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New Long-Range Plan Could Bring Metro to M Street

By Katie PearceCurrent Staff Writer

Though Metro’s new strategic plan focuses mostly on short-term needs, one vision for the distant future — to build a new rail tunnel through Georgetown to Thomas Circle — is already catching attention.

The idea, which could potentially create a Metro station in rail-starved Georgetown, is certainly not new as a conversation piece. But a concrete proposal in that direction from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority gives the topic new steam.

The authority released its 10-year strategic plan last week. Dubbed “Momentum,” the plan lays out the system’s immediate priorities as well as a vision for the long term, as the region prepares to take on a 30 percent population increase over 30 years.

The plan’s first priority is maximizing the existing transit network, requiring at least $1 billion per year. Goals for 2025 — which include using only full eight-car trains and increasing the capacity of core Metro stations — would cost an additional $500 million per year.

Then there’s a set of goals for 2040, which would require an additional $740 million per year. Among those is a proposal to separate the Blue and Orange lines and the Yellow and Green lines in the system’s core. Doing so would involve building two new tunnels terminating at Thomas Circle — one running north-south along 10th Street NW and SW; the other crossing the Potomac River from Rosslyn, and beneath Georgetown via M Street.

Tom Harrington, the authority’s director of long-range planning, noted that the new plan doesn’t contain much detail on these tunnels. “In Momentum, [the Georgetown tunnel] is purposely drawn with big fat arrows. It doesn’t show you station locations and so forth,” he said.

“The bottom line is, at this stage, we’re talking about the need to separate the two lines,” Harrington said.

Congestion at the Rosslyn stop — a strain expected to grow once the new Silver Line to Dulles is up and running — would justify the project, according to Metro documents. Harrington said tackling Rosslyn congestion as part of the 2025 goals could “potentially be a starting point” to the conversation about the new tunnel.

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans gave enthusiastic support for a tunnel beneath Georgetown in an interview yesterday.

As a resident of the neighborhood himself since 1993, “I would like to have a Metro in Georgetown,” he said, adding that he believes he “represents the majority of the people” on that point. Currently, he said, he can’t use public transportation to get to work without a lot of time, hassle and confusing fees.

According to Evans, the D.C. Council intends to pass a “sense of the council” resolution supporting the goals of the “Momentum” plan next Tuesday.

But the legislator has some other ideas for how a line through Georgetown might work. Personally, he’d prefer to see it run south from Tenleytown down Wisconsin Avenue, which could also address Glover Park’s transit deficiencies.

And if Metro does build a tunnel across the Potomac, Evans believes it needs to be “big enough to fit cars as well,” to alleviate traffic on Key Bridge and the Whitehurst Freeway. With a car tunnel in place, he said, there could even be justification for tearing down the Whitehurst.

The transit authority has considered various ideas for a Rosslyn-originating tunnel in the past, including one running to Union Station. Though the “Momentum” vision cuts off the new tunnel at Thomas Circle, a parallel planning effort is exploring options for a new Blue line running along M Street NW eventually to H Street NE and the Benning Road stop — via either New Jersey or Constitution avenues.

Harrington said the transit authority will review these concepts and others in its “Regional Transit System Plan,” expected to come out in the middle of this year.

According to Evans, another idea would be to run a line up Pennsylvania Avenue, “cutting back over to Metro Center.” He said a station near the International Monetary Fund at 700 19th St. NW could make sense.

Joe Sternlieb, executive director of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, said a central stop near Wisconsin and M streets would be ideal for the neighborhood, but “both God and the devil are in the details.”

The business group supports the general concept of a tunnel through Georgetown, which Sternlieb said “has been on the wish list for a very long time.”

He said he expects his group to participate in advocacy and planning sessions soon.

But Sternlieb said the high price tag for Metro’s total list of aspirations — the widely reported $26 billion — also “makes people realistic” in their expectations.

Though the “Momentum” plan calls attention to the need for stable funding, it doesn’t go into specifics.

Evans believes the same funding mechanism that brought Metro to the city decades ago — with the feds pitching in half the costs, and the District, Maryland and Virginia splitting the rest — can work again. “You just have to make the commitment to that,” he said.

Another backdrop to the Georgetown tunnel is the neighborhood’s history with Metro. To this day there are conflicting rumors about why a Georgetown stop never made its way into the network.

The transit authority’s response to that question is to direct people to Zachary M. Schrag’s book “The Great Society Metro,” which describes obstacles both in neighborhood opposition and in complexities of engineering and costs, Harrington said.

Last week the Georgetown Metropolitan blog firmly disputed the “popular stereotype” that Metro evaded the neighborhood because “rich Georgetowners wanted to keep the minorities out.”

Council member Evans, who twice chaired the Metro board, said he researched the topic extensively and found some “truth to the rumor” that neighborhood opposition killed Metro for Georgetown in the 1970s. Since Congress ran the city at that time — and several members lived in Georgetown — Metro abandoned the idea of a stop there, he said.

This article appears in the Jan. 30 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.