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WMATA: $11B or bust

Last week, WMATA announced over $11B in capital improvement spending needs. Where would the money be spent? I found a staff report (PDF) before the Planning, Development and Real Estate Committee of the Board that laid out what WMATA is proposing for capital needs.

WMATA breaks it out into three categories:

  1. Performance Focus - What do we need to keep the system running the way it is now?
  2. Demand Focus - What do we need to meet the demands of increased ridership?
  3. Customer Focus - What should we do to improve the customer experience?

The highest priority funding is in the "Performance Focus" category, since that funding is what will keep the system from degrading. The major categories and examples of spending are:

  • Vehicles - replacing and rehabilitating old railcars that have reached end of design life, and replacing buses that have reached end of design life
  • Systems and technology - rehabilitating power systems and automatic train control systems that have reached end of design life
  • Maintenance and other facilities - replacing old bus garages and rail maintenance facilities
  • Track and structures - replacing and refurbishing rails and platforms
  • Passenger facilities - Rebuilding or refurbishing escalators, elevators, parking lots

The next highest priority is ensuring that increased passenger demand does not cause congestion or overburden the system. Major categories and examples are:

  • Vehicles - Purchase enough railcars to run 8-car service during rush hours, increase bus fleet by over 300 vehicles
  • Maintenance and facilities - Build maintenance and storage facilities for the new vehicles
  • Passenger facilities - Core station capacity enhancements, build pedestrian tunnels for transfers between the Farragut Square stations and Metro Center/Gallery Place stations
  • Systems and Technology - Electric rail power upgrades necessary to run a significant number of 8-car trains, new farecard machines

Unfortunately, the last priority items are the upgrades to the customer experience that get most people excited. Here are some highlights:

  • Passenger Facilities - Above ground stations would get canopies for the entire platform length, more stations would have entrance canopies
  • Safety and Security - "MTPD Priorities" (bus cameras, etc.), better station lighting, better direction finding signage at stations
  • Systems and Technology - Disposable Smartrip cards, EZ Pass at parking lots, more Smartrip dispenser machines, new web page
  • Maintenance and Other Facilities - Test track and commissioning facility (for all the new railcars and buses we'll be buying, hopefully)

If WMATA doesn't get at least $6-7 billion over the next 10 years for capital needs, we're going to be in some serious hurt. There is not much from the Performance Focus category that can be easily cut, and the items that appear borderline (to me) could probably be justified if I had access to more detail.

Even if we fund everything from Performance Focus, increased system load will be nearly unbearable for passengers. Everything from Demand Focus is necessary to meet the increased ridership. We're going to need more railcars, buses, maintenance facilities, electric power systems, and ways to get passengers around the bottlenecks to relieve congestion.

It's a shame that after we fund the first two categories, the sources of funding will likely be completely tapped out, because there are some exciting things in the Customer Focus category. Out of this category, my favorites would be disposable Smartrip cards, Enterprise GIS (better geographic data recording and reporting), and the webpage upgrade (though I question what WMATA is proposing for $32 million for a new "Web Portal").

Last time we went through this, we ended up funding $1.5 billion over 6 years, or about a third of the bare minimum under this plan. This time, if we don't get to at least $6-7 billion, the system will suffer.

Cross-posted on

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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This is an interesting way to break down the costs, but I would love to see WMATA break it down by comparing the costs to road projects. Usually, the government pays for the infrastructure costs (the road, lights, construction workers) and the safety features (police), leaving the user to only pay for operations (gassing up the car or paying the taxi driver). So, how much of WMATA's costs are things that a driver would expect the government to pay for (rails, rolling stock, etc), and how much is stuff that ought to come out in fares?

by tom veil on Sep 29, 2008 2:33 pm • linkreport

Well, I had typed up something earlier but it got erased so I'll try again.

WMATA's budget is divided up into Capital and Operating parts. The Capital part is about 40% of the total and is funded by the Federal government and local governments. The Operating Budget is 60% of the total and is funded by passenger revenue (fares, advertising parking fees) and local contributions ("jurisdictional subsidies"). There is an additional small portion called Reimbursable Projects, where WMATA operates a specific transit goal (like a special bus line) and the jurisdiction pays WMATA directly for operating costs.

None of your fares, parking fees, etc., pay for purchasing your railcars, replacing track and structures, or building new service.

For Operating costs, about 55% of WMATAs costs are paid for through passenger revenue. For Metrorail, this increases to 79%, and for Metrobus, it's about 30%. For Metroaccess (paratransit service for the disabled), it's about 5%. Everything that is not paid for through operating costs is divided up by a "jurisdictional funding formula" and paid for by the member jurisdictions.

Hope this helps.

by Michael P on Sep 29, 2008 8:15 pm • linkreport

Semantic question about their budget policies:

Shouldn't "capital costs" required to sustain a level of service("Performance focus") be factored into "operating costs"?

by Squalish on Oct 4, 2008 5:50 pm • linkreport

Sq: That would have been nice about 30 years ago, but it isn't the case now.

Best option from the present is to borrow the money and spread it out over the next 30 years, and have money each year go to pay it back.

by Michael P on Oct 4, 2008 10:26 pm • linkreport


You only borrow money when you are sure you can repay it. Given the funding issues that WMATA has, this won't happen. The WMATA compact members are the ones that need to step up with support from the federal government. If there's no money for new rail cars, that can be dealt with. In London, where they have had this issue for decades national rail and Underground fares as a policy (although Underground fares have been moderated) rise at above the general rate of inflation to control ridership growth. This sends a very powerful message to policymakers that inaction has its cost. If you did not raise fares to supress demand the system would just get more and more crowed and eventually it would affect reliability.

by Dharm on Oct 22, 2008 2:28 pm • linkreport

This is pretty useful information, but in the first paragraph, where it says:

"Last week, WMATA announced over $11B in capital improvement spending needs. Where would the money be spent? I found a staff report (PDF) before the Planning, Development and Real Estate Committee of the Board that laid out what WMATA is proposing for capital needs..."

the link to the PDF is broken. Can anyone fix this? I would like to see the actual information from the WMATA itself. Thanks! :)

by B.B. on May 3, 2009 1:24 pm • linkreport


Fixed. Knock yourself out.

by Michael Perkins on May 3, 2009 7:59 pm • linkreport

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