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Three ways Metro's loop proposal could get better

Metro's proposed loop has generated much discussion about the future of the transit system. While new capacity is an important goal, it's not the only goal. Metro should also try to avoid designing in problems. A few tweaks could greatly improve the proposal.

Gallery Place crowding. Photo by the author.

One of the challenges of adding in a new crosstown line where one was never envisioned is dealing with transfers.

It's absolutely essential that Metro get these transfer stations right. Today, Gallery Place is a nightmare due to its flawed design. That station was designed with two major flaws. The off-center meeting of the Green and Red Lines is due to the Red Line swinging south to Judiciary Square. The narrow platforms are because of the historic art museum upstairs. We're still paying for a design decision made 40 years ago, and it really illustrates the need to get it right this time.

Metro's loop proposal is still very nebulous because it's so early in planning. Much could change. But the conceptual alignments shown in their map suggest the potential for inefficient transfer stations.

Building better transfer stations

At Waterfront, for example, the Green Line follows M Street. The proposed loop would run under Eye Street, 3 blocks north. Right now, riders from Alexandria and South Arlington have a straight shot on the Yellow Line to the 7th Street subway and the eastern side of downtown.

See the Waterfront station under: Eye Street M Street. All graphics by the author.

If the new loop station is built at 4th and Eye, those riders will have to walk over 1,000 feet to change from the Yellow to the Green. That's as long as the walk from Metro Center to Gallery Place. The additional inconvenience and time it takes to transfer will make transit less competitive for many riders. And it may create future crowding issues, like those faced at Gallery Place.

Locating the new station adjacent to the existing Waterfront stop would make transferring much easier and less time-consuming. And that would be a boon for many riders, especially those who would need to transfer under the new scheme, like anyone who takes the current Yellow Line from Virginia to downtown DC.

There's an even better solution than just building the new station next to the old one: Build a new station for the Green Line and the loop line.

A four-track design like the one above would make transferring very easy. Many riders wouldn't even need to use an escalator. Inbound trains would be on one level and outbound trains would be on another. This is exactly like the design of the Lionel-Groulx transfer station in Montreal.

This would probably not be possible as a reconstruction of the existing Waterfront station, but would probably need to be new construction adjacent to the current stop.

In this design, a commuter riding from Suitland to Union Station could simply exit her Green Line train at Waterfront and walk across the platform to board a Loop train on the outer loop headed toward Capitol South and Union Station.

Similarly, a person commuting from Huntington to Archives could get off his Yellow Line train at Waterfront and just walk right across the platform to a waiting Green Line train headed toward L'Enfant and Gallery Place.

Similar situations exist where the proposed loop line crosses the Red Line. Metro's proposal seems to keep the new line under H Street near Union Station and under M Street where it crosses Connecticut Avenue.

The Red Line is currently Metro's busiest line, and it provides access to many destinations. Forcing riders to make long walks is inefficient, and if the tunnels deposit riders at one end of the platform, a situation similar to the one at Gallery Place is likely to arise again.

The transfer at Farragut North/Longfellow isn't as bad as the potential one at Waterfront. But the walk between the stops would still be almost 750 feet. Instead of keeping the line under M Street, the loop could swing down Vermont Avenue to either K or L Street. That would allow a much shorter transfer between the Red Line and the Orange Line as well.

See the Farragut station under: M Street K Street

At Union Station, Amtrak has grand plans to expand the station and create a second front along H Street on the north side of the complex. In that regard, Metro's loop wouldn't be too inconvenient to commuter and Amtrak trains. Of course, if the redevelopment of the station doesn't happen, riders would have a less pleasant trek to connect to their trains.

But the walk to connect to the congested north end of the Red Line platform is over 600 feet. And that means that riders connecting to trains bound for Metro Center or Silver Spring would also have an inconvenient transfer.

Locating the new loop station on the south side of the station, under Massachusetts Avenue, could make transfers much easier, and it wouldn't sacrifice access to commuter or Amtrak trains either.

See the Union Station station under: H Street Massachusetts Avenue

The Massachusetts Avenue alternative also seems to make it easier to extend the M Street subway east across Capitol Hill and/or the 2nd Street subway up North Capitol Street should future demand warrant that expansion. Ideally, the station under Massachusetts Avenue would include 4 tracks and 2 platforms so that if the loop were split into an east-west and a north-south line trains wouldn't have to share tracks.


One of the bigger tradeoffs is the discussion of whether increasing the area within a 5 or 10 minute walk of transit is more important than easy transfers.

For example, if the new loop line is pulled down to K Street at Farragut Square, the West End station would be farther south, closer to the existing Foggy Bottom station. That means that less new territory would be within a 5 minute walk of Metro. On the other hand, essentially all of the West End is already within a 10 minute walk of Metro.

Compare some alternatives below. Note that the tan and gray areas are within 10 and 5 minute walks of existing stations. Light pink areas would be new areas within 10 minutes of Metro and dark pink areas would be new areas within 5 minutes of Metro.

Walksheds from existing stations.

Walksheds from Metro's loop proposal.

Walksheds from a K Street/Mass Ave alternative.

Better transfer stations could mean fewer headaches for future commuters. But it might also mean less area is available for new development in the core, lowering tax revenues for the District. Co-locating stations is also likely to be more expensive and disruptive to riders. But in many cases, it may well be worth it. It's certainly worth having the discussion.


How would Metro's loop work with an Arlington express line?

Last week, we discussed Metro's proposed new downtown loop line in terms of the Blue and Yellow lines. Metro also plans to feed the loop with a new "express" line along I-66 in Arlington.

While Metro's plans are still in the early stages, at the moment, they seem to be focusing on a new line that would follow I-66 between East Falls Church and Rosslyn, bypassing the crowded Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

All graphics by the author.

Metro's 2040 projections indicate the need for a new line in Northern Virginia. They estimate that by 2040, there will be significant crowding aboard inbound Silver Line trains before they even get to Tysons, but sharing track with the Orange Line constrains its capacity. They also estimate that by 2040, passengers in the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor will find it difficult to board trains, with crowding conditions beyond what is considered acceptable today.

