Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Summer Reading List

By Marc Korman.

Find yourself with some free time this summer? Taking a vacation? Waiting in METRO due to delays with nothing to do? Let me recommend The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro by Zachary M. Schrag.


Schrag’s book is a comprehensive history of the METRO, but also the region’s entire transportation grid and the battles that have accompanied it. Some of those battles continue today with the Dulles Rail Line debate and our own Purple Line. The rapid growth of Washington, DC during and after World War II, combined with the mass transit vision of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, triggered the early plans for METRO. The federally triggered idea led to regional cooperation and coordination on transportation issues for the first time. The vision for the agency that became the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which runs METRO today, was a much more ambitious plan for a regional compact on a number of planning issues. But as the clock ticked on Congressionally imposed deadlines for METRO, the broader vision was abandoned in favor of a rail transit only (eventually expanded to bus as well) authority with no ability to raise its own funds. That decision, necessary to get all of the jurisdictions to sign off quickly, left METRO forever dependent on the federal, state, and local government.


Schrag spends a great deal of time focusing on Washington, DC and the long fights between advocates of highways and transit. But since the METRO was largely designed to bring in suburban workers there is also plenty of material about Northern Virginia, Prince George’s, and Montgomery Counties. For example, when what became the Red Line was initially being discussed, one possibility was terminating the western half at Pooks Hill in Bethesda and the eastern half would turn from Silver Spring and go on to Rockville. That would have left the rest of the stations on that half of the Red Line, as well as a long stretch of 355, without METRO service. As early as 1976, when the METRO first began operating, then-Montgomery County Executive Jim Gleason sought a study of a “circumferential line,” which today we call the Purple Line.

Schrag also offers an extensive section on development around METRO stations, one of METRO’s early goals, favorably comparing the development in Bethesda and Silver Spring to the less developed areas around Northern Virginia’s METRO stations. Of course, Maryland’s work is not done. Several METRO stations in Maryland could use further development and are not yet the walkable communities some had envisioned. The effort is not complete in Bethesda. While Schrag discusses the Bethesda Metro Center as a victory, recent Washington Post articles and MPW posts show there is still work to be done.


The most sobering part of the book is how little has changed. From the day it opened, METRO was hopelessly underfunded as WMATA quickly realized it would not be able to pay for operations and maintenance, let alone repay the original capital costs, from fares alone. Right from the start METRO was also dealing with Congressional interference. Although early federal support was crucial to METRO planning, by the late 1960s Kentucky Congressman Bill Natcher, Chairman of the DC Appropriations Subcommittee, was blocking all federal funding for METRO until a new bridge was built between Virginia and Georgetown. Only a broad coalition of reform minded Democrats and moderate Republicans spoke up for the right of the local governments to decide their own transportation plans.

Today, conservative Republicans are holding up much needed funds for METRO by objecting to legislation that would provide $1.5 billion in sorely needed capital funds for METRO in exchange for Maryland, Virginia, and DC establishing a fixed funding mechanism. They consider the capital funding bill an unnecessary earmark, despite how important METRO is to moving the federal workforce, and the many contractors it relies on, to and from work each day. Ironically, the capital funding bill is just a replay of a 1979 bill which authorized $1.7 billion for METRO, but those funds were appropriated in such small amounts over such a long period of time, it delayed the completion of the original METRO system and led to large cost increases.


I read a large chunk of Schrag’s book while sitting in delays on the MARC train and METRO. Like myself, Schrag has a lot more love for mass transit than it sometimes deserves given the constant delays and broken escalators that can infuriate riders. And while the system can be improved, Schrag also reminds us to think about what our transportation grid would be like if we did not have a 100 mile mass transit system with over 800,000 trips ridden on it each day.