Let the Region Revive The Spirit of ’68

On March 1, 1968, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) voted to build a 97-mile rail system with 86 stations at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion. The first line was to open for passengers in 1972, and the system was to be completed by 1980. Almost 33 years later the final Green Line stations have opened, and a Metrorail system of 103 miles and 83 stations has been completed.

We have come to take Metro for granted, but it might not have been built. The local governments had to make a financial commitment of $575 million and agree on a formula to share the costs. The District agreed to contribute $209 million, or an amount equivalent to about half of its $457 million annual budget in 1968. In 2000, this would be roughly equivalent to D.C. taxpayers agreeing to contribute $1.5 billion to a regional project.

As late as a week before final approval, Fairfax County threatened to withdraw in a dispute over routes and financing but relented in the interest of regional accord. The regional vision that led to this remarkable accomplishment seems distant today when the area has trouble even agreeing to finance the replacement of the falling-down Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

One of the biggest objections that had to be overcome was the projected 12-year construction period. One official noted that he probably would be out of office by the time it was completed.

The 1968 plans, of course, did not work out quite as planned. The final cost was more than $9 billion, with area governments having paid $1.8 billion, the federal government $6.9 billion, $700 million from interest, and nothing financed from the fare box. Completion took 33 years, not 12, and all the officeholders in 1968 were gone by the time it was completed.

What did work out is that the area now has a magnificent transportation facility that provides a clear example of what can be accomplished when governments within the region work together. Now it is time to join together again to make maximum use of the investment that has been made. There will be three keys to success.

First, government development policies and private businesses need to recognize the huge transportation capacity of a Metrorail system. Residential and commercial development needs to be increased in areas adjacent to the 83 rail stations.

A recent study reported that vacant and underused land around many Metro stations has the potential capacity to meet all the foreseeable demand for employment and residential needs between 2000 and 2020. Better targeting of area development around station locations will allow Metrorail to accommodate a major portion of the region’s future transportation demands.

Second, area governments and the federal government need to make commitments to maintain the existing system and increase its carrying capacity.

The $10 billion Metro investment cannot be allowed to deteriorate. How much funding will be needed and how it will be raised are questions that need to be addressed with the same spirit of cooperation that existed in the region in 1968.

Finally, the public needs to be energized in support of Metrorail. The public officials who came together in 1968 to make a formal agreement to build the system did so because the public was excited about the project and willing to support its officials. This support was demonstrated in some Virginia jurisdictions by overwhelming voter approval of bonds.

Let’s get excited again about a transportation system that is truly wonderful but that has only begun to meet the Washington area’s transportation needs.

The writer is a Senior Fellow and co-manager of the Brookings Greater Washington Research Program.