Monday, October 29, 2007

Gridlock

Note: this is the second in a series of articles leading up to the community charrette for the Braddock Road Metro small area plan scheduled for Saturday, November 3. The purpose is to focus on the City's inconsistencies, misstatements and omissions relating to the the issues that will be discussed.

Tonight from 7 to 8:30 p.m. the third in a series of "community education workshops" on the Braddock Road Metro small area plan will be held at Jefferson Houston School. Kittelson and Associates, Inc., a consultant to the plan, will be discussing "the existing transportation elements, their current use, and their contribution to the Braddock neighborhood. They will also present information about parking rates, site and roadway design, and travel demand management tools that will contribute to concepts for change in the area."

Let's talk for a minute about transportation, one of the most controversial topics in the Braddock Road plan.

In the Parker-Gray and Braddock Road Metro area we face singular physical challenges. On the west, the neighborhood is hemmed in by rail lines while on the east the community is bisected by Route 1, which the City acknowledges carries mostly pass-through traffic, much of it headed southbound at rush hour to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

But this neighborhood is not only squeezed by its physical limitations, it is being ground between two political millstones: the Braddock Road Metro small area plan, with its push for high-density development that will bring hundreds or even thousands of households and cars to our neighborhood, and the Ad Hoc Transportation Task Force, which is revising the City's master transportation plan for possible Council approval early next year and is identifying Route 1 as a corridor for rapid transit.

What we have seen with the draft Braddock Road Metro plan and with single-site project plans in the neighborhood is the shuffling over of the transportation consequences of development. And that's being done for economic and political reasons. The City needs ever-higher levels of real estate tax revenue to fund its spiraling budget and it also wants to avoid accountability for questionable past decisions, including the reduction in density at Potomac Yard and the subsequent loss of a developer-funded Metro station there.

The City's base assumption in the Braddock Road plan and in its site approvals appears to be that pass-through traffic on Route 1 will only continue to worsen. That may be true, but it is the City's second assumption that troubles the Growler: that congestion shouldn't stand in the way of more high-density development in our neighborhood and that such development will have negligible impact on traffic.

From these two assumptions flow many consequences. For example, the plan to "open the street grid," which has been an obsession of Planning & Zoning for some time now. We've lived with certain streets being closed for decades and accepted them as a peculiarity of the neighborhood. P&Z clearly wants those streets opened because they know there will be much higher volumes of local traffic from all of the proposed developments. But in fact, it's this P&Z rigidity about opening streets that appears to have killed the prospect of redevelopment at the Andrew Adkins public housing project.

Knowing that the City wants development at any price means less than comprehensive traffic studies conducted by developers under T&ES's oversight, as well as a general fluffing of the Braddock Road plan transportation chapter.

For example, the transportation study conducted for the Payne Street condo project approved in February cherry-picked other development projects currently on paper (such as the proposed in-fill condos at Braddock Place) while avoiding the inclusion of projects like the Madison on Henry Street which would paint a worse picture of future congestion. The shell game extends to parking studies as well.

Furthermore, the Braddock Road plan's transportation consultants looked only at the traffic impact of seven proposed projects in the study area that would be coming up for approval soon. It wasn't a comprehensive modeling of the impact of all properties being developed to maximum potential.

And even in the transportation study, the scenarios were only for development under current zoning. But it appears the study omits the fact that new CDD zoning will be sought for some of these projects, and that zoning will permit higher densities.

Thus we are being denied an evaluation of the true impact of high density development at Braddock Road Metro.

Another technique of the City and its consultants is to claim that a high percentage of residents in those new dense developments will use Metro. But their projections are extraordinarily optimistic ("conventional" estimates of 30% and "aggressive" at 50%) and are not borne out by any evidence the Growler has seen relating to the commuting patterns of residents that are already here. Proximity to Metro does not necessarily translate into high usage, and as the Growler has observed before the GW Parkway as well as Route 1 north provide access to DC and Arlington that is as fast or faster than a similar trip on Metro.