The new express corridor would run alongside the Orange Line in the median of I-66 from the junction with the Dulles Airport Access Road until the Orange Line splits off to follow Fairfax Drive. The new line would stay in the median of I-66 to bypass the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

The new line would allow up to 26 trains per hour (TPH) to run on the Silver Line as well as on the Orange Line, for a total of 52 TPH passing through East Falls Church. It would feed the proposed downtown Metro loop, along with the Blue and Yellow Lines.

The map above shows one way the new line could operate. Under this scenario, the Silver Line would have a companion, which I'm dubbing the Gold Line for the purposes of this discussion.

The downtown loop would have a capacity of 26 TPH in each direction. The Blue and Yellow lines would use 13 TPH of that capacity in each direction, leaving 13 TPH available on the inner loop and 13 TPH available on the outer loop. For this reason, half of the trains on what I'm calling the North Arlington Express line would need to run counterclockwise and half would need to run clockwise, at least to use the loop to its full capacity.

To avoid confusion, it is likely that Metro would use two different colors for the express line. In the scenario outlined in the map above, half of the trains coming from Dulles would be colored Silver, while the other half would be Gold. Each would alternate, going around the loop in the opposite direction.

Of course, it would also be possible to "transform" the lines as I described with regard to the Blue and Yellow lines on the loop in the last post. That way, riders would be used to taking the same color in the morning as the evening. But I did not illustrate that in a map, because with four lines on the loop, it becomes increasingly complex to show the transforms.

Running trains from the North Arlington Express onto the loop would maximize the capacity of the Dulles/Tysons line, the Orange Line, and the loop line at 26 TPH each.

Metro is not wedded to running the line down I-66. As planning continues, WMATA will do studies to determine the best location for the new line. It could be along I-66, or it could follow another corridor, but the concept is the same. By separating the Silver and Orange lines, WMATA can increase capacity to match the expected demand in northern Virginia.


How might the new Metro loop work?

Last week, WMATA planners released a proposal for a new Metro loop downtown to help relieve capacity issues on the other lines. How might this new line operate? Details are scarce, but we can talk about some possibilities.

Map from WMATA.

The proposal is to build a new Metro line that would loop through downtown DC. Starting at Rosslyn, the tracks would tunnel under the Potomac to Georgetown. They would then follow M Street and New Jersey Avenue to Union Station. The tracks would turn south along 2nd Street to cross Capitol Hill, and then parallel the Green Line under I Street. The loop would complete itself by joining to the existing Yellow Line bridge over the Potomac River.

Metro's proposal indicates that the loop line will be fed by the current Blue and Yellow lines, which would enter at the Pentagon station, and a new "express" line in northern Arlington, which would enter near Rosslyn.

Why build a loop?

Metro's team of planners looked at a variety of solutions to the core capacity issues, including new lines. The alternative they settled on was this loop. Why did they pick a loop?

Essentially, a loop solves most of Metro's problems relatively cheaply. The primary issue facing Metro over the next few decades is core capacity, espcially in terms of train throughput. The Blue/Orange subway through downtown is at capacity, and no more trains can be added.

Untangling the Gordian knot at Rosslyn is the most complicated part of this. What is most clear is that Metro needs a new Potomac crossing near Rosslyn to increase capacity on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines.

But Metro also needs more capacity around the southern side of downtown DC. Because the Green and Yellow Lines share the 7th Street subway, which is operating very close to capacity, each line can only be increased at the expense of the other line. In other words, WMATA can't add Green trains without subtracting Yellow trains. So Metro also needs a new subway for the Yellow Line.

However, Metro's studies found little need for a new subways outside of downtown based on the expected travel patterns in and density of those areas in 2040.

Essentially, Metro sees the need to build an east-west subway across the north side of downtown and a north-south subway across the east side of downtown. But they don't see a need for the east-west subway to continue east or the north-south subway to continue north.

For that reason, Metro thinks it makes the most sense to just connect the east-west and north-south subways at Union Station and operate them as a loop.

Operating patterns

It's not exactly clear how the new subway loop would work, and since this project is decades away from completion much could change. But there are a few likely ways it could operate.

For now, let's only consider the Blue and Yellow Lines. We will discuss the proposed North Arlington Express line in a later post.

Operating an inner and outer loop is one of the obvious choices. In this scenario, one of the lines would run clockwise around the inner loop, while the other line runs counterclockwise around the outer loop.

Scenario 1. All maps by the author unless noted.

So Yellow Line trains coming from Huntington would cross the Potomac north of the Pentagon, as they do today. Then they would continue east to Capitol Hill before turning north toward Union Station and going around the loop to return to Huntington via Arlington Cemetery. Blue Line trains would do the reverse.

One of the advantages of operating the Yellow and Blue lines as a loop through downtown is that the loop can actually carry more capacity. If the Blue and Yellow didn't need to share tracks with the Orange and Green lines, each could run at a frequency of 13 trains per hour (TPH) in each direction. And that means that the outer loop would have 13 TPH, as would the inner loop. Since Metro's track capacity is 26 TPH, there's actually room to add two more lines to the loop.

One of the disadvantages, though, is that riders who have a short one-seat ride in the morning have a long one-seat ride in the afternoon. Someone who commutes from Franconia to Georgetown has a pretty direct trip in the morning. But in the afternoon, they either have to face a long ride on the Blue Line via Union Station and Potomac Park or take a two-seat ride by riding the Yellow Line to Pentagon and changing.

"Transforming" loop trains would resolve that problem, though it would be more complicated and difficult to show on the map.

Scenario 2.

In this scenario, a Blue Line train leaving Franconia would run as far as Pentagon and then continue toward Arlington Cemetery. At some point on its journey, the train would magically transform into a Yellow Line train bound for Huntington. Yellow Line trains would operate similarly, becoming Blue Line trains during their journeys.

This way, a person who commutes from Franconia to Georgetown would have a short, one-seat ride on the Blue Line in both directions. The same would be the case for Yellow Line riders.

For anyone waiting for trains at a station on the loop, trains on the outer loop would always be bound for Franconia, but would have come from Huntington. On the inner loop, trains would be bound for Huntington, but would have come from Franconia.

To avoid confusion, trains bound for the loop would just be signed with their color and a destination of "Downtown." The change of color and destination on the loop wouldn't matter for the passengers on board, since the train would continue around the loop. This is, incidentally, what Chicago L trains do as they arrive at the Loop: they change their headsigns from "Loop" to whichever destination they're headed back to.

