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The excellent Housing Complex writer Aaron Wiener is leaving the local reporting scene for a position at Mother Jones. For his valedictory column, he proposes 15 “not-so-modest proposals for how to make DC better.” The first three cover transit. So what’s the big pie-in-the-sky for transit?
First: “Build new Metro lines.”
Second: “At the very least, add some infill stations.”
Third: “Stop building streetcar lines in mixed traffic.”
Unfortunately, building new Metro lines is not really going to happen. Beyond that, this list doesn’t give much to be excited about. And that’s not Wiener’s fault; it’s exactly the problem with transit planning and advocacy in the Washington region right now.
More Metro is best
It’s absolutely true that, if we’re not “constrained by the limits of reality,” putting more Metro lines everywhere is indeed the key. (If you’re really unconstrained by reality, you just invent teleportation, but if we’re suspending fiscal reality but not the laws of physics, Metro is the way to go).
Even despite disinvestment and mismanagement in WMATA, the Metro is a fast way to travel. If it’s working, it’s often faster than any other mode — when there’s a station near where you want to go. More lines and more stations would undoubtedly offer better transportation than nearly any other system.
Unfortunately, Metro lines cost billions of dollars. Many cities and nations in other parts of the world are willing and able to keep building more tunnels for more trains, but not the United States.
What’s the next best idea? Surely there is another, somewhat cheaper, somewhat less speedy, but still eminently worthwhile idea ready for an alternative weekly blogger to tout?
There isn’t a second-best idea
Well, not really. And Wiener’s list demonstrates this. Not because he’s not coming up with it — he’s a reporter and blogger, not a transportation planner. Rather, there’s nothing on the shelf.
(In DC, anyway. In Maryland, the Purple Line continues to be a slam dunk, and will only not happen if the governor is more intent on punishing a part of the state that mostly didn’t vote for him instead of making the state more attractive to businesses and workers.)
Infill stations, sure, and there are a few good spots. Besides Potomac Yard in Alexandria, a station already in the planning stages, Wiener points out an opportunity to build a station east of Stadium-Armory next to the former Pepco plant, if and when all of the toxic chemicals under that plant can get cleaned up.
But there aren’t many good places where there’s much or even any new development potential. So what else?
All there is for us is an exhortation NOT to build something. Don’t build a mixed-traffic streetcar.
DC planners and leaders have not teed up any better solutions. Bus lanes and dedicated streetcar lanes (Wiener mentions the possibility of a dedicated lane on Georgia Avenue) could offer a way to move people quickly and smoothly around the city, but we’re very far from being able to make that a reality, and we’re moving at a snail’s pace.
A study of lanes on H and I Streets foundered amid interagency squabbling between DDOT and WMATA. A study for 16th Street is actually underway, but only after multiple earlier studies in prior years. At best, it seems we can hope DDOT could design something this year, build it a couple of years from now, test it, then maybe slowly start studying some more lanes by Muriel Bowser’s second term or the next mayor’s first.
There are existing plans for dedicated transit lanes on K Street, but there’s no longer enough money in the latest budget to actually build them. These dedicated K Street lanes, by the way, have been rarely mentioned in news stories criticizing streetcars (Wiener’s list included).
The MoveDC plan lays out a network of 47 miles of “high-capacity transit” including 25 miles of dedicated lanes, but little idea of how to build those, when, or how to pay for it.
Arlington has canceled its transit vision, which grew out of years of public processes and compromise. Maryland may as well. Beyond finishing the Silver Line, the region may soon be left with no big transit ideas. And as the political climates have shifted in all of these jurisdictions, there also seems to be little appetite right now to make any new big plans.
Wiener brings up many of other excellent ideas as well. Foster some creative architecture in the District. Spread homeless shelters out around the city so every area can be a part of the solution. Buy vacant or blighted property now, when it’s cheap, to build affordable housing later. Don’t build football stadiums. Get rid of parking minimum requirements in new buildings.
The next Housing Complex writer will surely continue talking about all of these issues. DC leaders need to give him or her, and residents across the city and region, something to get excited about instead of a choice between the practically impossible and the undesirable.