» After the completion of Metro’s first 106 miles, it’s time for another big investment.
If Washington’s Metro system is proof of anything, it is that American cities have the capability to build massive, expensive transit systems that work. Since the network opened in 1976, it has expanded to 106 miles of two-way track, five lines, and 86 stations. Despite ever-increasing sprawl, huge increases in car use, and relocation of business and government facilities from downtown to the suburbs, Metro now handles 800,000 daily trips and it has redefined life in the center of the region and around stations. As a result of Metro, Washington and its close suburbs are becoming communities where it is possible to live a normal life without owning a car
Despite the huge investment in Metro’s “first” system plan, which was completed in 2003, the region still has significant capacity needs to be met and hundreds of thousands of potential transit trips that cannot be completed because of a lack of adequate service. As the city and its surrounding region grow, opportunities for dense, transit-friendly development need to be made available. It is time, then, to plan for the next twenty years of investment in the region’s heavy rail network.
Region-Wide Transit Needs
Though none of the existing Washington transit network suffers from the extreme crowding common in cities like New York or Tokyo, the growth of the city core and of areas around stations in inner ring neighborhoods like Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Rosslyn have begun to strain the system’s capacity. The section of the Blue and Orange Lines between Rosslyn, Virginia and Farragut West, in the center of D.C.’s “new” downtown, is by far the system’s most heavily used during the A.M. peak, and it shows, with little free space on trains. A 2002 study by WMATA, the local transit agency, suggests that the Orange Line will reach its carrying limits in 2020, with the other lines following in 2025, even with the implementation of all 8-car trainsets.
The Silver Line, currently under construction, will spur out from the Orange Line just before West Falls Church, heading through Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. With a stop at Dulles Airport and four stations planned for Tysons Corner, a major office and retail center, the line will likely attract a large number of riders — exasperating exacerbating the existing capacity issues with the Orange Line, which cannot support more trains because of the fact that it shares track with the Blue Line between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory Stations.
Two other major transit projects planned for the Washington region — the light rail Purple Line that will run between Bethesda and New Carrollton and the proposed Washington streetcar system — will do nothing to improve these problems.
The excellent blog Greater Greater Washington has proposed several major Metro expansion projects, including a separated Yellow Line between downtown D.C. and Silver Spring and a Gold Line between Tysons Corner and Alexandria, but neither of these proposals would heal the so-called “Orange Crush” between Arlington and downtown Washington.
That’s why the proposed separated Blue Line, which is being seriously considered by WMATA planners, is so important. Seven miles long, the corridor would delink the interconnection between Orange and Blue Lines at Rosslyn, include a new station in Georgetown, and run under M Street NW and H Street NE. The project would increase Orange (and Silver) Line capacity by 4o%, provide better transit access to underserved areas of inner-city Washington, and relieve the Red Line between Union Station and the new downtown. It’s a vital project for the region’s future. (The alignment of the Blue Line on the map at the top of this post was inspired by that proposed by GGW‘s David Alpert.)
But the separated Blue Line, if implemented alone, might suffer from underwhelming use. That’s because the existing Blue Line attracts far fewer users than its Orange Line teammate; the areas it serves south of Rosslyn, including the Pentagon and Alexandria, already have quicker access downtown via the Yellow Line. The Orange Line’s service to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor will continue making it the hub of new urban growth in Northern Virginia. And even if the Blue Line were to attract huge numbers of users in its D.C. section, train frequencies would be limited by the fact that the Blue Line shares track with the Yellow Line between Pentagon and King Street. The corridor, then, would be unable to reach its full potential — a major problem considering it would be a downtown trunk route.
In addition, though the new Blue Line would expose new areas of the District to redevelopment, there are significant limits to what changes it could produce. Washington has a height cap and much of its northeastern quadrant’s building stock is made up of brownstones protected by historic preservation laws; a new Metro line should produce major new investments around stations, but the new Blue Line in and of itself would not do nearly as much as its predecessors in reshaping the built form of the region.
To complement the new Silver and Blue Lines, then, the Pink Line proposed here would offer the region a major new transit investment that would have the potential both to maximize the use of those two aforementioned lines and to spur major infill development. Running between Tysons Corner and River Terrace, the line would double capacity on the tracks to be created by both the Silver and Blue Lines by including a newly built, 10 mile-long underground connection between West Falls Church and Arlington National Cemetery. With nine new stations, it would greatly expand access to southern Arlington, eastern Fairfax County, and the city of Falls Church and trigger massive new development opportunities unavailable elsewhere in the region. It would do so while servicing some of Northern Virginia’s densest communities, containing some of its most poverty ridden and car-dependent families.
All at the measly cost of some billions of dollars no one has yet made available.
The ten miles of underground construction required for the Pink Line’s implementation would come at a very high cost, but its benefits may well be worthwhile. The line would run south under Route 7 from West Falls Church Metro, through downtown Falls Church and Seven Corners to Bailey’s Crossroads, where it would turn back east along Columbia Pike into Arlington County, linking up to a new station on the west side of the Pentagon to avoid disrupting Yellow Line traffic flow (a new station would have to be constructed there), and joining up with the Blue Line before Arlington Cemetery station.
As the maps below show, stations along the new line would be within a 1/2 mile of very dense neighborhoods, especially those in south Arlington and at Bailey’s Crossroads. In addition, the section along Route 7 between Seven Corners and Bailey’s Crossroads would reach communities with some of the area’s highest concentrations of poverty.
