Most people in the D.C. region don’t ride Metro regularly. So why spend a lot of time talking about its uncertain future?
Travelers who write to me or comment on the Dr. Gridlock blog offer these observations:
Metro is irrelevant to today’s travel since commuters have so many more options than they did when the rail system was designed in the mid-20th century.
It was a bad idea in the first place, because an urban heavy-rail system needs big subsidies from taxpayers to carry a relatively small portion of the commuting population.
Once we get self-driving cars, no one is going to take a train anyway. So why don’t we just sell the thing for scrap?
In recent columns about Metro, I’ve talked about concerns raised by riders. So I want to address the nonriders on why they have a stake in Metro’s success.
For many decades — as far ahead as it’s reasonable to look with urban transportation — the heavy-rail system is going to be the backbone of the capital area’s travel network. Community leaders and business executives are counting on it to keep the region lively and prosperous.
Yes, the nation is developing new ways of getting around that, including ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, as well as self-driving cars. These advances will be valuable, but much of that value is likely to be found in making it easier for people to reach Metrorail stations for the longest parts of their trips.
The hardest part will be retrofitting the 20th-century designs of Metro stations for the way the travel system is evolving. Local governments have an incentive: They’re going to see the value in dismantling the concrete fortresses — the parking garages — that surround some stations and limit their potential for transit-oriented development.
Travelers, meanwhile, will see the advantage of not having to warehouse their cars all day at suburban rail stations. They’ll see ride-hailing services and self-driving cars as ways of solving the problem of how to travel those few miles between their residences and the Metro stations.
Rather than sounding a death knell for Metro, the evolution of surface transportation is likely to increase demand for rail service.
That is, as long as the service is there. Communities don’t need to be looking decades ahead to fear the impact of a crippled Metro system on their development opportunities.
I saw one example of local concern in a letter written by the Friends of White Flint, a civic and business coalition in Montgomery County that’s focused on turning the area along Rockville Pike into a walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly “neighborhood of residents of all ages, unique shops and restaurants, and large and small businesses.”
The letter went to the region’s Transportation Planning Board, which has been discussing Metro issues for months.
With Metro in a tight spot financially, the leaders of the White Flint group wanted to join the discussion by expressing alarm over proposals for service cuts and fare increases that the Metro board is likely to vote on in March.
They use Metro, but they have an interest that extends beyond their own commutes: “Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in this area by dozens of property owners and by Montgomery County, and significant additional investment is planned over the next 20 years.”
A central tenet of their long-range plan is “easy access to transit, primarily Metrorail.”
It builds their hopes, it makes Arlington attractive to the Nestlé headquarters, it helps keep the Marriott headquarters in the D.C. region, and it’s going to focus community development in Loudoun County as the Silver Line is completed.
Metro has added billions of dollars to the wealth of our communities. And it’s likely to be one of the main forces shaping development for decades to come. We need to figure out how to make our public and private investment match Metro’s value — not just to the people who ride it, but to the residents and the companies who benefit from its existence.
The approach we’ve taken so far is to wait for Metro to come begging for money to close an annual gap, then we give them a handout. That pattern is part of what led to Metro’s decline, and it’s unlikely to reverse it.
Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.