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Choke Point Slows Orange Line Trains

Neighbors of smart-growth building projects across the region have also begun to question whether the promise of train travel may have been oversold.

"Major rail and road improvements will be needed in five to 10 years to handle the impact of this rezoning frenzy, but our local officials are more concerned with pleasing developers than planning for our future," said Mark Tipton, one of the neighbors fighting a proposal to build a cluster of mid-rises near the Vienna Metro station.

Passengers squeeze into an Orange Line train at the Court House Station in Arlington during morning rush hour on Tuesday. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Metro Bottleneck: Making Room for Growth
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To accommodate the growing demand on the Orange Line as well as the riders from the proposed extension through Tysons Corner, Metro officials say they will add cars to each train -- to the maximum of eight -- and reroute some Blue Line trains to the Yellow Line.

This, they say, will create enough capacity in the tunnel to meet the predicted demands at least through 2025.

But that contradicts a 2001 study by Metro that found that traffic in the tunnel -- even with those fixes -- will exceed its capacity by 2020.

Moreover, if the Orange Line ridership through the tunnel at morning rush hour grows as quickly as Orange Line ridership in Northern Virginia has over the past five years, the tunnel will be over its capacity long before Metro's predictions.

Transit ridership predictions are notoriously difficult in suburban areas.

Kauffman said "we've got lots of folks prognosticating on the predictions" and that it's clear the system needs to be expanded.

He said local leaders are trying to build a case for the federal government to help pay to resolve the passenger squeeze.

Noting that the number of federal employees using Metro makes the federal government "our biggest customer," he said that "the federal government is going to have to stand and deliver to keep this system working."

In the meantime, the Orange crush seems destined to continue, though many riders are accepting the inconvenience with equanimity. Some have altered their work schedules to travel outside Metro's peak times, just as other commuters do to avoid rush-hour driving.

Many of those who travel at peak times say the best strategy is simply to wait for the next train.

"I just looked in at the crowds and thought about the quality of my day," said Valentine Swegle, a mathematician, after letting a crowded train pass last week.

"I could crowd in and act embarrassed," she said, slumping her shoulders as if trying to shimmy onboard. "But it isn't worth it. There is another one in a few minutes."

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