Shocker: Positive Signs from Washington Metro

I have relentlessly criticized the Washington Metro system for years, but I have to give credit to management under General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for trying to steer the dysfunctional mass transit system in a fiscally sustainable direction. Today’s media reports highlight two straws in the wind.

First, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (MWATA) is trying to revive a plan to redevelop portions of the Huntington Metro campus in Fairfax County, according to the Washington Business Journal. An effort to redevelop a 1.15-acre parcel failed four years ago. But Metro has expanded the project scope to 12 acres.

The selected developer for this larger project would not only design the 12-acre site but also help WMATA determine the need for replacement transit facilities — the three parking garages at Huntington Metro Station had a combined usage rate of 61 percent for fiscal year 2018. WMATA recently closed an 885-space garage on 6 acres located on the south side of the station, where it sees an opportunity for redevelopment if parking demand doesn’t merit replacing.

Heavy-rail transit stations significantly increase the value of adjacent properties. Mass transit systems in other countries employ “value capture” strategies to extract some of that increased value to defray the cost of building and operating their stations. For the most part, Washington’s Metro system has failed to do that. Rather, property owners reaped windfall gains from the public’s massive investment. (A partial exception is taxation of property owners in Tysons to pay for a modest portion of the cost of building the Silver Line extension.) However, Metro frequently did build parking structures around its stations, some of which may be severely under-utilized. The potential exists to redevelop that property in light of market conditions that favor dense, mixed-use development around Metro stations.

Although the WBJ doesn’t frame the story this way, it appears that Wiedefeld is trying to extract maximum value from the limited property Metro does own around the Huntington station. If this redevelopment project is successful, it might be a template for extracting value from other Metro parking lots and garages.

Second, Metro is looking at the potential for privatizing operations of the Silver Line extension encompassing six new stations in the high-tech corridor between Tysons and Dulles International Airport, and beyond. Reports the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, the transit agency issued a request for proposals from private companies willing to perform maintenance and operations on the line extension, which is under construction by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. …

Metro has hinted for the past two years that its intention was to outsource the Silver Line service, suggesting that such a decision could save taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run. In January, the agency issued a “request for information” from potential contractors interested in the job.

Now, Metro says that hiring a private company to fill new Silver Line jobs, rather than adding to the ranks of unionized employees, will help control operating and maintenance costs, “including future pension costs, which have grown to unsustainable levels.”

Paul J. Wiedefeld

Wiedefeld said the effort is intended to help the transit agency start “living within our means.” “Competitive contracting is one tool to hold down pension cost growth, while providing quality service for customers.” Laughably, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 responded that outsourcing services would result in poor service for riders and subpar maintenance of infrastructure. Worse than the service and maintenance provided by the union workforce? That would be something!

Virginia has boosted its financial commitment to Metro to reduce a massive capital spending shortfall on the understanding that the mass transit authority would undertake meaningful reforms. Wiedefeld is making an honest effort to deliver on that promise, pursuing strategies that were never part of Metro’s past playbook. Whether he succeeds or not is a different question — that depends in large measure upon market conditions and cooperation from Metro’s labor unions. But he’s giving it his best shot.

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15 responses to “Shocker: Positive Signs from Washington Metro

  1. Huntington Metro is an anomoly. It’s the end of the Yellow Line and serves one of Fairfax’ most depressed areas, Hybla Valley; Metro was a hopeful redevelopment gesture there not a response to need. And the commuter alternatives (VRE, I-95 express lanes, GW Pkwy) are better or cheaper and even 40 years later it’s not much of a bedroom community for downtown anyway. Move those parking spaces to almost any other station and they would be taken up instantly. I’m happy to see renewed attention to development there but even the draw of a Metro station has not worked for the private sector so far, and it’s not obvious to me that another attempt driven by Metro itself will work.

  2. Anomaly? All of the construction cranes in Northern Virginia are around Metro Stations. When Marriott moved it’s HQ they were only willing to move next to a Metro station. Amazon wants a Metro Station. Business wants to attract millennial talent which means locating near transit. Transit is the future.

