Monday, October 16, 2017

see what montgomery county's new BRT stations will look like

Montgomery County’s first bus rapid transit line will open in Silver Spring in 2020. This month, we got our first glimpse of what the stations could look like.

What Montgomery County's new Flash bus rapid transit stations could look like. All images from ZGF.

The new BRT line, dubbed Flash, will run along Route 29 between the Silver Spring Metro station and the Burtonsville Park & Ride. It's the first of what could be a countywide network of rapid bus lines. Flash will contain a variety of features designed to make the bus faster and more reliable, including dedicated lanes for part of the route and special signals that give buses extra green time at congested intersections. The 11-mile line will have just 12 stations, spaced up to two miles apart, and could carry 13,000 people per day.

And those stations won’t look like any bus stops you’ve seen in the area before. Designed by local architecture firm ZGF, the stations are designed to be visually distinctive, while adaptable to the wide variety of urban and suburban neighborhoods along the BRT line.

A plan showing all the features of a BRT station.

The designers have created a canopy structure for each station with a mix of metal, wood, and glass accents. The stations will also have an iconic “station marker,” which will help riders find each station and provide real-time information and a system map. The stations will all be accessible for riders with disabilities and have ticket machines where riders can pay before getting on the bus, reducing delays.

How the Fenton Street BRT station could look.

However, no two stations will be exactly alike, as the designers created a “menu” of station features that the county can pick and choose from based on the needs of that specific location. Those amenities include public art, wifi and cellphone charging spots, or low impact design (LID) landscaping, which can collect and distribute rainwater, reducing runoff and pollution.

The stations will be different sizes based on their location. Busier stations might have larger shelters to accommodate multiple buses. Locations in downtown Silver Spring might have smaller shelters to fit on tight sidewalks, while more suburban stations will have more green space around them.

A "menu" of options would allow each station to fit into its surroundings.

These designs are still preliminary, so we don’t have a lot of details about how much they’ll cost. But one estimate in the designers’ report says that each station could cost between $368,000 and $490,000. The entire BRT line will cost $31 million.

There’s no reason infrastructure can’t be both functional and attractive. Do you think these hit the mark?

Monday, October 2, 2017

there's a mismatch between the houses DC area buyers want, and what's on the market

Ten years after the Great Recession, home prices in many parts of the Washington region have reached or even topped their pre-recession peaks. But will this trend continue? A look at a wide sampling of real estate websites says yes – but the mismatch between what buyers can afford and what kinds of homes are available could change that.

New townhomes in Rockville. Photo by the author.

The conventional wisdom appears to say we’re not heading into another recession anytime soon. However, while Millennials are finally settling down and ready to buy homes, they will struggle to afford homes in places like DC due to high costs. In the coming years, climbing home prices will stagnate because buyers' income levels increases aren’t keeping pace with costs.

These three things suggest a recession isn’t coming soon

Real estate downturns tend to happen pretty regularly, notes real estate entrepreneur and Harvard Extension School lecturer Ted Nicolais. Going all the way back to the 19th century, real estate downturns take place about once every 16 to 18 years. Since the last recession occurred between 2006 and 2008, he predicts we can expect another one between 2022 and 2024.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

the georgetown branch trail will close for five years, and it's totally worth it

Today, the Georgetown Branch Trail in Montgomery County closes for several years for Purple Line construction. While I'll miss it, losing this version of the trail is worth getting a better, longer trail in return.

Georgetown Branch RIP
Somebody posted this sign on the trail in Bethesda this weekend. Photos by the author unless noted.
Last week, the Purple Line light rail broke ground after a three-decade fight that culminated in a lawsuit filed by some Chevy Chase residents who live next to the future route. For four miles between Bethesda and Silver Spring, the line will run along the Georgetown Branch, a former freight rail line that Montgomery County bought in the 1980s to eventually use for a transit line. In the meantime, they turned it into a temporary extension of the Capital Crescent Trail, which goes from Bethesda to Georgetown.

One day after the announcement, Maryland announced that the trail will close for up to five years while construction happens. The official detour is on busy Jones Bridge Road, as the town of Chevy Chase doesn't want people biking on other, safer streets that go through their town.

Some residents who live near the trail are very upset, and held a march on the trail yesterday in protest. Chevy Chase resident John Fitzgerald, who filed the lawsuit that temporarily blocked the project, is seeking a restraining order to stop construction. Meanwhile, Montgomery County councilmembers Roger Berliner and Tom Hucker asked the state to consider keeping the trail open a little longer.

CCT East of Bethesda
The trail today is unpaved and ends two miles west of Silver Spring.
Since this could be our last chance to ride on the trail, on Saturday, Sean Emerson and I decided to travel the entire Purple Line route, by bike and car, with a camera in hand. We wanted to record what the area was like before construction starts, sort of like Raleigh D'Adamo's films of old DC Trolley routes. (I still have to put this video together - it’s long! - but I will post it when it’s ready.)

We rode the temporary trail from Lyttonsville, where it currently ends, to Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda and back, a distance of about seven miles, in the rain. And for a moment, I couldn't blame people for mourning.

