Map of Metro expansion from WMATA.

Why isn’t Metro planning more rail lines inside the Beltway? One big reason is that political pressure and federal regulations require it and other transit agencies to look only at current zoning and master plans.  These predict lots of growth on the suburban fringe, not inside the core where it’s actually happening.

WMATA’s new plan for “core capacity” shows this dynamic at work.  A new loop through downtown would connect Rosslyn and the Yellow Line bridge, and express tracks would parallel the Orange Line in Arlington.

Critics object that this only solves the problems of suburbanites who travel into the District, like the current bottleneck in the Rosslyn tunnel and the future need to get more train commuters in and out of Union Station. It does little for the District’s growing population and nothing at all to support the ongoing urbanization of the inner suburbs.

As the plan’s authors point out, they are required to base their plans on an official forecast of future land use prepared by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.  This forecast, in practice, is prepared by cobbling together the master plans adopted by local governments, which are not anyone’s best guess of the future, but mostly reflect the desires of locally dominant political forces.  COG staff makes some adjustments, but they can’t eliminate the biases inherent in this process.

The official forecast expects lots of growth in outer suburbs, where plans make room for decades of growth.  Closer in, it predicts little change.  In built-up areas, land doesn’t get rezoned until its owners are thinking about building, because politicians see no advantage in angering anti-growth neighbors without pleasing a developer. 

Thus COG foresees that Stafford County’s population will grow 95% by 2040, and the District only 28%.  In reality, the District is growing faster than Stafford.

COG recognizes this problem, and a few years ago they tried to correct it with an “aspirations” scenario that was supposed to describe a “smart growth” future. That’s what WMATA planners are using in their work. But the study did not fix the underlying problem. Fearing that the mere suggestion of massive rezonings would disturb local politics, COG retained the fundamental defect of its other forecasts—the supposed smart growth scenario “maintains the existing or planned neighborhood character.”

Portland offers a way to link transit and land use

Are there ways out of this dilemma?  Portland, Oregon, found one 20 years ago.  The state’s environmental laws told regional planners to curb sprawl and reduce auto use.  This, the planners knew, couldn’t be done without changing the zoning to allow much more building near transit stations.

For local government, this scenario was too hot to handle. Instead, the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Oregon obtained a federal grant and used the money to hire the same consulting firm that was working for the planning agency.  In effect, another scenario was added to the study, but government officials couldn’t be accused of plotting zoning changes.

The 1000 Friends report, known as LUTRAQ (for Land Use, Transportation, and Air Quality), won public acclaim and was a key to setting Portland on its current urban course.  Perhaps a similar approach could give Metro a vision for the future to match the boldness of the system’s first planners.