Monday, April 4, 2016

Washington Metro, 40 and Creaking, Stares at a Midlife Crisis

[JB comment -- Since when (even when it was created) has Washington's Metro been "well-lit" in (underground) stations, as stated in the above-cited NYT article's first paragraph (see below full text -- without links)? The NYT piece must have been written (dare I say by New Yorkers) who have never ridden Metro for an extended period of time. 

BTW, especially if you are a non-Washingtonian, have you ever tried to read a newspaper in an underground Metro station without a flashlight? Or decipher (when riding in a metro car) the so-often-unwashed signs of what station has been reached (despite [because of?]) the so-often unintelligible/unpredictable "announcements" of "your next station" by a metro conductor?)

Image from my piece, "Washington D.C.'s Metro System: Some speculations," Notes and Essays (2015); see also (1) (2).

[One more note -- One of the Metro stations in the downtown imperial capital is "Smithsonian," which the Metro "system" supposedly provides (when it works) quick walking access to the Air and Space Museum. Can't help but think: We could put a man on the moon, some 50 years ago (and glorify our USA achievement for posterity), but we (the System's willing servants?) can't provide earth-bound commuters with decent transportation (on a daily basis) in our new century ... Progress?]

image from


WASHINGTON — Jack Evans was a summer intern here in 1976, the year
Metro, the capital region’s subway system, opened to rave reviews. It was an
architectural triumph, with escalators that plunged into clean, well­-lit stations
— a mass transit marvel “like ‘The Jetsons,’ ” he says — a far cry from the
graffiti­-scarred, decrepit system of that era in New York.

Now Mr. Evans, 62, is the chairman of the transit agency that oversees
Metro — perhaps the city’s least enviable job. Last week, at a conference
examining Metro on its 40th birthday, he said out loud what Washingtonians
had known for years: The capital’s once-­glorious subway system, the nation’s
second busiest, is short on cash and a terrible mess.

“It’s a system that’s maybe safe, somewhat unreliable, and that is being
complained about by everybody,” declared Mr. Evans, who estimates that
Metro could face a $100 million budget shortfall next fiscal year.
Then he dropped a bombshell. He warned that whole lines may have to be
closed for months for repairs, adding, “If we do nothing, 10 years from now the
system won’t be running.”

At a time of deepening concern over aging infrastructure and rail safety
around the nation — on Sunday, an Amtrak train struck a backhoe on the
tracks outside Philadelphia, killing two people and injuring dozens more —
Metro is hardly the only transit agency with problems. But years of well-documented
safety lapses, including a crash in 2009 that left nine people
dead, as well as petty annoyances like broken escalators and train delays,
reveal how a grand vision of American liberalism has collided with reality now
that Metro has hit middle age.

The Federal Transit Administration has issued a blistering indictment of
the system, warning in a June report of “serious safety lapses.” That month,
the National Transportation Safety Board convened hearings revealing that
employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — which
runs Metro, as well as a regional bus service — often felt afraid to report safety

Commuters are frustrated and are abandoning the subway. Weekday
ridership declined 6.1 percent in the last half of 2015, Metro officials say,
compared with the same period the previous year. Metro’s new general
manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, who shut down service last month for a daylong
emergency inspection after a tunnel fire similar to one that killed a passenger
in January 2015, concedes that the public is losing faith.

“Clearly in the public mind we have lost credibility in both delivery of the
service and some of the safety issues,” Mr. Wiedefeld, 60, said Friday in a
surprisingly blunt interview. He said he saw Metro’s safety and reliability
problems as rooted in “a very large disconnect between front-­line employees
and management,” and in a culture in need of an overhaul.

“An organization that had such a proud history has lost it internally, to a
degree,” Mr. Wiedefeld said. “That is something we have to rekindle.”
As Mr. Wiedefeld works on a plan to address safety and repairs — he
spent part of last week interviewing candidates for a new chief safety officer —
he says months-long shutdowns are “highly unlikely.” Mr. Evans, in a separate
interview, stuck by his original statement, and local officials warned that such
a move would cripple the city.

Riders are a little disgusted, and a bit ashamed.

“It had been this bright and shining way to get to work, and now it’s
become kind of a ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ operation,” said Bob Deans, 61,
who rides Metro each day from his home in Bethesda, Md., to his job at the
Natural Resources Defense Council here. He sees tourists on the train, he says,
and wants to “apologize and say, ‘No, we’re really better than this.’ ”

The story of Metro’s transformation from a point of pride to the subject of
eye rolling among commuters (as well as a Twitter feed, UnsuckDCMetro, with
more than 49,000 followers) is, experts say, traceable to a lack of basic
maintenance, a history of inept management and an unwieldy governance
structure in which three jurisdictions — Maryland, Virginia and the District of
Columbia — share responsibility for the system.

