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Metro long-term funding

Here at Greater Greater Washington and elsewhere in the press there's a tendency to concentrate on new, shiny projects. We drool over the possibility of a new Blue line underneath Georgetown or M Street, we publish fantasy maps showing new streetcar and bus corridors. We think, wouldn't it be great if Metro had more faregates? A pedestrian tunnel?

Photo by Thomas Hawk.

But what if instead of Metro reaching more areas, having more capacity and capabilities as time goes on, we were actually looking at having "less Metro" in the coming years?

This isn't a "what if". If Metro's funding partners do not figure out a way to significantly increase capital funding for our transportation system, Metro's capabilities will be significantly degraded over the next 10 years. The promised federal capital funding will help, but isn't nearly enough on its own.

Metro staff recently put together an inventory of capital needs for the coming decade. The larger and most serious category of items was the "Performance and Safety" category, which totaled just over $7.6 billion in needs. These are items that Metro needs to replace, refurbish, or restore just to be able to run the same system it does today. We're not talking about expanding capacity, we're talking about maintaining the capacity we already have.

This includes replacing or refurbishing railcars and buses, maintaining tracks, switches and signals, and maintaining or replacing Metro's maintenance and storage facilities. Here are some of the major categories:

  • Vehicles: Between rail cars, buses and Metroaccess vans, Metro outlined $2.6 billion in needs over the next 10 years.
  • Railcars: Metro operates over 290 1000-series railcars, that have been in operation since 1974-1978. Additional 2000 and 3000 series railcars will also be nearing the end of their service lives by 2020. Since railcars have a long lead time for purchase, it's important to line up funding well in advance of the need. NTSB has already recommended replacing the 1000 series railcars due to safety concerns, and Metro is eager to replace them once funding is available. Allowing these cars to continue in operation past their service life could result in decreased reliability, degraded passenger comfort, or severe consequences should the cars be involved in an accident. In addition, series 4000 and 5000 cars are reaching the middle of their service life and should have a major overhaul.

  • Buses: In 1999, Metro was still operating old 1960's GMC diesel buses. The buses were unreliable and dirty, worn out. Typically, buses only have a 20-25 year service life, with a major overhaul in the middle of life. It was only through the "Metro Matters" capital program, where jurisdictions agreed to provide extra capital funding, that Metro's bus fleet average age has been able to improve to 7.5 years today. Underfunding bus purchase will backtrack on the progress we've made recently, requiring Metro to operate buses longer into their service lives.
  • Rail infrastructure: Metro estimated its capital need for rail infrastructure maintenance at $1.8 billion.
  • Tracks: Metro's running rails in above-ground locations are supported by large wooden beams called sleepers, which are embedded in a consolidated pile of gravel called ballast. Over time, the sleepers can rot, degrading the load-bearing capacity of the rails. This can significantly increase the risk of a derailment. Chicago's transit authority (CTA) waited too long to replace a lot of their rail infrastructure, and eventually over 20% of their track miles were allowed only to operate as "slow zones", where trains were limited in speed, sometimes to as little as 15 mph. After a concerted, multi-year effort to repair or replace as much track as they could, spending hundreds of millions per year, they have reduced the number of "slow zone" miles to only 8% of the system.
  • Maintenance Facilities: Metro says they need $1.2 billion to replace and maintain maintenance facilities. This includes the construction of a new test track facility to allow a large number of new rail vehicles to be delivered and tested in a short period of time.
  • Other: Other capital needs include software and computer upgrades, rail power system upgrades to allow 8-car trains. These needs total $2 billion.
All in all, Metro needs $7.6 billion over ten years just to keep running the system we already have. What about expanding the system to accommodate the expected the increase in customer demand? Metro has $3.8 billion in identified need for that, including more buses and rail cars, associated maintenance and storage facilities, and a major upgrade of heavily traveled Metrorail stations. This could include pedestrian tunnels, larger platforms, more elevator and escalator capacity, including backup elevators, and extending canopies to keep all those passengers out of the weather.

To meet these needs, Metro will need about twice the level of capital funding support that they receive now. Congress is on track to provide the $150 million a year that they've promised, but that only comes to $1.5 billion. Local jurisdictions are required to match this, but they could legally use some of the "overmatch" they already provide above the federally-required contribution, instead of actually increasing their contribution. They'll need to maintain the current contribution, add the additional match, and then help Metro find even more capital funding, whether federal or local, to keep the system running for the next generation.

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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Excellent points, Michael. We should try to put this excellent summary in front of some of our more problematic government bodies (*cough*Richmond*cough*).

