Episode 006 of the FixWMATA Podcast was recorded in January, 2018 and features news and an interview with Ward 1 DC Council candidate Jamie Sycamore (@sycamore4dc).
Link to Ian Sutherland's Music: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/ian_sutherland
Text of this episode:
I’m Chris Barnes and this… is the FixWMATA Podcast
This week we take a quick look back at the news, take a look ahead at the week of meetings, and then I sit down with DC Council Ward 1 candidate Jamie Sycamore to talk about his ideas to fix WMATA.
In WMATA news this week…
DC has finalized it’s nominations for the new Metro Safety Commission. The Commission is a tri-state effort that replaces the former Tri-State Oversight Committee and the finalists include several with transportation or safety backgrounds but a few that honestly have people scratching their heads.
Metro is looking at turning a current parking lot at Deanwood station into more development saying the parking there doesn’t bring in the riders but hopefully a mix of residences and businesses at the site will bring in more.
Metro track inspectors who were fired over “falsified reports” are still trying to get their jobs back after being fired a year ago. The firings were a result of audits that found track work wasn’t being done and that contributed to a derailment on the Orange Line in July of 2016.
And this week marked the 3rd anniversary of the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident that took the life of rider Carol Glover. Many of us took a moment to reflect on the loss of life and rededicate ourselves to holding WMATA accountable.
These stories and more can be found on FixWMATA dot com where new stories are added throughout the week.
Looking ahead here are just a few of the opportunities we have to get involved with fixing WMATA this week:
On Tuesday the 16th the Accessibility Advisory Committee’s MetroAccess Subcommittee will meet at WMATA Headquarters from 4 PM to 6 PM.
On Wednesday the Riders’ Advisory Council’s Program, Projects and Planning Committee will meet from 6 PM to 7 PM and their Safety and Security Committee will meet from 6:30 PM to 7:30 PM.
And on Thursday the RAC’s Budget and Finance Committee will meet from 6:30 PM to 7:30 PM.
All Riders’ Advisory Council and Accessibility Advisory Committee meetings take place at WMATA Headquarters at 600 5th Street NW and are open to the public.
These events and others with more information can be found on FixWMATA.com under Calendar.
Jamie Sycamore is a DC Ward 1 resident running for DC Council this year. He’s an American Sign Language Interpreter, Disabilities Advocate and LGBTQ Activist. Among Jamie’s Transportation and Traffic action items are more bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and digital signage at all Metro bus stops in the District.
I sat down with Jamie this week in Ward 1 to find out more about his concerns for WMATA…
[begin interview audio]
[FixWMATA] Jamie, thank you for sitting down with me today. How are you?
[Jamie] Good, I’m doing great. Thank you so much for coming out to meet me.
[F] Awesome. What was your motivation to run for DC Council?
[J] So, a lot of my work is in advocacy and working with people with disabilities. I started trying to lobby the council and lobby for better accessibility to services, especially for mental health and for physical disabilities and I was tired of getting – forgive the pun – but falling on deaf ears. So I started this campaign because I believe that there’s a gap in understanding between what the Council feels that people of this community needs – specifically to Ward 1 – and what the community actually needs. I feel like it’s a lot of “mother and father knows best” mindset. So what is it that we actually need that’s being ignored? It’s affordable housing. It’s affordable and reliable transportation so they can gain access to jobs in and around the community. And also to have green spaces for themselves and their families. Just to have an overall affordable lifestyle. It’s to develop the communities that we have – not to force the communities we don’t want out. That’s one of my big things and obviously this is talking about WMATA so transit’s a huge issue – which is actually one of my campaign issues that I have which I’ve noticed none of my other opponents seem to have. And it’s kinda the 3rd rail of DC and regional politics. No one really knows what to do with it because the buck really doesn’t stop anywhere. There’s no one group or one person that makes all the ultimate decisions. So this is why this issue is so vitally important. We can’t continue to kick the can down the road.
