Where’s Metro Going?
METRO Is One of the World’s Best Transit Systems, and Washington Traffic Would Be Much Worse Without It. Metro Takes 350,000 Cars Off Our Streets Every Day. Now It’s Facing the Challenges of Middle Age. How Can It Improve Its Service, Keep Fares Affordabl
It is easy to understand, as we glide along the rails in the median strip of I-66 during morning rush hour, why so many people over the years fell in love with Metro. Everything seems to be working perfectly—our string of gleaming cars coming to a soft stop at each station, then whirring down the Orange Line propelled by quiet electric power. We have time to read or glance out the window at the crowded landscape of Northern Virginia.
Most of what we see are long lines of cars that represent the horror of Washington's world-class traffic. Most cars have a single driver—that's how two out of three Washingtonians get to work—and they're all in the same fix: bumper to bumper, stop and go.
This morning the race between Metro and the cars is not close. The train has a top speed of 60 miles an hour and averages about 33 with station stops. Its six cars, with seats and standing space occupied, carry just over 1,000 passengers—enough, if they were driving alone, to form a single lane of traffic nearly seven miles long. It's hard, looking out that window, not to feel lucky to be riding Metro.
But I have taken other rides on Metro—I think of one on the Red Line coming in from Friendship Heights—when the system was not working with such sleek precision. The trains here run 120 feet below the surface, rushing through dark tunnels lit only by the headlights of the lead car and a few bulbs on the walls. Usually the train runs past these lights so fast that they are not noticeable, but this day they come into clear view as we roll to a stop—stuck in a netherworld between stations.
We sit there waiting, crowded together, with the lights inside the car going off, then on, then off again. Restlessness begins to spread, along with speculation that it's something more serious than a stalled train in the next station. Is there some problem with the brakes or the computer controls? Is there a fire in the tunnel? Maybe there's been a terrorist bombing somewhere.
The uniformed Metro employee walking from car to car is too busy to talk, and a public-address announcement simply says that help is on the way.
Eventually the crippled train moves into the next station, where everyone gets out to wait for another train. Everything is fine the rest of the way into downtown DC, but there's an aftertaste of frustration and disappointment. At moments like these I get the sense that my romance with Metro is not what it was when we both were young.
It was 35 years ago that ground was broken at Judiciary Square for Metrorail's first station, marking the beginning of one of the grandest public-works projects in the nation's history. Metro was one of the first mass-transit systems built in the United States after World War II—an undertaking whose original 103 miles and 83 stations were completed just four years ago with the opening of a final leg of the Green Line. The main characters at the beginning—Jackson Graham, the former army general who got construction started, and Harry Weese, the Chicago architect who designed the stations—are no longer living. Counting years of planning, Metro's life has stretched across ten presidential administrations, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower, which means that a system that once was the symbol of the modern and new is easing into middle age.
Metro represents a big investment—$24 billion in today's dollars—and ranks with the region's highways, bridges, and three major airports as a foundation of the local economy. Though Washington is the nation's fifth-largest metropolitan area, Metrorail ranks only behind New York City's subway in number of passengers. And it remains among the world's most admired systems. It was one of the first to meld technology from the Industrial Revolution—the railroad—with sophisticated computers to control trains and collect fares. And its stations, with their concrete vaults of modernist design, have become a symbol of the city, praised by architecture critics and tourists alike.
Metrorail registers nearly 700,000 trips on an average weekday and has salutary effects on traffic congestion and air quality. Like the Capital Beltway, which was completed in 1964, Metro has powered much real-estate development, giving a boost to once-beleaguered downtown DC, revitalizing old neighborhoods in the close-in suburbs, making lots of people richer while driving others out, and influencing the location of everything from federal agencies to sports arenas. It's a unifying force, drawing a collection of Washingtonians scattered across two states and the federal city into a shared traveling experience.
While Metro continues to cast a big shadow, it also is facing challenges born of age and popularity. With ridership up 22 percent over the past seven years, its cars are more crowded. With costs rising, it has raised fares twice in the past two years. And with its rolling stock and other facilities growing old—nearly a third of its railcars have been in service for 28 years—it is more prone to breakdowns and delays.
Metro has completed construction of its original routes about the time it needs to invest in reconstruction. Getting the trains, tracks, escalators, elevators, mechanical systems, and tunnels repaired is just one issue. There's also the matter of extending Metro's reach into fast-growing suburbs that were cow pastures when it was planned 40 years ago, especially to Tysons Corner and Washington Dulles International Airport. There's the challenge of figuring out how Metro can protect itself and its passengers from the threat of terrorism while remaining accessible. And there's the question of who will pay the billions all of this will cost.
*FREEWAYS VS. SUBWAY*
In this most political of cities, it comes as no surprise that the first subway was a project built for the US Senate. Completed in 1906 and still used, it was a short tunnel with carts that carried senators between the Capitol and their offices. But it was enough to stir up the notion that a subway might be a good idea for everyone. Three years later the Washington Post was promoting the idea with a story headlined WHY NOT A REAL SUBWAY SYSTEM FOR WASHINGTON?
Most Washingtonians in those days got around on electric streetcars, which had begun replacing horse-drawn streetcars in 1888. They ran all over town and were so popular and efficient that they dominated the scene though the end of World War II.
But the days of the streetcar were numbered. Buses and private autos became more popular after the war, ridership on the streetcars declined, and a long strike in 1955 prompted Congress to decree that they be replaced by buses. The city's last streetcar ran on January 27, 1962, and the cars were sold off to transit systems in such cities as Sarajevo. There were remnants—a few battered tracks in Georgetown, the Car Barn near Key Bridge, a tunnel under Dupont Circle, and some antique cars at the National Capital Trolley Museum—but the future of transportation seemed to belong to buses and cars.
The number of automobiles hadn't grown much during the Depression, when few could afford them, or during World War II, when gasoline rationing was imposed and auto manufacturers turned to military production. But Washingtonians went on a car-buying spree after the war, with the number of registrations going from 203,000 in 1948 to 418,000 in 1955. People had more money, they were moving into new suburbs farther from their downtown jobs, and gasoline was cheap.
Nothing symbolized the social and political ascendancy of the automobile more than the creation in 1956 of the interstate highway system. The federal government agreed to pay 90 percent of construction costs, mostly out of gasoline taxes—a deal that local highway planners could not resist. The act financed nearly 43,000 miles of high-quality highways nationwide, including the 64-mile-long Beltway around Washington. Intended as a bypass to keep traffic away from downtown DC, it soon was the main street of the suburbs.
Talk of a mass-transit system in Washington was proceeding in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with much of the rationale stemming from the city's status as the nation's capital. The federal government supplied one of every four jobs—it's now just one in eight—and its workers were concentrated in large installations that could benefit from transit service. It also was a little embarrassing that Washington, the capital of the world's most powerful nation, lacked the rapid transit that served London, Paris, Tokyo, and Moscow.
Metro's creation soon became sidetracked by turmoil over highway building inside the Beltway. Highway planners envisioned 38 miles of freeways inside DC. Downtown would be encircled by an "inner loop" linked to the Maryland suburbs with legs running through Northeast DC, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring to I-95, through Northwest DC and Bethesda to I-270, and linked to Northern Virginia by bringing I-66 across the Potomac with a new Three Sisters Bridge upriver from Key Bridge. Under various plans, there would be freeways near the Lincoln Memorial and Tidal Basin, through Glover-Archbold Park, near Dupont Circle, along U Street, and through Potomac Palisades.
The freeway plan triggered resistance from residents whose neighborhoods were threatened. They argued that the social costs of freeways—in homes destroyed, people displaced, parks lost, and businesses closed—were too great and that mass transit was preferable. The anger welled up on both sides of the city, from the white New Dealers and lawyers in Cleveland Park to poor African-Americans in Northeast, where the leader of the antifreeway protests was a young dashiki-clad Marion Barry.
