Transit Wins $25B, WMATA Cuts Busses Suddenly, and Who/What is "Essential" during Coronavirus?

Street Justice Newsletter: Vol 2, Edition 44 (3/25/2020)

This a special, free-for-all edition of Street Justice. Please support our small, local news operation by subscribing or donating. Our 1-person operation depends on that support.

ICYMI: Monday’s Street Justice included a short explanation of the design for a 3rd, Southwest entrance that’s coming to the Potomac Yard Metrorail station opening up in 2022.

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Trips and Businesses: Which are Essential, Which Deserve Bailouts -- and for Whomst?

State and local public officials— and Federal leaders in Congress — are making quick decisions now that reveal the underlying biases of society and the (mis-)perceptions they have about public space. There’s an important debate going on about what and who of the public environments we share in the street, in public buildings, on the train or bus — and the privately-owned-but-publically-focused “third places” like bars, restaurants, and gyms.

There’s a debate about what services and whose jobs are “essential” in a time of coronavirus mitigation. There has been and will continue to be a cultural, political, and geographic debate not only about which of those are essential (i.e. should be allowed to stay open) — but also which of those deserve financial support. I wanted to note this conversation and examine it shortly.

Yesterday, in the process of escalating coronavirus mitigation, Governors of Maryland and Virginia — plus DC Mayor Muriel Bowser — determined that bike shops are essential businesses allowed to stay open despite each leaders’ closure orders. This follows or coincides with similar determinations in New York, Baltimore, and LA. It seemed to many frustratingly dissonant for politicians to order bike shops closed but list auto repair ships as essential when the figures promote bikes are alternatives to cars for necessary trips/commuting. Moreover, in the DC-area, the population of transit-dependent, service economy workers is enduring significant bus cuts. Those people are also more likely to be dependent on bikes as low-cost commuting options.

Cuts to transit service in DC and other places is due in large part to dramatic, sudden shortfalls in fare revenue. Though, other U.S. cities (e.g, SF) have kept transit service normal or with minimal/last resort service cuts while hemorrhaging money, as an explicit statement of frequent public transit as a public necessity regardless of ridership. DC’s WMATA has instead carved repeated cuts to rail, bus, and paratransit services — celebrating reduced ridership with animated bar graphs and scolding words for the people who continue to ride the bus. WMATA and other transit agencies have all discussed reducing service as a means to survive financially and to do their part for the public health effort of coronavirus mitigation.

A national lobbying effort was successful early this morning in winning $25B for Federal grants to transit agencies in the Congressional Coronavirus Stimulus. That’s in the context of $26B-$38B in losses thanks to COVID-19. The current Congressional draft includes also $150B to states and localities. The legislation is likely to pass the Senate this week and the House soon thereafter with one-time, asap $1,200 payments to adults and other support. The DC-area will get at least $1B in assistance, assuming this bill follows formulas used to divvy-up money in previous, annual funding from the Feds. This is all-purpose money and will likely go to operational budget support.

There was such a giant push for federal funds — led by Transportation for America and signed on to by approximately 200 transit agencies — because these agencies and the governments that fund them are cash-strapped in good times, let alone economic pauses like the present coronavirus shutdown. Included in that list of agencies lobbying was NoVA Transit and its partner agency further downstate.

State governments — local governments especially — don’t have a lot of money as a systemic matter. Localities and states get a high percentage of their annual revenue from inter-government fund transfers. The Federal government gives a lot of money to states — some formulaically and some appropriated — and those states direct a lot of that money further down to their constituent counties, cities, towns, villages, parishes, etc.

State and local tax revenue is kept low as a matter of small-government conservatism, local/small business economic development, and because taxes levied to fewer people in smaller areas get problematic/inefficient. Most people pay most of their taxes to the federal government and most people have liked it that way. If you’re interested in more info or have questions about that, shoot an email to David Brunori of GWU — who is one of my biggest inspirations and mentors on these matters. It’s important to understand because Governors and Mayors are doing most of the coronavirus response in terms of public space and agency regulation and decision-making, but they need the Federal Government to back up a money truck of support for that mitigation to work.

Connecting the bike shop decisions with the transit decisions is the societal question of what and who are “essential?” Whose transit trip is essential? What kind of person and kind of business? WMATA keeps harming bus riders who seem to need the bus. Of course, we all agree trash collection is essential?

More Metro Areas Should Try Out Shared, Electric Mopeds. DC Should Expand Its Program. Service Should Extend Into Northern Virginia & Suburban Maryland.

This week, in my DC Line column, I give a raving review Revel’s shared, electric mopeds currently operating in DC, NYC, Austin, Miami, and Oakland, CA.

“Revel’s fleet — sometimes called motor scooters or mopeds — offers a means to actually reduce car trips, potentially yielding a higher percentage of journeys fueled by electrons instead of gasoline. Piloting the seated mopeds is comparatively easy, and Revel’s fleet features plum cushions, so trips in excess of 5 miles don’t faze your rear end. In contrast, the standing electric scooters ubiquitous in the District work for only the most physically able and confident urban dwellers able to afford housing close to work.”

“Shared, electric mopeds serve an important environmental benefit. Their greater capabilities mean that more people may be willing to forego cars for trips where the shared, standing scooters prove unappealing. This increased value is partly about distance. Mopeds work well for 3- to 10-mile trips, while standing scooter trips tend to exhaust riders’ knees and elbows after 1 to 2 miles. A first-time moped rider can more easily gain confidence and command of handling after five to 10 minutes, and the underlying vehicle is more stable.”

