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Commuting Challenges Ahead

Three items in Sunday's Post showed why my mailbag is likely to remained jammed with letters from angry and frustrated commuters, no matter how they travel to and from work. See how these traffic and transit issues fit together to create a challenge that will be impossible for the region to dodge.

Morning Commute.jpg Commuters head toward District. (Robert Thomson)

-- Tens of thousands of military jobs will shift from one part of the region to others in the next few years. The employees will either move closer to the new job sites, or not. Whatever their decisions, they'll wind up having an impact on a transportation system unprepared to accommodate them. Key choke points will be Fort Belvoir, Fort Meade and Bethesda. Only one, Bethesda, has good transit access. But even there, the main roads will be overwhelmed with traffic long before major new roadwork can ease the congestion.

Steve Vogel wrote:

Fairfax County officials estimate that up to $1.5 billion in transportation improvements are needed at Fort Belvoir, including finishing the Fairfax County Parkway connector. In Maryland, transportation officials say $300 million is needed to rebuild a five-mile stretch of Route 175 by Fort Meade, among other projects. Montgomery County officials are pressing the state for more than $70 million in projects to widen Wisconsin Avenue and improve other roads to accommodate a doubling in visitors to the Bethesda hospital. (See the full story here.)

-- Metro's fares go up next month, beginning a new test of riders' patience and Metro's commitment to improve service. In 2008, we'll see more trains and buses. But Metro's leaders made it real clear that the purpose of the fare and fee increases was not to add service but to avoid cuts. Still, the Metro board members acknowledged that the customers who will be paying more expect more in return.

Will many of the long distance Metro commuters decide they might as well drive? Metro doubts it, but nobody knows for sure. This will be a test like no other.

Lena H. Sun wrote:

In a bluntly worded address to 60 senior managers 10 days ago, [Metro General Manager John B.] Catoe said the level of customer dissatisfaction was unacceptable. The agency's image is not helped, he said, when riders don't receive courteous responses or when they see employees talking in groups at station platforms. (See the full story here.)

-- A Post editorial described the fare and fee increases as inevitable, while supporting Metro's plan to make future hikes more regular and gradual. But it went on to spotlight the even more expensive problem looming in the transit system's future.

The editorial said:

The more important and tougher problem for Metro, and by extension for the nation's capital, is how it will pay to expand, renew and maintain the system. That, and not the predictable squabbles over annual budgets and fares, is the $3 billion question. (See the full editorial here.)

While the impact of the fare and fee increases is hardly small potatoes, it's worth noting that they have no impact on the larger problem of creating a transit system that's going to ease pressure on the region's road network during the next few decades.

[Join me at 1 p.m. today for an online discussion in which we can exchange views on these and other local transportation issues. Here's a link that will allow you to submit questions and comments in advance.]

By Robert Thomson  |  December 17, 2007; 7:54 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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60 Senior Managers??!!

If you have that many Senior Managers and customer satisfaction is unacceptable, perhaps part of the problem 'too many chiefs' and much more than a bluntly worded memo is required.

Posted by: Zizzy | December 17, 2007 9:40 AM | Report abuse

'too many chiefs'

Yes, 60 Senior Managers is a bit absurd. That kind of reminds me of a certain local NFL team with too many 'chiefs', and not living up to expectations. Hmmm... Maybe too many people in charge is the problem with both organizations.

Posted by: Sid | December 17, 2007 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Well, after the official announcement of the Metrorail fare and parking rate hikes, today was Day 1 of riding the MARC train instead of all but 4 stops on Metro... and it went very well!!!! We'll see if the change takes, but if this morning was any indication, goodbye Metro, you'll have lost my end-of-line ridership and parking dollars forever.

Posted by: Pete | December 17, 2007 10:33 AM | Report abuse

If ever there was a case for the disadvantages of a tri-"state" region then this would be it. Nothing is cohesive in this area and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Here is a good example. Why do you think Maryland is so adamant on building the 1.5 billion dollar road to nowhere? To encourage major development in the state as an alternative to conjested Tyson's Corner and the District of course. Does it serve the region as a whole? Absolutely not. This why we need a true transit authority, not WMAT as it should be called instead of WMATA. Unfortunately it will never happen as long as counties try to compete with the District instead of just admitting it is the center of the region. I believe this will change as the city addresses the crime rate and schools. As far as BRAC, it is most likely that the outlying counties and more affordable areas of the region will benefit most, because there is no way for the majority of military personell to afford to live in Montgomery or Fairfax (as far as a single family or big town house which they will want). I suspect things will be less bipolar for rush hour, but if corners weren't cut in the first place (especially on the Virginia side) then maybe it wouldn't be as big of an issue. I already know whats going to happen. All the municipalities are going to go to Uncle Sam with their hand out and do nothing until the commute times are doubled. Finally when something is built it will be inadequate because it will take unnecessarily long to complete and then back to Uncle Sam for a hand out to fix it. This is getting really old...

