Making the most out of public transit

I was living in the DC area when its metro system first opened in 1976. I remember how bus lines were completely revamped to tie into the nascent rail lines which had the effect of greatly increasing the time of my commute from northern Virginia. In part because of this, I moved into the District to an apartment where I was literally steps from the Dupont Circle station. At first there was a fair amount of opposition from neighborhoods adjacent to the system’s stops to proposal for increasing zoning density. Over time, however, densities were indeed increased and large scale, mixed-use, transit oriented development (TOD) became commonplace in both the Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

A recent Urban Land article caught my eye given this personal history with Metro. It recaps the story of how a true public-private partnership among the District of Columbia, the federal government and private landowners shared the cost of adding a station to serve the recently renamed NoMa neighborhood directly north of the Capitol Building.

The private sector contributed nearly 30% of the cost of the project. In the ensuing eight years the availability of rail service has spurredĀ $3 billion in private investment and over 7 million square feet (650,000 sq m) of development, and that more than 40,000 people have jobs in NoMa. City tax revenues in the 35-block area that constitutes the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) have skyrocketed from $5 million annually to $60 million.

The Metro authority was a reluctant participant at the outset but eventually did cooperate. One wonders how many other potential transit station sites there are out there waiting for similar redevelopment efforts. The catalyst here was a developer, the Bristol Group, which found itself with a huge old department store distribution center and 8+ acres of vacant land. Perhaps when transit systems are planned or extended rather than having planners arbitrarily decide where stations belong, the public sector ought to open up the process to some form of “bidding” by groups who control enough land in the vicinity of a proposed station to ensure that the public investment pays off in terms of new development, increased property values, and greater ridership.

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