Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ultimately, WMATA blue line riders have been dissed by the State of Virginia, not WMATA...

... because the Silver Line extension was built with no consideration for its impact on the core of the system.

I am reminded that "no one" seems to talk about this because of an opinion piece ("Metro kicks Blue Line riders to the curb") and a letter to the editor ("Blue Line riders facing double jeopardy") published in response, both in the Washington Post last week.

From the first piece:

I count on Metro to get me to work. But lately Metro isn’t holding up its end of the bargain.

Last June, Metro launched “Rush Plus,” which took resources away from the Blue Line and gave them to the Yellow Line. During the peak morning hours, there are now three Yellow Line trains for every one on the Blue Line. This holds true for the commute home as well: three Orange Line trains for every Blue.

For thousands of daily Blue Line riders, the change meant that the commute downtown and back suddenly got much longer. Now, when a Blue Line train finally arrives, it’s as crowded as Chinatown the night of a Caps game. Sure, Metro encourages Blue Line riders to take the Yellow Line and transfer, but this just adds insult to injury for many of us: The route makes little sense for downtown workers and adds time to the already-lengthy commute.

Now Metro is laying the groundwork for opening the Silver Line near the end of the year. It recently told riders that “when the Silver Line opens, in order to create more space in the Rosslyn tunnel, Blue Line trains, all day long, will run 12 minutes apart.” Metro’s answer to concerned Blue Line users? Take a bus. ...

Between Rush Plus and the impending 12-minute waits for packed trains, this redistribution of resources is pushing Blue Line riders out of the rail system — and into their cars.

Lack of capacity at the Rosslyn tunnel

It's lack of capacity at the Rosslyn tunnel crossing to DC that prevents full running of the Silver, Orange, and Blue lines into DC from that point.

That's why the so-called Rush Plus routing was created, to divert a bunch of blue line trains to WMATA's "southern" crossing of the Potomac River, the Yellow Line bridge crossing.

Since 2000, there have been capacity issues in Rosslyn in terms of the tunnel crossing into Washington.  The Orange Line is highly used, and the Blue Line's normal routing uses the same tunnel.  The time it takes to turn the switch from one line to the other limits capacity if shared equally to about 26 trains per hour.

By changing the mix to 2/3 Orange Line trains and 1/3 Blue Line trains, throughput capacity of the tunnel was increased some.

The Silver Line opening puts more demand on the Rosslyn tunnel

That's why WMATA is further reducing use of the Rosslyn tunnel by the blue line.

Why this is happening

1.  In 2003, in mostly a budget move but with some political mojo as well*, WMATA devolved responsibility for expansion planning to the separate jurisdictions.  (* Re the political move: face it, getting local approvals--see all the whining about the proposed Purple Line in Chevy Chase--is time consuming and fraught with peril, so giving this responsibility to the separate jurisdictions does make sense on that element.)

2.  Metro expansion planning by the jurisdictions fails to take responsibility for impact on the existing system and does not add infrastructure and capacity if needed as a result of the changes.

Note that this is still a problem as presented by proposals for WMATA extensions further into Virginia.

3.  And since the core of the system is in DC, unless DC were to raise and resolve the capacity issues that are created by extension, nothing would be done.

That's what happened with the Silver Line.
Proposed changes for the WMATA system, 2001 (separated blue line)
Proposed changes for the WMATA system, 2001 (separated blue line).  Washington Post graphic.

4.  The State of Virginia went ahead and is building the line without taking any responsibility for needing another tunnel crossing into Washington.  (Even though this piece of infrastructure was proposed in the Arlington County Transit Element of the County's Transportation Plan, as part of the so-called separated Blue Line.)

5.  And instead of responding, DC turned inward, focusing on streetcars almost exclusively, rather than push for admittedly very expensive improvements to the core of the Metro system (except for an initiative to improve throughput at Union Station).

You can understand DC's reticence on one level because improvements at the core are super expensive and also benefit the suburbs greatly, because suburban residents work in DC but their income tax revenues go to their home states.

But the reality is that maintaining DC's Central Business District as a preeminent location to locate business activity in the region is dependent on high quality, high capacity transit.

If the transit "fills up," then "more transit" needs to be added.

6.  DC should have used the creation of the Silver Line as the fulcrum for planning, designing, engineering, and constructing the so-called separated blue line--although it could now just be an extended silver line.

