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3 years after crash, Metro repair and funding is top priority

Today is the 3rd anniversary of Metro's Red Line crash. Three years later, residents still consider Metro maintenance and reliability the top regional priority. Transparency and management effectiveness also came up as a very important issue.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

In a recent focus group, respondents ranked the problem of deferred Metrorail maintenance as the top transportation challenge facing the region, ahead of traffic congestion.

Respondents also said that finding funding to repair transit, roads and bridges was the most important strategy to pursue, with circumferential transit behind that. Highways like an Outer Beltway (and more bike sharing) brought up the rear.

I'll be on NewsTalk this morning from 10-10:15 to talk about Metro's progress; you can watch the segment live the archived video is online.

Metro maintenance rates as number one challenge

AmericaSpeaks conducted the focus group for the Transportation Planning Board on June 2. It recruited 41 people from around the region, whose geography and demographics fairly closely match the overall regional makeup, except that there weren't as many people in the highest income bracket as in the general population.

The organizers posed a series of transportation challenges and had respondents vote, using small remote controls at their seats, on how important each one is on a scale of 1-5 where 5 was the most important. Here are the average scores:

Deferred Metrorail maintenance causes unreliability4.62
The transportation system is too congested4.36
Many people cannot access affordable and convenient transit4.22
Many residential areas have limited transportation options4.11
Aging roadways need repair4.11
Bottlenecks are causing delays of inter-regional movement4.00
Development and transportation are often not well-coordinated3.89
Natural resources are threatened by transportation and growth3.89
Traffic incidents are a major source of delays3.87
Travel times to & from airports are increasingly unreliable3.59
Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities are a growing concern3.56
Air quality and public health standards are getting stricter3.14

69% of respondents ranked Metrorail maintenance as "very important," with nobody ranking it "low" or "very low." The much lower ratings for pedestrian and bicycle fatalities point to potential challenges in dealing with road safety; commuters may not be very eager to accept speed enforcement and traffic calming if they don't think that crashes are a big problem.

"Fix it first" is clear; suburban transit beats Outer Beltway

In a later part of the session, organizers asked participants about 6 potential strategies to improve transportation, and got these ratings:

Secure Dependable Sources of Funding to Ensure "State of Good Repair" for Highways and Bridges4.45
Create a Dedicated Regional Funding Source to Ensure "State of Good Repair" for Metrorail Trains and Facilities4.43
Connect Existing Metrorail Lines with High-Quality, Circumferential Transit3.51
Improve Pedestrian Facilities and Safety Around Bus Stops3.29
Expand the Region's Highway Network, Possibly Including New Potomac River Crossings3.05
Expand Bike-Sharing2.18

Clearly, repairing both roads and rails is the highest priority for people in this focus group. The perpetual boosters of the Outer Beltway, who have started talking about the idea as "new Potomac River bridges" instead, will likely be disappointed to find weak support for this compared to circumferential transit.

At the same time, sustainable transportation advocates may be disappointed at how bike sharing came in last. That is, at least, a far less expensive solution than most of the others.

Metro fares aren't that confusing after all

One other tidbit: Despite the common suggestions to create a flat or simpler Metro fare, participants in the focus group didn't seem to feel that the fare structure was any problem. In one section, they came up with their own sets of transportation challenges at tables, then voted on them.

In one set, someone came up with "Metro system, including cost structure, is hard to understand," but nobody voted for that one; "Lack of funding to support maintenance or expanding transportation options" got 43% on that vote, and "Existing funds are managed poorly, limiting quality of transit" got 34%.

Later, a potential strategy to "Simplify and/or restructure Metro fares" only got 4 votes out of 74 (I assume people could vote multiple times); the top choices were "Increase incentives and improve infrastructure for the use of transit, carpooling, walking, and biking," "Require agency transparency to ensure accountability," and "Encourage employers to support telework and alternative work schedules."

Transparency is on people's minds

In the aforementioned question, the way WMATA manages its money is clearly an issue people worry about, coming in second, with 34% of votes, to the need to just have enough money to make repairs, at 43%.

Later, the tables came up with 3 challenges around maintenance, repair and safety of transportation: "Lack of funding," "Lack of transparency, trust in management, and maintenance oversight," and "The general public doesn't realize the extent of maintenance needs." Here, again, the votes came out similarly. Lack of funding got 56% of the votes, while lack of transparency and oversight got 38%.

