Washington, DC: Congestion King

The Texas Transportation Institute has released its annual urban mobility report, and Washington, DC once again takes the crown of wasting the most time and fuel per commuter. Though the urban mobility report makes some questionable claims about the congestion relief provided by urban transit, not even DC’s expensive Metro rail system has kept traffic from costing the average DC-area auto commuter $1,400 a year in wasted time and fuel.

Of course, one reason DC is number one in congestion is that, with the growth of government during the recent recession, it has enjoyed far more job growth than most other major urban areas. Yet, if rail transit really were such a good way to relieve congestion, it should have been able to absorb that growth.

Instead, the rail system operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is actually losing capacity as maintenance shortfalls force the agency to run smaller trains and those trains become less reliable. Last summer, when passengers on the Green line were stranded and had to walk along the rail line in the summer heat, WMATA promised that the agency would improve its safety procedures and keep people better informed.

Yet just last week, several rush-hour trains on the Green line were again stranded for hours without power. Temperatures on underground trains quickly rose to 90 degrees or more, leading some passengers to get sick and others to force the doors open so they could escape. One passenger reported that the only message they heard from WMATA was, “At this time, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING, I repeat, the station manager KNOWS NOTHING.” How reassuring.

WMATA claims to have a solution to its woes: a 30-year strategic plan. That should take care of all those pesky cracked rails, smokey tunnels, and non-functioning elevators and escalators. Except that the strategic plan is more a puff piece about how wonderful Metro is and much more wonderful it would be if only it had a lot more money. The plan calls for spending $1 billion a year that the agency doesn’t have on maintenance that it isn’t doing, plus another $1.24 billion a year increasing the system’s capacity.

Proposed improvements include two new crossings of the Potomac River. Operationally, the new crossings make sense. The two existing crossings are at or near capacity, and the opening of the misbegotten Silver line to Tyson’s Corners and Dulles will actually reduce the capacity of the Blue and Orange lines to carry passengers since some of the Rosslyn-Foggy Bottom tunnel’s capacity will have to be diverted to the Silver line.

Fiscally, the plan is nothing more than a pipe dream. Just what DC needs: more rail lines that WMATA can’t afford to maintain.

The advantage of trains is that they are supposed to move so many more people than any other mode. Is this true? Scrutiny of train schedules indicates that no line ever runs more than 20 trains an hour. Station platforms limit trains to eight cars, and though the “crush capacity” of each car is supposed to be 180 standees in addition to 70 seated passengers, a more realistic load is about 150 people total. That means each of the three trunk lines–Red, Blue/Orange, and Yellow/Green–can carry no more than about 24,000 passengers per hour. This is supported by WMATA reports that the most number of riders carried per quarter-hour on this year’s inauguration day was about 17,000, which means 68,000 per hour or about 22,666 per each of the three lines.

While 24,000 people an hour is a lot compared with a single freeway lane carrying 2,000 cars an hour with a rush-hour average of 1.1 persons per car, there is no reason why freeway lanes have to be limited to cars. A freeway lane dedicated to buses is capable of moving 1,200 buses per hour safely spaced six bus lengths apart. If WMATA used 80-seat, double-decker buses such as those used in Las Vegas, that lane could move 96,000 people per hour, without even counting standees.

On reaching downtown, the buses could disperse to various streets, any of which are capable of moving at least 160 buses an hour (40 buses per hour per stop with four designated stops every two blocks). That means directing buses down three or four north-south streets and four east-west streets, allowing most riders to find a stop close to their actual destination.

The Washington DC region could spend tens of billions of dollars and many years planning building new subway lines that would provide a modest increase in the rail system’s capacity. Or it could spend a small fraction of that amount of money and time on new buses running on high-occupancy toll lanes that would more than double the system’s capacity. Unfortunately, the political momentum created when DC made the mistake of building rail in the first place will probably doom it to doing the former. The result will be a lot of money spent but little congestion relief.