Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Make No Little Plans II

Yesterday I prefaced the introduction of my transit plan for the Washington region with a discussion of issues facing commuter rail in the area. In the face of these issues, I have formulated a potential system expansion plan. Below I will elaborate on the different aspects of my plan.

I will note once more, however, that this plan is constrained by a sense of feasibility and political palatability. At the same time, it is clearly beyond the current resources of the region. Yet, in my opinion, it represents a possible and desired outcome which could be achieved. I chose the segments of the rail system based on today’s circumstances and tomorrow’s potential. That is to say that I limited my proposal to what could be supported today rather than what will be needed two decades from now.

My Plan

Under my plan, I make no assumptions about operating agencies, but I do propose that a unified system will be created with cross-system fares and a common naming/numbering system.

The system’s main function is to bring commuters into the central business districts in both Washington and Baltimore. The system also has a major role in linking the cities themselves. Additionally, service to Annapolis will give Marylanders rail access to their government.

For the most part, existing services are not drastically changed. I’ve done away with the names for the existing lines because with overlapping routes, it is clearer to define routes in the same fashion as Philadelphia’s regional rail system. At the same time, I will use the present-day names to define particular sections of track—not routes.

New Regional Services

In order to maximize capacity and destinations two new SEPTA-like regional lines will be created. I have dubbed these services M1 (to Baltimore) and M2 (to Annapolis). These trains would use new rolling stock, perhaps similar to the Silverliners used in Philadelphia. Trains would operate at relatively high frequencies in both directions throughout the day. Peak headways would be at a minimum of 15 minutes, with off-peak trains coming at least every 30 minutes. High service levels would make travel between Washington, Annapolis, and Baltimore as easy as travel along existing Metro lines.

Regional Rail Subway
To reduce demand on Washington’s Red Line subway, I propose a two-track subway be constructed from Union Station to Farragut Square. An article in the Washington Post last year reported that the most common trips in the Metro system take place between Union Station and the other downtown Red Line stations. A commuter rail subway would alleviate overcrowding and reduce travel time for commuter rail customers. Connections exist to the Washington Metro at Archives, Metro Center, and Farragut Square.

Washington-Baltimore
North of Union Station, both Regional Rail Tunnel services operate along the Northeast Corridor to New Carrollton, where M2 services to Annapolis split off. Lines M1 and M2 travel together to BWI, their last common station. Some improvements would probably be needed along the corridor, including new platforms (high-level) and additional tracks. This section of America’s busiest passenger rail line is currently only 3 tracks. In order to increase service, at least on additional track will probably be needed.

At the Camden Line overcrossing, M1 services curve to the northeast to run with M4 services into Camden Station. Along the Penn Line, M3 services continue toward Penn Station, using improved tunnels. These tunnels are a major bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor, and are in need of replacement. As part of that project, an infill station would be constructed at Upton, where connections can be made to the Baltimore Metro.

Along the Camden Line, additional tracks could be constructed as needed to allow for additional commuter services. North of the Penn Line crossing, new tracks would need to be constructed to accommodate increased passenger service on the M1 routes which would join and run concurrently into Baltimore.

Howard Street Tunnel
In Baltimore, freight trains travel north through the city under Howard Street in a century-old tunnel. A new freight tunnel is long overdue, and once cargo can be moved to a new tunnel, the Howard Street Tunnel will be available for passenger service. My proposal calls for the establishment of frequent regional rail service through the tunnel.

At Camden Station, new high-level platforms could be constructed under the existing light rail station. Further north, a new subway station for commuter trains would be constructed at Lexington Market, for convenient transfer to both MTA Metro and Light Rail. At the northern end of the tunnel, trains would serve a reopened Mount Royal Station. Trains on the M1 route would then use new tracks to reach Penn Station before continuing along the Northeast Corridor to a new station at North Broadway and along a spur route to Johns Hopkins Bayview.

Washington-Annapolis
In order to connect Washington and Annapolis, a new rail line will be built alongside Route 50 as far as Annapolis Mall. At Route 450, the line would follow the route of an abandoned rail line as far as Washington Street. The line would be electrified and would use the same rolling stock as the M1 line.

A New Concourse
Services operating along the Virginia Lines (V1, V2) still remain mainly commuter-based. Some reverse commute trains are operated, but the population and job density south of Alexandria does not warrant the intensive services that would be operated along the Washington-Baltimore-Annapolis routes.