Finally, City officials talk much about the traffic demand management programs it requires developers to offer to mitigate the effects of development on local roads. Those plans include schemes like offering Zip cars and underwriting Metro fare cards. But we have yet to hear from T&ES which TDM plans worked and which didn't. How many residents of the Meridian and Potomac Club Residences use the Zip car parked in their lot? How many ride Metro or Dash and leave their cars behind?

As if this weren't bad enough, the weaknesses of the Ad Hoc Transportation Committee's draft plan are manifold.

First, the plan's drafters are now attempting to argue that their transit recommendations are designed to solve local transportation issues. But in the draft and throughout the Task Force deliberations there have been continuous statements about the need to expedite travel from the Pentagon to Ft. Belvoir (p. 1-7) and the need to tie-up with Fairfax County and other jurisdictions (p. 1-2). Despite the attempts to camouflage it, the recommendations are actually being driven by regional concerns, not care for the quality of life in our neighborhood, the only stretch of Route 1 with single family homes just feet from the curb.

Second, the draft plan pushes bus rapid transit (BRT) or similar solutions which are not only expensive but require dedicated lanes to work effectively. The only way BRT can function in Parker-Gray without further congesting Route 1 is if the City removes on-street parking on Patrick and Henry Streets. This, as the Growler previously observed, could result in the loss of as many as 200 parking spaces in our area. The perfect parking storm will be brewing then, as the City has recently sanctioned many parking reductions for developers as well as its its own projects like the renovation of Charles Houston Recreation Center.

Third, the Ad Hoc Task Force has yet to lay out convincing evidence that it can move commuters from cars to mass transit. Quite literally — and this was stated to the Growler at the Lyles-Crouch meeting — the group is simply hoping that traffic will become so unbearable that mass transit is the only alternative.

Interestingly, the Task Force itself is primarily of residents in protected affluent areas of town who (from an informal poll the Growler took at the Lyles-Crouch meeting) are mostly casual and infrequent users of Metrorail, Metrobus, or Dash. In fact, when questioned they cite the same reasons many in this neighborhood do for not using public transportation, including time pressure and the need to travel to disparate locations for appointments.

Nevertheless, this does not put any kind of brake on the group's confidence that they can somehow coerce the rest of us plebeians to switch from our cars to mass transit. The BRT proposal is a "build it and they will come" strategy, but even with some Federal funding is the City prepared to incur a huge bill for a venture built on such a shaky premise?

Finally, the Task Force continues to avoid the issue of Metro even as they have acknowledged the fact that commuters shun multi-modal systems that require them to transfer from one type of conveyance (such as Metrobus) to another (such as Metrorail).

(Funny, though: that's exactly how the Potomac Yard BRT to Braddock Road Metro station will function. )

There's a lack of logic here unless you understand politics. Why isn't Metro being seen as the solution to move workers to Ft. Belvoir, since an extension of the Metro from Springfield to Ft. Belvoir has been anticipated in the past by WMATA? It takes only 19 minutes on Metro rail to get from the Pentagon to Springfield; Metro provides a speed advantage no car could achieve on Route 1 and the system has unused capacity southbound at morning rush hour.

With the Springfield extension, Metro could provide seamless transport from the Pentagon to Ft. Belvoir without a change of mode. Even without the extension, Metro can move workers to the former GSA site in Springfield or to the Victory site on Eisenhower Avenue, both publicized as possible alternatives for Belvoir-bound defense jobs. And given a possible change in the White House in 2008, a number of observers have questioned whether all of those defense jobs will ever be forced out of Arlington and Alexandria at all.

And how many cities or municipalities have a BRT system running parallel and only a few blocks from a heavy rail system?

No, BRT is being pushed not just because of BRAC, but because discussions of Metro raise sensitive questions about the scaling down of proposed development for Potomac Yard. Without the extra density originally proposed in 1989, the developer was no longer willing to build two Metro stations at Potomac Yard and Four Mile Run. That in turn forced the development of a Crystal City/Potomac Yard BRT scheme as a transportation alternative. It's just one short step to conclude that BRT needs to run through out neighborhood too, even if the cachement area just won't pick up that many additional riders.

So at every turn the City is prepared to sacrifice our neighborhood, whether for revenue or to please a regional constituency that might come in handy for local politicians with statewide ambitions.

Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!