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In defense of "political theater" for Metro

Jack Evans, DC Councilmember and chair of the WMATA Board, is making noise. He's shouting that Metro needs $25 billion to fix everything that needs fixing. On Friday, members of Congress accused him of "political theater" and "rampant parochialism." But perhaps some theater is just what Metro needs right now?

Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

I talk about this issue, and more, with WAMU's Martin di Caro on this week's Metropocalypse podcast and a Facebook Live video we recorded right after the podcast taping. Check it out!

Let's leave aside the irony of two members of the United States House of Representatives decrying "political theater." Gerry Connolly, one of those leveling the attack, is not an unserious person and has done a tremendous amount for our region and for Metro. In fact, on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, he unflaggingly pushed the Silver Line through decades of studies and inaction, and he deserves a lot of credit for it happening.

Connolly was upset specifically because Corbett Price, the other WMATA board voting member from DC, made a provocative suggestion. He posited that if Virginia doesn't step up to fund Metro, perhaps DC should veto the opening of the Silver Line to Dulles and Loudoun County. Needless to say, Connolly isn't happy about this idea.

I don't want Metro to cancel the Silver Line. Price and Evans don't either.

They were saying that Metro is in a crisis, and Virginia didn't seem very eager to fix it. Evans, Price, DC CFO Jeff DeWitt, and others have suggested a regional sales tax to give Metro a reliable funding source. Mostly, that proposal was met with hemming and hawing from both Annapolis and Richmond.

In a nutshell, this is how the discussion has gone:

DC leaders: Hey, the house is on fire! We should put out the fire!
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan: I don't think we should. On second thought, I'm okay with if if Montgomery and Prince George's Counties pay for the firefighting work, but I don't want to.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe: I think our house should demonstrate it can take steps to improve its structural integrity before we put the fire out.

Who's job is it to fix Metro?

The buck stops with nobody. DC, Maryland, and Virginia (a collection of Northern Virginia cities and counties, more specifically) share the governance of Metro, which means no chief executive can take decisive action to fix it, and also no chief executive is personally blamed if it fails.

Riders get angry at Metro for its failures, not at McAuliffe, Hogan, and DC mayor Muriel Bowser for not pushing for fixes.

So, Evans and Price are trying to make people pay attention by being controversial. It's not surprising that's rubbing some other leaders the wrong way, but has something else worked better?

The last two board chairs, Tom Downs and Mort Downey, were not politicians and not loud. They were transit experts who ... um, hired their friend Rich Sarles to run the place for a few years, during which time, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, the system got even worse.

I can understand the impulse to keep politics out of Metro, but we had not-politics and the problem did not improve in any way. So Evans and Price tried to pressure Virginia using the Silver Line. Perhaps that was a good tactic, or perhaps not, but doing nothing was not a good tactic either.

Should the Silver Line be under negotiation?

Their argument about the Silver Line isn't totally crazy. Based on the formula that decides how much various jurisdictions pay for Metro, even though the Silver Line extension is entirely in Virginia, DC and Maryland will pay some of the cost of running it. Starting the Silver Line also, sadly, precipitated a crisis where Metro suddenly couldn't get enough railcars out on the tracks each day.

Still, it's dangerous for one jurisdiction to block new service in another. DC and Maryland do benefit from more people having access to Metro. The board might do one thing to help one jurisdiction this time, and another the next. Metro can only work if DC, Maryland, and Virginia are trying to work together, not at cross purposes. The Congressmembers accused DC's reps of acting parochially, and the board needs less parochialism, not more.

(Connolly should also tell that to Maryland's Michael Goldman, a paragon of parochialism on this board. Goldman suddenly announced that Maryland didn't want to pay its share of the 5A bus to Dulles, for instance. He also stopped Metro from funding required retirement benefits and refused to fund upgrades to power systems to allow more 8-car trains.)

Conflict between jurisdictions is inherent to Metro's structure

Metro is more like urban subway in most of the area inside the Beltway, and mostly a suburban park-and-ride commuter train outside. That could change in Tysons, eventually, and elsewhere, but there aren't a lot of people living outside the Beltway who forego owning a car because Metro makes it easy enough to get places without one.

That means, as Metro is constituted now, there will always be some battles between DC, which wants more frequent service and service over more hours, and suburban jurisdictions where longer mid-day waits are less of an issue. There are always going to be budget fights about whether the parking fees should go up when fares do, or not. Or the maximum fare—riders going the longest distance don't pay as much per mile as others. That's either fair or not depending on your point of view.

Most of all, Metro needs all local governments to take Metro's problems very seriously. A lot of experts think it could stop being financially viable within a year if something is not done. The Silver Line should not be canceled, but maybe a bombastic politician who gets headlines (along with a capable manager who's actually fixing problems) could get this issue the attention it needs. Other methods haven't worked any better.


The DC reps on the WMATA board might veto late-night closures

The WMATA Board is nearly ready to move forward with new, shorter late-night hours, and the vote to make them official is in two weeks. But there's another big potential hurdle: DC's representatives on the Board might veto the cuts.

Photo by Tara Severns on Flickr.

Update: As of 10:30 on Friday morning, it looks as though DC will in fact OK the late-night cuts lasting for two years.

On Tuesday, WMATA staff submitted its final proposal for late-night hours to the Board: end service at 11:30 pm Monday through Thursday and 1 am Friday and Saturday and runs between 8 am and 11 pm on Sunday. Moving to this schedule would provide an additional eight hours per week for needed maintenance.

