D.C. re­gion’s in­vest­ment in Metro should match its im­por­tance

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER -

Most peo­ple in the D.C. re­gion don’t ride Metro reg­u­larly. So why spend a lot of time talk­ing about its un­cer­tain fu­ture?

Trav­el­ers who write to me or com­ment on the Dr. Grid­lock blog of­fer these ob­ser­va­tions:

Metro is ir­rel­e­vant to to­day’s travel since com­muters have so many more op­tions than they did when the rail sys­tem was de­signed in the mid-20th cen­tury.

It was a bad idea in the first place, be­cause an ur­ban heavyrail sys­tem needs big sub­si­dies from tax­pay­ers to carry a rel­a­tively small por­tion of the com­mut­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Once we get self-driv­ing cars, no one is go­ing to take a train any­way. So why don’t we just sell the thing for scrap?

In re­cent col­umns about Metro, I’ve talked about con­cerns raised by riders. So I want to ad­dress the non­rid­ers on why they have a stake in Metro’s suc­cess.

For many decades — as far ahead as it’s rea­son­able to look with ur­ban transportation — the heavy-rail sys­tem is go­ing to be the back­bone of the cap­i­tal area’s travel net­work. Com­mu­nity lead­ers and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives are count­ing on it to keep the re­gion lively and pros­per­ous.

Yes, the na­tion is de­vel­op­ing new ways of get­ting around that, in­clud­ing ride-hail­ing ser­vices such as Uber and Lyft, as well as self-driv­ing cars. These ad­vances will be valu­able, but much of that value is likely to be found in mak­ing it eas­ier for peo­ple to reach Metro­rail sta­tions for the long­est parts of their trips.

The hard­est part will be retrofitting the 20th-cen­tury de­signs of Metro sta­tions for the way the travel sys­tem is evolv­ing. 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 their po­ten­tial for tran­sit-ori­ented de­vel­op­ment.

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

Rather than sound­ing a death knell for Metro, the evo­lu­tion of sur­face transportation is likely to in­crease 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 Metro sys­tem on their de­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

I saw one ex­am­ple of lo­cal con­cern in a let­ter writ­ten by 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, tran­sit­friendly “neigh­bor­hood of res­i­dents of all ages, unique shops and restau­rants, and large and small busi­nesses.”

The let­ter went to the re­gion’s Transportation Plan­ning Board, which has been dis­cussing Metro is­sues for months.

With Metro in a tight spot fi­nan­cially, the lead­ers of the White Flint group wanted to join the dis­cus­sion by ex­press­ing alarm over pro­pos­als for ser­vice cuts and fare in­creases that the Metro board is likely to vote on in March.

They use Metro, but they have an in­ter­est that ex­tends be­yond their own com­mutes: “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.”

A cen­tral tenet of their lon­grange plan is “easy ac­cess to tran­sit, pri­mar­ily Metro­rail.”

It builds their hopes, it makes Ar­ling­ton at­trac­tive to the Nestlé head­quar­ters, it helps keep the Mar­riott head­quar­ters in the D.C. re­gion, and it’s go­ing to fo­cus com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment in Loudoun County as the Sil­ver Line is com­pleted.

Metro has added bil­lions of dol­lars to the wealth of our com­mu­ni­ties. And it’s likely to be one of the main forces shap­ing de­vel­op­ment for decades to come. We need to fig­ure out how to make our pub­lic and pri­vate in­vest­ment match Metro’s value — not just to the peo­ple who ride it, but to the res­i­dents and the com­pa­nies who ben­e­fit from its ex­is­tence.

The ap­proach we’ve taken so far is to wait for Metro 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 un­likely to re­verse it.

Dr. Grid­lock also ap­pears Thurs­day in Lo­cal Liv­ing. Com­ments and ques­tions are wel­come and may be used in a col­umn, along with the writer’s name and home com­mu­nity. Write Dr. Grid­lock at The Wash­ing­ton Post, 1301 K St. NW, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071, or email dr­grid­lock@wash­post.com.

Dr. Grid­lock ROBERT THOM­SON

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