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June 6 — A nearly yearlong effort to rehabilitate the Washington, D.C., area's Metrorail system is expected to increase congestion on the roadways in some parts of the nation's capital, which could increase vehicle emissions at the same time the area is trying to attain the 2015 ozone standards, according to a local air quality official.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority June 4 launched the SafeTrack plan with the goal of completing three years of maintenance and rebuilding work in about 10 months. In addition to expanding maintenance time on weekends through early closures of the entire system, the plan also calls for 15 distinct “Safety Surges,” which will shut down or severely reduce service on parts of the rail system around-the-clock, including during weekday rush hours.
Local officials anticipate that the Safety Surges, which are estimated to significantly impact tens of thousands of daily rides, will increase congestion, vehicle miles traveled and associated air emissions in parts of the D.C. area, according to Stephen Walz, director of the Department of Environmental Programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
In order to keep traffic flowing as best they can on already-congested roadways, local agencies are utilizing a variety of mitigation measures that are designed to add road capacity on major commuter thoroughfares and promote alternative methods of transportation to keep additional cars off the road. Local officials are encouraging rail commuters to explore alternatives to driving, including buses, bicycles and carpooling, because the area's roadways are already congested and cannot handle a new influx of additional cars during weekday rush hours.
“The road capacity, the bridge capacity simply isn't there,” Dennis Leach, transportation director for Arlington Co., Va., told Bloomberg BNA. Arlington is the county directly across the Potomac River to the west of downtown Washington, D.C., and will be affected by a number of the Safety Surges.
The start of the SafeTrack program comes at a critical time for the Washington, D.C. area's efforts to attain the 70 parts per billion ozone standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2015. Compliance with the standards is based on a three-year average of air monitoring data and D.C. would currently meet the standards with a design value of 70 ppb from 2013–2015. However, decisions on what areas do and don't meet the standards won't be made until next year, based on data from 2014–2016, so this summer will determine whether or not the D.C. metropolitan area is in attainment.
Of the 15 scheduled surges, 10 will occur before Oct. 31, the end of the ozone monitoring season in the Washington, D.C. area.
Walz said that given the nature of the SafeTrack program, a series of episodic rebuilding projects in different parts of the region, it is too soon to tell how the limited rail service will affect transportation-sector emissions. While the D.C. region regularly sees accidents and other short-term disruptions on its roadways, the Metro rebuilding projects are of a much longer duration, Walz noted.
“We don't know what's going to happen ... this is not the type of thing that we have a history of, that we can look back and see” Walz said. “It really depends on so many factors, that it's really going to be case-by-case as we go through these time periods.”
Ground-level ozone is formed through chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. Walz said ozone concentrations in the Washington, D.C., area are dependent on a lot of factors, including wind, wind speed and pollution that is transported in from areas north and west of the metropolitan region.
Walz said that in D.C., ozone levels are generally higher in the afternoon, a fact that could help limit the effects of vehicle emissions on the area's ability to comply with the 2015 ozone standards. The region's evening rush hour is more spread out and does not peak in the same way that the morning rush hour does, he said.
Local government officials cautioned commuters in the D.C. region in advance that they will likely be affected by the SafeTrack program, even if they don't ride the Metro or if a specific project is occurring in a different part of the region.
“The project will affect every single commuter,” Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said during a June 2 press conference. “All of the repairs, we think, will affect commutes, commute times and traffic in the District.”
WMATA projects that each large-scale rebuilding project will affect tens of thousands of rail commuters each day, including an October project that will significantly impact 108,000 weekday trips along sections of the Red Line in the northeastern part of the city for about three weeks.Congestion Mitigation Strategies During WMATA's SafeTrack Program
Local transportation officials are implementing a number of mitigation measures to combat congestion during SafeTrack, including:
One option for those rail commuters will be enhanced bus service offered by WMATA, which plans to add buses along routes near the affected rail segments. Jack Requa, acting chief operating officer for WMATA, told Bloomberg BNA following a June 2 press conference that about 40 additional buses will be deployed alongside each Safety Surge to handle commuters who normally rely on trains. That includes “bus bridges” that will be used to transport rail passengers affected by the scheduled shutdown of certain line segments.
During the press conference, Requa reminded the public that while Metro rail service will continue during the SafeTrack program, trains will be crowded, so passengers may want to explore alternative methods being promoted by local agencies.
“There will be rail service ... but it's going to be crowded and it's going to be slow,” Requa said. “We hope through these efforts ... people will find alternatives and bring the numbers on the trains down significantly.”
WMATA was encouraged by initial results on June 6, the first weekday of SafeTrack work along the Orange and Silver lines in Virginia, which saw 26 percent fewer riders enter at affected stations.
“That helped!” WMATA said in a tweet . “Thanks to all who used alternates.”
Local government agencies in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding counties implemented a variety of additional mitigation strategies intended to ease the traffic impact of the SafeTrack program, including plans by city officials to expand parking restrictions along main commuter roadways, modify traffic signal timing plans and deploy additional traffic control officers. Those strategies are intended to help increase road capacity and allow for the additional buses to get through rush hour traffic more easily.
“We've studied these corridors and the single best thing that we can do to move more buses, and ultimately more vehicles, is to provide for more lane capacity,” Leif Dormsjo, transportation director for Washington, D.C., said at the June 2 news conference.
While those types of measures are intended to accommodate some additional traffic, local officials are urging commuters to explore a range of alternative transportation methods to keep roads from being overcrowded. Leach of Arlington Country said that while there will be additional bus service, it will be a problem if those buses end up sitting in traffic due to increased congestion from solo drivers.
“In Arlington, the response is all alternatives to driving alone,” he said. “We are really actively discouraging solo commuting.”
In addition to expanded bus routes and the deployment of larger buses, Leach said Arlington officials also are encouraging carpooling and working with large employers, hotels and multifamily properties to develop alternative travel options during the SafeTrack program, including a focus on telework and flexible work options with area employers.
Arlington transportation officials also have worked with the Capital Bikeshare program, which allows members to rent a bike from 350 stations across the D.C. area, to expand capacity along affected routes, Leach said.
D.C. city officials also touted Capital Bikeshare as a viable alternative for some commuters and worked with Bikeshare to create a new $2 per ride pricing option for commuters, as opposed to the previous options of $85 for an annual membership or $8 per day. Bowser said that new option stemmed from an increase in new Bikeshare users on March 16, when the entire Metrorail system shut down for emergency repairs following a track fire at the McPherson Square station.
In addition to Capital Bikeshare, popular ridesharing services Uber and Lyft have both announced plans to enhance and promote their carpooling options in the D.C. area throughout the duration of the SafeTrack program.
While the one-day March shutdown showed an increase in cycling, Leach said it is difficult to read too much into the region's response because commuters effectively treated it as a “snow day” and took the day off of work, an option that won't be viable during the 10 months of SafeTrack work. Leach said he views the SafeTrack program as having the same effect of 10 months of consecutive special events that occasionally affects traffic in the D.C. region, such as the presidential inauguration.
Walz said the mitigation measures identified by local transportation officials could help limit the increase in vehicle miles traveled and associated emissions, but the true effects of the SafeTrack work on congestion and air quality will ultimately rely on the decisions that commuters make.
“We really will need to encourage people to use all the different possible approaches,” Walz said. “It will be dependent on everybody stepping up and making changes.”
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