Posted by: Sivad | December 17, 2007 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Metro rail has had more serious problems with customer service than discourteous employees. My partner has been assaulted three times on Metro property: once on a train, and twice in a station. When mugged on the train, she got off the train and reported it to a station manager immediately. Another passenger got off with her and offered to identify the assailants. The station manager refused to call Metro police or contact anyone to check the train at the next station. Last month, I almost got mugged at knife-point outside another station (I escaped by jumping on a bus). I witnessed a drug deal a few years ago at another station. I hope that at least some of this money goes toward increasing safety.

Posted by: Martha Giles | December 17, 2007 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Right, Sivad, the ICC is a "road to nowhere". It is a road to a lot of stuff already, and people who are trapped without adequate roads to get around. All those rural roads up there cannot safely handle the existing traffic, much less any more. And it will keep development closer into the existing urban areas, instead of letting it sprawl out further into Frederick, Howard, even WV and PA (which already are getting a lot of it).

Hopefully in 20 years I'll be able to say "I told you so" if someone with some vision instead of these useless political badgers turns it into another Potomac crossing. Then we won't be captive to these ridiculous commutes.

Posted by: Steven | December 17, 2007 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Safety concerns? My question would be is metro too nice? I would be willing to wager that Metro is the safest train system in the United States. I guess when you have something as pretty as the Metro faults are glaring. I have been on most subways in America and the BART is the only on that comes a distant second. The problem with Metro, like alot of other projects in this area, is that it was built for aesthetics and not for true transit: no third rail way, bad juctions (i.e. Rossyln tunnel), low capacity trains, etc. But hey its the Washington way to be under built and over funded, at least Metro is nice to look at while waiting for the train that is 20 minutes late.

Posted by: Sivad | December 17, 2007 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Here we go with ICC talk again. I wonder how many of the environmentalists, Sierra Club members, and other anti-ICC people are gonna drive on the ICC once its built. These are the same people who were against a 12 lane Wilson Bridge, and I bet they still drive on it.

Posted by: No More ICC Talk | December 17, 2007 2:32 PM | Report abuse

What I was saying has nothing to do with environmentalism, the point was that every jurisdiction is out for themselves and the fact that Maryland is building a 1.5 billion dollar road that does not benefit the traffic woes of the the region and then complaining about the cost of improving 175 proves that. The obvious purpose of the ICC is to stimulate more development in the state, not to improve overall transit which should be a higher priority. Again what we need is a true WMATA that facilitates transit construction/development in the region, not the battle of the DOT's.

Posted by: Sivad | December 17, 2007 3:15 PM | Report abuse

"Here we go with ICC talk again. I wonder how many of the environmentalists, Sierra Club members, and other anti-ICC people are gonna drive on the ICC once its built. These are the same people who were against a 12 lane Wilson Bridge, and I bet they still drive on it."

Trust me, the environmentalists are hardly using the Wilson Bridge and they won't have much use for the ICC. They oppose ALL roads for the simple selfish reason that m
ost of them don't NEED or WANT roads. Environmentalists are the folks who don't use roads to commute.

First, there are the landed gentry in far-out horse country who oppose any roads that would bring the masses to their area (these are the people who howl about "sprawl" and get their county to pass laws requiring a minimum of 5 acres per lot for new home construction.

Then there are those who don't work - housewives, students, and the bearded, undernourished-looking guys with inherited money. These are the "activist class" - the ones with the time on their hands to pack planning sessions and public input hearings, research ways to manipulate the law for the purpose of killing roads, and find pro-bono lawyers to tie up road planning in court.

Finally, there are the neo-urbanists - the so-called "new city dwellers" who cry for "smart growth". They NEVER met a road they couldn't oppose or a rail line they didn't want. These are the folks who freely show their disdain for "gas-guzzling SUV's" and "Mc Mansions" while they brag about they are morally and intellectually superior because they "live close to work" in small quarters in crowded city neighborhoods and "walk, bike and use mass transit".

Trust me, environmentalists have no use for roads. Nor for those who need them.

Posted by: ceefer66 | December 17, 2007 3:59 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure that having a non-regional transit authority would change things. Instead of having obvious geographic preferences, it would be non-obvious. There would still be representatives who favor one area over another, city over suburbs, and so forth. Look at the fights over which metro lines get more rail cars? that's not a DC/VA/MD thing, that's a county/area issue.

Posted by: ah | December 17, 2007 4:50 PM | Report abuse

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