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The Better Way - Washington boasts 'America's subway'

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter
Toronto Star - Wednesday, November 4, 1998

WASHINGTON - The lighting recalls a 1970s, rec room slow dance party. Low and moody, the dim incandescent glow is dimpled by pockets of gray shadow and casts a misty quality on the honeycombed concrete ceiling that vaults high overhead.



‘STARWARS’ STATION: Charles (Chuck) Thomas, deputy general manager of operations at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, stands overlooking the Gallery Place station in Washington, D.C., as a subway train arrives.

The atmosphere is misty too, and peaceful, considering there are about 200 people standing around you and that the swirl of America’s capital is spinning up above.

But then, in a flash, things become charged.

Like a scene from Star Wars, a line of lights starts flashing in spaceship warning sequence along the outer edge of the platform floor. And the people, lethargic just a moment before, start to gather themselves, shuffle and move.

No, someone didn’t put on a disco track.

This is simply how approaching trains are announced in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s splendidly imaginative subway system.

First opened in 1976, the average WMATA (pronounced Wumatta) “Metro” station is as far removed aesthetically from the public-lavatory style predominant among its Toronto Transit Commission counterparts as could reasonably be imagined.

Aside from its distinctive subway stations, however, WMATA has relatively more in common with the Toronto system than with almost any other in North America.

While the TTC boasts far more daily riders (1.2 million compared with WMATA’s 731,000) and draws them from a far smaller population base (2.4 million in Toronto as opposed to 3.2 million in the Washington area) the structural similarities between the two systems are striking.


  • The TTC runs 1,468 buses to WMATA’s 1,322.
  • While the WMATA subway system runs over five lines compared with the TTC’s two, Washington currently boasts 74 stations to Toronto’s 66.
  • The TTC runs 648 subway and Scarborough RT cars and 248 streetcars while WMATA runs 764 rail-bound cars on its Metro lines.
  • The TTC employs 9,739 people and WMATA, 8,410.

In addition to these infrastructure incidentals, the two systems and the areas they serve also face many common transit-related problems.

The difference here, however, is that WMATA and its political masters are now actively pursuing some solutions.

And first among these initiatives is an agreement signed this past summer that will stitch the D.C. area together with one major, streamlined system rolling under the WMATA banner.

“I think one of the things that ties a metropolitan area together more than anything else is transportation,” says Charles (Chuck) Thomas, deputy general manager of operations at WMATA. “You’ve got your museums, you’ve got your zoos, the entertainment and education, but they’re inaccessible unless transportation is there and that’s why you need a unified transit system, a truly regional operation.”

As in the Greater Toronto Area, where buses from 16 separate transit systems now travel local and arterial roadways, the greater Washington area has spawned a slew of separate agencies to serve its growing suburban communities.

“These (suburban Virginia and Maryland) jurisdictions started to run their own systems and their systems grew,” Thomas says. “I mean there are systems out there with a couple of hundred buses in them now.”

As was the case in the GTA, however, the growth and proliferation of regional transit systems around Washington was not accompanied by an increased ability for people to move from one municipal jurisdiction to another.

And in Washington, as in Toronto, that made transit a far less attractive option for people travelling between regions or from their suburban homes to downtown work or play.

“But then our general manager, Richard White, even though he’s my boss I’ve got to say, the guy had a stroke of genius,” Thomas says.

“He said, ‘We’ve got to stop this proliferation of the bus service.’ He said, ‘This is a regional area and we’ve got to have it so that people can get around without going from one bus system to another.’ “

So under White’s advocacy, a body called the Regional Mobility Panel was created in 1997. Made up of area politicians, ratepayers and business representatives, the panel was struck specifically to rationalize the area’s increasingly balkanized transit structure.

“And ultimately these folks have said yes (WMATA) Metrobuses should be the main provider of service and here’s how we’re going to divide it up,” Thomas says.

“Those routes that have been determined to be regional in nature will be WMATA’s. And generally, if it fits the definition that the route goes between more than one jurisdiction, it runs on big arterial streets and goes to big passenger generators, then that service will be provided by WMATA.”

Each of the smaller transit agencies will continue to provide local bus service, Thomas adds. But under the August agreement, each will be forced to transfer the money they use to spend on arterial bus routes to the larger system.

“Now, obviously there’s going to be some tension because some of the regional bus services that the other people are providing, I’m not so sure they’re ready and willing to give those up so we’ll have to work through that,” Thomas says.

“But the ultimate advantage will be to the user, because people can move around without worrying about paying different fares. Otherwise, it’s just too hard on the public.”

