New York Avenue into a Yellow Brick Road

return to the top of the pagesummary

The current high-traffic uses for New York Avenue make it a major functional artery for the city which should grow as the region and its core city grow together. Fanciful notions of converting it into some sort of tree-lined, better landscaped park for the greater good of its fading surrounding neighborhoods are not only unrealistic but counterproductive. In addition to being a major commuter route, it is in fact both the unfinished extension of I-395 for regional traffic, and the major "service entrance" to the city's booming economy. It should be modernized to do those three jobs better, and possibly turned into a 2lst century fully-automated "toll road" that more than pays its way for our national capital city.


According to the draft plan recently made available, the DC government retained the services of five consulting firms to conduct a team study of the five-mile New York Avenue Corridor in July of 2002. The objective of the million-dollar plus effort has been to produce a "vision" and an "innovative plan" to convert NYAve into an ideal "multimodal and intermodal corridor"which would:

o provide multimodal transportation, including automobiles, public transit, railroad, bicycles, and pedestrians, along with intermodal opportunities;

o facilitate smooth traffic flow;

o ensure an ability to accommodate local and regional vehicular transportation and transit needs foreseeable over the next thirty to fifty years;

o create capacity for major commercial and residential development;

o avoid displacement of existing residents or exclusion of income diversity.

In working up a series of alternative designs for each of six different segments of a 4.6 mile avenue, the team of consultants came up with "three major issues that guided the development of their recommendations. These issues and their qualities are:

o Neighborhoods: health, connection and vitality;

o Transportation: safety, connectivity, choice, and capacity;

o Appearance: attractiveness, quality, and impressions."

In addition, "three major concepts emerged that capture the essential goals for improving the NYAve Corridor over the next fifty years:"

o Need: promote safety and neighborhood connectivity;

o Focus: emphasize the needs of DC citizens;

o Tools: use intersection improvements and corridor enhancements as agents for change.

The draft plan offers an interesting characterization of the NYAve Corridor from the various standpoints of open space (viz., the National Arboretum); residential areas (incl. 18 local neighborhoods); commercial (viz., the DC Farmer's Market); industrial (viz., the major WMATA bus yard), mixed use areas and institutions (viz., Gallaudet University); historic and special resources (viz., the ULine Arena, recently a trash transfer station!); and a broad variety of current initiatives already underway (viz., NYAve metrorail station and GSA headquarters).

What the draft plan does not emphasize is that NYAve is part of the network of very heavily trafficked routes that cross the city "inside the Beltway (I-495) diagonally from Northeast to Southwest, essentially avoiding that Beltway for a variety of reasons. On the chart to the left, the thickness of the lines tracing the major arteries in DC indicates the current relative traffic density. NYAve is highlighted in yellow

mid-range vs long-range projections: supply or demand?

The plan also provides estimates of the anticipated "normal (naturally occurring)" growth in traffic volume along the major thoroughfares within the corridor in the next 20 years, but not beyond to 30 or 50 years. But it also predicated on the assumption that there are no substantive changes in the physical characteristics of the roadway. In essence, then, it is not a projection of what is needed to match some desired or expected growth pattern for the city and region, but an estimate of "what the traffic will bear", to coin a phrase, with the modest changes proposed.

The chart below is reproduced (pilfered?) from the very professionally prepared Draft Study Plan and shows the change in traffic volume as it proceeds from the Prince George's County Line (right center), westward to the Convention Center (lower left corner). NARPAC added emphasis to the National Arboretum (green) and the pre-maturely-terminated I-395 (yellow):

front door or back door?

The draft plan characterizes New York Avenue as the "principal vehicular commuter thoroughfare in DC from Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Expressway, as well as Route 50" (from Annapolis, whish is not mentioned at all, either as Maryland's Capital city, or as one of the most charming and historic waterfront cities (on the Chesapeake Bay) on the East Coast). It notes that the route parallels Amtrak's Northeast corridor passenger line "a major national and regional rail corridor". Unmentioned is that it is also part of the main tracks for CSX rail freight for the Eastern Seaboard, not just from the Northeast, but from the Southeast as well.

The study team also asserts that NYAve "provides the first impression of Washington for many tourists and visitors" and that "apart from its regional function, the corridor acts as a major local street for several residential neighborhoods". It also acknowledges that "the avenue also abuts and provides direct access to the largest concentration of industrially zoned land in DC". To those of us who have lived in the nation's capital for years, NYAve is widely accepted as the kind of heavily traveled, strictly functional, truck-burdened, relatively unattractive, commercial/industrial roadways that lead into every large city virtually anywhere in the world.

The notion that this type of artery should be beautified and made neighborhood-friendly for some of the city's more run-down communities will strike many as a fool's errand. This is particularly true when one realizes there are other convenient, far more residential avenues nearby, including Rhode Island Avenue to the north and West Virginia Avenue and the newly refurbished H Street to the south. Together, those three major "urban streets" carry half the traffic volume of NYAve. Furthermore, there are far more attractive "gateways" to the city, and most of them provide more direct access to the visitors' parts of town from the major regional arteries. Were DC visualized as one gigantic hotel serving the federal city, it seems irrefutable that NYAve would be considered the primary "service entrance", not the ceremonial boulevard to the grand foyer.

front yard or backyard?