The pro-highway lobby—auto manufacturers, oil companies, concrete suppliers, state highway departments, and the American Automobile Association—resisted use of federal gasoline taxes for mass transit, and they fought back by holding hostage the federal money needed to begin construction on Metro. William Natcher, a Kentucky congressman who headed the subcommittee that controlled the DC budget, refused to release Metro money until the DC city council, which was just beginning the transition to home rule, agreed to approve work on the Three Sisters Bridge.
The council reluctantly agreed and work began, but more protests erupted, and a deal was cut. The federal money DC would have received to build new freeways was put into Metro. Only a few miles of DC freeways were built—the Southwest/Southeast Freeway is one example—and downtown DC remains less cut up by freeways than Los Angeles, Chicago, and many other big cities.
Metrorail was so expensive to build that laying out its route system involved decisions that had to stand the test of time. One trend weighed heavily in deciding where it should go: The movement of people into the suburbs—especially Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's—had accelerated during the 1950s, and this trend, combined with a loss of population in DC, meant that the central city had fewer than half the region's residents by 1960. But these suburbs were mainly bedroom communities—yet to experience the job growth and office buildings of later decades—and DC was still where most Washingtonians worked.
The assumption was that Metro's main mission was to get people to and from these downtown jobs, and the result was a hub-and-spokes route system with the hub downtown and the spokes leading outward toward the Beltway and beyond. Outlying stations would be served by feeder buses and offer parking spaces for drivers not within walking distance. In an age when fewer women worked outside the home, there also would be "kiss-and-ride" drop-offs.
Some of the lines took advantage of above-ground right-of-ways that eliminated the need for expensive tunneling or destroying homes. The Orange Line down the median strip of I-66 was one example, and there were others that followed old railroad tracks abandoned as freight and passenger traffic had declined. The Red Line north of Union Station to Silver Spring ran along an old branch of the Baltimore & Ohio, and part of the Green Line to College Park and Greenbelt ran on another B&O line.
The Blue and Yellow lines through Crystal City and Alexandria followed an old track of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac, which meant that Metro bypassed Old Town Alexandria. While that might have seemed a mistake, it eventually spurred a real-estate boom in the western part of Alexandria. In the end, only about half of Metrorail's tracks and stations are underground—one of the reasons officials are sensitive about its being called a "subway."
Over the years there were adjustments in routes and the location of stations. In the Maryland suburbs, the Red Line was built north to Shady Grove to avoid putting an end-of-the-line railcar storage yard in Rockville. The Green Line in southern Prince George's, delayed for years by lawsuits, was once intended to end at the Rosecroft Raceway but eventually was built farther east to end at Branch Avenue.
In Northern Virginia, one of the biggest mistakes was not routing Metrorail to Tysons Corner. Fairfax County had a sense that office development in Tysons, which enjoyed a strategic location at the intersection of the Beltway and Routes 7 and 123, was poised to take off. But in the early 1960s, few local officials envisioned that it would one day have as much office space as many American cities.
Another glitch occurred at National Airport, where the Metro station was built a good walk from the terminal. This decision had to do with the high cost of putting the station underground, the airport's uncertainty about a new terminal, and Metro's desire to move ahead quickly. The disconnect was corrected in 1997 when Cesar Pelli's new terminal and Metro were linked by an elevated walkway.
In DC, Metro's plans ran afoul of federal power exercised by agencies that have long had quiet influence over the city's appearance. The Architect of the Capitol killed a plan to put a transfer station under the grounds of the Capitol, thus limiting its service to Union Station and Capitol South. The National Park Service vetoed a plan for a Metro stop in the middle of the Mall, which ended up with one stop near the Smithsonian Castle and Agriculture Department. And it would not allow Metro to build a transfer station connecting the Red, Orange, and Blue lines beneath the park at Farragut Square. That would have required tearing up the park for several years, and the Park Service's resistance forced Metro to build two unconnected stations at Farragut West and Farragut North.
The most significant route realignment in DC was prompted by the riots that swept through black neighborhoods following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The "midcity line," which was supposed to run beneath 13th Street, Northwest, was shifted to run through neighborhoods where damage from the four days of fire and destruction was worst. The effort was led by the Reverend Walter Fauntroy, later DC's first representative in Congress, who argued that Metro would trigger redevelopment in Shaw, Cardozo, and Columbia Heights.
While this center of African-American life eventually got a Metro stop at 13th and U streets, other popular places were surprisingly bypassed, including the Kennedy Center, Adams Morgan, and Georgetown. Lore has it that Georgetown's wealthy residents opposed a Metro stop out of fear that it would attract unsavory outsiders. It is true that there was some of this opposition, but the full story is more complicated.
Georgetown, with its expensive homes and shops, didn't have the high-rise offices that fit into Metro's main mission of getting people to and from their jobs, so a station there was never seriously considered. And there would have been engineering difficulties in running the line from Foggy Bottom to Georgetown and then across the Potomac to Rosslyn. It was impossible to run it across Key Bridge, nobody wanted a second bridge, and getting a gently sloping track under the river would have put a Georgetown station very deep.
Construction of Metro was entrusted in the beginning to Jackson Graham, a retired Army Corps of Engineers general, who was Metro's general manager for its first nine years. Graham, a native of Oregon, had worked as a young man with his father, a construction foreman, on the main piers of the Golden Gate Bridge. With a degree in civil engineering, Graham had served in Europe during World War II and in the Korean War, and he had been in charge of US civilian water projects for the Corps. Though he had retired from the Army at age 52 in 1967, everyone at Metro called him "general," and he had not lost any of his military demeanor—impeccable posture, square-jawed, close-cropped hair, perpetually dressed in a brown suit.
He proved ideal for the job, says Zachary Schrag, a George Mason University historian who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Metro. Graham was accustomed to managing billion-dollar public-works projects where he had to work with politicians as well as engineers and construction companies. He had a can-do spirit that allowed nothing to get in his way; General George Patton and New York planning czar Robert Moses were among his heroes. He worked long hours, going to the office every Saturday and making inspection tours on Sunday, sometimes racing through the tunnels with his wife on the back of his motorcycle.
But he was regarded as unresponsive by many groups, from the disabled to DC's black political leaders, and in 1976, just two months before trains began to run, he retired to Palm Springs. He came back two years later for his first ride on the system he'd launched and died at the age of 69 in 1985. Metro's headquarters is named in his honor.
Metro construction was a huge undertaking, with as many as 7,000 workers on the job at one time. Some buildings with tunnels beneath them had to be shored up, including the historic Old Patent Office, which was reinforced with nearly 300 pilings. The city's first synagogue, Adas Israel, was moved to make way for Metro's headquarters.
Shallow underground sections of the system in downtown DC were done using a "cut-and-cover" technique. That involved digging a wide trench, shoring up the sides, replacing streets on top with steel plates and wooden timbers, then repaving the street when the concrete-lined tunnels below were finished. All this snarled traffic, cut stores off from their customers, and led to one big cave-in along Connecticut Avenue. Crews also had to work around or reroute a maze of underground utility lines, being especially careful not to disturb the nuclear hotline to Moscow or lines used by NASA in its space shots.
While cut-and-cover worked well in the river-bottom soil of low-lying areas, differing geology in other areas meant that tunnels had to be blasted through hard rock, a technique used along upper Connecticut Avenue and underneath the Potomac. In places, giant boring machines also were used.
Some of the obstacles Metro faced were neighborhood groups objecting to its presence or the noise caused by construction. While the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which was being built about this same time, faced lots of caribou along its route, Zachary Schrag has noted that pushing 100 miles of rapid transit through a region densely populated by lawyers was no less daunting. There were lawsuits, protests, and raucous public hearings.
