The Jan. 22 meeting of Metro’s finance committee was a bleak affair for fans of public transit. Typically, Metro’s board weighs fare hikes every other year. But now, facing an operating budget shortfall and reluctance among suburban jurisdictions to increase their subsidies for the system, the board was contemplating an off-year fare raise of up to 10 cents, which would result in an estimated two million fewer rides per year. On top of that, the directors were considering service cuts that would substantially reduce train frequency.
Former D.C. planning boss Harriet Tregoning, a devotee of multi-modal transportation, had joined the board in November as a federal representative: She now directs the Office of Economic Resilience at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her D.C. affinity shone through as she cut into the board’s presentation with a question. Why, she wondered, should an expanding city with growing transit needs be restricted by the tightfistedness of the suburbs?
“If some jurisdictions decide to provide the subsidies and others don’t—” began Tregoning, but she was cut off. Impossible, she was told. Funding has to go by a pre-ordained formula that splits the costs among the region’s cities and counties according to a specific ratio. In effect, whichever jurisdiction is least willing to pay gets to determine how much everyone pays.
“Just as a ‘for instance,’” she pressed on, “I know that we’ve had conversations in the past with [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] about 24-hour service in the District, where you’d turn trains around and they’d just run in the District, and the District only would pay for that service.” No dice: That would require a renegotiation in the formula.
“I would just suggest,” Tregoning persisted, “that there are some of the proposals here that could be implemented jurisdictionally.”
“That’s just not how the process works,” came the reply.
Fares and schedules might seem like the least of Metro’s concerns after the Jan. 12 incident at L’Enfant Plaza that filled a train with smoke, left one passenger dead, and sent more than 80 to the hospital. But for a rapidly growing city, and one that relies on public transit more than any other except New York, Metro shrinkage is the opposite of what’s required. No one knows it better than Tregoning. As planning director, she hammered home the need for more housing and transit options to accommodate a population that was expanding by about 1,000 residents a month.
The trouble, as Tregoning discovered, is that there are considerable structural impediments to expanding the Metro system in step with the District’s needs. No matter how big the city gets, how maxed out its roads, how high the demand, how keen the desire for expansion to underserved neighborhoods, Metro won’t be able to keep up.
Partly, it’s the unwillingness of suburban jurisdictions to sign on to (and help pay for) any new stations or lines. If they’re getting grumpy about funding the operating expenses needed to maintain the meager status quo, good luck getting a green light for expanded service in the District.
Partly, it’s a lack of imagination. Metro does, in fact, have a blueprint for expansion, beyond the extension of the Silver Line deeper into the Virginia suburbs. In December 2013, after testing more than 100 proposals over two and a half years, Metro released its vision for the system 25 years hence. There was no “Brown Line” connecting Wisconsin Avenue NW, the National Mall, Bloomingdale, and upper Georgia Avenue NW, as contemplated in one discarded proposal, and no infill stations at St. Elizabeths, Oklahoma Avenue, NE and Kansas Avenue NW, as pitched in another. Instead, the plan was to separate the trunk lines to create a new loop around downtown serving Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Potomac Park, and to expand transfer options to facilitate trips within Northern Virginia.
For some, this aspirational plan—the first meaningful expansion of D.C.’s Metro service since the gradual rollout of the Green Line—went too far. It’s “so far beyond dream as to enter the realm of fantasy,” wrote former Metro board chair Robert J. Smith in a Washington Post op-ed. (Smith, a Maryland appointee, had been fired from the board in 2006 after publicly condemning homosexuality as “sexual deviancy.”) “It’s a setup for a disappointment comparable to the forlorn soul in that 2000 television commercial who asked where the flying cars were that he had been promised in his youth. … Kennedy would have found the moon launch to be comparatively easy.”
And then Smith revealed the true source of his reservations, and it’s the same one that could doom any other plan, even a less ambitious one. “What possible benefit of this project would inure to the people of Maryland,” he asked, “particularly those who dwell beyond Montgomery and Prince George’s counties?”
Finally, there are physical limitations to better Metro service in the District. These constraints go beyond recalcitrance and shortsightedness: They’re rooted in the indelible history of the system’s creation.
