Greater Greater Washington

The feds are taking over WMATA safety, which is unprecedented

Late Friday evening, the US Secretary of Transportation announced an immediate federal takeover of WMATA safety oversight.

Boss pointing image from Shutterstock.

The takeover gives federal officials authority to inspect Metro at will, and to order Metro employees to address safety problems. WMATA will still manage normal train operations.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Congress transfer oversight of WMATA from the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

However, the FRA typically manages freight railroads, long distance trains, and commuter rail (like MARC and VRE), and has no experience with a transit agency like WMATA. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx worried giving oversight to FRA would be more disruptive than a direct takeover by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which already has the statutory authority for a safety takeover.

With Foxx's blessing, that's what will happen. Effective immediately, the FTA is in charge of Metro safety.

The move is unprecedented. FTA has never taken over the safety oversight role from a local State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA), like the TOC. But given Metro's repeated lapses, and the inability of the TOC to enforce change, USDOT believes this is the best alternative.

Details are still scarce. But the FTA will have authority to enforce corrective actions. This should mean that WMATA won't be able to ignore safety directives, as they do with the TOC.

This move is only temporary. The FTA will relinquish control when DC, Maryland, and Virginia create a new SSOA which actually has teeth and can effectively enforce safety changes. Since the FTA has never played this role before, it is unclear if this oversight will be a success.

Beginning with the 2009 train crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people, Metro has suffered several major safety lapses, including a smoke incident in January that killed another passenger.

This takeover is the sort of shake up of WMATA management that could lead to real change in the organization's culture, and hopefully improve WMATA safety. On the other hand, it could also further impede the agency from making nimble changes that could benefit riders. Only the future will tell.

Public officials who communicate their plans, listen to feedback, and then fix errors aren't idiots

"'George S. Hawkins, DC Water's general manager, said the utility did not realize that the fee would disproportionately affect newer homes with sprinkler systems.' What kind of idiots are crafting policy and making decisions at DC Water?"

Photo by Horst Gutmann on Flickr.

This is verbatim from the comments section of a recent article in the Washington Post describing the Water System Replacement Fee (WSRF), a change we recently made to our rate structure for retail customers. Yes, that idiot would be me, and yes, we arguably made a mistake that needs fixing.

The commenter is making a nasty comment about me, a nastiness that unfortunately seems to dominate the language that overloads much of the commentary in civic society today. But that's not why he has it deeply wrong. The commenter has it wrong both on what happened, and on a perspective that often creates the very problems that commenters of this sort so often attack.

What DC Water did wrong

We can agree that DC Water made a "mistake." (I'll explain the quotations in a moment.)

DC Water on October 1 adopted a new rate structure that is the most comprehensive change to the funding formula in our history. I wrote extensively about the proposal and the outreach we have engaged on it here. A number of comments to that post and in other forums revealed that one small segment of our customers faced a change they deemed unfair.

We investigated and analyzed the point and determined they were right. Working with our Board of Directors over several special meetings, we changed course and corrected the issue, before the new rate structure took effect.

The press picked up on the issue and reported both the problem and our eventual solution.

Making changes in response to feedback is what officials ought to do

The commenter is wrong because discovering and curing a problem before the new structure went into effect is actually an example of the system working.

We proposed a comprehensive and complicated new approach and presented it to the people we serve in an open and transparent process. The outreach included a letter addressed to each customer that described specifically what would happen to their specific bill. That enabled the people best able to evaluate the change to their circumstances to do so.

A small segment of our customers (about 2,100 of our 140,000) brought to our attention that in their cases our mechanism to calibrate a new infrastructure replacement charge based on meter size did not seem fair. In short, the use of a larger meter for this group did not equate to more water use because a larger meter was only required for fire suppression by new regulations, not because this group sought to use more water. In fact, our subsequent analysis indicated that customers in this group were almost all in newly-built homes that used less water due to updated pipes and low flow fixtures.

We were persuaded by the merit of their point to call a Special Meeting of our Board to modify the rate structure. And remember, this change was made before the new rate structure took effect.

The system worked! This is why the commenter is wrong about us being idiots. DC Water considered a comprehensive and innovative new rate structure. We planned to adopt the structure and described it in multiple venues in advance, giving our customers the chance to help us evaluate the change. They did, and pointed out an unexpected outcome, persuaded us on the merits (as did our own analysis), so we changed the structure. That is a public agency working as it should!

