Home U.S. Transit SystemsWMATA On WMATA and appreciating the MTA’s capital budget

On WMATA and appreciating the MTA’s capital budget

by Benjamin Kabak

Some of WMATA’s capital goals include in-system transfer points between popular stations.

The MTA’s capital plan may be considered something of a mess. For $25 billion – give or take a few billion – every five years, the MTA embarks on a steady stream of expansion and rehabilitation projects. Sure, new construction efforts cost far too much, and sure, nothing seems to be completed on time. But the capital program, born out of the system’s 1970s nadir, isn’t going anywhere. It’s too important to the city, its subway riders and its construction lobby.

Of course, the capital plan isn’t perfect. I can’t overstate how project costs and construction pace have hindered rapid subway expansion, and the MTA is constantly fighting for the dollars it so desperately needs. It’s clear from even cursory glances around the system that the remains elusive. Additionally, as the capital plan has lately been funded through a series of bond issues, the MTA’s dept payment obligations have increased rapidly over the last decade.

The perpetual stream of funding for capital dollars though is not something we should take for granted. Despite the frustrations we often feel toward Albany, someone had the foresight to put such a plan in place. If we turn our eye to the south, we find in Washington, D.C., an agency held hostage by two states, the District of Columbia and the federal government with a clear need for maintenance and expansion but no real plan to pay for any of it.

Earlier on Thursday, WMATA unveiled a new strategic plan called Momentum which includes a modest expansion of the Metro system, some long-awaited transfer tunnels between the Farragut stations and between Gallery Place and Metro Center and, finally, some express tracks along certain routes. Total expenditures would add up to approximately $1 billion a year through 2040, low by New York’s standards but high nonetheless. There’s a catch though: No one knows how these plans will be funded.

Dana Hedgpeth of The Washington Post delves into the funding issue. She writes:

Dubbed “Momentum,” and 18 months in the making, Metro’s new strategic plan catalogues the system’s needs and renews the long-standing argument for Metro to have a dedicated funding source, just as many big-city transit systems do. Metro’s lack of capital investment in the past decade has been blamed on that lack of dedicated funding, and planners say that unless that changes, there is little hope of executing the ambitious strategic plan that will be formally unveiled Thursday.

A new Metro line is being built in Northern Virginia, but it is being constructed for Metro by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, with revenue from the Dulles Toll Road financing a significant part of the line’s $5.6 billion cost.

No such obvious source of financing exists for the new rail line and tunnels proposed in Metro’s new strategic plan, and the plan does not specify how the agency would finance the rail expansion and other costly improvements….Unlike other transit agencies in New York, Boston and Los Angeles that depend on some level of dedicated funds from specific taxes, Metro receives contributions from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government for its operating and capital budgets, which total $2.5 billion. Shyam Kannan, Metro’s chief planner, said it will take a “reliable, sustained stream of capital funding from a combination of local and federal” moneys to pay for the slew of proposed projects.

Metro is nearing its maximum capacity, and at some point, the region’s planners and politicians will have to address that prickly issue. If D.C. is to grow, its subway system must grow as well, but without a steady source of funding, that growth is never a sure thing.

Here in New York, we argue for more funding. We argue for direct contributions instead of debt financing, and we argue for more subsidies for the operations budget. Although our system is still struggling to overcome decades of deferred maintenance, a plan, no matter how tough to realize, exists. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact, but it’s one we should not take for granted. After all, it could always be worse: The MTA could be the protect of four governments all with their own political viewpoints, interests and financial endgoals at stake.

You may also like


Stephen Smith January 25, 2013 - 2:30 am

“Dedicated funding” is a double-edged sword, since it lessens oversight. And the DC area isn’t hurting for transit money – Virginia is getting the Silver Line, DC is getting a streetcar, and while at the moment funding seems iffy, the Purple Line is clearly something that’s going to happen in the medium term. In Europe I’m pretty sure most transit systems are also funded through the normal appropriations process, not through roundabout “dedicated funding” sources.

The MTA and Port Authority have a lot of dedicated funding, and they waste it in record-setting ways. DC doesn’t have dedicated funding, and it wastes a bit less. Both seem to get about the same amount of transit proportionate to their sizes (that is, not enough), regardless of the funding source.

Bolwerk January 25, 2013 - 12:07 pm

Well, in Europe, there could sometimes be small levies for funding local transit; it might be a municipal decision. But the financial performance of many transit systems is better than 80% farebox recovery, so they aren’t the huge deal they are here. (For that matter, aren’t the USA levies generally dedicated to operations, not capital projects?). I don’t know how capital projects are funded, but I suspect you’re right that they are funded by general legislative appropriations.

