Photo by the author.

One of the more common complaints about Metro, especially with increasing ridership, is the lack of a four-track subway downtown. Last week, a set of point-counterpoint posts by myself and Spencer Lepler touched off more calls for express tracks in GGW’s comment threads.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and that is precisely what these past express track criticisms are. If we consider, however, the foresight it took in the early 1960s to even consider a subway, we should be applauding WMATA’s designers. When all this Metro talk started, the corpses of Capital Transit’s streetcars weren’t even cold yet and transportation planners wanted to build a subway?

Of course, while we can’t go back in time and change things, it’s never too late to change the future. Many GGW readers are demanding express tracks for the Silver Line. Citing the extremely long travel time from Dulles to downtown in addition to the inflexibility of a two-track system, many of you claim that Metro is only repeating the mistakes of yesterday. And perhaps that’s the case, but let’s look back on Metro’s past.

Heavy Rail systems in the United States can generally be broken into two categories: Modern and Pre-Auto Age.

Chicago L. Photo by the author.

Pre-Auto Age:

BART. Photo by the author.

Modern Systems:

The characteristics of systems in each period are very different. Cleveland’s Red Line was the last gasp of the pre-war systems and would preceded almost two decades of subway (and urban) decline in the United States. By the 1960s, planners had big ideas for how to revitalize America’s metropolises. In 1972, BART opened, the first of a new type of “rapid transit.” Marked by an acronym, and notably absent the “subway” moniker, BART was designed for the space age. And it came just in time for the first Oil Crisis. BART and the systems to follow it were designed based on an entirely different premise than the earlier subways. With the modern systems, the goal was to give suburban commuters an alternative to driving. These systems were marked with long distances between stations, higher speeds, comfortable seats, and most importantly, a sea of parking at outlying stations. The earlier systems, contrastingly, were designed with the pedestrian in mind. Stations were close together, resulting in slower speeds, but with the advantage of reaching more pedestrian patrons. These systems had shorter cars, designed for tight corners in the built-up urban areas they served. Rarely did they venture into the suburbs and almost never included parking. Of the seven early (pre-auto) systems, only three include express tracks somewhere in their systems. The most extensive set of express tracks lies in the New York City Subway. There, many of the lines operate express service in the peak direction or in both directions. In Philadelphia, the Broad Street Subway includes express trackage for most of its length. The Chicago L offers express service on the Purple Line during rush periods (and a short stretch of the Red south of Belmont). These three cities are the densest three cities in the United States with over one million people. This is not a coincidence. Of the six modern systems, only the Washington Metro comes close to a ridership threshold where express (or 4-track) service becomes cost-effective. Look at Metro’s counterparts. The systems constructed in the 1970s (BART and MARTA) both garner about 300,000 riders a day, the 1980s systems (Baltimore, Miami) get around 60k. The main point is that Metro was far more successful than anyone ever imagined it would be. It’s the exception rather than the rule. Let us return to the 1960s and 70s. Think big hair. Think disco. Imagine a Washington in turmoil, fresh out of the freeway fights that pitted suburb against central city, the feds against the locals, neighbors against neighbors, fresh from the smoke and rubble left after the 1968 riots. Already jobs were starting to follow residents to the suburbs. In America, cities were changing dramatically. From this viewpoint, Metro is an alternative to driving. It is not a way to redefine the way people live. It will never be able to compete directly with the automobile on the automobile’s turf. These heavy rail projects were a last-ditch efforts to save central business districts. No one expected any of these projects to rival the older systems. Think about the position in which these planners found themselves. Considering the three-state makeup of the region, it is amazing we even have Metro. The funding problem is perhaps one of the most complex in the nation and a four-track subway would have roughly doubled the cost of the system. Given that, had planners pressed for a four-track system, Metro would either be half the size it is today, would have taken twice as long to build, or would have been killed outright. The debate we’re having with the Tysons/Dulles Silver Line right now is case-in-point. Already the project has been sliced and diced in terms of frill, and it’s still uncertain whether it will ever reach the airport. The first phase dangled right on the cusp of being too expensive for FTA’s criteria, and several times the project looked all but dead. If things like redundant elevators and the familiar hexagonal tiles might be enough to kill the project, can you imagine the reaction of FTA if Virginia demanded four tracks? No. We cannot fault Metro’s designers on the four-track front. Politics is the art of the possible, and thanks to their hard efforts, unlike many cities that were considering heavy rail in the 1970s, we actually built our system. And we finished it. Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Miami never achieved their full transit vision. Even here the belt-tightening Reagan years contributed to an extended construction period. Metro was supposed to be finished by 1983, but it wasn’t actually complete for another 18 years. Not until the Green Line to Branch Avenue opened in 2001 did the dashed lines on the Metro map turn solid. With the second generation of Metro on the way, we have a chance to change things, but we can only do so much within the bounds of feasibility. The station bypass tracks proposed by some of you along the Dulles Toll Road solve some problems in terms of travel time, but they create others. And without major solutions in the downtown core, there’s little room for added capacity at the edges of the system. As I pointed out last week, many Silver Line riders won’t be headed all the way downtown, but only to Tysons. Metro was planned when Washington was fairly monocentric. But today, we live in a polycentric region with some of the worst traffic in the nation. As ridership increases on Metro, there is a growing need for projects like the separated Blue Line. Not only would a four-track Silver Line fail to meet FTA’s funding criteria, it would merge into a two-track Orange Line at East Falls Church. Perhaps it is inevitable that a new Arlington subway will need to be constructed in that corridor, perhaps not. But we cannot fault Virginia for leading on a two-track Silver Line. Two tracks is better than none, even if it’s not as good as four. Bringing rail to Tysons, Dulles, and Ashburn is a $5 billion prospect. That number is big enough without express tracks. It’s far too early to know what the future holds. Perhaps a Dulles Express will one day ply the rails in Washington, perhaps not. I am confident that as time goes on, we will reform our process. We can’t afford not to. But building the Silver Line without express tracks is not the end of the world. In fact, if our region takes the right approach, we will find that it is a valuable, useful addition to our transit network. Tysons could easily grow into a vibrant, walkable edge city. Perhaps in a decade or two express tracks will be being seriously discussed along the Silver Line, perhaps not. But I doubt anyone will regret that we built the Silver Line - something that would have been impossible if we’d insisted on express tracks.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.