Last January, in our nation’s capital, over 380 people were trapped underground for more than an hour while their Metro car filled with acrid smoke. The incident left one elderly woman dead, dozens hospitalized, and millions of commuters who use the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority service on edge.
Unfortunately, this tragic accident at L’Enfant Plaza was not an isolated incident. A quick glance at the past year of WMATA operations reveals a history of safety, service, and communication failures. A fire in a power distribution plant, an oil spill on Metro tracks, a train derailment at the Smithsonian station, and an insulator explosion at the Federal Center SW station are just a few among a series of disturbances associated with the District’s public transit system. DC Metro commuters have become so accustomed to their city’s failing train system that the Twitter account @UnSuckMetro, has amassed as an online following of more than 50,000 commuters documenting WMATA’s daily failures.
How did “America’s Subway”—a metro system that at the time of its creation was hailed as the gold standard for American public transportation—get this bad?
They’re Not the Only Power
The answer might lie within the structure of WMATA itself. WMATA is a tri-jurisdictional government agency, controlled and regulated through an interstate compact between Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. WMATA is governed through a board of advisors composed of two members from each of these regions, in addition to two members appointed to represent the federal government. Having these three regions constantly competing for their parochial interests has effectively politicized the board, producing a series of quid pro quo kickbacks. Board members deal out their budget through a back and forth battle over which region and constituency receives new lines, operational subsidies, bus stops, station renovations, or operating hours extensions. Beholden to their constituents, appointed members have more incentive to advocate for popular expansionary plans than to simply maintain service quality.
Another oddity of WMATA is the way the agency is financed. Most public transportation systems finance their capital and operating budgets through dedicated funding schemes by the transit systems’ respective regional governmental authority. However, since WMATA is spread out over three different autonomous regions, it cannot levy direct taxes like other systems. Instead, WMATA relies on local and state subsidies for a majority of its budget. These county and state subsidies are by no means guaranteed, meaning WMATA must compete with a slew of other local bureaus and departments for vital operational funding each fiscal year.
Boston’s MBTA by contrast, derives practically none of its budget from local and state subsidies, instead getting 62 percent of its funding from dedicated revenues like direct transit taxes in addition to fare and toll revenue. New York’s MTA, the largest and most utilized public transport system in the United States, receives just 8 percent of its budget from local subsidies. WMATA’s budget, by contrast, relies on an astounding 45 percent on subsidies.
This dependency on unreliable year-to-year local subsidies makes it difficult for WMATA to plan and allocate funds for long-term projects and multi-year safety renovations. It also makes WMATA funding susceptible to political manipulation by the three regional authorities it derives funding from. Just this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe threatened to withhold Virginia’s WMATA subsidy if the agency did not meet his administration’s newly devised safety standards.
With few other alternatives for funding, WMATA has been forced to increase riders’ fares in order to fund its projects. The DC metro is already one of the most expensive rail systems in the country, with a maximum single trip fare as high as $6.75. WMATA riders finance a much higher percent of operational costs than most riders in other cities. The DC Metro’s farebox ratio—the percentage of operating costs covered by rider’s fares—is 67.8 percent, the third highest in the entire country.
Faced with declining revenue streams, WMATA continues to reduce operating costs at the expense of service quality. In 2012, Metro introduced RushPlus, a rush hour schedule that increased metro car frequency on the Orange, Blue, and Yellow lines. Despite hailing it as a method to “serve more customers and reduce overcrowding on trains”, WMATA was soon forced to cut down service to certain sections of the Blue line and increase the waiting time to 12 minutes during rush hour on other lines. In an extensive article reviewing WMATA’s operations, the Washingtonian Magazine found that WMATA has repeatedly spun statistics to make them seem more favorable, once publicly declaring that they had exceeded on-time rail performance targets only after discreetly reducing the benchmark by 5 percent.
Even the Metro’s famous omnipresent elevator outage problem stems from a policy of frugality. Almost twenty-five years ago, WMATA decided to get rid of private contractors for elevator repairs and instead rely on mechanics trained in-house. Yet even with over 214 staffers—one for every four elevators on the system—and a budget of over $22.5 million expressly for elevator repair, on any given day, one out of every eight elevators in the system is out of service.
Now If I Use This Model
In trying to turn the system around, WMATA can look to New York City for hope. In the late 1970s, New York’s public transit system was in dire straits. Crumbling infrastructure, falling ridership, and near-bankruptcy led New York Governor Hugh Cary to appoint Richard Ravitch, a successful real estate and business magnate, as MTA chairman to turn the agency around.
Upon appointment, Ravitch immediately got to work. He sat down with engineers and asked for a comprehensive expenditure estimate in order to completely repair and modernize the New York City subway. Ravitch held open town hall meetings with thousands of subway riders in order to hear their blistering complaints. Then Ravitch went on a blitzkrieg PR campaign, meeting with editors of New York’s largest newspapers in order to garner enough free press to grab the attention of the state legislature in Albany. He met with business leaders, many of them fiscally conservative Republicans, explaining how a lack of reliable public transportation was bad for their businesses and workers. These business leaders then used their influence to convince upstate Republicans to put in place the necessary transit taxes to directly fund MTA’s capital budget. After months of campaigning, Ravitch achieved what MTA desperately needed, an unprecedented $55 billion in capital investment and the political support of both taxpayers and state lawmakers.
But will WMATA be lucky enough to find its own Ravitch? It is more likely than it sounds. Last November, WMATA named Paul Widefeld, former director of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, as its new general manager. Now almost half a year into his position, Widefeld has enacted some bold reform measures. This past spring, Widefeld proposed the most far-reaching maintenance plan in DC metro history. The plan, nicknamed “SafeTrack”, is a year-long project that will result in numerous line closures while the city implements much-needed repairs.
Widefeld has shown a readiness to enact not-so-popular measures in order to prioritize safety and the repair schedule. During the SafeTrack program period, extensions of operating hours after midnight are forbidden for mass late night events, a common practice that, although popular to the public, severely limits the number of off-service working hours available for repairs. SafeSurge aims to achieve 3 years of normal timeline maintenance in just 1 year. The repairs are, at this point, emergency in nature in order to keep riders safe. The plan, however, will disrupt hundreds of thousands of workers and commuters trying to get in and out of the District for over a year—impacting worker productivity and the local economy. But after decades of negligence and WMATA leadership caving to complaints that these types of repairs are too intrusive, the agency has finally been forced to resort to extreme measures. As Widefeld remarked, “We cannot keep trying to Band-Aid over these issues. This is tough medicine. But we have to take it. And the sooner we take it, the better we’re all going to be.”