Metro to the Rescue!

By the

February 15, 2001

It is not my business in this space to worry myself with the concerns of Northern Virginians. Not that I have anything particularly against them, but my stated mission here is to hold forth on the issues of the day in the District. However, a recent news story on the actions of the Virginia state Senate gave me occasion to pause: An apparent down-state revolt has led to a funding cut-off for money to alleviate the traffic build-up on the roads of Northern Va.

Now, this story in and of itself is of little concern to those city-dwellers for whom a personal automobile would only be a burden. It is indicative, however, of a broader trend in the metropolitan area that is of concern to both those in the city and in the suburbs. The transportation situation has gotten so bad in this region that we are now second only to Los Angeles in terms of congestion. There needs to be a concerted, coordinated effort between Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government in order to revitalize the backbone of the region’s transportation and infrastructure.

The first step towards such a revitalization involves rail. As it stands, Metro is the second largest subway system in the country, carrying upwards of 600,000 passengers a day. Within the last few months, it has finally completed its expansion to the originally-planned size, finishing construction on the southern tip of the Green Line, across the Anacostia river into Southeast DC.

However, the region has grown in ways that the planners of Metro had not accounted for originally. Northern Virginia is one of the most rapidly growing population centers in the country. The Dulles corridor sits at the center of the widespread Internet economy, with its most visible resident, America Online, having recently completed the largest merger in the history of the world.

Metro was largely designed as a system to truck suburbanites into the city, and in that respect it works very efficiently. Population growth throughout the area has meant that Metro is reaching a ceiling that it cannot operate above without additional capital investment. But even more important, the commuting pattern of area workers has also shifted. While hundreds of thousands of workers are coming into the District each morning, many more are also leaving the District and Maryland at the same time to travel to work in the Dulles corridor. At present, however, at present, Dulles is comparatively inaccessible by public transportation. A goal of any revitalization plan should be to open up the Dulles corridor to the workers who otherwise crowd the Beltway.

A second failure of Metro is that it is, for the most part, a commuter service, and as such, it is underused at night, save for the Gallery Place/Chinatown stop on nights when something is going on at the MCI Center. On a recent Friday night, the car was virtually empty at the U Street stop on the Green Line, even though traffic was bumper to bumper on the road above. Metrorail use has not become a part of the culture of nightlife in the city. Many neighborhoods were skipped over, for one reason or another, in the planning of the original system.

The cost of Metro expansion is enormous. No one jurisdiction could fit the bill alone; even in unison such ambitious construction might prove prohibitively expensive. But the leaders of Virginia, Maryland, the District and the federal government owe it to us to start thinking of newer, better ways to solve the problem of congestion on our roads, or we won’t be growing much more anytime soon

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