The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) promised to complete a number of important projects by now or by the end of this year. Quick quiz: Can you identify which of these have met or will meet the promised deadline?
● Start streetcar service on H Street NE-Benning Road by the end of the year.
●Devise a better system for handling visitor parking passes and residential permit parking.
● Start building a separated bike lane (or “cycletrack”) on M Street NW.
● Expand Capital Bikeshare to twice its original size.
● Make pedestrian safety improvements to Maryland Avenue NE.
● Evaluate the effectiveness of a new median on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Glover Park.
The answer: None of the above. DDOT has delayed or given up on all of these promises. This wasn’t a case of the agency coming up short because it set overly ambitious timetables. With the exception of the streetcar project, which has advanced under something of an artificial, politically inspired deadline, DDOT set conservative goals and failed to meet even those.
Some of the pedestrian safety improvements, such as the median in Glover Park, actually moved in the opposite direction. That project arose from a multiyear process involving local leaders and residents. But a few people complained, including D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who doesn’t represent the area but often drives through it. DDOT officials initially promised to give the median a chance to work, but they backed down and ripped out a key part before getting to the evaluation stage.
This isn’t a cherry-picked list. There has been almost no progress on major bicycle facilities this year, or on significant pedestrian improvements, or on parking or bus service. A set of parking “think tanks” and other events meant to generate public involvement over the winter came to naught, and Angelo Rao, the person hired to bring order to the city’s chaotic set of overlapping parking regulations, left the agency this summer.
For years now, we’ve been hearing about plans to add “bus priority” to speed up service on major streets, but little has come of the District’s $13.5 million share of a 2010 federal TIGER grant meant for such projects in the region. Bus plans remain mired in interagency squabbles while buses on corridors such as 16th Street NW are often so crowded at rush hour they pass by riders waiting at stops.
Nor is any of this new. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association criticized DDOT in 2011 for adding only one mile of bike lanes that year, compared to a goal of 10 miles in the city’s Bicycle Master Plan and 6.5 miles that the agency actually studied and planned. On parking, the D.C. Council passed a groundbreaking bill way back in 2008 with leadership from Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that let DDOT experiment with adjusting meter rates and hours. Five years later, the agency has not tweaked these elements even once for some of the pilot areas in that legislation.
Inaction is not an option. The District is growing quickly, straining its transportation systems. We need to find ways to move people more efficiently and safely, or we will see existing problems grow worse and worse. DDOT is pretty good at filling potholes, at least for a few weeks each year, and cranks out the usual set of roadway resurfacing projects and the like. That is not enough.
As the District grows, more people are getting around through means other than driving. That’s good for everyone, even those who do drive: There just isn’t enough space for everyone on the roads. But if we can mix driving, walking, biking, buses and Metro, we can have the lively and livable city we all want.
There’s no shortage of plans on paper, many of them good. Mayor Vincent Gray, for his part, has developed some farsighted ideas, such as his Sustainable DC plan, which set aggressive goals for better transportation by 2030, as well as for cleaner water, improved public health, reduced trash and more. DDOT planners are following that up with an effort, called moveDC, to develop a comprehensive citywide transportation plan; so far, the drafts look very promising.
But plans mean nothing if each individual project gets cut, scaled back and delayed, especially when some people complain, as some people always do, about change. An agency that won’t carry out its plans might as well not have them.
There are many reasons for delays; some are good, some not. The agency’s internal structure devotes far too little manpower to these types of projects. And there’s plenty of responsibility to spread around. The D.C. Council is never shy about meddling in proposals or calling hearings in response to angry e-mails. Federal rules create burdensome processes that eat up important staff time and slow down approvals.
If DDOT Director Terry Bellamy is providing any leadership on these matters, it doesn’t show. Maybe he’s just acting behind the scenes, but if so, it’s not working.
Real progress will require leadership from the agency director on down, strong support from the mayor and elected officials who do more than just stand in the way of anything remotely controversial.
Mayor Gray hasn’t been afraid to defend a big vision, which is commendable. For that to mean something, though, we need a transportation department that delivers on its promises.
David Alpert is editor of the blogs Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education.