Thirty-five years ago this week, the Washington Metro opened for business. The original system was a mere 4.6 miles and consisted of five stations from Rhode Island Avenue to Farragut North. Today, Metrorail is a 103-mile system with 86 stations and an annual ridership in the millions. Its growth is impressive, but it is threatened by the organization’s growing budget shortfall, which is estimated at above $40 million dollars. If the Metro wants to continue serving the city, it should embrace opportunities to expand its reach, while making selective cuts to close the budget gap.
The Metro should push forward with construction of the Silver Line, which will bring Metro service west into northern Virginia. According to current projections, by 2016 Dulles Airport could finally be connected with the Metro system. This would reduce congestion on the freeways outside of D.C. and make Dulles more accessible for residents of the District. With serious budget deficits, plans for expansion are often the first thing on the chopping block. When it comes to the Silver Line, however, local leaders must protect the project’s funding and work to make sure it is completed as soon as possible.
When looking for places to cut spending, the Metro should also avoid ending late-night service. The Metro will need to draw down service to close the budget gap, but the complete elimination of Friday and Saturday late-night trains would do a great deal of harm to the life and culture of the District. As city councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) noted at one of the D.C. Council’s recent meetings, there was a time in the early ‘80s when the city simply died every night after 6:30 when the last Metro train left. Late-night Metro service is extremely important for the life of any major city, and D.C. would do itself great harm by removing it all together. Furthermore, many service workers rely on late-night metro service to commute home from their jobs. They should not be denied the convenience of the Metro simply because of the hours they work.
Taking deep cuts to the Silver Line and late night service off the table means the Metro will need to look for alternative ways to solve its budget woes. Crucially, the Maryland and Virginia state legislatures must step up to the plate and accept more of the burden for Metro funding. With state budget deficits ballooning, D.C. has increasingly been saddled with the expense of funding Metro. Since so many Maryland and Virginia residents rely on the Metro to make their commute into D.C., these states should recognize their greater responsibility to fund the long-term capital improvement of the system. The support of the Federal government is just as important. The Republican budget proposal would slash $150 million in funding for the Metro and must be opposed. President Barack Obama’s proposal would preserve that funding, which is crucial to maintance of Metro’s facilities.
The Washington Metro has become a hallmark of urban and commuter life in the district and each day close to one million riders use the system. At 35 years, the organization still has room to grow and prudent budgeting will be crucial in avoiding what looks like an impending mid-life crisis.