The area around NYAve (well beyond the 2-block limit of the study's defined "corridor") is also, perhaps unfortunately but certainly understandably, not part of DC's "high-rent districts". Using the cluster analysis approach used extensively elsewhere on this web site, it is clear that the abutting neighborhoods are significantly below the citywide average in income, home ownership and value, education, two- parent households, and kids not in poverty. Perhaps more telling, population drop has exceeded the city average, suggesting that many of those who can afford to leave are doing so. Is this a bad thing, or a process of natural selection between residential areas and those doing the city's less attractive commerce and industry?

The impression that this study is driven by some possibly misplaced effort at social engineering is reinforced by the team's recognition that "transportation and land use decisions are integrally linked". Interviews with local "stakeholders" indicated their conviction that "there is a strong connection between the low level of transportation service and the generally inferior quality of development that adjoins it". From such interviews the team concludes that "the quality and functionality of the transportation infrastructure must be improved to attract a higher quality of development to the area.". Where then do the railroad and bus service yards, the major FedEx package distribution center, the trash transfer stations, the rodent-infested farmers' market, and the commercial and industrial warehouses go? And for that matter, how do our economy's essential heavy commercial and construction trucks get to them? How do they get to the rest of the city which is the throes of a remarkably robust renovation?

regional vs local?

In fact, the traffic analysis using the widely accepted MWCOG model does not support the notion that much of the traffic is "local". Only 14% of all traffic either originates or terminates within the defined Corridor and virtually none of it originates and terminates within the corridor. More to the point, perhaps, a full 50% of the traffic either started or ended their trips outside the corridor, while another 29% of traffic both originates and terminates out DC limits. In short, NYAve is a primarily a regional artery which almost certainly should continue to evolve as such, but with an acceptable, if not a minimal, impact on those obliged by circumstances to continue to live nearby.

half a freeway leaves much to be desired

Furthermore, the study plan seems to underplay one of DC's less than stellar transportation facts of life. In the days when building freeways within city limits was more popular, an interstate was planned to cross the city north of the Anacostia from southwest to northeast. Designated I-395, it came into the city from the south, crossed the downtown area underground toward the north, and came to an unceremonious end at New York Avenue just east of Mount Vernon Square (and the new Convention Center). Blocked from proceeding northeast by neighborhood activists, it dumps its "through-traffic" onto New York Avenue. This has not only annoyed the local neighborhoods, but has caused substantial inconvenience to regional traffic for which a longer trip around the subsequently built I-495 "Beltway" is not a economically viable option. NARPAC photographed the northern entrance to the I-395 tunnel in an earlier description of the plight of DC's homeless, some of whom find shelter in the landscaped area adjoining the tunnel entrance.

The fact that NYAve still functions primarily as a major, but badly outdated, regional artery is a testament to the pyrrhic victory of activism over economic demand. The fact that this study is focused more on increasing its neighborhood friendliness rather than its economic functionality is a further tribute to failed, or at least misguided, urban planning and leadership. The fact that another federal/local study on impending urban traffic gridlock designates both NYAve and several of its intersecting streets as already "at or over-capacity" cast doubt on the realism of planners' emphasis on making this regional artery safe and attractive for pedestrians, joggers and bikers. And the fact that the study doe not mention the roles of either I-395 or NYAve as primary evacuation routes from the primary American urban terrorist target further suggests excessive interest in local parochial demands at the expense of the larger citywide, regional, and national interests. As in the cases of the ongoing Whitehurst Freeway 'deconstruction' and South Capitol Street aggrandizement studies, it appears that both federal and local planning monies re being spent by consultants charged with answering the wrong questions.

the rim of the topographic bowl

NARPAC has always been somewhat amused by the thought that the prime part of the nation's capital is situated in a "topographic bowl". Nevertheless, such a topographic feature, modest though it may seem in the 21st Century, did describe the limits of the original, and now sacred, L'Enfant plan, and Florida Avenue described its "northern boundaries". Since Florida Avenue may be the most important intersection (traffic-wise) with NYAve, it is inescapable that travelers on that route will be subject to the hills and valleys (!) that surround the bowl. In fact, as one enters DC across the Anacostia River that is still only a few feet above sea level, the avenue rises to cross three consecutive "hills" (approaching 100 feet in elevation!), before "descending" into the "bowl" which has a typical elevation of 40 feet. Those elevation changes do suggest however, whether intersections should be separated by bridges or tunnels/cuts, as will be discussed subsequently.

trucks, trucks, trucks

When NARPAC thinks NYAve, we think trucks. Trucks that deliver the sustenance and remove the refuse from that Great Urban Hotel in the Bowl. When the study team looks at NYAve traffic, they apparently only see "vehicles". In all their attractive artist's sketches, only cars or the occasional 2-axle utility van are shown. The most comprehensive readily available truck count was done by COG for the 28 major entry/exit points around DC. According to this analysis about 8% of all trucks entering DC came across the northwestern face (i.e., Western Ave) while 57% came across the northeastern face (i.e., Eastern Ave), 20 % came across Southern Ave on the southeastern face, and 15% across the major Potomac bridges from Virginia to the southwest. Four entry points were responsible for 52% of all trucks crossing DC borders. More important, they bore 61.5% of all the heavier (3-axle and up, single, and double units) trucks. NYAve accounted for more than a quarter of the total trucks in each category. In a different more recent tally of 16 different key intersections within the city, NYAve at Bladensburg (see below) accounted for 28% of all the trucks counted. Lastly, a more detailed total vehicular count was made for this study effort, racking up a total of 2,104,800 vehicles of while a mere 178,900 were classified as trucks and only 63,000 of those meet NARPAC's standard for "heavy trucks". But because of their larger size and weight, all trucks account for 38% of all the tonnage on the road and 15% of the total vehicular length. Those heavy trucks, in turn, account for two-thirds of the weight (and hence power, and emissions) and half of the length of all trucks. 39% of these Big Mommas are 3- or 4-axle single units (think dump trucks and big-box trucks), and another 49% are the big 8-wheel twin-axle trailers pulled by 10-wheel, 3-axle tractors. The photo below shows such an "18-wheeler" re-supplying the McDonald's at NYAve and First Street NE on a recent Sunday morning.