Alternatively, trains don't have to "loop" all the way around the loop. Instead, the Blue and Yellow lines could just be interlined on the new tracks.

Scenario 3.

In this scenario, Blue Line trains would operate onto the new tracks for a certain distance. On the map above, I've shown trains going as far as 4th & Eye, but they could stop at any point along the line (Union Station, for example). Then trains turn back around and run over the same tracks back to Franconia. Yellow Line trains would operate similarly.

Anywhere the two lines overlap would max out the capacity of the new line, just as the other lines in the core are currently topped out at 26 TPH. The reason this is true for the interlined scenario but not for the loop scenarios is because in the loop scenarios, trains run around the loop once. In the interlined scenario trains run over the tracks twice, once inbound and once again outbound.

North Arlington Express trains

As noted above, the new loop would also carry trains from the North Arlington Express line. We haven't discussed those trains yet, but we're going to cover how they might work with the loop in another post soon.

Metro's vision for the future is still decades away, so we have no idea what the final product will look like exactly. It might look like one of the operating patterns shown here, but then again, lots can change in 25 years. But Metro's core is approaching capacity, and expansion is desperately needed. Metro's new vision will set the stage for building the system's next generation.


Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington

To relieve congestion on the Orange and Blue lines and support future growth in the region's core, Metro is proposing a loop line between downtown DC and Arlington. They've just created a map of what the service might look like.

Detail of Metro's proposed downtown loop from PlanItMetro.

The loop is part of Metro's Regional Transit System Plan, which lays out a vision of how the transit system should expand over the next three decades to accommodate predicted regional growth. It incorporates previously studied ways to expand Metro in downtown DC, including new Blue and Yellow lines.

The loop line would go to areas that don't have Metro service, like Georgetown, while adding new connections to existing transfer points like Farragut Square and Union Station. It's unclear how Metro's service patterns would change to serve the loop. Right now, the map shows the Blue, Orange, Silver, and Yellow lines all running on the loop.

WMATA planners are also considering an express line on I-66.

Metro's also looking at a new express line along I-66 between Rosslyn and East Falls Church, which could give the Silver Line an alternate, faster path to downtown DC. This isn't a new idea, either.

What do you think of Metro's loop line?


Metro beyond 2025, part 2: The Blue Line to Georgetown

Yesterday, we discussed how Metro could grow its core capacity if it chooses to build a Rosslyn wye in the short run. Today we'll look at how a terminal for the Blue Line could fit into the picture.

Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Today, Rosslyn is the biggest bottleneck in the system, which will only get worse when the Silver Line opens. Three lines vie for space in one tunnel from Rosslyn eastward, which limits trains on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines.

Metro could relieve the pressure for now by either building a new terminal for the Blue Line at Rosslyn, or a "wye" to let some trains from Tysons go to Arlington Cemetery and farther south in Virginia. But in the long run, Metro needs more capacity over the Potomac River.

Post-2025 solutions with a Rosslyn terminal

The Rosslyn terminal would enable Blue Line trains to terminate at Rosslyn without interfering with the Orange or Silver Lines. This would allow more Orange and Silver trains from Tysons and the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. But it also means that all Blue Line riders going to DC would need to transfer at Rosslyn or Pentagon.

That solution might work for a few years, but if Metro ridership continues to grow, the Rosslyn terminal would need to become the first phase of a new Potomac crossing.

A separated Blue Line: Metro could easily expand a Rosslyn Terminal into a new line to DC. A likely path would take the line under the river to Georgetown and then east into the downtown core.

In addition to the 26 trains per hour (TPH) running between Rosslyn and Downtown on the Orange/Silver subway, an a separated Blue Line to Georgetown and into downtown would allow 12-16 additional trains to cross the Potomac at Rosslyn.

This would increase the number of trains running between Virginia and DC per hour during the peak from 40 to 52.

However, because the Blue Line shares with the Yellow Line, the new subway across downtown Washington would only be able to operate at roughly half of its maximum capacity. That's probably fine in terms of ridership for a while (and off-peak for much longer), but in order to get the full potential out of the new line, it would need to be separated from the Yellow Line.

A separated Blue Line could also allow for more service on the Green Line through the Waterfront or Capitol Riverfront areas, which are quickly adding jobs. Metro could get some additional Green capacity by shifting some Huntington trains to the new Blue subway via Rosslyn (a sort of reverse Rush Plus).

Shifting some Huntington trains to run through Rosslyn would not increase the number of trains crossing the Potomac beyond what could cross under the first separated Blue Line scenario, but it would enable more service on the Green Line.

Two new subways?

What about both a separated Blue Line and a separated Yellow Line? Two new subways in the core would be very expensive. But if Metro wants to maximize the capacity on its system, it has to separate each line in the core.

One way to do this is to build a new terminal for the Blue Line at Pentagon. The Blue Line could have its own platforms, and trains from Franconia-Springfield (now all colored Yellow, or perhaps a new color) and Huntington would all cross the 14th Street bridge.

This would also have the advantage of reducing the amount of interlining in the system. With the lines no longer sharing with each other, delays wouldn't cascade across multiple lines if a train were to break down or some other mishap were to occur.

But the real issue is being able to have the flexibility to balance trains across the different lines. Right now, the Blue and Orange must be balanced based on ridership demand, as do the Green and Yellow. The problem is that Metro is bumping up against the absolute capacity of both subways.

With just a separated Blue, there would still be demand for a direct trip across the 14th Street Bridge. And once that demand outstrips Metro's ability to provide supply, Metro won't be able to do anything (because the Yellow shares with the Green). With just a separated Yellow, service between Pentagon and the western side of downtown is constrained by demand for the Orange/Silver.

At some point in the future, if Metro keeps growing, it may become necessary to build the other separated line. With both a separated Blue and a separated Yellow, the number of trains crossing the Potomac would increase to a maximum of 78.

Other improvements would probably be necessary to enable a full 26 trains per hour to run on the Green Line. It's not clear if the terminals at the end of each line could handle turning 26 trains each hour. Metro would probably need places for trains to turn around short of the terminals, like the pocket tracks at Silver Spring and Grosvenor on the Red Line. Alternatively, Metro could look into rebuilding the terminals, Branch Avenue and Greenbelt, with more capacity.