In order to free up space on Union Station’s lower level for Maryland run-through service, I propose a new concourse be constructed under Columbus Circle. This subterranean terminal could have several stub-end tracks for Virginia trains.

Over the River
The Maryland services not using the Regional Rail Tunnel would either terminate at Union Station or continue south toward Alexandria. The number of trains using the First Street Tunnel would be based on capacity, however all Penn Line (M3) services would continue to Alexandria. Many peak-period trains on the M4 and M5 lines would continue to Alexandria, but some would stop at the present MARC terminal at Union Station.

While the Regional Rail Terminal allows commuter services to access the major office district downtown, but run-through service through the First Street Tunnel gives similar access to the major job centers at L’Enfant Plaza, Crystal City, and Alexandria.

Between Union Station and Alexandria, several capital improvements are needed. I propose a double-decked version of the First Street Tunnel, with lower level tracks leading into the South Concourse platforms. The upper level would accommodate trains operating into the existing lower level. Additionally, a new tunnel would support turnouts for the Regional Rail Tunnel if separate platforms cannot be constructed at Union Station.

From the First Street Tunnel to Alexandria, two dedicated tracks would be constructed for passenger use only. The minimum total width of the railroad right-of-way south of the Tunnel would be four tracks. This widening project would require a new span adjacent to the Long Bridge over the Potomac.

Along the way, new island platforms would be constructed at L’Enfant Plaza and Crystal City. At Alexandria, freight bypass tracks would be constructed and a new pedestrian tunnel would directly linking the commuter platforms with the King Street Metro concourse.

South of Alexandria commuter and regional trains can access a storage facility to be constructed near the existing Metro Alexandria yard. This storage yard will relieve the overburdened Ivy City Yard near Union Station.

Existing Routes and Expansion
In addition to the new routes operating to through the Regional Rail Tunnel, I propose a series of improvements to existing routes. I have already talked about the routings of M3 and M4 (Penn and Camden Lines). In my plan, these services would see an increase in frequencies, although for the M3, that is mainly in the form of limited stop and express service since the M1 will dramatically decrease headways. In addition, infill stations will be constructed on the Penn Line at Severn, Upton, North Broadway, and Chase. The Camden Line will see one extra station at Lansdowne, in southern Baltimore.

As is the current practice, some M3 trains (one-half to one-third) continue north of Penn Station. My plan calls for a further expansion of the Penn Line, by extending it north of Perryville. Trains would operate to Wilmington, Deleware, where a connection could be made to Philadelphia’s regional rail system. Trains operating to Martinsburg on the M5 will be extended to Hagerstown under my plan. The M5 and M55 (spur to Frederick) remain mainly commuter lines, but some bi-directional service would provide access to the job centers in Frederick and Hagerstown.

In Virginia, a short extension of the Fredericksburg Line (V1) to Crossroads is a cheap and easy expansion already being eyed by VRE. I don’t feel that the market exists at present to extend the commuter line to Richmond. Track capacity expansion in Northern Virginia, however, may allow for increased inter-city Amtrak service to Richmond and the Hampton Roads areas. Virginia’s other line, the V2 to Manassas, would be extended to Haymarket and Remington, another expansion being considered by VRE.

The Old Line
I also propose connecting Frederick and Baltimore with limited bi-directional commuter service along CSX’s Old Main Line Subdivision. This rail line would have several stops along the line that marked the beginning of railroading in America.

The Future

I’d love to hear what you think about my plans. I hope that Track Twenty-Nine can become a forum for discussions like this. As I mentioned before, further plans are forthcoming, but this is my first blush attempt at a regional rail plan.

One of the elements that leaves a bit to be desired, though, is a name. I haven’t come up with a catchy name for this proposal yet, but I suppose it’s not absolutely necessary to do so. As far as I’m concerned, this plan is achievable without changing the organizational structure of the region’s commuter rail system.

Whether my proposal proves feasible or otherwise, I have achieved my goal: to contribute to the discussion. I've done my part. Now it's time for you to do yours. So tell me what you think (and tell your elected representatives too).


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Make No Little Plans I

With an ever-increasing growth in transit ridership in our national capital, it is time to consider the future of transportation in Washington. Over the past few weeks several bloggers have introduced transit plans for the region, and I have decided to put mine out there too.