On Thursday, the Board's Customer Service Subcommittee, which is tasked with sussing out the details before the December 15th full Board vote, said the hours cuts are fine as long as the changes expire in two years, at which point new approval would be required to keep them in place. This came after a few hours of back and forth and arguing about how the cuts would impact low-income and minority riders, as well as how they would hurt businesses, employees, and the region's economy.

Most Board members (emphasis on "most") appear to be ok with either one or two-year cuts as long as there's an expiration date. Metro staff say the programs they need to get done require at least two years to get started.

There won't be any service cuts if DC vetoes them

Generally, once a subcommittee approves something, it's well on its way to Board approval. But that's not so clear here.

Since the late-night closures first became a possibility, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has been a strong opponent, insisting that Metro bring back 3 am weekend closings and return service hours to pre-SafeTrack levels.

On Thursday, WMATA Board Chairman Jack Evans, who is also a member of the DC Council, reinforced the Mayor's stance, saying that even being open to the cuts was a huge compromise from DC. Evans warned the Board that if any new cuts were to be enacted, they would need to be limited to a year or the jurisdiction's Board reps would veto the measure.

If Evans and the DC contingent of WMATA Board members (four of the Board's 16 total members) use their jurisdictional veto power, the Board goes back to the drawing table. The existing service hour reductions that Wiedefeld put in during SafeTrack would eventually expire, and the system might end up going back to its normal service hours—but without the time WMATA staff says it needs to do much-needed preventative maintenance.


Metro staff recommend closing at 11:30 weekdays, 1 am on weekends

WMATA staff are recommending that after SafeTrack ends, the Metro system adopt a new service schedule that ends at 11:30 pm Monday through Thursday and 1 am Friday and Saturday and runs between 8 am and 11 pm on Sunday. Reducing late night service will provide an additional eight hours per week for maintenance.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Moving forward with this plan will save Metro millions in operating costs, approximately $2 million of which will be spent on new late-night bus service. The WMATA Board will vote on whether to make it official at its December 15 meeting.

Late-night rail recap

We first heard about potential reductions to late-night service after SafeTrack in July. At first, there were three proposals for cutting service, but in September, a fourth emerged. Unfortunately, all left riders facing relatively low levels of service, even when considering that they came with additional bus service. Accordingly, the public reaction (including that from myself) to these proposals was to demand a different choice set, with better service options.

WMATA proactively responded to many of these comments by providing more data to make the case for increased—and daily, not reactive and intermittent—maintenance time. Agency staff are now recommending that the board adopt Proposal 3, which keeps the system open until 1 AM on Fridays and Saturdays.

Image from WMATA.

Survey says...

On Monday, WMATA released an analysis of all the public input collected during October, focusing particularly on the findings of a rider survey that garnered almost 15,000 responses in 25 days. The analysis slices and dices the survey responses based on the self-reported demographics of the survey respondents, including race and income.

The staff analysis found that all of the proposed service cut alternatives would have a disproportionate burden on the low-income population that makes up 13% of Metrorail riders, confirming the rationale behind much of the outcry by riders and elected officials during the comment period.

Proposals 3 and 4 were also found to have a disproportionate impact on the minority populations that compose a whopping 45% of Metrorail riders. These impact calculations are based on existing ridership patterns, and do not take into account whether some trips may be more flexible or discretionary than others for riders—all trips are weighted equally. Public input can help illuminate these subtleties.

Image from WMATA.

The riders who participated in the survey, across demographics, expressed a strong preference for Proposal 3, which preserves service after midnight on Friday and Saturday. WMATA staff concluded that "although Proposal 3 creates a disparate impact and disproportionate burden and there appears to be a less discriminatory alternative before staff considered public input...practically speaking, no less discriminatory alternative exists because minority and low-income populations overwhelmingly prefer Proposal 3."

Clearly, public input had a substantive influence on the outcome of the staff recommendation. By creating a structured process to receive input through the survey, WMATA was able to gather real information about rider preferences that they were able to incorporate into the decision-making process in a meaningful way.

Whose input?

Is WMATA collecting and interpreting public input in an appropriate and equitable way? It is worth noting that only 30% of the survey responses were collected through in-station surveys that targeted the ridership hours that would be impacted by the service reduction.

For example, my home Metrorail station, West Hyattsville, was surveyed only once, during a Saturday morning shift that yielded the biggest Spanish-language response of any shift by a factor of 3. But out of 14,975 surveys, WMATA collected only 314 Spanish-language responses in total.

It would be interesting—and potentially important—to know if the response results or respondent demographics differed for the online vs. in-station survey groups. If so, WMATA should consider placing more weight on the survey results that most clearly represent riders that will be impacted by proposed service changes.


Metro's "pick your own price" pass will become permanent. Here are 3 ways it can continue to grow.

WMATA's SelectPass, new this year, is a good deal for almost anyone who rides Metro daily. It's been a pilot program, but soon will likely be permanent.

For some of these folks, riding Metro may have gotten a lot cheaper when SelectPass came around. Now, it's going to stay that way. Photo by Aimee Custis Photography on Flickr.

The pass lets you select a fare level (say, $3.25), pay one fixed price for the month, and then get unlimited rides that cost that amount or less. For more expensive rides, you only pay the amount beyond your set level. Our handy calculator helps you figure out what level is the best deal for you.

According to a presentation from WMATA, Metro now sells 3,700 SelectPasses a month, compared to just 400-1,000 a month for the long-standing unlimited rail pass which did not offer various price levels.