[F] OK. I don’t think I could have said that better. How often do you ride the bus or rail?
[J] Daily. Multiple times daily. I do not have a car. I rely heavily on the buses and Metro. So as a freelance interpreter I go from job to job all the time. And often times right in the middle of the day – not during rush hour. So that freelancing lifestyle requires me to go from point A to point B and often off of rush hour – this is not for me a red line, a green line, a yellow line, a blue line, an orange line, a silver line – it’s a LIFE line. And I’m sure it is for most DC residents. And when you cut off my life line you cut off my life support. And it just becomes the beginning of the end for me because if I’m late for a job that puts other people behind that means I won’t be assigned to this position again. I won’t be asked to go back to work for them because of the delays that I’m facing. I shouldn’t be facing a 15-20 minute delay in my time when my time is money. And I don’t think that WMATA puts your non-traditional 9-5 workers in their mind at all.
[F] Yeah, the nights and the weekends – everyone just assumes Metro is unusable during nights and weekends but you have people who rely on it to feed their family.
[J] Oh, yeah. It’s insane.
[F] So you have 3 Metrorail stations and several busy bus lines that run through your district of Ward 1. They include Shaw Howard, U Street station, Columbia Heights station and busy bus lines that are running along 14th street, 16th street, Georgia Avenue – and that’s just 3 of the big ones. What WMATA concerns have you heard from your constituents and what are your concerns for transit in DC?
[J] And then we also have Georgia Avenue which is just outside of Ward 1. It’s literally a block away and a lot of Ward 1 residents use that as well. I think Ward 1 is actually quite unique in the fact that we are the very center of the District. So we get a lot of congestion – it’s not even necessarily from our residents as far as traffic is concerned. So we have a lot of commuters that come through our communities to get to their destination and also on the weekends we have this wonderful service industry. We have bars, we have night clubs, we have U Street, we have 18th Street. And we have to continue to provide access to these services by keeping Metro open later and trying to get them out and running.
[F] What you’re hearing is we’re not able to be a 24-hour city or have a nightlife because of restrictions of Metro. Otherwise you’re putting in Ubers or they’re drinking and driving.
[J] And also we do actually have one of the lowest car ownerships in the district in Ward 1. Many of our residents depend on every mode of transportation possible like Uber and Lyfts and bikes. So I take these concerns very seriously and if we’re talking about specifically – I’ll go into 3 different categories or rather 4 different categories – one is buses. Bus lanes are huge. There’s a lot of pushback as far as parking is concerned. There’s a log of DDOT studies that show what can be done as far as bus lanes. What I want to do is I want to make sure we provide dedicated bus lanes. I think that’s a good compromise and that’s something I really want to explore. There’s one on the corner of 16th and U – that’s right on the borders of Ward 1 and Ward 2 – which to my knowledge doesn’t function. And I think the reason for why these are important is because it will actually encourage ridership by making sure that these buses can actually cut in front of traffic to make sure that we can more effectively use our bus time. And also on top of that I hear a lot of people talking about – especially people with disabilities – about the accessibility of our bus stops. So many people live a little bit further off the grid that don’t have direct access to Metro. Who are further than 2 or 3 blocks away so they depend on these bus stops to get them where they’re going. And if you don’t have accessible bus stops that’s a hinderance. That’s a huge hinderance on people. I do have to say kudos to WMATA though for just recently adding the express bus on 14th Street. I was unable to make it unfortunately because I was at work at the time. But I think that was something that was desperately needed. However, what is the effectiveness of an express bus when you sit in traffic with everyone else? So I think we need to start taking bolder steps as far as the buses are concerned. As far as rail is concerned: currently the Yellow Line is ending at Mt Vernon – that’s a huge issue. And they’re only running 7 and a half trains per hour which is roughly every 8 minutes. Why are we not continuing the Yellow Line? We should be going all the way up to Greenbelt with the Yellow Line. For anything rush hour service. I know they tried it a couple years back. Let’s make it permanent. Let’s make that permanent. If you ever take the Metro from Shaw Howard all the way up to Georgia Avenue it’s incredibly packed because you have to off board at Mt Vernon and get back on and it’s a real big hassle for a lot of the residents here.
