AMID THE FANFARE over extending Metro's Orange Line out to Vienna, we might as well face one stark fact: Metro has failed in its promises to Washington. It has been a financial flop, with construction costs nearly four times the original estimate; it has not met its ridership projections -- carrying tens of millions fewer passengers annually than expected at this point, and now, in an attempt to justify its existence, Metro is drastically changing the Washington landscape -- displacing people eagerly awaiting its arrival.
These are not the results anticipated more than a decade ago.
"It is anticipated," Metro's 1973 draft environmental impact statement said, "that the provision of a rapid transit system will have no major disruptive effects on community and residential activities apart from short-term disruption caused by construction and minimal displacement."
Given this billing, it is small wonder that neighborhood after neighborhood was caught unprepared for the true effect of building a subway near their homes and shops -- a juggernaut bearing $3-$5 billion worth of new construction, the destruction of neighborhood centers, increased traffic problems and extensive damage to community ambience.
All too slowly, Washington's neighborhoods have discovered that the price they have to pay for a quicker ride downtown is not merely in dollars that Metro drastically mispredicted, but in a dramatic alteration of their character, often in unappealing emulation of Rosslyn or K Street.
The true effects of the subway were not immediately perceived because it began in downtown Washington. As long as the highrises were going up and the small businesses were being evicted only in the "revitalized" central core, concern was minimal.
Few of the good burghers further out the Metro routes realized that they also were about to be revitalized, whether they wanted it or not.
It came as a particular shock to neighborhoods such as Cleveland Park (where I live), which not only felt no need for revitalization but distinctly liked things the way they were. Revitalization was only, it was assumed, for decayed and dying neighborhoods.
Dupont Circle got moving early enough with its own neighborhood plan to win a down-zoning that partially blocked the march of the high-rise killer cartons up Connecticut Avenue.
But most neighborhoods, whether rich or poor, have been unable to defend themselves against the Metromorphosis of Washington. In the once-quiet neighborhood near Tenley Circle, they're talking about eight, 10 movie theatres. In the Ballston community of Arlington, high-rises loom over the small classic American homes and the owners of these houses find themselves forced into consolidating their properties to get at least a better deal from the inevitable developer-purchasers. And in Shaw, where the subway is still a dream, the first hint of the future is being felt: Some businesses are reporting a 50 percent drop in customers as construction disrupts 7th Street. The owners haven't even reached the stage of learning that the subway isn't really for them, that higher rents and taxes may force them out.
Although, to a certain extent, this is crying over spilt milk, 33 percent of the subway remains to be built, which means that 33 percent of the communities along the subway routes could be saved -- if they act now.
What is happening to Washington's neighborhoods is not surprising to those few heretics such as myself who long argued that Metro was a Trojan transit system -- a poor solution to the area's transportation needs, vastly too expensive, and, in fact, a land-development scheme in disguise. We argued that Metro would not compete effectively with the automobile, that its ridership projections were greatly exaggerated, and that its operating and construction costs were greatly underestimated. Although we lost both the battles and the war, on all these points Metro, the local politicians and the press were seriously wrong.
Because they were wrong, yet had the political power to continue to build Metro anyway, the pressure to use Metro as a medium of massive reverse land redistribution became even greater than it had been at the start. The only way Metro was going to justify itself was to build a dense constituency around its stations.
The original argument for Metro was that we needed a subway to meet the transit needs of Washington communities. But the facts did not support this argument. In the late 1970s, Metro was talking about a completed system that would have an annual rail ridership of 323 million, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation memorandum. With two-thirds of the system finished, the actual rail ridership is only one-third of the estimate. It now looks as if Metro will be at least 100 millionriders short when the system is completed.
Slowly, therefore, the argument that we needed Metro was implicitly turned on its head to say that we needed new development to fill up Metro.
As a result, Washington winds up in the absurd position of being a servant of its transit system rather than the other way around. And, ironically, for some of the same reasons that Metro failed initially, it will continue to fail even if it rebuilds its entire right of way in the image of K Street. The sacrifice of Washington's neighborhoods will have been for naught.
Metrorail's lines are operating far below their capacity of 45,000 passengers per hour. They are carrying significantly fewer riders than predicted. The entire system now requires a subsidy of $255 million. The cost of subsidizing Metro has risen 52 percent in just five years. Thus, one readily can see Metro's need to rebuild Washington's neighborhoods to provide more ridership. The problem, however, is that this solution not only will be insufficient to bail Metro out, it will in all likelihood add considerably increased traffic to these communities' other woes for three reasons:
*First, Metro will provide transit only for a minority of commuters to the new development it inspires. The rest will come by car.
*Second, unlike downtown where some drivers switched to Metro, there is no large preexisting market of commuters who can be lured from their cars onto the subway to balance out these new commuters.