In order to put my proposal in context, I should qualify my candidate projects. It is tempting to assume unlimited funds and total political palatability for transit projects when making fictional transit plan. At the same time, I also wanted to create a plan (or elements thereof) that have a feasible chance of being constructed. And while the strength of any plan like this is its uniqueness, it is often difficult find ideas that are not merely a rehashing of other plans. Yet there is value in showing a potential future. An organization which I was affiliated with in Atlanta uses a similar map to build support for transit funding, and there is much to be said for showing people what we could do with dedicated funding and a little will power.

My plan for the Washington region will be shown in parts, mostly because I’m still finishing up on sections of it. While I’ve been working on the plan for a while, school work and work work have kept me too busy to complete it.

The first part of my plan to be posted here on Track Twenty-Nine is the regional and commuter rail plan. I’m releasing it first simply because it was the first section of my plan to be completed and it represents one of the modes with the greatest potential and some of the greatest limitations.

Before I do so, however, it is necessary to lay some groundwork. After I set out to write a post describing my proposal for a regional/commuter rail system, I realized that the post was too long. So I divided it. This post talks about what we have, ideas for the future, and obstacles to their achievement. The next post will outline my plan. Ideally, these posts would be taken as a unit, but I think they will also stand alone quite well.

Existing System

Washington is currently home to two commuter rail systems. The older is Maryland’s MARC service. This service has been expanded over the years, but dates back to operation by the Baltimore & Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroads. MARC is operated by the state of Maryland’s Mass Transit Administration, which also operates Baltimore’s light rail and metro lines. Service operates from Washington’s Union Station to Baltimore on the Penn and Camden Lines and to Frederick and Martinsburg, West Virginia on the Brunswick Line. Additionally, the Penn Line serves several communities north of Baltimore in Harford and Cecil Counties.

Northern Virginia is served by Virginia Railway Express. Service on VRE dates back to 1992. Trains operate from Union Station to Manassas and Fredericksburg via Alexandria. Virginia’s commuter rail service is operated as a partnership between the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.

In addition to connecting Washington and Baltimore’s central business districts, MARC also serves the job centers of Rockville and Silver Spring. Virginia Railway Express trains make stops in Alexandria, Crystal City, and L’Enfant Plaza before reaching Union Station.

Recently there have been calls to expand Washington’s commuter rail service into a more regional service. Maryland’s MTA has proposed a major service expansion, including service to current VRE stations at L’Enfant and Crystal City. At the same time, VRE has floated the idea of running some VRE trains to Baltimore over current MARC routes.

Others have called for merging the two systems under one operating agency. Cross-regional trains and an integrated fare system could go a long way to reducing congestion and transportation issues in the area. My plan does not make any assumptions about agency organization, although I will not hesitate to suggest that the fewer transit operators the better when it comes to a seamless transit system.

Limitations

Unfortunately, there are some serious barriers to creating such a unified system. Aside from organizational issues, there are physical limitations which must be addressed if a truly regional system is to be created. This is a very brief look at some of the major hurdles.

Capacity
Across the country, the difficulty of adding trains is a common issue. Neither MARC nor VRE own any of their own tracks. MARC trains operate on tracks owned by CSX and Amtrak while VRE uses CSX and Norfolk Southern rails. When it comes to adding new trains, the transit agencies have to work with the owners of the rails. The freight companies are often very reluctant to add trains to their often already overburdened tracks.

In addition, both commuter railways have to store trains in downtown Washington. For MARC, some trains (notably those on the Penn Line) return to Baltimore throughout the day, but the majority of trains end up at Amtrak’s Ivy City Yard. Similarly, all of VRE’s trains are stored at Ivy City during the midday. Right now, however, VRE already is using 100% of its storage space and according to a September 2007 MTA report, MARC has already exceeded their contracted space. Both MARC and VRE, therefore, are unable to add new trains or lengthen existing ones.


Union Station
One of the major obstacles, physically, at least, is Union Station. There is a limited amount of space being shared among MARC,VRE, and Amtrak trains. Union Station has two levels, upper and lower. There are 14 tracks on the upper level, which is accessible only to trains coming from the north. Six more tracks are located on the lower level which is shared by all trains that arrive or depart to the south.

