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.
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). 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.