We should lessen oversight, while we’re at it. In Europe (Germany, Switzerland, and France anyway) agencies are staffed with competent planners who, while answerable to the state, are not kept on a leash by idiocies like community boards, onerous EISes, and NIMBY lawsuits. Also, construction is at scale.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 7:54 am

If anything, the Blue Line should be rerouted into an entirely new tunnel north of Rosslyn. Then it would merge back onto the Orange Line at Stadium-Armory.

Eric January 28, 2013 - 4:00 am

You’re not the first to suggest that. A much better idea than WMATA’s, by the way.

Larry Littlefield January 25, 2013 - 9:15 am

“But the capital program, born out of the system’s 1970s nadir, isn’t going anywhere. It’s too important to the city, its subway riders and its construction lobby.”

But how important is it for those age 55 and over who are either in the one percent, or in the political/union class and drive to work?

They’ve been willing to fund it if they don’t have to pay for it — if it is borrowed. Now someone has to pay for past borrowing AND future ongoing normal replacement and maintenace projects. Where will THAT money come from. Another $25 billion in debt?

AK January 25, 2013 - 10:10 am

“The perpetual stream of funding for capital dollars though is not something we should take for granted.”

I echo Larry. There is no true “funding” stream for capital. There is, however, lots of “financing” (read: borrowing) for capital, which is almost certainly better than nothing in the near-term, but poses massive challenges in the medium-term, especially with declining federal investment post-megaprojects.

As Ben reported last year (see: http://bkabak.wpengine.com/201.....n-34th-st/), the Governor and State leaders are lauded with “saving” the MTA’s Capital Plan, when what they really did was raise the bond limit– not the more courageous political act in Empire State history.

What we need to do is remind the public, at every possible moment, about what capital investment in transit has meant for this City and its economy and therefore just how critical it is to continue that investment. Indeed, many New Yorkers have no idea what the system was like 10 years ago (let alone 30 years ago).

Of course, you can forgive New Yorkers for being skeptical about giving more money to capital projects seeing how absurd our costs are relative to other cities. Thus, you need both a thorough review of costs AND a push for greater funding simultaneously.

Bolwerk January 25, 2013 - 12:20 pm

One way out would be bankruptcy!

SEAN January 25, 2013 - 1:22 pm

And then?

Bolwerk January 25, 2013 - 1:47 pm

Chaos, from which shall come order?

Or something.

SEAN January 25, 2013 - 3:09 pm

And what does that look like. Meanwhile the Get Smart theme is playing in my head as I type.

Bolwerk January 26, 2013 - 1:29 pm

If it’s not clear, I was being somewhat facetious. If you don’t know how bankruptcy works, Google it. It’s not a great option, though it it might be the only way to rid us of major debt and pension obligations.

AG January 26, 2013 - 1:41 pm

transit projects are one thing that is good to pay for through debt financing…. pensions and healthcare costs for retired workers are NOT. Private developers borrow money to pay for projects because they hope the money they make when the project is finished they can pay off the loan and make profit. Likewise building transit can be paid off from the increase in tax revenue that would be generated from development. On the flip side a business person who has to borrow money constantly to pay for employee wages and benefits won’t be in business too long… and essentially that’s what’s been happening in many state and municipal governments (see all the bankruptcies in California).

Billy G January 25, 2013 - 9:39 am

Could someone explain why digging/drilling an underground transfer between the Farraguts would have any positive impact and not just be a massive waste of money? Each appears so close to the Metro Center stop. Yes, I get that it’s a London-style map. What are the actual distances involved?

Someone January 25, 2013 - 9:41 am

Because they’re only 2 blocks apart, and going to Metro Center would be a massively huge waste of time?

Someone January 25, 2013 - 9:51 am

(I meant between Farragut West and Farragut North, not to Metro Center.)

Ron January 25, 2013 - 9:46 am

It’s all about crowd control. Metro Center can get massively overcrowded. This would help distribute people a little better.

John-2 January 25, 2013 - 12:00 pm

I suppose it would also spread out the crowds at Gallery Place following Capitals and Wizards games, especially for people wanting direct access to the Blue, Orange or Silver lines.

Alex B. January 25, 2013 - 2:19 pm

It’s not a trivial distance.

If you were eastbound on the Orange/Blue lines and wanted to transfer to a northbound Red line train, going to Metro Center means over-shooting that distance by about 3/4 a mile:

map link

The goal of that project would be to help reduce transfer volume at Metro Center by providing another place for it to occur. You can do an out-of-system free transfer there now with a SmarTrip card.