[F] I actually used to have that problem because I used to live in Navy Yard and work in Silver Spring so I would take the Green Line all the way up and after Mt Vernon everyone floods onto the train because the Yellow Line didn’t go all the way to Fort Totten. At minimum it should go up to Fort Totten for the Red Line connection.
[J] Yes, I agree. By extending the Yellow Line we can actually increase the frequency of the trains to what – once every 4 minutes? I think that would be a huge benefit to the people of Ward 1. And then my 3rd category is MetroAccess. Yay for MetroAccess! I’m so happy we have really high quality vans and equipment. However, you’re only as good as the people who are running that. We have huge problems with punctuality, dispatch, communications, scheduling and zoning of how far MetroAccess can go. That’s one of my biggest concerns I hear from people with disabilities across the District. I think that also having people with permanent disabilities having to rectifying every 3 years is an incredible burden on them. I don’t think people realize how often people have to actually prove their disability over and over and over again. It’s incredibly cumbersome to have each individual form doing that. I think we should have a one time certification process for people with permanent disabilities. Temporary disability is a whole other issue which we don’t really need to discuss because it’s temporary. I also think we should also be having a closer working relationship with other transit agencies in the region for MetroAccess. For example ADA Paratransit in Frederick. Mobility Link in Baltimore. Because I don’t think people realize people with disabilities love to travel. Just like the rest of us we have to get places – we have to go to work. And also working with the MARC and VRE making sure that going out to College Park that someone in a wheelchair can access that because you can’t access that. You have to go up these incredibly steep stairs. There’s no level Metro access. Also, kudos to Metro for that for having level access on that. But as far as the MARC is concerned that’s a huge mobility issue. So I guess the biggest in general complaints I keep hearing is that it caters to the 9-5 demographic for both Metro and bus services. The lack of available transport in the evening really hits hard on our local businesses. You see people running for the Metro at 11:50 whatever and trying to get these Metros home and now our bars are open to 2, 3 in the morning and they have no one to serve. So what’s the point of keeping these businesses open and people can’t even live in the city because it’s unaffordable. And we have to compete now with places like Tysons Corner, Bethesda Row, all sorts of places opening up in Arlington. There’s a lot of competition now and Metro not maintaining their stuff just hurts the District. And another thing is negative balances on SmarTrips. I’ve noticed that Metro really burdens people of color, the poor, the disabled, and people on fixed incomes. We should allow for at least a small negative balance. I know when I first started out as a professional I couldn’t afford to travel so that negative balance was a blessing to me because I had to actually go through with a negative balance and I didn’t know if I’d go back in because I couldn’t afford to get out. That’s just a really awful precedent to set. It just seems like it’s just so thankless. Let’s have free transfer from Metro bus to rail or rail to Metro bus. Because again – even on the East side of the river we have what, 6 Metro stations? I think that’s it. And many of these people again don’t have access to Metro directly so they have to depend on the bus. And it’s a matter of whether they can accept a job or not. That’s just not right or acceptable.
[F] The next question is a question I ask everyone and you’ve gone into a lot of detail so far so maybe we need to take this to a broader scale. The question I ask everyone is: what is wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[J] That’s a really big question. Honestly – whenever I go into the Metro system I always hear and see 2 phrases. Number 1 is “Back2Good” and “if you see something say something”. Back2Good – OK, how about we go Back2Basics? A sign is so simple. Getting more signage I think would help so much just because you can look at the – adding more signage and make sure people know what’s going on. It’s incredibly useful. Having 1 sign on a platform 20 feet away is not helpful to anyone. That’s one of the basic things. Just keep it simple. Keep It Simple, Stupid. You know – why are we over complicating this? Communication. Communication. Communication. It’s one thing to send a tweet – it’s another thing to have a display that says “I’m sorry, the Red Line is…. The Green Line is… etc, etc” that it’s delayed. And give a reason why. Tell me why it’s ok so I don’t feel so frustrated that I’m just completely left in the dark.
