Wes Vernon Commentary
July 2012

Memo to Area Government: Fix Rail Transit First

It's obvious officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District opted out of American History when they went to school. Or maybe they were indoctrinated by history as taught and/or written by those who possessed a warped version of this nation's background and principles.

For starters

Alexander Hamilton (a Founding Father) and Adam Smith (whose writings were pivotal influences in the formulation of this nation's economic underpinnings) believed that the central government had two basic responsibilities: National Defense and Infrastructure.

National defense (the ultimate protection of the United States of America) cannot, as a practical matter, be shifted to the 50 states (beyond backups from their National Guard units). However, it is left in much larger measure to the state and local level to address infrastructure issues. The term "infrastructure" would mean - yes, roads, but also rail transit as well.

With that in mind, officials in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia may be weaseling on their responsibilities to plan for future transportation projects. (Note: Virginia is struggling mightily to complete the Dulles Rail project; Get back to me when the dust settles on that one.)


The good folks in my Montgomery County back-yard, having mapped out a comprehensive plan for BRT or Bus Rapid Transit (that should be a light rail plan in the first place; see below), are now trying to tell us that well, er, um, maybe we can't even provide the BRT. They cite other demands on their treasury and conclude they may have to push BRT way to the rear of the backburner.

My response to them: Oh, no you don't! You had mapped out a brilliant light rail (LRT) plan and then scrapped it. Why? Because it would take longer to build, and County Executive Isaac "Ike" Leggett said he wanted to "live long enough" to see his beautiful handiwork become reality.

So Ike tells up-and-coming generations of Montgomery County in essence to get lost, or I'd love to help you kids, but you're too young to vote. Of course, Ike wouldn't put it in that crude terminology, but... Perhaps those kids' elders understand that an effective transit system transcends any memorialized plaque awarded Mr. Leggett - hopefully very much still with us - at the groundbreaking of a bus transit stop. Surely, he doesn't mean to tell my grandkids to get a horse.

But it gets worse

Compounding that circumstance, the county council is now getting pressure from the usual-suspect NIMBYs along I-270 to have the buses operate in mixed traffic (instead of the promised exclusive LRT-style exclusive lanes) on parts of the route.

I will not name the engineering firm that the NIMBYs hired to do this "objective" (wink-wink?) study. We'll accord it the benefit of the doubt on the question of whether embarrassment is deserved. Its conclusion is the first phase could be built less expensively and be completed sooner if the transit builders would just shove their pesky buses into the general traffic and compete for space with everyone's driver-as-sole-occupant automobile.

Told you so

First of all, we warned in this space (See April HG) that replacing the light-rail plan with BRT would lead to precisely this very sort of pressure. And if you think that lobbying will stop once the council gives in to the first-in-line NIMBYs, you should go to bed without any supper.

As former Amtrak CEO Tom Downs once said, it's not the train per se that encourages the economic development along transit lines; it's the tracks. Those tracks denote a commitment to - here's that word, again -infrastructure; the tracks, the wires, the prospect of multi-car trains. (No such animal as "multi-car" buses, not even "articulated" ones will do.) It is that sense or permanency for years to come that goes a long way to enabling rail transit to use every means at its disposal to offer the benefits that justify its existence. That is yet another reason to put LRT (rather than BRT) at the top of the county's priorities, not as an incidental.

The authors of the study say under their on-the-cheap plan, the amount of time for a one-way trip from Shady Grove to Metropolitan Grove would extended by a mere 3.7 minutes. Yeah, yeah. That prognostication is about as reliable as that of the real estate agent who tells newcomers to the Washington area that the location of a home he's selling is only "23 minutes to town." He just forgets to mention that the time frame is measured at 3 in the morning.


Steve Del Giudice, Arlington's transit chief has taken note of the fact that buses now carry 16,000 riders a day along Columbia Pike, the most heavily used bus corridor in Virginia.

As is so often the case with mixed traffic buses, even at every 2 or 3 minute headways in rush hour, they often arrive bunched up and jammed practically to the roof.

A survey shows that, even with the buses at or near capacity, 60 percent of Arlington residents along that artery say they prefer to drive notwithstanding the traffic, bus and automobile, is of the nightmare variety.

That alarms Mr. De Giudice. If 60 percent of the thousands of new residents expected to move into the area drive their personal vehicles along the Pike, "we've got a serious problem."

What is needed along Columbia Pike is a streetcar, which the county hopes to bring to fruition. You would think such an undertaking would be a no brainer. Alas, you would be thinking too much.

The Columbia Pike (streetcar) Initiative is "controversial" for several reasons:

1) Old-timers recall the old streetcars of the early and mid-20th century were "always breaking down." The answer to that is that streetcar systems there, as in many other areas of the long-ago era, were taxed to death, underfunded, and made political whipping boys. Try depriving your automobile of periodic maintenance and see what happens.

2) Buses are "cheaper." Answer: You pay for what you get. See Montgomery County (above). Two, three or four car streetcar-style trains are actually cheaper to operate.

3) Articulated buses carry "almost as many passengers as a streetcar." Answer: Almost as many passengers as a [as in one] streetcar? See above re: jammed buses vs. multiple car streetcar systems. If they work for light-rail, they should work for more locally-oriented streetcars.

4) Because there is "no room" for another lane of traffic, streetcar operations would have to "run in the curb lane where bicyclists could get their tires caught in the tracks and" cars would get stuck behind them. Answer: Again, the assumed issue is getting the streetcars out of the way of the automobiles rather than getting the auto-mobiles out of the way of the streetcars. If a choice is to be made, better to opt for the latter.

Ultimately, Arlington would have the streetcar line connect with transit in Fairfax. That jurisdiction should push onward and forward with that and other streetcar ambitions in the Commonwealth.

District of Columbia

Our nation's capital envisions a 37-mile streetcar line. You might even say its 22-mile first phase is "shovel-ready." This has all been in the planning and debating stages for about 10 years.

Nonetheless, D.C. Council member Marion Barry has decided at this late date to question the need for the city's streetcar line along H Street. The project whose construction is planned to open next year has not been "well thought-out," according to the Ward 8 council member and former D.C. mayor.

After all, he adds, we have an excellent Metrorail system, and good bus service.

The first part is correct, even considering Metrorail's problems. But studies predict Metrorail will be filled to capacity in a few short years, at which time we will surely need a good reliable "on tracks" connecting streetcar service to fill in Metrorail's gaps. Actually we could use it sooner than that.

The second part of Mr. Barry's assertion (about the "good" bus service) is a matter of opinion. Buses inherently do not have the appeal to the riding public that streetcars or whatever rail service is offered. Study after study has clearly shown as much.


So now, partly in response to Marion Barry's caveats (which already had threatened to cause a 45-day construction delay, city officials are trying to find private investors to construct and operate the system. They are examining the experiences of New Jersey's Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line just across the river from Manhattan. It is believed to be a model of public-private partnerships, and Denver's transit system has also attracted private money.

So, D.C. is going to find out what those systems are doing right that the District might successfully emulate. They would also want to learn of the pitfalls by studying Boston's Massachusetts Railroad Corp., a private consortium best-known for repeated breakdowns since taking over the commuter trains in that area from Amtrak in 2003.


This Washington area is growing beneath our feet. In order to plan for our children or grandchildren who may end up living here after we're gone, there is a need for solid streetcar and light rail networks to connect with and supplement Metrorail, MARC, and VRE.

Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer and veteran broadcast journalist.