July 19, 2013

The writer is a former congressman from Montgomery County, former chair of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission and former board member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

If you lived in San Francisco and tried to get to work the first week of July, you were out of luck. Employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) went on strike, stranding the 400,000 daily BART riders and causing chaos on the roads as people scrambled to find alternative ways to get around. It was, apparently, a particular mess on the Fourth of July, since many spectators of fireworks shows traditionally take BART.

Meanwhile, in the Washington area, 700,000 people ride Metro trains every day, and 400,000 ride Metrobus, and most of them think the service is generally pretty good, according to a recent Washington Post poll. So does this mean the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates Metro, can relax? Of course not. As everyone who rides Metro knows, the system was allowed to deteriorate for decades, and it is now being rebuilt at the cost of billions of dollars and considerable inconvenience to passengers. This rehabilitation started more than two years ago, and Metro’s general manager, Richard Sarles, said it will continue at least until 2017, with no letup in the disruption caused by nighttime and weekend construction.

As Californians have been reminded, a well-functioning public transit system is crucial to life in an urban area.

I’m a bit of a transit radical. I believe transit should be heavily subsidized to keep the fares as low as possible and to encourage maximum use. Even those who never ride the subway or a bus benefit when someone else does. We all get cleaner, healthier air; less congestion and stress; and lower taxes because of the revenue produced by transit-oriented development. So the rebuilding Metro is doing is important to all of us.

But getting Metro back to a “state of good repair” is only the first step. Our region should ensure that we have a transportation system that will be able to serve the growth that we know is coming. The experts tell us that, in the next 25 to 30 years, the population equivalent of the city of Houston (about 2 million people) will move to the Washington area. And our new neighbors will want to ride our Metro system, which is already crowded and stressed at many of its 86 stations. Not only do we need to expand those core stations, but we also need more stations, rail cars and buses, and at least one new tunnel under the Potomac. The folks in Virginia already see the need for a new tunnel today, with crowding on the Blue and Orange lines, and we haven’t even felt the effects of the Silver Line, which is scheduled to open to Reston around the end of this year or very early next year.

Fortunately, there is an answer. Metro’s board and senior management, working closely with regional players in business, labor, government, academia, civic groups, etc., developed a strategic plan, now called “Momentum,” to guide the expansion and improvement that Metro requires. I urge everyone who cares about our region’s future to go to WMATA.com and read the Momentum plan. You may not agree with every word in it, but I bet you will agree that Metro is doing what is necessary to plan responsibly.

The nation’s capital should have a world-class transit system. We don’t have that today, but Metro is hard at work to get us there. This costs money — a lot of money. Momentum calls for an additional outlay of $500 million each year until 2025, and $1 billion each year after that until 2042. These funds cannot be found by raising fares, which arguably are too high already. We will need continued federal support and some combination of increased regional income, sales or gas taxes. A key test for our public officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia and, yes, on Capitol Hill, will be whether they have the vision and courage to support the necessary funding.

It has been said that the only two things that bring us together in our region are Metro and the Redskins (maybe we need to add the Capitals and the Nationals). The Redskins are building for the future with an exciting young quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who himself has needed some rehab. For the sake of our future, let’s all support giving Metro what it needs to provide great service while keeping fares as low as possible. Even those who never get on a train or bus should see the wisdom in that.