It's hard enough to say if we can get one new subway by 2040, given the funding picture today. But a second new subway might be in the cards farther down the line, and now is the time to start planning for it.


Metro beyond 2025: Possible futures with new connections

Last week, we talked about plans to give Metro the capacity it needs to get through 2025. What about beyond? The primary issue after 2025 will be cross-Potomac capacity.

Photo by the author.

Metro will likely choose to build, hopefully by 2025, either a new terminal for the Blue Line at Rosslyn that doesn't share tracks with the Orange or Silver Lines, or a "wye" so trains from Vienna and Tysons can turn toward the Pentagon.

However, neither solution increases the number of trains that can cross the Potomac River. Metro will need to start planning for the next phase very soon, since it takes so long to plan and build transit. Also, Metro's plan beyond 2025 could influence which of the options (terminal or wye) it chooses for 2025. Let's look at how Metro might expand its core capacity starting with each of the 2 primary Rosslyn alternatives.

Post-2025 solutions that go with a Rosslyn wye

Without construction in the core, a Rosslyn wye alone can't add any cross-Potomac capacity. Metro could build a second wye at Pentagon, for trains from Vienna and Tysons to cross the 14th Street bridge. However, the 7th Street tunnel, which carries the Green and Yellow Lines through downtown, can't take any more trains.

Wyes at Pentagon and L'Enfant: If Metro builds a total of 3 wyes, at Rosslyn, Pentagon, and L'Enfant Plaza, it could fit a few more trains across the river. Trains from Arlington Cemetery could cross the 14th Street Bridge, then continue east onto the Green Line toward Branch Avenue.

This scenario would let Metro fill unused capacity in the system without building any new trunk lines. However, much of this new capacity would go on the Green Line south of Waterfront station. Customers wanting to get to the downtown area would have to transfer.

It would, however, significantly add service to the growing Waterfront and Capitol Riverfront areas. DC has zoned much of these areas for downtown densities, but instead of the 5 lines that serve downtown or 3 in the Golden Triangle, this area has just one. This option would beef up service there, though many of the people riding there would want to come from downtown, and this doesn't boost that connection.

To absolutely max out capacity, Metro would need to run a line, like the lime-colored line on the map above, from Franconia to Branch Avenue. It's not completely necessary, but it would allow more full use of the capacity.

Unfortunately, this would increase the amount of interlining in the system, because trains would be running across multiple lines. The complex scheduling it would take to run this sort of service pattern might actually lower the total number of trains Metro can run through a tunnel.

This scenario would increase trans-Potomac capacity from 40 to 52 trains per hour, or just to 46 TPH without the Franconia-Branch Avenue Line.

Pentagon wye and separate Yellow Line: Metro has talked about building a separate tunnel for the Yellow Line. It's not clear where it would go yet. It could run north along 9th or 10th Street, or it could run east toward Capitol Hill before turning north.

This subway would separate the Yellow and Green Lines. That would allow Metro to run additional Green Line service between Greenbelt and Branch Avenue, including more service between downtown and the Waterfront/Riverfront areas.

It would also allow more service across the Potomac by decoupling the Green and Yellow Lines. However, since the Yellow Line shares tracks with the Blue south of Pentagon, this new subway would not be used to its full capacity.

Metro could get some additional capacity by routing some trains from Tysons via Arlington Cemetery over the 14th Street Bridge and into the new subway, if it built a wye at Pentagon. This would increase service across the Potomac to 52 TPH. Without the line running from Tysons through Arlington Cemetery, that would drop to 46 TPH.

Splitting Yellow Line service: Another option Metro studied for the Yellow Line is a new tunnel through the Capitol Riverfront, past the Capitol, and north to Union Station. This would increase service at Union Station, a major bottleneck, and give riders two ways to get downtown from the Waterfront/Riverfront area.

However, a lot of the riders in Alexandria and southern Arlington don't want their train to go so far east. They want to get to the 7th Street corridor. Therefore, Metro studied the idea of splitting the Yellow Line, with some trains taking their current path through L'Enfant Plaza and Archives while others would go to Union Station.

This operating plan makes a lot of sense with the Rosslyn wye, because those trains can fill the "gap" left on the 14th Street Bridge by Blue Line trains running north toward Rosslyn. With a new path for some Yellow trains, there would be room to add more Green Line service.

This approach would allow 52 trains per hour to cross the Potomac.

Tomorrow, we'll look at another set of long-term solutions, which Metro might pursue if it builds a new Blue Line terminal and then can send the Blue Line across the river toward Georgetown.


Metro's stuffed full at Rosslyn. What can be done?

When WMATA released its Momentum plan last week, it reopened the conversation about dealing with core capacity. By 2025, the plan seeks to address one of the biggest chokepoints in the system: Rosslyn.

View peak service levels: Pre-Rush Plus   Rush Plus (today)   with Silver Line
Potential 2025 solutions: Rosslyn wye   Blue Line terminal

Metro has to juggle service at Rosslyn, where the Orange and Blue lines merge entering the District from the west, because it faces a structural limit to the number of trains per hour (TPH) that any given section of track is capable of handling. That limit is 26 TPH, or about one train every 2.3 minutes.

The reason for Rush Plus last year was to deal with capacity issues at Rosslyn without undertaking any capital projects. Essentially, Rush Plus was a stopgap measure to get a little more capacity out of Metro. But Rush Plus hurt many Blue Line riders, and without major changes at Rosslyn, even Rush Plus won't be enough.

As ridership increases, Metro has to either find creative ways to move more people throughout the system, without crossing 26 TPH on any segment of track, or expand capacity.

Before Rush Plus

Before Rush Plus started, during peak periods, exactly 26 TPH (the maximum) passed through Rosslyn. Those 26 TPH consisted of 10 Blue and 16 Orange trains.

At Pentagon, those same 10 Blue trains were passing through in addition to 10 Yellow trains. In total, 36 TPH were entering the District from Virginia during the morning rush via Rosslyn and Pentagon combined.

But this left some capacity unused. The Yellow Line bridge was carrying only about 40% of the trains it could carry. As you can see in the diagram below, there was also extra capacity in the Yellow and Green Line tunnel.