return to the top of the pagea six-part vision of an all-purpose New York Avenue

Notwithstanding NARPAC's idiosyncratic views, the study team has produced a vision and innovative plan for New York Avenue. It tapers down from a regional freeway where it enters DC from Prince George's County as both US Route 50 and Alternate US Route 1 to an "urban street" as it merges with Massachusetts Avenue in front of the new Convention Center. The following sections summarize the six distinctively designed zones identified by the study team, moving west from the District Line, where New York Avenue crosses the upper reaches of the Anacostia River, toward Mt. Vernon Square (which essentially forms the northeast corner of "Downtown DC"). These zones are shown on this study plan graphic:

Zone 1: "Create an "Urban Boulevard"

Little change is proposed for this first mile and a half stretch as far as the road configuration itself is concerned. It will remain three lanes in each direction with a divider. It currently carries something over 127,000 vehicles per day (vpd) that have just sorted themselves out from several incoming routes including Route 50 (Hanson Highway), Route 201 (Kenilworth Avenue) as well as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, predecessor to I-95 north. Shortly after entering DC, there is a major interchange with South Dakota Avenue which travels northwest parallel to Eastern Avenue, and handles over 45,000 vpd, leaving a count of some 69,000 vpd headed west into town. There were 36 accidents at this interchange in 2001.

According to the 2003 peak-hour traffic counts done for this study, morning rush is 63% inbound, and afternoon rush is 72% outbound. By 2025, the total flow into DC is projected to rise 29% to 164,000 vpd, with a proportional share diverting to South Dakota Avenue, and 89,000 continuing west. It might be noted that both New York Avenue and South Dakota Avenue are already designated as "at, near, or over capacity".

Elevation-wise, Route US-50 enters DC at about 2 feet above sea level, rises to about 70 feet around the South Dakota interchange, and drops back to about 53 feet at the Bladensburg intersection.

The plan proposes to generate the image of an "urban boulevard" by "creating bicycle and pedestrian facilities....and enhanced edge plantings to define the boulevard edge and better screen buildings along the route". They also propose adding a number of eye-catching "urban design elements" such as distinctive street lighting, ornamental railings, raised planters and decorative walls to pleasure the driver.

South of NYAve in this area lies the huge National Arboretum. The northern side is zoned entirely for industrial and commercial uses, and is flanked by a major branch of the rail line which turns northeast through Prince George's County.

The project cost estimate for this Zone 1 involved $4M in preliminary engineering, plus some $26.6M in construction of special "design elements" and the accommodating of bicycles and pedestrians. No changes are proposed in the rights of way.

Zone 2: "Create Focal Points at Intersections"

This short distance of perhaps a quarter mile is characterized by two grade level intersections only a short distance apart. The first and more important of the two is Bladensburg Road, the latest incarnation of the original horse and carriage trail from Washington to Baltimore and on North. There were 87 significant vehicular accidents at this intersection in 2001, compared to some 36 at South Dakota Avenue, despite its higher traffic flow. The traffic flow on NYAve currently drops to some 57,000 vpd as it continues beyond here, while Bladensburg carries some 27,000. By 2025, traffic on NYAve past this intersection is expected to rise 25% to 71,000.

Only a block or so further on, lies a smaller intersection with Montana/West Virginia Aves which has a traffic flow of only about 7,000 vpd, but also experienced 25 vehicular accidents in 2001. The Montana Avenue intersection is perhaps 20 feet higher in elevation than the one at Bladensburg, as NYAve begins its climb to a "plateau" of about 100 feet in Zone 3. Bladensburg Road has also climbed a hill of about 95 feet from its 47 ft elevation at the "starburst" intersection with Florida and Maryland Avenues, H street, and Benning Road (the subject of yet another consultant-laden study) before dropping back to some 52 feet at NYAve and then climbing back up to almost 100 feet at South Dakota Avenue.

The planners suggest building a major new over-and-under intersection at Bladensburg, while simply upgrading the appearance of the faux "circle" at Montana Avenue. They also suggest improving the landscaping along the roadway edges, and creating new architectural guidelines for any new commercial and industrial buildings, setbacks, and "pedestrian environment". An informative artist's sketch of this new underpass is shown below. NARPAC finds it symbolic that there are no trucks in sight:

The major new intersection would leave Bladensburg Road at grade level, while depressing NYAve below grade. Without explanation, this choice will tend to permanently limit NYAve to three lanes in each direction, while allowing Bladensburg, with far lower traffic rates, to expand more easily. Since this intersection is already in a "depression" along both NYAve and Bladensburg, one wonders why an overpass was not selected rather than an underpass for Bladensburg Road.