The United States was at the height of its car craze when the idea for a
subway system in Washington began percolating in the late 1950s and early
’60s. Many cities were carving themselves up with freeways, often destroying
poor African-­American neighborhoods, said Zachary M. Schrag, a George
Mason University professor and the author of “The Great Society Subway,” a
2006 history of Metro.

Metro, he said, offered an alternative, a way to connect the capital to its
Maryland and Virginia suburbs in a “structured set of corridors where people
would live and work,” with development clustered around train stations — a
vision that, in many respects, has come to pass.

The system was to be a visual statement about the power and prestige of
the American government, and was conceived, Mr. Schrag said, “very much in
opposition to New York,” whose aging system was in the thick of a midlife
crisis. In 1966, after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation
authorizing Metro’s construction, he directed planners to scour the globe for
design concepts so the new subway system could “take its place among the
most attractive in the world.”

Metro opened on March 27, 1976, with one line, the Red, and five stations.
Today the system has six lines (including the new Silver Line, opened in 2014
as part of a plan to eventually connect the city to Dulles International Airport)
and 91 stations. Metro riders made roughly 261 million trips last year,
according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Like other transit systems, Metro suffers from a lack of investment in
infrastructure: As Mr. Evans broadcast on Twitter last week, some of the
original 1976 trains are still in use. The Federal Transit Administration says
one-­quarter of the nation’s rail assets are in “marginal or poor condition.” In
2013, it estimated an $86 billion backlog in deferred maintenance nationwide.

But Robert Puentes, the incoming president of the Eno Center for
Transportation, who wrote a 2004 paper on Metro, says the system’s problems
also stem from a singular reality written into it from the outset: It is an
“institutional orphan” with no single mayor or legislature in charge. Metro, he
said, is the only mass transit system of its size without a permanent source of
funding, like a tax on businesses near stations. It relies solely on allocations
from its three jurisdictions and on its own fares for operations.

Others, like Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate to the
House, complain that the federal government, which depends on Metro to
carry thousands of workers to places like the Pentagon, does not contribute to
the system’s $1.8 billion annual operating budget. It would take an act of
Congress to change that; Ms. Holmes Norton, a Democrat, says that
persuading Republicans to sign on would be “like pulling teeth.”

In 2005, Richard A. White, then Metro’s general manager, warned
Congress in written testimony that “without adequate, predictable resources, it
is not a question of WHETHER Metro’s service will further deteriorate, but

But the city paid scant heed until the deadly 2009 crash, which ushered in
an era of greater federal oversight. Eight riders and a train operator were killed
and dozens were injured when one train rear­-ended another as it idled near an
aboveground Red Line station on the city’s outskirts.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the widespread failure
of Metro’s automatic train-­control system for the crash, as well as general
negligence about safety. The board also said that old train cars posed an
“unacceptable risk” and should be replaced as soon as possible.

By this time, Congress had already passed legislation authorizing $1.5
billion over 10 years for Metro to make capital improvements and repairs, like
fixing broken escalators and buying new rail cars. Some improvements have
been made, and modern trains have been purchased, but Mr. Wiedefeld said
Metro had consistently underspent the money.

Safety problems have persisted. In addition to the tunnel fire that killed a
passenger in January 2015, a train derailment in August raised red flags. No
one was injured, but the track defect that caused the derailment had been
detected a month earlier and ignored, reflecting “a system breakdown that was
simply unacceptable,” said Peter Goelz, a transportation consultant who has
advised Metro.

Metro spent much of 2015 without a full-time general manager, amid
disagreement on its 16-­member board over whether to hire a transit expert or
a turnaround specialist. Mr. Wiedefeld, who previously ran Baltimore-Washington
International Thurgood Marshall Airport, arrived in late
November, and has so far been given good reviews.

Now, Mr. Wiedefeld and Mr. Evans appear to be pursuing a two­-pronged
public relations strategy. While Mr. Wiedefeld tried to tamp down the uproar
over potential closures, Mr. Evans made clear in an interview that he was
pleased with the reaction, which he hoped would help him “sell the region,”
and Congress, on the need for an organizational overhaul and for more money.
Metro also has a $2.5 billion unfunded pension liability, Mr. Evans said.

“Unless you are living under a rock,” he said, “everyone now knows that
Metro has terrible financial problems.”

Now the question is what it will take to restore the system to its former
glory — and whether that can be achieved. Mr. Schrag, the professor and
author, remains hopeful. “The New York subway came back, and Metro can
come back,” he said. Still, he added: “It’s such a bittersweet moment. This was
supposed to be a birthday party.”

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