A Wonderful Life...With Metro

"If transit suddenly ceased operating in any large American city, commuting would become almost impossible. Rush-hour traffic is already horrendous, to the point where in places like Los Angeles and Washington...the rush hour itself has become rush many-hours, even "permanent rush hour." In urban areas, there isn't any place to put more higways...If all the people now on trains, subways, light rail lines and buses suddenly joined the rush-hour drive, getting to work might take as much time as the job itself."

-- "Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation"

Almost 15 years ago my wife and I made the smart decision to leap from being apartment renters to becoming home owners. That was good timing on our part, as Washington, DC area real-estate values went sky-high a short while later. We joke that we probably couldn't afford to buy our own house if we had to buy it now!

The second smartest decision we made was making access to Metrorail our first priority since at the time we both worked in the capital. Our suburban neighborhood is located on the Redline, a 20-minute straight shot into DC, and the station itself is just a few blocks from our house, which means I get to walk to work without having to pay for gas or parking. (As an added bonus, having a house located within half a mile of a Metro station boosts the property value.)

Yes indeed, my daily commute to work is made easy by the Metro. Sure, I pay for the privilege of riding the rails every day and sometimes have to deal with crowded trains and occasional maintenance delays. But there's no way I would ever trade that for a stressful drive through traffic-clogged streets, not to mention paying more for gas and parking. 

But what if I didn't have the Metro? It sounds crazy but 35 years ago city planners considered building a freeway straight through the center of the capital instead of undertaking the monumental task of constructing such an expensive and expansive light rail system. So what would life be like today if the Metro never existed?

Well, it turns out that Metro officials have produced an eye-opening study to answer that question. Why? Well, mainly to make the case to local officials that investing in Metro is essential to DC's economy. After all, around here the news reports rarely highlight the benefits provided by the transit system and instead focus on complaints, such as the high costs associated with running the system and the challenges of expanding rail lines to meet service needs.

The Atlantic magazine published a story about the study, complete with terrific graphics illustrating the findings. The study modeled what the region would look like without transit. In one scenario transit was literally turned off. So this would be like waking up tomorrow and -- poof! -- the region's rail, buses and Metro aren't around anymore. What would people do? As The Atlantic explained:

People, it turns out, do something very interesting. They stop making long car trips because the traffic is so bad. In one hypothetical scenario, Antos took away the transit but kept the rest of the area’s road infrastructure the same. People were allowed to change their trip patterns – to chose different jobs or shopping centers – and most of them stopped crossing the region to get to those things.

"The congestion was forcing people to regress into a more local economy," Antos says. "We looked at that and realized we were watching the economy splinter. All of a sudden, we weren’t watching a regional economy function where workers could find jobs in the whole region."

People weren’t crossing county lines – or even rivers – to get anywhere.

In another scenario the modeling showed what it would be like around here without transit, but with all the new roads required to get people to where they need to go.

Just to keep congestion at present levels, the region would have to add more than a thousand lane miles of arterials and highways, at a cost of about $6 billion. This would be the rough equivalent of adding 15 more lanes to the already massive beltway that encircles the city.

Of course, all these drivers would also need somewhere to put their cars. Today, about 200,000 people a day ride some form of transit to the District’s downtown core. If all those people drove instead, the city would need the equivalent of 166 blocks of five-story parking garages.

In looking at the associated maps of these horrific hypothetical scenarios, it’s easy to see how the loss of transit would cripple the DC region -- which already ranks as the worst metropolitan area in the country in terms of congestion. Without Metro we would have more parking garages, worse traffic, fewer jobs, constrained commerce, and more pollution.

For this reason, I'm ticked off that the Congress is about to slash a pretax benefit for commuters that would directly affect Metro riders like me. As part of the budget deal being debated on Capitol Hill, the current commuter tax benefit for people who use transit would drop to $125/month come the new year (a 50% reduction from its current level of $230) -- while the parking benefit would inexplicably jump to $240/month. The pretax benefit for transit commuters was enacted in 2009 and will expire unless Congress acts by the end of the year. Otherwise, commuters like me will be forced to pay hundreds more dollars per year to ride Metro to and from work.

You might be saying to yourself, so what? But it's not just a pain in my pocket. I'll continue to ride Metro every day but many commuters might find the extra expense not worth it and decide to drive to work instead. That would mean less crowded train cars for me but more cars on the road during the daily commute. So, less pretax benefit for transit translates to even more traffic in the DC area. With transit ridership on the rise, it makes no sense to take away another incentive for people to travel on trains and buses instead of by car.  

Fortunately, there are many members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle who recognize this problem and are urging their leadership to fix the year-end tax package so the transit pretax benefit won't be cut. NRDC is working hard to make sure Congress restores equity for drivers and riders alike. This is gridlock that can be avoided.   

[UPDATE: Alas, the Senate’s recent vote to extend the payroll tax cut did not include a provision for keeping commuter tax benefits equal, so if you need more than $125 of your income each month deducted pre-tax to pay for your transit commute Congress is sending the wrong message that effective Jan. 1, 2012, you should start driving to work. This is too bad since transportation is the second largest household expense for many households, eating up an even larger proportional share of income for the poorest Americans. As the Transportation for America coalition put it: "The millions who depend on transit to get to work each day shouldn’t have to pay more, and certainly not for something that also saves us energy, reduces congestion and emissions, and uses less oil."]