Few neighborhoods were bashful about taking on Metro, including some that once championed the subway as an alternative to freeways. A working-class black community on Capitol Hill, which objected to a 1,000-car Metro parking lot, got a station deleted from the map. And a resident of Cleveland Park filed a suit that required Metro to spend money on soundproofing and disguising a ventilation shaft on Yuma Street with rows of azaleas.
There were strikes, conflicts over minority set-asides, indecision over routes, soil and rock problems, change orders, and storms. In 1972 Hurricane Agnes pushed water from Rock Creek into a tunnel that backed up into the mezzanine at Dupont Circle. Inflation in the 1970s raised the cost of concrete and steel as well as the cost of labor. In the end the bill came to $9.4 billion, far above the $2-billion estimate that Jackson Graham had used in congressional testimony.
*METRO THE MARVELOUS*
On Metrorail's opening day—a warm Saturday in March 1976—more than 50,000 people stood in line for a free ride. The open section covered less than five miles—a segment of the Red Line from Rhode Island Avenue to Farragut North—but the excitement was evident. A train operator who explained on the intercom that his shift was ending got a round of applause. The next day, congregations of downtown churches gathered in the station at Metro Center to celebrate, singing "Faith of Our Fathers" and "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus."
Fifteen months later when a segment of the Blue Line opened—allowing people to get to National Airport, the Pentagon, Federal Triangle, the Smithsonian, Capitol Hill, and Redskins games at RFK—it was clear that Metrorail was as good as advertised. Metro had always enjoyed strong local support—suburban voters in the late 1960s had approved Metro bonds by about 70 percent—and that remained undiminished. The region's love affair with Metro was in full swing.
Riders were awestruck by Metro's modern stations. Engineers, not architects, are usually the major-domos of mass-transit projects, but Metro had benefited from turning design over to the Chicago architect Harry Weese. Weese was a disciple of the Finnish modernist Alvar Aalto and had studied at the Cranbrook Academy outside Detroit, founded by the architect Eliel Saarinen.
Only five American cities had subway systems at the time—New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. A new system was under construction in San Francisco, but the others had been conceived decades before. So Weese turned abroad for inspiration, taking a tour of Canada, Europe, and Japan to look at many of the world's major subways. Montreal, Stockholm, Hamburg, and Milan were among those that provided useful ideas.
As a model of what not to do stood the subway of New York City, which had opened in 1904. Smelly, crowded, noisy, crime-ridden, defaced by graffiti—New York had it all, its trains running through stations with low ceilings and battered columns that reminded people of a mineshaft. Zachary Schrag points out that Harry Weese was operating in a political environment that demanded something better for the nation's capital, a mecca for tourists and a symbol of American aspirations. Lyndon Johnson, then launching his Great Society, supported the idea that Metro was an opportunity to make the capital "more attractive and inspiring." The message was to make it high-class.
In a city dominated by neoclassical buildings, Weese created a design for Metro in the unadorned style of modernism. It could not have been more different from the old Beaux Arts style that Washington had long preferred. Like Dulles Airport, finished in 1962 and designed by Eero Saarinen, Metro was one of the first works here to recognize the international style that had been gathering acceptance elsewhere for half a century. And it was encouraged—despite some arguments with Weese—by a Commission of Fine Arts that had been transformed by John Kennedy's appointment of members with a commitment to the newer style.
The high, arched ceilings of its underground stations were Metro's most striking feature. They were free of columns and offered a sense of spaciousness. They were constructed of unpainted concrete—a favorite material of the modernists—but were coffered in a way that suggested Rome's Pantheon, the dome of the US Capitol, and Union Station.
The stations were enhanced by indirect lighting that was free of hanging fixtures and gave the vaults the glow of what one critic called an "underground sky." Along the platform edges were lights in the tile floors that flashed to announce the arrival of a train.
In some of the world's transit systems, every station had its own look, often reflecting the neighborhood, but Metro decided on a more uniform approach. Standardization made them cheaper to design and easier to clean, a lesson drawn from McDonald's. Gull-winged canopies in Metro's above-ground stations echoed the underground vaults, and there were many elements of continuity—platform tiles, benches, the lettering and brown color of all signs. Some say the brown reflected Jackson Graham's preference in suits, but others believe that's a myth.
Several design features and policies were intended to discourage crime by giving predators no place to hide—something that is now an advantage against terrorism. The vaulted ceilings meant there were few columns, hidden corners, or dark areas. Restrooms, while included in every station, were kept locked and accessible to the public only in emergencies at the discretion of the station manager. Vendors, possible targets of robbery, were excluded, and video cameras scanned platforms from opening day.
Metro was celebrated for its cleanliness, especially the absence of graffiti. Mezzanines and platforms were separated from station walls by about three feet of space, making hit-and-run work with a spray can difficult. Years before it became a norm in big-city policing, Metro adopted a "zero tolerance" policy toward graffiti and other forms of disorder—based on the idea that vandalism races out of control if allowed to get beyond a certain "tipping point." The slightest blemishes were immediately erased—and ripped seats were replaced—so no one got the idea that defacing Metro was acceptable.
It was clear that no one wanted Metro to become like New York City, where stations and cars were covered with graffiti. Washington preferred clean, while New Yorkers did their best to give their graffiti some cachet. Nearly two dozen books, including one by Norman Mailer, celebrated subway graffiti as a new art form.
Another part of Metro's appeal was its display of technology, which had a futuristic quality that resembled a world's fair. Trains were centrally controlled, with signals sent through the rails, under the supervision of a computer facility at Metro headquarters. Operators rode every train but mostly as a backup to the automatic system when there was bad weather, when speed restrictions were in force, or in case of an emergency or mechanical problem.
The system was not without flaws. In 1979, an operator was left behind by his automated train, which continued making stops but not opening its doors, until a passenger broke into the cab and stopped it. In 1996, a train on automatic failed to brake properly and crashed into a train ahead, killing its operator.
But most of the time the system worked with the precision that computers provide. A passenger could stand on a certain spot on the platform at Farragut West, be assured that a door would open directly in front of him, and be dropped at Virginia Square right at the base of the escalator.
While most subway systems collected fares by employing people in booths to sell tokens or had passengers drop coins into a turnstile, Metro relied on computers to dispense farecards from machines. They could be mysterious to first-time users and tourists, and Metro spent years working out the kinks and doing upgrades. The early machines would accept nothing larger than a $5 bill and balked at bills with the slightest flaw; the gates rejected farecards that were crumpled.
The machines allowed Metro to institute fare policies that were unusual—"peak-use pricing," with a higher fare during rush hour, and pricing according to the length of a ride. Today's most advanced farecards—plastic SmarTrip cards that can be recharged—were introduced in 1999.
The most visually striking Metro technology was its escalators, which along with its elevators made up its "vertical transportation" system. Escalators had been used in department stores since the early 1900s, but few people had seen any as long as some of those in Metro. Every station has at least two escalators—a total of 572, more than any transit system in the country. The one at Wheaton is longest in the United States at 230 feet, and there are five others longer than 180 feet (Bethesda, Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan, Medical Center, Rosslyn, and Dupont Circle).
Metro also had more elevators than any transit system in America, 197 by the time it was finished. The original design included no elevators, and Jackson Graham always considered them costly and unnecessary, but a disabled man in a wheelchair won a lawsuit forcing their inclusion in every station. This was not one of Graham's proudest moments, says Zachary Schrag. He once took a film crew out to Dulles Airport, hopped into a wheelchair, and rode up and down an escalator in an attempt to demonstrate that the disabled had no need for elevators.
Metro was a marvel of regional cooperation in a metropolitan area notorious for fractured government. The transit system reaches into suburban jurisdictions in two states with differing political cultures, covering five local governments in Northern Virginia (Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, Fairfax County, and Fairfax City) and two counties in Maryland (Montgomery and Prince George's). Another layer of complexity comes from DC's status as a federal enclave kept on a short leash by Congress. All this has made for jurisdictional tension and competition over everything from a commuter tax to economic development.
