DC's Metro Utilization

Arguably one of the genuine calling cards for the District of Columbia is its modern, clean, and generally well-operated subway system. It was clearly undertaken with the long-range intent of improving the economic climate within DC. To date, however, it has been primarily responsible for improving the economic climate of DC's suburbs: making it even easier for a skilled work force to work in the city where the jobs are, but live in the suburbs where the safe schools are. It has been a source of some dismay to NARPAC, Inc. that DC has benefitted so little to date from such an important addition to the city--and the metro area. Signs of change are only now becoming visible. The following four sections deal with various aspects of Metro's growing role in the nation's capital metro area:

o progress is noted as it has occurred since 1997;

o growth in usage is summarized over the past 20 years, and the relative activity at different stations is noted;

o various proponents for Metro growth are quoted as enthusiasm for transit-based development seems to grow; and

o the need for more ambitious long range plans is outlined in a NARPAC schematic plan.

o but in April, 2001, Metro released a report indicating how the rail system is becoming saturated in certain key downtown areas, suggesting basic limitations in the original design plans that will need to be overcome.

o and in the Fall, 2001, new proposals for major system upgrades began to appear for the next major window of opportunity for future federal funding.

o and in February, 2003, NARPAC added a new chapter dealing with recent WMATA studies on Metro's need for additional capacity, and the proposed new 10-Year Capital Improvement Plan.

o Those who want more details on DC's fine Metro system are encouraged to visit Metro's extensive web site.

Progress in Metro Development

o The FY98 DC Budget approved by the Congress contained funds to enlarge the metro station serving downtown's new MCI sports arena;

o The FY99 DC Budget approved by the Congress contains $25M to build a new metro station at the site of the new Convention Center;

o The DC Economic Resurgence Plan includes as Recommendation #27, the exhortation to "Focus Business Activity Near Neighborhood Metro Stations" (!);

o In early 2002, DC undertook a new Transit Development Study that could potentially lead to the addition of a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system along routes that do not justify the addition of DC's full-blown heavy Metrorail subway. NARPAC is skeptical of this development and asks Is There MetroLite in DC's Future?. It provides a thumbnail summary of the extent of mass transit systems in the US today and the results of a relevant GAO study.

o In 2003, NARPAC analyzed the most recent set of Metro Long-Range Plans and has summarized their very modest objectives in a separate section.

o In mid-2004, NARPAC became alarmed by the continued cutbacks in WMATA's expectations for its own future. They have essentially cut back capital investment funding requests to those needed to avoid getting into an operational "death spiral" of failing maintenance and system "gridlock". We believe it is time for local and federal government officials to understand that they have a huge unmet obligation to keep expanding DC's urban mass transit systems. To demonstrate what a robust expansion plan might entail, NARPAC has prepared a notional Robust Long-range Metrorail Plan which would keep up with regional economic growth, and the capital city's own deserved urban image. Think in terms of $800 million annually for the next 25 years!

LEFT: The rundown US Post Office on Irving Street sits between an empty lot and a decrepit commercial automobile garage two miles from the capital. RIGHT:Blight at the future site of the Columbia Heights (NW) Metro Station. .Empty for decades, the once-renowned Tivoli theatre may become the focal point of a $135 million dollar commercial renovation when Metro arrives. (Photos by John Cleave)

o Spring of 1999 brought the attention of developers to Metro's soon-to-be-finished new Columbia Heights station on the Green Line, a scant 26 blocks due North of the White House in one of the city's most run-down areas. Four different proposals have been submitted by firms anxious to invest $135M into new and restored commercial and residential buildings within the 13 acre site. Such an investment will clearly increase the land productivity of this neighborhood cluster (see below) ;

o On the other side of the coin, however, spring has also brought increased breakdowns in the rolling stock--much of which is now 20-odd years old and apparently suffering from marginal maintenance. At the same time, property crimes are on the rise at Metro parking lots, both from car break-ins and auto theft. Metro is looking to significantly increase (by 23,000) their total parking spaces, but may have to increase security at the same time:

Missing Green Line Link in DC Opens

At least two years behind schedule, the "missing link" in the Green Line finally opened in September, 1999. The 2.9 mile section starts a scant mile and a half from the White House, includes two new stations, Columbia Heights and Georgia Avenue/Petworth, runs north and east to intersect the existing Red Line and connects to a series of stations between the DC boundary and the Beltway in Prince George's County. This is the last section of the original Metro plan to open, and cost well over $600M. It covers the main avenues burned out in the riots after the death of Martin Luther King31 years ago that have yet to be rebuilt. In NARPAC's view, the potential for these Green Line North stations is very great.

Despite the general ruination of the area, remaining residents and activist groups argued over the details of the trace for years. The resulting design is considered the most complex of DC's Metro system, and certainly contributed to construction delays-- which turned out to be worse for the station buildings than the tunnelers. Years of construction inconvenience has resulted in many suits against Metro which are only now being settled. At long last, however, residents and commuters are beginning to look to the future and the economic benefits that can be derived.