*Third, Metro was designed as a crude wheel with downtown Washington at the hub. By contrast, a high percentage of those coming to these new developments will find Metro a cumbersome, indirect way to get there.
In short, Metro probably will have the reverse effect from that promised: It will create surface congestion at these locations.
Considering the drawbacks, the logical decision at this point would be to admit that we made a mistake and stop construction. Outlandish as this idea seems, it is precisely the lesson that other cities have learned from Metro and its contemporaneous system, San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). If Metro and BART were truly the successes their indefatigable boosters have maintained, one would expect to find imitations. In fact, outside Washington and San Francisco such transit behemoths are seen as ways not to do it. Other cities have shown more imagination, improved transit and saved themselves considerable money, to boot.
Toronto has revived the trolley car; Washington, ironically, once had an extensive streetcar system that was uprooted in no small part because it competed so successfully with the automobile, a mortal sin in the '50s and '60s. Houston is building a 65-mile busway system at a fraction of the cost of a proposed 18-mile subway. Seattle is building a combined surface-underground busway system.
One of the improvements Metro could make is to stop treating its bus system so badly. Metro inherited one of the most unnecessarily complicated bus systems in the world and has done little to improve matters. It has instead redesigned the routes to force bus riders on the subway, which is often not the same as meeting the actual needs of bus riders. Information is woefully lacking. When I called the Metro public affairs office and asked if a bus map was available I was told, "You mean showing like where buses go? I haven't seen one." (Further investigation revealed that one is promised for next fall, several years and many route changes after its predecessor was published). Simple improvements such as bus sign information boxes are just now being tried on an experimental basis, more than a decade after they first were suggested to Metro by outside consultants.
Indeed, after a decade of Metrorail, the data suggest, that on a proportional basis, fewer people are using public transportation to commute downtown than before its arrival. In 1975, according to the Council of Government's cordon count, 104,000 people rode buses into the metropolitan core (downtown DC and adjacent Virginia suburbs). In 1985, total transit (bus and rail) ridership into the same area was 143,000, an increase of 38 percent. But during the same period, the number of automobiles increased by 57,000 (40 percent) and the number of auto riders by 93,000 (46 percent). Despite the advent of Metro, the percentage of people using public transportation was actually down slightly.
These stunning figures bear out what Metro critics have long argued: Metrorail would not compete successfully with the automobile, but it would compete with its own bus system: Bus ridership dropped 43 percent -- a loss of 45,000 riders. Assuming these riders switched to Metrorail, 60 percent of the morning rush hour rail traffic consists of former bus riders.
By building Metro, the net increase of only 40,000 new morning transit riders was paid for at an incredible cost. By way of illustration, if we still had the same number of buses operating as we did in 1975 and if you added one more person to every fifth car coming downtown, you could handle the same number of people without Metro and without any more cars.
If Washington were to halt further construction of Metro and move towards alternative systems, we would in fact be joining the mainstream of modern transit planning. Admittedly, there would be considerable political problems. Metro has been financed by a complicated formula that would have to be unravelled to reimburse jurisdictions that would not get the rail line they were promised. Further, since Metro has become such a glamor symbol, it will be difficult to convince Anacostia and Shaw that they mactually might be better off by not having the Green Line and using the funds for alternative transit.
Nonetheless, it remains probable that the Green Line will turn out to be a cruel hoax for these communities. Weak politically, and viewed by the land pros as ripe pickings, they will likely be easy targets for massive redevelopment -- meaning that many of those who have fought so hard for the Green Line will find themselves removed by renewal or greatly increased rents. Further, even some of Metro's supporters admit that the subway functions least well for city residents in need of efficient access to suburban employment. A mixture of light rail, exclusive bus lanes, jitnies, van pools, dial-a-ride and other alternatives could well serve these communities better.
Finally, it is likely that financial realities will require a curtailment of the system, which means that the decision will be forced at the worst possible time -- when there are no funds for other approaches.
But even if we don't want to take such a logical, if seemingly daring, step of switching from further Metro construction to alternatives, Washington's Metro-affected communities should, at the very least, join together to fight the deleterious effects of that construction. What is needed is something along the lines of an Emergency Committee on the Metro Crisis, modeled in part on the successful Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis that effectively fought local freeways in the '60s. ECTC blocked the attempt of the freeway lobby to pick off communities one at a time.
Today, Metro and its developer allies are following the same strategy, and if the affected neighborhoods do not join together they will continue to succeed. This is not just Ballston's problem, nor Friendship Heights' nor Anacostia's; it is the problem of every community crossed, or to be crossed, by Metro. Just as the freeway fighters did, Washington's communities must tell their political leaders that transportation must serve the people and not vice versa. The alternative is to continue to accept the current myths of Metro, in which case we will go on losing our homes, our shops and our communities -- an extraordinarily high price to pay just so a small percentage of the area's population can get downtown a few minutes sooner.