Metro patched over all this, bringing the central city and suburbs on both sides of the Potomac together in a regional agency. Its official name is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which was created in 1966. Originally intended to concentrate on building and operating a rail system, the authority reluctantly took over the region's failing bus system in 1973. Metrobus is now the nation's fifth-largest bus system, carrying passengers on more than 147 million trips a year; it has nearly 1,500 buses and 14,000 stops.
Metro has a governing board with two representatives from DC, two from suburban Maryland, and two from Northern Virginia, plus a voting arrangement that gives each of these areas a veto. Each jurisdiction provides an annual subsidy based on a formula, and service is spread fairly evenly: 38 miles of track in DC, 35 miles in suburban Maryland, and 29 miles in Northern Virginia. The federal government, which paid for two-thirds of Metro's construction, has no seat on its board.
*FORGET THE TRAFFIC*
Every year, with the regularity of the college-football polls, the Texas Transportation Institute publishes its rankings of which American cities have the worst traffic. Los Angeles usually wins, but over the past decade Washington has been right up there—third this year behind LA and the San Francisco Bay area. This distinction confirms what every frustrated driver knows—that Washington traffic has been getting worse as the region's population has grown.
Governments have been campaigning to discourage driving to work alone, which is the biggest source of traffic congestion. Using a carrot-and-stick approach, they have built more lanes for carpooling, encouraged slug lines facilitated by Web sites, created trails for bicyclists, railed against parking perks that encourage driving, promoted the use of buses, and forced companies to develop ride-sharing plans.
But Metrorail, with nearly 700,000 passenger trips each weekday, has proved to be one of the most popular alternatives. It removes 350,000 cars from the highways every weekday. That eliminates the need for 1,400 lane miles of highway, the equivalent of nearly three eight-lane Beltways. And it saves 1,400 acres of land that would be needed for parking, an area more than twice the size of Arlington National Cemetery.
Removing that many cars from the highways saves energy—about 80 million gallons of gasoline each year—and contributes to the reduction of air pollution. It's a benefit hardly mentioned when Metro was planned because environmentalism was then in its infancy. The Environmental Protection Agency, which monitors Washington's air quality, was not created until 1970, shortly after Metro construction began. Today EPA rates Washington's air-pollution problem as "severe," especially in the summer when the level of ozone rises, much of it attributable to automobiles. By removing so many cars from the highways, Metro is said to remove ten tons of pollutants from the air each year.
Metrorail stacks up well against the automobile on other counts. It's had few passenger fatalities over the past 30 years, though three people were killed when a train derailed near the Federal Triangle station on a wintry day in 1982—the same day an Air Florida jetliner crashed into the 14th Street Bridge near National Airport. Traffic accidents claimed hundreds of lives during the same period.There are no drunk drivers on Metrorail, which makes it good for late-night partiers; the system averages about 18,000 riders between midnight and 3 AM on Friday and Saturday nights.
Metro is quieter than traffic-clogged freeways, which have to be lined with noise barriers. It preserves hundreds of acres of land that otherwise would be used for freeways, thus boosting local tax bases. And while Metro has had its own embarrassments with snowstorms—and has spent millions on snowplows and rail de-icers—a big winter storm always sends hordes of drivers straight to the nearest Metro station.
Metrorail ridership has soared by 22 percent in the past seven years, reaching 189 million a year. That's behind New York City, the nation's busiest transit system with 1.8 billion trips and 468 stations, and such foreign capitals as Moscow (3.2 billion) and Tokyo (2.6 billion). But it comes as a surprise to many that Metro is America's second most popular transit system, carrying more passengers than long-established systems in cities such as Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. Metro's busiest days are during special events on the Mall. The record for one day is 850,636 trips during the funeral last June of Ronald Reagan.
There are several factors behind Metro's increased ridership. Drivers are fed up with congestion, population is growing, new stations have been opened, Metro has triggered denser development of apartments and offices around its stations, and hours have been extended. It now opens at 5 AM on weekdays and closes at 3 AM on Friday and Saturday nights. About 20,000 new riders were added four years ago when the Clinton administration expanded a program that gives federal workers $100 a month to use on mass transit.
A portion of the increased ridership also may come from the fact that Metro has been adding parking spaces near its stations to meet ever-increasing demand. It now has open-air lots and multilevel garages at 37 stations, mostly in the suburbs. There's a total of 51,000 spaces, making Metro one of the region's largest parking vendors. Spaces cost $3.50 to $4 a day, and demand exceeds the supply, with many lots filled by 7 AM. Reserved spaces are available in most lots for $45 a month.
For all that Metrorail contributes to lowering traffic congestion, it is limited by the fact that homes and jobs have spread out beyond its reach. Forty years ago, when it was planned, most of the region's residents were in DC, Arlington, Alexandria, and the inner reaches of Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's, while most of the jobs were in DC. All this made the hub-and-spokes route system seem logical.
Since then, growth in the suburbs has created commuting needs that Metro cannot serve. Many jobs are now outside of DC, as is the vast majority of the population. This means that many people commute either within suburbs or from suburb to suburb in a complex web that is more circular than the in-and-out pattern of the 1950s.
For those who live farther out in a region that now stretches across hundreds of square miles, Metrorail is not an option. If a person works at CIA headquarters in Langley, in a high-tech firm near Dulles Airport, or at a law firm in Tysons—or lives in Potomac, Woodbridge, Herndon, or Columbia—the automobile is the logical choice. That's why, even with Metrorail ridership at an all-time high, about 67 percent of commuters in the entire region drive to and from work alone, compared with about 13 percent who carpool, 7 percent who travel by Metrorail, 4 percent by bus, 3 percent who walk, and 1 percent who bike. Metrorail's share is more like 20 percent in the centralized area its lines reach and as high as 40 percent in downtown DC and close-in surburbs.
One of those drivers is Richard A. White, Metro's own general manager and chief executive officer. White, who came to Washington in 1996 from the top job at the San Francisco Bay area transit system, lives about four miles from the Vienna-Fairfax-George Mason University station. Most days he uses his car to drive downtown, though he uses the system he runs during the day.
*METRO AS GOLDEN GOOSE*
Metrorail originally wanted the Orange Line in Arlington to be built above ground, running west from Rosslyn down the median strip of the soon-to-be-built I-66. But county officials sensed an opportunity to use the transit system to revitalize its commercial corridor along Wilson Boulevard, which once had bustled with streetcars and businesses but had fallen on hard times. They lobbied to shift the Orange Line about half a mile south of I-66 and put it underground, at the same time increasing the number of Arlington stations along the line from three to five.
Most of the young singles hanging out in the bars and restaurants of Clarendon and Ballston weren't born when this decision was made in the early 1960s. Back then the area was filled with old houses, used-car dealers, a miniature-golf course, and a deteriorating shopping center. That shopping center has been reborn as Ballston Common mall, and the whole corridor has become a magnet for restaurants and such retailers as Whole Foods, Pottery Barn, Barnes & Noble, Apple Computer, and many others. There also are thousands of units of high-rise apartments and millions of square feet of office space, occupied by the National Science Foundation, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, George Mason University School of Law, the Nature Conservancy, Verizon, and other enterprises. While development around Metro stations accounts for only 7 percent of Arlington's land area, it generates 46 percent of the county's tax base.
This linkage between transportation and real-estate development is nothing new. The waters of the Potomac, which were used to ship tobacco and other goods, spurred the creation of Georgetown and Alexandria in the 18th century. Streetcar lines opened up land far from downtown DC for suburban homebuilding—the US senator who developed Chevy Chase Village in the 1890s built his own tracks as well as Connecticut Avenue and its bridge over Rock Creek Park. And highways have always triggered real-estate booms—a phenomenon seen everywhere from Tysons Corner to the I-270 corridor and around the Beltway.