Union Station lower level

Typically, MARC uses 8 tracks on the upper level. Amtrak uses another 6 there for trains operating along the Northeast Corridor and on the Capitol Limited. Of the 6 lower level tracks, VRE usually only uses 2, with Amtrak reserving the remaining 4 for their own operation. If MARC run through service is initiated to Northern Virginia, some MARC trains will need to begin operating through the lower level, reducing capacity for VRE or Amtrak services.

Some expansion of Union Station is possible, albeit expensive. When the station opened in 1907, there were 29 tracks (not related in any way to the title of the blog, which refers to the fictitious Track 29 at New York’s Penn Station). Tracks 1-6 (upper level) no longer exist, instead having been dedicated to other uses, mainly in terms of station operations as far as I can tell from having boarded MARC trains there. Additionally, some space was used for the Metro guideway. The remaining upper level tracks are still in use (and keep their historic numbers too with 7 the lowest). On the lower level, there were originally 9 tracks, although 3 appear to be out of service. It seems feasible to me, therefore, that they could be returned to service if absolutely necessary. Even with 9 tracks, however, the lower level’s trains all funnel down to 2 tracks at the First Street Tunnel.

First Street Tunnel/Long Bridge
Passenger trains from the south reach Union Station by way of the First Street Tunnel under First Street SE/NE. The tunnel only has two tracks, although it widens to 6 as it passes under the Union Station headhouse. The tunnel dates to 1907 and probably warrants replacement, perhaps with a double-deck tunnel, if run through service is to be started. A three or four-track tunnel would allow for additional commuter and inter-city trains.

South of the tunnel, the double track merges with a two-track CSX freight line, becoming a three-track line. Currently only one track is dedicated to commuter use, with peak-direction VRE trains using the track to serve the L’Enfant Station. Southwest of L’Enfant, the tracks pass through a cut which would be difficult to widen to more than 3 tracks.

The Long Bridge from
the front of a VRE train

However, the three-track section is short and leads to a bottleneck at the two-track Long Bridge over the Potomac. The corridor widens once again to 3 tracks on the Virginia side of the river, but the right-of-way is much more generous here and could easily support an extra track if needed. Additional rail service between Alexandria and Union Station could warrant additional capacity across the river, including the construction of a new span between the Long Bridge and Metro’s Yellow Line bridge.

Platform Height
Another obstacle, though not an insurmountable one, deals with the height of station platforms. Just to clarify the terminology, platforms are defined here as either “high” or “low.” High platforms are like those seen on Metro, one need not ascend steps in order to board the rail vehicle. Low platforms, on the other hand, are located at ground level, and passengers must climb stairs in order to get into the railcar.

A high platform at Balto.
Camden Station (above)

A low platform at Manassas

Boarding is expedited by high platforms, but those can’t be located anywhere other than MARC’s Penn Line because of freight traffic, which requires wider clearance than passenger coaches. Since all VRE service is located on freight rail lines, all platforms are low (including all platforms on Union Station’s lower level). Therefore all rolling stock is limited to low platform boarding. Most of MARC’s rolling stock, however (the bi-level and single level cars), is able to be used interchangeably on low or high platforms, but gallery cars, which operate on the Brunswick Line only, can only use low platforms.

If any VRE trains are to operate north of Union Station, they would either have to operate via the Camden or Brunswick Lines, where CSX already objects to additional service, or operate with no stops to Penn Station in Baltimore. But even that plan is problematic. Both Camden Station and Penn Station in Baltimore have high platforms only, so some change would need to be made. Of course, VRE could also replace its entire fleet, but that is extremely unlikely, therefore it can be assumed that VRE trains will continue to terminate at Union Station for the foreseeable future. MARC trains, on the other hand could operate south of Union Station, which is likely in the next few years, and is already in MARC’s plans for the future.

Conclusions

There are many good examples of regional commuter rail systems across the country, but few have the organizational and physical obstacles or unique advantages of the Washington region. Philadelphia is perhaps the most influential American city in regards to my plan, yet their situation is quite different. While Philadelphia does have a mix of low and high platforms, they also have just one operator—not just for commuter rail, but also for the subways, trolleys, and buses. Perhaps the most pertinent point in the Philadelphia case is the system’s unity. Before 1984, there were essentially two separate systems, each with its own downtown terminal: the former Pennsylvania Railroad lines and the former Reading Railroad lines. A subway was constructed in 1984 to connect the endpoints of these systems, creating a new system where each line runs from a suburban Pennsylvania terminus to a suburban Reading terminus.

