Ridership on Metro’s Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines is expected to rise in coming decades with an increase of 18 percent, or 40,000 additional people, projected for 2040.

Even now, demand during peak rush hours sometimes strains the rail system’s ability to operate all the three lines, since they utilize the same set of tracks at the Rosslyn station tunnel to cross the Potomac River and travel between Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.

To accommodate the anticipated growth in ridership before the relatively minor existing capacity issues turn into a full-on emergency, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is now working on a capacity and reliability study focused on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines that officials hope will lead to short and long-term solutions.

“We know that we’re not going to be able to provide the service levels to meet the ridership needs we’ll have in the future,” WMATA’s Blue/Orange/Silver (BOS) Capacity and Reliability Study project manager Mark Phillips said. “Projects like these take a long time, especially big ones that are transformative enough to really impact capacity…We can’t wait for a crisis.”

Launched in January 2019, the two-year study focuses on a two-mile area that will include 44 Metrorail stations and 56 miles of track across seven jurisdictions when the second phase of the Silver Line opens potentially in the summer of 2020.

The full Orange and Silver Lines are under consideration, along with the Blue Line from the Pentagon station in Arlington to the Largo Town Center station in Maryland.

According to WMATA, limitations at the Rosslyn tunnel already make service on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines the least reliable in the Metro system, with six out of every 10 trips eligible for the “Rush Hour Promise” credit that the transit agency gives to rush-hour customers who experience a delay of 10 minutes or longer.

While those three lines account for 40 percent of Metrorail riders overall, the trains still become crowded during peak times. Orange Line trains, which tend to be the most packed, sometimes carry over 150 passengers per car during morning rush hours, a quarter more than what Metro considers acceptable.

Trains between the Court House and Rosslyn stations are already at maximum capacity during rush hours with Metro only able to run 26 trains per hour at most through the Rosslyn tunnel, which limits to the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines to on an eight-minute operating schedule, according to WMATA.

Congestion and service issues will be exacerbated in the future, as the D.C. metropolitan region braces for an expected influx of 1.5 million people and 1.1 million jobs by 2045, Phillips says.

The population in the two-mile area at the center of the BOS study is expected to go up by 37 percent with a 30 percent jump in employment by 2040.

“We’ve known about these issues for a while, but we haven’t been able to come up with a consensus strategy for the corridor,” Phillips said.

The BOS study is intended to produce an overall strategy to provide rail capacity to serve rider demand, improve reliability and on-time performance, increase operational flexibility and cost efficiency, and provide transportation options that support Metro’s sustainability targets.

Announced on Apr. 22, WMATA’s first-ever Energy Action Plan calls for the transit system to reduce its energy usage per vehicle by 15 percent, its water usage by 20 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent, while increasing regional ridership by 25 percent and renewable energy use by 30 percent by 2025.

The $65 million, four-year plan is estimated to generate $29 million annually in energy and operational cost savings, according to WMATA.

The BOS study is currently in a brainstorming phase as Metro develops possible project concepts and solicits ideas from stakeholders and the general public.

WMATA released a series of preliminary concepts intended to improve reliability and customer service and meet future ridership demand on Dec. 5 and has spent the past two weeks seeking feedback at open houses throughout the region.

The last scheduled open house took place at the Courtyard by Marriott Tysons-McLean hotel on Dec. 17. Previous events were held at George Mason University’s Arlington campus, George Washington University in downtown D.C., and St. Margaret’s Church in Capitol Heights, Md.

The preliminary concepts developed by the WMATA project team and presented at the open houses include:

  • the installation of infrastructure allowing trains to turn back at select points along the Blue, Orange, or Silver Lines
  • the construction of a new Rosslyn II station with a rail circulator to carry travelers around Northern Virginia
  • a reconfiguration of the Blue Line that travels out of a new Rosslyn II station and goes under to Potomac River through a new tunnel
  • the construction of a new Rosslyn II station with a new tunnel under the Potomac that serves a Metrorail Loop connecting the Pentagon, Rosslyn, Georgetown, Dupont and Shaw neighborhoods, and the Navy Yard/Waterfront area
  • the addition of a new tunnel under the Potomac for an extended Silver Line either north or south of Interstate 66

More detailed explanations of the proposed concepts and the benefits and drawbacks that come with each one can be found on the study website at wmata.com/BOSstudy.

Because the study is still in its relatively early stages, WMATA has not incorporated financial considerations into the concepts yet with Phillips’s team still in the process of developing and refining conceptual designs for possible project options.

The project team is not scheduled to present a cost/benefit analysis with an assessment of the total construction and operating costs for each proposal until next summer. A full strategy proposal with recommended short and long term projects will eventually be presented to Metro leaders in the fall of 2020.

While the BOS study focuses on Metrorail service, Phillips says suggestions related to bus service and other transit options, or infrastructure improvements, such as the addition of more elevators or stairwells at critical stations, are also welcome, since they could be helpful in the future even if they are not ultimately included in the study’s final proposal.

In addition to gathering public input, WMATA is also working with several committees of local policymakers and transportation officials, business groups, community organizations, technical experts, and other stakeholders.

An online survey for the public to provide feedback on the study’s preliminary concepts and to submit new ideas is currently accessible through the BOS study website and will be open until Jan. 6.

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