Barring any major changes to current funding trajectories, the region’s Metrorail system will face more crowding and less reliability in coming years, which could stunt growth in transit ridership for decades to come.
That prediction was one of the main highlights of a recent Transportation Planning Board analysis of the region’s Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan, or CLRP, a document that spells out all of the major transportation improvements planned to be funded and implemented between now and 2040.
In its analysis, the TPB assumed that Metro railcars and station platforms would become so overcrowded, primarily in the system’s core -- downtown Washington and parts of Arlington -- that Metro wouldn’t be able to accommodate a portion of anticipated growth in ridership resulting from future population and job growth.
The TPB also assumed that a lack of funding commitments from Congress, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia for ongoing maintenance of the system beyond 2020 would result in diminished system safety and reliability. That would further limit the number of people who could or would use Metro to travel to and from work each day.
In all, the TPB estimates that about 32,000 trips a day, around 12% of the ridership growth that would otherwise be expected -- and a conservative estimate, according to TPB planners -- would be pushed into non-transit modes, mainly driving.
The TPB first put the so-called “capacity constraint” in place in 2000, when a backlog of deferred maintenance was steadily accumulating and evidence of future crowding on some lines and at some stations in the system’s core was starting to emerge.
In 2008, Congress acted to supply Metro with $150 million a year through 2020 to support an aggressive rebuilding effort, known as Metro Forward, so long as the three state-level jurisdictions together supplied an equal matching share. Metro will require the same level of funding or more in order to keep the system in a state of good repair going forward. Metro’s latest forecasts also foresee significant crowding in coming years, suggesting that four of five lines to and through the core will become “congested” or “severely congested” by 2040, compared to just one today.
This year, the TPB is undertaking a major update to the CLRP. New federal law, enacted in 2012, requires metropolitan areas to show that their long-range plans keep highway and transit systems in a state of good repair. As a result, the TPB will be working to ensure that adequate funding is available to sustain existing maintenance efforts beyond 2020 and that some critical core capacity improvements to alleviate future crowding are included in the plan.
In the summer of 2013, Metro unveiled a number of proposed core capacity improvements, including running all eight-car trains during rush hour, expanding mezzanines and adding fare gates and escalators at the busiest stations to handle more riders, and implementing priority bus treatments on a limited number of key, high-ridership bus corridors. The proposals were included in Metro 2025, one of the main components of Metro’s new strategic plan, known as Momentum.
The price tag for all of the proposals in Metro 2025 is big -- around $6 billion over the next 11 years. It would require significant additional funding from state and local governments, beyond what will be required to sustain adequate maintenance. If the state and local governments can agree to fund the package of core capacity improvements, or some portion of it, they will have taken a big step forward in accommodating the region’s future growth, supporting increased transit ridership, and achieving some of the region’s most important economic and environmental goals.