Why does Metro have budget problems? Why is traffic bad? While there are many reasons, this map shows the biggest one: Our region keeps growing mostly on one side, which taxes strained transportation networks and wastes resources.

Image from PlanItMetro based on COG forecasts. Read the analysis.

This map shows projected growth around the region. There’s a stark line between all the highest-growth areas, in the west, and lower growth to the east. The folks at PlanItMetro, who made this map, wrote:

Between 2020 and 2040, the region expects to add about 870,000 more jobs (25% increase) and 1 million more people (16%  increase). As shown in the map below, much of that growth is planned where transit is already at or exceeding capacity, while many other areas that have high-quality transit continue to be underdeveloped. The result: more congestion.

These stats were part of a big new study, called ConnectGreaterWashington. Last weekend, I wrote about the broad strokes in the Washington Post. The key takeaway: Our region is not growing enough in areas, mostly on the east side of the region, where there’s already ample transit (and road) infrastructure, while the growth that is happening is straining the infrastructure we have.

There’s a real price tag for this.

Unbalanced growth costs money

In the ConnectGreaterWashington study, WMATA planners modeled several scenarios. With no particular change in our current path, Metro will have crush loaded trains (which are not just uncomfortable but more often delayed) on the Orange/Silver lines west of Rosslyn and the Yellow/Green lines south of L’Enfant. Meanwhile, its operations will cost local governments $350 million a year by 2040 (up from about $245 now) in subsidy.

Just making the areas around stations more walkable and bikeable and changing fares to encourage off-peak travel helped only a tiny bit on its own. Shifting predicted growth between 2020 and 2040 inside individual jurisdictions, from places far from transit to places near, helped more, but the crowding imbalance on Metro (and roads), where trains (and highways) are packed in one direction and nearly empty in the other, didn’t change.

Metro could be profitable! Or, at least, closer to it

There was a scenario which fixed myriad problems: Rebalancing growth more evenly across the region from 2020 to 2040. If the region focused enough of its economic development efforts where there is underused transportation capacity, Metro could even run a surplus of $270 million a year. That’s a revenue stream WMATA could bond against for fixes like a second Rosslyn station to relieve Blue Line crowding (costs about a billion), walkways between downtown transfer stations (similar), or all eight-car trains (about $1.7 billion).

Those fixes would be even more needed than they are today, as under this scenario, Metro would also need more capacity. And I wouldn’t oversell the chance that Metro becomes “profitable” — it probably requires more shifting of growth than most governments, employers, or developers are willing to go for.

Besides, it’s not clear that running a surplus is what a transportation system ought to plan around. We build transportation systems to move people, and they cost money. Many European cities happily spend much more on their transit systems, because they find them valuable and are willing to invest in public works projects. It’s worthwhile to have transit even if its ridership isn’t astronomically high.

The hole will just get deeper

However, we need to recognize that for every year the western edge of the region grows much faster than the east side, we’re digging a bigger hole. New COG projections, which come from local governments’ own growth plans and aspirations, estimate that Loudoun and Prince William will add 100,000 jobs each by 2045, or 75% more than they have today. Meanwhile, the forecast estimates Prince George’s will just gain 19% more jobs and 10% more residents.

For every year that kind of pattern continues, we’re making Metro more expensive, fiscally, than it needs to be and making the challenges of crowding on roads and rails worse. This is costing every jurisdiction and taxpayer far more than it should, including those on the west side of the region.

Or, to put it more starkly: Even Virginians and western Montgomery residents pay every day for the lack of growth in Prince George’s, and it’s in their interests as well as everyone else’s to better balance our growth.