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Plan B for Rail Transit?

In rebuffing the plan to build a Metrorail line through Tysons Corner and on to Dulles Airport, the Federal Transit Administration said it doubted whether the Washington airports authority could manage the project. Let's take that concern as valid for a moment.

If the airports authority, which is managing the multi-billion dollar expansion of Dulles Airport, can't manage construction of a Metrorail line, who could?

How about Metro?

No. After Metro built out the five rail lines as planned, it got out of the rail construction business. It no longer has a department that could immediately turn its attention to the task of building a new rail line across the District or the suburbs.

It certainly seemed like a logical decision last year. Metro was out to cut personnel costs before proposing a fare increase. Virginia was committed to building the only Metrorail extension for the foreseeable future. Why keep people on the Metro staff with nothing for them to build?

In addition to raising doubts about management of the construction, the FTA said it was concerned about the eventual handoff from the airports authority as builder to Metro as operator of the rail line. Metro certified last spring that it was prepared to take control of the new line, but that wasn't good enough for the FTA.

So given that Metro is no longer in a position to build its own extensions, are we done building Metro? This goes beyond the debate over the Dulles line. Readers often say they'd like to see Metrorail down I-395, out to Centreville, up along the I-270 corridor or arcing around the Capital Beltway. Shall we just forget about any such notion?

I don't believe we can afford to. This region has grown remarkably in the past three decades, but it's far from built out. The forces pushing growth in all directions are strong. Your children will think of Tysons, Bethesda and National Harbor as sections of downtown Washington.

The federal rejection of the Dulles rail plan, valid or not, has exposed weaknesses in our regional transportation planning that must be addressed now.

[Join my colleagues Lena Sun and Eric Weiss at 11 a.m. today for their Roads and Rails online discussion. See also in today's Post the latest story by Amy Gardner about prospects for building a transit line to Dulles.]

By Robert Thomson  |  January 28, 2008; 8:25 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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Comments

Metro? I haven't ridden since the fare hike.

I'm a motorist now.

Posted by: Bob | January 28, 2008 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Light rail maybe?

Run a line down the median for the Dulles access road?

I bet there are some planners who cry every time they look at the right of way for the old W and OD line.

Posted by: wiredog | January 28, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I still think an express line (a la Heathrow Express, Shanghai Express, Parisian RER, etc) would be best, with the following stops:

1. Dulles Airport
2. Reston
3. Tysons Corner
4. Rosslyn
5. Metro Center

Posted by: iammrben | January 28, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Metro can't afford to simply stop growing, because the region sure isn't stopping.

However, to move forward, Metro needs a few key things:

1. Dedicated funding. A regional sales tax, a regional gas tax, some combination of those and other projects. Reliable funding is key for any capital expansion plan.

2. They need a rational plan. The beauty of the original system is that it provided such a plan. The current state of expansion is piecemeal efforts by individual municipalities - that's a surefire recipe for failure. Such a plan would include full new trunk line through the core of DC to handle growing traffic from outside the district.

3. Metro needs help from the Feds. Not just because it's in DC, but all transit agencies across the country need a similar commitment from the Feds to fund projects on a similar basis as highways. Transit projects currently compete for a much smaller pool of dollars, with a smaller percentage match, and far more restrictions placed on the usage of that money.

So, dedicated revenue for operations and maintenance, a rational and logical plan for expansion, both to new areas and within existing service areas, and Federal assistance for capital funding.

Posted by: Alex B. | January 28, 2008 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I'm cautiously optomistic at this new development. I'm optomistic because I think the idea of decent mass transit to Dulles AND Tysons is extremely important to the region, and I'm glad businesses see that. And by decent mass transit I do not mean a once-an-hour 5A bus that gets stuck in I-66 and Tysons and Toll Road traffic on the way to the airport. If this is really that important to the business community, then they should play a large part in funding it. I also have faith that the business community will push for the most efficient option that will deliver the most bang for the buck. In otherwords, it likely will not be rail, but it will be a big step above what we have now with the 5A bus and the ultra-expensive Flyer bus that forces you to transfer before getting to anyplace useful. In fact, if a non-Metro solution to the problem is used, then someone else can run it (much like MTA, not Metro, will run the Purple Line in MD), like VRE, Fairfax County, or some private entity. And hopefully the private entity that funds the future Dulles Rail (possibly without rails) will be smart enough to not select Bechtel to build it.

What I am afraid of is that if building rail to Dulles was profitable, a private entity would have already done it. The government usually builds stuff that isnt going to be profitable, but is needed anyway. I was pretty sure that Dulles Rail fit into that latter category, and I'm skeptical that someone can say that they can make a for-profit venture out of this and succeed. What I'd be worried about is that there would just be another behind-closed-doors contract, Virginia taxpayers would guarantee a certain profit to the private firm, and there would be no caps on toll road tolls or Dulles transit fares. Not only that but they would probably add in non-compete clauses, banning the widening of the Toll Road or other parallel Roads (Route 7, Sunrise Valley/Sunset Hills), and might even prohibit Fairfax County from offering parallel transit routes.

I'm also interested in seeing how anyone plans to get bus-only lanes or elevated busways through Tysons. Such components would be absolutely necessary for any BRT through Tysons, which is what people seem to be leaning towards.

Posted by: Woodley Park | January 28, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

We are forgetting that Dulles was built so far away from the city center to appease NIMBY interest. So why should heavy rail be built at such a great expense to tax payers of a few? An estimated 33% use mass transit in this region. How can the extension be useful, but to spur more exurban growth further compounding the transportation problems in NOVA? Dulles has a dedicated limited access road to serve it and most people will continue to use it. Obviously this is a cash cow for Fairfax county who wants to create more growth away from DC. They are not concerned about mitigating traffic congestion, rather increasing revenue. They are known for this behavior. Let me also add this. What if Congress allows more flights and larger planes out of National Airport? Dulles traffic will plummet, making the Silver Line a 5 billion dollar trinket. I am all for smart growth, but this metro extension not smart by any means. I bet know one has even considered a hybrid light/heavy rail solution.

Posted by: Sivad | January 28, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Webbuzzard | January 28, 2008 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Tysons should have its own light rail / trolley / dedicated bus line, connecting to Metro and whatever form of mass transit gets built to IAD but could be self-sustaining.

Bob, all the commentary about "sure, let's build a metro line up 270" is pretty ignorant considering ridership numbers had to be "tweaked" (probably manipulated) for the Purple line, which already has rail hubs at points along it with the desired density for rail. That says to me that rail down 270 wouldn't do a lick of good, judging the cost versus ridership.

Even better, Fairfax County could, through zoning, require land owners to pay for the infrastructure necessary and adapt the uses of their land to this new format. Simple example - put it at ground level along route 7 but require all new buildings to butt up against the road about 15 feet from current ground level, plus give width for extra roadway and mass transit. Then you have a roadway bridge above that can look nice, is walkable, and all the traffic is hidden underground for a fraction of the cost of tunneling. Chicago did this nearly 100 years ago.

Problem is, there is zero political will to have any vision for the future - and force a plan through that will benefit residents / property owners / companies / government in the long term.

Forcing CSX through eminent domain to give up tracks for dedicated passenger rail would be a great first step - the feds could subsidize a rail spur outside the district and use one of the dual tracks. It would costs a tenth of how much building a new line would.

Posted by: Steven | January 28, 2008 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Why would there be a long term plan for the metro? That's too much to ask of a single government, let alone an intergovernmental organization.

Just be glad it isn't on fire.... today.

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