I barely noticed the distance, or how wet my socks were getting. The stresses that normally accompany biking on busy city streets had melted away. The almost continuous tree cover shielded us from the rain, and the trail’s gentle slope meant I didn't have to pedal too hard. Because the trail is entirely separated from cars, I didn’t have to worry about getting doored by parked cars or being sideswiped by a driver wandering into the bike lane. We even found a steady stream of other people walking, jogging, and biking along the trail, even as the rainstorm grew.

But as we biked east across Rock Creek, that experience changed fast. The gravel trail had lots of ruts and puddles, and we nearly ate it a few times. People had dumped their garbage along the trail. In Lyttonsville, we passed industrial buildings, a Ride On bus lot, and what appeared to be a junkyard. And of course, the trail abruptly ended in a parking lot two miles west of downtown Silver Spring.

How the trail and the Purple Line will look after completion. Image from the MTA.

If you live anywhere east of Bethesda, the trail that some neighbors fought so hard to preserve isn’t as accessible. From my building in downtown Silver Spring, the best path to the trail involves biking on big, stressful roads like East-West Highway or 16th Street.

That’s why I’m looking forward to the Purple Line. As part of the project, the trail will finally be paved. Overpasses will replace two dangerous intersections where the trail crosses Connecticut Avenue and Jones Mill Road. The trail will extend further east, along the right-of-way Purple Line trains will share with Metro, MARC, and Amtrak trains between Lyttonsville and the Silver Spring Metro station. And there, the Capital Crescent Trail will connect to the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the Silver Spring Green Trail (which connects to the Sligo Creek Trail), filling a big gap in the region’s trail network.

It won’t be exactly the same. There won’t be as many trees on the trail when it reopens alongside the Purple Line in five years. And it won’t be a private amenity for the homeowners lucky enough to live next to it. But neighborhoods across Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and DC will have access to the same fun and safe off-road trail experience that people in Chevy Chase and Bethesda enjoy today.

To me, that’s worth it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

after 31 years, the purple line finally breaks ground

It's official: after three decades of debate and several brushes with death, the Purple Line broke ground this morning in New Carrollton.
Governor Hogan signs the Purple Line's federal funding agreement as US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao looks on. All photos by Aimee Custis.

"We've made it!" exclaimed Pete Rahn, Maryland's secretary of transportation, throwing his arms in the air. "It's been a long road, but we finally made it today."

In front of hundreds of local officials and well-wishers, Governor Larry Hogan and US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao signed a federal grant agreement for $900 million, before the governor boarded a bulldozer and tore into a building that will make way for a future rail yard.
Governor Hogan, riding a bulldozer, tears down a building to make way for the Purple Line.

"The Purple Line will be a transformative asset for our state," Hogan said. "We will continue to find the most cost-effective ways to invest in and improve our transportation systems."

The 16-mile long light rail line will run between Bethesda and New Carrollton and have 21 stations, including transfers at four Metro stations. The $2 billion project will include a mix of federal, state, and county funding. There have been no shortage of setbacks for the project since it was first proposed in 1986, but the project was largely a go by 2014, when Governor Hogan took office.

Shortly after, he put the project on hold for nearly a year to find cost-cutting measures, and asked Montgomery and Prince George's counties to pay a higher share of the cost. (At the same time, Hogan cancelled the Baltimore Red Line, which had been up for federal funding as well.)
Another year was lost after a judge voided the project's approval last summer in a lawsuit from a group of residents in Chevy Chase. The project was close to losing its federal funding when an appeals court restored the approval last month.

Local officials use purple shovels in a ceremonial groundbreaking.

It's also notable as the nation's largest transit project built through a public-private partnership. Purple Line Transit Partners, a consortium of private companies, will build and operate the project in exchange for payments from the state for the next 35 years. It's something the Republican administration wants to encourage, and Secretary Chao said it could be a model for other projects around the nation.

"P3s are used throughout the world to fund transit projects, and can be used to invest in infrastructure around the country," she said. "We do not have the money to fund every project in this country,"  praising Montgomery and Prince George's counties for "having some skin in the game" and each contributing several hundred million dollars towards the Purple Line.

The Purple Line is projected to have 56,000 daily riders by 2030 and create 52,000 jobs, both directly through its construction and indirectly from investment along the corridor. Those who spoke at the groundbreaking this morning, including Senator Chris Van Hollen, Congressman Anthony Brown, and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, cited the project's benefits to the state of Maryland as whole.

"This will not only help people off the roads and protect the environment, but create jobs all over the state. This is a project for all Marylanders," said Rushern Baker, Prince George's County Executive.
Purple Line supporters celebrate today's victory.

Multiple officials gave a shout out to Harry Sanders, who advocated for the project with his wife Barbara and son Greg for decades, before he passed away in 2010. "That persistence over a period of decades is what has helped us bring here today," says Senator Chris Van Hollen.

Construction will literally start today. On the way home from the event, we passed a group of people in construction gear on University Boulevard in Langley Park, carrying what appeared to be blueprints for the Purple Line. If everything goes as scheduled, the Purple Line will open in 2022.