Metro could build support for its grand plans for the future with some simple fixes today

Robert Thomson
Columnist February 16, 2013

Since the Metro staff issued its proposed long-range plan, I’ve been concerned that transit advocates would get ahead of themselves — that people would start debating exactly where on M Street that new Georgetown station should go, or whether rail service should be extended first to Bowie or to Centreville.

Those are some of the fun questions flowing from the draft plan, called Momentum. But the really hard question is how money would be raised to finance more tunnels, more trains and more buses.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

There’s nothing about this plan that’s a done deal. Whatever we decide we want, we’ve got to pay for.

When Metro’s planning director, Shyam Kannan, brought the Momentum ideas to the Action Committee for Transit’s meeting in Silver Spring on Tuesday, he stressed the benefits of creating a next-generation Metro, but he didn’t shy away from the sobering realities of financing these improvements.

Now, when you’re talking transit with the Action Committee for Transit, you’re talking to the fan club. These advocates aren’t going to ask why we should buy all this transit stuff when what we really need is an outer beltway.

Since the 1980s, ACT has pushed for expanded transit service, like the Purple Line, while seeking more money to support the system we already have. When Metro proposes a fare increase, these are the folks who say our local governments should be kicking in more money and not putting such a big burden on the riders.

So given the supportive environment, a Q&A with a Metro planner could have turned into a shared fantasy about a far-off Transit Land.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, many in the audience of about 40 people tailored their questions and comments to a phrase Kannan used: “low-hanging fruit.” This is the opposite of the grand plan for mid-century. It’s a reference to the relatively easy, short-term victories that would have a visible impact on the current generation of transit riders.

Ideas like this include putting markers on escalators to give people the idea they should stand to the right and walk on the left or platform markers that would indicate where a six-car train ends. Or a transit 511, a simple three-digit phone number that riders could call for information on bus and train arrivals.

How about getting brighter lighting in rail stations or more informative announcements aboard trains when there’s a service disruption.

And why don’t Metro officials just follow around a group of out-of-towners and study what it is about the transit system that confuses them? Longtime riders learn to deal with complicated fare charts, vending machines and garbled announcements that may baffle our many visitors.

Why did this audience of transit fans focus so strongly on the here and now, rather than on the decades ahead?

Well, the audience did tend toward the mature, and many of us listening to the list of wonderful, big-ticket projects might have been making the reasonable calculation that we’d never live to see the fruit of such large investments.

On the other hand, even people inclined to be transit-friendly have just had it with the basic, day-to-day frustrations of riding a busted transit system. The people running Metro today didn’t break it. But they need to do something for their supporters. They need to show that some often-complained-about thing is getting better.

And I’m not talking about some decimal point improvement in one of the statistics that Metro uses for its self-evaluations. It may be a simple fix, but it’s got to be something riders can see.

Such short-term goals can’t be decoupled from the long-term goals. Visible fixes today build “Momentum” for tomorrow.

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, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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