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A Palette of Proposals for Metro

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 1994; Page A01
© The Washington Post

Packed with Christmas shoppers, a Metro train pulls out of the Montgomery Mall station and crosses the Potomac River into Northern Virginia. "This is the Purple Line to Tysons Corner," the train operator announces.

It may seem implausible now, but the idea of a multibillion-dollar Metro line around the 64-mile Capital Beltway is one of several ambitious additions to the regional rail system that planners are studying for the first time.

Other ideas include linking the Kennedy Center, George Washington University and Georgetown University; adding a Columbia Pike line in Virginia; building a line between Prince George's County and Alexandria that would cross the Potomac River near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge; and connecting the Farragut North and Farragut West stations with a pedestrian tunnel.

The proposals are short on specifics -- including cost and where the money would come from -- but they represent Metro's attempt to determine where its next gen- eration of stations could be built after the currently planned 103-mile, 83-station system is completed in 2001.

Transit agency officials recently assembled about 70 of the area's top transportation planners for private sessions to discuss Metro's future.

Out of these meetings came a vision of a regional rail system that in the next 30 years would combine Metro, street trolleys and commuter rail lines. Unlike the original Metro system, which was designed mostly to carry people between the suburbs and jobs downtown, the future rail system would serve new suburban job centers, including many outside the Beltway.

New extensions of the Metro system could go as far north as Baltimore, west to Leesburg, south to Fredericksburg and east to Bowie.

Virginia's first new stations probably would be in the Tysons Corner and Reston-Herndon areas, and at Dulles International Airport. Maryland's priority is an extension of the Blue Line from Addison Road to Largo, reflecting growth in places such as Mitchellville. Georgetown could be the District's first new station in the next wave of Metro development.

If everything proposed is built, the cost will be several billion dollars -- money that officials assume would come from the federal government. But transit planners say that for now, they just want to test ideas so that a plan for the future can be put together.

"Unless you have a vision and a goal, you can't get the funding for anything," said Metro board member Mary Margaret Whipple, of Arlington.

Decisions about Metro's future have as much effect on the Washington area's growth as they do on transportation. The $10 billion invested in the subway so far has been the catalyst for renaissance in places such as Bethesda, Silver Spring, New Carrollton, Pentagon City, Ballston, Shaw and Cardozo.

"Metro has been a magnet for development in corridors that might not have developed at all or would have been slow to develop," said Matthew Richardson, president of the construction division of Carr Development & Construction.

The need for suburb-to-suburb rail lines that do not funnel commuters through downtown is what led Metro's chief architect to propose a Beltway Purple Line, which would follow a circular route connecting 15 new and existing stations. The new stations would be Montgomery Mall, Tysons Corner, Braddock Road West, Port America and Andrews Air Force Base.

This would allow riders to make shorter trips, such as between Wheaton and Rockville, instead of having to go all the way downtown and back out to the suburbs. Many commuters now drive between Montgomery and Fairfax counties because Metro has no direct line between the two.

"This would address the dilemma of increasing traffic on the Beltway and the difficulty of commuting from suburb to suburb," said John J. Corley Jr., an architect with Harry Weese Associates, which designed Washington's system.

Roger K. Lewis, a University of Maryland architecture professor, suggests a "spider-web network" that would include a Beltway line and another circular line outside the Beltway. Those lines could be linked with existing suburb-to-downtown lines, so that the system's configuration resembled a spider web.

Because a Beltway line would cost several billion dollars, some planners advocate a less-expensive plan to relieve the traffic congestion on the two Beltway bridges over the Potomac.

Under one scenario, Silver Spring, Bethesda and Tysons Corner, three of the largest suburban employment centers, would be linked by a light-rail line that also would feed Metro stations. Many planners believe that the Metro system of the future should be light-rail lines funneling into subway stations.

Metro is considered high-speed, heavy rail because it carries large numbers of people every few minutes during rush hours. Light rail usually involves slower, smaller trolley cars that don't run as frequently.

The other scenario calls for a line between the planned Branch Avenue station in southern Prince George's County and the King Street station in Alexandria, crossing the Potomac near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Commuters then would have an alternative to the bridge, a major Beltway choke point.

Maryland officials also have talked about extending the Red Line from Shady Grove to Clarksburg along Interstate 270. The Food and Drug Administration's recent announcement that it will move its headquarters to Clarksburg by 2003 is likely to push those discussions along.

Besides an Orange Line extension to Dulles, Virginia planners said they would like to see a line serving the Columbia Pike corridor in Arlington, perhaps with stops at the Pentagon, Baileys Crossroads and Tysons Corner.

Probably the easiest and cheapest change being considered in the District is a walkway under Farragut Square connecting the busy Farragut West and Farragut North stations in downtown Washington. This would eliminate the need for riders to walk three blocks between stations or to transfer at Metro Center. Farragut West is on the Blue and Orange lines; Farragut North is on the Red Line.

D.C. planners also suggest a subway station near Florida and New York avenues NE, two blocks from Gallaudet University. They talk of a Metro stop in Adams-Morgan and of the new development of Fort Lincoln, near Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue NE.

The list of possibilities seems endless; merely suggesting where Metro should go next is the easy part. After hearing about the proposed Georgetown stop at a recent Metro board meeting, D.C. Council member and Metro board Chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) asked, "When can we start digging?" and the audience laughed.

But the District and the seven other local governments that support Metro are having enough trouble as it is subsidizing the transit agency's current operating costs. Expansion would require billions of dollars in construction money and millions more to operate the lines.

Congress has picked up the tab for most of the construction so far, but the climate on Capitol Hill has changed.

"This Congress is not in an expansive mood," warned Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), incoming chairman of the House subcommittee that controls transportation spending. "Metro has to be careful not to get too far out in front of the people who will have to be burdened by the cost" of expansion.

Wolf, who has supported Metro construction, said discussions about future lines are premature until Congress appropriates the money for the remaining 9.3 miles of planned construction.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that as long as ridership continues to fall below officials' expectations, it will be difficult to make a case for Metro expansion. Metro carries about 500,000 people a day; in the last four years, the agency has opened 13 new subway stations but ridership has increased by only 3 percent.

"If we don't get ridership up, there's going to be a problem getting Congress to talk about extensions," said Hoyer, who supports Metro's planning effort.

Fairfax planner Edward M. Risse said Metro should not expand until transit officials come up with a way to attract more riders to the existing system.

"Most of the Metro trains leave most stations most of the time essentially empty," he said. "Where Metro should go is not the first question to ask. The question is, where {do} the region's plans call for patterns and densities of land use that are best served by a transit system?"

Even if the money is scarce, officials said, they still must come up with a plan for future Metro extensions to preserve the land on which the lines would be built.

"We have some of the worst traffic congestion in the country," Whipple said. "We would be derelict if we didn't consider ways to deal with that."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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