Roads and Rails

Eric Weiss and Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 28, 2008; 11:00 AM

Do you think Metro has grown unreliable and become downright unpleasant? Or are you happy with your commutes on rail and bus? Does the thought of the intercounty connector (ICC) keep you up at night or does it seem like it's long overdue? And what of the moves by Maryland and Virginia to encourage the private sector to build road projects, such as widening the Capital Beltway?

Washington Post staff writers Eric Weiss and Lena H. Sun were online Monday, Jan. 28 at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, feel your pain and share the drama of getting from Point A to Point B.

A transcript follows.

Discussion Archive

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Eric Weiss: So um, does, um, anyone have $5 billion y'all can lend the region so we can build a choo-choo to the airport?

No pressure, just asking.

And you can ask us anything else about Metro, the roads or the commute...

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Washington, D.C.: I've heard some people say that the reason Dulles Rail lost federal support was because the project didn't meet specific criteria for new rail projects, and that the same criteria applies to all new rail projects. I've also heard from members of both political parties that there was some politics involved and that Bush was behind pulling the plug on this project. Is there any merit to the latter assertion?

Lena Sun: Lots of questions about Dulles this morning. There has been a lot of speculation about politics being involved, but so far, that's what it's been. Seems like there has been a big communication gap between what local and state officials thought they were hearing from the FTA, and what the FTA thought they were telling Virginia folks.

Gov. Kaine is supposed to give FTA the state's response today to their gloomy assessment last week. But I'm not holding my breath that it will change anyone's minds on the federal level.

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No more tolls!: So what are the chances, if the rail project is scrapped, of getting the tolls removed from route 267 (the "toll road")? Remember, we've been paying an extra 25-50 cents for a while now just to finance the Metro extension. I want a refund of that money too, and all the tolls finally gone. It's ridiculous that people who happen to live in that corner of the capital area have to pay tolls to drive around their neighborhood, while no one else in the area does.

Eric Weiss: I doubt the attempt to use the Dulles Toll Road as a piggy bank is over.

Already, we read in today's Post about private financiers looking to use DTR tolls for more Metro. And it is clear that tne Bush Administration is looking to public/private partnerships as part if its legacy.

We may have a better answer when a new administration takes over a year from now.

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Glen Echo, Md.: Has there been any change with Maryland attempting to do something to connect with the forthcoming Virginia 495 toll lanes? It will really be a travesty for Virginia to dead end more lanes on the most congested part of the Beltway, between I-66 and I-270.

Eric Weiss: Maryland is actively (yet it seems slowly) studying toll lanes on I-270 that would link up to the Virginia lanes just past the American Legion Bridge. There are also express toll lanes being built north of Baltimore. So don't worry, your EZ-Pass will soon get a workout in Maryland.

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Washington, D.C.: Could The Post please stop trying to make the decision against Dulles Rail as the beginning of Armageddon? It's really sad that reporters, columnists, and even your editorial board feel that Northern Virginia will die if Metro cannot run it's poorly managed rail system through Tysons to Dulles Airport. Let's not forget that Northern Virginia created the mess that is Tysons Corner, and running a silly subway line through the area is not going to change the fact that it is a disaster on all levels, and a case study for how politicians and developers should be allowed to meet in a room together to design urban areas.

Rail to Dulles is NOT necessary, and no one at The Washington Post seems to understand that. The paper completely neglects the fact the airfare out of Dulles is amongst the highest at any major airport in the country, and is already connect to downtown through a number of different methods that are better than a number of other major cities in the nation. The Post also neglects to understand that National Airport is already connected to the Metro system, and has returned to the bustling transportation hub it was before 9-11. Additionally, The Washington Post completely neglects what is probably the best airport on the east coast, Baltimore/WASHINGTON Thurgood Marshall International Airport and its already existing rail connection to both Baltimore and Washington as a viable option to international travelers.

It's particularly upsetting to see a newspaper play the "political" card in such a debate, when it is clear that politics is what resulted in the disastrous Dulles Rail Plan that was eventually presented to the FTA. Also, The Post's portrayal of D.C. as some kind of third-world city because there's no rail link to Dulles is completely absurd, and even more disingenuous because the more efficient and cost-effective option of light rail or commuter-rail to the airport are not offered as solutions. In effect, the editors of The Post have proved to be no better than our elected leaders in attempting to rally the citizenry in their public whining session because their precious, expensive, overwrought, unnecessary Dulles Rail plan was intelligently and deservedly dissected by the FTA. The Washington Post has done nothing more than demonstrate that they have little to no understanding of their readers or the people who would be affected by such decisions! FOR SHAME!!!!

