Regional Rail

I have to tell you, I’m pretty excited about the Maryland Transit Administration’s plans to significantly increase the service level of MARC trains, turning them into a, “fully functional, seven-days-a-week urban transit system.” The potential is there, I think, with growth in MARC service and with a growing list of small light-rail projects throughout the core, for the Greater Washington area to end up with something like a robust, regional transit network.

Such a network would pay off nicely for the area over the long-term. Each addition to the network increases local resident incentives to live near a transit node, and decreases the need to use a car on a daily basis. That would allow the area to accommodate many more people than it might reasonably handle by relying primarily on cars. It would also mean that local residents are hedged against significant increases in driving costs relative to those living in other metro areas. These additions should also reduce some pressure on Metro, and provide some redundancy to the system should Metro problems worsen. I’m not comfortable with Washington relying solely on an aging two-track subway system to provide non-car transportation. The better the local bus, light-rail, and regional rail networks, the more robust the local transportation system is to shutdowns elsewhere in the system. Not that a Metro collapse is imminent, but at some point, WMATA may need to do some serious maintenance on the tracks. It would be awfully nice to have some options in that case.

Given the positives, I’m pretty frustrated with the Baltimore Sun’s phrasing here:

The $3.9 billion figure is especially imposing because it is expressed in 2007 dollars. By the end of the planning period in 2035, inflation could add billions to the final total.

That’s $3.9 billion over 30 years. This is imposing? By comparison, the Silver Line is set to cost about $5 billion over a little less than a decade. That’s still a good deal (look, already, at the huge, transit-oriented developments being planned for stations stops), and it’s not clear that it will serve more people than the MARC expansion; it might end up serving many less.

And, um, who cares if inflation makes the total bigger? It will cost more because dollars are worth less. Delay might mean real increases in prices due to demand for construction materials and higher labor costs, but if cheaper money inflates the price, so what?