As a side point, I'm intrigued that Metro still uses wooden sleepers. I'd think concrete would last longer, or does that pay off cost/benefit wise?

by Distantantennas on Sep 24, 2009 11:47 am • linkreport

Best. Underground Bike Track. Ever.

by William on Sep 24, 2009 11:59 am • linkreport

I think the use of wooden sleepers was a result of other TA's having used concrete sleepers in the same time period that ended up having a shorter life. I know that the Braintree branch of the MBTA's Red Line originally had concrete sleepers but those were later replaced.

by Jason on Sep 24, 2009 11:59 am • linkreport

Excellent analysis. We cannot afford to lose any Metro capacity, and expansions like the Silver Line will add to the amount of money required for operations and maintenance (was that included in WMATA's projections?). It's pathetic that the 2nd largest rapid transit system in the US can't get the funding that it needs. Highways are never underfunded. Priorities, people!

by Matthias on Sep 24, 2009 12:11 pm • linkreport

Highways are never underfunded. Priorities, people!

The nation's highway infrastructure is chronically underfunded.

As for priorities, the vast majority of trips, even in the DC area, will always be made by car, not bus or rail. That is a fact of life that will not change, no matter how much you blog about it. Ever single item on every single store shelf will still come to that store by car or truck as well. So, when it comes to priorities, roads will always win out over boutique projects, which is what mass transit is.

by gettingreal on Sep 24, 2009 12:23 pm • linkreport

While it's true highway maintenance is also often underfunded, everything else you're saying is entirely not real, unless you and I have very different ideas of what constitutes a 'vast majority'.

Did you miss the link just two posts ago?

by Distantantennas on Sep 24, 2009 12:45 pm • linkreport


I really don't understand your arguments... first off, most products will have been shipped by boat or train before getting onto a truck. But I fail to see how supply chain logistics figures into moving people via mass transit. Without mass transit infrastructure, cities (which house the largest percentage of the nation's economic output) would cease to function.

by Adam L on Sep 24, 2009 12:52 pm • linkreport

2 points:

1. That data only includes trips to and from work. It doesn't include all the other trips (to the store, to visit people etc) that require owning a car to fully function and enjoy every single metropolitan area on the country.

2. I can think of no more then 5 cities that would "cease to function" without transit (NYC, Chicago, Phila, DC, San Fran), and not a single suburban or exurban business center. Tysons Corner, which has more jobs than the downtowns of all but a handful of the largest US cities, and which generates tremendous economic output in the form of high-income service jobs, does quite well without transit. Ditto the ever-expanding Dulles corridor. No transit needed to bring in major international companies paying the 6 figure salaries that drive the Northern VA economy. Of course you can also look at cities like Phoenix, Charlotte, LA, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio etc for examples of cities that are doing quite well despite transit.

In fact, of the 10 fastest growing cities ('08 to '09) in the US, only 1, New Orleans, is transit-dependent and much off its growth is due to the massive population it lost after Katrina.

Ask the people moving to:

Round Rock, TX,
Cary, NC,
Gilbert, AZ,
McKinney, TX,
Roseville, CA,
Irvine, CA,
Raleigh, NC,
Kileen, TX, and
Fort Worth, TX

how much they value public transit.

by gettingreal on Sep 24, 2009 1:14 pm • linkreport

This post provides an interesting counterpoint to Tom Davis' statement in The Post that John Catoe had "gotten finances under control" ( It goes to show just how disconnected from reality some of our political leaders are.

by Jacob on Sep 24, 2009 1:30 pm • linkreport

Gettingrea, You make some really great points. The best of which, is that overall as a nation and a world we are NOT trending toward greater mass transit dependency, but less. The advantages of the personal vehicle (i.e., greater flexibility, greater efficiency, less environmental impact, etc.) mean that the trend toward a world less dependent on mass transit continues marching forward. And for cities still dependent on mass transit (such as DC) to compete with these other less mass-transit dependent places, it needs to walk the fine line of using mass transit where it makes sense, but not boxing itself into a corner where it is non-competitive with those cities and areas better able to make use of the personal vehicle. A good specific example of this is parking. We need more and not less parking in places such as downtown. We need to replicate the success of places such as Bethesda and Arlington which are able to accomodate both mass transit AND the driver of the personal vehicle. And we need to stop thinking that we help one at the expense of the other. When one wins the other does too.

by Lance on Sep 24, 2009 1:32 pm • linkreport


This all assumes that the status quo is sustainable, and that it should be sustained. Tysons Corner would be meaningless if not for its proximity to DC. Also, ask the people who work at Tysons Corner if they'd prefer to have a mass transit option.

