A possible future transit system for DC and Baltimore. Map by David Alpert.

Since it’s almost time to put on your suit/tuxedo/ballgown and party like it’s 2009, I sat down and thought about the best ways to improve transit in our region in the future. This list breaks down into two categories: near term and long term.

Near term

These pressing concerns are already in the advanced planning and engineering stages. They have been on the drawing board for years and decades, but still need as much advocacy as possible right now to keep them moving.

Columbia Pike (Virginia) streetcar. This corridor in South Arlington is very close to two Metro stations: Pentagon and Pentagon City. However, highways and huge parking lots cut it off from both stations. Consequently, its development has been very stunted. While WMATA has made upgrades to its 16-series buses, upgrading the infrastructure to streetcars would go a long way to helping this corridor realize its potential.

National intercity high-speed rail. It’s about time, right?  Let’s face it:  the domestic airline industry is on life support.  Once oil prices resume their stratospheric climb, this industry will die as a private enterprise.  We will need other ways to get people between our cities. Also, train stations are usually located in the heart of downtown, while airports tend to be located 50 miles away. Delivering people to a city’s center will boost demand for amenities downtown. It will also increase demand for regional and local mass transit, since visitors will arrive in the city without cars. As we have seen with our own Union Station, vibrant intercity train stations are powerful ways to create a sense of place.

DC streetcars. There’s no time like the present to get the cars rolling. While DC Councilmember Jim Graham rightly emphasized putting the first route somewhere where there are people, DC officials should select and start planning the next few routes as well.

Baltimore Red Line.  Our neighbors in Baltimore have been clamoring for better mass transit ever since the Highway Lobby ripped out their streetcar system in the early 1960’s.  Their current system is very piecemeal and incomplete.  The Baltimore Metro Subway is a single line that runs from the northwestern suburbs in the median of a freeway (thereby giving zero chance of TOD) to just north of downtown.  The light rail was an early 1990’s project that was built for thrift and not necessarily performance.  Subsequent upgrades have improved its performance.  Neither rail system connects to the other, though.

The Red Line is a proposed east to west light rail line that would run from Woodlawn through West Baltimore, Downtown, Fells Point, Canton, and end east of the city line.  It would connect the existing Light Rail and the Metro Subway.  It would take a big step towards restoring Baltimore’s incomplete transportation system. 

What would the Washington region look like if the Metro were never built?  Baltimore today offers some clues.  Our neighbor city to the north is a major economic and social center in the United States, just like Washington. Their 18th Century street grid is also well laid out for transit and walking.  The Red Line will help Baltimore achieve its potential.

Silver Line. An opportunity to turn the nation’s flagship Edge City into a series of real walkable downtowns?  Connect an airport that was built in an inconvenient place with only highway access to its region’s Metro?  In the same project?  Such a great idea!  No wonder it’s been four decades in the making.

Purple Line (High Investment LRT option).  This project will close obvious gaps in the existing Metro system, improve regional mobility, and induce the redevelopment of some 1960’s-era inner suburban edge cities into actual places.  On top of that, it will finish the currently incomplete Capital Crescent Trail between Silver Spring and Bethesda.  Like the Silver Line, this project has been on the drawing board for decades, and it’s time to build it.

Long term

These ideas are either in the pre-preliminary planning stages or are wonderful dreams.

Issue a national moratorium on freeway building. We have plenty of freeways. We need the money we spend every year on new freeways to improve the other elements that make up our transportation system.  We also need to pay to maintain the infrastructure that we already have. 

Building roads was a great idea.  It was one of the main engines that drove our national economy in the 20th century.  However, we have long since started to experience diminishing returns; for every new road we build. we get less and less in return from it. Today, building new roads actually makes traffic worse, and has for years now.  Let’s ensure our existing bridges and water mains are properly maintained before we build new roads.

Infill at Potomac Yards on the Yellow and Blue Lines.  This is an excellent opportunity for TOD on existing electrified rail infrastructure.  The New York Avenue/Florida Avenue infill station on the Red Line has been a success.

Experiment with higher height limits outside the L’Enfant City in DC. As BeyondDC recommends, let’s allow taller buildings in specific, targeted areas near Metro stations toward the edge of the District. Greater height at Tenleytown or Anacostia would no more disrupt the low-rise feel of DC’s center than Rosslyn or Crystal City do today. Ryan Avent recommends an auction system to limit height increases, ensure good development and raise revenue.

Close the Center Leg (I-395) between New York Ave and Massachusetts Ave. This segment induces through traffic on New York Avenue between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Center Leg. The existing open cut could potentially be decked over and used as a right of way for a future heavy rail Blue Line at much lower cost than tunneling the same distance.

Extend the Purple Line. Long term, the Purple Line should connect to the Blue Line at either Largo Town Center or Capitol Heights. Then it should continue around to Suitland, Oxon Hill, National Harbor, and then to Alexandria. This is definitely more of a dream at present than anything near a political reality.

Separated Blue Line. The Metro system will hit capacity moving people into DC from Northern Virginia by 2030. A separated Blue Line through a new tunnel at Rosslyn, through downtown DC, and along H Street will add enormous new commuter capacity and serve important areas that the Metro system doesn’t reach.