Why the Washington Metro doesn’t yet reach Tysons Corner

As part of an argument that seems to really be about the difficulties of large-scale bureaucracies in responding to change, Michael Barone explore why the Washington Metro has had difficulty in reaching suburban destinations like Tysons Corner, the prototypical edge city.

The assumption of Metro planners was that jobs would continue to be heavily concentrated in downtown D.C.

So there is no station serving Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia, which has become the largest office center between downtown Washington and Atlanta.

Joel Garreau, in researching his book “Edge City” on Tysons and similar clusters, asked Metro planners why they didn’t put a station there.

The reply: We never thought there would be any development there. Suburbs are for houses.

But Northern Virginia lawyer named Til Hazel, who handled land acquisition cases on the Capital Beltway, figured it out. He bought big parcels in the triangle between the Beltway, Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road, and made millions developing Tysons.

Now Metro is trying to extend the Orange Line to Tysons and beyond to Dulles Airport. This would have been much cheaper when the system was planned in the early 1970s and much of the land in between was vacant. Now the costs are astronomical and construction deadlines seem far distant. But, hey, other systems are worse. New York opened its first subway line in 1906, but you still can’t take a subway to LaGuardia or Kennedy airports.

Central planners have trouble envisioning the future and, at least in the case of rail transit planners, have a bias toward recreating the past.

While Barone wants to tackle bureaucracy and government ineptitude, there is another issue at play here: most of our public transportation systems are not very strong in the suburbs. They are often built on a hub and spoke model: highways, railroad lines, and subway lines head into the city but don’t connect suburbs to suburbs. The largest number of commuter trips today are suburb to suburb trips and yet mass transit isn’t available or is very inefficient. But you need a certain level of ridership in the suburbs to make this work so you mainly can put together lines between denser areas (Tysons Corner would qualify) and you also have to convince suburbanites to utilize it (which they may not do unless driving is so inconvenient). Also, you could look at the role of government which has promoted cars and highways over mass transit solutions for cities and suburbs. Barone claims that the central planners missed their chance decades earlier when land was cheaper but wasn’t everyone, residents, government, planners, chasing highways then?

I wonder what Barone’s solution to this problem would be. I imagine three options:

1. Transportation should be privatized. If this had been the case, an enterprising person might have capitalized on the route to Tysons Corner and made money off of it. This can lead to other problems: how do you coordinate between different subway lines? We’ve seen this in the past: there were a number of competing subway lines in New York and London before all the competing lines were consolidated and big cities like Chicago and London had dozens of railroad stations for each of the railroad lines before they were consolidated. Yes, you might get more innovation with private transportation firms (streetcars and electric cars firms, for example, were very successful in building lines and promoting the suburban life in the late 1800s/early 1900s) but they would have to work together (probably requiring government regulation) and you could always get one or two really successful firms that end up buying out or forcing out everyone else.

2. Transportation issues should be dealt with on a more local level. The problem here is that transportation is really a regional issue with a lot of stakeholders. It is quite difficult to get any collection of municipalities and taxing bodies to agree to a single plan so centralized structures are in place to help bypass some of this. Take the debate a few years ago in the Chicago area over the purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Elgin tracks by Canadian National: some communities would benefit, others would see more traffic. How do you sort out these issues?

3. Stop spending so much public money on mass transit all together as it is too expensive and/or it is a plot by liberal urbanites to promote their own way of life. Cars offer more freedom anyway and are more reliable. Of course, this suggests everyone can own a car, wants to own a car, or wants the far-flung suburban lifestyle. Additionally, if gasoline does indeed go up in price ($5 predictions?), there may just be more people asking why mass transit isn’t an option.

5 thoughts on “Why the Washington Metro doesn’t yet reach Tysons Corner

  1. Barone claims that the central planners missed their chance decades earlier when land was cheaper but wasn’t everyone, residents, government, planners, chasing highways then?

    Brian, I think you hit the nail right on the head. As Barone himself states, Tyson Corner developer Til Hazel “bought big parcels in the triangle between the Beltway, Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road, and made millions developing Tysons.” While this supposedly shows that Mr. Hazel “figured it out”–and all but explicitly excoriates Metro for not similarly “figur[ing] it out”–the fact remains that Tyson’s Corner’s development was driven by its advantageous position among freeways plotted–at least initially–“in the middle of nowhere.”
    I think the causality issue is very important here. Good, bad, or ugly, it seems (1) to be relatively uncontroversial for communities to take a “build it (freeways) and they (developers) will come” approach to highway creation and (2) to be highly controversial (except perhaps very recently) to adopt a similar philosophy with respect to mass transit development.
    Put differently, imagine the various planners before Tyson’s Corner was developed. The “Beltway, Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road” were initially put in a relatively undeveloped area, and I suspect that the use of public funds was perceived as an “investment” that “would increase the tax base.” In contrast, suppose Metro had proposed a station to the middle of those same (empty) fields at that time. I suspect that this would have been characterized as a “boondoggle” that “no one would ever use” and thus a misuse of public funds.

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  2. Pingback: Mass transit in an age of self-driving cars | Legally Sociable

  3. I think the resistance to extending mass transit is obvious and it has nothing to do any larger war on central planning but much more personal, the battle to escape urban crime infestations as well as corrupt urban government. What say you?

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  4. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving | Legally Sociable

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