98% of pass users rate the pass at least a 7 out of 10. Low-income riders are even more likely to use the pass, representing 18% of pass users but just 12.8% of overall Metro riders. And WMATA estimates that the pass has slightly increased revenue while increasing ridership even more—just the point of a pass like this.

Michael Perkins has been pushing the idea for this pass since 2009 after getting the idea from Seattle's ORCA; the transit in that area, as with WMATA, has a variety of fare levels that makes the simple one-price-fits all pass not work.

You can currently get the pass at a fare level of any 25¢ increment from $2.25 to $4.00, plus the $5.90 max fare. Metro plans to add fare levels from $4.00 to $5.75 as well if the (quite old) faregate computers can handle it.

Beyond this, there are a few ways Metro could work to further improve this pass:

Make it easier to get with employer benefits

Many riders get transit through their employers, either where the employer pays for some transit fare for free, or as a pre-tax deducation from the employee's paycheck. Unfortunately, it can be a pain to get a Metro SelectPass this way if the employer or payroll personnel are not helpful or knowledgeable.

Employers set up benefits through a special (not very user-friendly) WMATA website. To get a pass, the benefits administrator has to specially designate the money for a pass rather than to go on your SmarTrip card as cash.

Many employers don't know how to do this. Other commenters have said that some employers use third party companies to process these benefits, and not all of those companies support the pass yet.

One GGWash contributor, who asked not to be named, writes, "I made a request with my employer when the pass first came out. I followed up a few months after that. I still haven't heard anything."

Metro either needs to work on making it possible to get the pass even with a non-savvy payroll department, or it should make the payroll process easier so employees can help their employers set up the pass correctly.

Allow riding rail or bus without extra cost

Right now, you can add on a bus pass to your Metro Select Pass for $45 more per month, which is like buying a month's worth of bus rides for just over $1 each. It's a good deal if your normal commute includes a bus ride, but it's not a good deal if some of your trips are on rail only and some of your trips are on bus only.

We want to encourage people to use the best transit mode for their needs. If the train isn't working well, people could switch to the bus; let them. Plus, for people who commute daily by rail, it's in Metro's best interest to let them take some midday bus trips for free when the buses aren't full.

Therefore, it would be better if the Metro Select Pass worked for either mode of transit, rail or bus, as long as it's less than your selected pass value.

Encourage more bulk purchases

Right now, if you're a student at American University, you (or, more likely, your parents) pay a $260 per semester mandatory fee, and you and all other students get an unlimited transit pass. This encourages more students to ride transit, while Metro can charge only $260 a semester because most students don't ride every day.

Beyond adding more universities, Metro could explore building a program to create such passes for other groups, including condo or apartment buildings, employers, and others. When passes are purchased in bulk, the price per pass can be reduced, and everyone is encouraged to use transit.

To get approval for new buildings in many jurisdictions, developers have to prepare Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plans, where they identify strategies to help residents or workers commute by more efficient means than driving. This often includes Bikeshare memberships, car-sharing memberships, TransitScreens in lobbies, and more. Passes could be a great amenity as well.

Congrats to Metro on building a successful new pass program! We look forward to seeing where this goes in the future.


A business group suggests Congress impose changes to Metro. Is that a good idea?

Congress should make WMATA unconstitutional, says a local business organization, unless DC, Maryland, and Virginia make changes to the agency. These could include smaller board of only transit experts instead of elected leaders, no arbitration for labor contracts, and a dedicated funding source.

Photo by Ben Schumin on Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5.

The idea comes from the Federal City Council, an organization of mostly business leaders and some other prominent civic individuals in Washington. Highly-respected former DC mayor Anthony Williams is its executive director.

Its chairman, Robert Flanagan of Clark Enterprises, and vice-chairman, W. Edward Walter of Host Hotels and Resorts, signed an op-ed in the Washington Post on Sunday. They suggest Congress withdraw its consent to the WMATA compact, the interstate agreement between DC, Maryland, and Virginia which established Metro—that is, unless the three step up and make changes.

The US Constitution (Article I, Section 10) requires Congress to approve any "Agreement or Compact" between states, like the WMATA compact. The op-ed says Congress could withdraw that consent and instead take over WMATA directly. Some recently suggested a federal takeover as the only way out of the predicament.

But the Federal City Council is suggesting an actual federal takeover as a step of last resort. Instead, Congress could threaten that step (as some members did with this bill regarding the Delaware River Port Authority, an interstate compact between Pennsylvania and New Jersey). Any change to the compact requires DC, Maryland, and Virginia to pass identical legislation (and then Congress to agree).

What would this mean? Would Congress's involvement make Metro better, or worse? It's clear that Metro really needs something to change—right now, it faces a nearly impossible short-term budget crunch and many long-term challenges without much end in sight.

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

What could change?

The op-ed lists some proposals for changing the compact, which I've reformatted into a list for ease of reference:

  1. "abolish the existing board and reestablish a smaller board using criteria based on experience and expertise in transit or logistics"
  2. "redefine the role of the board and limit its focus to the most critical issues facing Metro"
  3. "finalize the establishment of a federally compliant Metro Safety Commission"
  4. "outline a process for future compact revisions"
  5. "remove the mandatory-binding-arbitration provision associated with union contract negotiations"
  6. "require the jurisdictions to collectively address their commitment to provide dedicated funding for WMATA"
  7. provide "additional funding from the federal government ... with the achievement of both cost accountability and funding parameters as thresholds"
When evaluating this policy, we should ask the following questions:

First, would these changes fix Metro's problems?

Second, do we need Congress? Are these changes achievable without federal involvement, or would they not happen otherwise?

