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Washington Metro Is a Transit System in Deep Trouble

With authority and accountability split between three jurisdictions, the nation’s third-largest transit system has lurched from one crisis to another. Now, with ridership and reliability tanking, the service faces an uncertain future.

A nearly empty station on Washington, D.C.'s Metro system. Only 53 percent of the trips taken on the city's subway pre-pandemic have returned.
(Arthit Kaeoratanapattama/Shutterstock)
Every weekday, Ahmed Ismail steels himself for his morning commute into Washington, D.C.

A resident of Northern Virginia, he’s been using the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) rail service throughout the pandemic. In the pre-vaccination days, the ride was ghostly silent and largely empty. Although there were plenty of other things to fret about, he never had to worry about getting to work on time.

But in the past half year, Metro’s service has spectacularly fallen apart. A confluence of mishaps, scandals and regulatory scrutiny has engulfed the nation’s third-largest transit system as WMATA faces the worst fiscal crisis in its recent history.

“We’re the capital of the country and our Metro system is like a third world country,” says Ismail, who says his commute is often double what it was a year ago. “It’s a shame. That we can be one of the richest countries in the world and our own capital has such poor public transport.”

Washington, D.C.’s mass transit offerings could get substantially worse next summer if something doesn’t radically change. WMATA’s most recent public forecast shows a $356 million deficit in the fiscal year 2024 budget, because only 53 percent of the trips taken pre-pandemic have returned. (That number is down from a projected $519 million gap last year, although that reduction is largely because of additional federal funding.)

All of America’s largest transit systems, where fares play a substantial role in the budget, are facing similar fiscal cliffs. Remote work has hollowed out white-collar commuting, while concerns about COVID-19 and crime help repress ridership.

In Washington, D.C., the issue is exacerbated by WMATA’s persistent cycle of crisis. In October, one of Metro’s newest 7000 series trains derailed in Arlington, Va. That led to all of those cars being pulled from service, and Ismail’s hellish commute. Then this spring, Metro admitted that half its rail operators have not kept up on their driver certifications. Many were pulled from duty, resulting in further delays. A separate and unrelated report found that the agency’s personnel recklessly disregard worker safety.

“The derailment was in October, but it's been eight months and they still don’t have it figured out,” says Ismail. “I feel like they don’t even know what's going on. I have co-workers who have started driving to work.”

This sequence of incidents evoke memories of the agency's long history of accidents, track fires and scandals that peaked with a takeover of the agency’s safety operations by the Federal Transit Administration in 2015. Metro’s partners, in government and business, are fed up. How can the agency ask for money to fill its fiscal hole when it keeps failing?

“All riders want is safe, reliable, frequent service,” says Canek Aguirre, Alexandria city councilman and chair of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. “But we run into issues with the rail cars, with certification of our operators, with dilapidated infrastructure. It’s like whack-a-mole. Every time you deal with one thing, there’s another problem popping up.”

With a new general manager on the way, Metro has an opportunity for another reset. But in interviews and at hearings, outside stakeholders say they do not hear current board members and high-level staffers providing adequate strategies for WMATA’s existential challenges. The gamble seems to be that the system is too big to fail.

“Metro is so fundamental to this region's economic success that [business and government leaders are] not going to walk away from that investment,” says Paul Smedberg, chairman of Metro’s board. “People are going to come with level heads and tackle these issues together, because we alone are not going to be able to do it.”

Regional policymakers are skeptical. Come January they expect to face an unfriendly, or at least deadlocked, Congress with little interest in saving Metro. Maryland could potentially have a new Republican governor (the current one made great political hay out of spiking mass transit projects at the beginning of his tenure). The best that can be hoped from Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin is benign neglect. The only good political news is that D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser just won the Democratic primary, and may now be able to spare political capital for Metro.

But WMATA will be embarking on this complex financial quest with political capital that would make 1972-era Richard Nixon blanch. After years of crisis, the Washington Metro may be out of time to find a good solution.

“When we think we've solved the problem, the corner has been turned, the fix has been put in place — it turns out we're right back where we started,” said Marc Korman, chair of the Maryland House of Delegates subcommittee on transportation. “If we turn a corner, we run into a wall.”