Things won't always be perfect on the first try

Yet what about the mistake in the first place? Should we not have foreseen the problem ahead of time? Perhaps, for the Monday morning quarterback always knows what play to call. But in the vast nature of the changes we were evaluating, we missed this issue. I think our team is one of the best in the business, but we are human and therefore not perfect. We made a mistake.

And on that score, the commenter is wrong in a far more fundamental way. To explain why, let me consider for a moment an area where the United States and private business is absolutely world class.

I'm talking software, hardware, apps, and the change to almost every business that new world is driving.

Silicon Valley is famous as a center of innovation, even as that center has by its nature shifted to anywhere. Anyone can come up with an innovative idea for a new app or associated service. Innovative practices can transform an industry or service overnight. My children use "Uber" as a verb and order one with a text, and do not even consider calling a traditional cab.

Yet we also know that the vast number of these new ideas, business ideas and service approaches fail. For every Uber there are nearly countless ideas that never see the light of day—some fail at the gate, others after months or even years of development and millions invested. Among entrepreneurs, such failures are almost a badge of courage, and certainly a step along the learning continuum that adds to the wisdom behind dreaming up the next one.

Failures and mistakes in any innovative field are part of the process of pushing the envelope, trying new things, not just sticking with what works. Without some failures, we don't learn. We don't get wiser. We don't break through the tried-and-true to get to the new.

For public agencies though, and water utilities for sure, we are not given any such margin to try new ideas, fail on some, learn and then get better. Read the commentary on any newsfeed online, or follow the Twitter-speak, or even the old-fashioned media in print or screen—and the highlight is always on the mistake that was made and recriminations that follow. Public officials are rarely given the leeway to try new ideas, some of which may fail. We are often held to that most inhuman of standards of not making mistakes at all, or being harshly criticized and attacked if we do.

The consequence is rational and obvious.

First, our approach will almost always be to stick with the tried and true—what we know works. Stick with what we know not because it is the most efficient, effective or could be re-engineered to something new. Stick with something we know because we can't make a mistake or be labeled as idiots.

Second, our approach will almost always drive out of our enterprises the natural entrepreneurs who might want to lead change. There is nothing inherently wrong with the tried and true—and in some cases it is still the right way today. But sticking with it just to avoid the possibility of failure will mean that those employees who want to try the new, want to experiment, want to be entrepreneurs, do not find a place in our enterprises.

Third, our approach then leads to the reality of an outdated and stale performance that becomes the stereotype of our work, or even our agencies and the entire public sector itself. Too often the stereotype then seems to reflect a sense of reality; too often public agencies do seem stuck behind the times with older techniques and approaches.

Which leads back to a painful and dangerous negative feedback loop. If public officials are routinely attacked for mistakes, the natural tendency is to not risk mistakes that are part of creativity. Inhibiting creativity risks losing those people and traits in the agencies. Agencies get caught up in practices mired in the past and become the subjects of constant criticism. Then agencies are criticized either way: criticism from mistakes, and criticism for old practices that are used to avoid mistakes.

Is there a wonder why public agencies are often subject to such easy and broad derision?

There is an answer, for there are ways that public agencies can adopt innovative practices and strategies while minimizing the risk of mistakes. I will write more about that, and have before here. Let me be clear: even as we work to embrace failure as a part of business, we must remain cautious overall. As guardians of public health, responsible for something as important as drinking water, we need to be extremely careful, since the consequences of failure in certain aspects of what we do can be truly disastrous. By acknowledging, calculating, and in the end accepting risks, we can embrace innovation without endangering anyone's welfare.

But other mistakes will still be made, just as they are by start-ups in Silicon Valley. Such is one cost of an efficient and exciting public agency that is evolving to deliver new and better service at lower costs to our customers. This is the opposite of being an idiot, but is the sum and substance of creativity and leadership in a system that does not favor either.

This post originally appeared on George Hawkins' personal blog. This version has been modified to add a new headline and subheaders, break up paragraphs, and conform to Greater Greater Washington's style.

In the water in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region.

Tidal Basin. Photo by Richard Brundage.

Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by DC Gardens.

World War II Memorial. Photo by John Sonderman.

Photo by Beau Finley.

Adams Morgan. Photo by nevermindtheend.