In a 1962 report to President John F. Kennedy, the National Capital Transportation Agency presented a dilemma in the planning for the D.C. area’s yet-unnamed heavy rail system. Suburban travelers would want a system with as few stops as possible to make for a speedy commute, while the District would prefer higher station density to increase access and support development. “Other cities have solved this problem by providing (1) express and local service on four-track rapid transit routes or (2) shorter urban routes with numerous stations in the densely developed close-in area and high-speed suburban routes in a separate location to serve more distant areas,” NCTA wrote. “NCTA has adopted the latter solution.”
Twelve years later, construction was underway on Metro’s inaugural stations. Metro’s first general manager, Jackson Graham, again addressed the express-train question in a letter to Maryland Congressman Gilbert Gude. “Multiple track rapid transit routes can be justified only by the existence of huge passenger volumes,” he explained. “Consequently, this type of operation is found extensively only in New York City and one line each in Chicago and Philadelphia. An operation of this type would not be feasible economically in the Washington metropolitan area.”
At the time, NCTA and Graham were justified in their reasoning. The District, which had grown every decade since its founding through 1950, was in the midst of a population nosedive. Highways, not rails, appeared to be the transportation infrastructure of the future. In this context, it’s a miracle that Metro got built at all. It wouldn’t have happened if not for suburbanites looking for a faster way to get to work.
These days, the equation is different. The population is booming. Fewer and fewer Washingtonians drive to work. Housing costs have shot up around all but a handful of the District’s Metro stations, so many young residents are being pushed out to neighborhoods without Metro access, where they tax D.C.’s busy roads in cars or buses and lose productivity to slower commutes.
The few underdeveloped Metro-adjacent areas are quickly filling in: Just look at Congress Heights, the poorest neighborhood near a Metro stop, where two of the city’s biggest development projects will soon surround the station. But demand for housing will continue to grow. That’ll leave developers with two choices: Build up in D.C. neighborhoods without good transit access, or head to the suburbs, with new Metro stations and ample parking. I suspect they’ll opt for the latter, and D.C. will lose out on residents and tax dollars.
The most effective solution, of course, would be to build additional Metro lines serving new neighborhoods, particularly in Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8. That would not only improve quality of life in those neighborhoods, but would spur the construction of more housing to help slow runaway rents and home prices. But absent a sudden and remarkable change of heart from Metro’s mostly suburban overlords, that won’t happen.
So the next best thing would be to add infill stations, as we did a decade ago in NoMa, to remarkable success. There are several suitable candidates for new station locations on the Red and Green lines, where some stations are spaced so far apart, even in the District, that people living directly between two are effectively out of range of both. These stations were designed to conform to NCTA’s idea of “high-speed suburban routes,” but they’re in areas that now have to be envisioned as denser and more urban if D.C. is to have room to grown.
The trouble is that, in the absence of a third or fourth track to allow for express trains—adding them retroactively would likely be even more difficult than building entirely new lines—we can’t create a whole bunch of infill stations without lengthening commutes for people living or working farther out on those lines. Each additional station means an extra couple of minutes added to the trip, and frustration for commuters who now have to leave home 10 minutes earlier. If the prospect of an expensive solution that’ll make commuting easier for suburbanites has some Metro stakeholders throwing a fit, imagine the reaction to a plan that would slow down their travel.
Perhaps conceding that a meaningful Metro expansion is not in the cards, D.C. has gone all in on an alternative: the streetcar. The planned line from Union Station to Georgetown largely parallels Metro’s proposed downtown loop; it would make little sense to build both. But the streetcar, whenever it actually starts running, is hardly an adequate substitute for Metro. It operates largely in mixed traffic, making it no faster than buses—sometimes slower, since it can’t change lanes—and its capacity doesn’t compare.
Still, D.C. planners could very well point to the streetcar to argue that we’re meeting the demand for new mass transit, obviating the need for an expensive Metro expansion. It’d be a shame if, amid all the suburban resistance, the deciding factor against more D.C. Metro stations were one of our own making.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery