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Will WMATA get cell service online or lose funding?

Since late 2008, WMATA has been working to deliver modern wireless phone service throughout the underground portions of the Metrorail system. It faces a deadline to finish by October 16 or possibly lose federal funding, but it's unclear whether they will get the project done in time, and have not shared any news of their progress with reporters or riders.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Unlike some mass transit systems, WMATA did not undertake this project simply out of a desire to improve passenger experience; they did so because of a few short sentences in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (hereinafter PRIIA), enacted on October 16, 2008:

No amounts may be provided to the Transit Authority pursuant to the authorization under this section unless the Transit Authority ensures that customers of the rail service of the Transit Authority have access within the rail system to services provided by any licensed wireless provider that notifies the Transit Authority (in accordance with such procedures as the Transit Authority may adopt) of its intent to offer service to the public, in accordance with the following timetable:
(A) Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, in the 20 underground rail station platforms with the highest volume of passenger traffic.

(B) Not later than 4 years after such date, throughout the rail system.

WMATA met the first deadline, turning up a new distributed antenna system and signing on the four major carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon). But the second deadline has proved thornier. A recent Washington Examiner article described the contractor installing the system as being in "dire financial straits." Anecdotal reports from riders have shown that cellular service has been spotty, even at stations which initially had good coverage.

With October 16 just over a month away, you might think that WMATA would be forthcoming with status updates. Unfortunately, WMATA has responded to the situation with its usual opacity.

What does WMATA stand to lose if they miss the deadline? As PRIIA states, "No amounts may be provided," and the amounts authorized under the act are considerable:

There are authorized to be appropriated to the Secretary of Transportation for grants under this section an aggregate amount not to exceed $1,500,000,000 to be available in increments over 10 fiscal years beginning in fiscal year 2009, or until expended.

Clearly, this is not a deadline that WMATA should take lightly.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, like WMATA, is in the midst of wiring its rail system for wireless service, and they, too, have experienced delays. However, they've been more up-front about the situation; an article published earlier this year distinguished between delays attributable to the MBTA's contractor and those attributable to the cellular carriers.

Even if WMATA and their contractor manage to pull through and meet PRIIA's October 16 deadline, there are still best practices they can and should adopt. In New York City, the contractor deploying wireless service on the subway, aptly named Transit Wireless, has established their own presence, rather than lurking in the shadows like the contractors deploying systems in DC and Boston. Through their Web site and Twitter account, Transit Wireless reaches out directly to riders, taking questions and helping them understand what services are available, and where.

By contrast, WMATA refers questions to the carriers, who tend to either deny knowledge of service in the Metro, or refer questions back to WMATA. After WMATA's initial announcement of service at underground stations, updates have been spotty at best—and there's no list of covered stations or timetable for future service rollouts.

Kurt Raschke is an information technology professional and transit enthusiast interested in how technology can improve the usability of transit systems. A car-free resident of Silver Spring, he is a frequent user of Metrorail and Metrobus. He also blogs at Raschke on Transport. All views expressed here are his alone. 


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There's no chance WMATA is going to meet the October deadline. Seems lately they've been moving backward... service in stations seems to actually be getting worse.

The thing is they could surely get an extension on the deadline from the Feds, especially since they have the reasonable excuse that their contractor is underperforming. However, getting an extension requires asking for it months in advance to allow time to get it through the byzantine review & approval process.

by Falls Church on Sep 12, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

Yep, shovel ready.

So, 1.5B. Multiple systems? Over 10 years.

I'm guessing a few million for WMATA this year?

by charlie on Sep 12, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

Yep, shovel ready.
So, 1.5B. Multiple systems? Over 10 years.

I'm guessing a few million for WMATA this year?

No, that is all for WMATA. It's $150 million per year in federal funding for capital projects that they agreed to in 2008.

The underlying cause of this is the underlying cause of all of WMATA's problems - they have no systems in place to actually track what is going on in their transit system and so they have no way of delivering anything on-time. Escalators don't get fixed on time, no oversight on projects like this, etc. It's just dysfunctional management from top to bottom.

by MLD on Sep 12, 2012 4:01 pm • linkreport

I should have elaborated more:
In 2008 Congress passed PRIIA and authorized $1.5 billion over 10 years for WMATA, contingent on the compact jurisdictions providing a matching $150m per year from dedicated sources (determined by the WMATA funding formula I believe). This is what McDonnell threatened to withhold (VA's portion of the match) when he had his hissy fit over seats on the board.

by MLD on Sep 12, 2012 4:17 pm • linkreport

@MLD; thanks.

However, I strongly suspect that a month before election day -- with an open Virginia seat and Virginia up for play -- the DOT is going to be serious about cutting off money.

by charlie on Sep 12, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

How would cutting off money for WMATA have any impact on either the Virginia senate or presidential races?

by MLD on Sep 12, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

You really think Tim Kaine wants his best buddy to have the Washington Post and a few others (like GGW) scream "Adminstration cuts off WMATA funding". a month before an election. And this after Obama removed federal pay increases.

