Sometime in the year 2000, if the current schedule holds, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority will hand out its last color-coordinated pennant, announce its final round of bus turnbacks, and get out of the construction business. The 103-mile Metrorail system will be finished, just 21 years after the once-touted completion date (for a 96-mile network) of 1979.

Metro faces another turning point, however, just three years down the line. That’s when the agency’s planners will run out of things to do, estimates Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who represents Ward 2 on the D.C. Council. Unless, of course, they start to work on extensions to the system.

“For the most part, the jurisdictions are all enthusiastic about continued expansion beyond the 103-mile system,” says Evans, who spent a day of his recent honeymoon observing construction of a new downtown Metro line in Paris. “Always the wet blanket is, how are we going to pay for it?”

Arranging the completion of the 103-mile system was a delicate task—at times it seemed impossible—so Metro officials are cautious about discussing expansion plans. There were possible extensions on the route map adopted back in 1968, though, and many of those still have a constituency. On that map, nearly all the black lines indicating planned routes end with dashed lines, showing possible added mileage; of those dashed lines only a piece of one (from Rockville to Shady Grove) has subsequently been incorporated into the approved system.

In addition, much has changed since 1968. Altogether new lines are being discussed, designed to provide service to areas that were not significant population or job centers when Metro took shape in the ’50s and ’60s. Evans has stated his strong interest in a Georgetown Metro stop, and numerous plans and studies have been devoted to the Tysons-Reston-Dulles corridor. More recently, the possibility of rail lines linking suburban employment centers—entirely bypassing Metro’s downtown hubs—has been raised. According to Evans, there’s some talk of a circular route, roughly following the path of the Beltway, that would link all the suburban spokes. (The case for such a line was put forth in these pages about seven years ago.)

The system adopted in 1968 included tentative extensions of almost all the radial lines: in Virginia, from Van Dorn to Burke (Blue), Huntington to Fairfield (Yellow), West Falls Church to Dulles Airport and Vienna to Centreville (both Orange), and a new line from Pentagon to Lincolnia using the Columbia Pike corridor through Arlington; in Maryland, Addison Road to Largo (Blue), New Carrollton to Bowie (Orange), Rockville to Germantown (Red), and Greenbelt to Laurel and Branch Avenue to Brandywine (both Green). No additions were then proposed for D.C.

A 1980 study authorized by the House District of Columbia Committee returned to many of the same proposals. It tentatively endorsed several of the extensions on the 1968 map: to Dulles, Burke, Bowie, and Brandywine. It also suggested examining a separate Blue Line extension from Van Dorn to Lorton and an expansion of the Red Line beyond Germantown to Clarksburg, which is about as far as the system can go without entering Frederick County.

Recognizing some critical gaps in D.C. service, as well as the political necessity of keeping the city interested in the expansion of a system that it partially underwrites, the 1980 scheme also suggested a sixth line, running from Fort Lincoln in northeast Washington to Georgetown. More than a decade later, that route has found an advocate in Evans, who both represents and lives in Georgetown.

“If Metrorail is going to expand beyond the 103-mile system,” Evans says, “Georgetown would definitely be a place that it would go. I think Georgetown would be on the same par with Dulles Airport.” Based on what he saw in Paris, the councilmember argues, a Georgetown station could be built “with much less disruption than 20 years ago.”

(The myth—regularly repeated by the Washington Post—is that Georgetown could have had Metro construction 20 years ago, but that a stop was vetoed by snotty neighborhood residents. In fact, such a station never fit into any proposed Metro line, and was not a priority when the system was planned because at that time the neighborhood had yet to attract major office development. In a 1979 Washington Star article, Charles L. Poor, then president of the Georgetown Citizens Association, said that his “association never took a position against Metro,” while then-Metro spokesman Cody Pfanstiehl explained that neither the agency nor the city had ever seriously considered a Georgetown stop.)

A briefing book issued Oct. 27 by Metro’s Strategic Planning Committee shows that some things haven’t changed since 1968. Extension of transit service to Dulles and farther out the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County is on the list. So, however, are two trans-suburban links designed to reduce traffic on the Beltway bridges that are rush-hour bottlenecks: one from Branch Avenue to Alexandria and Fairfax County, and another from Bethesda to the West Falls Church-Tysons Corner area.

The simplest additions to the system would be new stops on existing lines. A station has been proposed near Florida Avenue on the Red Line between Union Station and Rhode Island Avenue, and another one or perhaps two have been projected on the Blue/Yellow Line between National Airport and Braddock Road. These stations will surely be built when adjacent development projects justify them; in both cases, developers are even expected to pick up some of the construction costs.

