Top 10 transit stories of '09: Shock but also progress

Sunday, December 27, 2009; C02

1. Deadly crash on the Red Line

Nine people were killed and scores injured when an inbound Metro train crashed into a stationary train north of Fort Totten on June 22. The crash, still under federal investigation, had both immediate and long-term effects on the backbone of the region's transit system.

-- Automated safety features that are part of Metrorail's basic design were called into question.

-- All trains were put under the control of their operators until the safety issues are resolved.

-- Operators were ordered to stop the trains at the front of every platform, to guard against forgetful operators opening doors on cars that had not yet reached the platforms.

-- Delays along the Red Line continued into September.

-- Regional and federal officials began a push for greater oversight of the nation's transit systems.

2. Metrorail extension to Dulles begins

The first phase of the $5.2 billion project to extend rail service 23 miles west from the Orange Line tracks won federal approval and began construction in the spring. In the fall, property owners on the western side of the planned line agreed on a plan to finance station construction in the second phase.

-- In addition to providing a rail link to Dulles International Airport, the completed project will help shape the development of Northern Virginia communities along the way, particularly Tysons Corner.

-- The short-term construction impacts are huge -- and not so short-term. Commuters and shoppers in Tysons saw the beginnings of what will be several years of traffic disruptions.

3. Route 28 improvements

This project along the north-south corridor east of Dulles Airport has evolved quietly considering its significant impact on commuting and development in the airport region. As of this fall, the public-private partnership launched in 2002 has converted nine signalized intersections to grade-separated interchanges and greatly improved traffic flow in this busy zone.

4. Regional Metro funding

Former congressman Tom Davis led the charge to win a steady stream of revenue for the transit authority, and this fall, it finally resulted in Congress appropriating $150 million -- to be matched by Maryland, Virginia and the District -- to help finance the modernization of Metro's trains, buses and other equipment.

Riders understandably focus on more immediate concerns, such as why the train is late or when the escalator will be fixed. But bigger problems loom over the next few years as Metro struggles to maintain service with aging equipment. The dedication of money to meet these needs will have a significant impact.

5. Tolls established for the ICC

Suddenly, the long-imagined Intercounty Connector across Montgomery and Prince George's counties seemed real this month when the Maryland Transportation Authority set a price for driving on it. Unfortunately, the price is pretty high. The rate will be 10 cents to 35 cents a mile, depending on the time of day. That's among the top toll rates in the nation. Its first segment opens next year.

6. Capital Beltway interchange opens

Actually, the Arena Drive interchange had been open since 1997 for events at FedEx Field in Landover, but its neighbors in Prince George's County had long pressed to make it available full time. That couldn't happen until the Maryland State Highway Administration widened the Capital Beltway approaches to meet federal safety standards.

The project wrapped up in September. The original road signs caused confusion among Beltway drivers about their options for through travel, but modifications have eased that problem.

7. Renewed push on streetcars

The District Department of Transportation reinvigorated its efforts to create a streetcar network across the city. This month, the first streetcars for the Anacostia line arrived from Europe, where they had been stored for several years.

But the program is still several years away from its next Top 10 appearance. The Anacostia cars aren't scheduled to carry passengers until fall 2012. Streetcar tracks are being laid along Benning Road and H Street NE, but that line also is a few years away from operation.

8. Fourth lane added to I-95

A stretch of Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia that is well-known for its bad traffic got wider this month with the addition of a fourth northbound lane between Occoquan and Springfield. The extra southbound lane is scheduled to be done next year.

9. GPS-based NextBus returns

Bus schedules in urban areas are notorious liars, so the return of the GPS-based NextBus system this summer was most welcome. There's an identification number at each bus stop allowing people with telephone or Web connections to get a report on when the bus is due.

It hasn't worked perfectly. The system still must make a calculation about the arrival time, which can be thrown off by traffic, red lights, and lots of boarding and exiting. But NextBus is still a very useful tool in planning a trip.

10. Fairfax Parkway extension

The missing link between the Fairfax County Parkway and Interstate 95 at Newington is now on its way to being closed. The extension joined the ranks of Northern Virginia's megaprojects this year. Two miles of parkway are scheduled to be added by late 2010 to accommodate the thousands of workers relocating to Fort Belvoir and the Engineer Proving Ground.

-- Robert Thomson

Narrowing the list to 10 was difficult. What have I left off the list that had an important impact on your local travels? Write to me at drgridlock@washpost.com.

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