Hand in hand with the movement of people into a surrounding residential sprawl, Washington, like Toronto, has faced a migration of business (especially government business) and industry into the suburbs.

And like Toronto, the American capital has been groping for ways to service the inter-regional transit requirements of those emergent business, retail and industrial nodes.

Like most large American urban areas, Washington was blessed with a huge access to federal funding when building its rapid transit system, which now runs through District of Columbia and four counties in Maryland and Virginia.

Indeed, when it’s finished around 2001, WMATA’s 165-kilometre subway system will have received 80 per cent of its capital costs from the federal government - more than any other municipal area in the United States.

Little wonder the words “America’s subway” appear over many of the system’s exit ways. Canada’s federal government spends no money on transit and, in Toronto, the Ontario government has just bowed out of the game as well.

But once Washington’s federally earmarked expansion money is eaten up - almost entirely by already planned line extensions - there’s no more on the horizon.

“Now there’s talk about subway extension but there’s no money to fund them. And no one is walking up saying here’s a billion dollars to do it,” says Thomas, who worked under current TTC chief David Gunn in the 1980s and still considers the former WMATA boss his mentor.

So before WMATA loses all those new suburban node commuters forever to their cars, Thomas says the system has come up with an interim plan.

“We’re starting to run express bus routes to those centres,” he says. “You have to put transit in those places that start to develop so when they do develop your transit line develops with it. When you try to put transit in after the fact, people have already determined their transportation habits.”

The first of a dozen or so express routes WMATA officials envision began operations in late September. For now, all of the routes will run normal transit buses, modified with high back seats and computer plug ins, along major highways between the outer business nodes and WMATA subway stations.

“I don’t know how folks could get there otherwise except to drive,” Thomas said. “This gives them another option and if they’re on the highways anyway, they might as well be able to read or work. I could see a tremendous number of express routes starting up over the next 10 years. And it’s a lot easier to do that than a rail line.”

WMATA officials are also bidding on contracts with surrounding municipalities that now use private operators to ferry people into Washington.

Indeed, the system won its first contract this year with nearby Prince William County by promising more reliable service and by getting WMATA drivers on the new route to take lower pay than their urban colleagues while maintaining other union privileges.

A recent Washington Post editorial praised WMATA’s express bus initiative as a good alternative to new subway development.

But it’s not the only surface alternative the system is considering. In a nod to Toronto, some D.C. transit officials are looking at streetcars to fill the gaps in the subway web that spreads out over the downtown area.

While there is no money yet earmarked for this project, WMATA also sees the streetcars as a potential tourist magnet.

One project the system is certainly going ahead with, however, is a new computer chip fare card system that would put WMATA at the leading edge of this technology in North America.

To be introduced into general usage early next year, the SmartTrip card, will allow passengers to enter Metro stations, parking lots and eventually buses, by merely flashing the plastic rectangle in front of an electronic reader.

“The (electronic) targets are being installed now and it will be very convenient and will make it quicker to get through the turnstile,” Thomas says. “Also, customers can put any value they want on the card. If they win the lottery or get a tax refund, they can just put that right on the card.”

With a computer chip implanted in its laminated skin, the card can even work from within purses and wallets and could replace the current electronic Farecards which now have to be fed through gateway readers at both ends of a trip.

Passengers can use their credit or debit cards to add value to the SmartTrip cards at special station ticketing machines.

And while WMATA will have to charge for the cards themselves, which cost the system about $10 each, they may eventually be accepted on trains, highway toll booths and even coffee bars and fast food outlets in the D.C. area.

Marketing deals with these outside businesses and agencies could attract money to WMATA, and SmartTrip cards will allow the system to collect interest on fares paid in advance.

They will also, Thomas says, allow the system to track shifts in passenger movement and better plan future routes and expansions.

But they will not alter WMATA’s sliding fare policy, which now sees both rail and bus riders pay according to the length of their trip. Passengers will also continue to be charged for any transfer between the bus and subway systems.

As WMATA looks to the future, however, it must keep an eye on its existing equipment, Thomas says.

While the subway system is just being completed, parts of it are now entering middle age and are prone to the wear and breakdowns that systems like the TTC have already faced.

“The track we keep up, but some of the other infrastructure is starting to show its age,” Thomas says.

“We have a fire suppression system throughout the tunnels for example and some of the fire lines are rotting away in that (moist tunnel) environment.”

But attracting government funds for replacing out-of-date train control software or signalling equipment has been a harder sell in the Washington area than the more visible transit projects, Thomas says.

“But one thing that helps us is we’re the nation’s capital and there’s an innate desire to have the capital’s transit system the shining stone of the country.”