Costs are estimated to include $43.6M for right-of-way expansion, $9M for engineering, and $56M for construction. The "beautification" of the Montana Avenue "circle" would involve $6.4M. No new lanes are added for moving traffic, though streamlining the Bladensburg Road intersection would clearly add to both safety and through-traffic capacity.

Zone 3: "Create an "Linear Park"

The mile and a half between the Montana Avenue intersection and the key Florida Avenue interchange contains some of the most far-reaching changes to create a "linear park" including two pedestrian walks, one bike trail, and essentially four potential traffic lanes devoted to trees, (some of which also serve as left turning lanes, since virtually all the commercial/industrial activity along this stretch is accessed by four lesser roads on the south side of the avenue). East and West traffic would be separated by a fixed, raised and planted median (which makes lane- direction-switching almost impossible). An existing set-back on the south side, and some truck- parking areas on the north side would be integrated into the new "linear park", but no lanes of moving traffic would be added.

Two "inspiration points" would be added to the north side provide unfettered panoramas of the rail yards and main tracks, the large Brentwood postal facility (made famous by the unsolved and lethal incident of anthrax in the mail), as well as an interesting view of the newly refurbished McKinley Technical High School on the high ground (almost a bluff!) in the Eckington neighborhood. Some local residents suggest that parks in these neighborhoods tend to become homes for the homeless, and are essentially "zoned for the drug trade".

Traffic along this segment is estimated to be a bit higher at 60,300 vpd now, but expected to grow (without explanation) by some 34% to 81,000 by 2025. This section of roadway is bordered by industrial and commercial zoning as well as one portion of "mixed use". Current rush hour traffic is 66% inbound in the morning, and 73% outbound in the afternoon, and would presumably rise to about 90% outbound during an evacuation at any time. A fixed, obstacle- planted median seems to NARPAC to be thoroughly counterproductive.

Running east to west, NYAve has risen from 70-odd feet above sea-level at Montana Ave to about 100 feet by its minor bend, where it stays level until it passes over the major CSX (and Metro) railroad tracks, and drops 35 to 40 feet into the Florida Avenue at-grade intersection. Half way along this stretch, drivers are surprised to find a dilapidated overpass (looking about as bad as the average railroad bridge in DC) which connects Brentwood, north of the railroad tracks, with Ivy City, Trinidad, and Gallaudet University to the South.

Costs to fix up this zone are expected to exceed $183M, including total refurbishment of the Brentwood Avenue overpass. Of those funds, $78M would go for right-of-way expansion, $11M for engineering, and $94M for new construction. Some minor improvements to traffic capacity will result from changing access to local streets, but the injection of "urban vitality" in the form of pedestrians, strollers, joggers, bikers, inspiration- (and other recreation-) seekers may well contribute to others risks and distractions.

Zone 4: "Transition to a Neighborhood Avenue"

This quarter-mile "transition zone" appears to be the least well thought out part of the planned renovation, as commuters and truck drivers plunge downhill from their "linear park" fantasy, to face the avenue's most heavily trafficked grade-level intersections which also rack up a good share of the avenue's accidents. Between Florida Avenue and the (below-grade) underpass for North Capital Street, redevelopment is in full swing. It has already been fueled by the complete conversion of the old People's Drug Store warehouse into DC government offices, and the construction of the major package sorting FedEx facility on the north side. Another large commercial enterprise will soon be added on formerly residential properties in the wedge between North Capitol and O Streets and NYAve. It will soon be fueled even further on the south side by the development by GSA of the full block facing the brand new NYAve MetroRail station, (accessed from Florida Avenue) including the new federal headquarters for the ATF.

This six-lane, virtually undivided (just a narrow curb-high median) section of NYAve, currently handles some 60,000 vpd (as Zone 3) essentially in a flat "valley" nominally 55 feet above sea level, with traffic again expected to rise to some 34% to 81,000 by 2025 with the proposed avenue changes. Equally important, however, is that traffic on the undivided six-lane Florida Avenue is expected to increase 74% northwest-bound from 37,000 to 64,000 vpd, and 77% southeast-bound from 31,000 to 55,000 vpd. There is also a very large traffic exchange between the two avenues, as much as 30% during peak hours. Florida Avenue northward is already over capacity, and will become so southward as well. And the intersection is further complicated by the nearby traverse of 1stStNE, which results in overlapping traffic and traffic signals.

The photo below was taken from under the Florida Ave railroad underpass just south its intersection with NYAve. NARPAC subsequently recommends continuing this underpass under NYAve and Eckington Street beyond it, resurfacing between the two buildings background center. It might be noted that the new-looking section of bridge shown at the top of the photo is actually the new section of bridge over Florida Avenue for the new bicycle trail:

acknowledging the I-395 "regional traffic"

Planned redevelopments and zonal distinctions are complicated here by the very major (and NARPAC supported) proposal to eliminate the I-395 surface-merge with NYAve west of New Jersey Avenue (hence in Zone 6) by continuing the four-lane, divided traffic tunnel (from which I-395 traffic emerges) eastward under NYAve and under the "residential hill" defined as Zone 5 (between NJAve and North Capitol Street) only to surface in the middle of NYAve before it reaches 1stStNE. From here it rises eastward to carry its "interstate" traffic over a bridge across Florida Ave, merging "up the hill" with NYAve. This has two major and somewhat troubling (to NARPAC, at least) aspects:

First, the planners are forced to eliminate the existing North Capitol Street underpass which is now quite heavily used. This is necessary to make room for the new I-395 tunnel under NYAve, but it creates a new surface intersection with "local" (but not "regional") NYAve traffic. That "regional" component of the traffic crossing Zone 4 amounted to some 70% of the total in 2003, and is projected to grow to 80% by 2025. Even more surprising, that I-395 traffic volume will supposedly grow 82% from its recent level of 44,600 to 81,000 vpd., in good measure presumably, because it can handle that much more thanks to the elimination of the current grade level junction. It is also interesting to note that this "regional" traffic is not so rush hour variable. The morning rush is only 59% inbound, and only 57% outbound in the afternoon. While this makes routine AM/PM lane-switching less important, it suggests greater difficulty handling a major urban evacuation.