There has also been substantial controversy over what kinds of developments would be best for the neighborhoods--primarily Columbia Heights where six parcels of land, mostly owned by the DC government(!), were offered for developers' proposals. Again the neighborhood activists have been bickering and accusing the Mayor of letting his newly reconstituted Redevelopment Land Agency pick the "wrong" developers. As is not unusual in DC, racial undercurrents have surfaced, with whites claiming that RLA was slanted towards small-time black residents and their more modest and short-term demands for jobs and businesses of local interest. In fact, only two of the tracts were tentatively awarded (for an investment of $149M), and the activists will have things to bicker about for years to come as development evolves in a piecemeal, and surely less than fully coherent, fashion.

Months of wrangling over just how ambitious a land redevelopment program should take place around the Columbia Heights metro station remains partially unsettled in March, 2000. An initial, much delayed, decision (September, '99) by the newly reconstituted Redevelopment Land Agency sided with the more modest ambitions of the local black community who wanted to focus on local shops and local employment. The more ambitious expectations of the newer arrivals to the Shaw neighborhood were thwarted, resulting in a suit by activists. The mayor and his planning staff weighed in November, calling for a mediatorto settle the dispute. By late December a compromise solution was worked up which left some major decisions unmade: the historic Tivoli Theater (photo above) would be saved from becoming a supermarket (now to be built on a nearby DC-owned lot!), but the use of two larger available plots (which could ultimately make the area positively "productive") were still left unresolved.

[A similar development issue, this time pitting development expansion against the status quo, beset the Northwest campus of George Washington University. GWU wanted to begin a large 10-year program to expand the 23-acre Mount Vernon College site against the objections of the surrounding 'upscale' residential community. In this case, a mediator appointed by DC Planner Andrew Altman developed a compromise within a month and the Zoning Appeals Board approved it shortly thereafter. NARPAC, Inc. finds the use of mediators in these otherwise heated disputes to be a major and useful innovation.]

NARPAC analysts draw several lessons from this work in progress:

a) it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to impose a new transportation infrastructure onto existing--and in this case highly fractious--communities;

b) there is no accepted master plan in DC which can set the economic development objectives for large areas of the city--and trump the local activists; and

c) it is virtually impossible to expect local neighborhoods to generate broad-gaged, long-range developments which are essentially totally beyond their often disadvantaged day-to-day experience. The major economic developments possible with this new subway system cannot be realized from the grass-roots level alone.

As demonstrated in NARPAC's analysis East of the Anacostia it will be difficult at best to transfer the planning successes of Arlington County and the City of Alexandria into DC.

Nevertheless, the major obstacle has been overcome on this northern stretch of the Green Line, and arguing over economic development will be preferable to arguing over resisting the arrival of Metro. On the unfinished southern stretch of the Green Line across Anacostia and into the least developed section of Prince George's County, this transition was not reached until January, 2001.

o The mayor's new City-wide Strategic Plan, unveiled in November, 1999, includes a goal to increase economic development around each of the following underdeveloped metro stops:

  • Minnesota/Benning
  • Columbia Heights
  • Georgia Ave/Petworth
  • Anacostia

o Most of the news about Metro during 2000 dealt with system operational problems, and the aging of its rolling stock and escalators--the latter turning out to be the Achilles Heel of the entire system. Metro was repairing as many as 170 escalators per week, and was forced more and more to look abroad for competent repair personnel. In December, Metro also announced a procurement plan to overhaul 364 rail cars at $1M each, and to buy 500 new rail cars, 100 natural gas buses (!), and add 4400 parking spaces for another $1.57B. It seems clear that for the first time, plans for expanding the system must be curtailed while the full scope of asset depreciation is properly priced and budgeted for.

o In mid-November, 2000 the new segment of Green Line South from Anacostia to Branch Avenue was opened for trial rides by DC school kids and other dignitaries, and full service began in January, 2001. The surge of commuters from southern Prince George's County surprised Metro officials, who have had to scurry to find addition cars for these routes.

o In late March, 2001, Metrorail celebrated the 25th anniversary of its opening, and lengthy Washington Post articles on the one hand credited the system with changing the face of the metro area (particularly the rebirth of Arlington County, VA and Bethesda, MD, while on the other hand exhibiting concern that it is "beginning to show its age". Clearly there is a growing conflict between further capital investment in expansion, and the need to devote even more funds to maintenance and refurbishing.

o Spring brought a temporary set-back in planned Metro capital investment, as the Spanish firm contracted to build 200 new subway cars was forced to temporarily halt production due to failures in some of the car's hi-tech subsystems. By August, however, the problems were solved, the first four new cars were in service, and eight more were expected monthly until the $340M contract is completed.