    This is why DRPT recommended and Fairfax County endorsed extending the Yellow Line to Hybla Valley and a 14-mile bus rapid transit from the Woodbridge VRE to end at the Huntington Metro.

    It’s a brilliant move by WMATA to leverage the $800M investment Virginia is about to make in U.S. 1 transit over the next 5-7 years.

    • Well I hope so. Who wouldn’t want to see Hybla Valley brought back to economic health, including a Metro extension through it to a population that really would benefit from it (but how to pay for an extension; how long would that population remain)? There are lots of businesses that will be attracted to a 12 acre site surrounding a Metro station in the Washington DC region because they will create their own neighborhood; you mention a couple that have said so. And there’s always that FBI relocation waiting for someone at GSA to finally decide and carry through. I’m just saying, the lack of use of those existing parking facilities by commuters is atypical of end-of-the-line (and most other) Metro stations.

    • Hybla Valley, in my view, has been ripe for very major mixed use redevelopment since at least the late 1980s, if not before. It has all the base ingredients for such massive mixed use redevelopment. Why exactly that has not happened, I am not sure. But for such a redevelopment to be sparked by the head of today’s DC Metro, well that is real news.

      I have witnessed up close the exceptional vision and drive of one man ignite great change in a city, one whose powers were great enough to rebuild whole sections and dormant animal spirits of a city that had been tired and in decline for decades.

      Mayor William Donald Schaefer was such a man in the 1970s and 1980s in Baltimore. Developer Will Rouse III was such a man in Philadelphia in late 1970’s – 1980s. And in DC at turn into 20th century, there were several of the same ilk.

      But for the great change agent to be head of the modern DC Metro, that is revolutionary.

      Yet, on reflection it could have happened decades ago had the right man been in place, given the right tools, and capable of aggregating the right support, during times of favorably changing social dynamics. Hopefully those times have now arisen.

      The place seems right. Hybla Valley should be a great real estate play when the stars realign in Northern Virginia. I sense from recent events that those realignments may well at long last be coming into view. It’s got to happen sometime, the location of Northern Virginia is too sweet, and irreplaceable.

      • Dear Reed,

        Why this “need” to constantly grow? You, yourself, live on the Eastern Shore. Those of us who live in Fairfax County experience the reality of life in a megalopolis, with its ugliness, congestion, and talk about lack of social cohesion. With all due respect to you, but this is not Conservative. In the words of Flannery O’Connor: “Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” Such is the world of Capitalism as much as Socialism. One uses the government to achieve its ends while the other, the boundless greed of the market. Enough is enough.

        Sincerely,

        Andrew

      • Andrew –

        “Everything changes and nothing remains still … man cannot step twice into the same stream.” Heraclitus

        “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood …back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory” You Can’t Go Home Again” by Thomas Wolfe, 1940.

        And you Andrew raised Flannery O’Connor:

        “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it”
        ― Flannery O’ Connor, Wise Blood

        Change is woven deep, she says, it is the central spindle of our lives, our only constant. Perhaps this led her to her leave behind other wise derivatives, such as:

        “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”

        “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

        “If you don’t hunt it down and kill it, it will hunt you down and kill you.”

        Change at warp speed swirled all around Flannery O’Connor from 1925 to 1965. The Misfit, she hunted change, lastly from her blind at Milledgeville – “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; “The Violent Bear It Away.”

        For “War is in all things, strife is justice, sparking into being all new things through conflict of opposites, out of the sum of all things flowing in the stream where they converge, and reemerge, upward and downward.” Heraclitus though Diogenes. Surely O’Connor knew these works.

        O’Connor lived deep within great Plundering Times. America plundered itself again and again during O’Conner’s time 1925 to 1965. To build I-95, America abandoned and wasted Interstate 1, its primary east coast artery, including through Virginia it life, history, culture, government, memory for 300 years. America abandoned then wasted all this, from 1925 to 1965.

        During these plundering times, America also wasted whole cities and swaths of cities by irresponsible neglect or intentional destruction, Americans sweeping away into garbage many great achievements and homes of their ancestors, the irreplaceable heritage of their children and their children’s children.