This map shows the frequency of service for every line during the peak period. Every track segment is the same width, corresponding to 26 TPH. If 26 TPH pass through at peak, it's "full" with colored lines; if there are fewer trains, there is black space.

After Rush Plus

Once Rush Plus took effect, those numbers increased slightly. At Rosslyn, the numbers are now 19 Orange and 7 Blue, which is still 26 trains per hour. But at Pentagon, in addition to the 7 Blue trains running via Rosslyn, there are now 13 Yellow trains. That means a total of 39 TPH are entering the District from Virginia during the morning rush.

Since the number of trains is the same at Rosslyn as it was before, Metro could have kept the number of Blue and Orange trains the same, and just added new Yellow trains. But adding trains from Virginia was only part of the equation. Metro was also attempting to address the severe crowding on the Orange Line and paving the way for the Silver Line. As a result, Metro traded some Blue Line trains for Orange ones.

When the Silver Line begins operating, some of the Orange trains will have to become Silver trains, in order to keep the total number passing through Rosslyn at 26 TPH.

Cross-Potomac capacity will be maxed out

One of the biggest constraints with Metro is getting trains between Virginia and DC. There are 2 Metro crossings of the Potomac: a tunnel for the Blue/Orange lines and a bridge for the Yellow Line.

Each of these crossings has a capacity of 26 trains per hour, for a total of 52. However, because the Yellow shares with the Green Line, the Yellow Line bridge can only carry 26 TPH minus however many trains per hour are running on the Green Line (at present, 12 TPH).

This means that there are 14 slots available for the Yellow Line to cross the Potomac. Right now, the Yellow Line is taking 13 of those slots during rush hour: 10 for trains running between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square and 3 for trains running between Franconia and Greenbelt.

When the Silver Line opens, Metro's plan will be to redirect one more Franconia train to Greenbelt. This will mean cross-Potomac capacity will be maxed out at 26 TPH through the Rosslyn tunnel and 14 TPH over the Yellow Line bridge, for a total of 40 TPH between Virginia and DC.

Through 2025, those 40 trains are probably enough. But there's another problem: now there aren't enough trains running between Pentagon and Rosslyn. Riders from south Arlington, Alexandria, and southern Fairfax have long waits to get a train to Rosslyn, the Orange and Silver corridors, or to reach stations like Foggy Bottom without a transfer.

How can Metro fix Rosslyn?

Metro wants to address the Rosslyn chokepoint soon. It's one of 7 capital items in the "Metro 2025 recommendations of the Momentum plan.

Planners haven't decided on a specific solution yet, but are studying 2 options. One would build a "wye" at Rosslyn, a track connection so that trains from Tysons or Vienna could turn south and head for Arlington Cemetery, and vice versa. The other option is to build a new station at Rosslyn with separate platforms for the Blue Line.

The wye at Rosslyn would also let Metro add rail service between the Blue-Yellow corridor and the Orange-Silver corridor. Some trains going through Arlington Cemetery would go toward downtown, as the Blue Line does today, while some trains would turn west and run through Ballston and Tysons.

This approach would likely mean a good deal of disruption for Orange and Silver line riders, since Metro would need to build new underground connections to the line between Rosslyn and Court House. It would also permanently limit the number of trains between Court House and downtown DC, because some of those slots would go to the Blue Line and the new north-south all-Virginia line.

But this would also give riders a one-seat ride from Tysons to Pentagon and points south. It would also build a little more redundancy into the system, allowing trains to divert to the south in the case of track work, a disabled train, or other disruptions.

The real issue, though, is that this project only allows for a small increase in the number of trains, and does not increase the number of trains between Virginia and the District. It also would mean that some trains wouldn't stop at Rosslyn, forcing those actually heading there to wait for a later train or transfer.

Under the wye scenario, the service pattern would probably look something like this: 14 Yellow trains crossing the 14th Street Bridge (4 of them from Franconia) each hour during the peak; 5 TPH on the Blue Line between Franconia and Largo via Rosslyn; 10 TPH on the Orange Line from Vienna into DC; and 11 TPH on the Silver Line from Tysons. This still adds up to 40 TPH between Virginia and DC. In addition, the wye would enable 5 completely new TPH between Pentagon and Court House.

A new Blue Line terminal at Rosslyn involves building new, separate tracks at Rosslyn, possibly in a new station next to the old one, that would become the new end of the Blue Line. Blue Line trains could stop and turn around without interfering with the Orange and Silver trains going to Foggy Bottom, and Blue Line riders could transfer to either direction of those trains at Rosslyn.

A new Blue Line station at Rosslyn would allow even more trains between Pentagon and north Arlington12 TPH, compared to 10 for the wye.

It would require passengers to transfer to the Orange or Silver lines to get to downtown or west toward Ballston and Tysons. But it would also form the first step toward a separated Blue Line through downtown. If and when Metro is able to build that, it could simply extend the new tunnel under the Potomac and beyond. If WMATA thinks a separate Blue Line will be the long-term approach, this solution might be more attractive.

Another advantage to a Blue station at Rosslyn is that it reduces the amount of interlining in the system. That should have a positive effect on reliability, because a delay on the Blue Line won't affect the Orange or Silver lines, or vice versa.

Note that we don't know which trains will go to Franconia or Huntington under this or any other future plan, or how many and which trains will go to New Carrollton vs. Largo vs. turn at Stadium-Armory. Since all trains to those destinations come from the same track, it's not an operational issue, just a question of balancing simplicity with convenience and being fair to riders on each branch.

Transferring can be painless

If Metro does go with the new Blue Line station at Rosslyn, they can help make transferring painless by getting the design of the new station right.

Cross-platform transfers are more commonplace in some cities. Montreal, for example, has 2 in their Metro system, Lionel-Groulx and Snowdon. New York has many, especially between local and express services on each line.

A 4-track stacked Rosslyn station would allow passengers from an inbound Blue Line train to simply walk across the platform to board an inbound Orange or Silver train. To transfer from an inbound to an outbound, the passenger would just have to go downstairs or upstairs.

The station could look something like this:

A Rosslyn design with cross-platform transfers. Graphic by the author.

