The Rock & The Hard Place

by Just Juan
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“Quite simply, WMATA has transportation in the entire National Capital Region by the balls and everyone in every way is affected” – AnJuan Thomas

I wrote that as a reply to a Twitter post that asked if the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority—or WMATA—was good for the area. My answer is a resounding no. Nevermind the fact that they tried to kill me 8 years ago, it’s the fact that they charge sky-high rates for service that is more shitty than the breadsticks Whoopi Goldberg had in Jumpin’ Jack Flash. To get from the Metrorail station closest to where I live—Shady Grove—to the one closest to where I work—Farragut North—costs nearly $14 a day, a price that is 25% higher because I travel during the rush hour when WMATA institutes “peak” and “peak of the peak” rates. Add in the parking that $5.20 a day and you’re talking nearly $100 a week just to use the DC Metro. The trains are never run consistently and there is no schedule to determine if they are running on time. There are always delays for problems on the tracks, for issues with trains ahead, and even for shift changes. My personal favorite is the fact that the drivers wait 10 seconds after the train has stopped at the station to open the doors…something about the doors opening when the train was still moving and somebody got hurt.

All of this is very offputting and leads one to look at other transportation options…like the MARC Train, which actually goes quite a bit farther out than Metro but is more expensive. For instance, the cost to get from the Gaithersburg MARC Station to the Washington Grove MARC Station on the Brunswick Line is $5 even though it’s literally a 102-second ride. The other side of that is that it only costs $6 for a one-way trip to Union Station in Washington and parking is free. I still have to take Metro to get from Union to work though and the MARC runs very infrequently and is a no-go for an emergency outside of rush hour.

Another option is the buses. For me, it would be combinations of the Montgomery County, Maryland Ride On buses and the WMATA Metrobus…a total of 3 buses and 2 hours each way. It’s the cheapest option though at $4 each way. There aren’t any commuter options on my side of the NCR unless I’m going to Baltimore or cities close to the northeast corner of the Capital Beltway.

The option that I’m most in control of is driving. But because the rail system is either too expensive or too shitty, the roads are congested with automobiles. This isn’t helped by the fact that the Capital Beltway is one of the most ineffective roadways in the world. It makes I-285 in Atlanta seem normal. Even back roads and roads that you think are absolutely obscure are traffic jams up here. The road traffic—often complicated by never-ending road construction and tire-killing potholes—is so bad that 2-way streets become 1-way streets during rush hour. To provide some relief, the local jurisdictions use the E-Z Pass toll system but the rates are astronomical. They are at least double during rush hour and if there is an accident, they could be as high as 10 times the rate. For instance, the featured image is of the newly enforced tolls on I-66 East in Northern Virginia just inside of the Capital Beltway. For years, even before I lived up here the 1st time, it was fair game for single-occupancy vehicles to travel eastbound on I-66 inside of the Beltway up until 6:30am before it became restricted to HOV traffic until the end of rush hour at 9am. For westbound traffic from DC to the Beltway on I-66 West, it was fair game for single-occupancy vehicles up until 4pm before it became restricted to HOV traffic until the end of rush hour at 6:30pm. That was the deal for 15 years and it worked for everybody. The people who had to be at work early—the people who work 5am-2pm or 6am-3pm—could get in and out of Washington without issue. People who violated were pulled over and ticketed by Virginia State Police and it was a pricey ticket…like $75 minimum for the HOV violation. It was a system that worked and wasn’t necessarily broken.

