D.C. area's top 2010 transportation stories
Sunday, December 26, 2010
It was a bad year for Metro, even without the snowstorms that presented challenges for the Washington area's transportation systems. The transit system made it into four other slots among my Top 10 transportation stories for 2010, and not in a good way. Next week: the year ahead.
Commuters, stuck at home for days, debated the definition of "passable" roads with various departments responsible for plowing, and they sometimes made up the difference by organizing community road crews to finish digging out. On the highways, crews found they had no place to push the snow that kept coming in February.
Meanwhile, Metro tried to preserve limited underground service by ending aboveground service once the snowfall reached eight inches.
Key lessons: Acknowledge upfront that our mid-Atlantic transportation systems can't recover quickly from winter storms that would have challenged Northern cities. And don't let federal employees return to work until the transportation system can carry them.
Metro fare increases
First, there was an emergency surcharge to balance a budget. Then came an array of proposals for fare increases and service cuts. But there were no service cuts. Instead, transit riders faced the largest fare increases in Metro's history. The increases, which were phased in during the summer, included a new style of fare: the peak-of-the-peak charge. These large and complicated increases went down relatively well with riders, perhaps because many of them are federal employees eligible for a transit fringe benefit of up to $230 a month. Congress recently agreed to keep the benefit at that level for another year.
A bad year for Metro's leadership began Jan. 14, when General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. announced his resignation, effective in April. Catoe had become the focal point for criticism of Metro's safety after a fatal Red Line crash in June 2009. Richard Sarles took over as interim general manager, pending a permanent replacement. The National Transportation Safety Board faulted Metro for neglecting many safety issues. Two groups issued reports on how the agency's leadership structures and attitudes should change. Recently, board members Chris Zimmerman of Arlington County and Gordon Linton of Maryland announced their resignations.
Construction of high-occupancy toll lanes in Virginia closed and opened bridges along 14 miles of the Capital Beltway's western side, and the Dulles rail project created towering, "Star Wars"-style trusses along several highways. But the engineering feats and traffic challenges came together in Tysons Corner, the urban heart of Northern Virginia, where 100,000 workers and many thousands of shoppers navigate one of the nation's biggest transportation construction zones.
Metro bag inspections
This was a late, surprise entry in the Top 10 list. Two years after Metro got a bad reaction from many riders to a plan to randomly inspect riders' property, the transit authority announced a new plan to randomly inspect riders' property. Once again, many riders complained, saying that the inspections are intrusive and unhelpful in combating terrorism. Metro officials said they were not responding to any specific threat against the transit system. They got a federal grant.
The aging Metro escalators and elevators have been breaking down for years, but rider anger reached a high point this year. On any given day, scores of Metro escalators were either broken, under long-term repair or out of service for use as stairways. At some of the larger stations, as many as half a dozen escalators and elevators were out at the same time. A task force found problems with maintenance procedures, and Metro promised changes. On Oct. 30, the day of the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Hope" on the Mall, the brakes failed on an escalator at L'Enfant Plaza, injuring 16 people.
D.C. bike lanes
Gabe Klein, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, who is leaving office at the end of this year, advanced plans for a network of bike lanes across the city. He encountered opposition from motorists, especially when they saw bike-lane striping on one of the nation's most prominent roadways, Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Klein took a look, decided that the original lanes were too wide for safety, and had them narrowed. Since June, drivers and cyclists have been sharing the Avenue of Presidents without much trouble.
Rockville Pike interchange
I haven't included the Intercounty Connector in my list, because much of the construction is occurring away from existing roads, and the first segment's opening has been delayed until next year. However, the Maryland State Highway Administration did wrap up a major project: a new $47.2 million interchange for Rockville Pike, Montrose Parkway and Randolph Road in North Bethesda. Begun in summer 2008 and completed this fall, the interchange carries the pike over the parkway, eliminating the need for a traffic signal along heavily used routes.
Parkway extension opens
The Virginia Department of Transportation opened a two-mile extension of the Fairfax County Parkway near Fort Belvoir, where the Army base relocation program is scheduled to bring in almost 13,000 new jobs. More problematic is transportation planning for the Mark Center, at Interstate 395 and Seminary Road, where 6,400 defense employees are scheduled to move.
When I asked travelers to tell me what else they would include on this list, they insisted on the difficulties that suburban commuters have encountered with VRE and MARC train breakdowns and delays. As one Marylander put it, "The MARC 'Hell Train' better be in your Top 10."