The core is key for Metro, chief planner says

Robert Thomson
Columnist August 3, 2013

Shyam Kannan, director of Metro’s office of planning, participated in an online discussion Monday in which he emphasized the need to invest first in improvements to the core of the transit system, adding to its capacity.

Metro’s long-range plan — called Momentum — sets goals for 2025 as well as targets for 2040 and beyond. The first round of investment would include full eight-car train service, completion of a rapid-bus service network along 24 corridors, pedestrian tunnels to create new rail-transfer options downtown, new switches and side tracks to add flexibility in train movement, and more rail service between the Pentagon and Rosslyn.

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

Possibilities for later years include adding rail lines in the region’s center; extending the Orange Line to Centreville and Bowie and the Blue Line to Potomac Mills, perhaps via light rail or rapid bus; and helping local jurisdictions figure out how to create light-rail or rapid-bus connections along heavily traveled corridors.

These are excerpts from Monday’s discussion with Washington Post readers:

Metro train

Why can’t Metrorail extend to Frederick? As more people who work in the D.C. area live farther north and west, wouldn’t it make sense to have Metro go further north than Shady Grove?

Kannan: Right now, the core of the system is being taxed to and beyond its limits. Extending the rail system before adding capacity to the core will only exacerbate this problem. Metro is exploring potential extensions of the system in its long-range plan, but our immediate focus is, and has to be, adding capacity to the core.

‘Momentum’ is a joke

The WMATA 2025 Momentum plan mentions nothing about installing a third track throughout the system. Instead, the plan wastes billions of dollars on a Band-Aid approach to fixing Metrorail. This plan doesn’t represent the input of everyday Metrorail riders. A third track would prevent long delays when cars have sick riders or there’s a broken train blocking a track.

Kannan: The Metrorail system was originally designed as a two-track system. Adding an additional track raises issues related to land ownership, constructability, system integration and certainly cost. Our two-track system does have infrastructure in place to add routing flexibility. We are proposing to add additional flexibility in the form of more pocket tracks and more crossovers as part of Metro 2025.

Metro core

Why do all Metro trains need to run into D.C.? I think it is a false assumption that people live in the suburbs and work in D.C. Metro should consider building a Capital Beltway line that follows Interstate 495 around D.C.; that would connect a lot of people that the system misses.

Kannan: You are referring to what planners call “circumferential” connections. The Metro system was conceived as a “hub and spoke” system, designed to carry suburban commuters into downtown jobs. Clearly, the region has evolved since the system was designed more than four decades ago.

In the short term, surface transit will be the effective solution for suburb-to-suburb travel patterns. The Metrobus Priority Corridor Network, along with initiatives outside Metro such as the Purple Line, are examples of these. Metro is examining fixed-guideway [rail] options for its long-range plan, but improvements to the core need to be made for these expansions to be possible.

Fares

Plans like this always promote great ideas but few ever are realized because the money is just not there. What is WMATA doing to ensure financial stability in the future aside from fare increases?

Kannan: Despite the fact that Metro is the second-busiest rail system in the nation, we are among only a handful that does not have a predictable, sustained source of funding. In addition, fares are directed almost exclusively to cover operating costs.

While other regions are finding ways to pay for major transit investments — Los Angeles, for example, is moving forward with a $55 billion transit-expansion plan — we are working hard to ensure that our region’s leaders find a funding solution for Metro.

Add more core capacity now

Momentum is much too timid an approach to D.C. transit planning. Why not invest in a world-class rail system now?

Kannan: Metro has to be responsible, and for that reason, Momentum’s first set of initiatives — called Metro 2025 — are designed to solve problems that are here and now. Momentum does include a reference to Metro 2040, which is our long-range expansion plan that is still under development. We encourage you to keep your eye out for it as it moves through the planning process.

Rosslyn bottleneck

The plan seeks to alleviate the bottleneck under the Potomac River on the Orange and Blue lines. Could you elaborate on this?

Kannan: We are exploring two options. Alternative One adds rail track that would create a new connection between the Orange/Silver and Blue lines between Courthouse and Arlington Cemetery. Alternative Two proposes a second Rosslyn station with an underground passageway to the existing Rosslyn station and sets the stage for a second connection across the Potomac.

Expansion

Why should WMATA be tasked with expanding its service and taking over more responsibility when it can’t handle what it has?

Kannan: Thanks to its funding partners, Metro is engaged in the largest capital-improvement program since its original construction. We are near the midpoint of a $5 billion, six-year investment program to rebuild the system. However, we cannot ignore that the system will continue to need investment once this period of extensive rebuilding nears completion.

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