It would be more expensive, but in terms of simplifying riders' ability to transfer, it could be worth it to build a new Rosslyn station with 4 tracks.

On the other hand, such a station would cost more, and would disrupt all service through Rosslyn during construction, just as the wye would, while a separate station could avoid interfering with Orange and Silver service.

But any new station will be there a long time, and riders may regret making it more difficult to transfer. After all, many riders still suffer from the lack of a direct connection between Farragut North and Farragut West (a tunnel that Metro proposes to complete as part of their 2025 plan).


WMATA wants longer trains, more tunnels, better service

WMATA hopes to lengthen all its trains to 8 cars, add pedestrian connections at downtown stations, and maybe build new rail tunnels for the Blue and Yellow Lines in the region's core. That's part of a strategic plan which its media relations team showed only to the Washington Post this week, and which board members will see at a meeting today.

The potential for new downtown tunnels (left) and connections between existing lines (right).

More broadly, the agency will focus on safety, service quality, better regional mobility, and its own financial stability in the strategic plan. Besides a set of still somewhat amorphous connections and service improvements, the plan calls for building a system where riders can more easily "plan, pay, and ride" in a smoother customer experience.

The big money, up to $20 billion, in the plan would be for tunnels to separate the Blue Line at Rosslyn and the Yellow Line at L'Enfant Plaza, the two major chokepoints, as part of a vision for Metro by 2040. Silver Line trains from Dulles Airport could also turn at Rosslyn to go toward Arlington Cemetery, then stop at Pentagon before crossing the Yellow Line bridge into DC.

Map by the author, from 2009.

By 2025, Metro wants to have the railcars and power stations to run all trains with the full 8 cars. It would like to build pedestrian tunnels to link Farragut North with West and Metro Center with Gallery Place, and a train tunnel so that some Dulles trains can go down to Franconia-Springfield, which would relieve some of the immediate Blue Line problems of Rush Plus, which will only get worse once the Silver Line opens.

Potential connections between existing lines (left) and stations (right).

WMATA Media Relations team makes transit supporters' task harder

This plan covers a lot of ground, and is at times very detailed yet at others quite vague. I wasn't able to get all of the details, because WMATA decided to give an exclusive look at the plan to the Washington Post.

This has been the agency's practice every since Barbara Richardson, Lyn Bowersox, and Dan Stessel took over at WMATA communications and media relations. This isn't a matter of blogs versus traditional media, though that's been an ongoing problem as well; WMATA also does not tell the Washington Examiner about its major initiatives.

This seems inappropriate, and really disrespects the journalists and bloggers who care about transit in the region. It's also pretty foolish, because it forces others to write about the plan in a more hurried way than they otherwise would.

WMATA planning head Shyam Kannan spent an hour talking to me after midnight last night, and this post was still not done by 4:30 am as a result. Still, there are plenty of questions I did not have time get answered.

What will happen with Union Station and commuter rail?

While the plan goes into a fair amount of detail about how there could be a second Pentagon station for the trains making the new track connection, the plan does not talk about whether the new lines would serve Union Station, the system's biggest point of overcrowding. It seems obvious for any separated Blue Line to go there.

One of the biggest opportunities to improve regional travel would be to let MARC trains reach L'Enfant Plaza, where riders can transfer to all four lines that don't serve Union Station, and onward to Virginia. Unfortunately, perhaps bowing to political realities, the plan just calls for WMATA to play a role of supporter and advocate.

Finally, the plan shows some diagrams with vague arrows depicting potential extensions to the ends of lines, regional transit in the suburbs, and streetcars crossing the river:

Vague arrows showing possible line extensions (left) and surface transit connections (right).

All of these ideas and more were part of a study WMATA has been working on for a few years, called the Regional Transit System Plan. That also included proposals to send the Yellow Line through the rapidly-growing Capitol Riverfront and up to Union Station.

According to Kannan, the RTSP study is still going on, and even many decisions about which routes WMATA wants to pursue in the future are not fully set.

Customer service, trip planning are even more central to the plan

Kannan emphasized that the rail expansions and connections are not the "real meat" of the plan, despite what was in the Post article; instead, it really focuses on "an improved customer service experience today" that will let riders plan, pay, and take transit more smoothly than today. The vision for 2025, which is not far away, is fundamentally about "the completion of a journey to a self-service system. He explained:

Imagine, for a moment, walking into a Metrorail station or a Metrobus platform and not needing to ask for assistance in either route planning, fare payment, and even walking to or from your bus or train. There would be improved lighting so you can read your book, mobile payment options so you can use your smartphone to pay your fare.
With these added services, Kannan said, station agents will not need to sit in their booths all day to handle everyday needs. Instead, Metro could dedicate its staff to "customer-facing ambassadors" who could roam around and help people, and choose people for those jobs best suited to a customer service role, which as we all know is not always the case with today's station agents.

Another big element of this self-service world is better trip planning. Kannan talked about having a "unified regional trip planning technology" so a rider can use a desktop computer, smartphone, or other device, pick where he or she wants to go, and get transit suggestions that could use Metro, commuter rail like VRE or MARC, or regional buses like Ride On and DASH.

The plan describes that as "Provide transit riders with a regional trip planning system that is mobile-device friendly." Hopefully this language does not lead the agency to decide it should issue a procurement for a big IT project to build one single integrated trip planner that works on today's mobile devices, and that's all. WMATA is not in a position to be a good customer-facing software company, and a big contracted software project will build something that will likely be obsolete as soon as it launches.

Rather, the agency needs to offer open data and support open source projects to create the building blocks of trip planning. VDOT funded a grant, which I wrote for Arlington County, to make progress on some open source technology for trip planning. If WMATA can support the efforts of the people who are going to do this work, and other developers who contribute and create other tools of their own, it will do far more to "provide" this kind of "unified regional trip planning technology."

The plan is not very detailed about how to reach this or most other goals, from "Educate the customer about transit coverage and usage in regional emergencies" to "Work with partners to ensure seamless connections between Metro and other transit systems in the region." Those are fodder for future plans. Meanwhile, though, if top management buys in and directs the organization to follow this plan, it can get the 13,000-person organization moving all together in some important directions.