Metrorail has replicated these real-estate booms—redefining "a great location" and making many people richer. It has unleashed the market in familiar ways: A Metro station is planned, speculators rush in, land prices soar, developers find bankers willing to lend money, building cranes appear, high-rise offices and apartments go up, restaurants and stores arrive, house prices reflect a "Metro premium," the tax base increases, economic-development officials celebrate.
Proximity to a Metro station now ranks high in determining the location of many institutions. The federal government has required that agencies looking to relocate must try to find new offices near Metro stations. Metro was built to serve many existing federal workplaces—the Capitol, the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health, the Census Bureau in Suitland, and the cluster of departments at the Federal Triangle, L'Enfant Plaza, and the Southwest Federal Center. But now there are others relocated to Metro stations, from the US Patent and Trademark Office near King Street to the Internal Revenue Service at New Carrollton and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring.
Universities recognize the importance of being on a Metro line. A dozen of them have managed to get their names attached to Metro stations, including George Washington, Catholic, Howard, American, the University of the District of Columbia, the University of Maryland, and George Mason, whose campus is three miles from the Vienna station.
A name on a Metro station is such good advertising that several have been renamed over the years, with the cost borne by local governments, institutions, or private developers. Some names now run on at great length, including the Vienna-Fairfax-George Mason University station, the U Street-African American Civil War Memorial-Cardozo station, and the Mount Vernon Square-7th Street-Convention Center station.
Metro, which had a station at RFK Stadium from the beginning, has improved access to other sports arenas. The MCI Center is close to Metro—the old Capital Centre was not—and the proposed stadium for the Expos on the Anacostia River waterfront is close to the Navy Yard station. The Redskins would have had a Metro station if a plan to put a new stadium in Alexandria's Potomac Yard had not been killed by neighborhood opposition, but they ended up at FedEx Field in Landover with snarled traffic and parking problems.
Metro itself is in the real-estate business, taking advantage of land it owns around its stations to do joint ventures with private developers. It has leased or sold 46 parcels that have led to nearly 10 million square feet of office and retail space, 1,300 hotel rooms, and nearly 7,000 housing units. Those deals have generated $151 million for Metro during the past 25 years; one of the most profitable is Bethesda Metro Center. It also gets rental revenue from ten passageways between Metro stations and office buildings and retail establishments, including the downtown Hecht's, International Square, and Chevy Chase Pavilion. Half a dozen companies have paid Metro to install fiber-optic cables in its tunnels.
While developers see Metro as a chance to make money, it also has unleashed urban planners, zoning boards, and local politicians intent on channeling development in ways that will make neighborhoods around stations good places to live, shop, and work. They have established rules to encourage high-density development around Metro stations, hoping to create "urban villages" in which walking is easy and cars are unnecessary. This "bull's-eye development" sometimes features a zoning "cone" around stations, with the tallest buildings allowed right over a station, tapering down to smaller high-rises, then into neighborhoods of low-rise homes. This has made Metro a darling of the "smart growth" movement, which argues that building higher density around Metro stations is an antisprawl strategy that discourages using open spaces on the suburban fringe for townhouses and office parks.
The Wilson Boulevard corridor is one of the places where transit-centered development has taken hold. In Northern Virginia, it also has given a boost to Pentagon City and Crystal City in Arlington and on south to Braddock Road, King Street, and Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria. On the Red Line the biggest growth has taken place in Friendship Heights, on the DC-Maryland line, and in Bethesda and Silver Spring, where Montgomery County has been creative in using zoning to create suburban downtowns that attract crowds. There also has been new development around stations at White Flint, Rockville, Wheaton, and Shady Grove.
In downtown DC, which is crisscrossed by all five Metrorail lines and has more stations than anyplace in the region, the system is a vital underpinning of a real-estate boom that long ago remade the Connecticut Avenue area and is now doing the same thing in the old downtown to the east. From Metro headquarters at Fifth and F streets, which once was surrounded by parking lots and crumbling buildings, you now see new buildings and construction projects. The area that used to be dead at night is anchored by the MCI Center—more than half of its spectators come by Metro—along with a new home for the Shakespeare Theatre, the International Spy Museum, the new convention center, hotels, and sophisticated restaurants and nightclubs.
Another hot spot for development in DC is along the Green Line in Shaw, Cardozo, and Columbia Heights, the area that was hard hit by the riots of 1968 and spent 30 years in disrepair. This line, which did not open until 1991, is becoming an agent of urban renewal that is muscular but more benign than the tear-it-down strategy used in Southwest DC a generation ago. Restaurants are opening near the station at 13th and U streets, the Bohemian Caverns jazz club is back in business, bands are booked into the Black Cat, and people are restoring old townhouses. The new Ellington Apartments near the restored Lincoln Theatre are asking $3,500 for a two-bedroom unit with den.
Metro's power in gentrifying neighborhoods is not welcomed by everyone. There's always been a flip side in which the influx of new people and money drives out people and merchants of modest means who cannot afford rising rents or house prices. This is starkest in places like Shaw, with many low-income residents, but it happens even in middle-class neighborhoods like those along the Wilson Boulevard corridor. Houses about four blocks from Metro that sold for $130,000 in the early '80s now bring $600,000 or more. Teachers have given way to lawyers, and neighborhood bars have been replaced by the Cheesecake Factory.
But development has not followed Metro everywhere. To the chagrin of smart-growth advocates, residents near some stations have fought high-density development. The best example is Vienna, where a proposed cluster of high-rise offices and apartments was rejected and the land used instead for townhouses and a Metro parking lot.
Around other stations the problem is the opposite. There's plenty of empty land, and both local governments and neighbors would welcome offices, apartments, and businesses, but no developer believes the market is strong enough. Several stations have little or no development nearby, most of them along the Green, Orange, and Blue lines on the east side of the region. They include such DC stations as Congress Heights, Benning Road, Deanwood, and Capitol Heights and such Prince George's stations as Naylor Road, Southern Avenue, Cheverly, and Addison Road-Seat Pleasant. Some of these stations were among the last built, and development may pick up in time, but they also are in low-income communities that many developers have always shied away from.
*WASHINGTON'S NEW SYMBOL*
It is impossible to envision New York City without subway trains rattling along under the streets of Manhattan or atop the elevated tracks of Brooklyn. Those trains are one of the Big Apple's symbols—a place for straphangers to read the tabloids and a place that collects the city's polyglot of humanity. It's hard to forget Gene Hackman's car chase under the tracks in The French Connection or Paul Hogan's search for love on the crowded platforms of Midtown in Crocodile Dundee. You have to figure that the people at the counter of the diner in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" came by subway, which is open all night. And you can be assured that Duke Ellington's "A Train" will lead you straight to Harlem.
It's hard to imagine Ellington writing about taking the Blue Line to Benning Road, but you can say that Metro has become a symbol of Washington, providing the area with a sense of identity and unity. Washington is a sprawling region divided by race, wealth, culture, geography, and other boundaries, a region with few institutions tying it together. Metro—like the Redskins, the Washington Post, and the monuments of the Mall—is something Washingtonians share.
Zachary Schrag has pointed out that the distinctive map of the Metro system has become a ubiquitous representation of the region's geography. Designed in the early 1970s by Lance Wyman, a graphic artist who also did the subway map in Mexico City, the Metro map has become an image that has changed the view of where we live. Brookland, Fort Totten, Chinatown, Tenleytown, and Eastern Market are among stations that are important in local history, while once-obscure places—Addison Road, New Carrollton, Glenmont, Twinbrook, Franconia, and Dunn Loring—have entered the vocabulary of every rider. Metro, says Schrag, has made the region more "legible."
Metro stations also serve the function of a town square, where hordes of passengers bring out those with something to sell. Politicians stand at the top of escalators shaking hands and soliciting votes. Street musicians are there playing their guitars and flutes, school kids sell candy, activists hand out fliers, and there are long lines of newspaper vending machines. Several stations feature murals and other artworks, including a popular one at Silver Spring depicting a crowd of commuting penguins. And Metro has appeared as a backdrop in several movies and television shows, including The West Wing and The District. The agency refused permission for the filming of The Jackal, starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, because it was too violent.
