Photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr.

New Metro tunnels in downtown DC sound really cool (and expensive), but they’re not what’s most important about the “Momentum” strategic plan WMATA planners showed their board on Thursday. Rather, the crux of the plan is the smaller, yet very important, projects Metro needs for 2025.

The capital improvements in “Metro 2025” come to about $6 billion, and include these 7 items:

  • 100% 8-car trains ($2 billion)
  • More capacity at core stations, including pedestrian tunnels ($2 1 billion)
  • Fixing the bottleneck at Rosslyn ($1 billion)
  • More places to turn trains ($500 million)
  • Next generation communications infrastructure ($400 million)
  • Speed up buses on priority corridors ($600 million)
  • More buses and new garage to grow bus system ($500 million)



The Momemtum plan also talks about some downtown tunnels in a future phase, “Metro 2040,” but Tom Harrington, Director of Long-Range Planning for WMATA, emphasized in an interview that WMATA has not made any decisions about where specifically such tunnels would go, or which they want to build.

Rather, those sections are more general placeholders than anything else. While it’s likely Metro needs at least one new tunnel to add capacity, WMATA can’t even begin to plan for those tunnels until the elements of the 2025 plan get funding.

Given how long it takes to design, build, and fund transit in the United States, it’s not too early to start talking about and building support around the elements of the 2040 plan. But what’s more important now is laying the groundwork to enable those plans to go forward. That’s the 2025 plan.

Harrington added that the $26 billion figure in the Washington Post’s headline, which most other reporters subsequently focused on, isn’t really the price tag for WMATA’s plans. Rather, that covers the total cost of all transit projects the region’s governments hope to build as well as future projects for WMATA.

As we discussed on Thursday, the plan also contains a lot of priorities for WMATA to improve its own operations. They include finishing repairs on the system, ensuring it’s safe, devising better plans for communicating disruptions, making the system more “self-service,” lowering costs and increasing efficiency, environmentally sustainable practices, and more.

The plan is not very detailed about these, and we look forward to hearing and discussing them more when there’s more to understand.

Meanwhile, let’s look more at the 7 capital items:


Photo by erin_johnson on Flickr.

100% 8-car trains: The original system’s designers anticipated having trains of 8 cars, the full length of each platform. However, the system didn’t need such long trains at the start, since the designers knew demand would grow over time.

They didn’t build enough power stations and yard space to house all of those cars, anticipating that as the system grew, the local, state, and federal governments would fund the system’s growth. That investment didn’t continue much after the initial system was built, however. Today, Metro is overcrowded in many places, and needs the longer trains.

Core station capacity: The main transfer stations (Metro Center, Gallery Place, and L’Enfant Plaza), plus Union Station which is a transfer point between Metro and commuter rail or Amtrak, are jammed during rush hour. Metro needs to expand key spaces inside the stations and increase the numbers of escalators, elevators, and/or stairways between the different levels of the stations.


Image from WMATA.

WMATA’s proposal includes pedestrian tunnels between Farragut North and West, and Metro Center and Gallery Place. The Farragut tunnel would reduce loading on the Red and Orange Lines where people have to currently ride to Metro Center to transfer, and the Metro Center-Gallery Place tunnel would let people avoid riding the Red Line one stop to transfer there.

Fix Rosslyn: This is the system’s biggest bottleneck. We’ll talk about this in part 2.

Turnbacks: Many subway systems have places where “gap trains” can wait to enter service in a busy section if trains get delayed, or places to push a disabled train out of the way. The Momentum plan isn’t clear on where these would be, and Shyam Kannan, Managing Director for Planning, said WMATA is finishing up a study on this now.

In the past, WMATA planners have talked about adding pocket tracks north of Fort Totten and east of Eastern Market. A pocket track north of Fort Totten would also make it possible to run Yellow Line trains to Fort Totten during rush. Here’s an explanation of why it’s not possible to do that today; basically, they turn around on the main tracks, which takes too long to avoid delaying other trains at rush frequencies.

Communications infrastructure: The current “PIDS” screens in rail stations use very old technology dating back to Metro’s early years. According to Kannan, during a service disruption, someone has to manually modify the information in the computer system to get the PIDS to work properly. They want to replace this whole system with a more modern one that doesn’t have the flaws of the old.

This project also will involve systems to help riders get real-time bus and train predictions, Kannan said.  Metro would like to place large screens, perhaps 4 by 6 feet, in many rail stations and busy bus stops to tell riders about the locations of trains and buses, as well as information about other modes like commuter rail and commuter buses. Better apps for smartphones and tablets, as well as open data to help other developers make their own tools, are also part of this piece of the strategic plan.


Bus priority corridors: Let’s not forget buses. As we’ve talked about many, many times, making the buses more efficient, with features like “queue jumpers” to bypass congested areas, is an inexpensive way to improve transit and could even save money. If a bus can travel its route more quickly, you can have the same bus frequency with fewer buses and drivers, or more frequent service with the same numbers.

WMATA has identified a set of corridors ripe for optimizing bus service, but it needs more cooperation from local jurisdictions, which control the roads, signals, and bus stops, to make it happen. Some early elements are in the works; DC is planning bus lanes on H and I Streets past the White House, for instance.

More buses and a bus garage: A lot of bus riders wait longer than they should have to. We should beef up service on busy lines and in key places, like east of the Anacostia, which need better connectivity.

Also, WMATA needs to replace its aging garages in DC with a new one somewhere; Walter Reed was a promising spot, but Muriel Bowser and Vincent Gray blocked the idea; most recently, they have apparently been eying the Armed Forces Retirement Home, at North Capitol and Irving.

These are not in the region’s plans today

These 7 items are extremely important for mobility in our region. They aren’t just things that would be nice to have, but necessities if we don’t want terrible overcrowding and delays.

However, these items are still not in the Constrained Long-Range Plan (CLRP), the list of transportation projects each jurisdiction gives to the Transportation Planning Board to staple together into a regional plan. (DC just proposed adding the I Street bus lane, and already had H Street in there).

As the TPB explains:

The CLRP (Financially Constrained Long-Range Plan) includes all “regionally significant” highway, transit and High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV), bicycle and pedestrian projects, and studies that the TPB realistically anticipates can be implemented by 2040. Some of these projects are scheduled for completion in the next few years, while others will be completed much later.


That means without action by regional leaders, we could get to 2040 and still have no more 8-car trains, the same and even worse Rush Plus crowding problems, terrible jams at transfer stations, buses stuck in even more traffic, and no room to park buses to expand service.

These improvements are basically necessary to keep Metro running efficiently over the next decade and to set the stage for future expansion. But it will not be easy to build these projects unless regional leaders are able to work together to secure funding for Metro’s future.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.