The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Rethinking Metro


Investing in the METRO is the single best bet for improving mobility and access in the National Capital Subregion -- but only if it serves the interests of citizens, not Business As Usual.


Citizens and organizations are facing a mobility and access crisis in the National Capital Subregion. The Texas Transportation Institute’s annual survey of urban traffic congestion makes that clear. (See “Spinning Data, Spinning Wheels,” September 20, 2004).


The Board of Trade agrees. So does the Council of Governments and the Sierra Club. In fact, almost everyone says the same thing: The Virginia Subregion needs traffic relief, and Rolaids will not do it.


A solution to the growing transport chaos is important to the citizens of the National Capital Subregion, but it is also critical to every citizen of Virginia since the northern part of Virginia is the most important economic engine driving the Commonwealth’s economy.


On the issue of the growing traffic congestion plaguing the northern part of Virginia, three facts are absolutely clear:

  • More money for roads and road bridges without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns makes congestion worse, not better. (See “Self Delusion and Fraud” June 7, 2004, and the three columns that follow and build on that column at Bacon's Rebellion.

  • In the National Capital Subregion, METRO is the only existing transport system with excess capacity. Thus, METRO is the lynchpin for creating access and mobility in the Subregion.

  • Land and building values document that places with direct access to METRO platforms are the most highly valued in the Subregion for jobs, housing, services, recreation and urban amenity.

To make use of METRO’s excess capacity, there must be Fundamental Change in METRO station-area settlement patterns.

To take advantage of METRO’s potential, station area land use is the only change that must occur, but there are other serious concerns related to METRO.

For starters, parts of METRO are literally falling apart. METRO riders say this. The METRO staff says this. The METRO Boards says this. In fact, we have heard of no one who says that METRO does not need cash badly for immediate repairs, long-term capital replacement and any extension, expansion or service enhancement.


Rob Puentes of the Brookings Institution has documented that METRO is the only high-capacity shared-vehicle system in the United States without a dedicated source of revenue. A dedicated source of funds is a good idea. However, METRO needs a lot more cash than would be generated by the current level of citizen/political support, whether the sources are dedicated or not. The current level of support translates into the “bare bones” capital program approved last week.

The level of support needed to achieve METRO’s potential requires an understanding of METRO’s power to improve mobility and access for all citizens of the National Capital Subregion’scitizens, not only those who ride the system.

The level of support that is needed will require a quantum leap in citizen/political dedication and effort to find the resources that are required. This enhanced level of support demands that citizens and their leaders fundamentally rethink METRO and then develop a strategic plan to transform METRO (and other supporting shared-vehicle systems) to create added value and functionality to human settlement patterns throughout the Subregion.


This is not a new theme for SYNERGY/Planning, Inc. (S/PI). It is not that S/PI likes to say: “We told you so!” Well, perhaps it is. In the 1980s, S/PI started to examine the shape of METRO’s future. By the mid-90s S/PI had circulated a number of white papers on what was needed to enhance the function of METRO. These ideas were shared with METRO General Managers, METRO staff and others who nodded, but did not have the political will to move forward. Their first priority was to “complete the 103-mile system,” not to consider any changes that might jeopardize the fragile status quo.


In January of 1999, SYNERGY/Resources published It is Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO and Mobility in the National Capital Subregion. This report has been reissued as a Bacons Rebellion backgrounder. It was tempting to “update” this report, but in the end, it was decided that it was important to demonstrate exactly what ideas were on the table before the turn of the century. The report is reformatted with a new typeface, and the reference to the National Capital Subregion has been conformed to that now used in S/PI books, reports and columns. Otherwise, the report stands as it was circulated almost six years ago.