Third, is Congress likely to agree to impose these changes?

Fourth, would Congress impose other requirements that are detrimental to Metro?

Fifth, is this a legally valid approach?

Let's take them one by one.

1. Would these changes fix Metro's problems?

Governance changes make up the first two: (a) "abolish the existing board and reestablish a smaller board using criteria based on experience and expertise in transit or logistics" and (b) "redefine the role of the board and limit its focus to the most critical issues facing Metro."

The current WMATA board has four members from each of DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government, all appointed in various ways. Some are elected officials (most in Virginia, none in Maryland); some are transit experts; some have other skills or perhaps not really any relevant experience at all.

It's widely believed that the board is too large (especially after it was expanded to add the federal members in 2009). And certainly some members have not brought much value to the board. It's worth noting that some elected officials have been effective and others ineffective; the same goes for expert members. Tom Downs and Mort Downey, both transit experts with long and notable resumes in the field, chaired the board during the Sarles era when the system decayed without us knowing about it, for example.

There has been much electronic ink spilled over the board's composition, and much more will in the future if this plan moves forward. I'm open to board changes—at this point, WMATA's problems are so dire that we need significant change—but it's important to understand what, exactly, the change is meant to achieve. Governance doesn't fix anything on its own, though it can lay the groundwork.

The current board has been very hands off with Paul Wiedefeld, letting him make most decisions. The board certainly should continue to be involved in decisions about budget, fare increases, and service cuts. Most of the current board debates are about those issues.

The value of a board of just transit experts is that it might waste less time learning the basics and could focus on the key issues, and hopefully provide effective oversight of Metro. The fear is that it would do so without listening to riders and lack the political connections to local jurisdictions. Right now, Metro depends on local governments for much of its money; defenders of elected officials say having board members who are involved in those budget process ensures Metro's needs are not ignored.

Safety: (c) "finalize the establishment of a federally compliant Metro Safety Commission" is not as controversial. Leaders in all localities agree that Metro needs a new safety oversight office. They have said they plan to get this done in early 2017, when the Maryland and Virginia legislatures are meeting.

Amendments: (d) "outline a process for future compact revisions"—I'm not sure what this one means. I am not aware of a way to change an interstate compact other than the current one, where signatories agree on a change and Congress gives its consent. I've asked the Federal City Council to elaborate.

Arbitration: (e) "remove the mandatory-binding-arbitration provision associated with union contract negotiations" is a key debate. Metro's unions can't strike, but instead, arbitrators resolve any contract dispute. In a 2011 contract negotiation, the arbitrator awarded 3% per year raises. WMATA said it couldn't afford that cost without raising fares; a judge ruled that didn't matter.

Some have called for a return to the model where strikes, rather than arbitration, resolve these disputes. It could be more disruptive, but it would force both sides to essentially make their case more publicly and fight it out. Today, local leaders and WMATA officials basically consider labor costs a factor they can't control at all.

Labor relations is a tough issue. On the one hand, unions were a strong force for building a strong middle class in the mid-20th Century, and riders want skilled workers who know how to do their jobs. On the other, sometimes inflexible work rules, in particular, hamstring organizations. And Metro is competing against other travel modes that don't involve unionized workers (or workers at all—if you drive, walk, or bike, you're your own worker), so it can only give so much.

Dedicated funding: (f) "require the jurisdictions to collectively address their commitment to provide dedicated funding for WMATA." Leaders including board chairman Jack Evans, DC mayor Muriel Bowser, leaders at the Council of Governments, and the Board of Trade have been trying to organize for dedicated funding. So far, the reception in Maryland and Virginia has been mixed, at best.

Finally, (g) "additional funding from the federal government" would of course be fantastic; the question is, is it possible?

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

2. Do we need Congress?

Congress' influence may be necessary to push a regional funding approach, item (f). We don't know for sure; the campaign for that has just gotten going. Perhaps an organized and sustained effort to sign up local business, civic, religious, and other leaders; get state, county, and city candidates on the record; and make the policy case in detail could succeed. Congress' pressure could speed that up, if Congress wants to do it.

The same goes for the governance changes, (a) and (b). DC, Maryland, and Virginia could change the compact. As above, I'm not yet persuaded that will fix the problems, but it's something to continue to discuss.

We don't need Congress to set up the safety commission, (c). We absolutely need it to get federal funding (g), but that could happen with or without compact changes.

Finally, removing arbitration, (e), is probably only going to happen with Congress. DC and Maryland, in particular, are unlikely to pass laws that eliminate a process which is currently quite favorable to labor.

3. Is Congress likely to agree to impose these changes?

A lot depends on who's in charge of the relevant committees in Congress. It's likely the Federal City Council has already been talking to some members of Congress.

Given the Republican control, support for (e), removing binding arbitration, is almost certain.

Many GOP members have taken a firm stance against any new taxes. A requirement that DC, Maryland, and Virginia provide a dedicated funding source would require some kind of tax, though not a federal one. Does that run afoul of their anti-tax pledges?

Would Congress provide any federal money? It seems a long shot, but perhaps in combination with some other of these provisions that they find more appealing, maybe there's a chance. Or maybe not.

Photo by angela n. on Flickr.

4. Would Congress impose other requirements that are detrimental to Metro?

The biggest question is whether getting Congress involved is playing with fire. Except the filibuster in the Senate (and that could even disappear), Democrats control no chamber of Congress, nor the White House, and won't be able to stop provisions unacceptable to them. If your primary goal is changing the labor relationship, maybe that's a positive, but what else?

Could certain members of Congress who have campaigned against cities, against coastal elites, and in particular against Washington, add their own ideas for changing Metro?

Could any of these happen?

  • Congress insists that Metro run less service and focus just on the most profitable service. Most service outside peak goes away and Metro becomes more like a commuter rail; regional buses are substantially cut and local jurisdictions take on more bus service.
  • Congress requires Metro to immediately sell some of its property, or requires it to immediately cover unused property in parking spaces, or some combination. Joint development becomes impossible; TOD becomes a far lower priority.
  • The formula which allocates costs between DC, Maryland, and Virginia is changed to be much more favorable to Virginia, which has more Republicans in Congress, at the expense of Maryland and/or DC.
  • The funding formula is changed to benefit exurban riders (with more Republican voters) to the detriment of the (more Democratic) core jurisdictions, such as a flat fare or a ban on parking charges.
  • Congress just prohibits a union at Metro entirely.
Hopefully none would happen; none of these would be a smart move, even for a GOP representative. They would kill Metro outright or make its problems worse by damaging its regional support. And if Congress wanted to kill Metro entirely, it could simply do that regardless. (So if you are a staffer for a GOP member of Congress, don't get any ideas!)

But it seems that the Federal City Council is really hoping the threat of Congressional action would spur DC, Maryland, and Virginia to take steps that they're not all otherwise willing to do to save Metro (whatever the consensus might ultimately be on which those are).

5. Is this a legally valid approach?

One other question is whether Congress can even legally withdraw its consent to an interstate compact. However, Ben Ross noticed a legal opinion that Congress can't actually do this:

Emeka Moneme of the Federal City Council said that their lawyers have given thought to this, and believe the case law and past experiences (such as the Delaware River one above) lead them to see it as a viable approach.

Plus, while we can't know which side the Supreme Court might ultimately take if it ever came to a lawsuit, Congress could impose its will in other ways as well (like with funding). Therefore, Congressional involvement is not an option to dismiss outright.

What do you think of the Federal City Council's proposals?


I don't want the feds to take over Metro, but I think they might need to

On Wednesday, the Washington Post editorial board sparked a regional discussion by calling for the consideration of a heretofore radical idea: that Congress should consider imposing a financial control board on WMATA. That suggestion was amplified by WMATA Board Chair Jack Evans, who signaled his support for the idea.

Photo by Metro Max on Flickr.

In a round-up of what Greater Greater Washington contributors had to say on the topic, I argued in favor of considering the idea while Stephen Hudson and Matt Johnson took the opposite point of view. But what surprised me in the aftermath of Evans' comments was just how many of his board colleagues and regional politicians were either open to the idea, or outright supportive of it.

To be clear, most were at least somewhat skeptical—which is not surprising, given the many potential implications and complications of such a move—but only a select few were explicitly opposed. That this suggestion wasn't roundly dismissed tells me that the financial situation at WMATA and the prognosis for regional cooperation in its recovery are probably even worse than it appears.

Political leaders aren't typically in the business of relinquishing their own power, so the fact that some are openly calling to punt their responsibilities paints a pretty damning picture of just how far apart the jurisdictions are on a collective vision for a dedicated funding source and a solution to the expense side of Metro's structural financial challenges.

WMATA's problems are nothing new

The 1967 Compact, the document establishing WMATA and laying out how Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia would govern it, is the root of many of the system's current challenges with its many veto points. The first evident example of the Compact's shortcomings was how the jurisdictions responded to the Stark-Harris bill of 1979.

The bill authorized federal dollars for the buildout of 89.5 miles of the Adopted Regional System—the official master plan for 101 miles of Metrorail service that was approved by the Compact partners and the federal government—which was completed in 2001. Stark-Harris authorized substantial federal support on the condition that the jurisdictions each enact a "stable and reliable" ongoing source of revenue to fund debt service, ongoing operations, and maintenance costs.

The annual ritual of WMATA going hat-in-hand to the jurisdictions, requesting ever-larger subsidies from a hodgepodge of statutorily-designated pots of revenue (general fund, gas tax, etc.) and mostly getting the minimum to keep the buses and trains running, demonstrates that this region has never truly found a "stable and reliable" revenue source.

Over many years, this budgeting process has encouraged the deferral of expenses without an immediately evident impact—such as the prefunding of WMATA's pension liability and preventative maintenance spending—in favor of keeping up-front jurisdictional contributions as low as possible.

Clearly, the same old solutions are off the table

We can no longer afford to ignore the consequences of the last 40 years with patchwork solutions. Numerous reports and expert testimony over the years have made plain that a lack of dedicated source of funding for the system and the annual low-ball budget games that substituted for it were a major contributing factor to disinvestment in the system's maintenance. We've been reaping the consequences of that for the last seven years, and we will be for many more.

But what's more frustrating than that is that the decline of the system hasn't produced any fundamental change in this routine. If the deaths of 10 people, a continued degradation in service quality and reliability, a nationally-embarrassing full-day safety shutdown, and a budget proposal with alarmingly deep service/personnel cuts and fare hikes aren't enough to shake the sensibilities of the region's political leaders into forging consensus, then what will?

Nobody wants things to be this bad, but since they are, we need a solution

Nobody should "want" a Control Board. An expectation that Congress would infuse the system with money and assume WMATA's unfunded pension liability without significant further pain for riders and Metro employees/retirees, in the best case, is pure wishcasting. Likewise, anything that would have such a significant impact on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people and the lives of the commuting public should not be taken lightly.