Photo by Rob Cannon.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

The Custis Trail is going to get a lot longer

Right now, the Custis Trail runs from Rossyln to the west end of Arlington, where it dead ends into the W&OD Trail. There are plans to expand it so that it runs through Fairfax and into Prince William County.

The Custis Trail in Rosslyn. Photo by Dan Malouff.

The changes will be part of Transform 66, VDOT's overall plan for the I-66 corridor between DC and Haymarket.

VDOT will build some parts of the trail, while Fairfax and Prince William will work to build other parts that don't fall within Transform 66's physical boundaries.

The proposed trail in Fairfax County. Image from VDOT.

This would be a big boost for area trails

Building out the entire thing would make the Custis Trail one of the longest trails in the region. It'd be up there with the W&OD Trail's 45 mile long path, and it'd dwarf other well know trails in the area like the Mount Vernon Trail (18 miles) or the Capital Crescent Trail (11 miles). You'd be able to take the trail all the way from the Key Bridge to Manassas Battlefield National Park and beyond.

Working new trails in with road plans is a way to make sure that even highway expansions are, in their own way, bike and walking-friendly. For such efforts to be successful, though, trails have to both get built and is adequate for people's needs. Otherwise the trail just gets seen as a simple amenity rather than a necessary part of the area's transportation infrastructure.

The proposed trail in Prince William County. Image from VDOT.

That was the case with the promised trail along the Intercounty Connector. Only a partial trail went in there, with major sections never being completed because the state DOT deemed the area too environmentally sensitive to host both a trail and a six lane highway.

There are still questions on location and ramp crossings

VDOT still has to nail down a lot of details of the trail's final path. One question: what side of the I-66 sound wall will the trail be on? On the existing portions of the Custis Trail, the path is sometimes on the highway side of the sound wall because when it was going in, residents didn't want a trail running on or near their yards.

Another big question is how it will cross the ramps that cars use to enter and exit I-66. Underpasses and overpasses can help keep trail users safe from car traffic, but those add to building costs; in a budget crunch, they may be the first things to go.

In other places, there are plans to supplement the trail by making it easier to bike and walk in surrounding areas. At the Vienna and Dunn-Loring Metro stations, VDOT is looking at redesigning the Nutley Street and Gallows Road interchanges, which might improve their sidewalk crossings over I-66.

VDOT is currently holding public meetings about Transform 66.

Is turnover at the police department contributing to DC's crime wave?

It's no secret that the District has had a hard time fighting crime this year. The job gets even tougher when the people in charge are constantly changing.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The Metropolitan Police Department is divided into seven police districts, each of which are further broken down into Public Service Areas. Each district is led by a commander, and each PSA by a lieutenant. There are 56 PSAs in the District of Columbia, and each should provide framework for close engagement between police and neighborhoods.

But In PSA 405, where I'm an ANC commissioner, we have seen the reassignment of PSA lieutenants nearly half a dozen times in the last two to three years. Our area has also seen two different district commanders. Every time there's a leadership change, months of hard work between residents and MPD are completely erased.

While officers are swapped with well-intentioned replacements, they lack any transition guidance, reach back, or context of the previous officer's community engagement efforts. The community is left starting over from scratch and beginning the cycle anew. In my experience, this is a vicious cycle that inevitably ends the same way.

Here are two examples of this happening

Nearly two years ago, 5A residents asked their PSA lieutenant, night watch commander, and the district commander to personally attend our monthly meeting to hear the community's needs. After attending, 5A and the PSA 405 lieutenant agreed to merge the regularly scheduled PSA meetings with the ANC meeting so the wider community could attend and be engaged. The joint meeting happened once, but after that learned that the Lieutenant at the time had been reassigned.

An officer gives a public safety update during ANC 5A's June 2015 ANC 5A community meeting. Image from the author.

Last year, both residents and 5A commissioners began to feel like progress was being made with public safety engagement. A new lieutenant had just arrived and was eager to attend ANC and other meetings. When residents had issues, she would give out her email and cell phone number and encouraged residents to reach out to her.

Over the course of a few months, the new lieutenant became a familiar face around the community while engaging in public safety issues, updating the community and even engaging a local charter school to help improve traffic congestion during drop-off and pick-ups of students. 5A finally had a working relationship that could continue to be effective.

