by James A. Bacon
The Washington Metro system is bracing for its toughest challenge since opening 37 years ago — persuading people to ride the Silver Line to Tysons. So argued Dana Hedgpeth and Scott Clement in the Washington Post yesterday. Drawing upon the results of a WaPo poll, they suggest that Northern Virginians rely on cars to get around. “One reason they don’t ride the rails more often is that they just prefer driving.”
As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I am no fan of the Silver Line project, which extends the Metro to Tysons and then to Dulles airport in two phases. The project cost has inflated way beyond early estimates, relies upon population growth forecasts that may never materialize, and transfers wealth from middle-class Dulles Toll Road commuters to wealthy landowners and other special interests.
And I would agree with Hedgpeth and Clement that it’s an open question as to whether the Silver Line will generate the anticipated ridership. But they’re skeptical for the wrong reason. They invoke a meaningless concept of a “car culture” in Northern Virginia to suggest that there might be rider resistance to taking the Metro.
The car culture dominates the commute in Northern Virginia, according to The Post’s poll. Only 7 percent of commuters there take Metro; 85 percent drive to work. In Maryland, 75 percent of commuters drive, and in the District, fewer than half do.
The reason that so many D.C. residents commute by Metro is that the entire city is well served by the Metro. Ridership also is high in the one part of Northern Virginia — Arlington County — that has encouraged walkable, higher-density, mixed use development around its Metro stations. If the percentage of Metro commuters has dipped in Virginia compared to Maryland, it’s largely because more economic and population growth has occurred in Virginia and that growth is occurring where there aren’t any Metro stations — not because Northern Virginians with access to Metro are using it less, as might be inferred.
Fairfax County, for all its past sins in land use planning, is trying to get it right. Learning from Arlington after a mere four-decade delay, the county is planning appropriate densities and urban designs around its new Metro stations and reconfiguring densities and design around its old stations, which it had once surrounded with parking lots. I have no doubt that Northern Virginia will see a rise in the percentage of commuters riding the Metro. When that happens, it will not represent some miraculous conversion from a “car culture” to an urban culture. It will mean that new transit options exist that did not before.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) projects 740,000 monthly ridership in its first year in operation. That’s equivalent to roughly 25,000 riders daily — a pitifully small number compared to all the automobile trips taken in the Tysons-Reston-Dulles corridor. Hedgepeth and Clement acknowledge that ridership will take time to ramp up as transit-friendly development takes place around the Metro stops.
“The Silver Line is being built for the ages,” they quote Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, as saying. “A lot of the ridership is going to be for people who are not here yet and jobs that are not here yet.”
That is the issue. The salient questions regarding ridership and, by implication, the financial viability of the Silver Line, are (1) will population and GDP growth in a post-sequester world keep pace with forecasts formulated during the go-go mid-2000s, and (2) will real estate investment flow into Silver Line Metro stations, or will competition from other Northern Virginia real estate markets dampen that expected growth?
Where might such competition come from? Look first to Arlington, close to the Washington, D.C., urban core, which expects to see vibrant population growth. Then look to the metropolitan fringe where Dulles airport, supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia, is pushing for massive highway investment to encourage development of an air-cargo logistical complex west of the airport.
If competing markets are successful, re-development of the areas around the 10 Silver Line stations may take longer than anticipated. If re-development stalls, so will long-term ridership growth and fare revenues. Those are the trends the Post should be worried about.There are currently no comments highlighted.