But in the absence of regional consensus on a long-term vision for how to bring the system's tremendous expense growth in line with what the Compact partners are willing to pay, this system will be on the verge of insolvency every time the budget cycle starts.

This year, WMATA faces a $290 million budget deficit. It lacks roughly one of the six dollars it needs just to maintain baseline service, with cuts to Metrorail hours assumed and no late-night bus network improvements funded. The gap between the base subsidy and expense growth over the next ten years is only expected to widen further, the system is hemorrhaging riders, and it has $2 billion in unfunded pension obligations.

Graph from WMATA.

Unless you assume that riders will come flooding back in large numbers or that the Compact partners have an appetite for covering large deficits with a double-digit growth rate in subsidies, then these projections aren't alarmist: they're realistic.

That's to say nothing of the system's further capital needs—$12 to $18 billion worth, according to the District's CFO—which will need to be funded just so that Metrorail safety and reliability aren't further degraded, much less improved.

What will take the place of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA)—which is funding a ten-year, $3 billion capital investment in the system with 50% federal money—when it expires before the end of the decade? Do we expect a GOP-led House of Representatives to be nearly as forthcoming with federal contributions in the future as a Democratic House was when PRIIA was passed, especially since the area's congressional delegation may well lose its last remaining Republican member next week?

If we don't do something drastic now, will we even have Metro in the future?

Lastly, if the budget picture looks this dire in economically sound times, then what can we expect it to look like the next time a recession hits?

Do you believe based on the track record of the last 40 years that the Compact partners are up to the task of resolving these monumental challenges under the current governance structure? And if you think that they are not, then do you believe that the jurisdictions are capable of finding consensus on how to change that governance structure and dig the system out of a gigantic financial hole without outside intervention?

I hope that the answer to at least one of those questions is "yes." A federal control board taking the place of the currently, locally-accountable board of directors in overseeing management and clinically matching revenues and expenses is not optimal—but in the absence of math that adds up, it may be necessary and is almost certainly preferable to a continued, slow decline.

The viability of Metro over the long-term depends very much on us recognizing the alarming financial state that the system is currently in. If federal receivership is the only way for us to confront the hard choices that must be made to get the system on solid financial footing and ensure future improvement in safety and reliability, then I believe that we have no choice but to consider it.


Should the feds take over Metro? It depends on these 3 questions.

On Tuesday night, The Washington Post put out an op-ed saying that the federal government should take over Metro. There are good reasons to consider this proposal, but also reasons to think it could be harmful.

Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr.

The article argues that Metro's current budget proposals offer no way out of a pending "death-spiral," and in fact, may hasten the decline of ridership and service. SafeTrack may help the system from getting worse, it reads, but it is unlikely to make it better either. In order to ensure that Metrorail can best serve the region and improve its financial situation, the Post suggests creating a federal control board similar to the one that oversaw DC's finances in the 1990s.

A control board could replace local politicians with merited professionals, promoting a better run agency, the Post argues. Additionally, local control of Metro would be transferred to the federal government, who could infuse new cash into the system while demanding higher service standards.

The Post's proposals are all well thought-out points that deserve serious consideration. At the same time, the region and its lawmakers need to look at the potential downsides of increased federal involvement before it rushes into any sort of new agreement.

Greater Greater Washington contributor Patrick Kennedy, an ANC commissioner in Foggy Bottom, sums up the argument behind transferring control to a federal board:

This system is on the verge of financial ruin. Forty years of deferred maintenance and a failure to fund obligations are not the fault of current Metro management or workers or even individual politicians. But there is a collective action problem, and I'm not optimistic how it will be solved without structural change—and the longer we wait, the worse it will get.

Metro right now looks eerily like DC in mid-1990s. What was then Sharon Pratt balancing a budget by changing the fiscal year calendar so it had five quarters of revenue balanced against four quarters of expenses is now Metro shifting federal capital dollars into the operating budget because the jurisdictions don't want to hike fares, cut service, or increase their subsidy. Except, now that that card has been played, we're running out of gimmicks.

In short, Metro's problems may be too big for regional governments to solve on their own. DC Councilmember and WMATA Board Chairman Jack Evans argued this very position earlier on Wednesday.

But a control board transfer has serious implications. Here are a few of them that our region must consider before endorsing such a move.

1. Would the feds be responsive to public interest?

Currently, Metro has at least some accountability to public interest since local politicians have control over the board. Let's say that the proposal to cut late-night service came up under a federally-controlled Metro. How much would public push-back matter? It is possible that they may listen even less.

Patrick points out that this could actually be a good thing:

A federal takeover might make unpopular choices more likely in the short-run. Late-night hours would seemingly be the first thing to go. They can essentially afford to listen to no one, which is sort of the point. But the financial underpinning of this system is broken, and if it isn't addressed then the loss of late-night hours will be a drop in the bucket compared to the further service degradation that would lie ahead. Anything that is cut under federal control can be restored when this system is back under local control with a stable footing, but if this system continues its death spiral then there might be nothing left to recover.
Matt Johnson, who has authored countless posts about Metro for this site, is less convinced:
Is WMATA broken? Undoubtedly it is. But many at the agency are working hard to try and right the ship, as are people within the region. Giving up local control will only mean an agency that is even less responsive to the concerns of riders than Metro is today.

People want the trains to run on time. They want them to come frequently, and be clean and comfortable. They don't want incidents that cause death or injury or even to be offloaded onto a crowded platform. The causes of many of those incidents are the results of an aging system that hasn't been maintained well. But Metro is working hard to fix those problems. It is, however, doing so in a way that attempts to consider the needs of riders.