While gas prices may have come down a bit over the past year, it's very much unlikely that we will enjoy cheap gas for the next 50 years. At $5, $6 or $8 a gallon gas, you'll have great numbers of people saying "Why didn't we invest in mass transit? Didn't we see this coming?"

I've been "car free" in DC for over two years now, and I can "fully function" and enjoy the area. If I need to drive long distances, I can rent a car. Public transportation gets me most everywhere else, with Zipcar filling in the gaps. If there was just a moderately more extensive Metrorail system, I'd have little-to-no troubles. The Silver Line fills in most of the gaps, the purple line and streetcars would fit in nicely as well.

People can blog all the want either way about cars versus transit, but the facts of the matter are a significant retooling of America needs to happen, and happen soon. If we get magical zero-emission fusion-powered hover cars then perhaps the people in Round Rock, TX won't hate their commute to Austin. But if they have to pay $8 a gallon for gas 20 years from now, they'll wish there was transit.

by Dave Stroup on Sep 24, 2009 1:32 pm • linkreport


Your fears are totally unfounded. It's not the first time all the 'what ifs' you brought up have been considered and feared. And it won't be the last time. I've heard similar fears expressed throughout my lifetime, and despite that we've managed to continue become less mass transit- dependent and the costs and efficiencies of personal travel have continued to drop ... including the real price of fuel. The only instances where your fears have proven 'founded' are in Europe where prices (and transportation policies) have been manipulated as a consequence of both economic and political policies.

by Lance on Sep 24, 2009 2:00 pm • linkreport

I just realized that this is my 100th article. Thanks for reading, everyone.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 24, 2009 2:09 pm • linkreport

Oh I know that the "oil prices" argument has been tossed around for generations now.

I suppose the better statement isn't that Round Rock, TX needs transit to get to Austin. Maybe they don't. Maybe gas prices will stay low until we have better hybrid/electric solutions. I don't know.

However, there are a significant number of high-density urban areas in the US that do require transit infrastructure. I can't tell you for sure if it's a good idea to continue expanding Metrorail to the suburbs. Maybe infill stations and expanding service within the District would be money better spent.

If someone wants to commute from Great Falls to Tysons, or from Gaithersburg to Dulles, there will never be a good transit solution for them. However, within the urban core of the city we could and should invest in better transit. There's no reason for people who live within the District to have to drive to their job that's also in the District. Or in Arlington. Or Bethesda. Or Silver Spring.

by Dave Stroup on Sep 24, 2009 2:20 pm • linkreport

I would roundly disagree with the statement that passenger vehicles are more efficient than mass transit. One of the many advantages of transit is that it is more energy-efficient than a personal vehicle, not to mention more space-efficient and often more time-efficient. And if we factor in all of the costs of passenger vehicle transportation, it may even be more financially efficient.

A desirable, diverse, dense urban area simply cannot accommodate a vehicle for each person who lives or travels there. Cities with little transit and lots of parking (Baltimore, for example) eat up real estate with massive garages and lots, resulting in dead zones that prevent a vibrant streetscape. While lots of auto traffic tends to make an area unpleasant, in moderation cars can co-exist with other methods of transportation. Even if cars become 100% electric, they will still not be able to compete with the efficiency and convenience of good, reliable mass transit (note that I said reliable).

There are varying ideas of what makes a city pleasant, but for me, auto-dependency is not one of them. I'm much more likely to visit a city that is easy to get around without a car. Some cities may be doing "fine" without transit for now, but how will they be doing in a few years? Tysons has exploded without transit, but this has resulted in some real problems. Can anyone honestly say that it is an economically diverse, livable, pleasant area?

Good transit requires funding, just like every worthy project. Let's remember that the creation of the Metro system saved many DC neighborhoods from being demolished for freeways. But as long as people see the Metro as a "boutique project" rather than an essential part of our infrastructure, it will not reach its full potential.

by Matthias on Sep 24, 2009 2:23 pm • linkreport

@Lance: Transportation policies have long been manipulated in the US in favor of the automobile (e.g. 90% federal funding for highways). Let's not make the mistake of thinking that our car/highway bias happened naturally.

by Matthias on Sep 24, 2009 2:31 pm • linkreport


Just because those "non transit dependent" cities you highlighted don't have a rapid-transit system or subway doesn't meant that transit doesn't play an important role in the overall transportation infrastructure. Standard bus systems, bus rapid transit, light rail, commuter trains, etc. all improve mobility.