        Thus whole generations of Americans proved themselves ignoramuses driven by overweening greed, pride, and hubris, idol and power worshipers on a rampage that amounted to a holocaust on the memory of their own fathers and mothers, and their fathers and mothers fathers and mothers. Thus they forced their children to become rootless strangers in their own land, without place, without identity, without a past to build upon, without a secure place to stand when trying to figure and fashion their own unique future well rooted in what had gone before. But left instead lost in no where places, that sapped their soul, their spirit, their confidence and comfort. It’s no wonder then that our homes fell apart, into a vast decline, as we spread out into the countryside, too often building no where places, simply because we did not know how to do any better. No one had showed us how.

        Remarkably, most all of this witless destruction this was done mostly America’s elite. Many did it intentionally with their own minds and hands. Others sat on the sidelines, without the courage, integrity or care to act, despite their responsibility to protect American culture, and its culture.

        For example, much of the destruction of irreplaceable neighborhoods was done by high government officials and politicians, enabled by city planners, architects and engineers trained at America’s finest professional schools. There was not one Roberts Moses. There were hundreds of Robert Moses. And thousands upon of bureaucrats and professionals enabling their thoughtless and banal and intentional evil.

        You could see their evil work everywhere you looked. Arlington’s Downtown died before your eyes. Whole swaths of Southeast Washington DC was bulldozed into rubble to build dead soulless schlock designed and build by the Government and its enablers, first in DC, then out into the surrounding countryside. These schlock places were built as close as Rosslyn, Virginia, jsut across the River, and as far flung as Rockville Maryland. Flimsy, cheap, and unhealthy, these disposable buildings poisoned their air inside while falling apart within months of completion, igniting costly litigation, repair and replacement that lasted decades.

        Meanwhile the historic buildings in DC that were not destroyed were typically disfigured beyond recognition, like 22 foot high monumental ceilings hidden by asbestos tiles hung 10 feet over a asbestos tiles covering Italian ceramic tiled floor masterworks of 19th century Italian artisans. The ways to disfigure Washington DC past grew exponentially over the years. And the traffic grew by day, as the city grew cold, dark and empty at night. This was happening all over American, in cities everywhere.

        Who stood up to stop this, or even slow it down at little. Almost no one.

        But those few who did at first, they came from places you would least expect.

        Jane Jacobs, a mother without college degree or formal training turned activist stood up suddenly, arguing that the experts’ urban renewal taught in universities and funded by American Governments abused America’s cities, destroyed urban peoples lives, homes, cultures and heritage. She fought to protect places like Greenwich Village, got arrested, endured scorn from city leaders, and academics. She fought back on the streets and with words. Her Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) slowly began to light the way for others who came behind her, changing a nation.

        More to be added here later.

  3. I’m not sure that I’d go as far as the Good Senator in saying “transit is the future.” But I agree that WMATA’s attempt to sell land for development at the Huntington Station makes good sense for everyone. Activity Centers at rail stations need more intense mixed use development, as well as stringent TDM requirements that are fairly enforced (unlike the farce that has occurred in Tysons).

    The Huntington Station area can compete on price, offering lower rents for new buildings. Last week I attended a meeting at the Ron Brown High School in Deanwood. That area is trying to develop mixed use buildings near the Deanwood Station, again at lower rents than at some other D.C. Metro Stations.

    As far as the General Manager is concerned, he’s made a bigger effort towards reform than all of his predecessors combined. For WMATA to compete, it needs to control costs. WMATA should consider the approach to privatization taken by the City of Indianapolis years ago. Each city department had to bid to retain the ability to perform given work internally. The City gave employees free access to a consultant to prepare its bid against private contractors. Sometimes, the employees had the best bid. Other times, the contractors won.

    • If the world was a rational place, if its people, and the institutions they built, acted in rational ways that served their best interests, then the DC metro, and the benefits that it generated, would be by now unmatched in all the world.