Metro's every move is covered by the local media, and in the past few months much of the news has not been good: Cashiers at Metro parking lots were accused of stealing millions, prompting a switch to a cashless pay system (February). A small electrical fire on the Red Line forced 75,000 commuters to abandon trains between Van Ness and Farragut North and straggle down Connecticut Avenue (March). A 20-by-20-foot section of a drop ceiling fell onto the mezzanine at Farragut North during evening rush hour, though luckily no one was injured (July). Flooding of an electronic control room at the Silver Spring station caused more than a week of delays on the Red Line (July). A train operator ended her shift by leaving her loaded train idling at a station on the Red Line (August). A station agent was so rude to a pregnant rider that Metro announced refresher classes on courtesy (August).
Metro maintains a police force of nearly 400 officers, which contributes to a low rate of serious crime considering the large number of people it serves—just over six crimes per million passengers this year on the rail system. In recent years Metrorail has averaged 256 larcenies a year, 170 robberies, and 30 aggravated assaults. Criminals are especially active in parking lots and garages, which average about 370 vehicle thefts or attempted thefts each year along with 360 cases of goods stolen from cars.
In 28 years, there have been just six homicides—four passengers and two police officers—on Metrorail property, with four of them in the past five years.
Among lesser crimes, says Metro police chief Polly Hanson, are assaults by angry passengers, including couples in conflict, as well as juvenile rowdiness, pickpocketing, bicycle thefts from its station racks, and fare evasion, where people "piggyback" behind other passengers as fare gates are momentarily open, sometime pretending they are swiping a SmarTrip card.
Accidents occur, too. There were just over 300 last year serious enough to require that a victim be transported by ambulance. Many of these occurred on escalators or when passengers were caught in train doors. Nearly 1,000 people filed personal-injury claims, many involving slips and falls on escalators and station floors, but the average settlement was just $350.
Like most transit systems, Metro also has occasional suicides—a total of 50 in the system's history, ten of them in the past five years. Those ten compare with more than 1,000 at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco since it opened in 1937.
Metro is one of the few local institutions that brings together the region's diverse collection of humanity. No president has ever ridden Metrorail, though Rosalynn Carter did a couple of times, and the rich are usually not big patrons—Potomac, McLean, and Great Falls have no Metro stops. But it serves just about every other segment of society in democratic fashion: blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians, the middle class and the working class, city dwellers and suburbanites, immigrants and the native-born, senior citizens, teenagers and college students, families with young children, the disabled, people with jobs of every imaginable sort, tourists who've come to visit the Smithsonian and to see the sights.
Metro also is an obsession for some people. One man rode the system's entire 103 miles in one day, which took him eight hours. Another man, who lived in DC, ran home from all 83 stations, a 600-mile journey spread out over two years.
All this makes Metrorail trains a good place for people watching. There are those who seem weary and some who sleep, taking the chance that they'll awaken at the right stop. The high number of readers—with their novels, newspapers, and reports—is evidence of the fact that Washington has the nation's best-educated population.
Metro tries to enforce civility with a few formal rules. No dogs, cats, or other pets are allowed, and audio or video devices without earphones are prohibited, but it does allow bicycles, except during rush hour, in the interest of environmentally friendly commuting. Smoking has always been banned—long before such rules applied to airliners, offices, and restaurants—and eating and drinking are prohibited in an effort to keep cars and stations clean. From time to time, this last rule results in an incident in which Metro police arrest and handcuff someone for eating a French fry or a candy bar, setting off a stir about how tough enforcement should be. Also: no littering, no spitting, no panhandling or other soliciting of any kind.
There also are lots of unofficial rules of etiquette on Metro. Perfume with too much wallop, singing and shouting, removing shoes, clipping fingernails and applying makeup, dumping newspapers on the floor, shoving briefcases between closing doors, crowding the doors so passengers can't exit, and failing to move to the center of crowded cars are among the no-nos. Passengers are expected to stand to the right on escalators to let speedier people pass on the left. Hogging seats is considered the height of bad manners, whether by putting a package or briefcase in an empty seat, taking up two seats by spreading one's legs too wide, not giving up designated seats to the disabled, or ignoring old traditions about offering one's seat to the elderly or pregnant.
Some of Metro's passengers are forgetful. Its lost-and-found department collected about 30,000 items last year, of which about 4,000 got back to their owners. Cell phones, keys, and eyeglasses are the most common items, though it also gets laptop computers, briefcases, purses, wallets, Valentine's Day candy, and baby strollers. Among the unexpected: wheelchairs, televisions, a Fender guitar, a handmade saddle, and an alligator head.
Metro also has become a place to pick up a date. But if love can be found on Metro, it also can be lost, as the classified ads in the City Paper make clear: "We exchanged glances—several times. I should have broken the ice before getting off at Dupont Circle… . Care to meet over drinks?"
A crowded Blue Line train pulled into the Smithsonian station during the evening rush hour. Dozens of people were crammed together on the platform. When the train's operator got a signal indicating that the doors were not closing properly, he followed Metro's strict safety policy of asking everyone to exit so the train could be taken out of service. Passengers, though frustrated, usually get out and wait for the next train.
But this time a remarkable thing happened: Angry passengers refused to leave. Transit police were summoned, and one woman was arrested for disorderly conduct. After an inspection by a mechanic determined the doors were safely closed, the train moved on to the L'Enfant Plaza station, but a ripple of delay spread down the line.
This little mutiny, in 1999, was a foreshadowing of problems that have continued to plague Metrorail as it has slipped into middle age. Sixty percent of the system's cars, escalators, and other facilities are more than 20 years old. And more people agree with Edward Thomas, Metro's head of planning and strategic programs, when he says the system's "cracks are beginning to show."
Some of Metrorail's problems have to do with the fleet of 75-foot-long cars it has accumulated since the system opened in 1976. Though there were suggetions originally of building a monorail like the one in Disneyland or using rubber-tired trains like those Paris, Metro's planners opted for a conventional railroad—aluminum cars with steel wheels running on steel rails, powered by 750 volts of electricity in a third rail.
Metrorail now has about 1,000 cars, which are stored at night in rail yards at or near the end of its lines. Each car can carry 175 passengers, with people standing, and most rush-hour trains are made up of six cars—three "married pairs," as they're called. The system was designed for eight-car trains—that's why all platforms are at least 600 feet long—but Metro has not had enough cars since the mid-1980s to run trains that long.
Metro periodically buys new cars; 192 have been put in service over the past three years on all lines, most recently on the crowded Red Line. Their interior color scheme is a break with Metro tradition, featuring Chesapeake sand, Colonial burgundy, and Potomac blue. Older cars also are undergoing overhauls that include new door systems, heating and air-conditioning units, and propulsion systems. But the fleet as a whole is showing signs of age.
With more passengers, Metro is struggling with its own popularity. Some platforms are packed, more passengers are forced to stand for long distances, and loading and unloading is slower. The Red Line into Montgomery County gets the most riders—about 36 percent of the total—followed by the Northern Virginia portion of the Orange Line.
Metrorail service was once so good that passengers developed very high expectations, but a decline in service has many riders complaining about the crowded cars, station overruns, and delays. "We have been trending down, no doubt about it," says general manager Richard White. "Now that we don't have the same bright shine we used to have and we have major failings, customers are getting very frustrated."
Metrorail dispatches trains on about 1,500 separate trips each weekday, and its statistics on their reliability depicts a system that still delivers good service most of the time but has experienced a decline in reliability during the past two years. Station overruns—where a train goes beyond the normal stopping limit, can't unload passengers, and is forced to move on to the next station—offer an illustration. There were 48 station overruns each month during the last fiscal year. That may seem like a lot, especially if you are on one of those trains, but less so when you consider that Metrorail makes nearly 900,000 station stops each month. About 140 trips a month ended with malfunctions that required passengers to exit and the train to be taken out of service.
