Monday, January 08, 2007

The Myth of Metro

The Growler welcomes development at the Braddock Road Metro, but it's a question of how much the area infrastructure can handle.

One of the justifications we hear again and again for the massive density proposed at Braddock Road Metro is that dense development will attract residents who rent or buy based on proximity to Metro. They will naturally use rail rather than cars for commuting to work or to leisure activities. Therefore, these smart growth advocates claim, dense development will not have a deleterious effect on local roads and parking.

It's time for Growler look closely at the assumption that Metro is the great safety valve that will permit extremely dense development without adverse impact. And nobody knows Metro like the Cranky One, who has been riding the rails since 1979 when the Red Line stopped at Dupont Circle and the Blue Line went from National Airport to Stadium-Armory.

It's all the more important since our Alexandria pols don't seem to have much first-hand daily knowledge about what it is like to use Metro day in and day out. As far as the Growler is aware, none of the City Council or the Mayor use Metrorail, Metrobus or DASH every day to get to work. It's not clear that anyone on Planning Commission does so either.

We heard at the last City Council work session on the Braddock Road small area plan that only about 18% of residents around the station currently use Metro. Why isn't this number higher and what are the factors that will work against an ideal 50 or 60% utilization?

1. Metrorail does not serve every geographic area where Parker-Gray residents work. Tysons Corner and the Dulles tech corridor are the most egregious examples. Though some form of rail service to those areas is being vigorously studied and debated by business and political leaders, the solutions are decades away at best.

2. Using rail to reach distant locations that are served by Metro may be more time-consuming than a direct car trip.

Take for example Reston, where the Growler occasionally goes for a week of training. It's an hour and a half one way to walk to Metro, jump on the Blue Line, transfer to the Orange Line, get off at West Falls Church and catch an express bus for Reston Town Center. All told, it's an hour and a half each way, or a daily three hour round trip.

The same problem exists with other major employment centers like Bethesda, Silver Spring, the I-270 med-tech corridor, and College Park and the University of Maryland. All these trips are quite lengthy from Alexandria's rail stations and inevitably involve transfers between lines and potentially another transfer to bus. It's usually faster and more direct by automobile.

3. Riding Metro to its furthest outposts has frequently been less attractive financially than driving due to the system's laddered fare structure.

For example, if it cost $4.50 each way to get to Shady Grove but it only costs $5.00 to drive and park, a rider may conclude it's cheaper to drive and will abandon rail. Of course, there are fuel costs plus wear and tear on automobiles, so the true cost of driving is not $5.00. But that's where comfort and privacy enter in as intangibles.

4. Those of us who commute to the central business district in D.C. have always paid lower fares than those headed further out, so the attraction of Metro remains attractive from a cost standpoint. What's alarming now, however, is that Metro is proposing steep fare increases that will hit rush-hour riders heading to and from prime downtown locations. If the hike is approved, even more riders are likely to abandon the system and return to the comfort of their cars.

5. And speaking of parking, a year or two ago the regulations covering employee flex spending accounts were broadened to cover paid parking near the workplace. Although the driver must still pay for parking, the payment comes from pre-tax dollars and reduces the employee's overall tax liability. That reduces the cost of driving and makes Metro less competitive with the automobile.

6. Metro is good at taking people to work or to some leisure activities and retail shopping such as Pentagon City. But most residents in our area still need a car to do serious grocery shopping or specialty shopping. Who's going to take Metro to Van Dorn Street, walk to the Home Depot about a quarter mile away, and get back on the Metro with several cans of paint, a bundle of lumber, six bags of mulch and three flats of petunias?

7. Not every parent can find child care close to Metro, home or work. The morning dropoff and evening pickup may involve a detour and thus will have to be done by car. Even if day care is proximate to Metro and the workplace, it may not practical for moms or dads to struggle with young children and all of their associated paraphernalia on a packed Metro car, much less an infant.

8. Crowding is making Metro much less appealing to riders. In the past, many of the passengers that jammed southbound Blue Line trains at stations like Metro Center, McPherson Square, and Farragut West departed at the Pentagon station for connecting bus service, easing the crowding and freeing up seating. A few minutes of inconvenience was tolerable.

Now, however, a rider may have to stand all the way from downtown D.C. to the Braddock Road or King Street Metro at the peak of evening rush hour. (Ditto morning rush hour between 7 AM and 9 AM). It's only going to get worse, since Metro is planning to reduce the number of seats in each car to better accomodate straphangers.

Many passengers don't want to stand for 25 to 45 minutes and would simply prefer the privacy and comfort of their own car, particularly if they work long hours and have free parking.

More frequent service would ease the crowding, but this requires more rail cars — something the financially-strapped WMATA can't afford without annual assured funding from local government bodies as well as the federal government. Politicians are working on this but it's been a hard slog with no quick fix in sight.

9. Taking the George Washington Parkway from our neighborhood to downtown D.C. is usually as fast and sometimes faster than walking to Metro and then waiting for a train. As long as this alternative is available to Parker-Gray residents headed to DC, Metro is going to be less attractive.

10. There are long term issues that may hamper Metro's ability to carry a much larger passenger load due to dense development along the tracks. Metro has serious infrastructure issues including limitations posed by station design and the two-track system in the Rosslyn tunnel as well as the Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac. These make it difficult to ramp up the system to handle a large volume of new riders. Read more about these issues here.

11. Finally, our City fathers (and mothers) don't seem to want to acknowledge that one of the major factors depressing Metro utilization at Braddock Road Station — particularly at night — is the presence of public housing and the associated criminal activity on the very doorstep of the station. And keeping Andrew Adkins in some form or other at Braddock Road is only going to perpetuate this pattern.

The Growler remembers that when the station first opened in 1984 it was an eerie ghost town for a good five or six years, even during the day. That situation has slowly changed, but it is still risky at night and some readers may have noticed that it is difficult to find a cab at the taxi stand at night. Cabbies are our canaries in the coal mines, and if they deem conditions too risky to idle at the station it's something that riders feel as well.

So there you have it. The Growler is a true friend of Metro but knows it's not the flexible, scalable deus ex machina that is going to permit us to have pain-free dense development at Braddock Road.

What do you think?