      Why to we know this? For example:

      The Rosslyn to Ballston Corridor redevelopment of the new downtown of Arlington County, begun in earnest the late 1970s, proved this potential of Metro, how its great benefits could be made to bloom by good planning, governance, and execution.

      This Metro miracle in downtown Arlington county started in the late 1970s could have been replicated up and down the Metro lines in all directions.

      Why do we know this too?

      Because the Washington DC region that Metro serves, and the remainder of that region that Metro could have by now served if things at Metro had of been done right, is the most affluent, powerful, and educated region in the entire world.

      Yet, Metro has been grossly dysfunctional and near bankrupt for decades, performing at a tiny faction of its fabulous potential.

      Why? What happened?

      I suggest three overarching reasons.

      1/ Metro from the start was handicapped by the refusal of most local jurisdictions to surround metro stops with the zoning and development that Metro needed to thrive. These people who refused Metro this were among the most educated, affluent, and prominent people in the world, working in tandem with some of the most corrupt and inefficient local governments in America, local government within and around America’s National Capital.

      2/ These corrupt and inefficient local governments, reflecting the will of its own powerful and affluent citizens, poisoned the leadership of Metro for decades, using metro as a political prop and puppet for their own ends, such as each jurisdiction using Metro as a weapon to gain advantage over others.

      3. The corrupt environment sited in point 2 above also breed and fed one of the most corrupt public unions in American, corrupt from top to bottom. This spoiled Metro operationally, and functionally, on top of bad leadership.

      More and more, these sorts of outcomes seem to be the new norm, rather than the exception in a growing number of places in America. Like Chicago.

      But perhaps the most relevant lesson here now is the remarkable difference one leader can make, one leader with just the right bundle of tools and talents, not least courage and integrity, how he can begin to turn a corrupt monster around quickly, restoring at least promise to what seemed hopeless.

      • On an earlier article titled The Slow Inevitable Demise of Traditional Mass Transit published here on Sept. 14, 2015 the comment was made:

        “I know there are a lot of cynics but in order to believe several Govs and several Senators and Congressmen, and other local leaders and the FHWA were all crooks in a scam to build the silver line – it’s a bridge too far for me. We have the same conspiracy theory folks down here over the Transurban Toll lanes and now for the I-66 planned Toll lanes. Apparently many folks believe that there are many, many unethical and dishonest elected and appointed officials behind these projects …”

        … I have little patience for folks who are philosophically opposed to the basic concept of transit – then cite operational and fiscal problems of a given system to essentially impugn the idea of transit itself … If you think GOOD transit is a GOOD solution then SHOW Good Transit compared to WMATA and cite it’s flaws at it ‘s mission … If you are truly opposed to transit as a concept – disclose that up front before you launch into the litany of sins from broke escalators to unions.”

        This comment also seems relevant there. To this comment I earlier replied on September 15, 2015.

        … I suggest that these sorts of comments on other people’s motives and intentions typically miss the point … like everything in life in the real world, mass transit and its success and its failures are all about how, when, why, where, and by whom, it is planned and designed and built.

        And how and by whom that mass transit is thereafter maintained, improved, and looked after, and even then it is also subject to the vagaries of luck and chance. And also to many other unexpected circumstances (related and unrelated) including the ever present Murphy’s Law. This also is how the real world works (with most all human endeavors of major consequence.)

        With regard with that approach to how the real world actually works in real time and in what it takes to get major things accomplished in the world (of urban real estate development), it is typically wise for any player to look at and appraise those developers, bureaucrats, politicians, labor bosses, and everyone else involved in any major project in which he is involved or counts on, and do so as one might appraise a doctor about to operate on him or an opposing Indian Chief he might have to go to war against and with – namely:

        At the end of the day, each and every one of them is a human being. As such each and every one of them is among the most complicated, variable, and inexplicable of all living things. All we have is their record if available.

        But as humans beings they, like everyone else alive (including ourselves), makes mistakes. Always remember that and also that:

        They make mistakes for reasons good and bad, some beyond their control, some unconsciously made, others not … and many for a wide range of reasons with and without good cause, and (in that process) many people do more damage, pain and harm than is necessary, or more than they otherwise would have done had they done their job better, more wisely, with excellence, and/or properly.”

