Washington’s Lexus Line: Time to Pull the Pull the Plug on Dulles Rail

Published by wcox September 11th, 2007 in Transportation

For years, local officials and transit spending advocates have been touting the proposed Washington Metro extension to Dulles Airport. As is typical of such projects, as the politicians have talked and the planners have planned, costs have exploded —now estimated at $5 billion. Moreover, the project will have no material transportation impact. It rises to significance only in its spending. The annual cost is enough to lease a Lexus or BMW, in perpetuity, for each new commuter that will ride the line. If history is any judge, the final number will be considerably higher.

The project has been surrounded by the usual cheerleading. An oped by Cathy Hudgins, chair of the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, member of the Washington transit board and a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors illustrates the point well.

In today’s Washington Post Supervisor Hudgins emotionalizes the perceived important the new line will be to the growing commercial corridor from Tyson’s Corner to Dulles Airport. She notes that employment will rise from 205,000 jobs to 337,000 jobs by 2025. She suggests that the Dulles rail line will be important in getting people to those jobs. Pigs will sooner fly.

In fact, the projections developed for the project — which experience has shown to virtually always be rosy — show only a modest increase in work trips by transit in the corridor by 2025. Based Ms. Hudgins employment numbers and the project planning documents, it can be expected that 100,000 more workers will travel to their jobs in the corridor by car, even if the line is built.

Why would the line have so little impact? Simply because transit does not provide automobile competitive mobility to suburban employment centers. There is no question but that Washington’s Metro, commuter rail services and buses provide a high level of mobility to the central business district, which includes not only the commercial core, but the nation’s principal government center. Nearly 40 percent of commuters to Washington’s downtown area get there on transit, according to data from the 2000 Census. But that’s the end of transit’s potential for material impact.

Downtown accounts for less than 20 percent of the area’s employment, and all of that is concentrated in just two square miles. The 80 percent of jobs outside downtown are spread over more than 1,100 square miles and simply cannot be served by transit that is automobile competitive. Thus, it is not surprising that more than one-half of the people who commute by transit in the Washington area work downtown. The less than half who travel by transit to the jobs in the other 99.8 percent of the area do not have transit as a viable choice. Dulles rail will not change that.

The difference is as simple as understanding what transit does well and what it does not. Transit does a good job of getting people to concentrated cores with routes that radiate to virtually all of the urban area. Transit cannot get people to less concentrated areas, because there is no system of radiating routes that make it possible for transit to compete with the automobile. That is why there is not a single suburban employment center in the nation that has a strong transit market share. As the project planning documents indicate, transit’s share of work trip travel to the Dulles corridor will remain small, even if the rail line is built. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so many paid so much for so few. It’s time to pull the plug.

Wendell Cox
Demographia | Wendell Cox Consultancy – St. Louis Missouri-Illinois metropolitan region
Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris
www.demographia.com | www.publicpurpose.com | www.rentalcartours.net

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