By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008
The District is escalating what some suburban commuters are calling its war against workers who drive into the city.
The city has changed parts of Constitution Avenue NE from a reversible commuter artery back to a quiet side street and is considering removing the reversible lane on 16th Street NW, a key commuting route from Montgomery County.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration also is studying closing the section of the Interstate 395 tunnel that connects with New York Avenue NW, expanding the use of speed cameras and increasing parking fees and enforcement. Fees for encroaching on a crosswalk would increase from $50 to $500 under a pedestrian safety proposal.
The District is moving toward becoming "the most anti-car city in the country," said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "They see commuters as the enemy."
City officials say that the moves are part of a policy of putting the needs of its residents and businesses before those of suburban commuters and that they are trying to create a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented metropolis.
Like New York, London, Stockholm and Portland, Ore., District officials said, the city is reclaiming its streets for the people who live there. With billions of dollars invested in the Metro system, there are plenty of ways for commuters to get into the city without bringing exhaust-spewing vehicles with them, officials said.
The city's population practically doubles on workdays because of the influx of federal and other workers. And about 15 million visitors a year come to the city, almost 75 percent by auto, according to AAA.
"This is not about being anti-car, but increasing vehicles into the District is not a sustainable strategy for the city," said Emeka C. Moneme, director of the District Department of Transportation. "We want to encourage transit use, biking and walking."
Improving pedestrian safety is a priority for the city. The District has higher pedestrian death rates than New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles, with 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pedestrian injuries rose from 586 in 2000 to 725 in 2006. District officials said the city's broad avenues create wide expanses of asphalt that make it difficult or intimidating for pedestrians to cross.
But some commuters contend that the District is striking back, trying to make life miserable for people who drive into the city because the courts and Congress have not allowed the city to levy a commuter tax. About 305,800 vehicles come into the city every weekday, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"Is it to raise money or discourage drivers altogether?" commuter Bobby Wehauser of Fort Washington said as he was waiting for his sport-utility vehicle at a downtown garage last week.
Auto commuters have long suspected that the city's speed and red-light cameras, along with its famously aggressive ticketing policies, have more to do with filling city coffers than with safety. The city's new parking meters, for example, can be programmed to charge escalating rates.
Moneme said the city will continue -- and increase -- the use of market pricing when it comes to allocating such scarce resources as on-street parking.
"Putting the real price of driving out there allows people to make better decisions," Moneme said, not a subsidized rate of $1 an hour.
Part of the city's new pedestrian plan would eliminate the reversible middle lane on 16th Street NW through Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, pedestrian-heavy sections of the city. The city wants to turn the lane into a landscaped island that would serve as a refuge for pedestrians trying to cross the street. The city has other reversible lanes -- designed to help commuters get in and out of the city quickly -- on Connecticut Avenue NW, Independence Avenue SE, Pennsylvania Avenue SE and Canal Road NW and Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway.
The city has asked federal officials to consider closing the northern end of the I-395 tunnel to eliminate access to New York Avenue and Third Street NW. The tunnel runs under the Mall and is popular with Maryland commuters taking New York Avenue to Route 50 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The tunnel is popular with Virginia commuters because I-395 links up with the 14th Street bridge across the Potomac River and to Route 1, I-95 and the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia.
Moneme said city officials suspect that a significant number of commuters are using the tunnel as an alternative to the Capital Beltway and clogging New York Avenue in the process. He said the study is just to look at the "what-ifs" of closing the exit.
The new parking meters, which are being installed across the city, are designed to encourage parking space turnover by charging closer to the market rate for parking downtown and near some of the city's amenities. Around the new Nationals Park, for example, meters are programmed to charge up to $40 for four hours. The new meters take Visa and MasterCard.
The move away from accommodating auto commuters has been going on for years, accelerating under Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and his transportation director, Dan Tangherlini. Tangherlini is city administrator under Fenty (D). And the direction of city policy has near unanimous support among D.C. Council members.
One of the first things council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) did after he took office was to get the city to eliminate the rule that turned part of Constitution Avenue NE into a one-way commuter route in the mornings. The one-way rule benefited Marylanders coming from Kenilworth Avenue and I-295, but it turned the street into a mini-highway every morning.
"Having one-ways creates the expectations among drivers that they are being expedited through the city," Wells said. And that means higher speeds and less-safe streets, he said.
"Trying to improve the quality of life in the city means decreasing the things that diminish quality of life, such as a high level of traffic," Wells said. Next on his agenda are one-way streets in Capitol Hill favored by commuters, including 17th and 19th streets NE.
Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director for COG, sees the moves in the context of the city's becoming more confident, more vibrant.
"It's explicit policy: They want more people living downtown," Kirby said. "And frankly, that's what we're trying to do regionally."
Suburban officials are largely sympathetic to the District's goals. After all, they are trying similar strategies to encourage transit use and reduce through-traffic. They are also trying to make their streets safer for pedestrians. Arlington County, for instance, has increased fines for motorists who do not yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk to $500, and in Fairfax County, fines for failing to yield have been increased at designated intersections.
But the District is the home of the federal government, and District officials must accommodate the thousands of federal employees who need to get in and out of downtown everyday. The Department of Commerce isn't going anywhere.
"You'd like me to lambaste the District, but we're all in the same boat," said Montgomery County Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). "I am sympathetic to some of these initiatives. But the challenge is finding the right balance. Not everyone can ride Metro or walk to work."
She placed blame for the problem, in part, on the federal government, which offers many of its employees free parking in the city.
In addition to the pedestrian safety and quality-of-life issues for city residents, Floreen said, it is in the entire region's interest to reduce air pollution and the number of single-occupant vehicles on its crowded roads.
U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said the city should be careful not to chase people away. Like the District, Old Town Alexandria would be a nicer place without all the cars, he said. But there is an economic component to be considered, he said, and people in cars represent customers for restaurants and shops.
"Because of the limitations of our rail and bus system, there are an awful lot of suburbanites who don't have access but are willing to spend lots of money in the District," Moran said. "They are dependent on suburban spending for their tax base."
He added: "D.C. could wind up as an island isolating themselves with these policies. Don't pray too hard for fear that all your prayers will be answered."