How bad is the Washington Metro rail system? So bad that only 84% of its trains ran on time, mainly due to poor maintenance. So bad that ridership declined 5% since 2010, even as transit ridership nationally was up. So bad that the system needs an extra $1.3 billion every year to invest in capital projects, and no one knows where the money will come from. The Metro rail system is so bad that even the Washington Post has perked up and taken notice.
The Metro rail system is arguably the most essential piece of transportation infrastructure in the Washington region, and it is engaged in a slow-motion train wreck. If the metro fails, the metropolitan transportation system seizes up and fails.
The Washington Post has detailed the Metro’s failings in a lengthy, front-page article, which shows that shows how deep-rooted the problems are. The original design flaw, write Robert McCartney and Paul Duggan, was the dysfunctional governance system that shares board appointments between Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and the federal government. Responsibility is so divided that no one is held accountable, and nothing important gets done unless the District’s mayor and the governors in Annapolis an Richmond reach a consensus and push an issue forward.
Add to that the political bias toward expanding the Metro over properly maintaining it.
Board members … kept pushing for Metro to grow. The politicians who held the purse strings seemed happy to invest in laying new tracks and opening new stations, where they could tout development at opening ceremonies. But they cared less about spending for maintenance to prevent breakdowns years later, when they might no longer be in office.
In 2006 then-interim general manager Dan Tangherlini urged cost-reduction measures such as replacing short escalators with stairs, selling Metro’s headquarters building, and buying rail cars made from older designs. The board wasn’t interested. After nine months as a fill-in, Tangherlini did not get the top spot, the article says, “because Virginia representatives on the Metro board were worried that his interest in revitalizing existing subway lines would threaten the agency’s commitment to building the Silver Line.”
So, Virginia got its Silver Line to Tysons, but the quality of service is held captive to a dysfunctional organization. Astonishingly, the Silver Line, the newest in the system, is showing the second worst on-time performance of the six lines. According to data cited by the Post, Silver Line on-time performance in 2015 ran under 75%, dropping below 60% in October 2015.
Another original design flaw was a decision to build lines with two tracks, not four as in New York, with the result that crews sometimes must shut down lines to perform routine maintenance. Also consider the dysfunctional unionized workforce which adds to costs. The Post authors glide past union issues with relatively little comment in this article, but the Washington Times produced a devastating series of articles on the topic several years ago.
Bacon’s bottom line: The Metro is so critical to the functioning of the Washington region, including much of Northern Virginia, that it effectively holds the economy hostage. It is the transportation analogue to “Too Big to Fail.”
But no solution is in the offing. Raising the price of Metro tickets, which don’t come close to covering the cost of the service, is not a viable revenue-raising option when riders are already hacked off and inclined to abandon the system. Asking more money from state and local governments is sure to be contentious, especially in Virginia, if bailing out the commuter-rail system means short-changing other regions of funding for their own projects. Taxpayers are not likely to approve dumping more than $500 million a year extra into Metro, especially with no guarantee that the money won’t disappear into a black hole.
(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on April 26, 2016)