Rush of commuters expands population 79%

The District's population swells every weekday proportionately more than any other major city in the country, according to new census figures released Thursday.

The city's population grew daily from about 584,000 people to 1.05 million people in 2010, with the addition of commuters, the latest data available from the U.S. census.

Major cities* showing biggest commuter influx
1. Washington, D.C.: 79% 584,400 residents; 1.046m daytime population
2. Boston:
40% 602,600 residents; 844,300 daytime population
3. Houston:
28% 2.068m residents; 2.645m daytime population
4. Denver:
27% 578,100 residents; 734,200 daytime population
5. Seattle:
27% 594,200 residents; 752,800 daytime population
6. Portland, Ore.:
22% 566,700 residents; 688,600 daytime population
7. San Francisco:
21% 789,200 residents; 951,600 daytime population
8. Dallas:
21% 1.187m residents; 1.43m daytime population
9. Austin, Texas:
19% 764,100 residents; 911,100 daytime population
10. Charlotte, N.C.:
18% 705,900 residents; 835,200 daytime population
*Cities with at least 500,000 residents, numbers rounded
Source: U.S. census

That means a population boom daily of 79 percent, far more than in any other city of more than 500,000 people. The next closest is Boston, which grows daily by 40 percent. To be sure, the raw number of commuters into the city is smaller in Washington than in New York City, Los Angeles or other bigger cities, but the District still ranks 10th for the total number of commuters attracted daily.

The city held the top spot in terms of expansion in 2000, as well, but the change has grown from 72 percent to 79 percent a decade later.

The news isn't a surprise to anyone stuck in traffic behind cars with Maryland and Virginia license plates each weekday morning. Crowds pour into Union Station from the suburbs, served by Metro's Red Line and the MARC and Virginia Railway Express commuter trains. Workers line up for slug lines and commuter buses on street corners.

The federal government's presence has kept D.C.'s economy resilient, attracting workers to steady jobs despite the recent recession. But Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the city is still catching up from decades of emptying out, when residents fled to the outlying communities.

For the District, the daily influx means good things and bad. Commuters buy lunches, shop and drink, supporting local businesses and paying sales taxes.

But they also stress local infrastructure and traffic.

The costs for Metro service are distributed around the region based upon ridership, said National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board Director Ron Kirby, but the roads are problematic as people come into the city and pay nothing. "There has always been an issue of how we pay for the transportation they use," Kirby said.

D.C. officials have tried over the years to get visitors to pay their way with a commuter tax. They have sought to add a 5-cent station surcharge to pay for improvements to Union Station's Metro stop, the busiest in the system, but the idea has been shut down repeatedly as a proxy commuter tax. An actual commuter tax was floated again in Congress last year but hasn't moved forward. "It's a non-starter," Kirby said.

However, AAA's Anderson said the city has effectively created such a tax with the red-light and speed cameras that it has placed along the commuter corridors. "Congratulations to D.C.," he said. "It was denied by Congress any hope of commuter tax, but it's found a way to do it."