Of course, it is also true that Philadelphia’s SEPTA is in one state (although through agreements some service operates to adjacent states, similar to existing MARC West Virginia service). Here, a truly unified commuter rail system would effectively be a three-state system, with each state wishing for control, rather than merely contracting to another.

None of this, however, means that the barriers are insurmountable. It does indicate, though, that achieving a system like that of Philadelphia’s or Chicago’s will be difficult and unique. For instance, I doubt that one operator will maintain the system, but that does not mean that schedules and fares couldn’t be coordinated. Furthermore, due to logistical obstacles, a trip from anywhere south of Alexandria to Baltimore will require 2 trains and a change at Union Station (unless one takes Amtrak). But I don’t think any of these obstacles will stop this region. Maryland is already moving forward with plans to find a way to implement Northern Virginia service and with the ever-growing green movement, transit is likely to get a boost. It seems that hurdles or not, metropolitan Washington is getting on board with regional rail.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Washington's Grand Foyer

Washington's Union Station is one of the great spaces of our nation's capital city. The station acts as a glorious entry point for millions of passengers every year, and is a fitting gateway into Pierre L'Enfant's grand city. Prior to the advent of air travel, the station would have been the busiest entry point into Washington, but even Saarinen's futuristic terminal design for Dulles can't match the Beaux Arts building designed by Daniel Burnham.

The station celebrated its 100th birthday in October and is still going strong in a time when many cities have forgotten their long-razed train stations. The building is more than a docking point for trains; indeed it serves as an entertainment and shopping venue and is a must-see for all visitors to Washington. An estimated 20 million people visit the historic station annually.

Union Station plays home to Amtrak's intercity rail services, and is the southern end of the electrified Northeast Corridor, the high-speed rail line running to New York and Boston. Additionally, the station hosts thousands of daily commuters who arrive aboard Maryland's MARC and Virginia's VRE commuter trains. The Washington Metro has a subway station located at the far western end of the concourse on the Red Line.

The station fits very well into L'Enfant's concept of Washington as a grand capital, and its construction was a boon to the furtherance of the City Beautiful movement in Washington. The Station's construction allowed for the removal of the Baltimore and Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroads' terminals and tracks on the Mall. The location of Union Station is merely steps from the Capitol Building, which is framed nicely by an arch near the Metro entrance (below). The intersection of several of L'Enfant's radial avenues and the park-like setting south of Columbus Circle are an excellent example of how public buildings should relate to the urban fabric.

The interior of the station is awe inspiring. Burnham brought to bear the full toolbox of Beaux Arts with Union Station and created a breathtaking space in the Main Hall. This atrium, originally a waiting room for passengers is now home to many restaurants and shops. Further back is the original concourse, which serves as ticketing space for Amtrak. Upstairs, new space has been created for shops and downstairs, in the former baggage and mail room, is a food court. Further toward the rear of the building is the new concourse, where passengers wait to board Amtrak, MARC, and VRE trains. A theater also debuted in the late 1980s on the station's lower level.


The station's role as a transportation hub for the city has been long-lived, but changes are needed to handle increasing passenger levels. Virgina Railway Express (VRE) reports a 16% annual growth rate in passengers since 2000, yet there is no room for expansion at Washington. The main constraint is storage capacity at the Washington Terminal (Ivy City) Yard. Currently VRE operates the maximum number of trains that storage capacity allows, yet some trains already operate full. MARC is in a similar situation, already running two trains to Baltimore for midday storage. Additionally, platform space is limited at Union Station, with 20 usable tracks. Only 6 tracks are available for trains headed south (VRE and Amtrak trains bound for Miami, New Orleans, and Chicago via the Cardinal).

If demand is to be met, major changes are needed at Union Station and the ancillary storage yards. I plan to do a detailed post on potential solutions to this problem as a part of my transportation futures series. So stay tuned.

Regardless of how these issues are resolved, however, Union Station will remain a vital part of Washington's transportation and cultural scene. Burnham's admonition to "make no little plans" is evident in Union Station, after all, it was he that told us "a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence." And that precisely what Burnham's masterpiece does.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Have We Driven the Golden Spike Yet?

I don't think so.

On May 10, 1869, the final spike was driven on America's transcontinental railroad. Since that date, the driving of a golden spike has long signified the completion of a railroad.