The briefing book merely posits transit goals for discussion, and is pointedly vague on how they would be achieved—or even if they should. It lists concrete items like a pedestrian tunnel linking Farraguts North and West (which should have been built when those stations were), with such vague notions as a Columbia, Md., “gateway” project and pure nonsense like the Washington-Baltimore magnetic-levitation train advocated by Maryland’s pork-barreling Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

These are not projects on which the agency is making any public commitment. Soon after accepting the post of Metro general manager last year, Lawrence Reuter made some tentative noises about expanding the system. He’s been quiet on the subject since, though, and I couldn’t find any Metro employee willing to discuss the subject on the record. “It doesn’t make sense to be debating these things when we haven’t finished funding the full 103-mile system,” Northern Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf told the Washington Post early this year, and Metro seems to have taken his warning to heart.

In the past, however, Wolf has expressed his interest in a rail line to Dulles, which is the new suburban extension that can be most easily justified; off the record, aides to other local Congress members express their bosses’ support for more Metro, always adding the caveat that funding it will be difficult. When the Republicans take over the House, Wolf is expected to become chairman of the transportation committee, which may also bode well for some Metro expansion. Presumably, the mood of a Republican-controlled Congress will be anti-transit, but Wolf is unlikely to be as hostile to Metro expansion as his predecessor, the aptly named Bob Carr, a strongly anti-rail Michigan Democrat.

Metro’s briefing book mentions busways and light rail, and doesn’t explicitly advocate heavy rail (the mode of the existing Metro system) for any expansion. Light rail, the contemporary term for trolley, tram, or streetcar service, has taken on a near-magical luster since San Diego built its “Tijuana Trolley,” which in its early days had the best cost/recovery ratio of any new transit line in the U.S., about 95 percent. (At 73 percent, Metrorail’s is also significantly above average.) Subsequently, some 15 American cities have begun operating or at least planning light-rail systems, and some of them—notably in St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.—have proved very successful. In this area, light-rail lines have been proposed for the Dulles corridor, as a link between the Silver Spring and Bethesda Metro stations, and to connect upper Montgomery County with Shady Grove Metro, among other routes. The briefing book also suggests light rail for the H Street NE corridor and to link the Vienna Metro station with George Mason University.

Light rail is cheaper to build than heavy rail, and cheaper to operate and more attractive to passengers than buses. Light rail can’t rival heavy rail’s capacity or speed, however, which means it only makes sense in relatively short, low-density corridors. In addition, transferring has proved a significant disincentive to transit ridership; a downtown-to-Dulles Metro line, for example, would draw more ridership than a link that involved transferring from Metro at West Falls Church, especially if the transfer were to a slower light-rail train.

“Light rail hasn’t been ruled out,” says Evans, but “I think there’s more of an inclination to build heavy rail. Light rail might make some sense in the suburbs, but in the District…heavy rail is what I would advocate.”

For heavy-rail transit to attract sufficient ridership, it needs high population densities, mixed land uses, and pedestrian-friendly environments. In the D.C. suburbs, there are not many areas not already served by Metro that meet those criteria. Many of the proposed suburban expansions would be to lines that are paralleled by commuter-rail routes where service could be expanded without the major expense of constructing new heavy-rail tracks and stations. The Orange Line corridor from New Carrollton to Bowie already has all-day (weekday only) Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) service, and existing MARC or Virginia Railway Service service could be boosted along the Rockville-to-Clarksburg, Greenbelt-to-Laurel, Springfield-to-Lorton, and Springfield-to-Burke routes.

Of suggested beyond-the-Beltway routes, then, the only compelling one is the Dulles line. It would serve the airport, one of the few places in the Virginia suburbs that generates traffic seven days a week, and also two outbreaks of high density in generally low-density Fairfax County; Reston Town Center, a four-block-square patch of urbanism that could be extended toward a station along the nearby Dulles Access Road; and Tysons Corner, which is becoming so dense as to almost resemble a classic downtown (although it remains to be seen if the place can ever be made amenable to pedestrians).

A Columbia Pike route, serving a relatively crowded corridor in the inner suburbs, also makes some sense. Trans-suburban service, however, is a dubious proposition; though job growth in the suburbs has been explosive since Metro planned its downtown-oriented system, those office parks are spread thinly, in just the sort of pattern that defeats transit. To be effective, plans to expand Metro usage to outer-suburb employment centers would have to be tied to new zoning regulations requiring compact mini-urbs rather than the sprawl that currently reigns.

