Yesterday, many wrote about the FTA and DOT Secretary Mary Peters’ decision to deny funding for the Metro extension to Dulles, at least unless the project meets a new set of criteria over and above the many hurdles it’s already surmounted. Some are livid. Others doubt the project’s wisdom. But Peters and FTA chief James Simpson advance unreasonable chicken-
egg arguments that could preclude any transit projects anywhere.
It’s true that $5 billion is a lot of money, and San Francisco’s BART extension to SFO airport—often compared to this project—hasn’t been the success planners hoped. It’s unclear how to fit three lines’ worth of trains all on the Orange/Blue tracks through DC; this expansion should really be coupled with a new route for the Blue Line through downtown. But we continue to live in a world where highway projects don’t need to prove their cost-effectiveness while transit projects not only do, but compete for a very limited pool of funds. And this project is critical to the region.
Peters and Simpson say they are concerned that Metro can’t operate the line because it has trouble getting enough money to run its current lines. But by this logic no transit would ever be built. As Zachary Schrag explains in The Great Society Subway, the governments funding the DC Metro expected operating costs to cover capital expenses. Only once much of the system was already built did officials realize this wouldn’t happen, but the system was too popular with the public and had too much momentum to stop. It’s just like the way Robert Moses built highways in New York by starting them with limited funds, then relying on governments’ unwillingness to kill the project once there were holes in the ground.
Do we wish Metro had never been built, now that we know the costs? Like all transit systems, it operates at a deficit, but its externalities are positive and significant, as opposed to highways’ negative externalities. Schrag quotes transportation officials and real estate developers alike who argue that “Downtown would not have come back [after the riots of 1968] if it wasn’t for the subway”. I’m glad officials in the 1960s underestimated Metro’s long-term costs, because the city’s long-term benefits far outweigh them.
And the public won’t allow Metro to run out of money or cut service. Maybe voters will only support funding for transit when it’s truly threatened, but they will. Maybe we have to build it and then figure out how to pay for it long-term. Under Peters’ logic, that would never happen.
We built the Interstate Highways without knowing for sure where the money would come from to maintain them (and still often do). Likewise, we built the highways before anyone had expertise building them. WMATA, led by a former Army Corps of Engineers general, built Metro without really having any expertise building a subway. But Peters believes that because the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is better at running airports than building trains, we shouldn’t build the trains at all. Maybe someone better can build them. Or maybe we just have to develop the expertise. Otherwise, we’ll only build roads for the simple reason that we already have state highway departments who know how to build roads.
By that logic, our transportation choices can never change from where they have been for the last 50 years. Maybe that’s exactly what Mary Peters wants.