It's Not a Question of If, but When

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Let's all close our eyes and imagine what the region would look like if, 40 years ago, government officials had not had the vision and determination to fund and build Metrorail. I think we'd have to agree that things would be bleak. In 2008 we are faced with the same choice. We have to look into a crystal ball at the long-term view and do something today, so that we can reap the benefits tomorrow.

This region is going to grow. To manage that growth, we have to invest in transit. Now. Expanding Metrorail to Dulles is an essential investment in the future health of the region. More important, the region's second-largest employment center -- Tysons Corner -- is not served by Metrorail.

Employment in the Dulles corridor is expected to increase 63 percent over the next 20 years, the population in Loudoun County is expected to grow 150 percent, and the number of passengers using Dulles International Airport will double. We have a chance now, to connect those communities with the rest of the region served by Metrorail. Imagine the opportunity available to people throughout the region if the extension is built to Tysons Corner and then to Dulles, compared with what would probably occur if the extension is not built. In which community would you rather live?

Metro is a regional toolbox teeming with ways in which it benefits both those who choose to ride and those who choose to drive. As was demonstrated on Sept. 11, 2001, Metrorail is a critical tool for emergency evacuation. It is a tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is a tool for removing 580,000 cars from the roads each weekday and eliminating the need for 1,400 highway lane miles. It is a tool that reduces congestion on the region's highways. And it is a tool that gets half of the federal government's workforce to and from the office every weekday. A rail extension to Dulles would do that and more.

Metro has the capability to run the extension. It would represent only a 3 percent increase in our operational budget. So, that shouldn't be a reason not to fund the extension. Once the extension is built, it will be brand new, so the near-term capital costs shouldn't stop us, either.

Of course, it isn't news to anyone that Metro needs money to fund its capital needs, and Metro's regional partners understand that. In fact, we are in the middle of a $3 billion capital improvement program and will be considering the initial proposal for the follow-up program this year. The federal government is also aware of this need, and a congressional committee has taken action to authorize $1.5 billion of federal money for capital improvements at Metro over a 10-year period. When Congress takes final action and that money is appropriated, our regional partners will match those capital funds, giving us an additional $3 billion for capital needs. So, that's not something that should stop the extension.

Expanding rail to Tysons Corner and then Dulles is a large project. It will cost money, and it won't get cheaper over time. But imagine those two futures again. Which would you choose: the one with a Dulles extension or the one without? I can't find a compelling reason to choose a future without the extension. I am confident that the entities engaged in this project will resolve their differences so that the vision of building this project for the Washington region can move forward.

-- John B. Catoe Jr.


The writer is general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company