In 1986, a report from the Federal City Council warned that Metro needed to focus on keeping the system in good repair rather than expansion. Metro didn’t listen, but what if it had? What would the system look like if building had stopped then?

The Metro as it looked in 1986. Map by David Alpert.

If you listen to WAMU’s new Metropocalypse podcast (and you should), you may have heard the discussion in Episode 5 about the critical decisions in the late 1980s and early 1990s to continue to focus on expansion rather than maintenance. The episode pinpoints 1986 as a turning point in Metro’s history, and may be where the problems we’re facing today trace back to.

So how would a decision in 1986 to stop expansion and focus on upkeep have affected the system map?

In 1986, ten years into Metro’s life, four of the six lines had opened. That year, the Orange Line reached its full length, with an extension from Ballston to Vienna opening on June 7. But the other lines were all still shorter than planned. The Green Line wouldn’t appear for another five years, the Silver was still eighteen years away.

If Metro had decided to change tacks in 1986 and focus more on maintenance rather than expansion, it’s certainly possible that by now, more stations would have opened, though probably later than they did in actuality. But it’s difficult to say. With ballooning costs and competing priorities, it’s possible that much less of the system would have been completed.

As it was, it took another fifteen years to complete the Adopted Regional System.

Metro historian Zachary Schrag correctly points out in his Metropocalypse interview, that it would have been difficult politically to propose delaying the rest of the system. The pieces that were still missing in 1986 were those promised to the communities who most needed better transit.

And the population in those neighborhoods tended to be poorer and less white. Cancelling the Green Line would have left some of the most disadvantaged parts of the region, including the Mid City, Southeast, and southern Prince George’s without rail service.

So, for better or worse, Metro pressed on with its campaign to build the full system. But that came with a cost; one we’re paying today.

Now, the transit agency is focused more on maintaining the system than on expansion, though the Silver Line’s second phase continues to move toward completion.

If you’re curious to see how the entire Metro system came together, and on what timeline, here’s an animated slideshow that we first published two years ago:

Tagged: metro, transit, wmata

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.