Second, the "local" traffic between Florida Avenue and the Convention Center is now in separate grade-level lanes which cannot readily "mix". Complicated by a demand for curbside parking for a short distance "over the hill", these lanes become less utilitarian, and cannot react to the larger AM/PM rush hour bias (72% in, 74% out). This is discussed further under Zone 5.

Third, there is no reason to believe that most of the trucks are "regional", even though most of the cars may be "local" commuters. Trucks are likely to be turning off (or back onto) NYAve at every major intersection that allows them to penetrate the city to their one or several destinations. Those turning intersections must be designed to accommodate large trucks efficiently.

The cost estimate for this tunnel and local street restoration comes to a resounding $400.6M, including $84.2M for expanded rights of way, $50M for engineering, and $326.4M for actual construction. This is a full 48% of the total estimated costs of $955M.

back to Zone 4

In addition to adding the tunnel and removing the North Capitol Street underpass, the planners intend to "improve the Florida Avenue intersection to meet local and regional traffic needs and provide additional turning movements", "enhance pedestrian connections to better serve neighborhoods, Metro and Florida Avenue development", and provide "special 'identity focal points' to create active pedestrian spaces and help to tie Florida, North Capitol, and NYAve together", whatever that may mean.

Three options are sketched out to separate Florida traffic from (some of) New York Ave traffic. The first suggests an "artistic tunnel" for a six-lane Florida avenue passing under a 4-lane (??) New York Avenue, which leaves "local" NYAve traffic crossing at grade level. The sketch indicates that NYAve has been elevated, not Florida depressed. The second option is an "artistic bridge" which appears to differ only in adding sidewalks to Florida Avenue as it passes under NYAve, plus making a dramatic statement out of what would otherwise be your typical overpass. The third option shows a "traditional bridge" that differs primarily by adding center supports under the bridge, and different-looking bridge abutment towers that repeat motifs from the Convention Center down the road. This option is shown below, with an insert showing the Convention Center motifs:

All three options show a six-lane Florida Avenue under a four-lane NYAve. With nothing but sharp corner turns for traffic transferring from one avenue to the other, it is difficult to discern the added "turning movements" whatever that may mean. Furthermore, NARPAC feels obliged to note again, there is not as truck, a bus, or a van illustrated in any of the sketches, and the number of through lanes appears to be less, certainly not more, than exist now. Finally, none of the three sketches, all variations on the same theme, offer any imaginative solutions to the complexities added by the close presence of 1stStNE: it is apparently simply eliminated as a separate cross street for vehicles or pedestrians.

The costs of constructing a bridge at Florida Avenue, plus fixing up the railroad overpass, are estimated at $124.8M, including some $17M for engineering.

Zone 5: "Become a Neighborhood Avenue"

To NARPAC, the least credible segment of this transportation planners' vision is this attempt to revitalize a "neighborhood (residential?) avenue" between North Capitol and the present terminus of I-395. It runs for a total of 2000 feet, complete with streetside sidewalks and curbside parking, 13 vehicle entry and exit points (NoCapSt; N St (2); Tyler House entrance; 1stStNW; M St East; Kirby St; M St West; New Jersey Ave; 3rd St; Bible Way Church parking entrance; I- 395; and 4th St), and at the very most, a total of 80 to 100 front doors and front stoops.

As a matter of curiosity, NARPAC checked out the (already inflated) 2006 property assessments for the 26 well-tended row houses on the north side on NYAve between North Capitol and 1stStNW on "residential hill". Altogether they sit on only half an acre of land whose value is assessed at $2.2M, with improvements now reaching $6.2M. Multiplying this by four still yields a total value of only $25M. It may also be of interest that 42% of these homes are rented, and close to 20% have changed hands within the past few years, six for between $200K to $400K. Hardly a community of long-time, deeply-invested neighbors. They are pictured below:

Traffic-wise, an increase of 53% in "local" traffic on NYAve is expected to pass between North Capitol Street, and Mt. Vernon Square, from 23,500 to 36,000 vpd by 2025. Rumbling beneath the avenue in the new tunnel by 2025 will be 81,000 vpd, which will surely equate to more than one per second during the rush hours. How will those numbers project for the next 30 years? Surely modern residential buildings (replacing the old ones currently there) would be far more habitable in the long run, and could readily be designed to include off-street parking, as well as off-main street front doors! NARPAC is convinced that the current quaint homes in Zone 5 should not seriously compromise the redevelopment of NYAve, and that the substitution of new higher density urban dwellings would be preferable, but only if such a demand really exists. Pressures to re-zone these two blocks are certain to grow, and may in fact be applied by the newer homeowners (and speculators?).