The buses Metro already runs on the affected corridors, including the 16 line on Columbia Pike (290,000 passengers per week) and the 28 line on Route 7 (143,000/week), are the transit agency’s highest-ridership routes in Virginia, confirming the importance of this corridor. The 28 buses are currently being upgraded to handle more passengers.
As the maps below show, the area’s inhabitants are predisposed to riding transit. Despite the fact that residents are now only provided substandard bus service, they already use transit at levels exceeding those found in most of the surrounding neighborhoods, with the exception of in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and at Crystal City, where Metro has stations. People along the Pink Line, probably as a result of their high-density lifestyles and higher rates of poverty, are as likely not to have a car in their households as their peers anywhere else in the region, with rates reaching up to 30%. The result? people in the area suffer from longer-than-average daily commuting times, reaching up to an astonishing 50 minutes in some areas adjacent to the proposed Bailey’s Crossroads station.
This corridor, with densities already approaching those along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and likely to increase with more development, is simply too populated for the implementation of other modes of transit. The Columbia Pike Streetcar being discussed by transit advocates in Northern Virginia won’t do the trick not only because it won’t significantly speed commutes over existing bus service, but it also won’t link the area to anywhere other than the Pentagon or have the capacity to handle huge numbers of passengers. Metro service is necessary because the Pink Line would connect directly to the region’s four largest employment zones, at Tysons Corner, the Pentagon, Rosslyn, and downtown D.C.; this area’s residents are likely to take advantage of this Metro line in substantial numbers.
The Pink Line is prime ground for a major investment in heavy rail transit. If Metro has been successful elsewhere in the Washington region, it will be a roaring achievement here.
Of course, transit isn’t productive unless the districts surrounding stations have been planned appropriately. The Pink Line’s corridor today is hardly the model of an urban zone, but the successful transformation of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington from a series of auto-oriented strips to a livable, dense office and housing district suggests that similar changes could be experienced elsewhere in the region.
With development along Columbia Pike increasing rapidly, Arlington County is taking serious steps to prepare the strip for revitalization and upzoning. In addition, Fairfax County is in the process of implementing major land use and zoning changes at Bailey’s Crossroads to allow for more development there — this would include two new streetcar lines, including the continuation of the Columbia Pike corridor. These efforts are well intentioned but may actually increase the problems described above; namely, residents of the areas along Columbia Pike and Route 7 suffer and will continue to suffer from inadequate transit that does not meet the needs of a heavily populated neighborhood.
If the Pink Line Metro were built, however, Fairfax and Arlington must take their planning activities to the next level. The maps and plans I’ve created below demonstrate how appropriate development might follow the construction of a new Metro station at “Bailey’s South,” roughly at the center of the Pink Line’s new underground routing.
The map and satellite image below illustrate the area’s existing conditions. It is a peculiar place, with high-rise residential and office towers just blocks from single-family homes and retail strips. It is an unwalkable community with poor street connectivity. The implementation of the transit lines themselves would do nothing to cure that disease.
As shown below, however, a network of new streets and right-of-way improvements in the area roughly within a quarter-mile from the new Metro entrances could be the stage for a vibrant, livable district. Similar plans could be undertaken for each of the stations planned for the Pink Line.
The one-story retail strips along the corridor, as well as some one-story office buildings, would be demolished to make way for new buildings between 2 and 20 stories, ringing a tight network of blocks and parks. There would be a mix of uses, with housing, office, and hotel offerings within walking distance of the Metro station. The highest buildings would be located adjacent to Metro, with lower buildings along the zone’s periphery, closer to the single-family homes that would remain unchanged in the surroundings. Walkability would be the quarter’s focus, with pedestrian-scaled retail and restaurants at the ground level.
Such district-level planning would have to be a standard component of the planning process for the Pink Line stations. The sheer degree to which the neighborhood around the Bailey’s South station could change demonstrates the extent to which urban-scale development could become standard in neighborhoods around these stops.
Related Light Rail
Though I am adamant that the transportation demands of the Pink Line corridor are too large for any transit service other than heavy rail, there should be a role for new light rail lines in the Washington region along less dense routes. The maps above show potential alignments for further extensions of the Purple Line, with a corridor running north from Alexandria to Ballston along Mt. Vernon Avenue, Glebe Road, and Lee highway. This line could play an important secondary role in redefining mobility in Northern Virginia towards the increased use of public transportation by reinforcing existing low-scaled neighborhood districts without encouraging the massive development around them that would follow heavy rail.
What We Get
Transit is all about building cities, and indeed, the Pink Line would stretch the Washington region’s dense, walkable core beyond the boundaries currently imposed on it by the limits of the Metro system. By constructing a new heavy rail trunk line, Northern Virginia would not only benefit from new service to people who desperately need better transit, but it would also expand offerings to Tysons Corner and the District of Columbia, whose new lines will have capacity limitations according to current plans.
With no funding to build this massive project, because of the recession, Virginia’s new anti-infrastructure investment Governor Bob McDonnell, and the political fear of raising taxes, Arlington and Fairfax Counties are not likely to push ahead with this project any time soon. But development off-shooting from the line’s completion would more than offset the project’s costs in tax revenue over the long term. If and when the time comes, the Pink Line offers great opportunity.
Data shown in maps based on U.S. Census 2000 information.