o Summer brought additional good news as ridership continued to rise at a good clip. Operating hours were extended for weekend nights as a result of a successful trial period. There was continued talk about further expansions both to relieve downtown congestion, to extend further into the suburbs, and to begin work on segments of the long-mentioned "Purple Line" intended eventually to encircle the city near the beltway. The two areas of current interest involve connecting Alexandria and Southern Maryland across the new Wilson Bridge, and connecting some of Maryland's busier suburban towns on the northern periphery of the Beltway.

o In July, 2001, Metro officials announced the winner of an extensive competition for a canopy design to be used over the many station entrances whose escalators (and passengers) are currently open to the weather. The winning design of glass panels on a steel frame resembles some sort of modernistic greenhouse and will certainly make many metro stations easier to spot from a distance. (NARPAC's own sketch of how an installation may look in an urban setting is shown below.) The total cost of installing some 90 of these canopies is estimated not to exceed $27 million.

o In late August, 2001, Metro engineers announced two new initiatives aimed at alleviating downtown congestion (see earlier paragraph). Not yet approved by the Metro Board, these near- term fixes appear to be small steps in the right direction. One would develop the system's first underground pedestrian tunnel between two of the most crowded transfer stations: Metro Center, shared by the Blue, Orange, and Red Lines, and Gallery Place, shared by Red, Green, and Yellow Lines. While the Red Line already connects these two stations, many riders trying to get from Blue/Orange to Green/Yellow might prefer the short walk to waiting for a one-stop ride on an already crowded Red Line train. The other proposal would split some Blue trains onto current (less utilized) Green/Yellow tracks (at the Pentagon) to permit diagonal travel across the city from Alexandria,VA to Greenbelt,MD. Other such combinations may be possible with minimal added tracks and tunneling.

o The 9/11/01 tragedy brought additional focus to rail lines of all sort as air shuttles were temporarily shut down, and then forced to accept long check-in delays on reopening. There was indication of a new impetus to add high speed trains along the Northeast Corridor, and Amtrak has additional new "Acela" trains going into service. Congress is also considering a very large new bill to enhance passenger rail travel from which DC would also benefit. Though some officials wanted to shut down Washington's Metro system in the panicky hours following the strike on the Pentagon, service was in fact never interrupted (other than closing the Pentagon station for three weeks) during that emergency. Moreover, Metro is generally credited with outstanding performance in helping people leave the city when most roads were badly clogged.

Meanwhile, in the suburbs:

o In September, 1998, Metro board members announced selection of a development team to build a one billion dollar complex including offices, residences, a conference center, theaters, a park and a shopping mall at a 123-acre site including the newly- opened Greenbelt Metro Station. If approved, it will become Prince George's County's first major new retail shopping complex in years, and possibly generate eight thousand new Metro trips per day.

o In neighboring Montgomery County, substantial ($100+) new developments in residential units, office spaces, and retail outlets are in the works along the Metro Red Line at the Grosvenor, White Flint, and Twinbrook stations. DC remains unique in having several stations at which there is no economic development planned.

o In January, 1999, Virginia authorities announced a plan to spend $900M of locally-raised monies to add seven new metro stations to serve their huge Tyson's Corner Shopping Center. By late summer, 1999, Governor Gilmore also announced plans to extend Metrorail out to Dulles Airport.

o In September, 1999, the City of Alexandria announced approval for the development of a 300- acre site straddling the Blue Line south of Reagan National Airport. The site, known as Potomac Yard will provide another major step in the economic development of Northern Virginia.

o October headlines brought more good news for metro--but not enough. First, initial commuter ridership from the newly opened Green Line stations has greatly exceeded expectations--although there is virtually no business to bring riders into these stations.. Second, design dollars have been found to begin planning the $435M extension of Metro's Blue Line further into Prince George's County from Addison Road to Largo. Third, the federal government will provide a $600M loan guarantee to rehab older Metro rolling stock. Fourth, Metro will get loan guarantees permitting a $112M upgrade of the systems 173 oldest, weather-worn escalators over the next 4 years. Fifth, a welcome Washington Post feature story acknowledges that DC's Metro system has provided the 'engine for DC's growth' over the past 20 years, and another notes that home sales near Metro stations are bringing premium prices.. But lastly, Metro has agreed to "lend" 25 of its underemployed engineers to the DC government to help design the city's pending road improvements. It is high time to be finding more Metro system improvements--many inside DC's limits.

o In late November, 1999, the Montgomery County Planning Board gave their endorsement to a major new housing development at the Grosvenor stop on the Red Line. It will involve 860 residential units on a 30-acre site, including an 18- story high-rise apartment house. Grosvenor Village will be within easy walking distance of the metro stop.

o On the other side of the coin, the ambitious new National Harbor development in Prince George's County just south of the Wilson Bridge on the Eastern bank of the Potomac River was given a green light to proceed without lengthy federal environmental scrutiny. County Executive Curry considers this project to be a major engine for economic growth at the southern end of his county, but presently there are no plans for Metrorail access either from Alexandria across the river, or from the incomplete metro network in DC East of the Anacostia. At the Northern end of PG County, environmental and road access difficulties have also surfaced which threaten to delay or halt the billion-dollar office/residential complex at the Greenbelt metro stop.

