Northern Virginia residents got a chance Monday night to take their transportation woes straight to the people on the front lines of the daily commuter ordeal in a town hall meeting in the Arlington County Board room.
"We're a fragile system by design," said Metrorail CEO Richard White, who was on hand to take feedback from local riders on how to improve the system. White said the Metro's out-dated infrastructure makes the task of increasing its efficiency more of a challenge.
"Now that we're running at these high performance speeds, we have little room for breakdowns," he said.
The meeting, he added, is part of Metro's new approach to customer service that centers around community involvement. White was joined by local officials from Arlington and Fairfax counties.
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) tackled the ongoing funding crisis that has plagued the system for years, citing a report from the Brookings Institute that states the national average of government funding for a transit system is 35 percent. Metro's is 2 percent.
"We have an aging infrastructure. It is going to have to be modernized," Moran said. "I doubt the federal government is going to be as generous in the future as it has been in the past."
Moran, a proponent of expanding the system west to Dulles Airport, said Metro will play an integral role in transportation as the region's population swells.
Moran explained how current Metro lines, 60 percent of which are more than 20 years old, are insufficient for the increased ridership seen in the system.
"When we constructed Metro, we used parallel tracks," Moran said. "We only had tracks for one train going each way."
Breakdowns on Metro, he said, leave no alternative tracks for other trains to circumvent the delay. Other transit systems in the United States, like New York City, have these tracks. Yet, despite delays, Moran said the system works for many.
"Arlington County has shown how to do it right," Moran said. "One of the indications of how well it is working is that half the people who live in this Metro corridor don't take a car to work."
Affordable housing, he added, will play a role in the system's future.
"One of the sources of affordable housing has got to be highrises around Metro stops" he said.
Metro's new approach to customer service and community input, according to Fairfax County Board member Dana Kauffman — who is also the current chairman of the Metro Board — will include public meetings. Kauffman said the Metro Board will host more town hall meetings in the future, complete with an open microphone for comments from the public.
"Metro, for years, has tended to view public involvement as something you do only when you have to do it," said Kauffman, pointing to prior years when the system's authority has even changed the layout of its rail cars without community input.
A new ridership advisory committee will also be created.
"Metro isn't the only answer but it is the only solution to keeping this region moving," Kauffman said.
Kauffman also cited a recent survey of Metro riders that found 80 percent feel the system still works well.
According to Metro statistics, more than 167,000 people use the system every day. County Board member Chris Zimmerman said the increasing number of people is creating delays, compounding Metro's infrastructure problems. Metro authorities are now engaged in studying more efficient ways to get riders on and off trains more quickly.
"Metro has growing pains and aging pains," Zimmerman said, pointing a jump of more than 10,000 new riders on Metro lines since Dec. 2004. "That's the equivalent to if the entire city of Falls Church decided to all take the Metro."
RIDERSHIP, he said, has increased by 30 percent in the last eight years. The system recently obtained 120 new rail cars set to begin traveling in the system over the next few years but handling more people on the lines, Zimmerman said, would take a tremendous overhaul. Metro stations, for example, are only built to handle an eight-car train. Adding cars beyond that, he said, would mean expanding the stations too. But funding remains the top concern for the system. Metro rail is currently worth about $24 billion but the system is only able to reinvest about 1 percent of its own budget to keep it up and running. Without additional dollars, that task has become a logistical nightmare that signals an overall decline in the system's quality. Metro, he said, needs money.
"Metro needs a dedicated source of funding," Zimmerman said. There has to be something or we're just going to continue this cycle."