One weekend in late April of this year, I contacted our new lieutenant to get information about a shooting at Webster St NE and South Dakota Ave NE. Not long after I sent my email to her, I received a response I thought we were finally free of: "I apologize… I have been transferred to the First District...".

At the next meeting of ANC 5A the community met our new PSA Lieutenant, a man who was set to retire in two months!

Residents want better

As an ANC commissioner since 2012, I have sat through numerous meetings that have addressed public safety. Over the last three and a half years, I have listened and advocated for increased community-based policing, better access to public safety information, and better communication between commissioners and PSA lieutenants.

I have also listened to residents' requests that police officers become more visible in their assigned community by walking or biking in the neighborhoods they are obligated to protect and serve.

Constant turnover, reassignments, and lack of transition planning are dooming any effort at positive community policing. The constant reminder during public safety meetings of an impending major reduction in force does little to produce confidence in residents of the District of Columbia.

While the Mayor and the Council hold meetings, forums, and introduce new legislation, constituent concerns and requests should not be forgotten.

Breakfast links: Leaders speak up

Photo by Raymond Bryson on Flickr.
Foxx says no to FRA: US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has rejected the NTSB's recommendation to transfer safety oversight of Metro to the Federal Railroad Administration. Instead, he says it's better to focus on reforming the existing Tri-State Oversight Committee. (Post)

How to handle housing: DC councilmember Brianne Nadeau says we need more housing, especially more affordable housing. She says the deal for the public land at 965 Florida was a good tradeoff between price and overall benefit to the community. (Post)

PAC on ANC: A former committee staffer for Kenyan McDuffie is creating a PAC to challenge obstructionist ANC Commissioners, starting with Ward 5. The group sees the ANC system as broken and in need of new energy and ideas. (City Paper)

Key Bridge rehab: The Key Bridge is marked for extensive rehabilitation, including the installation of bicycle and pedestrian detection cameras and warning flashers where the Whitehurst Freeway on-ramp crosses the sidewalk. (WBJ)

Downtown parking changes: DDOT is rolling out a new pay-by-space parking system downtown this month. The new program will eliminate the need for displaying parking receipts on car dashboards. (PoPville)

I-66 complaints: Many Arlington residents aren't pleased with the HOT lanes plan for I-66. VDOT wants to address congestion through the controversial plan but there appears to be little public support throughout Northern Virginia. (ARLnow)

Hotel still happening: Opponents of a new Adams Morgan hotel have lost in court, again. This time, the hotel workers' union joined opponents, saying the hotel owners reneged on a deal to let workers unionize. (WBJ)

Street design, from above: Fly over any city and you can see how different patterns of development have emerged. Studying these patterns can help illuminate how modern cities have built out. (Post)

Have a tip for the links? Submit it here.

The Mount Vernon Trail is getting some TLC near National airport

Changes are coming to the part of the Mount Vernon Trail that runs alongside Washington National airport. While trail users will have to use a temporary path for during construction, the MVT will be safer and straighter in the future.

The Mount Vernon Trail detour under the Route 233 bridge. All photos by the author.

There are three major things happening to the trail: it's moving away from the George Washington Parkway where it passes under the Route 233 bridge, it's getting a new barrier wall under the Metro bridge that carries the Yellow and Blue lines into the airport, and it's moving around a large tree that forces a quick S curve.

"The goal of the project is to improve visitor safety while ensuring we protect the natural resources along the trail," says Aaron LaRocca, chief of staff for the GW Parkway at the NPS, on the planned work that is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2016.

The trail work is part of a larger effort to rebuild some of the entrances to National airport.

Trail users should expect detours

People on foot and bike will have to detour onto temporary mulch pathways during construction. The detour under the Route 233 bridge opened this week and will be used for two to three weeks, says LaRocca.

Overview of work planned to the Mount Vernon Trail. Image from the FHA.

Cycling over the mulch is challenging, with many riders dismounting and walking their bike through the detour during the morning commute on Wednesday. The temporary path is also narrower than the MVT, which could create a chokepoint for cyclists and pedestrians during busy times.

"When considering construction projects, the park strives to minimize impacts to the visitors," says LaRocca. "Unfortunately, there is little space for wider detours because the area is congested with car and trail traffic. [GW Parkway] doesn't use grass or paved detours because they create long term impacts for a short-term closure. In the past, mulch detours were used successfully along the MVT."