[F] So communication. I kinda want to break down this a little bit. Communication and what you’re saying is what people have been saying for a very long time. And Metro I think started hearing it but didn’t follow through. We now have signs at almost all the station manager kiosks – not signs actually it’s a TV where they can change the message depending on what’s going on in the system. But once you get past that station manager booth and you’re standing on a platform you’re at the mercy really of the announcements – the audible announcements. So, first of all, if you’re deaf you’re not hearing anything that’s going on.
[J] Exactly. It goes back to accessibility. Again, that’s one of the huge things I always emphasize. And then again it’s just like what you were talking about “if you see something say something”. Well riders have been seeing and hearing problems for years and they keep telling them and it’s still not being recognized. It’s so frustrating. And knowing that there’s the RAC and it’s not being paid attention to and lack of trying to get people the board and delaying the votes – and it makes me question: do you really value the opinions of your customers? Because we need to go back to the service industry – let’s go to a restaurant. If you go a restaurant and you get bad service you’re not going back again. Unfortunately WMATA has a monopoly on this. There is no other option for many people. There are some people who have the luxury of ordering an Uber. Of getting a Capital Bikeshare. Of owning a bike. But for many people they don’t have that option. And I think WMATA really needs to start taking responsibility for that. And that’s one of the most incredibly frustrating things for me.
[F] Just the same complaints over and over? I see that on a daily basis and I agree. I think most politicians and riders agree there needs to be a change in how WMATA is funded. The current DC Council is calling for an increase in sales taxes to create dedicated funding for WMATA. Are you in support of this plan or do you have other ideas of how we should fund Metro?
[J] So I believe it’s a .75 sales tax increase?
[F] I think it’s a .25.
[J] I’m not incredibly knowledgeable on this legislation but what I do know is that the process should be completely reversed. DC cannot act alone on this. We have 3 other jurisdictions – we have Maryland, Virginia and the Federal Government.
[F] And then you break it all down. Then you have Fairfax County and Montgomery County…
[J] So there’s a lot of stakeholders here and DC acting alone does not help anybody. What we need to do is we need to reverse this process. One of the things that I really want to advocate for is going out to Richmond, going out to Annapolis, going to the Montgomery County Council and actually lobbying and getting together all these lawmakers and come up with an actual viable solution. You know you have a governor in Maryland who’s not been supportive of this and we really just need to come together as lawmakers and really discuss what the benefit would be for all of us. And actually convince that lawmaker in southern Virginia that yes, having dedicated funding to WMATA will actually benefit you as a state in the long run and I think that’s what’s lost on a lot of lawmakers who are out in these rural areas.
[F] The DC Council has basically said we’re going to put in a sales tax increase IF Maryland and Virginia do the exact same thing – so basically it’s a dead bill before it was even made. Because they’re not going to do that.
[J] It’s that’s a waste of Council time and resources. Why are we wasting time writing these bills and voting on it.
[F] It’s drawing a line in the sand. But I think that line should have been – we’re going to dedicate $500M from DC to Metro, Maryland and Virginia you need a agree to do the exact same and we don’t care how you come up with that money. We are just going to all agree that there’s a dedicated amount whether you do that in sales tax or you add on something to car rentals – however you decide to do that but this is what we’re agreeing on.
[J] Well that comes almost directly from the Ray LaHood report, is that correct? It sounds so simple but enacting that is just a nightmare. I just think we need to get out of our silos. We work in silos and we’re expecting other people to just kinda blindly follow and this is not how laws and legislation works, especially when you’re working with multiple different jurisdictions.
