The “loop” concept by WMATA.

WMATA recently announced that it’s launching a study to look at crowding on the Blue, Silver, and Orange Lines. This isn’t a new problem, and past studies have considered solutions, though there’s no magic bullet to do it cheaply.

Past studies considered a new station at Rosslyn, a separated Blue Line through DC, and a “loop” through Georgetown, Union Station, Navy Yard, and Southwest DC. We originally published a version of this article in 2017, when WMATA asked Northern Virginia to study adding a second station for the Blue Line at Rosslyn and a regional task force recommended five long-term transportation initiatives, including a Metro loop in Arlington and central DC. Since studies are happening again, we thought we’d repost and update it.

It’s not yet known whether, or how, this study would lead to more action than the last few studies, though WMATA has secured dedicated funding which, while not directly paying for a project like this, does change the financial picture. Disclosure: I’m a member of an advisory panel WMATA put together to give input on the study, but we don’t yet have any more insider information and this post only discusses what’s been public.

What are the ideas from the past?

They all stem from a fundamental inefficiency in Metro’s initial design: Lines share tracks in the core and branch out to the edges. That means stations in the branched area will see about half as much service as in the core. Places like the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and south Arlington/Alexandria are big job centers in their own right (not to mention Tysons), and branched levels of service aren’t necessarily right.

In particular, the Blue Line combines with the Yellow Line in Alexandria and south Arlington, then switches to share tracks with the Orange Line. Thus, one Blue Line train takes away space from both Yellow and Orange. Now that Metro has the Silver Line, there’s even more competition for space in the Rosslyn to Stadium-Armory tunnel. A station on any of the three lines west/south of Rosslyn might see only one-third to two-thirds the service of the combined part.

This was a problem even before the Silver Line opened, and Matt Johnson wrote all about it in a few series of posts in 2013, along with some amazing graphics. Here’s a summary of the issues and ideas.

Metro’s stuffed full at Rosslyn. What can be done?

Matt illustrated the challenges with the Orange, Silver, and Blue merge with some clever maps that depict Metro service “filling up” empty lines, like pipes. He showed how Metro was trying to alleviate the pressure with a change called “Rush Plus,” which meant fewer Blue Line trains and more Orange and Yellow trains.

Image by Matt' Johnson.

That turned out to create crowding problems and long waits on the Blue Line, and Metro ended Rush Plus in 2017.

Matt looked at the two immediate solutions being considered: a “wye” so that trains from Ballston could turn south toward Arlington Cemetery, and a second Rosslyn station. WMATA ultimately picked the second Rosslyn station option.

Image by Matt' Johnson.

Metro beyond 2025: The Blue Line to Georgetown

Building a second Rosslyn station will help untangle the trains and allow more service on Northern Virginia’s outer line segments, but if the train just stops at Rosslyn, any riders going to DC will then need to transfer to a Silver or Orange train. And unfortunately, that’ll likely require a one-block walk.

That’s why a second Rosslyn station is really just a precursor to some kind of new tunnel under the Potomac to Georgetown and then over to Union Station.

Rosslyn also isn’t the only choke point, and the Blue Line isn’t the only one that shares two separate track segments. The Yellow Line shares tracks with the Blue Line down south, but then combines with Green in DC. This limits Green Line service and means longer waits for people from Waterfront to Branch Avenue.

The areas around Waterfront and Navy Yard stations are some of DC’s fastest-growing and have become major employment center, not to mention the baseball and soccer stadiums. One line which can’t run as frequently as the Red Line isn’t ideal. That’s why another idea is to separate out the Yellow Line from the Green.

Image by Matt' Johnson.

Matt also thought about possible service patterns with a wye or even three wyes.

How might the new Metro loop work?

Matt wrote the “stuffed full” series in January of 2013. That December, WMATA wrapped up a multi-year study on this issue with a recommendation to build a “loop line” between Rosslyn, Union Station, and Pentagon.

Image by Matt' Johnson.

Really, it’s actually two “lassos,” where some trains from the Orange and Silver branches run around the loop and head back west, while some other trains from the Yellow and Blue branches run around it and go back south. The proposal also included an express line along I-66 between East Falls Church and Rosslyn.

Image by Matt' Johnson.

Matt pondered some of the possible service patterns on these lines. Do Orange/Silver trains all go around the loop in one direction and Yellow/Blue trains all the other? Or what?

Three ways Metro’s loop proposal could get better

Matt rounded out his series with some suggestions for the loop. Biggest among them were suggestions to locate the stations where people wouldn’t have to walk far to transfer.

For instance, while none of the design is done, initial statements about the loop said it might go under I Street SW/SE, one block from the existing subway under M Street.

Image by Matt' Johnson.

Unfortunately, people riding in on the Yellow Line, which would be heading toward the Capitol and Union Station, may often want to transfer to a Green Line train headed downtown. If the stations are a block away, that’s a considerable walk. While it’d be more expensive, could the Waterfront station be rebuilt as a four-track station, ideally where people can just transfer across the platform?

Image by Matt' Johnson.

What’s actually happening?

Nothing’s about to happen with these ideas. But big transportation projects percolate for decades before getting funded.

In 2017, the regional Transportation Planning Board chose five long-term transportation projects it wants to focus on. The list included “transitways” like light rail and (mostly) Bus Rapid Transit around the region, more HOT lanes which are free for carpools and tolled for solo drivers, and Transportation Demand Management (where employers help employees find out about ways to get to work without solo driving).

The highest-scoring option, which isn’t transportation at all but simply growing more in the places with existing transportation infrastructure, was one of the five. So was “Metro core capacity,” which for the study’s modeling meant this loop along with eight-car trains, improvements to busy stations, and better bicycle and pedestrian access to stations.

By the 2020s or 2030s, maybe we’ll be able to actually start building something. Talking about it, and then funding more detailed cost and feasibility studies, has to be a first step.