Of equal interest is the (questionable?) proposal to eliminate the North Capitol Street underpass which now accommodates some 29,100 vpd with a strong AM/PM directional shift, and a relatively small share turning onto/off NYAve. The planners project that north/south traffic on NoCapSt will grow by 62% by 2025, reinstating an at-grade intersection with significantly higher cross traffic than east/west then-"local-only" traffic on NYAve. NARPAC recommends a solution be devised which retains the present underpass and accommodates the proposed I-395 tunnel, even if there is no direct exchange between the two routes at this intersection.

Lastly the topography of Zone 5 cannot be overlooked. Ground level at North Capitol Street is approximately 60 feet above sea level. On the other side of "the hill", the 4th Street/I-395 junction is about 70 feet. The top of the hill at 1stStNW is over 80 feet. But the elevation where the I-395 tunnel ends just north of K Street is only 45 feet. NARPAC believes it is practical to "thread the needle" by extending the I-395 tunnel north and east at a constant rising slope until it passes at least 10 feet above the surface road atop the North Capitol Street underpass. It should also allow the depression of New Jersey Avenue under NYAve and eliminate that intersection. The oversimplified chart below shows the current situation ("before"), and NARPAC's proposed solution ("after") which is developed further along:

Zone 6: "Become a Downtown Avenue"

The six-zone gamut is completed in the final 2000 feet from 4th Street NW (and the former I-395 junction) down to 7th Street NW, which forms the eastern boundary of the new Convention Center. The existing and planned traffic flow here is as described in the previous section. Here NYAve amounts to a heavily traveled "major urban street" and is much the same as Massachusetts Ave which runs symmetrically up through Northwest. It has essentially the same volume of traffic designated for Zone 5's "neighborhood avenue". It drops gently from a 70 foot elevation at 4th Street to about 65 feet at 7th Street.

For reasons not clear to NARPAC's analysts, the present six-lane, barely divided avenue is reduced by the planners to two lanes in each direction, separated by a more formal median, and with double-tree-lined islands separating the curb from the sidewalks. Apparently, no parking or stopping will be allowed along these three blocks identified as hosting "business" on both sides. At 4th Street, outbound traffic would find residential parking lanes replacing one row of trees as it courses through the newly re-asserted residential neighborhood. In the eyes of the transportation planners, NYAve has now become an "address street" for new mixed-use development. And that's a long way to go from the two remaining residential shells on the north side of NYAve between 5th and 6th Streets shown below:

The southern side of NYAve in Zone 6 is the boundary of the new high density planning effort for the "Mount Vernon Triangle" (once referred to as "NOMA" for "North of Mass Ave) which also incorporates the old Wax Museum site. It should be noted that as part of this new development, in fact an extension of "downtown", K Street will be rejuvenated into a major avenue from Mt. Vernon Square eastward at least as far as easily the World's Ugliest Railroad Underpass. NARPAC would hazard a guess that this extension of DC's most important (and widest) downtown boulevard (in the true sense of the word) is a far better candidate to become a prestigious "address street", while NYAve seems destined to become more of a honky-tonk adjunct to the Convention Center along the same sidewalk.

It should be noted that almost 40% of the total accidents within this study zone are between North Capitol Street and 4th Street NW, presumably due to the larger number of intersections, local traffic, and curbside parking.

The one intriguing element in this plan is the opportunity to create a sizeable new lot just west of the Bible Way Church where I-395 traffic emerged from its tunnel to join NYAve. This could add perhaps a full acre of taxable land to DC's limited inventory, and permit reconnecting L Street from NYAve eastward across North Capitol to 1stStNE. It is, in fact, a somewhat larger parcel than all the 26 row houses on the north side of "residential hill", including another set of houses facing north on N Street, and a few facing west on 1stStNW. Perhaps they should be redeveloped together.

The planners estimate $41M for redesigning and reconstructing the three blocks of NYAve outbound from 7th to 4th Streets, NW, to sustain 33% less traffic but roughly 300% more trees.

Overall Effectiveness of Planners' Preferred Options:

The study's "Task 4: Traffic Analysis" is an interesting effort to estimate the impact of traffic growth if a) nothing is done to improve the streets; and b) the planners' choices are in-place by 2025. There is also an interesting excursion to explore what happens if I-395 is extended along NYAve and to join the inner end of the Washington-Baltimore Expressway. The model used involves an iterative process, which, like most drivers, keep exploring their travel route options until all are equally unattractive. Hence, the "freeway" option attracts substantially more vehicles (almost double on many segments) and appears to have been discarded for this reason! Instead, lesser expansion is proposed, and as a result, the major intersections do not (quite) reach serious "overcapacity" within the next 20 years.

It seems to NARPAC that the planners are proposing a solution that is heavy on landscaping, appearance and neighborhood friendliness, but one that will be chockablock within a very few years after its 13-year reconstruction is finished! Unfortunately, the study documents do not make clear just how robust the planned growth for traffic into and through DC is compared to other estimates of regional growth. NARPAC, with its normal skepticism, concludes that the proposed changes are probably at best marginal, and overly influenced by neighborhood fear of change and inevitable urban growth.

return to the top of the pageNARPAC Alternative

Mercifully, NARPAC has not redesigned all six separate "zones". But its objectives would be much simpler and more functional:

Plan to modernize NYAve primarily as a commercial/industrial/commuter artery from the Pr. George's County Line to DC's expanding "Downtown" area at a pace consistent with expected regional growth so that it can:

a) continue its essential function as the primary "service road" for heavy vehicles into and out of the nation's capital;

b) serve as the eastern extension of the never-completed I-395 for regional and commuter traffic,

c) exert a minimal negative impact on the viable nearby neighborhoods from the standpoints of safety, connectivity, adverse environment or visual offensiveness; and d) where possible, encourage the use of other nearby streets and arteries for scenic parks, pedestrian and personal transport systems, artistic structures, and neighborhood residential living.