This would have added  more crossing capacity and warded off reaching capacity in the core of the Metro system in DC.  It would have added many more stations to the system including areas not served, such as Georgetown, and would have given Union Station--which is the busiest station in the system--another line serving it, doubling its capacity.

I suggested such action in a 2006 blog entry, "Blinking on urban design means you limit your chance for success," although the entry starts out by focusing more on the Silver Line and tunnel versus aerial routing, the latter half of the post discusses the crossing issue and the separated blue line.

Note that WMATA's Momentum long range plan does call for this sort of, but it will be 2040 before we see the results.

Instead, had DC acted earlier, we could be seeing the results starting this year and having finished it by the end of the decade.  (And it won't be til next year that limited streetcar service will begin.)

Devolving responsibility for transit expansion planning to the jurisdictions was a mistake

This is an illustration though of why devolving expansion planning responsibility to the separate jurisdictions was a mistake.  This is being rectified some by the current WMATA planning initiative, called Momentum.  But the basic problem persists.

Reducing transit service harms the relationship with people committed to sustainable mobility

And in the meantime, people complain about WMATA, like in the opinion piece published by the Post.  It goes on to say that WMATA has broken its compact with people to support a transit-centric/non-car dependent lifestyle.  From the piece:

Choosing a lifestyle that relies on Metro is a kind of compact, an unspoken agreement between the rider and the transit system. With the promise of a safe, accountable and relatively quick ride to work comes the burden of a higher cost of living in Metro-accessible areas. The rider accepts that braving the elements and a lack of personal space will become part of the commuting routine. She agrees to be part of the sustainable solution with a small carbon footprint that is a hallmark of policymakers’ long-term vision for the Washington area.

Making the commitment to purchase a home in a neighborhood with a Metro station cements this compact. Metro’s Blue Line cutbacks amount to a broken promise. Come autumn, I bet I won’t be the only Blue Line rider visiting a car dealership.

But is WMATA really at fault?

I would say that it's true that Virginians using the the Blue Line are being disserved, except that it's not just WMATA that has broken the compact.

It's the State of Virginia, it's DC--although impact on Blue Line riders in DC isn't really DC's main concern, so Arlington County has some responsibility too, Fairfax County too, because they prioritized service to Tysons Corner at the expense of other parts of the County, and it's the Transportation Policy Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments as all failed to address the problems that were going to result from changing one part of the system while taking no responsibility for the impact on other parts of the system.

The funny thing is that the hope that the political fallout dealing with transit expansion would fall away from WMATA by giving up responsibility for extension planning hasn't occurred because at the end of the day, WMATA runs the subway system and so WMATA is the most visible entity in all of this.

Instead, WMATA still takes the blame.

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At 7:11 AM, Anonymous H St LL said...

Excellent piece.

I would posit that a separated blue line, unlike many other transit expansions/improvements, actually greatly benefits both VA and DC. This is because VA definitely needs additional capacity for the Blue line (and that then frees up additional capacity for the Orange and Silver) and DC gets additional stations in the District. Therefore, there is no reason to not start aggressively planning and building right now!

A pipe dream, yes, but still.

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

every one on CH voted for Vincent Gray and this is what we get- a city government totally apathetic about transit and the need for a separated Blue Line

At 8:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

.... well, the problem with not doing the separated blue line lies with Dan Tangherlini and Anthony Williams probably. Dan T. didn't think that DC could ever raise the money to do it, so he pushed the focus on streetcars.

Just think if the DC Alternatives Analysis, which focused on surface transit, instead focused on all forms of transit -- heavy rail, streetcars, LIGHT RAIL, and RAILROADS -- instead of only streetcars.

Then it would have been a transit plan instead of just a surface transportation plan.

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

H St. LL -- very good point. It could have been done, if DC had stepped up back then, rather than turning inward.

It's so frustrating because in 1990 or so I wrote a letter to a Post journalist (he ended up being the first Dr. Gridlock and my letter was in response to his first piece) where among the many points I made was that WMATA was refusing to do any transit expansion planning until the system was finished, which was projected to be around 2000. I said with the long lead times required, the earliest we could see expansion was 2015--25 years from when I was writing.

Instead, at least in the city, it will be 50 years from when I wrote that letter. In-f*ing-credible.

At 9:03 AM, OpenID mld said...

DC would certainly benefit from the separated Blue Line, and you're right Richard that it should have been planned in concert with the Silver Line.