o Meanwhile, across the river, plans have been announced for the dredging of a deeper channel to Alexandria Harbor, allowing larger ships--including cruise ships!-- to make port calls. Again, this area is not conveniently accessible to the nearest metro stops in Virginia. Planning for another Potomac River Metrorail crossing is probably overdue, most likely as part of a "Purple Line" that would eventually encircle DC outside the Beltway. The courts have recently approved go- ahead for a new 12-lane, $1.9 billion Wilson Bridge across the Potomac after years of wrangling between various personal interest groups and the common good interests of Maryland and Virginia transportation planners. Again, this 12-lane span does not include rail lanes for the metro system, nor has consideration been given to re-use of the old span.

o The annual meeting of the Metro Washington COG in December, 1999, brought several interesting comments concerning future expansion of the Metrorail system. For Montgomery County--which is still following its longstanding plan to increase commercial density around its metro stops--the highest long-range priority is for its segment of the "Purple Line", as the "ring rail" system outside the Beltway is called. For Prince George's County, that "Purple Line" development is also important, but second to getting the new Wilson Bridge across the Potomac for Interstate 95. Fairfax's top priority is to get the "edge city" of Tyson's Corner onto the regional rail system, as well as extending service out to Dulles Airport. Close-in Arlington County would like to rectify its "mistake" in not pressing for another branch of the Metro along Arlington Pike--the one commercially zoned area of that county that has not enjoyed robust business growth.

o December, 1999, also brought the 20th anniversary of the Orange Line, an application to the Federal Transit Administration to begin engineering and environmental studies for rail extensions to Tyson's Corner and Dulles Airport; and a prediction that the last 6.5 miles of the Green Line (South) into PG County towards Andrews AFB would be finished by January first, 2001--somewhat ahead of schedule and somewhat under total cost and so it was.

o After years of debate and stalling, the way was cleared by the courts in 2001 for the construction of a huge new 12-lane road bridge across the Potomac River just south of the DC line, providing the major north-south auto/truck route for the nation's East Coast. This double span (six-lane each) structure will cost at least $1.9 billion and replace the current overage and over-utilized Wilson Bridge on DC's beltway. It will form one boundary of the huge new National Harbor Project on the Maryland side, and the City of Alexandria on the Virginia side. When the first span is finished in 2005, the old span will be demolished, and increased traffic capacity (now reaching 190,000 vehicles per day) will have to await completion of the second span in 2008. Large amounts of the funding will come from Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government. Months of activists' obstructions have been overcome.

NARPAC fully supports the construction of this important--and overdue--new transportation link. According to recent correspondence with PG County Executive Wayne Curry correcting an ill-advised NARPAC letter to the Washington Post, the new span will include provisions for Metrorail "at a future date". Failure to provide additional heavy rail connections between the Southeast and Southwest quadrants of the DC metro area would significantly skew the economic development of both, and NARPAC would strongly recommend that the Metro rail line be included as part of the initial construction.

o In January, 2001, the Washington Post reported that the Dulles Rail Land Use Task Force will propose high density developments around each of the four new Fairfax County Metro stations along the Dulles corridor: Wiehle Ave (in Reston); Reston Parkway; Herndon-Monroe; and Dulles Corner. The business leaders, activists, and politicians involved in this group are determined to establish land use patterns for these stations before they are built and not afterwards. This policy was not followed at such stations as Vienna, with the result that they are still somewhat underutilized. In DC, of course, such arguments are still going on about stations that have been open for at least fifteen years.

o And in August 2001, plans were disclosed for a major new development to be called White Flint East adjacent to the current Metro station along Rockville Pike, one of Montgomery County's most developed commercial corridors. The 32-acre, six-block complex would include 1.2 million square feet of office space, 270,000 square feet of retail space, 1338 apartments in four high-rises. And a 60,000 square foot theater. The Montgomery County Council is scheduled to debate this proposal before year's end to spur county growth by speeding up development at Metro stations. Such continuing developments will only make it more difficult to focus more development in downtown DC -- closer to "ground zero" and further from the center of suburban purchasing power.

The Perfect Comparison:

NARPAC, Inc. has conducted a preliminary analysis comparing East of the Anacostia, West of the Potomac. It illustrates the extraordinary extent to which Arlington County's planning to exploit economically their sections of the new Metrorail system bore fruit, whereas "Anacostia County's" decisions to simply improve commuting have failed. It is clear that any major revitalization of the Anacostia area must include major expansions of the Metrorail service in that area--and out to Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County as well.

