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A whole network is better than one line

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New York’s LIRR commuter rail runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. VRE could too.
Photo by flickr user Schaffner.

Northern Virginia Congressmen Gerry Connolly and Jim Moran have introduced a bill authorizing (but not allocating money) to study and conduct preliminary engineering for suburban expansions of all of Virginia’s Metrorail lines, as well as an extension of Maryland’s Purple Line light rail project into Virginia, and unspecified “Metrorail capacity expansions” throughout the region.

While it’s good news that Northern Virginia’s Congressional representation has an eye towards transit (though Frank Wolf’s absence is notable), the bill is a reminder of the fact that for many people in this region the word “transit” is one-dimensional code for Metrorail. This is unfortunate, because while Metrorail is undeniably great, it isn’t the best solution to every transit problem we face. If we could could make the intellectual jump to accept a more diverse collection of transit modes, we would have the means to provide a better and more comprehensive regional transit network, faster and for less money.

Long time readers to BeyondDC have heard this before. I bring it up from time to time because it is such an important issue that it bears repeating.

The issue is that Metrorail is much, much more expensive to build than other transit modes such as commuter rail, light rail, streetcar, and BRT. Although MetroRail extensions to Woodbridge, Fort Belvoir and Centreville might be wonderful in those individual corridors, for about the same cumulative cost we could put light rail on every major arterial street in Northern Virginia and upgrade all the VRE lines to Metro-like service levels, with trains running frequently all day and on weekends.

Basically, if we were a little more open-minded with modes, we could have a transit system that put rail stations within walking distance of almost everyone in Northern Virginia for about the same cost as a couple of Metrorail extensions.

This isn’t to suggest that our historic investments in Metrorail were wrong. They weren’t. We need the high-cost, high-capacity core system to provide the backbone of our regional transit system. But with that backbone already in place, we can now do more with other modes. Metro is fabulous and we need it, but its reach is limited because it’s so expensive that we can’t build very much of it. Light rail and dramatically enhanced commuter rail don’t suffer from that problem.

January 12th, 2011 | Permalink
Tags: BRT, commuterrail, government, lightrail, metrorail, streetcar, transportation



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