Eric Weiss: So what's your solution to linking to the region's largest airport, linking a major mini-city (Tysons) to the rest of the region and easing (somewhat) car congestion?

And Jetsons-like space scooters is not an acceptable answer.

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Crystal City, Va.: Why has the "Rail to Dulles" issue become so divisive?

Eric Weiss: Reading the above postings would be a start...

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Mount Rainier, Md.: So here's my latest Metro question -- would the extension to Dulles be helped by dedicated Metro funding in our jurisdictions? And what's next?

Lena Sun: Yes. One of the areas of concern that the feds cited were Metro's "significant, unresolved capital funding needs for maintaining the current system." Of course, that need is not a new issue for Metro and has been highlighted again and again. Since all three jurisdictions -- D.C., Maryland and Va. -- have agreed to pony up funds to match the federal dollars, it would help address Metro's ability to plan long-term to fix sagging station platforms, buy new rail cars and buses, and do other critically needed upkeep.

As for what's next, it seems that local and state officials are trying to get the feds to change their mind. And at the same time, officials seem to be considering using private sector money to make up for the likely loss of federal funds.

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Arlington, Va.: I was ecstatic to read that the feds are likely going to deny funding for Dulles Rail (I grew up in Vienna so I'm very familiar with that area.)

Metro is falling apart! Yes it would be nice to have Dulles rail soon (or 10 years ago) but let's face it -- Dulles rail does no good if the Silver Line is stuck in the Rosslyn tunnel with the Orange and Blue lines. Metro is falling apart. The DOT was right to request that it get its act in order before funding this extension.

Maybe if Virginia spent more time caring about the substandard conditions those of us on the Orange Line face commuting into and out of D.C. they would have gotten this funding.

Eric Weiss:...That's like the argument that we shouldn't have gone to the Moon while there was still hunger on Earth...

I don't mean to be flip, but 40 years ago the region decided to invest heavily into Metro, but somehow the system left out the biggest airport and its largest sub-city.

This was a late, bungled, controversy filled attempt to fix those oversights.

Riders should demand of Catoe and Co. that they fix the existing system while building new capacity and lines. That's called management.

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Reston, Va.: Why have local leaders not created counter proposals to the Dulles Rail Plan now that it is clear that it will not be approved? Why do they continue to fight for a plan that very few people actually want?

Eric Weiss: This is above their pay grade. Local leaders are the ones in the 1960s who decided the Orange line should run along the highway through Fairfax and end at Vienna and avoid Tysons Corner.

I don't mean to be harsh, but it will take the sort of regional political consensus -- along with an administration with a commitment to large government funded public works -- that emerged at the end of this process, albeit too late.

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D.C.: Every morning NPR gives traffic and metro updates. Last week they started reporting that Metro has no delays "lasting more than 10 minutes." Is this the new standard? Should we always expect delays of 10 minutes? Ridiculous.

Lena Sun: Hi. I heard that too this morning. Here's what I think happened. There are regular riders who subscribe to e-alerts from Metro. Metro only sends out e-alerts if they think the delay is going to be 10 minutes or more. Metro says it got a call from WAMU about the e-alerts, and when it was explained what the e-alerts are based on, seems like the radio station changed the way it gave its Metro updates.

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cabs at Virginia metro stations?: I'm headed for a funeral Thursday at 3 in Alexandria. The Metro Ride Guide suggests either Pentagon or Ballston station and a 30 minute bus ride. I know I can't get a cab at Pentagon. Which of the Virginia stations is most likely to have a cab waiting at 2 p.m.? Thanks!

Lena Sun: I would go to Ballston. Even if there are no cabs there, I'm told there is a major hotel nearby and cabs would be available there as well. Others out there who use Ballston may know as well. Anyone?

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McLean, Va.: I would like to know how Metro can charge regular fares in the morning until 9:30 but train frequency drops significantly at about 9 a.m. Sometimes the wait is around 10 minutes. This doesn't seem fair.

Lena Sun: That happens toward the end of morning rush and the end of evening rush. That's when they start moving trains into the rail yards for maintenance and service. So yes, it can be very frustrating.

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Reston, Va.: One issue which I think is clouding the whole debate over metro to Tysons/Dulles is that both destinations are being used as justification for the project. What is the goal?

Is it rail to Dulles, to meet the needs of those fictional travelers who can't use any of the other convenient options to IAD, and who also enjoy sitting on a metro ride that stops a dozen times between downtown and the airport? Logic and ridership projections don't seem to justify this goal.