In the uneven race for economic development between the suburbs and their "core city", the suburbs continue to pull further ahead. The ensuing seven pages of photographs tell the story, with the final three addressing the potential for the newly completed Green Lines North and South.

return to the top of the page MetroRail Usage

The growth in the number of open Metro stations, and the numbers of weekday boardings is shown on the graph below between 1978 and 2000: growth of ridership
Also shown, in blue, is the more surprising trend in boardings per station, which peaked at the beginning of each the '80s and '90s, but which is now substantially below those high-points. From this, there appears to be irrefutable evidence that the way more riders have been attracted so far has been to open more stations rather than increase in the density of homes or offices around any station. Hence, since 1978, the number of open stations have increased by a factor of 2.79, while the total ridership has increased only by a factor of 3.11: thus, the per-station utilization has only risen by 12%. When this is annualized in the aggregate, the rate of increase in station utilization is startlingly small: from the third year of a station's opening (to eliminate start-up irregularities), the subsequent annual growth in utilization amounts to 1.4% per year for DC, and only 1.0% for Maryland and Virginia.

There is, of course substantial variation in the utilization of different stations, and as noted above, this does not vary much with maturity. The chart below shows the ten most used and ten least used stations in the Metro system as of May, 2000, again in terms of average weekday boardings:

There is a 12:1 spread in utilization between the top ten and bottom ten--a 39:1 spread between Metro Center and Minnesota Avenue. This is reflected again in the table below, indicating that 36% of the total system boardings occur at the tep top stations, and only half a percent and the bottom ten, six of which are in DC:

Variation in Station Utilization

Station Cluster:Avg Boarders% Total Boarders
Top Ten (8 in DC):20,70036.0%
Middle Ten (6 in DC):5,3009.2%
Bottom Ten (6 in DC):1,7000.5%

Some broad generalizations can also be made about the relative use of Metrorail by the core city and its suburbs. The table below shows the break-out between stations in DC and those in either Maryland or Virginia. Again, the data is for May of 2000 in terms of average weekday boardings:

Urban/Suburban Comparisons

Part of Region:Total BoardersAvg/Station
System Total:575,1007370
DC Share of Total:60%.
VA Share of Suburbs:59%.

DC accounts for 60% of the total boardings, (even though it has only half the stations), and this reflects in the higher average station utilization. Virginia also works its stations considerably harder than Maryland, and significantly more Virginians use Metrorail than Marylanders. This will change somewhat with the recent opening of the Green Line South into Prince George's County, but not enough to change the overall balance.

It should be noted that these average daily "boardings" are not synonymous with separate riders. In the simplest abstract, every boarder would ride twice a day--to and from a single destination. Hence a 'boardership' of 575,000 only means a ridership of only 287,500 actual persons at most. Nonetheless, the numbers can be interpreted to show that commuters from the suburbs are far more numerous than commuters from within DC itself--perhaps as much as 4:1 (though NARPAC's analysis here is less than sterling).

In general, these statistics seem to support the notion that station utilization is closely related to the working population residing within reach of the station at one end, and to the density of job opportunities at the other end. However, there remains no clear indication of rapidly enough changing residential or business densities to impact these statistics. Perhaps the new Navy Yard development will eventually disprove this assertion.


Montgomery County Supports Metro

In a letter to the Washington Post in late November, 2000, Montgomery County's Chief Executive Duncan spelled out his strong support for facilitating commuting by Metro. In summary he wrote that:

To make commuting easier, Montgomery County is:

o Encouraging residents to try Ride On or Metro bus service instead of driving to Metro. Ride On's new reduced-rate passes now cost 50 cents. More than 100 bus routes in the county connect to Metro stations or major job sites.

o Making it easier for customers to get information on bus service through its Transit Information Call Center and its improved Web site;

o Providing more parking at many of its key Metro stations, and encouraging Metro to reduce their rates at underused garages;

o Encouraging Metro to approve more frequent bus service starting next January, when buses will run every eight to 10 minutes;

o Making free parking available for use of the MARC trains in upper the Montgomery County Interstate 270 corridor:

, o Providing five park-and-ride lots along the Route 29 corridor;

o Breaking ground in late winter for a 2,000-space garage at the Shady Grove Metro (opening in 2002), and planning to expand parking for the Grosvenor-Strathmore station to 2,000 spaces in 2003:

o Advocating that Metro extend all Red Line trains to Shady Grove rather than turning back every other train at Grosvenor-Strathmore to reduce crowding on trains north of Shady Grove.

Duncan says he hopes residents will take advantage of the many opportunities available to make public transit more convenient. NARPAC congratulates the County Executive for his understanding of the importance of parking near public transit, and hopes he will also support extensions of the Metro system as well.

The Washington Regional Network Weighs In for Metro

The following excerpts from the recent (2001) WRN brochure--encouraging urban design around metro stations--are reproduced here to demonstrate the originality of their thinking. Greater detail can be found on their own web site.