The WMATA board will discuss the document at a meeting today. As usual with WMATA's process, since staff don't release anything until the very last minute before a board meeting, that means board members won't have the opportunity to hear any considered feedback from riders, to the extent they are interested in riders' views, as some are, while others are not.

Matt Johnson and I have also been working on some posts about the core capacity Metrorail proposals, and will try to better illuminate what kinds of tradeoffs Metro faces as it tries to deal with its bottlenecks and overcrowded segments.


Controversial Prince George's TOD bill still on fast track

Prince George's County Councilmember Mel Franklin is still trying to exempt most development projects within a half-mile of transit stations from public meetings and site plan review. Unfortunately, his second hurried attempt at the legislation does not fix the problems which sparked outcry from community and smart growth activists.

Council member Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9). Photo by Prince George's County.

Franklin is placing his revised bill (PDF), CB-79, on the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee agenda for October 17 and is seeking public comment on the bill.

Jim Titus and I discussed the original version of CB-79, and recommended a better way to promote urban-form transit-oriented development (TOD) and preserve public participation. We suggested relying upon the county's existing form-based development code, called Subtitle 27A.

Councilmember Franklin has been one of the more vocal proponents of smart growth and TOD since joining the Council in 2010. He pointedly shunned developer contributions to his campaign when he ran for his council seat, and he actively advocated for more government accountability and "putting the 'public' back in public meetings."

Therefore, many community activists and smart growth supporters were caught off guard by Franklin's rushed efforts to spearhead CB-79 and a companion bill, CB-80, which would exempt transit station area development from the traffic analysis that often requires widening roads around a development.

Franklin (District 9) has two co-sponsors for these bills, Derrick Leon Davis (District 6) and Council chair Andrea Harrison (District 5).

Timing of CB-79 raises transparency and good government concerns

Franklin presented CB-79 and CB-80 with little fanfare on September 25. He originally scheduled both bills for a quick hearing before the PZED Committee, which he chairs, on October 3. However, after receiving a barrage of public opposition, Franklin pulled the bills from the agenda on October 2 and promised to revise them.

In an email sent to concerned parties on October 6, Franklin circulated a proposed second draft of CB-79, and said that CB-80 "ha[d] been pulled for this year and is being substantially revised for consideration next year."

Franklin is placing CB-79 on the PZED agenda on October 17, presumably so it can clear the committee process in time to be introduced as expedited legislation on October 23. That's the last possible date in the 2012 legislative session to introduce zoning bills. Only two more regular legislative days remain in the 2012 session after then: November 6 (Election Day) and November 20.

Franklin's stated goal in introducing CB-79 is to streamline the development review process, thereby making it more attractive to the private sector and luring developers away from sprawl and toward transit. But many community and smart growth activists believe the legislation would encourage shoddy, suburban-style, non-pedestrian- and non-transit-oriented development.

Additionally, many community members have expressed concern that CB-79 is reminiscent of the same type of non-transparent, developer-friendly legislation that has fostered an ethically troublesome pay-to-play development culture in the county. A federal corruption investigation sent the previous county executive, Jack Johnson, his wife, former councilmember Leslie Johnson, and several other county officials and developers to prison in recent years.

In an open email to Franklin on October 2, former councilmember and chair Tom Dernoga excoriated the way the current PZED chair was proceeding with these bills. He wrote:

You "may" have a point about the [need to change the] status quo. However, the manner in which you are handling this is mind-bogging [sic], and raises serious questions in the mind of the public whether land use ethics have been cleaned up from the days of Jack Johnson and his predecessors. ...

Who drafted these bills? What non-County government interests participated in the analysis, drafting and review? I hate to be pointed, but the substance of the bills, combined with the process to this point, make these questions obvious. Any valid policy bases are obscured by the manner in which they are being pursued.

Substantively, Franklin's proposed second draft of the bill cures few, if any, of the problems with the initial version. Indeed, the new draft creates additional complications.

CB-79's "opt-in" language provides little protection to wary communities

The proposed second draft of CB-79 introduces, but does not define, a new term: "expedited transit oriented development." The bill states that areas within a half-mile of Metro or MTA transit stations may be designated for such development in a comprehensive plan adopted and approved by the Council after January 1, 2013. Such plans could include a master plan, sector plan, sectional map amendment, zoning map amendment, or overlay zone.

The purpose of these changes, according to Franklin, is to emphasize that a transit station area can only be exempted from traditional site plan review by "opting in" during a future comprehensive planning process that requires notice and a public hearing.

Despite Franklin's emphasis, however, the Council would still be able to designate an area for "expedited transit oriented development" at the tail end of the comprehensive planning process managed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC).

The Council could overrule the Commission and designate such areas, even the community and M-NCPPC specifically opposed such a designation. Historically, such last-minute controversial Council amendments have been commonplace, and they usually favor developer interests.

CB-79 adopts Subtitle 27A language but limits form-based zoning, accountability, and transparency

In our earlier post, we recommended using the County's existing Subtitle 27A process to achieve Franklin's stated goals for CB-79. The new draft of CB-79 now includes some elements of the Subtitle 27A process within its text. While this may seem like a good idea at first blush, it actually introduces new and unhelpful complications.

The new draft attempts to graft large portions of Subtitle 27A, the form-based Urban Centers and Corridor Nodes Development and Zoning Code, onto this new and undefined "expedited transit oriented development" process. Specifically, CB-79 would require all expedited TODs to adhere to the use restrictions and to the building envelope, urban space, recreation, architectural, and parking-and-loading standards of Subtitle 27A.

Unfortunately, CB-79 conspicuously leaves out Subtitle 27A's most important portions: the "regulating plan" and the administrative procedures for permits.

The regulating plan sets out the shapes of buildings, setbacks, street types, and more for each type of the station area. M-NCPPC, the public, and the Council create the regulating plan through a collaborative and comprehensive public planning process. Without a regulating plan, CB-79 would end up applying building envelope and urban space standards in a vacuum.

The administrative procedures provide for advance public notice and appeal rights, which are essential accountability tools that keep public officials and developers honest, while still permitting a streamlined permitting procedure. By doing away with this, CB-79 would upset the proper balance between speed and accountability. And it would do so in precisely the non-transparent way that candidate Mel Franklin argued against during his run for public office.