Or is it rail to Tysons, to help urbanize that area and lessen traffic in what is arguably one of Northern Virginia's least-drivable areas? If this is the case, then why consider the above-ground option, which everyone seems to agree is less desirable than the tunnel?

Is the confusion around what the real motivation is behind this project is (perhaps justifiably) lessening interest/progress on it?

Eric Weiss: You make some good points.

Is a businesswoman flying in from Milwaukee going to take a subway instead of hopping into a cab that will be expensed? Are Tysons workers and shoppers really going to take the subway for their daily commute Christmas shopping when they live in Gainesville or other non Metro-accessible areas?

That said, Metro ties our region together and 40 years ago you could have said the same thing about any two proposed destinations. And our roads are currently a mess. What is the solution to all that congestion?

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Herndon, Va.: Why does a simple subway line need to cost $5 billion? Good grief, we could rebuild the Mixing Bowl twice for that, or build a second ICC. It just seems a colossal amount of money for a single transportation project, and I'm glad someone stepped in to stop it.

Didn't anyone along the way come up with a cheaper, simpler, or more efficient solution that would effect a larger number of people? This magical line wouldn't even affect that many people, and to lay all of that money out in a single project that targets a single population center seems a bit silly. Let's move on and learn from this to create a number of plans that can benefit the most number of people, not a single idea that may only affect 20,000 people each day.

Eric Weiss: Like what?

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Virginia Metros: One usually sees a line of cabs outside Ballston, but if you're going to Alexandria, why don't you head down the Blue line? I imagine cabs are also available at Crystal City (home to many a hotel).

Lena Sun: A tip for the person who was looking for Virginia stations with cabs.

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Cab at Virginia Metro stops: Reagan Airport ALWAYS has cabs and isn't that much further than the Pentagon. You do have to cross to the terminal and go down one level to reach the cab stand, and I think there is a $1 airport surcharge, but you're 100 percent certain to be able to find a cab there.

Lena Sun: And another.

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Washington, D.C.: There's an interesting discussion on a local online mom's forum about whether people offer pregnant women their seat on the subway or bus. Many of the women are saying they have to ask for a seat a lot, and are often refused and told that pregnancy is not a disability. Or they are accused of faking pregnancy to get a seat. Even worse, one was told she shouldn't have gotten pregnant if she can't stand on the subway. Even though it's not technically a disability, why don't people care enough about others to offer a seat to someone who is clearly having a hard time standing and balancing? I have offered my seat plenty of times to non-disabled people just because they are carrying lots of packages, and I just had my purse. I did not consider how old they were, or whether or not they fit a particular definition of disabled. I just saw they could use a seat.

On my bus I see elderly people having to stand while the young sit in the front seats pretending not to notice. If I'm close the front, I offer my seat. But I really think those in the disabled seating should be the ones to offer. For one thing, it's easier on the person who needs a seat because they won't have to stand to let someone out. And, they can get up to the front easier to get off.

As a pregnant woman who isn't showing yet, I wonder how I'll manage later on, when I'm enormous. As a short person, it's hard enough for me to hold the handrail. Some of the bus drivers stop and start very suddenly, and never wait until everyone's got a handhold before they take off after a stop. It's going to be difficult if I can't get a seat.

This might be a good article topic.

Eric Weiss: There are lots of louts on the Metro taking up seats that should be given the elderly, infirm and pregnant.

There are lot of louts who use the elevators just to save a minute or two, leaving riders with strollers, bicycles, baggage waiting for the next one. (See Woodley Park elevator)

Metro signage should be better. One some elevators, some signs show pictographs of wheelchairs, strollers and baggage, asking people to give priority. Those signs should be everywhere because common sense is not working.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is the FTA continuing to move the goalposts with regards to rail to Dulles? Don't the benefits of this project CLEARLY outweigh the costs?

Eric Weiss: It depends on who you ask. Many of the posters say the addition wouldn't necessarily add value to their lives.

But the bottom line is that the region is once again going to be relying for the foreseeable future (or at least someone invents those Jetsons-like flying machines) on highways such as Route 7, 123, 495, 66, 50, etc. If you think that is a good, sound transportation plan for the future, raise your hand.

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Lena Sun: To the pregnant mom who is worried about getting a seat on the subway/bus: Can you message me directly? My e-mail is SUNL@washpost.com. Thanks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Tell me I've got any of this wrong:

1. "Rail to Dulles" is not about serving Dulles airport. A rail trip from Rosslyn to Dulles will be LONG and any realistic estimate puts Dulles airport traffic as a small share of Silver Line ridership. FYI, there is ALREADY a dedicated, express roadway to Dulles Airport that speeds cars and buses to Dulles.

