The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What a weakened Metro means to the D.C. region

Transferring riders move to the Orange and Silver Line platform after exiting a Yellow Line Rush Plus train at L’Enfant Plaza. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Some travelers are comfortable with the idea that Metrorail is on a glide path to oblivion. Some write to me that it was a bad idea in the first place, and the service problems and declining ridership of recent years are the natural outcome. Others say that The Great Society Subway chronicled by Zachary Schrag has outlived its original mission and been overtaken by newer ways of getting around, such as self-driving cars and the ride-hailing services that include Uber and Lyft.

This is nuts. For many decades — as far ahead as it’s reasonable to look with an urban transportation system — the heavy rail system is going to be the backbone of the capital area’s travel network. The transportation advancements we talk about will be valuable, but much of that value is likely to be found in making it easier for people to reach Metrorail stations to complete the longest parts of their trips.

The hard part will be retrofitting 20th-century designs of Metro stations for the way the local travel system is evolving. But local governments have an incentive: They’re going to see the value in dismantling the concrete fortresses — the parking garages — that surround some stations and limit the potential for transit-oriented development. The jurisdictions will see the revenue potential in opening up more space for commercial and housing development at places such as Vienna, Shady Grove, Springfield, New Carrollton and Glenmont.

SafeTrack maintenance eats into Metro revenue

Travelers, meanwhile, will see the advantage of not having to warehouse their cars all day long at suburban rail stations. They’ll see ride-hailing and self-driving cars as ways of solving the problem of how to travel those few miles between their residences and the Metrorail stations.

Rather than sounding a death knell for Metrorail, the evolution of surface transportation is likely to enhance demand for rail service.

That is, as long as the service is there. Communities don’t need to be looking decades ahead to fear the impact of a crippled Metrorail system on their development opportunities.

I saw one example of local concern at Wednesday’s meeting of the Transportation Planning Board. The regional panel has been discussing Metro’s service and budget problems for months. On Wednesday, the board acknowledged receipt of a letter from the Friends of White Flint, a civic and business coalition in Montgomery County that’s focused on turning the area along Rockville Pike into a walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly “neighborhood of residents of all ages, unique shops and restaurants, and large and small businesses.”

With Metro in a tight spot financially, leaders of the White Flint group look with alarm on the proposals for service cuts and fare increases that the Metro board is likely to vote on in March. They expressed their concerns in the letter, stating first what they’ve staked on their community development effort. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in this area by dozens of property owners and by Montgomery County, and significant additional investment is planned over the next 20 years.” Like so many communities across the D.C. region, they’re hoping that Metrorail service will leverage their investment: “A central tenet of the Pike District/White Flint redevelopment is easy access to transit, primarily Metrorail.”

“We use Metro to get to jobs, homes, and entertainment, and we believe Metro is an indispensable part of our community,” the group wrote. “It is because we believe in Metro that we are convinced that service cutbacks as described in WMATA’s proposed budget would be extraordinarily damaging to not just the White Flint/Pike District area but also the entire metropolitan area.”

It’s most obvious to us that the proposed fare increases and service cuts will weaken Metro. The transit authority expects these moves will continue the downward trend in ridership over the next year, but Metro officials talk about the need to “right-size” the service in light of this downward trend that began after the peak year of 2009.

Planning board members complained to Metro officials at the meeting about specific parts of these right-sizing cutbacks and the fare increases. They didn’t like bus route cutbacks and the 25 cent fare increase that bus riders would have to pay. These things would be painful to thousands of travelers.

But the big hurt is on Metrorail, and it’s not just from the proposed fare increases and the reduced frequency of trains. The Metro board members are talking about once again taking money from the capital budget for repairs and long-term improvements and using it to plug part of the gap in the operating budget.

That gap exists despite the commendable decision by the region’s jurisdictions to pay more to support the operating budget.

But it’s time we acknowledged that Metrorail has added billions of dollars to the wealth of our communities over its four decades. And it’s likely to be the main force shaping community development for decades to come. We need to figure out how to make our public and private investment match Metrorail’s current and future value — not just to the people who ride Metrorail, but to the residents and the companies who benefit so substantially from its existence.

The approach we’ve taken so far is to wait for the Metro officials to come begging for money to close an annual gap, then we give them a handout. That pattern is part of what led to Metro’s decline, and it’s very unlikely to reverse it.