CB-79 would end up limiting the public's ability to participate in the review of essential and profitable development projects. That's a dangerous move for a county with such a torrid (and recent) history of developer and public official corruption.

Subtitle 27A provides more accountability and less chance for mischief than CB-79

Councilmember Franklin has stated that CB-79 will strongly incentivize private sector investment in the redevelopment of the county's long-neglected station areas by shortening and creating more certainly in the development process. But the reality is, the county already has legislation that accomplishes those worthy goals in a much better reasoned and sensible way. It's called Subtitle 27A.

Addison Road Metro Station. Photo by the author.

Form-based zoning under Subtitle 27A was developed by the professional planning staff of the M-NCPPC, with the assistance of three reputable outside consulting firms over the course of multiple years, at significant expense to the county and M-NCPPC. It has been available to the County Council for more than 2 years. Yet this Council has taken no action to develop regulating plans for any of the county's 15 Metro station areas.

In 2011, M-NCPPC began a series of public meetings designed to educate the public about TOD plans for the Blue Line Corridor in the central portion of the county, along Central Avenue (MD-214). The eventual goal of that process is to facilitate implementing Subtitle 27A at the 4 Metro station areas along that corridor (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Morgan Boulevard, and Largo Town Center).

Before concluding that additional legislation such as CB-79 is needed to properly spur development at Metro stations, shouldn't the county at least implement and then properly evaluate Subtitle 27A?

In a future post, I will explore other ideas that will help to incentivize urban TOD in Prince George's County. For now, though, please take council member Franklin up on his invitation to submit additional public comments on CB-79. You may do so by emailing the Clerk of Council at, with a copy to Franklin at It's also a good idea to send your comments to your own council member, if you are a county resident.


How will Rush Plus affect Blue Line commuters?

On Monday we discussed how Rush Plus would affect the Yellow Line. If you commute on the Blue Line, you'll be in for some changes too.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

The primary reason for Rush Plus is to allow more Orange Line trains to go through Rosslyn, which is currently maxed out. This will also make way for the Silver Line to Tysons, whose trains will also need to go through Rosslyn.

In essence, 3 Blue Line trains per hour in each direction will now travel across the Yellow Line bridge, and will now be labeled Yellow Line trains.

These trains will run all the way from Franconia-Springfield to Greenbelt. Riders from Alexandria and southern Arlington going to the eastern side of downtown DC or the mid-city will have shorter, transfer-free trips and more frequent service. But those traveling toward northern Arlington or the western half of downtown will see fewer trains.

Will my commute be longer?

Your commute might get a little longer if you commute between certain pairs of stations, but no one's commute should increase by more than 6 minutes.

If you commute between Franconia-Springfield or Van Dorn Street and any station that is both north of Pentagon and west of Metro Center, your commute might be longer under Rush Plus.

Why "might"? Only 30% of Blue Line trains will switch to the Yellow Line, so you'll only be affected if the next train leaving after you reach the station is one of those. The other 70% of trains will see no change.

Blue Line trains currently leave Franconia-Springfield every 6 minutes during rush hour (10 trains per hour). That won't change, but the destination of 3 of those trains will be Greenbelt rather than Largo. Here's the morning rush hour schedule for trains departing Franconia-Springfield. Trains shown in yellow will be Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt starting Monday, June 18.

Graphic by the author.

Let's look at an example

Let's say you commute from Franconia-Springfield to McPherson Square.

If you normally catch the train that leaves Franconia at 8:04, your commute will be the same as it is today. Your commute will also be the same if you normally get the 8:16, although you might notice more crowding. That's because with the 8:10 becoming a Yellow Line train, some people will wait for this train who would have caught the 8:10.

But if you usually ride the 8:10, that train won't be a Blue Line train anymore, starting on Monday. You could either take this train, or wait for a Blue Line train. Which is better?

Currently, pre-Rush Plus, you have 2 options for getting from Franconia to McPherson Square by train. If you stay on the 8:10 train the whole way, you'll pass through Rosslyn and then arrive at McPherson Square at 8:44.

You could also get off the 8:10 Blue Line train at Pentagon, hop across the river on the Yellow Line, then change back to Orange or Blue at L'Enfant. That would get you to McPherson Square 9 minutes later, at 8:53.

Under Rush Plus you'll also have two options, but they will be different. If you just stay on the 8:10 train, you'll cross the Potomac via the Yellow Line bridge and arrive at L'Enfant Plaza, where you'll transfer to a Blue or Orange train. This option will get you to McPherson Square at 8:46, 2 minutes later than you do today.

You also have the option of getting off the 8:10 train at Pentagon and waiting 6 minutes for the next Blue Line train. That would get you to McPherson Square at 8:54 8:50, 6 minutes later than you do today.

That's to get to McPherson Square, but each destination station is a little different. If you commute from Franconia to Smithsonian, you'll be saving 6 minutes over your commute today. But getting to Rosslyn will take 6 minutes longer.

The bottom line: Take Yellow or wait for Blue?

If you're taking Metro from Franconia to Foggy Bottom, or any station in Virginia north of Pentagon, it will be faster to take the Blue Line, even if that means waiting 6 minutes for the next train. On the other hand, if you're commuting to Farragut West or any station farther east, and the next train is a Yellow, then taking the Yellow and transferring at L'Enfant will be faster.

From Franconia-Springfield or Van Dorn Street, if a Blue train is next, take that. If you're going somewhere east or north of L'Enfant Plaza, transfer to a Yellow Line train at Pentagon.

In terms of winners and losers, Metro Center appears to be the divide. If you're headed somewhere west of Metro Center and north of the Pentagon, if your train is one that is now Yellow, your commute will get longer. If you're going to somewhere east of Metro Center, and your train is one that becomes a Yellow, Rush Plus will be making your trip faster.

Get more information

If you're curious about the specifics of your commute, use Metro's Trip Planner. Entering June 18 as your travel date will show the Rush Plus schedules.

If Rush Plus impacts your schedule negatively, you might be able to adjust for it by sleeping 6 minutes later or getting up a touch earlier. Another option will be Metrobus routes 9E and 10E, which are being extended to Rosslyn to help Blue Line riders.

The key to making Rush Plus work for you is planning. So take some time before Monday's rush hour to look at the Trip Planner.

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