        This is true in most everything people do of sequence.

        And so people do it in real estate development, including the building and operating of mass transit systems, which like so many things in this world is an inherently complicated and risky venture that requires a vast and varied array of talents that span the full spectrum of human talents, all of which are far more subjective than all humans (including engineers) by their nature are typically willing to admit, if they see that reality at all.

        And so its true that all those who build mass transit systems or influence how they are built, whether for good or ill, are all “human beings susceptible to frequent error, bad judgment, off days, and are good at some things while bad at others, and sometimes most all of them shade the truth and/or spin it and/or hide it and or outright lie for good reason, bad reason, and misguided reason …

        And even the best of those involved in mass transit systems can go bad. This happens for many reasons – their age or health or finances or issues at home to flaws in their character ranging from hubris to narrow mindedness to rampant prejudices, to greed and envy, to sudden desperation or outright evil, and much in between.

        These truths are everywhere around us, in all we do, and in everyone we meet or otherwise encounter, friend or foe, or the guy passing by. All these truths and their consequences impact us. Every one of us every day. All we can do is take what responsibility we can and do with it the best we can. And keep it in mind when we judge other people, particularly by group.

        Adapted from:
        dev.baconsrebellion.com/2015/09/fresh-thinking-on-the-end-of-life”

        Note to Andrew. I will reply to your very fine question next.

  4. Took a little trip to DC last night, the Smithsonian, to a lecture entitled the Promise of the Grand Canyon ; all about John Wesley Powell and his adventures and his contributions…

    but I digress..

    the traffic – even going north while everybody and their dog was headed south to get to their exurban piece of the pie… was .. in a word – sucked…

    it’s not that DC is that much worse than other places I’ve been.. I can rattle them off by the dozen – but Charlotte, Atlanta and Houston come to mind.

    We find myriad ways to condemn METRO but I don’t see any “fixes” to the roads – indeed sound walls are backed up to developed land to protect it from the noise and mayhem… so adding more lanes to “ease” traffic is a ridiculous proposition.

    We had options ourselves, we could have taken METRO, or the 15-passenger van or Uber or some combination there-of.

    In the end – we took the van – and paid the congestion price – to get ourselves a parking space on the Mall within walking distance of the lecture.

    The van was easily 5-10 times cheaper than METRO… it was a no-brainer.

    Heavy rail in Asia is supposedly not “subsidized” but really their funding model is in the same ballpark as Jim B is hurrahing.. and that is that when
    the right-of-way is purchased – “extra” is obtained around the rail stations and the transit entity essentially uses that land around the stations as a funding mechanism.. i.e. developing the land – then leasing, renting it to generate a revenue stream to operate, maintain and expand their system.

    If we did that here – to the degree it is done in Asia – we’d have a LOT MORE METRO – .. AND it would be far cheaper to ride.

    Instead, we have chosen the “starving to death gradually over time until some financial cost turns into existential crisis ” mode of “funding”.

    One look at the current road network in DC and the traffic that is on it – ought to tell most rational people that you’re not going to build more roads as a “solution” to the congestion. The mere idea is laughable but it’s the “preferred” … “idea” for more than a few folks and METRO is the black sheep that does not deserve a penny more because it’s … bad…bad…bad…

    That’s how we approach the issue these days. Any kind of transit is hammered by many/most self-proclaimed fiscal hawks as ” No, never, a thousand times NO NO NO!..

    Which basically leaves those of more rational tendencies to throw up their hands while eyes roll…

    When do we seriously get behind the idea that you have no choice in DC – you MUST have METRO and if you are SMART – you want to grease the skids to get it to be the best it possibly can be…and get off the trash it as a concept -.. then wash hands and walk away .. foolishness….

  5. re: ” Each city department had to bid to retain the ability to perform given work internally. The City gave employees free access to a consultant to prepare its bid against private contractors. Sometimes, the employees had the best bid. Other times, the contractors won.”