[F] I kinda kidded on Twitter once or twice or maybe 10 times – that really we should lock people from Maryland, Virginia, DC, and the Federal Government – lock them in a room, with catering, for a weekend and hammer out all these issues. How do we fund Metro? How do we govern Metro? How do we hold them accountable? Just lock them in a room for a weekend but everyone acting autonomously is not going to add up to a solution or governance.
You have an extensive past of supporting accessibility and you’ve mentioned a lot of accessibility issues so far. You yourself are an American Sign Language interpreter. If elected to the DC Council how would you fight for those in DC who have accessibility needs?
[J] That’s a great question. So – bus stops need to improve.
[F] And that is a DC issue because Metro stops there but they’re actually owned by DC.
[J] By the District, correct. Waiting 35 minutes for a bus is not acceptable. There’s way too many people – the elderly for example – who can’t go out in the cold for 35 minutes. Who don’t have the technology or the know-how to access this information so they just stand outside and hope and pray for a bus and when you don’t have a digital sign that tells you when the next bus is going to come – we need to do something more for that. For just the everyday person. It’s not always about a person with a disability it’s thinking about the small guy but benefitting the entire whole. It’s basically the idea of universal design. I think we need to make sure we keep people with disabilities and people who are disenfranchised at the forefront and design around that. Just like when you talk about curb-cuts. Curb-cuts were not a thing when sidewalks were first built but then when the ADA came along and demanded curb-cuts well now we see mothers with strollers who can go up, grandmother with groceries can go up without a problem. People can ride their bikes on the sidewalk – which I don’t recommend. But there’s things that we can do very simply because we made things accessible. If WMATA bus, rail, whatever cannot fill that gap what we need to start doing – the District government needs to start doing – is looking into public/private partnerships. Possibly giving incentives to Uber drivers, Lyft drivers – and Uber and Lyft is a whole other issue which we don’t need to get into. But providing some sort of public/private partnership and providing incentives for these companies to work with the District government so that we can provide affordable alternate transportation options for the elderly, for mothers, for people with disabilities. And try to go from that way. I think a lot of the time we as lawmakers in general tend to get stuck on one way and trying to work within those limitations and I think we need to start really thinking outside the box.
[F] Yeah, I go to the Accessibility Advisory Council meetings and a lot of what you’re saying is exactly what people in the accessibility community are saying. It’s amazing to me that people don’t understand that keeping a fixed-route option open to everyone – making sure the platform and train are level so someone in a wheelchair can get on or off a train – stops them from going to MetroAccess. If you need MetroAccess that’s fantastic – I’m glad it’s there for you. But from a Metro budget point of view it’s by far the more expensive option so keeping buses, keeping rail accessible – absolutely a concern.
[J] I do have to give credit where credit is due – Metro does a great job at trying to make sure we are aware of elevator outages and things like that. There obviously can be more accessibility issues like screens that can make things more accessible that way. But at least we’re not London where we have to say “mind the gap” you know?
[F] It does go back to basics. If your train pulls into a station and you cannot roll your wheelchair off the train you now are going to the next station and getting off and waiting 20 minutes to come back to the other station and hope you’re at a level point. There are basic things that need to be done…
[J] And would say that one man’s step is another man’s mountain. It happens all the time. And I see it all the time with clients with multiple disabilities – specifically in wheelchairs and people who use canes and crutches.
[F] One of the first things I learned when I jumped into the accessibility issues was – you know you and I may throw on a jacket and grab our bag to go to work – for someone who has accessibility needs it’s not that simple. You’re basically getting ready to go to war. Do I have all of my medication I need for today? Do I know my route? Do I know the times of things? If something happens and the bus doesn’t show up what’s my backup plan? It’s a whole other world for people who can’t just grab and go.