Making The Most Of Metro
Community-building through Transit

....It's difficult to imagine the Washington region working without the Metrorail system. The Washington region is fortunate to have a 78-station, 96-mile, $10 billion rail system... However, the Metro transit authority, most local governments and neighbors around the stations have not utilized the potential of the Metro system to enhance a network of livable communities....

....Metro can be used to accommodate economic and population growth in a way that enhances communities. Transit-oriented development (also known as pedestrian-oriented development) around Metro stations provides a mix of housing, shops, offices, parks and plazas... Transit-oriented development offers people more choices about housing and transportation, as well as the opportunity to live in a neighborhood where they can walk to take care of their daily errands. It's time to build livable neighborhoods around Metro.

...The areas around stations are special places that should require special rules and design considerations. Ensuring that future development results in livable neighborhoods requires working partnerships between neighbors, local governments, developers, and transit agencies...

...transit-oriented developments offer our communities...choice and access. Arlington County decided that placing Metrorail along the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor was its ticket to revitalizing a lackluster commercial strip while providing a variety of housing choices. Bethesda and recently Silver Spring are also capitalizing on Metro. Since its beginning, proximity to Metro has acted as a catalyst for almost $15 billion in development. But what about the Metro stations...which are separated from the surrounding neighborhood? Large surface parking lots, outdated industrial zoning, and car-oriented shopping make these areas difficult to get to on foot and feel like unsafe places to be after dark.

Transit-Oriented Development Principles:

I. Compact designs...use the best local architectural traditions--refashioned to accommodate more...activities within 1/4 to 1/2 mile area of the station. It goes from commercial activities in lively compact centers at the station to quiet residential streets providing a mix of housing options, comer stores, parks and schools...connected by sidewalks and streets designed for bicycles as well as cars... II. A variety of retail, office and housing on a human scale... Buildings close to Metro should provide retail on the first floor, and housing and/or office space above... Public plazas and small parks are essential features that give people a place to read or talk, ...and...should...include a diverse selection of housing types so people with differing incomes can have close access to high quality rail transit.

III. Walkable neighborhoods ...are places where people can conveniently walk to take care of errands...give people better choices about how to get around...have greater independence... (reduce) crime...alleviate traffic congestion and clean up...pollution... Bicycles can be made a part of everyday life for many of the region's residents. Metro should reduce barriers for taking bikes on trains and provide secure, covered bicycle parking or bike rooms at or inside stations. Metro and local buses should be equipped with bike racks.

return to the top of the page Metro Long Range Planning

It took over 25 years to realize the original Metrorail plan, and will doubtless take another 10-20 years to more fully develop the potential of many of the currently under-utilized stations. But NARPAC senses that very few local planning efforts consider changing or expanding the current layout. Although touting a major 25-year objective of "doubling current transit ridership" through a) expanding access to Metrorail through station improvements, more feeder bus service and additional parking, and b) new stations and extensions to the current system, details appear sketchy at best. According to their web site, projects in the works include:

  • the proposed "infill" station on the Red Line at NY Avenue;
  • extension of the Blue Line to Largo Town Center in Maryland;
  • the Dulles Corridor project in northern Virginia;
  • expansion of the Mt. Vernon Square/7th Street station at the new Convention Center; and
  • a regional bus study.

Although NARPAC has no objections to extending the existing radial arms of Metro further out into the expanding (but lower density) metro area towards Dulles to the West or Largo to the East (or, in fact all the way to Annapolis to the East), we feel that it is more important to increase the coverage within the higher density regions (current and projected) within DC itself. The accompanying graphic suggests three new lines and 16 new stations to enhance DC's core city economic growth: .

o a new link from Navy Yard to Potomac Ave to better serve the ongoing high-density developments on the northern bank of the Anacostia River;

o an ambitious new line paralleling the south bank of the Anacostia River and encouraging major developments in DC's most depressed and under-utilized (but potentially most attractive) areas;

o a new line in Northwest connecting Georgetown and the American University campus to both downtown, Rosslyn, and Friendship Heights;

o new "infill stations" at St. Elizabeth's in Anacostia; at Alexandria's Potomac Yard (south of National Airport); and in Northwest along Connecticut Avenue south of the zoo.

The crude attached diagram illustrates to map scale the current Metrorail system and its stations (drawn to scale for a 3000 ft. radius access circle) and indicates current utilization rates compared to the maximums achieved downtown. (CLICK THUMBNAIL TO POP UP AN ENLARGEMENT)

A second objective is to begin to move away from the original notion of focusing all radial lines on a single downtown hub and move towards a concept of connecting outlying areas by routes passing through DC, but not through the already congested downtown area. The new (light blue) lines on the diagram above would permit travel from Alexandria, for instance, towards Gaithersburg or Annapolis without going through DC's current downtown stations. While this diagram is surely notional, it points up the possibilities for more ambitious planning.

return to the top of the page CONSTRAINED BY ITS OWN SUCCESS

The DC area Metro system celebrated its 25th anniversary in late March, 2001, and a series of articles in the Washington Post and elsewhere, not only lauded its success but pointed out its now-looming limitations. While there are some plans to extend the radial spokes further from the hub--Westward some 10 miles to Dulles Airport, and Eastward some three miles to Largo (on the way to nowhere)--the problems arise from congestion at the hub. Metro's nine major "downtown" stations are now projected to reach "inadequate peak hour capacity" within the next 20-25 years either due to platform space, or the capacity of the relatively slow-running escalators and turnstyles. April 6th, 2001 has already set a new single weekday record of 662,400 trips, and the Spring tourist season is only just getting underway!

