The rail service has been an economic catalyst for the Washington region, incentivizing billions of dollars of real estate investment and new growth. And often it has spurred revitalization and redevelopment of aging city and suburban neighborhoods.
The advent of Metrorail has contributed to increases in employment, economic prosperity, real estate property values and assessments, and jurisdictional tax revenue. All who live and work in the region benefit, even if they rarely set foot on a subway car.
Metrorail proximity to a project is a significant marketing asset for housing developers and their customers, buyers or renters for whom public transit is a desirable alternative to driving. Commercial tenants likewise favor locations with transit access, which can substantially reduce the amount of off-street parking required under conventional zoning regulations.
Environmental benefits of Metrorail are consequential, as well. Reduced automobile usage, especially for commuting, decreases carbon emissions while lessening regional traffic congestion.
Metrorail also has helped transform urban and suburban neighborhood subcultures. A busy Metro station can activate surrounding public streets and civic spaces. Such places can become attractive, animated destinations with entertainment, shopping and social interaction for not only local residents and workers but also people from elsewhere in the region, many coming via Metrorail.
Visualize places in the Washington region that have benefited or promise to benefit from Metrorail. In Northern Virginia, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Crystal City in Arlington and Tysons in Fairfax County are especially notable. Alexandria’s Eisenhower Avenue area, west of Old Town, is on its way.
In Northwest Washington, the 14th Street and Chinatown/Capital One Center/Seventh Street corridors have changed dramatically since Metro stations opened, as have the Navy Yard-Ballpark and Capitol South areas in Southeast. In Maryland, downtown Silver Spring and the Shady Grove area are Metro station beneficiaries, while the White Flint area is a work in progress.
But creating the Metrorail system has not solved one persistent urban/suburban problem: the lack or loss of affordable housing, symptomatized by gentrification.
As Metrorail access raises neighborhood property values, producing or sustaining housing units that sell or rent at below-market costs is financially difficult and, without subsidy, unfeasible. Consequently, in many older neighborhoods, as real estate taxes and other living costs escalate, longtime residents of modest means feel pressured to move out for social as well as economic reasons. Higher-income households — called “gentry” — move in and gradually alter neighborhood character.
Nevertheless, Metrorail is not the proximate cause of gentrification and the affordable housing problem. Rather the responsibility lies with American taxpayers and government. There is systemic resistance to instituting effective policies and programs, modifying or eliminating obstructive regulations, and allocating necessary subsidies to effectively address affordable housing needs.
Metrorail and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority face the same challenges. They rely on substantial annual subsidies from Maryland, Virginia and D.C., which are also financially stressed and politically unable to increase tax-based support, a plight greatly exacerbated in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal funding assistance for transportation infrastructure is on its way, thanks to legislation enacted by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in the waning days of his administration in December. Yet this will be a short-term fix unless sufficient, federal infrastructure funding continues year to year.
Another fix would be amending the tri-state WMATA pact. WMATA is a regional authority without regional taxing authority. If granted authority, it could raise funds through Metro-earmarked “assessments” levied annually by Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, or perhaps by the federal government. Only taxpayers within the WMATA tri-state region would be assessed.
Whatever the subsidy strategy might be, it’s clearly in the interest of all metropolitan-Washington residents and businesses to ensure the financial and operational sustainability of Metrorail. Failure to do so would be a functional and economic tragedy.
Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland at College Park.