If the system is expanded, a balance must be maintained between the three jurisdictions that pay for it. That means Maryland, which is already well covered by the 103-mile system, will probably get roughly as much new Metro as Virginia and D.C. “I actually got the sense that the Maryland and Virginia people were way ahead of us in the District as far as having already identified potential Metrorail expansion,” notes Evans.

It’s D.C., however, that would be best served by Metrorail expansion; Metro-spurned neighborhoods like Georgetown and Adams Morgan would attract more riders than any suburban location. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Fort Lincoln-Georgetown crosstown line is the best option. In fact, the plan has two considerable drawbacks.

This line might run from Fort Lincoln, the faltering new town on the D.C. border, down New York Avenue to Bladensburg Road, down Bladensburg to H Street NE, then across H to Union Station; west of the station, it would shift to the north, perhaps taking Massachusetts to L Street, which it would follow across downtown before ending with a Georgetown station under M or perhaps K Street.

This means the line would essentially be redundant through downtown, running within a few blocks of the Red Line. It couldn’t run farther north, because then it would miss its transfer point with the Blue/Orange Line (via that shoulda-been-built pedestrian tunnel) at Farragut Square; a new route that didn’t connect with all the existing lines would sacrifice considerable ridership. The crosstown routing would also dead end in Georgetown, an awkward endpoint for a Metro route.

The eastern end of this proposed alignment, which would encourage development in a long-neglected part of the city, needn’t connect to a new line superfluously crossing downtown, however. Instead, it could be an eastward extension of the Yellow Line, currently truncated clumsily at Mount Vernon Square. As for Georgetown, it could be served by adding a segment of the Orange or Blue Line between Farragut West and Rosslyn, via the West End and Georgetown.

Such a spur, however, couldn’t connect back to the tunnel between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn; trains are not designed for U-turns. So it would require building another Metro tunnel under the Potomac to Rosslyn, which would be both an engineering and a financial challenge.

From Georgetown, of course, a line could instead continue west or head north. Evans offers Palisades as a destination, but notes that such an alignment would be “affordable” only if it ran above ground, adjacent to the C&O Canal—a prospect that would probably be as well received in the neighborhood as a plan to restrict MacArthur Boulevard to Rollerbladers. The briefing book suggests “rail transit on lower Wisconsin Avenue” as a possible goal, and there would be advantages to continuing a line serving Georgetown up Wisconsin Avenue—until it hits the Red Line at Tenleytown, where its utility would end.

There’s a possible (if admittedly ambitious) solution to the Georgetown dead end that’s not in the Metro briefing book. It’s a proposal from an interested observer (me) for an inner-loop route. This would run on Red Line tracks between Brookland and Farragut North, where it would diverge to Georgetown and Glover Park and then, turning east, to Woodley Park (where there is a Red Line station), Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights (where a Green Line station is under construction), Georgia Avenue, and Washington Hospital Center before rejoining the Red Line.

Such a loop would probably involve another tunnel deep under Rock Creek Park, potentially almost as difficult as another Potomac crossing. (Between Woodley Park and Adams Morgan, the new rail line could be attached to the underside of the Duke Ellington Bridge, much as subway lines are in Toronto, but the National Park Service and the various federal design mavens would probably object.) Technical and funding problems aside, though, the line has several advantages: It would bring Metro to both Georgetown and Adams Morgan, the two densest neighborhoods without rail stations, and provide an uptown link between the Green Line and the two arms of the Red Line. Downtown, it would increase service frequencies on the most heavily traveled section of the Red Line. Though the loop wouldn’t directly link the suburbs to downtown employment and shopping/entertainment districts, it would offer numerous connections to the existing radial system.

Evans, for one, says he finds the loop idea interesting. At Metro, however, people are either noncommittal or unresponsive. That’s understandable, since money is tight, the new Congress is likely to be unsympathetic, and ultimately the local jurisdictions will decide what extensions they want and how they’ll pay for them—as they have so far.

The city currently owes Metro $18 million, and the agency will start cutting D.C. bus service if that money’s not appropriated by Feb. 1. It hardly seems a propitious time to plan more Metrorail, even if the Clean Air Act essentially requires the area to get more people out of their cars and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act gives localities more flexibility in how they spend federal transportation money. Still, expanding Metro into the city’s densest unserved neighborhoods and corridors will strengthen the entire system. And gearing up to do so in 10, 20, or even five years will only be more expensive than starting the process now.