The nearer-term problem is generally recognized as a shortage of railcars themselves, resulting in primarily 4- and 6-car trains. Almost 200 new cars are now on order, and hundreds more are expected to be added to the list. But the more interesting longer-term problems reflect the basic design parameters of the infrastructure:

o The stations are all designed for a maximum of 8-car trains, which are estimated to carry 960 people at peak times (120/car). Very little can be done about this other than increasing the frequency of trains which, in turn, is limited by the signaling technology--and eventually practical considerations of safety.

o The entire system is designed as a two-track network which introduced several constraints: because there are very few sidings, broken down trains (a too-frequent occurrence) must be hauled a long way to sideline them, which takes significant time. More important, it is not possible to run express trains as well as locals, so the entire system works in lock-step to the slowest element on a line. Furthermore, track and right of way maintenance requires some period of non- use each day, thus barring a 24-hour operating day;

o Perhaps more important, however, is that two major line pairs (Orange and Blue, Yellow and Green) share the same track (and stations) downtown, and then Yellow and Blue overlap in Virginia, thus severely limiting their capacity over their entire length. Separating these lines and/or their downtown stations becomes the major challenge for the system's continued growth.

o Finally, the entire underground system depends crucially on escalators from surface level to mezzanines and from mezzanines to platform levels, and they have proven to require an embarrassing level of costly maintenance.

Of major concern, however, is that the "steady state" costs of running and maintaining a mature system are only now beginning to be realized. As would be natural, then, the costs of maintenance are rising to consume the entire budget, and the funds available for capital growth are very small. The chances, for instance, of digging up downtown again to add parallel tracks or significantly larger stations appear remote. The $12.3M estimated to be needed for maintenance before 2025 has not yet all been earmarked, and the federal contributions to system growth are uncertain at best.

NARPAC Commentary

The suggestion that the utility of Washington's metro system can be truncated by limitations in its initial design should be a major source of concern. With hindsight, of course, one can lament the original hub-and-spoke design concept, or the 2-track cost-minimizing system. But the only worthwhile issue is what to do about it, and from a practical standpoint, it is the hub-and-spoke design--which funnels everything through a few downtown stations--that must evolve into a new concept.

But that new concept will require the active participation of city planners with a clear view to either expanding "downtown" or moving towards "multiple downtowns" built around major new metro transfer stations, surrounded by high-density zoning. In any event, such a new concept will most likely involve:

o some sort of new "grid network" concept to replace the "hub-and-spoke" approach--as indicated very schematically below:;

o some new sections of underground track connecting existing stations--and adding [new ones]-- on different lines. Possibilities abound. Those suggested below would add roughly 25 miles of tunnels altogether:

  • Pentagon to Waterfront;
  • Navy Yard to Potomac Avenue;
  • Union Station to Capital South to Navy Yard;
  • Shaw to [Benning Bridge];
  • Shaw to [New Hampshire] to DuPont Circle;
  • DuPont Circle to [Key Bridge] to Rosslyn
  • [Georgetown] to [Ward Circle] to Friendship Heights
  • Minnesota to Anacostia;
  • Anacostia to Eisenhower Ave (under MLK Ave) via Wilson Bridge;
  • etc.
o some new continuous "people mover" mechanisms (like moving sidewalks in airports) between nearby stations to avoid the more costly, complex, all-in-one, over-and-under transfer stations. The most obvious would connect Farragut North with Farragut West, but others would be useful if there are new transfer opportunities at Anacostia, Shaw, DuPont Circle or Navy Yard;

o serious efforts to increase zoning density around existing, but still under-utilized, in-town stations--despite the complaints of local residents. The clear alternative to "edge cities" on the District's periphery is "multiple downtowns" within the city;

o some serious effort to develop a major long-range, in-town transportation plan that combines the elements of subways, buses, tour buses, 'circulators', cars, bikes, and pedestrians, as well as the inescapable need for adequate parking facilities.

