High-powered Washington, D.C.-based leaders of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority crossed the Potomac to bring their crisp black business suits and impeccable hairdos to the Falls Church City Council’s public business meeting Monday to provide an articulate briefing and take questions from the public on the Metro Rail System’s disruptive but necessary “SafeTrack” program of dangerously overdue repair work.
It reminded some of a scene from the “Men in Black” movies with the dapper agents reporting on a reclusive, misbehaving and unwieldy alien (the Metro Rail System) loose in the area.
But Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board chair Jack Evans, a veteran of the Washington, D.C. City Council, WMATA acting chief operating officer Jack Requa, accompanied by two equivalently outfitted young aides, made the news of most interest to the City of Falls Church when they expressed veritably unqualified support for putting WMATA’s 36 acres beside the West Falls Church Metro station into play for dense commercial development, possibly in cooperation with Falls Church’s designs for its Campus Development Project in the same neighborhood.
F.C. Councilman Phil Duncan kicked off that discussion when he told Evans and Requa that “we have a goldmine here that we could share,” referring to Falls Church’s commitment to develop the 36.5 acres adjacent the West Falls Church Metro, two dozen acres for school and education-related uses and 10.3 acres for potentially, at least, as dense a commercial development as the market can bear.
F.C. Mayor David Tarter noted that WMATA’s 36 acres there includes a structured parking facility “that is a majority vacant on a daily basis.”
Evans conceded the site has “enormous potential,” something WMATA is keenly interested in, given his briefing on the severe revenue shortfalls facing the Metro system now.
He said that Metro “should have taken a portion of the handouts” beginning in the 1960s, when land adjacent Metro stops throughout the 117 mile system (the second largest in the U.S.) was being veritably handed out for almost nothing, a move which Arlington County, in particular, but also D.C., Montgomery County and Prince George’s County have exploited for huge and enduring revenue yields.
The potential still exists at the West Falls Church station because Fairfax County, in its wisdom or not, chose to deliberately decline options for dense development at its Metro stations, until recently, that is. With four new Silver Line stations now operational through Tysons Corner, dense development is being seen by the county as key to its future sources of revenue.
The WMATA property at the West Falls Church station is in Fairfax County but directly contiguous to the Campus Redevelopment Site that was annexed by the City of Falls Church in 2015.
F.C. Councilman Dan Sze said the four acres on Metro’s West Falls Church property now used for surface parking “is a total waste of land.”
Following his lengthy appearance before the F.C. City Council, Evans reiterated in comments to the News-Press the passion that WMATA now has for commercial development on its land, and said that the real estate office and real estate committee of WMATA would be keenly interested in talking with officials from the City of Falls Church.
As for Evans’ report on the condition of his ailing alien, the Metro system, the news is double-edged. The good news is the fresh commitment of WMATA leaders to fix the aging and under-maintained system. All the rest is daunting news centering on funding shortfalls and impending financial obligations falling on jurisdictions, like Falls Church, who benefit from the system.
Evans explained that the two major flaws that attended the original planning for the Metro system in the 1960s were the failure to include third or fourth tracks that are used by other systems to keep them running while repairs are being made, and the idea that the system would pay for itself without the kind of dedicated funding source that all other major systems have, globally.
In fact, he said, the Metro system loses enormous sums every year, not counting special maintenance needs. It has fallen so far behind that it faces a $300,000 million shortfall for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2018 budget, including $100 million per year for the current “Safe Tracks” work, and it is estimated that it will take 10 years of work with $1 billion per year in repairs and upgrades for the system to function fully.
The cost of replacing the outdated rail cars is among the greatest expenses. Many of the cars are still being used that were purchased in the 1960s. Then there is the need to fix the “Rosslyn bottleneck” at $3 to $5 billion to accommodate higher use of the system with the onset of the Silver line. The tunnel from Rosslyn to the District can now handle only 25 trains per hour, but 40 need to get through. Major electrical upgrades are also needed.
On top of all that, the system now is faced with $2.5 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.
The main culprit is the federal government, in particular, the Republican-controlled Congress’ refusal to put a dime into the system even though half of federal employees rely on the system. Regional jurisdictional costs are burdens placed on Maryland, Virginia and the D.C. governments, but as far as Virginia is concerned, the state legislature in Richmond has been unwilling to step up, leaving the burden on Northern Virginia’s local jurisdictions.
“We have now a fully unreliable system that is an embarrassment and a complete drag on the region,” Evans said, even as the District is growing in population to become more than a million, and 22 million tourists visit the region every year.