Many people in this administration believe that we have completed our nation's transit system. The believe that no further work is necessary, even though several major American cities still have no rail transit infrastructure. For the Bush Administration, however, the golden spike they wish to hammer in place is not to complete a railroad, but to put the final nail in the coffin of transit expansion, as it were.

Earlier this month, Progressive Railroading reported on the Bush Administration's attempt to transfer (steal) money from the transit trust fund. Apparently Mr. Bush wants to reduce the amount of funding for transit well beyond the point of no return. This action, unfortunately, is unsurprising. The White House has rarely shown an interest in alternative transportation since 2000; and it seems that when Bush said he wasn't a "nation-builder" he meant that he wasn't going to help build America anymore. Due to inflation the federal gas tax has been becoming less and less effective at meeting our nation's needs.

Now, instead of doing the manly thing and admitting to the American public that infrastructure investments need to be made and paid for now, Mr. Bush is taking the easy way out. He is stealing from America's future to pay for his political popularity--even though it's too late for him anyway. The fact of the matter is that someone's generation is going to have to write the check to cover Mr. Bush's spending spree, and I'm afraid it's going to be mine.

So I think it's time to reconsider the notion taken as fact by many transportation planners that major heavy rail (and other types too) expansion is at an end. If America is to become a sustainable nation in the future, we are going to have to make significant investments in transit infrastructure. Every American city needs more transit, though some are worse off than others.

At the moment there is little money for transit expansion, but I am confident that that will change with changing political realities. Therefore, I'm taking suggestions on proposals for Washington. What will the transportation future look like here?

If you've got ideas add them as a comment. I'll be following up this post with posts outlining some of my ideas, but I want this to be a broader forum too.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Primarily Obama

Well, I voted today in Maryland's Democratic primary. I thought originally, that since our vote came after Super Tuesday, that it wouldn't matter much, but it seems that I was wrong. At the time of this writing, CNN projects that Senators Clinton and Obama are separated by only 5 delegates. Mr. Obama can be congratulated on winning Virgina with more than 60 percent of the vote.

There is, however, still a long campaign season before the convention in Denver. I hope that Democrats can be united at the end of primary season. I can't afford 4 more years of a Republican administration, and I know many others feel that way.

I was pleased to note that voting still inspires a strong civic spirit in myself. On my way to my polling place this morning, I passed a sculpture I had never noticed before (because I'd never walked down this particular block). It seems designed to reflect the essence of America, and I think it does a good job. I can't get over how ironic it was, however, that I discovered it on election day.

Anyway, Maryland's polls will be staying open an additional 90 minutes tonight because of the inclement weather in the area. So I will be waiting to hear results at 9:30. I think the decision was a good one, too. It took me an hour to take the bus less than a mile from my classroom to the Metro this evening. If I had decided to wait until after class to vote, I might not have made it.

Anyway, here's a toast to democracy. If your opportunity hasn't passed, go vote.

Feeling Blue in the Mid City

Metro announced that a proposal is being put before its board of directors to decide about a potential adjustment of subway service. The proposal has been being kicked around for some time now, and a decision is expected later this year in regards to the Blue Line.

the proposal would send some (just under half) of peak period Blue Line trains from Franconia-Springfield to Greenbelt by way of the Yellow Line's Potomac crossing. The realignment would shave around 8 minutes off of a trip between Franconia-Springfield and L'Enfant Plaza and would increase rail service to the burgeoning east side of Downtown. Unfortunately, it would also decrease frequencies for trips being made from Alexandria to Rosslyn and the busy stations at Farragut Square and Metro Center.

The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock opines in his blog (scroll to 2/11/08-9:11 AM) that this controversial change will instigate a spirited discussion among commuters. He is, without a doubt, correct. However, as an article in today's print edition points out, Metro has little choice in the matter. Rosslyn is the worst bottleneck in the entire transit system and with ever-growing ridership on the Virginia end of the Orange Line, eight-car trains are already full. At the moment, adding trains is out of the question because the junction at Rosslyn is operating at 100% capacity, with a train every 135 seconds (inbound) during the AM peak.

Assuming that the Silver Line is constructed to Tysons and Dulles, the problem will be exacerbated even further. If and when the Silver Line opens, the rerouting of the Blue Line is almost assured. With trains running from Loudoun County to Stadium-Armory, congestion at Rosslyn will be even worse, especially without reducing frequencies on the Blue Line at Rosslyn.

