity; b) improve conditions of highway and transit systems to "average conditions consistent with other urban areas"; c) to improve operating performance in a manner consistent with typical initiatives undertaken throughout the nation; and d) to undertake programs that support the city's economic revitalization goals and efforts to improve the quality of life of DC residents and visitors (!).

This report then postulates two funding scenarios for the next six years: a "current assumptions" scenario which would spend $296M annually from all sources: local, regional, and federal, or an "enhanced" scenario that would raise such spending to $441M annually--$87M more per year for highway programs, and $58M more for transit systems. Only in this latter scenario does DoT believe that any funding can be made available for capital investment. In short, unlike DC's strategy, these federal alternatives fully fund current system maintenance, and partially fund rehabilitation, reconstruction, and replacement programs before spending anything for capital improvements. The message seems pretty clear that DC should take care of first things first, and that a larger program would be necessary to begin to improve the quality of DC's transportation systems.

Missing from the DoT list of capital improvements, however, is any mention of light rail (or Metrorail, for that matter), while highway improvements, some parking, and some bicycle paths remain. So did funding for a single intermodal transportation center, and three tour bus parking facilities. In its executive summary, this report asserts that "actions and investments identified during the study and summarized here will enhance the District's position as a 'World Class Capital'". NARPAC finds it difficult to believe that DC can excel as a world-class capital by restoring the quality of its transportation systems to the US average!

NARPAC Comments on the State of Long-Range Planning for Transportation

NARPAC sees no useful purpose in deriding other organizations' work simply because we might have done or said things differently, or chosen different pet projects. However, it is informative to at least note some of the omissions and their possible implications:

o Based on these documents alone (and in this time period) there was clearly no real "strategic vision" of how the nation's capital city might--or should--evolve. In fact DPW was obliged to create its own version of DC's most likely and most desirable future without help from other DC agencies, and the federal DoT had no broader vision itself. Nothing seems to have changed since then;

o There is from these documents no real indication of the role of the federal government, the Congress, or even DC's City Council, in setting or implementing the future goals and objectives for the nation's capital city;

o The failure to coordinate complex systems problems either within DPW, within DC's executive branch, with the other major jurisdictions in the metro area, with the federal government, or with the many other commissions and groups with a finger in DC's pie, is perhaps the most important single problem identified--yet again;

o The failure to consider the District's future within the context of its surrounding metro area is a serious fault--particularly for such obvious undertakings as surface transportation systems. It is of interest to note that here, as in so many other so- called 'planning' documents, the included maps and diagrams do not even admit to a world beyond the immediate boundaries in question. Hence, there is no frame of reference, for instance, to even identify the more significant of the 20 "gateways" into the central city, let alone determine the most likely areas for economic growth;

o It is surely clear that DPW officials had little or no interest in the economic development of DC "East of the Anacostia". Of all the proposed transportation improvements, Anacostia was in line for one water taxi dock, one tour bus parking lot, one upgraded road intersection, a few new gateway signs, and a few miles of walking trails. The notion that establishing a regional transportation infrastructure is a precursor to sensible and efficient economic development does not seem to have surfaced;

o There is surprisingly little interest shown in upgrading, modifying, tailoring, or expanding the Metrorail system to better serve the evolving needs of either the city or its metro area. The one exception--development of a Georgetown-Ft. Lincoln line- -is casually introduced and summarily dismissed from funding--for the next twenty years! There was no mention of improved metro service for Anacostia, or of plans for a "ring rail" system to interconnect the existing radials.

The chances of developing a truly "world class" capital city appear very low indeed without a comprehensive, coordinated strategic vision, and without the orderly planning and sequencing of the needed underlying infrastructure.


This item was archived in July, 2002

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