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D.C. Metro: Once Off the Rails, Now Back On

The country’s third largest subway system, once a public transit gem, suffered greatly thanks to a fragmented funding structure. Now, a regional effort to save the system is working, but COVID-19 presents a new hurdle.

A D.C. Metro train stopped at a station.
D.C. Metro
(Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock)
Danielle Hayes has been riding the Washington, D.C., Metro rail system for 20 years, and she says the mass transit service for the nation’s capital is at peak performance.

“It’s faster getting to your destination; they done started the trains earlier in the morning, and they do come more frequently,” says Hayes, as she waits at Silver Spring station, just beyond the border with the District of Columbia.

The suburban Maryland downtown where Hayes is waiting for the train is a strong example of the region’s growth. Bristling with cranes and new apartment buildings, its streets denser and more diverse than they were 20 years ago, Silver Spring is a testament to the vibrancy rippling from Washington, D.C., since the start of this century.

In those same years, Metro itself has not fared so well. Beset by a series of escalating crises, most gruesomely marked by a 2009 train crash a few stops from this very platform that killed nine people, the transit system hemorrhaged riders. This culminated in a federal takeover of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)’s safety functions in 2015.

Over the past 18 months, Metro suffered the fate of all transit systems in this pandemic. But boosters say that despite the COVID-era ridership troubles, Metro can come back strong thanks to a rare cross-region policy win in 2018 that secured local dedicated funding for the first time. After years of organizing, negotiating and legislating, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland agreed in 2018 to contribute a combined $500 million a year — with no federal assistance — to fill the system’s vast capital backlog.

“The third largest transit system in the country had no dedicated funding source, which [every other U.S. transit system] has,” says Joe McAndrew, vice president of Regional Mobility Infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership. “We were shortchanging our system, not doing state of good repair work and hardly even getting enough money for six-year capital budgets.”

The money began flowing in the years before COVID-19 and then on through the pandemic, allowing Metro to begin the most extensive repair campaign in its history. The Authority and its boosters like McAndrew say that the system has made impressive strides since then, with $5 billion spent on safety and reliability work. An August report from WMATA finds that insulator fires have fallen from 39 in fiscal year 2018 to five this year; there’s been a 50 percent decrease in emergency track repairs, and a 60 percent decline in track fires and train offloads. Eleven train platforms have been fixed up, 89 elevators rehabilitated, and free Wi-Fi service installed throughout the system.

Metro officials and local policymakers are also trying to pivot away from reliance on rush-hour service that motivated policymakers to build the subway, running more trains throughout the day and easing up on service during peak hours. These boosters think that all this is coming together to allow Metro to flourish with the city.

At the beginning of October, the agency hit its highest ridership number since the pandemic, with 230,000 served on a Friday, normally one of the weakest days. The on-time performance is 91 percent. On the Silver Spring platform, Hayes says she’s seeing more fellow riders and has noticed the new service changes, especially appreciating the earlier opening time.

“During COVID, Metro had slowed down some,” says Hayes, and then echoes a sentiment shared by most of the riders interviewed for this article. No polling has been conducted since the pandemic, but in 2019, 68 percent of riders said the service was “good” or “excellent,” a 26-point increase from two years prior.

“Now it’s the best it’s ever been,” says Hayes. “It is to me.”

Metro’s Cross-Jurisdictional Funding Problem

Metro is unique among the mass transit systems of the Northeast Corridor because it was built after mass car ownership became the norm. With 117 miles of track, 91 stations, and a hybrid commuter rail-intercity transit function, it is far more comprehensive than its counterparts built during the postwar era in Atlanta and San Francisco.

Metro’s creation also stands out as an example of multi-jurisdictional political organization. Regional planning is generally a toothless exercise in the United States, where resource hoarding behind arbitrary municipal borders is the order of the day. The hyper-fragmented political system, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, makes it easy for affluent communities to disassociate from their less well-off neighbors.

