- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

Metro, celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, is preparing to avoid "transit gridlock" in the next 25 years, as more and more commuters flock to the Washington area.
"We will be in transit gridlock, just like we are in road gridlock," if Metro can't handle the influx of riders, said Metro General Manager Richard A. White.
Washington's subway averages more than 600,000 trips a day, carrying more passengers than the decades-old T system in Boston and the L trains in Chicago. In fact, Metro is second in ridership only to New York's system, which serves 1.3 billion commuters a year.
Metro has dedicated itself to doubling its 2000 ridership for rail and bus 163 million and 138 million commuters, respectively by 2026, the system's golden anniversary.
That goal was thought unattainable just a year ago, but Mr. White said Metro could reach those numbers and be at full capacity much sooner than is widely thought.
For example, Metro assumed its ridership would grow by about 3 percent last year. Its ridership actually increased by 8 percent.
"One of the problems you have is that it just grows and grows," said Metro board member Carlton R. Sickles. "I want to keep it as easy for people to get around as when I first came here."
Having worked since 1955 to get the rail system built, Mr. Sickles said he is not as surprised as others by the growth in ridership. But he warned that Metro needs to "make sure that … we don't oversell the product and be a panacea" for the area's traffic woes.
Area leaders broke ground on the subway system in 1969 and expected the 103-mile system to be up and running within a decade at a total cost of $2.5 billion.
The system wound up taking 25 years to complete the five stations that opened in January on the Green Line completed the original plan and cost more than $9.4 billion. It is valued at $22 billion in today's dollars.
In 1967, Congress created Metro as a regional transit authority because the nation's capital needed a subway to revive the District of Columbia and spur job growth, Mr. Sickles said.
Today marks the anniversary of Metro's first money-making day, when it moved 19,914 riders in 188 trips among its five stations on the Red Line. Twenty-five years and four additional colored lines later the system boasts 83 stations amid talk of more lines, stations, cars and, of course, riders.
"It's like the subways in New York," said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "It's an integral part of the economy."
And Mr. White proudly noted that Metro has been recognized as a world-class system for years.
However, the system faces numerous challenges because of its popularity, which could derail years of progress.
Roger Stough, director of George Mason University's Center for Transport Policy and Logistics, said the Washington metropolitan area "is becoming a large, global center" and its jurisdictions will need to spend more on transit and roads to remain economically vibrant.
By 2025, the region is expected to see a 31 percent increase in population and a 41 percent increase in employment, according to a study issued in February by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.
The study also found that the number of Metro trips during rush hour could increase by as much as 36 percent by 2025.
Just this month, Metro board members saw another indication of how the transit system could soon be bursting at the seams when they were told ridership on the new Green Line extension had more than 32,000 riders this month topping projections for 2005.
Metro currently has 762 rail cars on its tracks and another 192 on order, but that won't be enough to meet the demand, transit officials have said.
The board is considering a plan to use eight-car trains, instead of the four- and six-car trains it currently uses, to lighten its standing-room-only crowds.
Metro officials say privately that the eight-car plan is several years away from being implemented.
Metro board member Dana Kauffman, a Fairfax County, Va., supervisor, said the area's booming population and job growth has affected Metro's ability to serve commuters.
"Being able to sustain [demand] over a longer period of time … is going to be a real challenge," Mr. Kauffman said. "What was once an urban core is now an urban region."
When Metro was planned, designers and engineers looked at Washington's hub-and-spoke layout as an ideal land-use plan, believing the District would always be the center, or "hub," of the region and development in the suburbs would run along the "spokes," Mr. White said.
Due to a change in development patterns, Mr. White said, the biggest challenge Metro will face before its golden anniversary is connecting the ever-sprawling suburbs with each other and the existing rail system.
"What is clearly going to happen in the future is some kind of circumferential system into the existing system," he said. "We'll have to have our own version of a transit beltway."
Other ideas touted to handle the growth include building:
* A rail line along Interstate 66.
* A Purple Line to connect Maryland and Virginia via Alexandria.
* Two lanes of the new 12-lane Woodrow Wilson Bridge dedicated to some form of mass transit.
Metro's expansion budget has skyrocketed in just the last two years. Last year, only $57 million was spent on expanding the system, but this year it's $229 million.
Metro board member Christopher E. Zimmerman, an Arlington County, Va., supervisor, said some sort of expanded system that connects suburbs, lessens commuters' dependence on cars and encourages development around the stations would be ideal.
"You need that real choice … and we are not there yet. We have a really good transit system, but a limited transit system," Mr. Zimmerman said.
Metro also has suffered growing pains: Its stations have water damage, its rail cars have broken down and its customers have begun to question the system's reliability.
"We need to make sure we don't let the system run down," Mr. Zimmerman said.
The budget for Metro's Infrastructure Renewal Program jumped from $232 million last year to $677 million this year, with $445 million dedicated to buying and refurbishing rail cars.
Mr. White said Metro will need an infusion of at least $12.3 billion over 25 years to overhaul the system. Metro has budgeted only $8.6 billion of that target figure.
More rail cars and additions to its five-line system will not solve the area's traffic woes, though, and Metro finds itself competing with highway funds and other transit systems.
"In some ways it's the victim of its own success," said Richard Steinmann, the Federal Transit Administration's acting deputy associate administrator for budget and policy, noting said 40 transit projects are vying for federal funds nationwide and another 100 are being planned.
"The premise that it's going to relieve congestion, you can forget that," Virginia Transportation Secretary Shirley J. Ybarra said of an expanded Metro system. "You are not going to see cars get rid of from the road."
Regardless of all of Metro's ills, Rep. James P. Moran Jr., Virginia Democrat, points out that Metro has made the region much more livable.
"It's pulled the whole Washington metropolitan area together as a core," Mr. Moran said.


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