Q & A: The Great Society Subway

The Great Society Subway:  A History of the Washington Metro

Last month Metroblogging DC mentioned that a new book by George Mason University professor, Zachary Schrag, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro (Johns Hopkins University Press) was scheduled to go on sale in March. Recently, Dr. Schrag answered some questions for Metroblogging DC about the book and Metro.

William F. Yurasko. What led to your interest in mass transit? Are you a regular Metro rider?

Dr. Zachary M. Schrag. I arrived in Washington at age seven in 1977, when Metro was just getting started, and its growth was one of the big events of my youth. I rode regularly in high school, while working various office jobs during and after college, and while researching the book. These days I drive to work, but my wife commutes by Metro.

WFY. Please elaborate on why Metro is “The Great Society Subway?”

ZMS. I chose the title to remind readers that any human creation is the product of a specific time in history. In this case, Metro emerged from the 1960s, a moment when Americans trusted their government and expected great things from it.

WFY. How has Metro met its “Great Society” goals? How hasn’t it? How does Metro’s legacy measure up to other Great Society goals?

ZMS. Metro, like Medicare, is a universalistic program; it serves rich and poor alike. Such programs are politically robust, and they help foster a sense of community. The Great Society goal that Metro has not achieved is more residential integration across racial and class lines.

WFY. Overall, would you say that Metro is a success or failure?

ZMS. Metro achieved many of the goals of its creators, who hoped to preserve Washington as a city with a vigorous yet pedestrian-friendly center. Critics have argued that transportation systems should be judged only by the ratio of dollars to rides, but that is not the way I would judge success nor the way most Washingtonians thought at the time they made key decisions.

- If a success, when did it become that way?

ZMS. Metro ran its first train in 1976, and by 1978, it was performing real service. After a long period of decline, total transit ridership (bus plus rail) started to climb. And investors began returning to the District’s “old downtown,” east of 15th street, that they had abandoned years before.

- If a failure, why?

ZMS. Critics would say the project failed in November 1974, when financial planners were forced to admit that fare-box revenues would never cover operating costs, much less pay off construction bonds. Metro was not in good financial shape before that, but it has been in obviously poor financial shape ever since.

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A 1963 Metro Station design

Click on the image for a larger image and description from Schrag’s Building the Washington Metro Web site.

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WFY. President Lyndon Johnson wrote a letter about the aesthetics of Metro. How did this help or hurt Metro’s mission?

ZMS. Johnson *signed* a letter (this will open in a new browser window) that was drafted for him by the federal agency then planning the system. More generally, I find it hard to imagine what Metro would be like had planners gone through with the utilitarian station designs first proposed. Not only would ugly stations fail to capture the imagination, but I wonder how they would
affect ridership.

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A 1965 Metro system map

Click on the image for a larger image and description from Schrag’s Building the Washington Metro Web site.

This will open in a new window.

WFY. How crucial was the Freeway Revolt to Metro’s future? Were it not for the Freeway Revolt, could the Metro have been completed?

ZMS. The National Capital Planning Commission proposed a rapid transit system before the freeway revolt got going in 1959, but it called for only two lines, totaling 33 miles. Had a system like this been built alongside the planned freeways, Washington would look a lot more like Atlanta, where transit is generally used by people who have no other choices, and much of downtown is devoted to parking rather than to people.

WFY. Is Metro held to a higher standard by the communities it serves than mass transit in New York, Boston, Chicago, etc.?

ZMS. That’s an excellent question, which is how a professor says, “I don’t know.” New Yorkers do spend a lot of time thinking and talking about their subway.

WFY. The lack of a third track is sometimes criticized. How likely would it have been to get the whole system built with the additional cost of a third or fourth track?

ZMS. Planners rejected third or fourth tracks in favor of more two-track routes. In particular, rather than have one tunnel with four tracks running from Farragut Square to Capitol Hill, they planned two, two-track tunnels: the Red Line to Union Station and the Blue/Orange to Capitol South. I think most Washingtonians today would consider additional routes, such as the proposed extension to Dulles, more valuable than express service on existing routes.

WFY. The tunnel between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom has become a major choke point in the system. WMATA is trying to alleviate that by running eight car Orange line trains instead of six car trains more frequently, during rush hour. Can stopgap solutions like this one work and if so, for how long? Is a new tunnel or bridge across the Potomac vital to the system’s health?