Questions About Authority and Accountability

The Washington Metro could be the greatest major transit operation in the United States. It is, arguably, the only comprehensive system constructed after the rise of mass car ownership. It marries inner-city rapid transit with commuter rail-like service that reaches deep into suburban Maryland and Virginia. Metro puts neighboring cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore to shame with its reach and — pandemic-era exceptions aside — offers a notably clean and safe ride.

But from the beginning, WMATA has been dogged by questions of authority and accountability. Although many transit systems cross state lines, there is usually one major stakeholder. At Boston’s MBTA, the Massachusetts’ governor is ultimately responsible. In New York City’s MTA, all roads lead to Albany. At WMATA, there is no single leader who can be held responsible. Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and the federal government all share responsibility, which often means no one does.

“There is no politically accountable party for WMATA,” says Korman. “It's not like Gov. [Larry] Hogan can call in Metro and say, hey, get your act together. Because he's also got to deal with the governor of Virginia, the mayor of D.C. and that very weird federal piece.”

In Metro’s early decades, the lack of clear lines of accountability wasn’t as big a problem. When the infrastructure was new, the lack of dedicated capital funding from the jurisdictions wasn’t a big pain point. The increasingly ossified, and often toxic hothouse environment of the bureaucracy — partly resulting in the oft-noted lack of a “safety culture” — did not become visible until later. Discussions about creating a regional transportation authority with broad powers to plan and discipline Metro remained in the theoretical realm.

Near the completion of the system’s original build-out, at the dawn of the 21st century, the strain began to show. In April of 2000, an electrical fire in a tunnel near the Foggy Bottom station shuddered the evening rush hour to a halt, trapped a train full of passengers for three hours, and sent 14 riders to the hospital, including one who suffered a heart attack.

The scandal deepened when it was revealed in the aftermath that Metro had actually sent the train full of passengers toward the fire. “Metro's handling of its problems until now has been worse than inept,” the Washington Post editorial board thundered.

That was just the beginning. In 2004, 20 riders were hurt in a collision after the brakes failed on a train near Woodley Park station. In 2006 alone three Metro workers were killed after being struck by trains. The next year, at Mount Vernon Square station, over 20 riders were injured in a derailment which national authorities blamed on WMATA’s “failure to have an effective process to implement safety improvements.”

The worst was yet to come. In 2009, at Fort Totten station, a train crash killed nine people and put dozens in the hospital. In 2015, a rider named Carol Glover died. This time it was smoke inhalation that proved fatal, after a Metro train was sent toward a track fire again — just like the Foggy Bottom incident.

"They sent her toward danger, then they delayed getting help, and she died in the rail car,” says Dave Statter, a longtime Metro critic who works with fire departments on their communication strategies. “Every emergency incident like this, you're going to have things wrong, it's not going to be perfect. But the stuff that was happening at Metro was happening consistently.”
DC Train Crash
Washington Area Metro Transit Authority personnel work at the wreckage from a metro rail accident, Tuesday, June 23, 2009, as a result of the subway train that plowed into another stopped train, killing at least seven people and injuring scores of others in the nation's capital.
(Ken Cedeno/MCT)
That was the final straw. The Federal Transit Administration nearly shut down Metro in 2016 after taking over its safety apparatus. These tragedies also helped spur the successful quest to secure dedicated capital funding in 2018, in an effort to address a long-neglected capital backlog. Today track fires are down over 60 percent. Cracked and broken platforms have been repaired across the system.

Yet, a “culture that accepts noncompliance” continues to haunt Metro.

For Metro boosters like Korman, one of the most vocal transit advocates in Annapolis, WMATA’s intractable problems are a source of deep frustration.

“It's clear from the long history over which we've had numerous GMs and board members, that the problems are not with individuals,” said Korman, at a recent hearing. He argued against sacking any one individual — after all, it is Metro’s own workers who have often called attention to safety scandals — or the easy refrain to cut funding as punishment. The only ones who would suffer in that scenario, he reasoned, are the riders.

But riders already are suffering and their advocates, and employers, are taking note. D.C. is second only to San Francisco in the prevalence of remote-possible jobs, and the persistent crisis at Metro is making it even harder to bring workers back. Business leaders are in no mood to help WMATA with its looming fiscal threat.