[J] I think that’s one of the problems that we’re facing here in DC is that education is not available. One of my big things also is with dockless bikes. I love dockless bikes – I think they’re a fantastic idea. However, carless people and people who have no concerns other than themselves leave these bikes strewn all over the place. I’ve had 2 deaf/blind clients now fall and hurt themselves and it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t nice. They walked away with all these bruises and cuts. I just don’t think people understand that and that’s something that really needs to be educated and again that doesn’t just apply to dockless bikes or Metro but. I mean dockless bikes – one just got thrown onto the Metro just last week.
[F] As soon as I started seeing the dockless bikes – which by the way I will come out and say I hate, I hate the dockless bikes – I’m all for Capital Bikeshare, they’re nice, they’re orderly. But the dockless bikes the first thing I thought was “if I’m in a wheelchair this sidewalk has now become an obstacle course.
[J] Certainly. Especially if you’re on a place like New York Avenue. I mean the curbs are already 3 feet high – you can’t just roll your wheelchair into the street. Exactly. It’s terrible.
[F] I want to go back to buses for just a second. You have at least one dedicated bus lane setup in your ward and that’s along Georgia Ave. For many years the city and Metro have pushed for dedicated bus lanes along 16th Street as well but have been met time and time again with opposition by those who want to keep their on-street parking or setup a bike lane. Where do you stand on dedicated bus lanes? Are they working? Should we have more of them? How do we allocate a certain finite amount of pavement to serve cars, buses, people walking, people on bikes?
[J] I most certainly support it but the bus lane we’re talking about here is less than a mile. It only goes between Florida Avenue and Berry Place NW, just right in front of Howard University Hospital. And there’s consistent violators – I see it all the time because I walk right past it – I live right near there. And that is something that is not safe or not good and it’s really frustrating to me because it could be a wonderful system and it’s just not happening. And I’ve noticed often the people who complain a lot about these bus lanes – they complain about their parking – but they’re also the ones that are complaining about the ineffectiveness of public transportation. And I think people need to start taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. If we do have more effective transit we will encourage more people to take it. Because we want to go from point A to point B in the fastest way possible and right now that’s a car. If we have dedicated bus lanes that can go all the way through the city that would be the most effective thing. So in Ward 1 in particular we have a lot of new development. There’s 3 new developments going on right across the street from where we’re sitting now. And I think if we can maybe come up with again with some more public/private partnerships, have dedicated parking garages for residents so we can free up some available parking maybe that could be – if we have some available parking in public/private partnerships and some public parking inside those buildings that could probably work for some residents within our community. And also one thing I heard from a friend of mine – he talked about deputizing bus drivers to give them the authority to issue citations for people who violate bus lane and parking rules and I think that would be a fantastic way to get people out of the way. Just have a small camera there, when something happens – click, take a photo or take a small video so you can actually have that proof and then find that person. And I think you’re going to find people really quick stopping violating all these bus lane rules.
[F] I think getting people in and out of the city is certainly a priority for Metro – during the workday.
[J] And we also have keep in mind that we also do have businesses that run along these corridors and businesses really do heavily depend on parking. And I think that’s something we need to consider as well. So maybe if we limit our times with bus lanes only during rush hour or what have you because I don’t want to jeopardize people’s livelihoods as well and convenience to get into these stores. So they can have that foot traffic.
[F] Yeah, it’s definitely a compromise all around and I’m all for the bike lanes, I’m all for the bus lanes, but again driving is the fastest way to get wherever you’re going in DC usually. Especially on the weekends. If voters have further questions or concerns about Metro they’d like to address with you before the election – which is coming up faster than we know – what’s the best way for riders to interact with you?
[J] So I’m very active on Twitter – that is Twitter handle @sycamore4dc. I have my website which is sycamore4dc.com. You can find me on Facebook, just look up Jamie Sycamore and Instagram same thing just jamiesycamore – all one word.
[F] Awesome. Jamie, thank you so much for your time tonight, I really appreciate it.
[J] Yeah, thanks Chris. Thanks for having me.
[end interview audio]
I hope you’ll join me again next time. Until then take care of yourself and your fellow rider – we’re all in this together!
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