“…for traffic congestion and other negative effects of car dependence, my reporting points to shared electric mopeds as a powerful positive force. More American cities should try this out and DC should expand its program, eliminating Revel’s fleet size limit and inviting applications from other operators.”

Read the full column here. Revel is offering free rides to health care workers in DC and its other markets during this coronavirus mitigation period.

Coronavirus Updates

Help Folks Out

DC

  • The National Arboretum closed yesterday until further notice. The greenspace owned and operated by the US Department of Agriculture was very busy last weekend and the closure is “to help protect the public from the spread of COVID-19.”

  • Yesterday, DC opened applications up for a $25M fund offering Small Business Recovery Grants. Here are more details and the application.

  • Yesterday, Capital Bikeshare turned off several stations near the Tidal Basin and the West portion of the National Mall. Here’s the full list. The service degradation seems to be aimed at further discouraging travel to see the cherry blossoms and recreation there. CaBi’s move follows road closures, then closures to all pedestrians and cyclists.

  • CANCELLED - Th 3/26: Randle Highlands Civic Association (ANC 7B) [Details]

  • List: Mount Vernon Triangle Retail Open for Order/Takeout During COVID-19

MD

VA

  • Mid-morning today, WMATA canceled ten Northern Virginia bus routes with no notice, cutting service below their announced plan from Sunday night. Metro made the announcement four hours after service on those routes was supposed to have started and after its rapid-response social media was assuring riders the routes were operational. Those buses are part of Metro’s modified Sunday schedule, which was supposed to be running this week. The change was made “due to operational challenges.”

  • POSTPONED - Th 4/23: “Makers’ Ball”, a fundraiser for Phoenix Bikes of Arlington [Phoenix Bikes is asking you to donate here to help make up this fundraising loss and their revenue shortfall from closing their business during coronavirus mitigation.]

Region-Wide/Generally of Note

  • Effective tomorrow morning, WMATA will close 17 of its 91 Metrorail stations. Some will close due to having only a few hundred daily riders and others due to the geographic proximity to another station. In addition, WMATA is closing second entrances to 9 other stations. Notably, WMATA kept open many Metrorail stations in DC, east of the Anacostia River, and in Prince George’s County — where rail ridership numbers were still relatively high compared to NW DC and Northern Virginia. That equity analysis and this rail closure news were first reported by Stephen Repetksi/Metro Reasons on Monday evening. Several of my DC transportation reporter colleagues reported it last night before this morning’s news release from the transit agency.

  • OurStreets will launch a new feature set within their existing app — OurStreets Supplies — to create “a community-driven platform for consumers, retailers, and policymakers that helps minimize the spread of COVID-19.” The company launched in January as a public space problem-reporting app, after beta-testing as Hows My Driving?. “OurStreets Supplies will go live in the OurStreets app very soon. The app is simple: an intuitive reporting interface for shoppers and retailers to record inventory of supplies and a map of available supply levels for shoppers and regulators to better understand the supply level of essential goods in their city.” Here’s how to help the company get the feature running asap.

  • Ford Motor Company plans to build respirators, ventilators & face shields in Michigan in partnership with the UAW, GE Healthcare & 3M. ~ Michael Martinez/Auto News

  • “Food and supply trucks in congested cities across the U.S. have doubled their driving speed, according to [the] American Transportation Research [Institute]. In Atlanta, trucks that typically crawl at less than 15 mph are now driving avg of 53 mph.” ~ Courtney Rozen/Bloomberg Government

News Tidbits

“I work for a midsize student tour operator out of Charlottesville. It’s nothing too fancy; we deliver a quality tour for what I, and I guess our many repeat customers, feel is a reasonable price. Our customers are schools from across the nation, and we’re responsible for those eighth-graders everyone else loves to hate every spring. We take these kids, your children, to Washington, D.C.; the national parks out west; the Florida Keys; and really anywhere across the nation and even the world.”

“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment it all came crashing down. We thought we were ahead of things: preparing our staff, warning customers and most of all, urging all concerned to listen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Time after time during February and early March, our account managers reassured clients that the government was not placing any travel advisories in place. In good faith, I continued to hire guides and contract with bus companies.”

“Then it started to crumble,” writes Capitol Hill resident Tim Krepp in the WaPost. “Outside of newly passed legislation in Washington, D.C., and a few other localities, most guides aren’t even eligible for unemployment insurance.”

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Jiggy Puzzles was suggested by many on Twitter yesterday as a small business selling and shipping puzzles and family-friendly time-passers during the time of coronavirus shelter-in-place orders.

Social Media Activity

Items Open for Public Comment

  • [VA] I-495/Beltway Northern Extension Project, extending Express/Toll Lanes from the Dulles Toll Road eastward to the GW Parkway, and add a shared-use path for bikes and pedestrians -> Project Info | Comments via Email | Form | asap

Events Calendar

⚠️ The full calendar is in a separate document linked below. ⚠️

[DC] Wed 3/25: ANC 2A (Foggy Bottom/West End) ft. livestream via Zoom & discussion of DDOT’s East/West protected bike lane project on G St NW that could go in this year connecting Virginia Ave NW/KenCen vicinity to 17th St NW. Helping VA bike commuters ahead of a proposed expansion of TR Bridge sidepath improvement. [Agenda]

[DC] Thurs 3/26: ANC 7B (Hillcrest/Fort Dupont) ft. livestream via Zoom (929) 205-6099 + 805792911# or (312) 626-6799 + 805792911#) [Details]

[DC] Sat 5/16: Ward 7 Economic Vision Debate, hosted by the Marshall Heights Civic Association [Details]