At first glance, some recent events might seem to make the paper “dated.” But upon further review It is Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO and Mobility in the National Capital Subregion raises critical questions that have not been answered or even addressed. [See End Note One.] The paper demonstrates that many recent actions might have turned out differently if the future of METRO and supporting shared-vehicle systems had been intelligently addressed in the late 1990s. Among the obvious ones are:

  • The METRO extension to Washington Dulles Airport and eastern Loudoun County is being pursued with far too little regard to creating supportive station-area settlement plans and without any concern for the scope of land-use changes needed to balance METRO system capacity Subregion-wide. (See “Rail to Dulles Realities,” January 5, 2004.)

  • There is a failure to understand that while shifting some trains from six cars to eight cars and running some Blue Line trains over the Yellow Line’s Potomac Bridge may help with current crowding on the inner Orange Line in the short run, it does nothing for the train frequency problem on the Virginia Orange Lines west of the "Y". More important, it fails to address the root cause of METRO dysfunction: Imbalance between METRO system capacity and the travel demand generated by station-area land uses.

  • Politicians continue to claim that building parking lots and garages around stations serve METRO’s long-term functionality. In fact, these uses insulate METRO riders from land uses close to the platform. Close proximity of destination land uses to the platform is the only efficient way for a shared-vehicle system to function.

  • The utter nonsense of discussing the extension of the METRO’s radial lines to places like Centreville continues and is causing citizens to buy houses far out the I-66 corridor on the assumption the “someday” there will be METRO to Centreville.

  • Rebuilding the Wilson Bridge without integrating a shared-vehicle system is a sad, short-sighted error.

  • Putting “light” rail on Columbia Pike instead of applying the Turquoise Line strategy creates a new low-capacity system with limited flexibility and transfer-induced difficulty for riders seeking to reach most of the Subregion.

  • The Purple line in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties is being considered without regard to the potential of Beltway platform station areas or to connecting Washington Dulles Airport and Capital Hill in three or four stops instead of the “butt-numbing” 24 station stops that are currently proposed.

As the last point demonstrates, creating a Subregional shared-vehicle system to serve an urban entity that falls in two states and the Federal District is not easy or simple. Maryland politicians have a vested interest in the support of Baltimore-Washington Airport, not Washington-Dulles. For this reason, they will resist the Purple Line crossing the Potomac to interconnect with the Orange Line unless there is subregion-wide pressure.


As hard as it is, the will must be found to consider the future of METRO from the perspective of how it can best serve the Subregion as a whole and thus engender the citizen/political support it needs to meet its potential. The time has long passed that residents only move within the state/federal district where they live. Residents of Virginia, Maryland and the Federal District require the ability to move seamlessly across the National Capital Subregion. Government agencies

must put aside inter-jurisdictional competition if they are to serve their constituents and create a functional METRO system and thus a mobile and accessible Subregion.


Post-election reality concerning the impact of the stupendous budget federal deficits may doom METRO expansion funds and support for Beltway HOT lanes. This is not bad because the current plans have the distinct smell of public pork and private subsidy. Throwing cold water on these Business As Usual plans would give the Subregion the opportunity to fundamentally rethink METRO.


-- October 18, 2004



END NOTE 1. There is one part of It is Time to Fundamentally Rethink METRO and Mobility in the National Capital Subregion that requires amplification and clarification: Part IV examines new shared-vehicle systems to serve the Subregion. The Advanced Transit Systems (ATSs) profiled in this Part are worthy of consideration for the reasons advanced. The recent Raytheon test of an ATS system outside Chicago did not end well. Most observers agree Raytheon loaded bells and whistles (“enhancements”) onto the system to please some interests and to make the system more costly and thus more lucrative for the engineers and contractors. For this reason, it became too costly to implement. The cost-benefit imbalance also may have been due to the failure to fully consider the value of the benefits of the system –- especially the settlement pattern benefits. In addition, unrelated to the Raytheon test, concern for an individual rider’s safety and, after 11 Sept 2001, the prospect of hijacking or making a bomb out of a small ATS vehicle has been used to discredit the use of ATS systems. Security must be addressed, but this should not preclude consideration of the mode.
























Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.