2. "Rail to Dulles" is about moving people to jobs in the Dulles corridor. If the Silver Line is approved, there will be MUCH greater densities allowed in Tysons, which will boost commercial property values tremendously. The Silver Line will be very crowded from Day 1. The plans for Tysons Center are stunning. http://www.tysonsfuture.com/

3. The Silver Line is really expensive even without the tunnel and will not be paid for with our current funding sources. Funding this project will take significant taxes like 2 cents on the sales tax, 10 cents on a gallon of gas, stuff like that.

Am I in the ballpark?

Eric Weiss: You make some good points.

But what is the alternative for our region? Driving the same clogged roads?

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Arlington, Va.: So, lemme get this straight. The feds have $150 billion to give out to taxpayers, hoping they'll run to the nearest Wal-Mart to buy goods made in China, all in the pretenses of "stimulating the economy," while they have misgivings about coughing up a measly $900 mil for a metro extension to Dulles, which everyone agrees will be a BOON to NoVA's economy? I'm no economist, but this makes absolutely no sense.

Eric Weiss: The "stimulus" is designed to be spent quickly. Metro to Dulles/Tysons is a lot of things, but quickly is not one of them.

Go buy a Washington Post tote bag an help out your country.

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Reston, Va.: I don't understand how the idea of extending Metro to Dulles EVER got off the ground, especially with the limitations of the Orange line sharing a single track to go under the Potomac. It sounds like the Feds did something right for a change!

Has Metro ever attempted to address this basic bottleneck that will continue to cause problems with any growth in Northern Virginia?

Lena Sun: There has been some discussion in recent years about re-routing some Blue Line trains at Pentagon to have them travel over the Yellow Line bridge into downtown DC instead of going through the chokepoint that is Rosslyn.

Metro has to have enough rail cars to do it, and it is also a politically sensitive issue. I think there will be a move to bring it up for discussion again later this spring.

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McLean, Va.: The abandonment of the Dulles Rail Project by the Feds could be a blessing in disguise, if cooler heads in NoVa prevail and start advocating the much lower-cost Bus Rapid Transit systems that the rest of the world is adopting. Why are techies in Tysons solving their problems with 19th century technology? Let's join the 21st century and use Bus Rapid Transit (e.g. bus lanes, traffic signals favor buses, fewer stops and fast boarding techniques).

Eric Weiss: Bus rapid transit has its advantages, such as it being relatively cheap. The Ehrlich Administration had some bus proponents.

But our region is tied together by a heavy-rail system called Metro, and this system left off the biggest airport and one of the biggest job centers.

So we can have a mishmash of transportation systems or we can bite the bullet and pay the big bucks to integrate things into Metro.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I live in Montgomery county and have to put up with these insane speed cameras everywhere. I personally think they do more harm than good. Drivers slow down to 20 mph to avoid having their picture taken even when the speed limit is 35. Can we do some sort of public awareness campaign that lets these drivers know that driving 35 is not going to get your picture taken! It slows the flow of traffic, causes way more congestion than needed and now they want to add more! I heard that they were contemplating adding them to I-95 in MD! Talk about gridlock. Traffic accidents would be the norm, all to make a few dollars in revenue. Who cares about efficient use of gas, pollution of idling cars, etc.!

Lena Sun: There are lots of Montgomery County drivers who HATE those cameras. Did you try contacting your local council member?

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Washington, D.C.: Uh, count me in as someone who really wants a rail line to Tyson's and Dulles. Yes, the bus exists to Dulles. Yes, I could take a cab or a shuttle. That's all true. But what so many of the naysayers seem to be forgetting is that, if/when that rail line gets built, you're going to see people driving to it and taking the train to work rather than driving all the way in, or driving to a line that's farther away from their homes. You're also going to see bus lines that will extend Metro's service area beyond just the immediate area around the rail. It's not JUST going to be for the three of us who'd prefer taking a train to Dulles over a cab or shuttle or express bus.

Lena Sun: Good points, all.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Weiss:

You seem to be in the majority with the rest of your paper and the local pols who have been fighting for Dulles Rail. You continue to rhetorically ask "What should we do?" but provide no solutions as if Metro to Tysons/Dulles is the ONLY way to go. I'm sure you're a creative guy and can think of some things that could work or at least could inspire some thoughts on the issue. Instead, you've hopped on this train to nowhere and propagate an defeatist attitude that the ONLY solution to our problems is now gone. Please be smarter than that, and offer readers of this paper some creativity or originality, instead of toting the company/party line.

