Regional mobility is no pipe dream

Robert Smith, former WMATA Board chair, calls WMATA’s proposed loop line a “distracting pipe dream”. For context, Smith was appointed by former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich in 2003, then fired in 2006 after making anti-gay remarks.

Smith assails WMATA’s proposal as being in “the realm of fantasy”. In reality, it’s anything but. Every recent analysis of the Metrorail network has highlighted the immense congestion and overcrowding in the core. Far from serving only the core, the proposed loop line connects key transit hubs, enhancing mobility in and out of the core, relieving some of the pressure on the system’s most heavily-congested stations (like Gallery Place).

Yet Smith continues his assault on sensible planning:

What possible benefit of this project would inure to the people of Maryland, particularly those who dwell beyond Montgomery and Prince George’s counties? While they would be spared the capital construction cost, the state would still be zapped with an increase in operating costs into eternity for the privilege of watching more of its residents spend entertainment dollars in the District.

This is reflective of the sort of small-minded thinking that advocates like Richard Layman rail against. When politicians think only of their county or their state, they ignore the fact that we are one region made up of cities and counties from two states, plus the federal city. We succeed together, or we fail together.

Practically speaking, though, what do Marylanders get out of the loop line? For the many Marylanders who commute through the core—whether they enter by MARC, commuter bus, or the Red or Green Lines, the loop line will ease congestion and provide connectivity to destinations in DC which presently have no rail service. Sound transit planning isn’t about politics; it’s about hard data. It may be hard for the suburbs to stomach, but solving Metrorail’s problems—including the problems suburban commuters experience—means increasing core capacity.

Smith’s true colors come out with his next complaint:

Even now, many Montgomery County riders suffer the indignity of being tossed from every other homebound train at Grosvenor-Strathmore station during rush hour, thanks to Metro’s lack of enough dollars — and a supportive vote from the District — to fund the full ride out to Shady Grove.

It seems as though in Smith’s world, Metro exists for the sole purpose of shuttling suburban commuters to and from far-flung park-and-rides. Looking at WMATA’s ridership statistics, though, we can see that that’s just not true. If Smith believes so strongly that the stations between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Shady Grove need the added service, then he should call on the State of Maryland and Montgomery County to fund the service. As a reimbursable project, the other jurisdictions wouldn’t have to contribute—though their Board members would have to vote to approve the service.

Smith describes Metrorail as “[lacking] the engineering simplicity to do the basic job of getting people where they want to go”. It’s true that today’s Metrorail is clearly collapsing under the strain. But that doesn’t signify any underlying engineering failure; rather, it’s the result of years of deferred maintenance, and a failure to plan and build new capacity to accommodate shifts in the region’s population. What WMATA intends to build by 2040 should have been built years ago. Had this been done, there’d be less pressure on the oldest parts of the network, reducing the pain of the sometimes-lengthy maintenance outages necessary to keep this aging rail system running.

So, what should we build? In his article, Smith says we should “build a line that effectively paralleled the Beltway and circled the city”. The Beltway Line isn’t a new concept; it’s something people have been pushing for years. But it’s an idea born out of auto-centric thinking. The fact that people spend hours every day in the parking lot that is the Beltway doesn’t mean that’s where they’re actually trying to go. We need to focus on moving people, not cars, and that means connecting activity centers, not just following existing paths of congestion and sprawl. This is more than just a gut instinct; WMATA has tested plans for a Beltway Line, and found that “[only] the segments that crossed the American Legion Bridge (between White Flint and Dunn Loring) and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge (between Branch Avenue and Eisenhower Avenue) had some promise”.

Smith closes by calling our region a “transportation basket case that needs to focus on reality”. That’s true, but without an increase in capacity it’s only going to get worse. Arguing that we shouldn’t build anything new because it’s too expensive, too unpalatable for the suburban parts of our region, or because WMATA already has operational problems will only prolong the pain.

One thought on “Regional mobility is no pipe dream”

  1. The entire reason for planning additional core capacity seems to go right over his head.

    He lists the current arrangement where local jurisdictions pay for expansion in their areas as a reason this can’t and shouldn’t be done. However, it’s quite clear that such an arrangement cannot persist with large expansions of the system (such as the impact that the Silver line will have on core capacity).

    The implied deal Metro is putting forth with the Loop concept (and all of the alternatives they looked at for core capacity) is this: no more extensions without additional capacity in the core. That doesn’t mean the politics of the deal won’t be a challenge, but that’s no reason to ignore the problem.

    As for what Maryland gets out of core capacity, this diagram illustrates the benefits quite clearly:

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