Trail users are warned of the detour well ahead of the split.

The detour around the Metro bridge will likely be the most onerous of the three for cyclists. Trail users will have to climb a mulch path up to the exit road from National airport to the GW Parkway.

Looking down the hill from the National airport exit road towards the MVT.

Trail users will then have to cross the road where cyclists will have to hop the curb on both sides of the street.

MVT Metro bridge detour crossing the National airport exit road.

They will then have to descend a narrow sidewalk back to the MVT.

The sidewalk MVT users will have to use to return to the trail.

The detour around the Metro bridge will be used for three months, says LaRocca. The agency has not determined when the detour will begin, he adds.

The detour to straighten the Mount Vernon Trail past the large tree at the southern end of the project area will only be used for two days, says LaRocca.

The southern detour to straighten the Mount Vernon Trail past the large tree in the center of the image.

This is going to make the trail better

The Mount Vernon Trail is a popular and critical piece of the region's trail network. Despite its popularity, the facility dates to the 1970s and includes a number of blind or difficult turns—including the one around the large tree near the southern end of National airport—that can prove difficult for cyclists.

In addition, the trail does not include the separation between cyclists and pedestrians and joggers that is common on newer trails around the world.

The bike trail and pedestrian walkway are separated in the new Gantry Plaza State Park in New York City.

There are lots of other ways to make the Mount Vernon Trail better. Ideas include straightening the sections just north of Daingerfield Island where the trail swings around a clump of trees and separating cyclists from pedestrians through Gravelly Point where there is a lot of congestion.

However, all of these ideas cost money that has yet to materialize in regional or federal trail funding plans.

It might be small, but the work the NPS is doing at the south end of National airport is great for the MVT.

Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 70

On Tuesday, we posted our seventieth photo challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 39 guesses. Twelve got all five. Great work, Roger Bowles, Peter K, Russell H, JamesDCane, AlexC, Jack M, Solomon, Mike B, Chris H, MZEBE, Mr Johnson, and FN!

Image 1: U Street

The first image shows the Vermont Avenue entrance to U Street. The primary clue here is the statue visible in the distance. That's the African American Civil War Memorial, which lent its name to the station. The statue stands in the plaza at the corner of Vermont and U, where the eastern entrance to the station is located.

Twenty-nine guessed correctly.

Image 2: Rosslyn

The second photo shows the escalator shaft at Rosslyn. This shaft contains the fifth-longest bank of escalators in the system. The moving steps here span 194 feet, behind only Wheaton, Bethesda, Woodley Park, and Medical Center.

The primary identifying feature here is the elevator shaft at center. At Rosslyn, there are four escalators, with an elevator shaft sitting in the middle. This is the only station with this arrangement. No other station has four long escalators and no other station has an elevator piercing the escalator shaft. This elevator has been decommissioned, replaced by a bank of three elevators at the station's new east entrance.

Thirty-five knew this was Rosslyn.

Image 3: Stadium/Armory

The third picture shows the northern entrance to Stadium/Armory, looking down toward the trainroom and platform. This view is unique in the system. At virtually every underground station, you enter the trainroom above the tracks at mezzanine level. There, you go through fare control and then descend to the platform.

But at three stations—Union Station, Farragut North, and Stadium/Armory—one of the mezzanines is located outside the trainroom, and you actually enter the train room through the end wall at platform level. In this case, you can see the tall "doorway" around the escalators, which wouldn't be necessary if the mezzanine floated above the platform.

At Union Station (north), there are two escalators split by an elevator. At Farragut North (north), there are three side-by-side escalators, but the ceiling isn't vaulted at this end to make way for a (formerly) planned underground ramp to I-66.

The only station that fits is Stadium/Armory. You also could have confirmed that by noting the signage at the foreground. "New Carrollton" and "Largo Town Center" are readable on the sign to the left, indicating that this is a Blue/Orange/Silver station. Thirty scored a goal on this one.

Image 4: West Hyattsville

The fourth image was taken at West Hyattsville. This station has side platforms, which is what allows this vantage point. The sloped roof here holds the skylights that are above the escalators to the Greenbelt platform. The parking lot is in the background. This is a station with unique architecture, and this sloped roof is only present at West Hyattsville. Huntington (south) has a similar escalator covering, but it isn't visible from anywhere other than below (as we did in week 12).

