Who moved my train?

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By now, we were supposed to be riding light rail to Northline Mall.

The original schedule for the METRO Solutions light rail expansion looked like this. These schedules were not included in the referendum language, but they were published by METRO in 2004:

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The North and Southeast Lines, for which a public design process had already been completed by the time of the 2003 referendum, were to start construction in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Today, the North Line would be open, the Southeast Line would be halfway through construction, the East End line would be underway, and the University Line would be beginning construction shortly.

Instead, the only construction we’ve seen is utility relocation on the East End Line, and there’s no final construction contract in place. The Southeast and North lines do not yet have federal funding in place (though all the prerequisites are done.) The University Line still does not have a Final Environmental Impact Statement, which means it’s still several steps short of funding. Five years after the Main Street Line opened, and five years after the voters approved light rail expansion, we still don’t have much to show for it.

METRO sill promises 5 new lines by 2012, which would be more than was promised the voters in 2003. Now the schedule looks like this:

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Generally, when cities expand rail transit, they do it piece by piece. Washington’s 106-mile subway system, for example, opened in two dozen separate segments. There are technical advantages to this: it’s easier to administer, easier to find skilled workers, and easier to deal with the inevitable issues when the line opens. There are financial advantages: between December 2003 (when the referendum was approved) and December 2007 transportation construction costs increased 50%. And there’s obviously less impact when construction isn’t going on everywhere at once.

There are also political advantages to incremental expansion. It’s easier to keep the public interested and satisfied if we see progress. On the North Line, the light rail planning process began in 2002. The public has been going to meetings ever since, and there’s still no sign of a train. It’s not the neighborhood’s fault that they’re still waiting, but the wait affects them more than anyone else. And it would be easier on all of the other lines as well if neighborhoods saw progress elsewhere.

So what went wrong? Just about everything.

  • After the voters approved light rail, METRO spent a year looking at other technology options.
  • The Federal Transit Administration changed its cost-effectiveness rules and turned down METRO’s funding request for the North and Southeast lines.
  • METRO decided to change of the four lines to BRT, but consulted Tom DeLay instead of the affected neighborhoods before doing that.
  • METRO then changed those lines back to LRT, requiring a third round of FTA paperwork.
  • METRO spent 2005 and 2006 exploring design-build instead of the traditional design-bid-build process, selected Washington Group International in January 2007 to carry out that process, then called off talks with WGI 18 months later and selected Parsons instead. They’re still talking, and no final contract is in place.
  • METRO kicked off the Richmond Avenue controversy before it had anything to show the public, leading to two years of debate and a lawsuit.

What we see here is a funding process that’s gotten far too complicated and unpredictable, an agency that really doesn’t know how to work with the public (though they do better than any other agency around), and political leadership that hasn’t been doing much leading. The Main Street Line went from Lee Brown suggesting the idea to trains running in five and a half years. Will Bill White’s transit legacy be six years of planning?

But there may be a silver lining. The discussion of the past five years has lead to real improvements in the plan. If we get what we’ve been promised, we’ll have one of the best transit systems in the country. And, if you look at the schedule above, it looks as if someone has figured that in 2009 there would be a massive recession that would reduce construction costs as well as better prospects for federal funds. So far, METRO’s still promising 2012. Let’s hope the next four years see more progress than the last five.

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