Originally, the two Farragut stations were supposed to be one single station, but construction would’ve required closing Farragut Square for a few years, losing a few legacy trees, and dismantling/re-assembling the Farragut statue there – and the Park Service vetoed that option. I’m not sure why they didn’t consider the tunnel, then.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 9:50 am

More ambitiously, Metro says the plans also include the possibility of new tunnels in the core of the system to separate lines that currently share tunnels. It also calls for building express tracks along the Silver and Orange lines in Virginia, as well expanding current lines.

Boris January 25, 2013 - 9:56 am

“a plan, no matter how tough to realize, exists”

And what is that plan? The MTA has no equivalent to the Momentum plan – one that lays out potential service improvements and expansions and invites the public to a conversation about the future. There is no MTA planning web site; there are just internal discussion documents that happen to be public because they have to be.

Sometimes all you need is a flashy report to get people excited and talking. Money will be found if there is support for projects; but the public first have to know what the projects are and why they are worthwhile.

Bolwerk January 25, 2013 - 1:06 pm

You may be right. But then, the MTA probably doesn’t give a shit and it was never part of the MTA’s mission to decide where to expand transit.

The major point of the MTA is paying wages and pensions.

AG January 26, 2013 - 2:19 pm

not true.. they do hold public meetings.. and likewise via email – I can recall 3 things I requested over the years that actually got done. both the MTA and Port Authority have pages on their sites about capital plans… and they do announce hearing.

AG January 26, 2013 - 2:30 pm

also – if you know the organizations that host events where the major players are – you can get your voice heard. I recall being at an event for Crain’s NY where the Gateway Tunnel was discussed as an alternate after ARC failed – before it was announced. Also – the Regional Plan Association – Real Estate Board – Partnership for NYC all host events where leaders take direct feedback. Usually those events are not free though. As it relates to when I said about emails – let re-iterate that those were actually about station improvements – not transit expansion. Again – though Fernando Ferrer was just in Riverdale where they gave a public hearing about increased service at Spuyten Duyvil. Likewise last year they had hearings in each east Bronx neighborhood for the proposed Hell Gate line expansion. All free public events.

AlexB January 25, 2013 - 10:57 am

I saw the map from WMATA showing the new M street and 10th street tunnels ending at Thomas Circle, along with the new transfers and track connections. It’s quite confusing because it didn’t come with a potential route diagram or any indication of how a commuter might actually use these tunnels. Can anyone explain to me what the basic routes of the 6 routes (red blue orange green yellow silver) will be if they build these tunnels? Are trains supposed to dead end at Thomas Circle? Where would the stations be? A lot of it didn’t really make sense or seem that well thought out. It was more of a, “Uh, um, we need more capacity and uh, here ya go.” It seemed to make a lot of the mistakes of the 63rd street tunnel in NY

John-2 January 25, 2013 - 12:10 pm

The problem coming up for WMATA is when the Silver Line opens they’ll have created the same situation the MTA has with the 60th Street tunnel — with N/Q/R service all using the same portal, the lines are maxed out, and even if you wanted to increase service for other sections of the routes during rush-hour, the bottleneck between 57th Street and the 11th Street cut precludes that.

So the Vienna and Dulles branches are limited in how much service they can add (WMATA can shift Yellow Line trains to cover at Franconia-Springfield). They need not just a new M Street line, but also another tunnel under the Potomac at Arlington to the M Street tunnel to eliminate the bottleneck. As of now, it seems like all they have is a conceptual idea of where the line would go once it enters the district and how the tunnel would cross the river into Georgetown. But they don’t seem to be keen on the Arlington station workaround, which will require either a completely new station (possibly a new Blue Line station below the current one that goes to M Street, so that line never joins with the Orange/Silver lines) or somehow converting the station to a four-track set-up, where they would need to have two lines headed west and one line south coming out of the station into Virginia, and one line headed to Georgetown and two towards Foggy Bottom for the lines headed into the district.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 12:27 pm Reply
John-2 January 25, 2013 - 1:09 pm

Looks like they’re going with the “Lower Roslyn” option, but with access from both Wilson Blvd. (Orange/Silver) and Arlington National Cemetery (Blue) branches. Frees up capacity and permits far more flexability, but having both branches able to access M Street with a bi-level Roslyn stop above it, it’s going to be a fun engineering job (roughly akin to the Sixth Ave. express tunnels between West Fourth and 34th Street being dug out underneath PATH and the local tracks during the 1960s).

SEAN January 25, 2013 - 1:39 pm

http://www.commuterpage.com has news stories regarding DC transit issues. They reported that the Blue/ Orange line despite capasity, is actually underutalized between Rosslyn & Stadium Armery. Despite this, there’s still a push to extend a route towards Georgetown to spread train service out to other district neighborhoods.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 8:30 pm

This is going to be interesting.

