Some bizarre things have been done in the name of economic development, but a proposal calling for a 7,200-space underground parking garage in the heart of downtown Washington takes the prize.
Proponents of the so-called intermodal transportation center maintain it's needed to support the new convention center being built at Mount Vernon Square. They further contend that the center would play a major role in revitalizing that part of the city.
Let's not kid ourselves. This harebrained scheme has the potential for creating an environmental disaster and recurring traffic nightmares in and around the area east of Mount Vernon Square.
The proposal runs counter to every D.C. government policy on protection of the environment and those encouraging use of mass transit in the downtown area.
Although the District's comprehensive plan, as amended by the D.C. Council last year, calls for studying the creation of a multi-modal transportation center, the plan emphasizes maximum use of public transit for trips downtown. Officials further acknowledge in the plan that exhaust emissions are a major problem downtown and they cite improvement of air quality as a major objective in Ward 2, which includes the Mount Vernon Square area.
The District's Department of Public Works is moving ahead, nevertheless, with the transportation center proposal for the Mount Vernon Square area, having recently paid a consultant to conduct a feasibility study.
For starters, building an underground transportation center there could cost as much as $300 million. Linking it to the northern terminus of I-395 -- the center-leg freeway -- at New York Avenue NW and upgrading I-395 to accommodate additional traffic could price this boondoggle at more than $1 billion.
Despite the initiative by the Department of Public Works, this proposal continues to gain momentum without input or approval by city planners, the deputy mayor for economic development, the mayor or the council.
Douglas Patton, the District's deputy mayor for economic development, neither endorses nor rejects the proposal. "I think what I would have done is to have three or four sites identified in the feasibility study," Patton said last week.
That's obviously how it should have been done. But further studies will be performed as part of an initiative that began three years ago, said Deborah A. Price, director of transportation for the Department of Public Works.
"What we're looking at is a concept where traffic is intercepted at gateways to the city," Price explained, even though the area in question is anything but a gateway to the city.
Under the department's Park Once concept, motorists would park their vehicles in designated areas and travel by rapid transit to the downtown area. But Price cautioned, "That doesn't necessarily say [the parking facilities] should be intermodal centers."
The feasibility study of the Mount Vernon Square area, she added, is based on similar recommendations in the District's transportation plan, the New York Avenue Development report and a 1997 report from the Interactive Downtown Task Force to former mayor Marion Barry.
The Interactive Downtown Task Force proposed building a complex, World Town, that would bring together government, business, tourism and trade activities from around the world. The panel envisioned the development cluster being spread over several blocks above an intermodal transportation center and adjacent to a world sports stadium. It was to be located in the triangular area between New York and Massachusetts avenues NW, east of Mount Vernon Square.
The department of public works may not be prepared to endorse proposals calling for an intermodal transportation center at Mount Vernon Square. That location, however, clearly is the choice of special interests that hope to take advantage of the gross ambiguity written into the comprehensive plan.
The plan calls for a mix of residential and commercial development, including hotels, along Massachusetts Avenue, between Second and Seventh streets NW. In fact, the Interactive Task Force recommended that a minimum of 5,000 new housing units be built in the Mount Vernon Square area.
Even so, the council added an amendment to the comprehensive plan late last year, supporting the development of a multi-modal transportation center between Fourth and Sixth streets NW, north of Massachusetts Avenue.
The District has in place the hub of what should be the primary intermodal transportation center for downtown. Thousands of passengers traveling on Amtrak trains, Metrorail and regional commuter lines arrive at Union Station daily. The Greyhound bus terminal is barely two blocks north of Union Station.
A 27-acre tract just north of the terminal -- part of it city-owned -- is ideally suited as a parking and staging area for autos and buses. Mount Vernon Square is just minutes away by Metrorail or taxi.
But that's clearly not the preferred location of the special interests behind the feckless scheme to channel 7,200 vehicles into the Mount Vernon Square area.