Metro hopes to alleviate congestion at Rosslyn and better serve existing ridership patterns with their proposal. According to WMATA, over the past 5 years, ridership between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza has increased by 13 percent, while ridership between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom has dropped 4 percent.

The change would not result in a reduction of service at Rossyln, however. Each Blue Line train rerouted to Greenbelt (4 per hour) would make room for an additional Orange Line train. Additionally, in order to maintain existing service levels on the Largo Branch of the system, Orange Line trains would alternate between New Carrollton and Largo. Under this proposal, the only station which would see increased headways is the little-used Arlington Cemetery, where wait times would increase from 6 minutes to 12 during rush hours.


According to Metro, because the switch at Rosslyn would not have to be realigned as often, some additional capacity will be gained with the Blue Line's detour. In addition, because less reliance is being put on this bottleneck, reliability throughout the system will be increased, and delays are less likely to spread to other parts of the system. The change comes at no additional cost to Metro, since the route miles are virtually the same.

Still, the fact that this change is required brings to light bigger problems at Metro and with transit in general. Several years ago, a proposal to construct a new Blue Line subway under M Street was killed due to cost concerns. With increasing ridership and ever-fewer FTA dollars, new heavy rail construction is essential. This is a topic I hope to cover later in a new section of my blog devoted to showcasing potential transportation projects. In the meantime, let's hope Metro can find a way to get even more commuters through the Blue/Orange subway.

*WMATA's board is supposed to vote in June on the proposal, after a period of public comment.

I'd like know what you think of the proposal, please leave a comment.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Introducing Bethesda

The section of my blog, Introducing Washington, has gotten off to a rather slow start, but now that I'm back from break the weather can only get warmer. Last weekend I had a chance to explore Bethesda, and I've decided to write this installment on the well-known Washington suburb.

Bethesda takes its name from the Bethesda Presbyterian Fellowship which was built along a former Indian path in 1820. The path was improved to carry tobacco from Frederick to Georgetown and is now known as Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike.


Perhaps the largest boon to Bethesda came in the Summer of 1984 with the opening of WMATA's Red Line to Grosvenor. Passengers from the subway station spill out onto the corner of Wisconsin and Old Georgetown, the center of Bethesda. Here, office and residential high rises dominate the cityscape. The density rapidly drops off, however, as one moves away from the Metro. Within blocks, one can encounter the serenity of quiet single-family neighborhoods.


One landmark near the center of this urban district is a monument to days past. The Madonna of the Trail, erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution, stands to memorialize the spirit of pioneer women. This statue stands in stark contrast to the gleaming office buildings surrounding it. The one on Wisconsin Avenue is the easternmost of 12 of these monuments, which stretch along Route 40 to Upland, California. They were constructed because of the nature of Route 40 in opening up the country. On a side note, I discovered that one of these monuments also stands near my father's hometown of Washington, Pennsylvania--small world, eh?


Bethesda is perhaps known best for its affluence. According to the Census of 2000, it is the most educated city in the United States. The median household income is just under $100,000. Only 3.3% of the population is below the poverty line. The area within 1/2 mile of the Bethesda Metro stop has almost 36,000 jobs, giving it the highest employment concentration of any Maryland WMATA station. The same area has a population density of 8,600 persons per square mile, almost 4 times the density of Montgomery County as a whole.

Another selling point of Bethesda, as it were, is the number of restaurants. While I don't have any hard numbers, the area has a reputation for variety and quality when it comes to eateries. One could spend a week in this neighborhood and not scratch the surface when it comes to restaurants. Dining options and shops line Wisconsin Avenue and other major and minor streets alike. Woodmont Avenue is a particularly good street for people watching and window shopping.

Another asset for this community is the Capital Crescent Trail (the section between Bethesda and Silver Spring is known as the Georgetown Branch Trail). The trail stretches from Georgetown, DC to Silver Spring and is very popular among joggers and cyclists alike. At present, the Maryland Mass Transit Administration has hopes to build a light rail line along the section of the trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring. Ultimately the line could serve as a circumferential rail line encircling Washington, but at the moment, the proposal only takes it from Bethesda to New Carrollton.