The best thing to do is to sit back and observe the WMATA figure out how to build this tangle of tunnels.

John-2 January 26, 2013 - 9:43 am

DaKalb Avenue on the Potomac, though they’d still need two express tracks through the station and a bridge route across the river like the Yellow Line has to complete the similarity.

Someone January 26, 2013 - 12:48 pm

…they’d still need two express tracks through the station…

They wouldn’t need that, unless Rosslyn served 4 services, as well as a through service.Then, there would be 3 services on the Orange Line west of Rosslyn, and three services on the Blue/Yellow line south of the junction near Arlington Cemetery. Even then, you’d still have to deal with the Orange Line train bunching between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory.

John-2 January 27, 2013 - 12:25 am

What I was saying is if the tangle of tracks wanted to be as dense and as similar to DeKalb, they would need a third crossing option, via bridge. Not that it would actually happen (the genteel folk of Georgetown — who fought to keep the Metro out 45 years ago, before changing their minds — would get the vapors again, anyway, if WMATA proposed an over-river subway crossing next to the Key Bridge).

Matthias January 28, 2013 - 9:06 am

The separated Blue Line plan which I’ve seen on greatergreaterwashington.com (and in the above track map) would be a much better option. It would improve east/west connectivity and give riders more travel options. The dead-end tunnel would only add capacity and redundancy without making the system more useful.

Rob Stevens January 25, 2013 - 1:46 pm

They do not need another tunnel under the Potomac. The yellow bridge now has only 10 yellow trns/hr + a few blues during rush hours. If they put all the blues there [10/hr], there would be plenty of capacity on both existing crossings.

Ron January 25, 2013 - 2:22 pm

Once a train goes across the yellow line bridge, it cannot get back onto the blue line tracks. If you route all blue line trains over the bridge, they are essentially yellow line trains. Many people transfer between the blue and orange lines at Rosslyn. You’re now taking that away, as well as all service to Arlington Cemetery.

Alex B. January 25, 2013 - 2:26 pm

They’ve already done this with their recent ‘Rush Plus’ service change. Fewer Blue trains go to Rosslyn in order to make room for more Orange trains.

In exchange, they run more trains over the Yellow Line bridge. However, those trains still must share tracks with the Green Line in DC, and the Green line segment between Anacostia and L’Enfant Plaza is also nearing crush loads at peak hours.

Hence, their plan is to increase the capacity of all track segments by splitting the shared track segments through the core of the system. By necessity, this involves a new Potomac tunnel if you wish to split the Orange and Blue lines.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 3:40 pm

“They do not need another tunnel under the Potomac”

Yes they do. The Silver Line would overload the existing Blue/Orange tunnel.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 12:25 pm

It was more of a, “Uh, um, we need more capacity and uh, here ya go.” It seemed to make a lot of the mistakes of the 63rd street tunnel in NY

Um, actually, you are wrong, 63 St in NY was originally intended to go to Jamaica, as well as connect to the Second Avenue Subway.

AlexB January 25, 2013 - 6:06 pm

No, um, actually, I’m not wrong. The problem with the 63rd St tunnel has nothing to do with it’s destinations, proposed or built, which are all fine. The problem lies with choosing 63rd St as the route. Stations were built in odd locations and the line crosses others with no possibility of transfers. The F did get more capacity, but the same speed and fewer transfers, making it actually less useful than it had been. That seems to be the problem with the new tunnels WMATA is proposing. They need new capacity to go to existing or planned lines, but seem to be planning the ridiculously expensive new tunnels in places that are mostly already served and provide fewer transfers than what current riders enjoy.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 7:08 pm

Yes, but there’s a huge difference. 63 Street was part of a massive IND expansion project in the 1960s that would have expanded IND operations along the Horace Harding Expressway, Second Avenue (note the name of this blog), Archer Avenue, and the LIRR Montauk Branch ROW. It had to be cut back because there was no choice, with the city drowning in debt in 1976.

This WMATA plan is comparatively small, and was not intended to carry a significant number of riders from the beginning.

Alon Levy January 27, 2013 - 8:18 pm

Still. 63rd Street was still part of the IND philosophy of shitting on preexisting lines instead of intersecting them to create useful transfers.

Jim January 25, 2013 - 12:36 pm

Yes, the separated Yellow and Blue would both dead end at Thomas Circle. Planned stops on the separated Blue would be in Georgetown, West End (23rd and M), and Thomas Circle. Planned stops on the separated Yellow would be the equivalent of existing stops on Yellow/Green, just three blocks over: L’Enfant Plaza, Archives, Gallery Place and Mount Vernon Square, each connected by an in-fare-control tunnel to their now Green only twin. Plus a terminal at Thomas Circle where it’d meet separated Blue.

