Wes Vernon Commentary
November 2013

Metrorail Out of Space: Air Traffic to Supplement?

Are helicopters in Metro's future? One official in the Washington area who is deeply involved in planning the Dulles Rail Silver Line believes in the long run, it may come to that.

The idea is not exactly novel. Over the years, it has been brought up informally in "what if" discussions, and then forgotten. Actually implementing a form of "helicopter transit" on a regular basis as an integral part of Washington's daily commuter plan would be a new wrinkle.

But here's the problem

A Metrorail capacity report issued back in 2008, leads to the conclusion that WMATA planners figure Washington's 37-year old subway operation will be at or near capacity circa 2021. That is not a flat conclusion delivered in those exact words. But if you read the report and the ridership/capacity implications therein, one finds no alternative scenario.

Charles S. "Sam" Carnaggio, Project Director for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, sees significant changes over the years in transportation requirements, likely engendered by a growing federal government. That point is obvious. But where is the space? Carnaggio discussed one "out of the box" possibility.

(One caveat here is that Mr. Carnaggio's views presumably are his own and not necessarily intended here to reflect the opinions of his employer, the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, which oversees the Dulles Rail line.)

Silver Line: Future blessing. Short-term curse

My brief but intriguing discussion with the Dulles Rail official on this projected quandary drives heightened interest in an article appearing more recently in the Washington City Paper under the byline of Kytja Weir.

(If that name rings a bell, Kytja Weir used to write on Metrorail issues for the Washington Examiner before that newspaper shuttered its print edition and went online as strictly a national and political news source, in the process dismissing its local reporting staff. The well-informed Ms. Weir has found a new professional home at the City Paper.)

Worse before it's better?

Weir's analysis goes to a question many Metro observers have wondered about for at least the last two decades: What's going to happen when there is a higher ridership than the Metro system can handle? And what happens when, in order to alleviate that overcrowding, it becomes necessary but problematic (especially in rush hour) to jam more trains into some of the tunnels than the infrastructure can accommodate? Safety concerns? Filled to capacity in both riders and equipment? What then?

All these considerations cause Weir to predict in her headline: Metro Growth Will Make Life Worse Before it Makes Life Better. And before it gets better, the delivery of new rail cars for the Dulles Rail will take a long time to catch up with the new demand on the system.

The plot thickens

And then, another question remains: Metro plans, for safety reasons, to scrap the Rohr-1000 series cars, the oldest of the fleet, with less safety protection, as exposed by the crash on the Red Line at Fort Totten in 2009. In another era, these were WMATA's original new cars that we greeted with pleasure and awe as we first boarded them back in 1976.

Alas, the luster is gone. Now that the '09 accident cost the lives of nine people, WMATA can't get rid of them quickly enough.

But wait. Won't we need some of those old cars for the Silver Line while we're waiting for the new cars to arrive?

The 23 new miles (Phase 1 through Tysons Corner early next year; Phase 2 through Dulles to Loudoun County opening 3 or 4 years later) will expand the system map by 22%, affecting not just that new mileage, but also some trackage slated to accommodate three lines. Think beneath the Potomac River with the Blue, Orange, and (now) Silver Line.

The plot thickens even more

When Phase One opens in a few months, there will be a grand total of two new (demonstration) double-car trainsets. Obviously many cars now used on other lines will be pressed into this new service. That means less down time for each available car's maintenance until rest of the new fleet arrives in increments.

It would appear then that Metro's Hobson's choice will be either (1) reduce schedules on an already crowded system, or (2) hold on to the Rohr cars, whose maintenance priorities are expensive because of their 37 years of wear and tear, releasing them gradually as the newer equipment arrives.

But even then

There remains still the capacity issue, as well as Mr. Carnaggio's helicopter ideas.

The way it would work, he says, is this:

The federal government, as it continues over the years to grow, could consider spreading the growth throughout the entire area. New agencies or parts of new agencies would locate or re-locate in surrounding Virginia and Maryland suburbs or exurbs.

As a result, many of those who work at the agencies would then be encouraged to live nearer to where they work, thus a fair portion of the Metrorail ridership would not require daily trips the District. In the process, if logistics and population growth patterns cooperate, more space would open up on the system to accommodate continued ridership growth.

What about those suburban-located agency officials or experts, who, for example, are required to testify on the Hill, meet at the White House or meet for other government-related occasions right in the Capitol? That's where helicopter service would come in.

That in turn conjures up thoughts of transit planners who instead have now and then called for a larger growth of Metrorail within D.C., and new lines proliferating throughout the city and outer reaches of Metropolitan Washington.

Do we really think they're going to do that? Well, it is, after all, hypothetical, though under the growth of the federal government and all around suburbia that is envisioned, there would likely be a proposal for a circle rail line through Maryland and Virginia linking the spokes of the current routes. (Maryland's planned light-rail Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties, is viewed by some as the forerunner of such a route.)

The pondering continues

There are other questions raised by Mr. Carnaggio's scenario: What yard-stick guides us to a decision as to where new or re-located federal buildings go? What process is contemplated for encouraging federal officials and employees to live near a particular suburban-located federal entity? Can that be done in a way that does not encourage more traffic than already is found in surrounding areas? And is there a possibility that a "spread out government" plan could lead to some measure of suburban sprawl that Metro was designed to reduce?

But of course, that would lead to yet another 50-year debate. So I guess we can leave our grandchildren to fight that out, as they would do with the helicopters (assuming those materialize at all), and as happened in the early to mid-20th Century, with the Metrorail system itself. The only potential sticking point could be that 2021 won't wait a half century.

Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer, veteran broadcast journalist, and a long-time columnist for the High Green.