Guest post by Zachary M. Schrag
Measure twice, cut once, is good advice for carpenters and tailors. It’s even better advice for transportation planners, whose decisions can shape metropolitan regions for generations. This Saturday, July 26, officials will inaugurate the first stations on the Silver Line, an addition to the Washington Metro rapid transit system. In doing so, they will help rectify the biggest mistake made by the system’s planners nearly half a century ago.
For the most part, Metro’s planners did a remarkably good job of measuring and cutting. The five lines they created collect commuters from parking lots, bus routes, and neighborhoods throughout Washington and suburban Maryland and Virginia and deliver them to such major employment centers as the Pentagon, Southwest D.C., and Farragut Square.
Metro has attracted investment to previously declining parts of the region, most notably Washington’s downtown east of 15th Street. Once home to vacant buildings and porn shops, the area is now the location of a new convention center and sports arena as well as thriving office buildings, shops, restaurants, and condominiums. Montgomery County, Maryland, and Arlington County, Virginia, also designed their zoning to encourage dense growth near Metro stations, so that parts of those counties have become models of transit-oriented development. In Arlington, automobile traffic on key roads has actually declined even as population and employment have soared.
Moreover, some of the most frustrating gaps in Metro coverage were beyond the power of transportation planners to address. In particular, National Park Service intransigence about Rock Creek Park helped doom plans to serve Adams-Morgan, now a lively district of restaurants and bars that could use better transit service.
But planners did make one great mistake in failing to route Metro to Tysons Corner, a district defined by the intersection of three major highways in Fairfax County, Virginia. To be sure, Tysons wasn’t much to look at in the mid-1960s, when planners pulled out their colored pencils. But by 1965, the county had rezoned the area to allow for a regional mall, while planning staff called Tysons the “gateway to Washington for the jet-age” and the “crossroads of the county,” with the potential for up to 85,000 jobs. It could have been an ideal place to build rapid transit, letting the boom town grow up around Metro.
Instead, county supervisors routed Metro’s Orange Line to serve the small but existing, communities of Vienna and Fairfax City, to the south of Tysons Corner. These mostly residential communities rejected plans for dense development, which went to Tysons instead. So rather than combining those complementary machines—the subway and the skyscraper—Fairfax essentially gave its residents a choice between driving to the Metro station near Vienna or driving to work or shop at Tysons.
That will change at noon on July 26, when the first Silver Line train rolls east from the Reston-Wiehle Station, making four stops in Tysons before joining the existing Metro system in Arlington. Now, developers will have incentives to build their office towers and apartment buildings within an easy walk of stations, and commuters to some of the 100,000 jobs in Tysons will have an alternative to the clogged roads of the district. Fairfax County is encouraging more people to live in Tysons, with Metro as part of the lure. One may even start to see people walking to work as both apartments and offices cluster near the new stations.
All of this will take time. Arlington’s Orange Line stations opened in 1979, yet some lots within walking distance of the line are only now being developed. If you really want to understand the significance of Saturday’s ribbon-cutting for Tysons Corner, check back in the year 2050.
Zachary M. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University, and author of the book, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.