There’s been about two years worth of analysis gone into this. There are publicly available briefings on the Planit Metro site. Search for RSTP. The eventually recommended separated Blue is a cut down version of one variant of those studied. There were several variant of separated Yellow studied. This one was always the favored one.

The capacity problems that this addresses are with the Orange and Green lines. Both are currently above capacity at their river crossings and the number of trains can’t be increased on them because the switches at Rosslyn and L’Enfant Plaza require 135 seconds to switch. That limits each to 26 trains per hour, which is the number that currently run through them at peak. Moving Blue from competing with Orange and Yellow from competing with Green allows more Orange and more Green to cross their respective rivers, alleviating the “Orange Crush”.

Someone January 25, 2013 - 3:41 pm

Other plans are to merge the tracks back on the mainline after Thomas Circle.

Bolwerk January 25, 2013 - 11:59 am

Metro isn’t at capacity, except perhaps at rush hour.

New York transit deserves more funding, but it also needs to make better use of the funding it gets for various reasons that have been rehashed here over and over again.

Bill January 25, 2013 - 12:30 pm

“Metro isn’t at capacity, except perhaps at rush hour.” BALONEY!
I just retired after riding METRO continuously for at least 12 years, and experiencing its continual downward trajectory. WMATA train headway and length games ensure trains are close to full between 7am and 10 pm every weekday. Add in trackwork games on weekends and the same applies then too.

Car reliability is at an all-time low. For example, the Red line experiences a train breakdown or track problem essentially daily, which closes the line and dumps a trainload of passengers on the platform with nowhere to go (promised bsses usually materialize hours late, if at all).

The three Metro jurisdictions are required by law (their state and local laws) to support WMATA, so there is a dedicated funding stream. The problem is twofold: Governors who use the rwequired funding as a hostage for political reasons, and the annual “We’re going broke” whining from the incompetent WMATA bureaucracy.

You’re welcome.

Bolwerk January 25, 2013 - 12:56 pm

If what you say is true, then it proves what I said is not baloney. My guess is you’re confusing system capacity and train capacity. Individual trains are packed because they aren’t running enough off-peak; yes, those are at capacity. But they have track capacity to run more trains off-peak. Whatever the reasons, they are not using the capacity they have to run enough trains.

(I’m about 3 hours from partaking of the displeasure of Metro, actually. Yep, the Red Line.)

Someone January 25, 2013 - 8:39 pm

Which state do you live in, anyway?

Bolwerk January 26, 2013 - 1:23 pm

I don’t know how it isn’t obvious from my posts, but NY. Why?

Someone January 26, 2013 - 7:00 pm

Um… because New Yorkers usually don’t know shit about the Metro?

Someone January 26, 2013 - 7:03 pm

Um… because New Yorkers usually don’t know shit about the Metro?


Actually, I think the Orange/Blue Line between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory, and the Yellow/Green Line between Chinatown and L’Enfant Plz. is at track capacity (the WMATA is running manual operation right now).

Someone January 26, 2013 - 7:03 pm


I’m assuming you’re one of the New Yorkers that is more knowledgeable about the Metro…

Bolwerk January 27, 2013 - 1:22 pm

I have clients and family in Washington and Virginia. I use Metro several times a year. Not sure I would claim to have a lot of knowledge of its politics, but I know my way around it.

Bill pretty much corroborated what I was thinking anyway. That said, I do know they aren’t running many TPH off-peak on most lines. However, they seem to have a pretty expansive definition of “peak” too.

Someone January 27, 2013 - 4:22 pm


“I just retired after riding METRO continuously for at least 12 years, and experiencing its continual downward trajectory. WMATA train headway and length games ensure trains are close to full between 7am and 10 pm every weekday. Add in trackwork games on weekends and the same applies then too.”

WMATA also has an expansive definition of “at capacity”.

AG January 26, 2013 - 2:35 pm

Bill – car reliability has little to do with system capacity.

Adam January 26, 2013 - 9:22 am

When I was in DC for a conference in July, my youth hostel was about 6 blocks from Metro Center. I thought the station was overly crowded to start with, and needed some extra capacity.

On the Metro overall, if the subway is bad for taking photos, the Metro is even worse due to the lack of above platform lighting.

Someone January 26, 2013 - 7:05 pm

Apparently. Though in 2011, WMATA said that it was planning to install new platform lights.


Leave a Comment