More than a decade after the completion of its original 103-mile Metro rail system, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has plans for the future. Big plans. $26 billion worth, to be exact.
On Thursday, the agency released the first draft of a strategic plan it says “defines the next generation of Metro,” and maintain a level of service that will keep pace with metro DC’s projected population growth for the next 30 years.
To provide more capacity and flexibility for routing trains, the plan includes two new tunnels, one through downtown DC for the Green and Yellow Lines, and another parallel to the existing tube between Rosslyn and Georgetown to separate the single busy and breakdown-prone track currently serving the Orange and Blue lines.
The plan also calls for pedestrian tunnels to facilitate easier transfers between proximate stations on separate lines, other physical upgrades to selected core stations, new rail cars, upgraded electrical and communications infrastructure, and improvements to Metro’s bus network.
(Specific details of the infrastructure work are covered in this January 24 Washington Post story.)
The plan readily admits that WMATA must first invest in maintenance to keep the rail network up to a steady state of good repair. The agency will also take on added operational costs and traffic as the new Silver Line to Dulles Airport becomes operational in the coming years.
Planning for Metro’s future is a reasonable step, given that the system is typically the centerpiece of economic development plans, regardless of whether the region’s famous traffic congestion is factored in or not. Most agree that if DC and its suburbs on both sides of the Potomac are to grow, Metro can’t remain “as is.”
But if these lofty (or deep, depending on your perspective) plans are to become reality, Metro’s current lack of a dedicated revenue source can’t remain the status quo either. WMATA relies on contributions from the states and jurisdictions it serves, some of which are the wealthiest in the nation.
Yet local leaders and their parent states, already with a full plate of transportation needs, may not warm to the idea of committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Metrorail’s future, even if they do mandate sufficient space in highway medians for an eventual extension of light rail tendrils to the far suburbs.
Though the Silver Line has been talked about for years, for example, it took another organization—the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority—to take on the $5.6 billion task of building it, albeit not without controversy.
(Virginia, which is already having a difficult enough time finding a reliable revenue source to fix its roads, is now distracted with a controversial legislative redistricting measure—sort of the Old Dominion’s answer to the Beyonce “did she/didn’t she lip-sync” controversy at Monday’s inauguration that's diverted attention from fiscal matters).
In exchange for a new, reliable funding source, WMATA will have to assure its potential funding partners that it has rectified the administrative and maintenance oversight problems that have lead to frequent train car breakdowns, and control and switching system failures like the one that caused a two-train collision in 2009, killing nine people and injured dozens more. System deficiencies have also been blamed for several near misses.
In many ways, Metro’s strategic plan is the first major step toward taking the system into the future. First, however, it seems several other steps are needed to make up for the problems of the past and present.