Washington, D.C.’s Monumental Decay

In D.C., above and below ground, historic and vital infrastructure is in bad shape. There’s plenty of blame to spread around for that.
May 2016
The two-year Capitol dome restoration project will cost about $60 million. (AP)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

You don’t need to convince the citizens of the nation’s capital  that we are in an infrastructure crisis. They see it all around them and experience it in their daily lives.

The biggest single reminder is the U.S. Capitol, which can be seen throughout the district. It’s shrouded in scaffolding as construction is underway to repair more than 1,000 cracks and deficiencies in the cast-iron dome, originally built more than 150 years ago. It’s the first time in 56 years the structure has been redone, and the job will cost a projected $60 million.

Not long ago the Washington Monument, just down the National Mall from the Capitol, was similarly covered with scaffolding, after an earthquake in 2011 threatened the structure. Congress appropriated $15 million to fix it, but that was only half the needed amount. The other half had to come from private sources. Local billionaire David Rubenstein, who made his fortune in private equity, paid the additional money.

Now Rubenstein is at it again, this time to renovate the crumbling Lincoln Memorial, at the opposite end of the Mall. In February, the National Park Service announced that Rubenstein would donate $18.5 million to pay the entire bill for the four-year project.

Just on the other side of the Memorial, there’s another problem, and it’s doubtful Rubenstein will be able to help. The park service recently announced that the iconic Memorial Bridge, crossing the Potomac River to Arlington Cemetery, is unsafe and will have to undergo a major renovation within the next four to five years at a projected cost of $250 million. The problem is that the park service already has unfunded infrastructure needs totaling some $12 billion nationwide.

But the city’s real infrastructure disaster cannot be seen so easily because most of it lies underground. A couple of months ago, the capital region’s 40-year-old Metro rail service, the second-largest urban system in the nation, with six major lines, more than 100 miles of two-way track and 91 stations, closed down for an entire day. The immediate reason was safety, specifically electrical fires caused by malfunctioning cables. Two days earlier a fire had disrupted morning service and filled a tunnel with smoke. It was an ominous reminder of a similar but far more serious incident in early 2015 that killed one passenger and injured many others.

In a metro area known for its monstrous traffic jams and hours-long commutes, the complete closure of a rail system that handles almost 720,000 passenger trips on the average weekday was bound to be a disaster -- and it was. Alternative forms of travel picked up some of the slack: Buses were particularly crowded, bike trails were jammed and Uber reported a record surge in business.

So how did things get to this point? The answers are complex, involving a breakdown in management and poor intergovernmental cooperation that has been unfolding over a long period. In recent years, Metro has become so unreliable, and at times so dangerous, that rail ridership has begun falling -- by 7 percent just last year, which in turn is affecting the Metrobus system, the nation’s sixth largest, with ridership averaging 465,000 customers a day.

The official who made the decision to close down the entire rail system is Paul J. Wiedefeld, who used to run the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He was appointed as Metro’s new general manager in November, and his first major decision to stop the trains for a day actually offered some hope that he is the kind of leader the agency needs.

Wiedefeld inherited a system whose problems he now says are “worse than I thought,” where “a deep-rooted operational safety culture has not taken hold,” and where the “erosion of service reliability” is disturbing, with mechanical problems resulting in a doubling of late trains last year alone.

Perhaps most remarkably, Wiedefeld reported that Metro “has significantly underspent its capital budget every year for more than 10 years.” Last year, he said, it “spent only 65 percent of its $1.1 billion capital budget.”

You don’t need a more glaring example of mismanagement than that, but there also is a problem with the agency’s structure. It’s operated by three jurisdictions -- in D.C., Maryland and Virginia -- now joined by the Federal Transit Administration, which stepped in last summer to handle safety oversight.

Wiedefeld doesn’t mince words in describing his problems: “an unwieldy and too large board of directors whose members represent competing jurisdictions”; “powerful and entrenched unions that may encumber management’s ability to deploy personnel sensibly”; and finally, “the heavy hand of federal oversight.”

Metro’s deepening crisis marked the first time the feds have taken over a management function at any public transit agency, but there was plenty of provocation. The three jurisdictions responsible for Metro dawdled in devising a plan to organize their own effective safety oversight commission, finally saying they couldn’t do it until next year because of different legislative schedules. It was hard to argue with the federal agency when its leaders said they were frustrated.

Looking at the larger picture of an infrastructure crisis in our nation’s capital, from its historical monuments above ground to the rail system beneath it, the city, the two states and the feds all richly share in the blame. But they also have a unique opportunity to find a solution and set an example.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com