Almost as much fun as Obama's chief executiioner in a fight with unions.

If only we had a credible opposition party. Sigh.

by charlie on Sep 12, 2012 4:55 pm • linkreport

Ahh, so you meant they will not cut off the funding. I agree, for that reason and a whole host of others, a big one of which is the fact that there was a reason for another big capital investment that occurred after this bill was passed (red line crash). Also given the sensitivity of transit-related stuff in this area recently, which the secretary had to get involved in to solve, I don't think they will cut off the funding.

by MLD on Sep 12, 2012 5:01 pm • linkreport

Glad we agree for once.

This was a good find; I don't mean any disrespect to Kurt by pointing out there is a larger context.

Another question that should be asked is if telecom companies are willing to overbuild the wireless infrastructure here.

by charlie on Sep 12, 2012 5:20 pm • linkreport

[Portions of this comment were deleted for violating the comment policy.] This is one of the reasons that led us to drive - amongst many others detailed some months ago. Using the built in Bluetooth system in my car, I can both reliably contact people, making more productive use of my time in the car, and reliably connect to emergency services in case I need to. Especially given WMATA's well-documented woes with their radio system, that personnel and customers do not have a way to contact emergency services is very, very scary.

As an aside, to link this to the other side of the coin, I was more than a little baffled by the article earlier today about not calling while driving that appeared here ... [because of] Bluetooth, a 15 year old technology...

by Alternatives on Sep 12, 2012 9:17 pm • linkreport

Fire Richard Sarles?

by Matthew on Sep 12, 2012 11:06 pm • linkreport

I really doesn't care if there is cell service inside the tunnels. As long as EMS and police can communicate, I'm fine not having a bunch of people on their phones on metro.

(FYI, the new Metro map-Catcha is working for me this time.)

by rdhd on Sep 13, 2012 8:17 am • linkreport


[Deleted] No doubt Ken knows about Bluetooth. But he also knows, as would anyone who followed the link in that article, that hands-free talking on the phone while driving is just as dangerous as holding a cell phone up to your ear:

The study... found that drivers talking on cell phones, either handheld or hands-free, are more likely to crash because they are distracted by conversation.

by MLD on Sep 13, 2012 8:20 am • linkreport

My own experience is that I had 3G service with Verizon inside the Crystal City metro station last spring, but at some point over the summer the 3G disappeared. My experience also is that I never have any reception in the tunnels unless I'm close enough to a Metro station to pick up a signal. I'll be shocked if I suddenly have a cell signal in the tunnels in 1 month. While I certainly don't plan on talking on the phone much while on Metro (it's often too noisy to hear someone on the phone), the opportunity to be able to send emails, texts, use the internet, and listen to streaming music such as Pandora would be great.

by Aaron on Sep 13, 2012 8:34 am • linkreport

Service does not exist in the underground Green Line stations south of Gallery Place, and coverage drops entire aboveground at Suitland for me most of the time. I'm sure it's extremely low priority for WMATA, and there's no way in hell they'll get it done in the next month. Guaranteed.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 13, 2012 10:15 am • linkreport

The continuing resolution poised for approval by Congress includes a provision extending the deadline for system-wide wireless access to March 27, 2013.

See section 155, on the last page of the resolution.

by Sachchit on Sep 13, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

The best thing for the region would be for Metro to fail to comply with the legislation, and for Metro to stagger and then cease operations from a curtailment of funds. This would give the tri-state compact an uncontroversial chance to dissolve WMATA and

by Turnip on Sep 13, 2012 8:04 pm • linkreport

We just need one incident to happen where the person has a phone but cant call due to having a carrier other than the one that is supported in the station or tunnel.

by kk on Sep 13, 2012 11:05 pm • linkreport

Good find Sachchit.

My experience has been that I noticed the first 20 stations come online a couple years ago, and have seen no changes since then. Metro needs to publish their schedule so we can at least see progress, even if it's slow progress.

by wags on Sep 14, 2012 10:16 am • linkreport

Thanks Wags.

I have actually noticed a change since the first stations came online... on Virgin Mobile (Sprint), I used to have service at Gallery Place but it no longer works.

by Sachchit on Sep 14, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

Oh bother... posting before coffee (late start today.) I meant L'Enfant, not Gallery Place as the station at which I no longer get service through Virgin Mobile / Sprint.

by Sachchit on Sep 14, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

Something's going on. The T-Mobile 1900MHz spectrum refarm is starting to show up for me in subterranean stations in Maryland (Forest Glen and Glenmont [but oddly not Wheaton]).

by Anthony S Jennings on Oct 5, 2012 11:11 am • linkreport

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