In addition, most of those places you highlight are suburban communities that are at least partially serviced by a larger metropolitan transit network. Just doing a quick search shows that those mass transit services are expanding to meet demand in those suburban and exurban areas. And even in Texas, where a love of cars and a hate of taxes is a almost a religion, voters in Fort Worth overwhelmingly approved a plan to raise the local sales tax to pay for transit improvements, including a new rail line. I'm willing to bet that more of these fast-growing places are going to follow suit in order to keep up with demand.

Sooner or later we are going to run out of space for cars. The joys of sitting in 12 lanes of traffic while commuting from some far-flung neighborhood is less and less desirable, especially to young people. Society is shifting and this 50s-era vision of the suburban utopia is no longer so idyllic.

by Adam L on Sep 24, 2009 3:11 pm • linkreport

The point I was trying to come across was "if Metro doesn't get the money they ask for, we're going to have less service in coming years than we do now". Forget expansion or improvements in service, we're going to have to fight just to keep what we got.

1. Is that acceptable to anyone?
2. If not, where do you propose we get an additional $3-5B in funding?

by Michael Perkins on Sep 24, 2009 3:23 pm • linkreport

Gettingitreal doesn't seem to understand that the *reason* cars occupy a more important role in contemporary American transportation than transit is because we've spent the last 60 years socially-engineering our cities specifically around car usage. Cars are only so important because we've specifically made them so important.

Millions of Americans are unhappy with that arrangement and do not appreciate that government intervention has made car ownership practically mandatory, which is why millions of Americans favor ending the social engineering that results in car-dependent cities, and leveling the playing field by adopting regulations and funding mechanisms that make it possible for transit, walking and cycling to play the same important roles in American life that they play in every other industrialized nation on Earth.

by BeyondDC on Sep 24, 2009 3:31 pm • linkreport

@mperkins; the problem with your argument is Metro is pushing the numbers too high.

Do we need new train cars and buses? Sure the 1000 cars aren't safe in front (or back). But you can get these car refurbed and looking good for 40+ years. I dont' think the new cars are more effective or much cheaper to operate. Same thing with buses. Go from 2.6 to 1 billion.

Rail infrastructure probably can't be cut much. And does that include changing the killer signal systems?

Maintenance facility? Forgot about it. 2 billion in other improvements? That seems like a lot.

If you don't have the money, we are not going to have a gold-plated system. And the biggest cost is people. Hard to cut but you need to start now.

by charlie on Sep 24, 2009 3:47 pm • linkreport


Assuming that government funding is not going to increase, we should look at more drastic service cuts, particularly to Metrobus and Metroaccess, targeted fare increases, and more union concessions.

I understand that all cuts to service is a Catch 22 -- if the service isn't there, then people won't ride it -- but Metro needs to take a serious look at bus lines that carry only a few people. Routes that do not meet a minimum base of X number of people per mile/hour should probably be cut, rerouted, merged, or (if possible) improved so that it reaches that base threshold. In addition, MetroAccess should certainly be limited to the service area required by the ADA. These cuts are likely going to be very painful to a significant number of people, including myself. (I often ride a bus route late at night which typically carries only a handful of passengers... the state really should not be subsidizing what is essentially a personal chauffeur at the expensive of heavily-used services)

In addition, off-peak Metro fares should also be raised and peak fares should be charged after 9 or 10PM, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Despite the groans of late-night party-goers, a peak fare trip on the Metro is still cheaper (and safer) than paying for a cab or parking. I think current peak fare rates should remain the same; we don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face and lose the morning and evening commuters that make up so much of Metrorail's business. If necessary, increases to off-peak fares should make up the difference. The fact that the base fare on Metro is just a few cents more than a bus fare seems off.

Finally, union contracts need to be renegotiated with the understanding that without serious concessions Metro will simply have to institute mass layoffs. Continual cost-of-living increases are outrageous when A) the cost of living is not increasing and B) the system is going through severe financial constraints. In addition, salaries need to be brought in line with the true value of the service they provide. Six-figure salaries for train operators, station managers, etc. are out of line. If that means that we offer early retirement to those people making larger salaries, the initial hit will be worth it for the long-term financial health of the system.

by Adam L on Sep 24, 2009 3:58 pm • linkreport

@charlie, so you're advocating not replacing 40 year old rolling stock that has been cited by the NTSB as not meeting safety guidelines and should be replaced urgently, which Metro said was more cost effective to replace than to retrofit?