    They do this at the Federal Level also for weapon system and other procurements.

    And there is a problem in that contractors are very, very good at reading the bid specs and they do not give you anything more than what you specified and most folks who write the specifications are terrible.. and so you do get a lower price but you also end up adding contract modifications and amendments which take the price back up to what it would be with in-hour costs.

    I’m not opposed to the process but it’s not he money-saver one things it could be and if you REALLY – REALLY and TRULY want to control costs – you contract out the whole enchilada… and as far as I know – there is not a truly stand-alone private sector of transit – in the world.

    It would be like contracting out the Police or Fire Department.. or water/sewer, or roads.. etc..

    The bottom line is that there is no free lunch.

    The Asians provide transit with a viable funding stream – i.e. they let them acquire property next to rail stations via eminent domain then develop it to generate a funding stream for transit. It’s every bit a subsidy as METRO’s funding is – but it’s done in a different way.

    If one wants METRO to become a developer or properties – one has to reconcile HOW you would do that. Would you essentially give METRO the right to condemn property for a public purpose then develop that property as a funding stream for METRO?

    That does not, by the way, guarantee any better performance at development than at operating transit – cost-effectively. There is no guarantee that METRO would develop property any better than it operates transit!!!

    But if you don’t like that – consider the concept that the Govt would – arbitrarily increase taxes around a transit station – any more or less than that same govt would do the same – around a highway interchange – as a way to fund roads. Do we do that?

    • Larry, how do you suppose Metro acquired that 12 acres in the first place? Their acquisition was funded as part of the initial construction of the system, and while I doubt it was the subject of an act of condemnation, it could have been.

      You say, “arbitrarily increase taxes around a transit station” as though it has never happened. In a way it did happen around Tysons as part of the Silver Line funding package. TMT makes the case that a lot more value-added taxation and other rent-seeking from developers should be employed by Metro. Of course, the taxes do increase around a transit station or a highway interchange due to increased property assessments, but I guess that’s not “arbitrary” enough, and property taxes are not the main source of government revenue.

  6. @Acbar – I don’t know – correct. but just like MWAA acquired additional property around Dulles then decided to sell it instead of using it … the point being that property was obtained by the govt – either by the overt or implied threat of condemnation… for purposes beyond the core infrastructure purpose.

    I’m not saying this is right or wrong -just not what most folks consider a justifiable reason for any govt entity using eminent domain..

    And I also make the case with respect to value-added taxation. Could/should the govt take that approach with ANY land they acquire , such as highway interchanges or regional parks or other “value-enhancing” govt land-use activities?

    So, for instance, could we finance new/additional roads by using eminent domain to not only acquire the right-of-way for the road itself but land adjacent to the new road that have high potential for development?

    Right now – developers actually pay attention to where roads are planned and then make strategic advance purchases of adjacent land as “investments”. What if the govt itself was in that business when it did a road? Could it be the owner of the adjacent properties to help offset the cost of the road, save taxpayers money, and make roads more self-funded rather than depending on taxes?

    what makes it “right” for govt to do that kind of thing for MWAA and not for METRO ..or for that matter.. roads or parks or other govt-acquired land that ends up making the adjacent land more valuable since the land they abut is set aside for something other than traditional for-profit land development?

  7. And actually when one things about this – the Govt ALREADY decides the VALUE – the taxable value of land. The same piece of land zoned commercial rather than residential – dramatically changes the amount of tax assessed.

    The rub comes around rail stations in that govt essentially creates a special tax district AND as far as I know – collects and keeps that tax as opposed to dedicating it to the O&M costs of METRO.

    or perhaps this IS done and I am ignorant of it – and perhaps a discussion in BR about this aspect would be helpful to others also.

    We have LOTS of commentary here on BR -and that’s good but as good and better is INFORMED discussions where “we” can still form our opinions but they are based on facts and realities and not our own biases and beliefs. I KNOW..this borders on sacrilegious in this day and time of fake news.. but folks.. we do need a certain number of “adults” in play in the debates.

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