Statistics on delays show a similar pattern. Last fiscal year 97.8 percent of weekday passengers got to their destination within four minutes of schedule, which means that while 639,000 passengers each day were on time, another 14,400 were not. Two years ago only 8,750 passengers a day were delayed.
The decline in service, White says, is traceable in part to crowded cars and aging equipment. Problems occur most often when doors malfunctions as passengers press against them trying to get on trains, when brakes lock up, and when there are troubles with propulsion systems. These breakdowns occur nearly twice as often as they did two years ago—every 38,017 miles last August compared with every 70,547 miles a couple of years ago.
Many delays, White says, can be traced to a flaw in Metrorail's original design—the fact that it was built with only one track in each direction and few sidings: "We got built as a two-lane road. We don't have any breakdown lanes, and we don't have any off ramps. When we have a train that bombs out, we sometimes have to push it five or six stops at five miles an hour to get it out of the way. The whole system backs up."
Metrorail passengers are frustrated when any of its 572 escalators is out of service and they are forced to hike up to street level under their own power. In some of the deepest stations, that means a trek comparable to climbing the stairs of an eight-story building. On any given day, about 40 escalators are not operating. Just over half are undergoing midlife overhauls or regular preventive maintenance or have stopped because automatic safety switches have been tripped.
Some of the problem has to do with the complexity of escalators, whose hundreds of moving parts require lots of maintenance in the best of times—one reason most stations were outfitted with three escalators rather than two. Many of them are getting old, and they run 19 hours a day. Passengers track in dirt and salt, and in some stations escalators always have been exposed to rain and snow. Metro recently installed canopies to protect escalators at four stations and will do the same at 26 others.
If the escalators aren't working, there are 197 elevators, which were included to serve the disabled but are used by many other people, especially in stations that are deepest underground. But they're getting old, too. Six are inoperable on an average day, requiring disabled riders to go to a nearby station and catch a shuttle.
Elsewhere Metro is suffering from deterioration that passengers do not see. Work is needed on rails and rail beds and on the systems that keep air in the stations fresh and cool. Some tunnels, especially on the Red Line between Dupont Circle and Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan, have leaks where dripping water has formed stalactites like you'd see in a cave.
*WHO WILL PAY?*
It takes a lot of money to keep Metro running. Its budget last year was just over $1.2 billion, about the same as the state of Wyoming's. About two-thirds of that goes to operations and the rest to capital expenses, including maintenance and construction. Considering operations alone, about 57 percent is for the rail system, 39 percent for buses, and 4 percent for MetroAccess, the program that provides transit services to the disabled.
About three-fourths of the operating budget covers wages, salaries, and benefits for its 10,000 employees, including train operators, station managers, mechanics, bus drivers, and administrative employees. About 85 percent are unionized, and many of these are African-Americans, making Metro one of the bedrock institutions of Washington's black middle class.
Other items give a sense of what it takes to run a system this big. Electricity, purchased from local utilities, to power its trains: $43 million. Bumpy tiles at platform edges as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act: $14 million. Digital information signs in all stations: $11 million. Adding Ronald Reagan's name to Washington National Airport, which Metro and Arlington County resisted until conservatives forced the issue in Congress: $78,000.
The biggest share of money to pay Metrorail's operating expenses comes from passenger fares. They cover two-thirds of costs, the highest percentage of any of America's 14 heavy-rail systems with the exception of New York City. Metro fares have been raised twice in the past two years, after seven years without an increase. The shortest rush-hour trip is now $1.35, about 23 percent higher than the $1.10 in 1995. But there are increasing complaints that riding Metro can really add up: If you park at Shady Grove and ride to and from Farragut North, the bill comes to $11.80 a day.
About a quarter of Metrorail's revenue comes from subsidies paid by local and state governments. Their shares are determined by a formula that tries to measure the benefits each jurisdiction gets from Metrorail, given its population, number of stations, and ridership. DC pays the most ($44 million last year), followed by Montgomery ($25 million), Prince George's ($23 million), Fairfax County ($13 million), Arlington ($12 million), and Alexandria ($6 million).
The jurisdictions generate the money to pay their Metro subsidy from a variety of sources, though most of it comes from taxes on drivers of automobiles and trucks. DC raises its Metro money from gasoline taxes as well as from parking-meter fees, traffic fines, vehicle-registration fees, and restaurant and hotel taxes. The state of Maryland pays the subsidy on behalf of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, with money raised from gasoline taxes and vehicle fees. Northern Virginia jurisdictions draw about two-fifths of their Metro subsidy from local general funds, with the rest coming from gasoline taxes and state transit aid.
The fact that these subsidies must be approved by local and state governments each year highlights one of the weaknesses of Metro's foundation: It has no dedicated tax that automatically pours money into its coffers. That's atypical of transit systems in most American cities, according to a new study by the Brookings Institution, and a dedicated source of revenue is something Metro very much wants.
A blue-ribbon commission to study the issue has just been created by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and the Federal City Council. Among the possibilities are taxes on gasoline, parking, retail sales, incomes, and property around Metro stations, though each has its own political liabilities. In 2002, voters in Northern Virginia rejected by a wide margin a half-percent increase in the sales tax to finance mass transit and highway improvements.
While fares and government subsidies provide the bulk of Metrorail's revenue, it has a few other market-oriented streams of income. Parking lots and garages generated $23 million last year. Real-estate leases around its stations brought in $6 million. And advertising in Metrorail cars and stations raised $8 million, which compares with about $18 million in bus advertising.
These financial arrangements have been in place since Metro was created, but the agency is trying to make a case that they aren't sufficient to ensure its long-term viability. Its essential problem—growing ridership at a time when its infrastructure needs repair—threatens a decline like the one that overtook New York's system in the 1970s. Richard White, Metro's general manager, has stepped up his rhetoric about this issue, warning of a "death spiral" in which declining service will result in a loss of riders, which will require fare increases, which will drive away more riders, which will lead to more budget problems. "Metro Matters," a public-relations and lobbying campaign to drum up support for a new round of investment in Metrorail and Metrobus, was launched last year.
Though Metro has estimated the cost of its complete wish list at $12 billion, it has settled on a goal of $3.3 billion over the next six years, about $1.5 billion of which will have to be new money. This money would be used to rehabilitate its aging equipment, expand service to a growing ridership, and shore up security against terrorism. The biggest share would be used to buy 120 new railcars that would allow Metrorail to run eight-car trains on a third of its trips. Each car will cost about $2 million.
Where will this money come from? DC and state and local governments will provide some of it, and Metro also will tap into mass-transit funds that are available every year from the federal government. But the most intriguing possibility is to make a case that Metro's location in the nation's capital means that it deserves federal support beyond that of any other transit system in the country. After all, Metro officials argue, more than 50 federal installations are near Metrorail stations, and 47 percent of its riders during rush hour are federal employees.
One idea is an annual federal payment to Metro—an "access fee"—based on the number of federal employees who use the system. Congress, faced with a big federal deficit, might not want to set a precedent that other cities with federal employees could exploit, but it will be interesting to watch.
*THE TRAIN TO DULLES*
Next month Metrorail will begin service on its first extension—a section of track that reaches beyond the 103 miles and 83 stations included in its original plan. The three-mile extension is being added to the east end of the Blue Line, which will now extend beyond Addison Road-Seat Pleasant to a new station called Morgan Boulevard, about half a mile from FedEx Field. The line will then go on to Largo Town Center, near the site of the old Capital Centre, which will give Prince George's its first station outside the Beltway.
