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July 30, 2014 Published in Editorials

Transit Troubles

The new Silver Line, which will eventually serve Dulles Airport in Virginia, opened for testing about ten days ago. The Silver Line, which follows the Orange Line for much of its route, seems to be doing okay on its test. The Blue Line, which serves Alexandria, south Arlington and southeastern Fairfax County not so much. That is the story being put out by Blue Line riders who object to continued cuts in service.

The cuts are being made because the Silver Line trains need to use the Rosslyn tunnel under the Potomac. For safety reasons, the number of trains that can use the tunnel is limited. It was at capacity carrying Orange Line and Blue Line trains so those lines had to have reductions to accommodate the Silver Line. The Blue Line seems to have borne the brunt of those cuts.

It would have been better to have built an additional tunnel for the new line but that would have raised costs. Given the number of trains already using the tracks in the District it may not have made a great deal of difference.

Blue Line service had already been cut back in recent years and a graph developed by the riders group shows a marked decrease in numbers of commuters using the line since 2012. Further cuts will result in longer wait times and more overcrowding. The history of transit systems shows clearly that people abandon transit if waits are long, trains are crowded and transfers are increased.

Metro is responding by adding cars to some Blue Line trains, but not all, to help with overcrowding. They are also suggesting the people take the Yellow line and transfer which is a good option for folks who work east of the White House but not so great for those closer to Foggy Bottom.

Metro is also, we suspect, justifying its cuts because Blue Line ridership is falling. The fact that Metro’s own actions may have caused that fall seems to be overlooked.

We are concerned because Alexandria has a major dog in this fight which no one seems to have noticed. City Council is determined to build a Metro Station in Potomac Yard. If Blue Line Metro train service to Alexandria is curtailed and the Yellow Line is less convenient for many, then additional riders will be asked to pack on to already overcrowded trains with long wait and journey times and they simply will not do it.

The assumption for the new Metro Station seems to be: “If we build it riders will come.” We believe if service is not great then riders will not come.

Before the City continues its rush to build this station, they should take a step back and commission an unbiased analysis of what exactly will be the parameters of service that they can expect from Metro in the future. There is no doubt, for example, that Blue Line service will take another hit when the Silver Line is extended all the way to Dulles Airport and beyond in 2018. More Silver Line trains will be needed to maintain the headways and this means more slots will be lost in the tunnel for Blue and Orange Line trains.

There is an element of unfairness here that we do not understand. Southern Fairfax County, Alexandria and South Arlington depend upon the Blue Line for service. These areas are being deprived so that service can be increased to North Arlington and western Fairfax County. At least the counties have tradeoffs within them. Alexandria gains nothing and just loses.

There is little doubt that part of Alexandria’s appeal as a great place to live is access to the Metro system. Curtailing service along the Eisenhower Valley and in the eastern part of the city is not going to help our long term economic growth. It could easily play a role in diminishing development and exacerbating the City’s budget crisis of the next ten years.

While planning for the Silver Line started a decade ago, there are current members of Council who were in office then and should have raised stronger voices in protecting our interests. With only two river crossings, Metro service is a zero sum game and there will be losers. We seem to be chief among them.

Those who are working to “Save the Blue Line” are, unwittingly, doing what our City officials should have been doing during the last decade. If City Council wants to build a Metro Station they better make darn sure that there will be sufficient train service to make it a worthwhile investment.

We think back to the building of the Alexandria Canal in the 1830’s that was completed just as the railways made canal boat transport obsolete. Bankruptcy stalked many in the City. With hundreds of millions of tax payers’ dollars at stake in the new Metro station, we cannot make a similar mistake 180 years later.

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