Additionally, the vertical bars close to the camera are parts of a fence that WMATA installed along the platform wall a year or so ago and this fence is unique to West Hyattsville. Seventeen figured it out.

Image 5: Cleveland Park

The final image was the hardest. It shows the staircase at Cleveland Park. You can tell from the design of the vault that this is an Arch I station, which is a type only present on the Red Line between Woodley Park and Medical Center.

However, of those stations, the only place where an escalator and staircase are next to each other is Cleveland Park. At the other stations with this design, the end of the mezzanine is capped with a pair of escalators. Only at Cleveland Park is the solitary escalator accompanied by a stair. Twenty-one guessed correctly.

Next week, we'll have five more photos for you to identify. Thanks for playing!

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at

I'm an employer, and I support DC's family leave bill

Employees who work in DC could soon be entitled to 16 weeks of paid time off for the birth of a child, to care for a sick family member, or recover from illness, under a bill introduced this week.

As someone who runs a small nonprofit that will soon employ three people, I think this is a great idea. As someone who writes about the forces that affect where people live, I also think it's a great idea.

This isn't easy. Working mom with infant photo from Shutterstock.

I want to give employees family and medical leave

Greater Greater Washington started out as an all-volunteer project, but as we've grown, we've developed into a nonprofit organization with full-time staff. We have one employee now, our staff editor, and thanks to a grant we received this summer, we're working to hire two more employees.

If one of them were to have a baby or get very sick, I'd want them to be able to take time off. Unfortunately, we just couldn't realistically afford to do that right now. Our grant just barely lets us hire all three of them, and we need to raise more money on our own as well. (If you want to help, you can contribute here!)

To lose our editor for up to four months but be able to pay someone else during that time would put massive strain on our ability to run the blog; to lose one of the two people we're hiring and not have the money to use for alternatives would make it very hard to achieve the goals we've set in our grant. It would be difficult to do without them no matter what, for sure, but much harder if it also cost us money.

This is not how it should have to be. New mom working photo from Shutterstock.

People should spend time with their children

But being able to have time off for the birth of a child shouldn't be just a luxury (and certainly isn't luxurious). When our daughter was born, I took about two months off, and my wife, who works for the federal government, was able to use her vacation and sick leave and then take a small amount of unpaid leave to have four months to spend with her.

We're fortunate that her agency is flexible and that we could afford the short time without pay, because caring for our daughter was all-consuming. As any parent can tell you, it was exhausting and massively frustrating while also being enormously joyful.

Contrary to some portrayals, a new parent is not lounging around while the baby sleeps all the time. Many babies might sleep during the daytime, but they're up every few hours all night.

The chance to bond with a new life in this world isn't a life experience parents should skip, and the work of caring for this helpless person is not something they can easily delegate. Besides nobody else being able to handle nighttime feeding, it's not that easy to get into a daycare within a few months of birth in many parts of DC.

Sure, many people do without parental leave today, but people should not have to choose between covering basic living expenses and being there for a new child. Nor should they have to neglect an ailing family member.

This should happen. Fathers walking photo from Shutterstock.

How this bill works

The bill, written by at-large councilmembers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso and cosponsored by Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), Charles Allen (Ward 6), and LaRuby May (Ward 8), would set up a fund where employers pay on a sliding scale up to 1% of an employee's salary.

When the employee needs to take leave, the fund would cover the first $1,000 a week of salary and half of the next $4,000. Basically, an employee making $52,000 a year would get 100% reimbursement while an employee making $156,000 would get 2/3 of his or her salary covered.

It would apply to non-federal DC employers and their employees, regardless of whether those employees live in the District. DC residents who work for the federal government or employers outside DC would be required to pay into the fund and be covered.

For Greater Greater Washington, this reduces a lot of our risk. Sure, having the employee out would be difficult, but at least we would not be using up as much as 1/6 of our grant money for it at the same time. If one of our staff were out for four months, it wouldn't be easy and maybe impossible to find a replacement, but it's a better alternative than either of the current choices: Offer leave and maybe lose a lot of grant money, or be a crummy boss.

Yes, it will cost us and we don't have a lot of budget to spare, but for that hypothetical $52,000-a-year employee (sorry, we're a nonprofit; again, you can help grow our budget), this "insurance" costs about $400-500 a year. That's doable.

