Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpIf we make it through Metro’s SafeTrack repair binge, what will we loyal subway users have gained?

Worst-case scenario: a continually unsafe system underfunded and losing ridership to hipster services like Uber.

So said panelists at the Sept. 14 Arlington Committee of 100 dinner, brainstorming on solutions for a Metro that lost 11 percent of its ridership this spring compared with last year. And that was before SafeTrack started.

“Metro was built in the 1970s and designed for commuters,” said county board member Christian Dorsey, who volunteered (he insisted) after his election to serve on the board of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority. “But today people work in all manner of times and places,” and they also use Metro to play.

Restoring Metro’s reliability is “essential to the region, essential to Arlington,” Dorsey added. Without it, other goals like reducing commercial vacancies and investing in parks are for naught.

Metro is losing out because of safety concerns, Dorsey said. “The way Metro responds is to obfuscate.” The public responds with blogs using names like UnsuckMetro.

The Washington Post “gets criticized for negative stories on Metro,” acknowledged Martine Powers, a reporter for the Post’s transportation and development team. And while such stories attract readers, “there are many engaged people who want Metro to get better.” Candid coverage, she said, can hold Metro accountable for its troubles “so they never happen again.”

Stiffed by Metro and the Federal Transit Administration, the Post this summer filed a Freedom of Information Act request and received audit reports detailing Metro’s defects. Initially reporters were told the problems were small beer, such as a shortage of bathrooms and employees wearing wrong safety vests. But the full audits highlighted dangerously loose fasteners on tracks and parts of the third rail lacking insulation.

Subways in Europe generate more riders, higher revenues and steadier public support than the Washington system, said Ralph Buehler, associate professor in Urban Affairs & Planning at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center. His study of systems in Munich, Vienna, Berlin, Freiburg and Hamburg showed that all delivered stronger per capita passenger growth than D.C.’s.

“They’re multi-modal and regionally integrated with attractive fares,” Buehler added. That’s achieved through higher taxes, restrictions on cars and tough land-use rules. Powerful regional transport associations in Europe have created “a seamless” system dovetailed with bus routes. Ticket revenue from expanded ridership—even with discounts for seniors and students—can cover maintenance costs, the professor said.

While Washingtonians suffered from our two-track subway, the Europeans invested in redundant tracks that allow for ongoing repairs. And Europe’s real-time electronic signs provide accurate train arrival information. Trains are frequent enough that “no timetable is the best timetable,” Buehler said.

Dorsey said Metro’s budget outlook is gloomy. He rejected suggestions that the regional board’s structure stalls progress: “It’s more that the people at the table haven’t figured out an efficient way to govern,” he said.

Yes, long-term solutions may require a dedicated funding source and pricey new infrastructure such as another cross-river tunnel. “But where we are now is not a result of too little money,” he said. What’s needed is a “massive change in culture.”

Start with cleanup of Metro stations that are “disgusting,” Dorsey said, citing trash, bad lighting and walls in need of a power wash. The failure to address this “low-hanging fruit drives me absolutely nuts.”

***

The bulldozers came last week for the 18th-century house reputed to have hosted Dolley and James Madison when they fled the British in 1814.

I joined the half-dozen neighbors, preservationists and former residents of the off-white home to watch the beams and bricks tumble. Though this Minor’s Hill lot sits in Franklin Park, McLean, many locals describe it as Arlington, I was told as we watched the demolition crew clear space for three modern homes.

One onlooker who grew up in the house, Marion Hardy LaRow, told me the family spent two years seeking a preservation-minded buyer. But the taxes and upkeep were a tough sell.

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