“The business community is quite frustrated and wants to see change now if they are going to say to their elected leaders and colleagues — with a straight face — we need that money,” says Joe McAndrew, vice president of mobility at the Greater Washington Partnership. “How is anybody — business community, advocates or elected leaders — supposed to carry water for a system that appears to be broken?”

Getting Back on Track?

In April, it was reported that WMATA’s personnel had repeatedly turned power on to the potentially deadly third rail while workers remained in the track bed. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission concluded that “elements of Metrorail have a culture that accepts noncompliance with written operational rules, instructions and manuals.”

For long-time observers, this latest scandal is further evidence of something deeply broken in WMATA. In the wake of the deadly 2009 crash at Fort Totten station, the National Transportation Safety Board warned of Metro’s “lack of a safety culture.” Twelve years later, that sounds eerily like the warnings issued this April.

But Smedberg, who at six years is the longest-serving member of the Metro board, says that WMATA has been getting back on track quickly. He points to the rapid use of the dedicated capital dollars that have reduced the repair backlog and dramatically lessened the number of track fires. He notes that the operators behind on their recertifications have been getting up to speed rapidly, and that once the 7000 series are back on the rails late this summer (or early fall) riders will return.

“When I first joined the board, compared to where we are today, WMATA is fundamentally a different organization,” says Smedberg. “A lot of work has been done, internally in all sorts of areas. Once we get the 7000 series cars back, that's going to help a great deal.”

Smedberg has already been discussing Metro’s vexed fiscal future with the incoming general manager. He is unwilling to talk specifics — “everything will be on the table” — but believes WMATA’s stakeholders will come together to figure out a sustainable financial future.

For many leaders in government and business, however, the immediate crises and the funding question cannot be the only items on the agenda.

“Metro is going to figure out the next steps, they are already bringing back the operators, the 7000 series is going to come back,” says Korman. “The problem is, there's going to be something else that we're not thinking of yet. How do we set up a system where we're not facing these things every few months?"

A big question is whether there is a governance structure that can discover those problems in advance, and not wait for the Metrorail Safety Commission to reveal them amid another cavalcade of bad news The current Metro board is an administrative body and makes no executive decisions. The members serve for little to no pay, in addition to their day jobs. Many observers say historically they have mostly rubber-stamped what Metro staff bring them and have little perspective inside the agency.

A more hands-on board — perhaps comprised of the secretaries of transportation for Maryland and Virginia and the director of transportation for D.C., or their representatives — would have its own staff and, crucially, would have a direct line of feedback to political leaders. Metro staff and the general manager, no matter who that happens to be, would no doubt hate that idea. But given the persistent pattern of crisis, it isn’t clear they would have the political power to stop it.

There are other options. When Anthony Williams was mayor of D.C., he worked under a fiscal oversight board that oversaw and controlled the city’s finances until the budget was on a more solid and responsible footing. He envisions something similar for WMATA.

“Let's have a discussion of a temporary institution that could manage Metro, get it back on its feet, and then return it to the normally politically accountable process,” says Williams, who is now CEO of the economic development organization Federal City Council. “The three jurisdictions could create their own temporary governance structure, get it refunded, ensure it is accountable to new criteria, then we return to your regularly scheduled program.”

Neither of these outcomes are likely, let alone guaranteed. But Metro’s partners in business and government will be pushing for a dramatic reshaping of Metro’s governance structure in the months to come. Why not put all options on the table at this moment of extreme uncertainty, and show policymakers from Congress to the legislature and city hall to the C-suites that change can come to Metro?

Otherwise, riders like Tyler Lazenby, a white-collar worker who recently moved to D.C., will abandon the system. That wouldn’t mean the end of WMATA, but it would probably mean the end of the system as expansive as it is today. Without the political and economic firepower of a broad base of riders to advocate for it, it is unclear if a system this ambitious can survive in its current form.

“Usually it's a coin flip if the Metro is going to be here on time,” says Lazenby, who just moved north from Atlanta, where he found the MARTA service more reliable. “Last week I was late a couple times due to Metro service issues. It’s put pressure on me to pursue other forms of transportation. I have a car. I haven't started using it yet, but I'm considering it.”
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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