Sounds like a plan.

Did you even read the presentation? Perhaps I forgot to link it. I edited the article to add the link in.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 24, 2009 3:59 pm • linkreport

In addition, why does Metro have transit police? I have to believe that local police forces can step up patrols/enforcement in stations. It seems like every time there's an incident, local cops show up anyway...

by Adam L on Sep 24, 2009 5:05 pm • linkreport

@Adam L: Where is your WMATA salary information coming from? I'd be amazed if train operators make six figures, but I really have no sources to check out.

Another question: Has the Fort Totten collision had any effect on funding?

by Matthias on Sep 24, 2009 5:08 pm • linkreport

Get rid of the useless boondoggle.

by jay on Sep 24, 2009 7:58 pm • linkreport

@ Adam L: Routes that do not meet a minimum base of X number of people per mile/hour should probably be cut, rerouted, merged, or (if possible) improved so that it reaches that base threshold.

Transit is not a commercial business. It is a service. That means there are different standards.

We do not close roads when they are rarely used. That way every cul-de-sac would be closed.

The point of transit is to create connectivity, and allow citizens to move around easier and quicker than by alternate means. An added advantage is that there are other benefits, for instance for the environment. And yes, that means that some lines will be unprofitable.

How many profitable, or self-sustaining roads does the region have?

by Jasper on Sep 24, 2009 10:41 pm • linkreport


I am a total pragmatist. The question asked "How can Metro close the budget gap?" There are two ways to do that-- either increase revenue or decrease expenses. It's just that simple. The economic and political reality is that government subsidies are unlikely to increase. We can clamor all we want about how unfair it is that roads continue to get money while transit gets left behind but, while true, that's not going to solve WMATA's budget problems.

As for additional revenue, we can try to increase fares but ridership numbers have been steadily decreasing (likely because the unemployed don't need as much access transit) and those who still do take transit are on the cusp of abandoning the system, thanks in part to WMATA's ongoing service problems and delays. If WMATA raises fares too much higher, I think we can expect to see even sharper declines in ridership, thus making the fare hike revenue neutral.

And no, I don't expect any transit system to be profitable. However, roads that are rarely used do not typically incur an ongoing direct financial cost. The only real ongoing cost is maintenance; however, less-traveled roads require less maintenance and even those costs can be put off nearly indefinitely (i.e. a road doesn't become unusable if there are few pot holes or the paint wears thin).

There are many Metrobus routes that just run around empty, especially late at night. I think it's reasonable to suggest that those routes be changed or eliminated in order to help save the transit agency as a whole and maintain (or even enhance) service on routes that people actually use. In fact, I don't see any other realistic alternative.

by Adam L on Sep 24, 2009 11:32 pm • linkreport

Oh, and I forgot to mention that there is still one way to try and pull more money out of the government for transit. If WMATA seriously considers eliminating service on a number of routes a funny thing happens... people suddenly care about transit funding. We see this effect every time WMATA proposes cuts. As if by magic, local governments find the funding to save the bus route and thus quell the cries of many politically-sensitive constituencies. There's no guarantee that local governments would step in to save a service, but it may be the only way to pull more funding for the system.

by Adam L on Sep 24, 2009 11:43 pm • linkreport

WMATA has never come out and told us, in simple terms, why they need to upgrade the traction power system to allow for running of 8 car trains. After piecing together the parts of puzzle, I have finally figured out why.

The 1k cars when delivered back in the 1970s had cam controllers powering 4 125 HP DC traction motors.
The 5k cars have AC Traction Inverters that drive 4 234.5 HP AC traction motors.
The 6k cars along with the upgraded 2 and 3k cars have similar AC propulsion systems.

That's a power requirement increase of more then 60%.

The 4k cars still have their original chopper controllers powering 4 214 HP DC traction motors.

WMATA has also added other systems to the cars over the years that have made them heavier.

by Sand Box John on Sep 25, 2009 9:40 am • linkreport


Congrats on your 100th piece. Excellent job. It may well be your best.

Sadly, there's nothing sexy about capital expenditures to keep what you already have running safely and dependably. I can't ever remember anyone getting elected because they kept the sewers or the transit system in good repair. And it's only when a Fort Totten tragedy occurs that people begin to focus on the need to spend money (high fares and tax dollars) simply to support ongoing safety and performance standards.

But without safe and dependable infrastructure, all urbanist hopes and dreams are destined to be unrealized.

Again, kudos on your 100th. It's spot on.

by Mike Silverstein on Sep 25, 2009 12:20 pm • linkreport

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