I don't know what it's like to run a restaurant, or a dentist's office, or one of a thousand other kinds of small businesses. People who run those will surely speak up in the time to come. But for myself, I don't want to have to put our employees in the position of having to miss a child's infancy or care for a sick parent if they want to keep working here.

Without this bill, though, to be perfectly honest, I'd have little choice right now given our small organization and tight budget. That's why I hope it passes as soon as possible.

In real life, people juggling work and kids don't look this relaxed (or have professional makeup). Working mom photo from Shutterstock.

This bill is good for strengthening urban communities

From a broader urbanist standpoint, this bill is also smart policy. Proponents argue that there are other cases where the value will sway an employer's choice as well. They suggest that working for DC companies will be more appealing for workers who have many choices, making it easier to attract talent to the District.

However, this is just one of many factors that could attract or repel employers. I just don't think many employers choose to locate in DC because of the level of taxes. If just looking at pure costs, a suburban sprawl office park is going to beat out a walkable urban place almost every time, as it did for Northrop Grumman. Those office parks are cheaper, but less pleasant for employees, and they push a lot of costs onto the publicly-funded transportation network (and on employees directly).

Many employers are seeing things differently. They want to be in DC, or Arlington or Bethesda or Silver Spring, to attract workers who want to live in urban places and don't want a long slog in the car every day. They want employees to have appealing choices for lunch. They want to be in a place with some energy. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson wants to move the company's headquarters to a Metro station area for that reason, not to the cheapest office space he can find.

The same applies for costs beyond real estate. DC is not going to compete with other jurisdictions to be the lowest cost, but rather, the highest value. Meanwhile, a lot of low-wage work that doesn't need to be in DC already isn't; a telemarketing call center already isn't in DC, and isn't even in Virginia or Maryland, probably. A store or restaurant has to be where it is for the customers.

Certainly there are employers on the margins where this will make a difference. But we also just can't allow every issue to be a race to the bottom. Everyone deserves to be able to take some time for their health and for their families. A bill that reduces the cost to an employer when this happens is a good idea.

I have one request: Please, DC government, make the paperwork as easy as possible. Maybe it can be combined with the existing unemployment insurance forms or some other filing, so that we don't have to fill out any new forms? Thanks. And pass the bill.

Corrections/updates: The initial version of this post had an error in the way it described what happens to DC residents who work for the federal government or non-DC employers; they would have to pay into the program and would be covered. Also, the wording of a paragraph about the impact on Greater Greater Washington of losing staff has been edited for clarity.

Montgomery County has plans for a protected bikeway network in White Flint

Work is already underway on an update to Montgomery County's bicycle master plan, but the county isn't waiting that long to start working on building bike infrastructure in a quickly-urbanizing neighborhood.

A protected bikeway in Bethesda. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

At a meeting at Walter Johnson High School Tuesday night, planners discussed a proposed network of protected bikeways in the White Flint area. The county's Department of Transportation has agreed to recommend adding this network to the Capital Improvement Plan. That means that it'll recommend the County Executive put money to design the bikeways into his budget.

Protected bikeways are a better way to create low-stress bicycle facilities than conventional bike lanes, which rely just on paint. They keep cyclists separate from drivers with things like flexposts, parked cars, curbs, or medians. In some cases, the protected bikeway may be raised to a higher elevation than the street.

The Montgomery Planning Board's proposed protected bikeway network in White Flint. The dotted lines in the northwest section are not part of the current proposal for the CIP.

These proposed lanes won't be the entire bike network in White Flint, but they will be a starting point for creating a low-stress network in the area, Montgomery's newest urban neighborhood. Other streets will have different types of bike infrastructure, and the protected bikeway network may well grow larger over time.

The redesign of White Flint's suburban streets is a positive step in the county's quest to transform the auto-oriented suburban district into a walkable and bikeable district.

Two-way protected bikeway in Seattle. Photo by Matt Johnson on Flickr.

While the Montgomery County Planning Board recommended more separated bike lanes on the west side of Rockville Pike, those streets are already well into the design phase and changing them now would be expensive and time-consuming. Those planned streets aren't without bike infrastructure. In most cases, they will have conventional bike lanes or shared-use paths.

This proposed network is a great start, and will likely be just the tip of the iceberg. Planners intend to recommend more separated bike facilities around the county as part of its bicycle master plan.

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