The creation of Metro in the 1960s and 1970s was a rare example of diverse political leaders coming together to build a transit system with cross-border public good. (In contrast, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority showed what could happen when parochial interests made short-term decisions at the expense of the collective good.) In D.C. too, the role of federal leaders in the process cannot be overstated.

Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland enjoyed the fruits of a new, popular and comprehensive rail network, and for a while everything went well because of the sheer novelty of the system.

“There wasn’t the pressure for dedicated revenue, because you had a brand-new system,” says Paul Wiedefeld, the general manager of Metro. “But over time, as the system started to age, basic infrastructure and maintenance costs began to build and they started being pushed off.”

Frustrated by increased delays and infrequent off-peak trains, local policymakers and their constituents pushed for more service. Until the deadly 2009 crash, increasing amounts of agency funding went to operating expenses in response to those pressures, while less went to capital projects needed to maintain the system. Federal aid, meanwhile, did not compare to what it had been at the time of Metro’s birth.
Metro Transit Authority personnel working at the wreckage from a rail accident.
Metro Transit Authority personnel work at the wreckage from the rail accident, Tuesday, June 23, 2009, as a result of the subway train that plowed into another stopped train, killing nine people and injuring scores of others.
(Ken Cedeno/MCT)

On the local level, there wasn’t a single political grouping clearly in charge. Many transit systems cross state lines — Philadelphia’s regional rail and buses go to Delaware and New Jersey, Boston’s to Rhode Island — but usually, almost all of the service is focused in one jurisdiction. In Metro’s case, there are large numbers of stops in Virginia and Maryland while the city enjoys only limited autonomy and struggled with a waning tax base for decades. All that was a recipe for inaction when it came to regional funding for the aging system.

“If I were a professor, I’d call it the perils of multi-stakeholder negotiation,” says Chuck Bean, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “It’s not completely owned, politically speaking, by any one jurisdiction. So, who pays? That can was kicked down the road for many years.”

Overcoming Political Gridlock

As capital funding was increasingly put off, the consequences became clear. Track fires and delayed trains became common occurrences. Ridership declined. “In 2015-2016, there was a track fire almost every day, it seemed,” recalls Bean. “It was really intolerable.”

In 2009, the infrastructure and safety crisis at Metro got its defining — and tragic — image of crumpled train cars from the deadly crash. Then another rider, Carol Glover, died in 2015 because of smoke inhalation after an electric fire started in a train tunnel. That finally spurred action. In 2015, the Federal Transit Administration took over the safety for the regional agency and nearly shut it down in 2016.

When Marc Korman was first running for the Maryland House of Delegates, he talked a lot about what Annapolis could do to bolster Metro to better serve Montgomery County. He argued that, eventually, the state needed to provide dedicated funding to the system. But when he got to the state capitol, he found the idea did not stir the hearts and minds of his colleagues.

“When I got to the Legislature the first week of the 2015 legislative session, no one wanted to talk about Metro,” says Korman. “I went around to all these greybeards in the Legislature to say we should do more on the Metro system and there wasn’t a ton of interest. Then a couple days later, Carol Glover died at L’Enfant Plaza. That focused people’s minds.”

Tragedy wasn’t the only impetus. Business groups like the Greater Washington Partnership, which represents large employers in the region, and the broader-based Greater Washington Board of Trade, pushed for better service for their workers. One of the region’s competitive advantages was that Metro gave commuters an option beyond driving to work, and their families freedom to explore the city.

But that advantage didn’t look so competitive if the tracks were on fire. Added motivation came from Amazon’s much ballyhooed search for a second headquarters, which the company said would depend in part on the quality of mass transit.

“Amazon debating where its second headquarters would go definitely did not hurt us in making the case [for dedicated funding],” says Wiedefeld. “But at the end of the day, what really drove it was we had the system deteriorating around us.”

