WMATA should be a leader in transit planning
Tomorrow, the WMATA Board will make some key decisions that could shape the future of transit and planning in the Washington region: Should the agency lead the way in conceiving the future of travel, or just take a back seat to disparate and disconnected local planning?
The board should choose to make their agency a leader, letting it set out a vision for the next generation of transit projects, one that interconnects the regional investments in transportation and gives riders something to advocate for.
Planning has gradually fragmented
In the 1960s and 1970s, WMATA and its forebears were setting the agenda. They studied regional travel and growth patterns and devised a comprehensive regional system that became Metrorail. WMATA spans three "states" with numerous counties and cities. Rail lines in each jurisdiction don't only serve the immediate residents, but those traveling to and through each area as well.
More recently, WMATA has moved into the role of just operating their existing rail system, plus the buses and paratransit that were later added. Local jurisdictions lead the way for any expansions. The Silver Line was a Virginia initiative, paid for by the state and federal government. Congressman Gerry Connolly is pushing for planning for Yellow, Blue, and/or Orange extensions to Prince William.
Non-heavy rail projects are also planned and potentially built by each jurisdiction. Maryland has the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, Montgomery BRT, and maybe rail or bus to Waldorf. Virginia has the Columbia Pike Streetcar and the Crystal City-Potomac Yard transitway (and few transit projects farther out, thanks to a lack of vision from state officials). Meanwhile, DC has its streetcar system which doesn't plan to connect to Maryland even though many of the lines once did just that.
Many of these projects are excellent and may be just the right mode for their respective corridors. But do we really want to spend the next 30, 50, or 100 years building piecemeal rail lines and busways which don't really harmonize? Wouldn't it be better to have a regional plan which accommodates the various needs, desires and circumstances of each jurisdiction but also looks at the regional benefits of each and tries to interconnect them?
This is the question the WMATA Board will consider at tomorrow's strategic planning session. For each of 9 goals, the board will discuss what role the agency should plan. Should it be an operator, just running a service at the command of the constituent jurisdictions? A convener, bringing together different stakeholders for a conversion? An advocate, encouraging jurisdictions to take steps that benefit regional priorities? Or a leader, actually working to set and execute on priorities with the consensus of the jurisdictions?
It's time to choose leadership
The board should choose the role of leader or at least advocate. The fact is that the region needs leadership that's looking beyond local needs. Without it, we'll look back decades from now and wonder why our investments were so shortsighted.
Nobody else is doing this. The Transportation Planning Board and its director, Ron Kirby, has thus far decisively chosen the role of "convener." That board is no more than a "stapler," assembling the priority lists of the 3 state DOTs and squeezing them into an air quality conformance model.
Whatever frustrations we might have with Metro's operational and maintenance issues, which are moving decisively in the right direction, its planning department is widely considered to be first class, and the only one in a position to look regionally.
The board doesn't have to choose the same role for each of its 9 goals. It could choose a stronger leadership role for some of the goals than others. Maybe they want Metro to be a stronger leader on core capacity than connecting activity centers, or actually want jurisdictions to lead on deciding where the money comes from. However, even transportation plans in counties Metro doesn't serve ultimately will help people travel to and from WMATA jurisdictions, and we need to look at regional mobility holistically, not piecemeal.
WMATA plans can give riders something to advocate for
Board members may be hesitant to take a bold role, fearful of stepping on the sovereignty of their home jurisdictions or giving the other states even a small say in their decisions. They needn't be. WMATA will always rely on those jurisdictions for its funding, and its board members will always come from those localities. Each "state" has a veto on any plan or policy. It's hard enough to build a transportation project; nothing will ever get built without broad consensus.
But by letting WMATA lead, we can get the best ideas out into the public marketplace. Metro can conceive a regional transportation vision that's both realistic and exciting enough to start advocating for. Right now, a big obstacle for transit advocates is that there's little to rally around. "Complete the Silver Line and build the Purple Line and all the streetcars" just isn't quite that energizing.
This blog really got started with a series of "fantasy maps" showing a possible region-wide network of transit projects. While it's not really feasible to actually build all of this in the current funding climate, it got a lot of people excited to dream about the possibilities of transit. Someone needs to take this kind of thing, and all the other ideas, and actually run them through models to figure out which ones will improve mobility and sustainability and the quality of communities.
Tomorrow, the WMATA Board will have the opportunity to move the region toward having big visions that take Greater Washington forward, or to keep our best hope for good planning in the back seat. Let's hope they choose to have courage.
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