We suggest that there need be only two planning segments along this 4.6 mile, high-traffic artery, with the dividing line at Florida Avenue:

o the Outer Segment would be essentially "freeway" with planned growth to eight travel lanes plus various secondary lanes for on/off ramps and access to bordering businesses; There would be no at-grade intersections, and the center four lanes would be "reversible" between ingoing and outgoing flow. We think it would make sense to depress the Montana and Bladensburg cross streets (including the junction with West Virginia Avenue) under the main artery (even if it means elevating NYAve somewhat), and that there should be some sort of single composite traffic exchange for the two crossings. Access to the businesses on the south side of NYAve along its "plateau" would now come from reconfigured local streets, including Brentwood Parkway, from Florida or West Virginia Avenues. "Beautification" would be subordinated to capacity, environment and safety. Pedestrian and personal transport trails would be elsewhere. Overlooks would be limited to those available from the planned Metropolitan Branch trail (already completed under the main railroad underpass, across the depressed Florida Avenue, and beside the new Metro station.

o the Inner Segment would begin to differentiate "local" traffic (with destinations within the city) from "regional traffic" (passing on through), but would retain eight travel lanes until the "through traffic" enters its newly extended I-395 tunnel, and six travel lanes thereafter. Some latitude in lane reversibility would be maintained. We envision a three-level interchange at Florida Avenue, with NYAve elevated all the way to west of North Capitol Street, while Florida Avenue would be depressed from before the railroad underpass northwest until beyond Eckington Street. Current grade-level would provide a robust "exchange plaza" for traffic between the two major avenues (a somewhat simplified version of the proposed Bladensburg "tight diamond) as well as incorporating local traffic from Eckington Street and a re-aligned 1stStNE (as suggested in one option by the planning team). NARPAC's low-budget sketch is shown below: (NYAve in yellow, Florida Ave in blue)

The elevated section of NYAve between the railroad overpass and "residential hill" (see above) would involve considerable "artistic engineering" with the hope of looking more like the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge that the old Southeast Freeway. The large area under the bridge, i.e., the current NYAve roadbed, could provide local access and "connectivity "as well as a significant amount of high-density, robotic parking. Between 1stStNE and NoCapSt, one could easily park 750 cars diagonally, nose-to-nose, in 3-level racks (see crude cutaway section above. All would bel within (relatively) easy walking distance of the new New York Avenue Metrorail station, and all the office/commercial buildings now planned to line each side of the avenue.

Driving west, the five-lane entrance cut to the I-395 tunnel would begin immediately after crossing over North Capitol Street, and become a covered, downward sloping tunnel before passing under 1stStNW. Two "local lanes" would follow the current NYAve trace over the top of "residential hill" and down the other side towards Mt. Vernon Square. Parking for the (new?) buildings lining each side of the hill (see above discussion re Zone 5) could be provided in the new median above the tunnel, if needed more than trees. Traffic entering the tunnel from Prince George's County line would have had no traffic lights to contend with inside DC. (NYAve in yellow, North Capitol Street in blue, stacked parking in cut-out under NYAve):

If it is necessary or desirable to keep "hilltop residential zoning" in the rectangular area defined by NJAve, and NoCapSt. at its ends, and M St and N St on its sides, rebuilding that area , including "air rights" above the proposed extension of the I-395 tunnel, could be a fascinating neighborhood redevelopment. In addition, the Tyler House parking lot could be decked over to provide additional parking and attractive new front access to re-built buildings now facing NYAve from the south. The housing on the north side of NYAve should be rebuilt to face M Street with parking underneath. Any (truly) displaced residents could easily be re-absorbed into as many as 250 (?) higher density city-view condos. Those redevelopments should easily pay for themselves, and perhaps pay for part of the transportation reconstruction as well.

(It may also be possible to provide rush-hour and/or evacuation access to/from the new section of the I-395 tunnel from/to the western end of NYAve (the Planners' Zone 6), but we have not tried to design this.)

what about mass transit?

o NARPAC is always frustrated by the lack of interest in extending Metrorail inside DC. In our long-range world, direct links are needed from a) Cheverley to U Street, via NYAve, as a major part of developing rail service to Annapolis, and b) from Stadium/Armory to U Street via NYAve as the eastern side of a new inner "Circle Line" (as in London) skirting Downtown. Both could well impact the area around the new NYAve station. (See our discussion elsewhere of suggestions for robust metrorail expansion

return to the top of the page considering new technologies

Finally, NARPAC encourages the planners to include some of the emerging technology options associated with long-term transportation, particularly urban transportation, issues. We would include the following, to name a few: lower emissions, quieter, vehicle engines; traffic and parking monitoring, controlling, enforcing, (and taxing) using RFID's (embedded in license plates?); potential use of robots to speed up curbside pick-ups and deliveries; converting transportation infrastructure usage into a net revenue-producer; more efficient, variable use of existing traffic lanes and total right-of-way width; exploiting the third dimension, as in "urban decks", "elevated sidewalks", "air rights", and "underground parking (dirt rights)"; high-density robotic parking systems; "smart curbs" (indented, monitored, and remotely metered) for controlling the surge in delivery vehicles; and new developments in "personal transport systems" (viz., segways).

