Metro problems, smart growth or smart mess

Last week, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager/Chief Executive Officer Paul J. Wiedefeld released the final work plan for safety repair and renovation on Metro’s troubled subway system. The planned work will create service disruptions and additional delays for a full year on the rail centerpiece of the D.C. region’s public transportation network.
Public transportation forms one of the fabrics for smart growth, which D.C. and its surrounding jurisdictions have promoted since at least the 1990s. Smart growth encourages mixed residential-commercial use development in urban and other already-developed areas, particularly land near Metro stations and other public transportation. Smart growth, which seeks to deter suburban sprawl, protect natural land, reduce driving and revitalize existing communities, creates environmental and economic benefits.
Metro’s plan for its upcoming safety and maintenance work, which it calls SafeTrack, directly addresses recommendations provided by both the Federal Transit Administration and National Transportation Safety Board to make safety repairs Metro has delayed for years. But the work will cause track outages on major portions of the subway for long work periods, called “surge periods,” and disrupt normal public transportation for many people during the entire year.
Metro’s work plan condenses three years of safety-related track work into one. During the one-year work period, which commences June 4, 2016, in addition to track segment closures during surge periods, Metro will close the subway at midnight rather than 3:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Expanded maintenance and related single-tracking will begin at 8:00 p.m. instead of 10:00 p.m. Existing non rush hour maintenance work and related single tracking that begin last summer will continue.
Metro acknowledges the anticipated service disruption. “When a Surge is underway on a particular line, Metro riders who have the ability to do so may be asked to use alternate travel options and avoid Metro until the project is complete,” Metro said in its May 19, 2016, press release.
“Some Metro ‘surges’ will disrupt travel for tens of thousands of people,” said David Albert, president of the transportation blog Greater Greater Washington, and Aimee Custis, managing director of the smart growth advocacy group Coalition for Smarter Growth, in anarticle on the Greater Greater Washington blog last week. Metro provides rail service to over 700,000 riders every weekday. “If even a small proportion of these Metro riders drive alone, we could see major regional gridlock,” Albert and Custis said in their article.
Metro plans to mitigate the anticipated service disruption during surge periods with a variety of strategies that include more buses on existing routes, as well as buses to replace rail service not available between Metro stations served by closed rail segments. Metro also plans more eight car trains during surge periods. But Metro’s implementation of strategies to mitigate service disruption is still developing.
Moreover, the region’s response will require all departments of transportation and local transit agencies in D.C. and surrounding jurisdictions, and Metro to work together, a daunting task. Planning and coordination of these agencies within their jurisdictions and with Metro “is all a work in progress” a representative for the Virginia Department of Transportation said.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth sent an e-mail to supporters last week asking them to prioritize a handful of proposed mitigation actions the group had identified. The group’s e-mail urged local, regional, state and federal officials to take action, including dedicating priority lanes on major road arteries for express buses and carpoolers, before the June 4 work starts.
Is Metro’s planned response to mitigate service disruption sufficient? Will the transportation authorities in the District, Maryland and Virginia take steps to ensure adequate alternative public transportation service? Have any local, regional, state or federal elected officials exercised leadership to help mitigate the impending hardship to the millions of commuters who rely on public transportation?
One thing is clear, unless D.C. region governments implement real and effective strategies to address the anticipated SafeTrack service disruption, Metro commuters can expect a miserable year of subway service with significant and perhaps materially adverse impacts on their quality of life, not to mention their ability to get to work and travel for other reasons.
Smart growth promised reduced suburban sprawl with the related benefits that come from less driving and more walkable neighborhoods. But the idea of smart growth is built upon adequate public transportation, as well as other necessary public facilities, such as bike paths and adequate school classroom capacity.
Unless local, regional, state and federal officials take immediate and effective action to help mitigate the impending hardship on Metro riders during Metro’s upcoming safety and maintenance work, the question on everyone’s mind will be is the region’s long push towards greater reliance on public transportation and urban development really smart growth or just a smart mess.

Photo courtesy of Doug Canter. Click here to read the original story.