The proposed Dulles corridor extension has been fighting an uphill battle for a number of years. Some are concerned that it would lead to even more gridlock in the Rosslyn tunnel. Other critics advocating building more lanes on the Dulles Toll Road or Bus Rapid Transit instead. Can either of these alternatives provide the level of service that a new Metro line would?

ZMS. I think that all of these questions are really about the future of employment, especially at Tysons Corner. According to Council of Government statistics (PDF), in the year 2000, downtown Washington (which has 14 stations) employed 356,000 people, compared to 89,000 in Tysons Corner (which has no stations). To me this suggests that rail to Tysons is one of the great opportunities for new transit. Many commuters to Tysons already live in Virginia, so the expansion would not necessarily bust the Potomac tunnel. But rail could shape new development, especially in Loudoun County, far more than adding lanes to the Dulles Toll Road.

Bus rapid transit does have a great deal of potential, but I think it makes more sense for cities that are starting rapid transit from scratch than for a city that already has an established, popular rail system.

WFY. Will another American city ever undertake a subway as ambitious as Metro again? Los Angeles started to build one, but stopped before completing the system, though there are discussions about restarting the program (USA Today).

ZMS. In 1982, Boris Pushkarev, Jeffrey Zupan, and Robert Cumella identified Los Angeles, Seattle, Honolulu, Houston, and possibly Dallas-Ft. Worth and San Juan, as the only “serious candidates” for new rapid transit. As far as I know, that analysis stands, and only San Juan is actively building. Many more cities are investing in
light rail. which generally runs on the surface and must cross surface streets.

WFY. Recently, the momentum for a dedicated funding source for Metro has picked up steam. How crucial is this for the future of Metro? Do you think dedicated funding sources can be achieved in the near future?

ZMS. I am not convinced that a dedicated funding source is a panacea. You would need to guess just how much money Metro will need in future years, then try to guess how much revenue a given tax would provide. If you guess wrong and the revenue stream is too high, the board will be tempted to let fares lag behind inflation, which strikes me as a potentially unjust subsidy to riders. More likely, the revenue stream will be too low, in which case WMATA will have to face critics who complain that it is not living within its means.

WFY. What is currently the most pressing need for Metro? In 5-10 years? In the distant future?

ZMS. Money, money, and money.

WFY. Is Metro getting dirtier?

ZMS. The worst I saw it was in the months after September 11, 2001, when most trash cans were removed for security reasons. Now that people can dump their trash in bomb-proof cans, I think it’s a bit nicer.

WFY. Of the major North American subway systems, where does Metro compare in overall service to the region?

ZMS. In terms of trips and miles, Metro provides far more service than any other American rail system except for the New York City subway. I do not have handy figures on Canada and Mexico, but the American Public Transit Association has a great page of U.S. statistics at http://www.apta.com/research/stats/rail/index.cfm.

WFY. Dick White was recently ousted as the WMATA head. How does his tenure measure up to his predecessors? White’s interim replacement is Dan Tangherlini; how likely is it that he will become permanent? If so, how successful do you think he can be with improving the system?

ZMS. All I can say is that the job of general manager of a transit system must be one of the toughest jobs out there, combining the largest challenges of government service and private enterprise. No one expects the Navy to finance most of its operating costs, while the chief of an airline can cut unprofitable routes. A transit chief has to provide service like a government official while trying to raise revenue like a businessman.

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Dr. Schrag

WFY. How cooperative was WMATA with your research for the book?

ZMS. WMATA provided many wonderful photographs, including the magnificent cover shot by photographer Larry Levine. The Authority does not employ an archivist, so it was not able to meet most of my requests for documents. Fortunately, other institutions, especially George Washington University, hold significant archival collections related to Metro.

WFY. How long did it take you to research and write your book?

ZMS. I did my first interview in the fall of 1998. I completed most of the research between the summer of 1999 and the summer of 2002, though I have worked hard to update the final chapters to reflect recent events.

WFY. Do you have any book readings/signings scheduled?

ZMS. I will be speaking and signing books on Sunday, March 12, at 5 pm at Politics and Prose. As other events are confirmed, I will announce them at http://www.schrag.info/

WFY. Any closing thoughts?

ZMS. The questions you ask, and the questions I get from other Washingtonians, are much the same as the ones that launched me on the project. I had the luxury of devoting several years to satisfying my curiosity, but I hope that my book offers readers quicker answers to their questions.

All images appear courtesy of Zachary M. Schrag

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