The changing political-economic terrain of the region helped too. Washington is a much wealthier city, with a much more secure tax base, than it was in the late 20th century. The fulcrum of Virginia’s politics shifted north too, towards the growing suburbs of D.C., making the state increasingly Democratic and more willing to invest in public services like transit.
The D.C. Metro system map.
The D.C. Metro system links multiple jurisdictions and counties in two states and the District of Columbia, making it unique among American subway systems in terms of coverage and how it gets its funding.

The greatest difficulty came from Maryland, where Republican Gov. Larry Hogan pressed his counterparts in Virginia and Washington, D.C., to hold out for aid from the federal government. Despite the vanishingly small odds of such resources being allocated to an overwhelmingly Democratic region during the Trump administration, he continued to hold off on committing to dedicated state resources through late 2017.

By the spring of 2018, however, the three sides agreed to a roughly equal split of dedicated funding contingent upon all the jurisdictions continuing to pay. Annually, Virginia contributes $154 million, Maryland $167 million and DC $178 million.

“The region had invested their economic future, their quality-of-life future, their environmental future around the system,” says Wiedefeld. “We couldn’t let it fail.”

What Could Still Go Wrong

During the last 18 months, Metro’s ridership declined precipitously along with other major mass transit systems. Even today, only about 30 percent of the 2019 ridership has returned to the rails and 60 percent to the buses.

WMATA has used the time of extremely low demand to ramp up some of its more disruptive repairs. There was a lot of what Wiedefeld calls “the basics of the basics” work replacing cables throughout the system, addressing water intrusion issues, ventilating tunnels, rehabilitating platforms and repairing hundred-year-old bus garages.

In the years to come, more of these basic repairs will be going forward, along with the installation of new faregates, and the purchase of new paratransit vehicles, zero-emission buses and replacements for 1980s-era subway cars.

But while 2018 was a milestone, it is not the end of the story. Continued regional cooperation is still fraught with pitfalls, especially in an era of extreme uncertainty.

For one thing, each jurisdiction dedicated funding in its own way. There was no uniform approach, and all their enabling statutes include threats about pulling funding if things didn’t go their way. During the negotiations, Virginia conditioned their contribution to WMATA on dramatic changes to the composition of Metro’s board. The agency capitulated.

“Because WMATA wants that money, they folded even though Maryland and D.C. never explicitly agreed to that,” says Korman. “That kind of thing creates a difficult precedent that we’re going to be wrestling with for a long time. What happens when D.C. is unhappy about something and they say, we’re going to withhold the money until you do XYZ?”

The principal union representing Metro workers, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, is concerned about aspects of the 2018 deal as well. Virginia and Maryland pushed a provision that would only allow operating subsidies to increase at 3 percent each year, limiting outlays for non-capital support in the future.

The union didn’t like that idea because the population growth of the region, and its jobs numbers, were already turbocharged even before Amazon moved in. Local 689 argued operating funds, which support wages and benefits for their members, needed greater flexibility to grow. But the 2018 agreement enshrines the 3 percent cap into law, they say, and limits the ability to expand the system or hire more workers.

“When I’m talking to the guys, the workers, you don’t hear about the fires, the breakdown in equipment and things that we were having back in 2016,” says Raymond Jackson, president of Local 689. “But it can still be better, and then that 3 percent cap they put on top of the organization — I think that was the worst thing that they could have done.”

Then there’s the question of what happens if riders don’t return to 2019 levels, if the innovative policy changes Metro introduced in September cannot compete with the fear of the delta variant or other subsequent variants.

But those interviewed for this article seemed optimistic. Among the 30 percent of riders who have returned, mask use is almost universal. A lot of riders commended more frequent service, and said they were enjoying less crowded trains.

“COVID took a hit on it, but they’ve improved and been great on time,” says Brenda Nicodemus, stepping off a train in Dupont Circle, a mere mile from the White House. Asked why she is riding again, Nicodemus says that after eight years in Washington, “I’m a huge Metro fan, and a big supporter of public transportation.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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