Streetcars will also be extremely beneficial to District residents, maybe more beneficial than Metro - as many DC residents commute using the bus as using Metro. But the planning for those is also flawed as they are ignoring separated ROW, etc.

At 9:16 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

The first phase of Metro (passed in 69) was funded 90% by the feds, 10% by locals. The second phase, passed in 1980, was funded 80-20. The third phase, passed in 1990, was 63-37.

It's not hard to see the trend there. And it's not like the Feds have been generous with the transportation spending. The silver line has a much lower federal share than that. It would not have been possible to build or finance without the revenues from the toll road, conveniently located in the same corridor!

So, if you're wondering why locals have focused on lower cost transit modes like streetcar, here's your answer. The declining federal support for subways basically makes the decision for you.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

DC's subway always got more money from the federal government than the other systems elsewhere in the US.

2. But that isn't the point. It's about demand and need and economic competitiveness.

The streetcar service is better than buses. But it can't substitute for heavy rail either in terms of the capacity or the speed.

Although maybe the streetcar will double the ridership, over time, of the current bus lines.

Obviously that is a huge and important gain.

But in some respects it completely misses the point. Transit planning is supposed to focus on the different scales. That's the point I make in my posts on mass transit and transportation planning.

In any case, you prove the worth of the line I use a lot: "when you ask for nothing, that's what you get. when you ask for the world, you don't get it but you get a lot more than nothing."

By not planning for the separated blue line, we guarantee not getting it.

By planning in an intellectually constrained manner (the DCAA) we end up wasting resources and decades.

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

My point is that WMATA was set up as a way to execute a specific project, one reliant on federal funds. They're not set up to solve the problem you're asking them to solve.

It's not like they're not aware of the capacity issues - they most certainly are. As are local DC officials.

At 10:31 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Pretty amazing that T. Williams pushed for a billion dollar stadium, and not a 2.6B blue line.

Goes back to the question we we asking the other day on what a councilmember does -- gap analysis or not? Clearly, at this point the right questions were not being asked.

And while Alex's point is correct, I'm not sure what can be done about WMATA to make it more of Richard's master planning agency.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Actually I argue that WMATA as the transit operator shouldn't be responsible for master transportation for the metropolitan area and greater region, it should be done by the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

But it isn't.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

sorry, that should be "master transportation planning"

At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

one big mistake with the streetcars is the planners are trying to reinvent the wheel- they shoul dbe reusing the old tracks where they are [ in Georgetown] and the old ROWs which are already set up and in many cases have never been altered- down the middle of PaAve would be perfect..the ROW exists out to Glen echo- it should all be put back where it once was where possible

At 8:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this informative post! I feel like I've been watching this Silver Line / Blue Line conflict unfold over the past decade like a car wreck in slow motion, but I couldn't understand why it was allowed to happen. I didn't realize they delegated the planning to the separate jurisdictions. Now I get it -- Virginia politicians aren't going to push a plan to help the core of DC, and DC politicians aren't going to push something that helps suburban commuters get into town. They are all looking out for their own interests, and for what they can claim credit for with the people who elected them. Nobody seems to be looking out for the region as a whole.

At 7:25 PM, Anonymous Jonathan P said...

Late to this thread...

I agree that devolving planning strictly to the local level was a mistake, though it's understandable why it was done. WMATA was formed to plan, build and operate a 100+ mile regional heavy rail system, and once that was done, in a fragmented region it's not hard to understand why everyone went their own way. Regionalism is very hard.

What was DC to do in this instance? With devolution decided, there was no incentive for DC to try to solve the region's problem, especially when there were/are several parts of the city unserved by rail (nevermind the ignoring of the bus system as though it didn't/still doesn't exist).

Now the problem is compounded not only by the Silver Line, but by the fact that the various streetcar, BRT, LRT projects have been set in motion so that any potential solution to the region's problem must wait in line or compete with those other priorities which now have years of momentum.

One point on the MPO doing the regional transit planning. Ideally, yes, there would not only be an MPO in the lead but a regional planning/governing body that integrates all planning functions under one roof: transport, land use, parks, air quality, etc. The closest the US has is Portland Metro or maybe Metro Council in MSP. Greater London Authority and TfL is a superior planning model as they have more power (see congestion charge). But that's in an ideal world and will probably never ever happen in the US and definitely not in the DC area--not with three states. Further, in the US context where regional planning is either non-existent or dominate by auto interests, I'd argue that better outcomes are more likely with the transit agency leading the planning.


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