Metro couldn’t be struggling at a worse time.

While General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is trying to raise money for the agency and plan for its future – and also trying to undo years of shoddy practices — a new way of getting around is coming into view that might have an impact on its relevance.

That vision was laid out Tuesday by a U.S. Department of Transportation official in a talk at the National Press Club on the emergence of “Smart Cities.” It was a vision in which autonomous electric vehicles become the centerpiece of a high-tech transportation network that will allow people to get around in more flexible and personalized ways than ever before.

“My job is to look at the future,” said Vincent Valdes, who is associate administrator of research, demonstration and innovation at the Federal Transit Administration. He sketched a vision 25 years from now that went something like this:

A young professional summons a self-driving electric vehicle from a car-share service. She owns her vehicle – a rarity in the future, Valdes says – but decides to rent hers for the day, the way people rent their homes and apartments through Airbnb.

Instead, the worker will take a short trip on the collectively owned, fully automated car to the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. On the way to the BRT, she receives a ping on her smartphone or other device from someone who’s also looking for a ride-share to the BRT. She can choose to share her vehicle, thereby saving money, or decline the request if she wants to ride solo.

Her smart device not only handles fare payment for the car and the BRT, but also alerts the BRT that she will need some extra assistance with her wheelchair when she arrives, perhaps from a robot. She arrives downtown, safe and on time.

In his scenario, Valdes never mentioned the word Metro. His story was all about automation, and these clean, self-driving vehicles that will shuttle people around at the click of a few buttons.

“It’s arguably the most important development in surface transportation since the internal combustion engine,” Valdes said.

Diana Mendes, an executive at HNTB Corp, which specializes in infrastructure, told the news conference that automated driving and transit systems are poised to upend the world the way the automobile upended horses, and in a transition that will likely come faster.

Automated cars will become more like “pods” or rooms designed for different uses – daycare pods, party pods, or pods that bring goods and services to consumers instead of the other way around, she said. This could also be a world where, thanks to car-sharing, there are fewer cars out there and so much less need for parking infrastructure. Even sprawl as we know it could change to sprawl so diffuse it doesn’t feel like sprawl anymore, she said.

And what of subway systems like Metro? Will people see pouring more money into an expansive urban-suburban heavy-rail line – as epitomized by the addition of the Silver Line when the core system’s needs were being ignored – the way we look at investment in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal after the advent of the railroad?

Neither Valdes nor Mendes thinks so. Valdes said heavy rail will be around for a long time, particularly in cities where it already exists. The FTA is already funding some pilot projects through its Mobility on Demand Sandbox program to promote linking car-share and bike-share with traditional mass transit networks, such as San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, he said.

“I do believe transit will always play a role, particularly in built-up urban centers,” Valdes said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see it as obsolete and unnecessary.”

And yet Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) seems to be thinking along these lines as he looks to the past while making bets on the future.

His $9 billion proposal to widen the Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, if it ever comes to pass, would likely demonstrate yet again the principle of induced demand — that more cars will eventually take advantage of that new capacity until it’s gridlocked again. It also seems like an invitation to pave over the rest of Frederick and Washington counties with more McMansions and sprawl. But maybe the governor’s backward-looking proposal is also pointed weirdly at a future when Metro, still begging for dedicated funding, focuses whatever it can scrape together on maintaining a legacy transit system, especially in core areas, while people farther and farther out in the metropolis ask Jeeves, their robot, to summon their ride.

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