Perhaps the most interesting of these in relationship to NYAve would be the possibility of making all major commercial "gateways" to the city into E-Z Pass-like toll roads. Surely this would present an interesting forward-looking opportunity to use consultants and federal study money to explore various implementation strategies.

making America's love affair profitable

NARPAC truly believes that vehicle ownership and use in America is an undeniable privilege, and in most cases a demonstrable necessity. However, since these intrusive vehicles require, use, and wear out public space and infrastructure, they should and can easily pay their way for using up and upgrading urban transportation infrastructure. Hence, we would fully support any/all efforts to employ and automate: a) charging $A to $C per hour that every truck over X to Z tons is inside the city limits; b) expanding speeding, red light-running controls and fines; c) increasing parking fees and fines; d) charging $B cents per minute for every delivery truck temporarily parked in restricted, indented-curb parking spaces; e) charging $D to $F per 8-hour day for every private out-of-state vehicle parked in current old-fashioned off-street parking lots, depending on its size and fuel consumption; f) charging $D/2 to $F/2 for every in- or out-of-state vehicle parked/stored in new city-owned high-density robotic parking facilities; and g) establishing a higher property tax rate for any vehicle(s)-owning homeowners without demonstrable off-street parking capacity.

In this case, the only new technology required is no longer untried but in increasing use in the US and elsewhere. It is a cross between earlier aircraft IFF systems, current air traffic control transponders, automated bar code readers in all stores and on all railroad freight cars, the "smart- cards" transit riders "swipe" over metro turnstyles, and the latest automated EZ-Pass toll-taking devices used more and more widely by American vehicles for all major roads, bridges and tunnels.

The "transponders" that give off their code number when pulsed now cost a fraction of a dollar. The "receivers" that record that code number and transmit it to computers costs less that $50 (perhaps no more than a parking meter?). Those receivers can be made an integral part of typical overhead traffic signs. The transmission of the code number to the resolving computers is now virtually wireless. The computers required are no bigger than commercial desk-top units, and the billing systems are as automated as in the credit card industry. The result is that not only Big Brother, but even Uncle Tony can now know where that particular transponder is, and a great deal about it: who owns the vehicle; where it's registered; how much it weighs; how big it is (dimensionally); how much fuel it consumes; and, of course, how much toxic gas (and even noise) it emits. There remains only the need for local legislation to require that all vehicles entering DC carry the transponders (NARPAC suggests embedding them in license plates in our analysis of automated parking garages), and to set a realistic schedule of fees.

Without pretending to have designed all the details, NARPAC does have a vision for how very substantial revenues might be generated from New York Avenue's busy traffic. Consider three primary aspects of this technique: first a "toll" is charged when any tagged vehicle enters DC, just as the EZ-Pass system does. Second, the time of entry can be logged, and later matched to the time of exit through any other instrumented "gate" in the system. Third, the same system can be used to bill the vehicle for time spent in parking garages or other designated locations, such as reserved curbside delivery points. In addition, these tags lend themselves for registering traffic offenses such as illegal parking, blocking the progress of public vehicles, speeding, and even red- light running. Furthermore, varying rates can be applied depending on the size, weight, and environmental damage wrought by any particular vehicle type. The table below shows the potential revenue generating potential of such a system. Six categories of vehicles are chosen to run the gamut from lightweight, fuel-efficient urban friendly cars weighing from 1200 to 3500 pounds, up through the various common "eighteen wheelers" (tractors with 40-50 foot two-axle trailers) weighing between 20 and 40 tons.

The "tolls" column indicates the entry toll charged, not far different from the bridge tolls used on bridges around New York. The"In Town" column shows typical "meter readings" for the time spent by that vehicle within the DC limits. The "OK Pkg" column shows the net revenues from the average time spent in authorized parking spots. These numbers seem low because a good share of the traffic was simply "passing through" town. Some plug numbers are used to guess at the number of traffic rules that might be violated by various vehicle classes in conjunction with the fines levied (also by vehicle class). The lavender column shows the average revenues that might be generated by each class of vehicles in one day. The average city-friendly car might be charged just under $9, while the average huge trailer truck delivering puppy chow in bulk to pet stores in Georgetown might be charged $80. That might equate to 0.2 cents per pound of product delivered, which should not undermine the city's economy. or its puppies!

And finally, the green column shows the product in millions of dollars of a) the average daily fees times b) the number of vehicles estimated in each category on New York Avenue in recent years; times c) the number of days per year in a five-day week for trucks and vans, and a six-day week for cars. The numbers really add up. Using these primitive guesses, it is not fanciful to gross a total of almost $250 million annually. Surely some share of that could be applied to the costs of upgrading New York Avenue and its associated nearby road network.


The current high-traffic uses for New York Avenue make it a major functional artery for the city which should grow as the region and its core city grow together. Fanciful notions of converting it into some sort of tree-lined, better landscaped park for the greater good of its fading surrounding neighborhoods are not only unrealistic but counterproductive. In addition to being a major commuter route, it is in fact both the unfinished extension of I-395 for regional traffic, and the major "service entrance" to the city's booming economy. It should be modernized to do those three jobs better, and possibly turned into a 2lst century fully-automated "toll road" that more than pays its way for our national capital city.

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page This page was updated on July 5, 2005

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