A Metro under federal control may not do that. Closing at 10:00 pm on weekdays might be done with little input from riders. An immediate retirement of the 1000 series railcars, cutting the fleet size by a quarter could come down by fiat. Crowded trains, longer waits, shorter spans of service, higher fares. These could all be foisted upon riders without their input.

2. How much of WMATA's problems are local vs. systemic to American transit?

Although WMATA does a number of things to make itself an easy punching bag, it is important to remember that it is not the only transit system facing woes. BART and MBTA come to mind as systems that seem to have had their share of problems recently, and the funding situation in general for transit agencies (and infrastructure across the board) is horrific.

So how much would consolidating Metro under federal control do? This Eno presentation in the Washington Post from last year makes me skeptical that our multi-jurisdictional woes and funding are unique. In other words, perhaps a federally-run Metro would be better, but if the funding still isn't there, will it make a difference? Considering that the House will likely be controlled for the next 2-4 years by the same people who regularly propose cutting WMATA subsidies in the appropriations process, it is safe to say the Post's hopes for more federal money in the system may be wishful thinking.

In Matt's words:

Metro needs to be fixed. But we need to fix it ourselves. Not make a Faustian bargain by sacrificing our ability to decide ourselves what the best course is.

Ceding local control over the transit agency here would be a slap in the face to those who worked tirelessly for decades to get local control in Washington. Even today, the city lacks true home rule, and is fighting for statehood to get that plus real representation in the federal government.

This would be a step in the wrong direction for enfranchisement. It sends the wrong message about whether the District (and the region) are able to govern themselves. It's an argument that has been used by many to justify not giving enfranchisement to DC residents.

Patrick finds relinquishing local control to be less concerning:
Anything that is cut under federal control can be restored when this system is back under local control with a stable footing, but if this system continues its death spiral then there might be nothing left to recover.
3. What would a federally-run Metro look like under a less transit-friendly administration?

The Obama Administration has been arguably very friendly towards transit and infrastructure development. There is no guarantee that these policies will continue for the next 4-8 years under a new presidency. Likewise, if you look at the Reagan Administration's meddling with trying to block Green Line construction, you can see that federal involvement in Metro is not always pretty.

Given that a federally-run Metro would likely have its top officials appointed by the next president, my opinion is that we should be careful what we wish for here.

Patrick rebuts this perspective, summarizing the good aspects of a potential federal takeover:

If a federal takeover forces governance reform, dealing with the unfunded pension liability, and a dedicated funding source...then I think I'm probably for it.
Ultimately, the discussion comes down to one question that Patrick asks: "Could feds do any worse?"

This is important question, and one we cannot answer definitely today, but we must carefully consider it before we assume that federal control over Metro is a silver bullet.


Why is there no Metro line on Columbia Pike?

Along the Metro tracks just south of Pentagon station, there are two dead-end tunnels that branch off in the direction of Columbia Pike. They were built so Metro could expand westward in the future, so why has the line never received serious consideration?

These Metro corridors got heavy consideration in the 1960s. Graphic by the author.

Columbia Pike, which runs southwest from the Pentagon to Annandale, passes through several residential and commercial areas, including Bailey's Crossroads at the intersection with Leesburg Pike. When Metro was in its initial planning stages in the 1960s, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the National Capital Transportation Agency studied routes on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and Columbia Pike was among the routes the agencies considered.

The NVTC envisioned a Columbia Pike Metro line running to Americana Fairfax at the Beltway via Little River Turnpike, which is where Columbia Pike ends in Annandale. The NCTA considered a route along Columbia Pike that was as an alternative to what would become the Orange Line. It ran from the Pentagon to the Barcroft neighborhood, where it turned north at Four Mile Run until it joined I-66 and continued west.

Ultimately, a number of factors led to this corridor being dropped from consideration, the largest being its price tag. To avoid tunneling and to minimize cost, Metro planners prioritized using existing rights-of-way, such as highway medians and railroads, for its potential routes.

This, combined with the desire to ensure Metro connectivity to north Arlington and Springfield, led to the Virginia getting Metro corridors along I-66 and the RF&P railroad (what would become the Orange and Blue lines, respectively).

Metro tunnels outside of the Pentagon. Graphic by the author.

The Columbia Pike line would have needed to be entirely in a tunnel all the way to Annandale, and its projected ridership was simply not sufficient to justify such a high cost. The cost also resulted in pressure from Maryland to prevent Virginia from having three lines, worried that the Columbia Pike line would reduce money available for the rest of the system.

There were some outspoken proponents of a Columbia Pike line, most notably the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Frederick Babson. Babson had campaigned on getting the Columbia Pike line built, and as such was very vocal at planning meetings.

In 1967, largely to placate Babson, WMATA did some informal studies on the Columbia Pike line as an alternative to the north Arlington line. These studies did not change the Board's decision, and to this day remain the last studies done on a Columbia Pike Metro line.

Likely as a consolation, the Columbia Pike line remained on WMATA's planning maps as part of several aspirational dotted lines for "future extensions." The corridor described by the NVTC appears on this 1967 proposed network with a modification to serve Lincolnia, but by the time the official Adopted Regional System was determined, the line was truncated there.

The Columbia Pike line on the 1968 Adopted Regional System. Image from DDOT.

In 1968, WMATA Board director Jay Ricks noted that the Columbia Pike line was ruled out with the understanding that it would have top priority for any future extensions, and that the line would be reinstated if the state of Virginia made more money available.