THE ARLINGTON COUNTY SCREWJOB. Yesterday, the Virginia Department of Transportation—at the direction of the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia—decided to make I-66 inside of the Capital Beltway a toll road under the E-Z Pass Virginia jurisdiction. Those same “nice” folks at VDOT also decided to lift the HOV-2 restrictions on I-66 inside of the Beltway, which would give a lot of drivers from NoVA and parts of Montgomery County, Maryland a direct route into Washington from the west. At least, that’s the theory. It would’ve been a really good move and probably would’ve eased traffic flows on all other points of entry into the District except VDOT did 2 things: (1) they changed the existing rush hour period from 2 ½ hours (6:30am-9am and 4pm-6:30pm) to 4 hours (5:30am-9:30am and 3pm-7pm) and (2) made I-66 a dynamic toll road, meaning that all drivers must have 2+ passengers AND an E-Z Pass Flex (only available to Virginia drivers) or be subject to a toll that rises and falls depending on the number of vehicles on the road. The result was that $40 toll in the featured image. A colleague of mine decided to use the road today for the 1st time in 13 years. Instead of using I-495 (Capital Beltway) to connect with I-395 into DC on his commute from Fairfax, Virginia, he took the straight shot down I-66 East. He ended up paying $28.50 for 9.7 miles of travel. Needless to say, he said that will be the first, last, and only time he’s taking I-66 into DC as long as those tolls are in play.

Simply put, this is highway robbery of the highest order…and somehow, it’s legal. When one thinks of toll roads, one often thinks of these extremely well-maintained roads with black asphalt and well-painted lines. It’s usually one of the smoothest drives you’ll have. That’s not the case in this area. The toll roads are only marginally better than the roads we mere mortals use. Rightfully so, there is a lot of frustration from the locals—especially those that are residents of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William County as well as the independent cities of Falls Church and Fairfax—about the tolling of I-66 inside of the Beltway. Being some of the most affluent residents of this area, it was their tax dollars that paid for the improvements to I-66 inside of the Beltway in the last 80s and early 90s, which have only increased since the U.S. Department of Transportation transferred control of the stretch from Rosslyn to I-495 to VDOT. For the past 15 years, it’s worked well without tolls and now it has the highest tolls in the country. To make matters worse, the tolls are said to be for improvements on I-66 west of the Capital Beltway, which is under the jurisdiction of USDOT. It leads many to wonder where the millions of dollars that are sure to be collected will go.

This further complicates the transit issues in this area. Let’s start with the simplest solution: driving. If one wants to drive here, they have to contend with the worst traffic in the country—sorry Atlanta, this traffic here is no joke. They can get around traffic by using the E-Z Pass Express Lanes, which jump from lows of $0.80 at 5am to $14 at 6am on I-495 and I-95, depending on road conditions (accidents, road construction, etc). And if they do navigate through all of that into DC, awaiting them is $3 per hour street parking with rules that you can’t be in the same parking spot for more than 2 hours. You could also use the parking garages that have low overhead clearance and cost $30 for the entire day. All of that would make one want to use the buses. But the commuter buses run on schedules that are usually not friendly and are subject to road conditions. Don’t get me started on the local buses. That’s a no-go from anywhere outside of the Beltway. Then, what about rail? I’ve already explained Metro and MARC. Well, Virginia Railway Express isn’t any better. So it puts the commuter in this area in a tough spot. There’s no good solution. You are between a rock and a hard place if you commute here.

What I would do? The problem is WMATA. Almost every transportation company—from commuter buses to local buses to hotel shuttles to private companies—pays a tax to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission to operate here and the majority of that money goes to WMATA. In addition to that tax on operators, WMATA receives $300 million a year in tax money—$150 million from the Federal Government and $50 million each from Maryland, Virginia, and DC—for operating expenses and the funding of needed safety precautions under a 10-year agreement with the government jurisdictions. Since 2009, when they almost killed me in the Red Line crash, they have received $2.7 billion in funding yet the system is 13 times less safe now than it was in 2009. Furthermore, top officials for WMATA say that in addition to the remaining $300 million left in the deal, they need an additional $25 billion to make everything completely safe. And yet nobody knows what their obviously charbroiled books look like. The solution at this point is for the system to go private. I would love for East Japan Railways to straight-up buy WMATA for $10 billion and, to steal a line from the President, “drain the swamp”. I think that if they invested in JR America the same they did JR East, everything would be better here. The obvious problem is that WMATA’s inefficiency has caused a domino effect in which every other transportation player punishes the commuter for using their service instead of WMATA. There has to be a better way.

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