At a time when so many people and jobs have spun outward beyond the Beltway, the issue of where Metrorail should build next is one that will affect the shape of the region. Extensions were contemplated from the beginning, sketched out on fanciful maps, and added to wish lists to gather political support. They always were pushed into the distant future by the need to complete the original system and by the knowledge that extensions would cost lots of money.
It seems likely that the first big expansion will be a route veering off the Orange Line at West Falls Church, heading west through Tysons Corner, Reston, and Herndon, then on to Dulles Airport and deeper into Loudoun County. The new line would cover 24 miles and probably have 11 new stations, including four in Tysons. This extension, which may be called the Silver Line, would create a linkage dreamed of nearly 50 years ago when Dulles was planned. The airport's access highway included a median strip set aside for mass transit that would give Washington's outlying airport a connection with the center city.
The current price tag is $3.4 billion, about half of it expected to come from the federal government's mass-transit construction program. Much of the remainder was supposed to come from a proposed Northern Virginia sales tax, but its defeat at the polls has necessitated a new arrangement. Part will now come from tolls paid by drivers on the Dulles Toll Road and part from a tax on commercial and residential real estate along the Dulles corridor. Congress has allocated $59 million for preliminary engineering work on the first phase of the line, which would extend 11 miles to Wiehle Avenue in Reston and could be operating as early as 2011.
Routes that run in a circular pattern from one suburb to another are rare in American mass-transit systems, most of which were designed like Metrorail to get people in and out of central cities. Futurists have always talked of a Metrorail line running alongside the Beltway and intersecting with the ends of the existing lines. No such route is on Metro's agenda, though bits of it remain in official plans. The new Wilson Bridge includes space for a Metrorail line that would connect Alexandria with Branch Avenue in southern Prince George's County.
The circumferential line most heavily promoted by transit advocates has been the Purple Line in suburban Maryland, which in its most ambitious version would run from Bethesda to Silver Spring in Montgomery County then on to College Park and New Carollton in Prince George's. The Purple Line has been bogged down in controversies. There's the issue of whether Maryland should invest its transportation money in a mass-transit line, in a proposed highway a few miles farther north called the Inter-County Connector, or in both. And there's the question of whether the Purple Line should be an electric trolley running on tracks or a rapid bus service in a dedicated lane. One proposed route along East-West Highway would have run through Columbia Country Club, which aroused objections from members. Political fortunes have had an effect—Parris Glendening, the pro-transit Democratic governor, favored the Purple Line over the ICC, while his Republican successor, Robert Ehrlich, is pushing ahead with ICC and has put aside the Purple Line in favor of further study.
Elsewhere it seems likely that Metro's expansion will be guided by a couple of trends over the next few decades. A system that was the largest in America to be built from scratch as a single unit will expand in increments. And some of the new lines won't be heavy rail like the current system, which is expensive to build, but will be other "fixed guideway systems." Bus rapid transit is one possibility as well as a return to trolleys. You won't hear anybody singing "Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Fixed Guideway System," but the relatively low cost of trolleys may make them a popular choice for the future. San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh still have their old trolleys, and new ones have been introduced in Baltimore, Dallas, and San Diego.
Metro's expansion plan includes many new lines, though they may not be built any time soon, if ever, for lack of money. In DC, two projects are most likely to happen. Work is under way on a three-mile trolley line in Anacostia that will run along an abandoned CSX rail spur from Pennsylvania Avenue to Bolling Air Force Base—a line that may open in late 2006, bringing trolleys back to Washington for the first time in more than 40 years. And a dedicated busway is planned to connect Union Station and Georgetown along portions of K Street.
In Northern Virginia there's a line proposed from the Pentagon to the west along Columbia Pike and another that would extend the Orange Line from Vienna out the I-66 median strip to Centreville. In Maryland there are long-range plans to extend the Red Line beyond Shady Grove.
Metro's also working on new stations and other projects. A station on the Red Line near New York and Florida avenues in Northeast is scheduled to open this month—the system's first "in-fill" station, with some of its $104-million cost paid for by nearby landowners and businesses. Improvements and expansion of the King Street and Ballston stations are under way. And Metro still dreams of reducing train congestion and saving passengers a transfer by someday connecting Metro Center to Gallery Place-Chinatown and Farragut North to Farragut West with pedestrian passageways.
*COULD IT HAPPEN HERE?*
While most of us think of 9/11 in connection with terrorism, mass-transit officials get an extra jolt of anxiety when they hear "3/11." That was the day—March 11, 2004—when backpacks planted by terrorists exploded on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 200 and injuring 1,500.
It was a terrorist tactic used before. Irish separatists planted bombs on British railways. In Tokyo, 20 people were killed in 1995 when members of a cult released sarin gas during a morning commute. In South Korea, 130 died when a man started a fire with a lighter and flammable liquid on the subway in Daegu. In Moscow, 41 passengers were killed earlier this year in an explosion of TNT, which someone may have been transporting for use elsewhere.
Transit systems are easy targets in comparison with the jetliners used to such devastating effect on 9/11. They are designed for easy accessibility, with thousands of people rushing on and off trains at dozens of stations, which makes it all but impossible to herd everyone through detection equipment. Passengers are crowded together in a small space where a single attack can assure high casualty figures. Tunnels and elevated tracks make escape and emergency response difficult.
Because Metro serves the nation's capital, it also has symbolic value as a target. That's one reason it is the only American transit system to get a confidential "threat assessment" by the Department of Homeland Security. And that's why it has received about $49 million in federal funds for security improvements since 9/11. Nationally, the government has allocated $115 million to protecting transit passengers compared with $11 billion for airlines.
Explosives, radiological weapons, toxic chemicals, biological agents—all are in the arsenal of terrorism. The last three present special problems for subways, whose tunnels, fast-moving cars, and ventilation systems offer routes for the spread of contamination.
Metro's response to terrorism relies partly on technology. It has installed chemical sensors in about half of its stations and does some sampling to test for radiation and biological agents. It has x-ray equipment to peer into suspicious packages and a remote-controlled robot to handle explosive devices. Intruder detection equipment has been added to rail yards. And cameras scan station platforms, though not railcars, as they have for years.
It's not all high tech. Transit police patrol stations and ride trains, including well-armed "sweep teams" that made a special show of force in downtown stations after the alert last summer about a threat to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Dogs, trained to sniff out dangerous materials, patrol stations with their handlers. Restrooms, never very accessible, are locked during high-alert periods, and most trash cans have been moved outside faregates.
Other energy and money are going into improving emergency response, which relies on local firefighters and rescue squads in addition to Metro personnel. This involves everything from new protective gear to better communications. The agency has a training center in Landover where it runs simulations of terrorist attacks, complete with a life-size replica of a subway tunnel, burning railcars, and mannequins rigged with dummy explosives. The agency has begun a program to teach passengers how to get out of Metro's cars and tunnels safely during emergencies. And it hopes to get federal money to construct a new control center in a secret location that would be used in case the one in its headquarters is knocked out.
Polly Hanson, chief of Metro's police force, says that eyes of vigilant passengers can be effective in thwarting a terrorist act. The agency has introduced a campaign with the slogan "Excuse Me, Is That Your Bag?" aimed at getting passengers to watch for suspicious packages.
Even with all the controversy and challenges, Metrorail has turned out to be one of Washington's grandest civic achievements. As its moves into middle age, as it disappoints occasionally with delays and breakdowns, it still has the capacity to evoke admiration.
It's hard to disagree with Zachary Schrag, the George Mason historian who first rode Metro as a teenager growing up in DC: "It is a monument to confidence in the public realm… . As a symbol of urbanity, a preserver of neighborhoods, a work of beauty, a political unifier, a public servant, a shaper of space, and a meeting ground for all Washingtonians, Metro makes Washington that much more the great city dreamed of by visionaries from Pierre L'Enfant to John F. Kennedy… . The visionaries have not and will never achieve perfection, but Metro shows that… idealism has a place."
A Metro train can carry more than 1,000 people. The system serves 700,000 riders a day.