The two absolutely go together. If WMATA can show the public that it is managing repair funds effectively, riders and jurisdictions will be more willing to increase funding to achieve a state of good repair. Communication and customer service has improved, but it still can be better. WMATA remains a fairly secretive organization that often acts like riders don't need to know what's going on beyond the most basic customer information.

This mindset will remain a political obstacle until this CEO or a future one makes it a priority to reform the insular culture and turn riders into advocates instead of frustrated skeptics or angry critics. Because no matter how pressing Washingtonians think Metro's state of repair is, they'll be hard pressed to cough up more money to an agency they can't trust.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Add a comment »

This is some hard-hitting journalism.

My favorite part was the careful analysis of Metro's budget to see if repairs are actually a priority.

by Michael Hamilton on Jun 22, 2012 10:00 am • linkreport

It seems like a top priority for everyone but Metro.

by Scoot on Jun 22, 2012 10:02 am • linkreport

Wish we could shut whole lines down for 6-9 months at a time and get these major repairs done. Obviously, that wouldn't be popular, but metro is a ticking time bomb. In 20 years, the system will be outdated and over capacity. Now is the time (in the next 5 years) to make all repairs so that the 10 years after that can be focused on expanding the network.

by MJ on Jun 22, 2012 10:10 am • linkreport

What part of Metro's budget is giving up $1 million to build a memorial park to the Red Line casualties? I'd rather they spend it on system maintenance.

by ksu499 on Jun 22, 2012 10:36 am • linkreport

I would be surprised if the money for the park came from Metro's budget -- Metro's compact language explicitly forbids Metro from operating anything other than for a transit purpose. Metro has danced this dance at Takoma and other places and anything to do with a park has always been verboten.

by jnb on Jun 22, 2012 10:48 am • linkreport


Why do you think it is that successive WMATA heads, including guys who seem to "get it" and are talented administrative and transit professionals, have all been unable "to reform the insular culture" and "show the public that it is managing repair funds effectively."

The only answer I can come up with is that they have all been afraid that greater transparency will reveal just how rotten everything is in the state of Metro - that Metro is not now, nor has it in a long time (if ever), been effectively managing much of anything. If you know that your entire organization is massively dysfunctional but also extremely resistant to change, how apt are you going to be to reveal that to the world?

by Dizzy on Jun 22, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

Before WMATA "can show the public that it is managing repair funds effectively" it has to actually start managing repair (and other funds) effectively. What little information does come out indicates financial mismanagement (stemming from a combination of incompetence and outright fraud) is a huge and growing problem at WMATA. Can anyone name a single major initiative (of any kind) which WMATA completed on-time, in-budget and up to reasonable quality standards within the past 5 years?

"Communication and customer service has improved"
^[Citation Needed] The recent experiences of myself and others I've spoken to indicate little, if any, recent improvement in these areas.

by Jacob on Jun 22, 2012 12:23 pm • linkreport

Rest in Peace to the nine folks who lost their lives three years ago today on the east side of the Red Line by Ft. Totten station. (Could have easily been on that train as the Red Line is my home town line.)

The lost souls are gone but not forgotten:

Mary "Mandy" Doolittle
Veronica DuBose
Ana Fernandez
Dennis Hawkins
Lavonda "Nikki" King
Jeanice McMillan
Ann Wherley
David F. Wherley, Jr.
Cameron Williams

May you all not have lost your lives in vain. WMATA get your act together because it is, as we all know, a matter of life and death.

by John M on Jun 22, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

I think the panel is basically right -- fix what we have already before worrying about expansion. That goes for streetcars and Silver Lines as well as outer beltways.

The chronic inability of any local goverment to do adequate maintenance is staggering. I suspect it is all a funding stream -- rather than putting a coat of pain on every year (which isn't a special budget item) they would rather let a bridge or road detoriate until you can apply for federal funding.

by charlie on Jun 22, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

@Jacob - Source for this statement? "What little information does come out indicates financial mismanagement (stemming from a combination of incompetence and outright fraud) is a huge and growing problem at WMATA"

I know its cool to hate on WMATA, and they aren't perfect, but still...

And yes, RIP to those who passed. Very sad. Inexplicable, really, in a closed system.

It's still far, far, FAR safer than riding in a private vehicle.

by H Street Landlord on Jun 22, 2012 10:44 pm • linkreport

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