From quaint bungalows to shining steel and glass towers, Bethesda is a study in contrasts. It is also a study in urbanism. It is held up as one of the best examples of transit oriented development in the country and the real estate values seem to agree. At any rate, this district has a distinctly urban feel which more edge cities would be shrewd to adopt. All in all, Bethesda is a wonderful asset to the region, and worth a visit, even if just for dinner and a movie.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Come on Ride the Train

My workload was light Friday, so I decided to take a use the beautiful afternoon to take a ride on Virginia Railway Express. This was my first time on VRE, and I was impressed with the operation. VRE is now my second new rail transit system of 2008 (after Charlotte's Lynx). The trains have been running since 1992 and have been apparently attracting ever-larger crowds every year.

I took an early afternoon outbound train from Union Station out to Manassas and back. Perhaps it was just because of Friday's typically earlier rush hour, but the train was fairly popular even though it left Washington at 1:15. And even my return trip saw other seats occupied, though the train was far from full.


Virginia Railway Express is a good example of the ease with which agencies can start commuter rail systems. The system uses simple low-platform stations and many of the cars were surplussed by Metra, Chicago's ├╝ber-commuter system. The trains operate on CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks, which is the case for many systems across the nation. Of course, simple does not mean a lack of service. The seats are plush, the ride smooth, the stations clean.


With fuel prices continuing to rise, I think we will see many new commuter systems start to open. So far, America's newest commuter rail system is the Music City Star in Nashville, but many other areas are considering this relatively cheap technology.


VRE is, of course, no substitute for the Metro, but it is an excellent complement and is a vital part of metropolitan Washington's transportation system. There are many ideas floating around out there for expansion possibilities for VRE and the Maryland counterpart, MARC. I hope to delve more deeply into some of the issues surrounding that in a later post.


And before I close, I have to complement Manassas on a job well done. The historic depot serves VRE trains and Amtrak's Crescent and Cardinal and is in excellent shape. The narrow streets around the city center are well-occupied by storefronts and bustling sidewalks too. I was very impressed with this Prince William County town, I think it would be an excellent place for nice day-long getaway. With VRE, it couldn't be easier to get there either.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Smile, You're on Red Light Camera!

I've been hearing a lot about red light cameras recently. With states continuing to pass legislation that allows their use, they seem to be springing up like dandelions across America's cities.

Many argue that the cameras exist as the modern counterpart to the speed trap. But it seems that the cameras are far from a cash cow for the local governments installing them.

Annually in the United States, approximately 800 people are killed in red light running crashes, and half of those are pedestrians or occupants of the car with the green light. In 2002 alone, over 200,000 crashes and 178,000 injuries occurred due to crashes stemming from red light violations. Indeed, red light running is the leading cause of urban crashes in the United States. Many cities are taking a stand.

Washington, DC saw red light running fatalities drop from 16 to 2 within 2 years of their red light camera program's implementation. Across the Potomac, Fairfax County saw a drop of 44% in red light crashes after installing cameras. According to stopredlightrunning.com violations of red lights in Virginia Beach tripled after the use of red light cameras was suspended.

A former Georgia Congressman, Bob Barr, editorializes that camera enforcement invades privacy and is just about generating revenue. Of course, his comparison between the succession of the Southern states and red light camera opposition is perhaps a little misplaced, but his point is commonplace. The National Motorists Association makes similar points. Still, drivers who obey the law don't need to fear fines, and ideally red light cameras shouldn't generate any revenue. The point of the camera is to reduce, perhaps to zero, the number of red light violations, so when they are working, revenue decreases.

(On a side note about personal freedoms, one wonders if Mr. Barr, who helped lead the effort to impeach President Clinton, would also be opposed to a camera monitoring when the White House had the red light turned on.)

A study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) found that each intersection fitted with camera enforcement saved approximately $38,000 annually in reduced right-angle crashes. This includes the deduction representing the cost of increased rear-end collisions at intersections with red light cameras.

It seems that a multi-prong strategy is the best solution to reducing crashes. A recent report by the Insurance Institute for by Highway Safety shows that Philadelphia had better results by extending the yellow phase (36% reduction in violations) before implementing cameras one year later (96% reduction). Additionally, intersection redesign could help to save lives and prevent injuries. Proposals include adding protected (left on arrow only) turn phases to signals, installing roundabouts, and prohibiting right turns on red.

The debate will likely rage on for years to come, but red light cameras reduce injury, death, and the costs associated with accidents at intersections. Drivers could make these cameras unnecessary by becoming more responsible motorists. After all, a crash occurs at a red light 23 times each hour on average in the United States.

Have an opinion too? Weigh in!