NARPAC again recommends that it is time for the District to get serious about its major transportation needs, and to recognize that the development of a new 25-year plan is already overdue--for the future economic health of the entire city and the national capital metro area.

return to the top of the page METRO'S NEXT WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

By the fall of 2001, additional proposals for short- and long-term Metro expansion were beginning to surface, though none have as yet been finalized. For the first time, there was talk of at least one "pedestrian tunnel" to connect nearby stations on different lines. Since Metro Center (Red/Blue) and Gallery Place (Green/Yellow) are only 750 feet apart, such an underground connection could be welcome. While it may fall short of NARPAC's notions about "people movers", it could well save time and inconvenience for people transferring from one line to another. There is also talk of extending some platform lengths and adding some station entries to reduce crowding in the most congested stations. On a larger scale, however, bigger changes are beginning to emerge:

Proposals for a New Blue Line

In October of 2001, Metro floated an ambitious and constructive plan to begin by-passing downtown congestion, and resolving single-track vulnerabilities. This $6.5 billion plan would result in a new line between East Falls Church, VA (where the new Orange Line will be extended West through Tyson's Corner out to Dulles Airport) and Largo, MD (the planned eastern extension of the current Blue Line beyond Addison Road to just beyond the Beltway--and presumably, eventually, a station of the circumferential "Purple Line").

From the west endpoint east, this New Blue Line would connect with the Rosslyn ,VA station, but turn north through a new tunnel under the Potomac River into Georgetown (currently unserved by Metrorail). It would then turn east across the upper boundary of "downtown" with stops at Mt. Vernon Square (the new Convention Center) on the Green/Yellow Lines, Union Station (on the Red Line), and rejoin the existing Blue Line at Stadium Armory (serving RFK stadium and the major proposed site for the hoped-for 2012 Summer Olympics!).

NARPAC, always on the look-out for critical comments, can only note in this instance that such an additional development is long overdue, particularly in providing access to Georgetown a plan rejected by the local residents thirty years ago. The real problem, of course, is that it represents "catch-up ball"which will make it even more difficult to get out ahead of sprawl in other parts of the metro area particularly East of the Anacostia ands throughout the lagging Southeast Quadrant of DC and the metro area.

Conflict Over Purple Line (North)

The Fall of 2001 also gave rise to a lively, if somewhat misdirected, debate over how best to connect the "edge cities" growing between DC's borders and the Beltway (Bethesda to Silver Spring to College Park) and/or the between the fast-growing cities just outside the Beltway of Rockville, Wheaton, Greenbelt and New Carrollton (on Rte 50 to Annapolis). This debate is being heavily colored by what NARPAC considers to be a serious red herring. The proponents of the "outer" Purple Line (much closer to the original concept for a circumferential subway) are planning on an underground, heavy-rail continuation of the current Metro system. They view this development as a key element of future "smart growth".

Proponents of the "inner" Purple Line, on the other hand, are planning on a ground level, slower- speed, light-rail trolley system, using parts of a much-revered hiking/biking trail (on a old railroad right of way). This shorter route would be considerably less expensive, and would be directed at trying to reduce already severe automobile traffic.

In this case, there is a valid debate between catching up with inner congestion, or getting ahead of outer congestion (Washington's Beltway is already seriously overloaded). But the coupling of trolleys to one option and heavy rail to the other is a serious mistake. The suggestion of adopting an incompatible technology for one segment of the circumferential route under the guise of saving money ($1.3 billion v $3.8 billion) is simply disingenuous. It is caused in part by failing to differentiate between regional transportation needs (connecting the region) and local transportation needs (connecting neighborhoods), and in part by the contest between trying to either undo existing bad traffic habits or prevent the encouragement of future bad traffic habits. Again a problem in "catch-up ball".

But the more basic need is to accept the fact that regional transportation development can be a major determinant in regional economic development, while local transportation development is more related to local sociological development. Trains, aircraft, long-haul trucks, interstate highways, heavy rail transit and most commuters belong in the former category. Buses, trolleys, delivery vehicles, family cars, tourists, shoppers, bikers and pedestrians on local streets and ground level boulevards belong in the latter category. And seldom the twain should meet!.

Getting the Horse Before the Cart

Finally, it should be noted that all of these public transit developments are being planned for the more economically successful parts of the metro area, while none are being planned for the less economically developed areas such as the Southeast Quadrant of DC and the metro area. This essentially shows a lack of adequate long-range regional planning: transportation availability should dictate future economic growth, and not be sandwiched in after unstructured growth has already caused problems. NARPAC believes that it is of fundamental importance to the future of the Washington metro area to get the horse back in front of the cart.

The major reason for the current increasing in long range transportation planning is that the federal government pays for as much as 80% of major regional projects (The Bush administration may foolishly try to reduce this to 50%) through major grants on a six year cycle. The next new major new appropriations will come in 2003, and the lead time for preparing major proposals is upon us.

NARPAC urges city and regional officials to make sure that this metro area's total transportation needs are thoroughly and forcefully presented at that time.

An additional chapter is provided on Metro System Capacity Studies and 10-Yr Capital Investment Plan.

And another separate chapter looks at the engineering feasibility of adopting high-density automated parking facilities to conserve scarce urban space; increase city revenues; and provide a mechanism to encourage the use of energy-efficient vehicles.

This page was updated on Aug 5, 2004

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