Eric Weiss:

If you look at New York City's efforts to get their subway lines to LaGuardia and Kennedy, they have decided on some mishmash of separate transit lines that will likely confuse out-of-towners and require a transfer of luggage.

All I'm saying is that when I was just a sparkle in me mum's eye, the Washington region made a gazillion-dollar commitment to Metro.

Sure there are other options out there; someone mentioned bus rapid-transit.

But if you are a businesswoman in Tysons or downtown D.C. and looking for a way to the airport, isn't saying "Take the Silver Line" more likely to get them to to take transit rather than sit on I-66?

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The Answer for Dulles: The answer to Dulles and Tysons and traffic in general is to radically alter our lifestyles. Lobby your employer and present a plan so you can telecommute, at least once or twice a week. Carpool. Switch up your schedule a bit to travel during non-peak hours. Instead of making several trips, consolidate your errands. Every time you're about to start your car, ask yourself if it's really necessary.

I'm tired of hearing people whine about traffic and hassles. You don't get something for nothing, and nobody's going to swoop in with a magic solution. What did you expect, moving to a major metropolitan area? You want no traffic, move to Montana. Everyone needs to do their part to ease congestion. Change doesn't come from the top, it comes from each of us.

Eric Weiss: You make some excellent point. Include free and subsidized parking on the list.

But those will only solve a portion of our problems.

In Northern Virginia, there are too many cars for the roads. What is the real, long-term solution?

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Elevators: I see so many youngsters taking the elevators at Ballston to save a few feet, I saw one young woman take it all the way down to the platform today. Can't they make those "NEEDS ONLY"? It shouldn't be necessary but apparently standing on an escalator is a burden these days.

Eric Weiss: Agree, agree, agree.

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Rail economics: Most of your posters questioning the economics of the project could use some facts -- Seattle just opened an above-ground street car line that runs 2.6 miles -- total project cost $52 Million. That's $20 Million a mile through downtown streets. So the Dulles extension at $5 Billion is not actually too pricey.

The root of all this was America's collective abandonment of streetcar and interurban lines in the fifties and sixties. Just look around your cities - any street with a grassy median in it that's been there 20 or 30 years probably used to have a street car line. Those rights of way are expensive to buy back, and tunneling is harder and more costly.

And I agree - more cars on wider roads is not the answer. But that's a national policy decision for another day.

Lena Sun: Thank you for providing those Seattle stats.

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Winchester, Va.: Mr. Weiss,

You are one stubborn writer who just cannot see the forest for the trees. Metro is not the answer to every problem. Columbia Pike didn't need Metro for it's new project, and Maryland doesn't need Metro for it's proposed "Purple Line" project.

Maybe we've reached a point where investing in Metro is counterproductive because of the costs and inefficiencies, like many other cities did with aging subway systems. Washington DC and it's surrounding areas need to move into the future, and not rely on technology of the past. There are so many solutions to our transportation problems that don't involve Metro, and a forward-thinking publication should be advocating those, not settling for what we already have.

Eric Weiss: Is this my wife writing in?

All I am saying is that there is a downside to having a hodgepodge of different transportation systems. This is a tourist-heavy, transient area and having lots of different systems defeats the 40-year investment in Metro.

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RE: Jetsons-like flying machines: When we start driving these I can imagine the interesting problems and arguments we will have!

Eric Weiss: Especially if they come with zappers that create empty parking spaces. That's the model I'm holding out for...

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Arlington, Va.: Eric if you want to update the Metro to modern D.C. then why are we not pushing mass transit that connects Maryland to Virginia (and vice versa). It seems there is much more congestion on the Beltway between I-270 and 66 than from Loudoun County to Tysons Corner.

Eric Weiss: Because the two biggest economic engines in the region, Tysons and Dulles Airport, are not tied into the regional transit system. Also the roads out there are way, way, way, over capacity, in part because these two facilities are not connected to Metro.

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Arlington, Va.: It sounds like the entire Dulles rail project has been canceled because the Secretary of Transportation no longer believes the government should fund mass transit programs. Why is this the death knell for the project? We'll have a new transportation secretary in less than a year. Is this too late to revive the project?

Eric Weiss: Good question, and one that the crack transportation writers at The Post will be following very closely.

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Lena Sun: Folks, thanks for all the questions and comments. Dulles is clearly on everyone's minds. Stay tuned. I know my colleague Amy Gardner will be on top of this issue on the web and in the paper. See y'all in two weeks.

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