The Silver Line opened in 2014, so this obviously didn't happen. A Columbia Pike line has not seen any serious consideration since 1967. The Columbia Pike Transit Initiative did not include rapid transit as a possible alternative, and though WMATA has recently studied many theoretical routes as part of its long-term vision, a line along Columbia Pike is not one of them.

Is a Columbia Pike line possible in the future?

Though some residents along Columbia Pike were opposed to a Metro line because they didn't want the level of development and growth that occurred in north Arlington, such development has occurred regardless. There is much more residential density along Columbia Pike than there used to be, and job centers like the Mark Center have popped up along the corridor. The Skyline Center at Bailey's Crossroads was even built largely in anticipation of a Metro line.

Would this increase in potential ridership be enough to justify constructing the line today?

Bailey's Crossroads skyline. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Unfortunately, the cost of an underground Metro line remains a substantial hurdle. The proposed tunneled segments of the Silver Line in Tysons and Dulles Airport were rejected due to their high cost. Given that Arlington County had difficulty justifying the cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar line, proposing an entirely tunneled Metro line may be a near-impossible task.

However, the most significant barrier to a Columbia Pike Metro line is capacity. How this line would integrate into the Metro system was never seriously considered. Simply building off of the stub tunnels at Pentagon would create the same capacity issue that planners are working to solve at Rosslyn, where there's a huge bottleneck, and like most proposed Metro extensions, a new downtown core line would need to come before any regional expansion because all possible routes the line could take after Pentagon are at capacity.

Metro's current capacity constraints. Graphic by Matt Johnson.

Metro's current long-term vision for future service downtown includes a loop line via Georgetown and Union Station with a supplementary station at Rosslyn and the Pentagon. The addition of the second Pentagon station could allow for a Columbia Pike line to exist, integrating into the downtown loop. I've created a hypothetical example of how this might work below, utilizing the alignment from 1967.

How a Columbia Pike line could integrate into the future Metro system. Graphic by the author.

The growth of the Columbia Pike corridor has made it a desirable line for many residents in the area, but its high cost and operational difficulties mean that we won't see such a line for many years, at least until Metro's downtown core capacity issues are resolved first.


Here's what the public told the WMATA Board about the idea to permanently cut late-night Metro service

On Thursday, WMATA held a nine and a half-hour public hearing about its proposals to cut late-night Metro service. Lots of people turned out to say they depend on Metro, while others stressed an array of options to consider before moving forward with late-night cuts.

Metro staff is proposing that cuts to late-night rail service, which are currently in effect as part of SafeTrack, become permanent so that there's more time for much-needed system maintenence.

While it still hasn't made a clear argument as to why these cuts are necessary, at least not publicly, Metro staff has moved forward by presenting the WMATA Board of Directors with four different options for shorter hours. The WMATA compact stipulates that before the board can make any of them official, it has to hold public hearings like yesterday's.

WMATA staff has asked the Board to make one of these sets of hours of operation official. There are Image from WMATA.

A quick rundown of how these hearings work: anyone who wants to testify signs up to do so, and when it's their turn, they get to address the board directly for three minutes (elected officials get five). Yesterday, board members mostly listened, withholding comment except to thank whoever had spoken once they finished.

Regarding testimony to the Board, Justin Lini, who recently explained why closing Metro stations in Wards 7 and 8 would (that's a separate-but-related matter), said that most of the people who showed up to speak were regular riders from DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

"There were also a number of ANC reps from Wards 2, 4, and 7," he said, "as well as DC Councilmembers and a councilmember from Capitol Heights, MD. There were some disability activists there as well, and and African American activists. The local service union had a large contingent too."

Nicole Cacozza, another GGWash contributor, added that when she got to WMATA's headquarters, a group with signs was outside to protest the cuts.

Photo by Nicole Cacozza.

According to Justin and Nicole, nobody who showed up at the hearings was there to support cutting service. People cited all kinds of arguments for why Metro needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with better options, from saying it would damage to the city's reputation and economic growth and that it would do disproportionate harm to low-income communities to asking why Metro couldn't do a better job with the maintenence time it already has.

Nicole said a lot of people spoke about how much they rely on Metro, and how not having service late at night would be devastating:

One man came to testify on behalf of his former coworkers in the service industry who worked long shifts and needed Metro to get home.

A woman from WMATA's accessibility committee spoke about just not being able to travel on weekends if Metro cut its morning service, because she cannot get around without public transportation.

One woman who immigrated to Maryland as a child said that she used Metro to travel to Virginia after school in order to spend time with other people from her home country, and she currently knows people who use it to attend GED classes after work.

One person brought up that there have already been reports of workers sleeping in their offices because they could not get home.

Similar stories stood out to Justin:
Some spoke about how cuts will make it harder for them to get to work. Others talked about not being able to go out in DC anymore. One person got very emotional over the Nats game last week and talked about how she didn't make it home until 4 am due to lack of metrorail service.

We also had some people who were concerned about increasing drunk driving, and the environmental impact of putting more cars on our roads.

Personal accounts like these illustrate why Metro has to find a way forward that doesn't include cutting late-night service, and it's important that Board members hear them. But there was also plenty of comment regarding the technical and logistical problems Metro is up against, and how to fix them.

Justin said that DC Councilmenber Elissa Silverman pushed WMATA to develop better metrics to measure its performance, and also for the agency to do more to put out information on particular incidents or plans, like it did last year when there was a fire at Stadium-Armory that curbed service for 13 weeks.

A number of comments also suggested looking to other systems for examples of how to do massive repairs while not making such drastic service cuts. "References were made to the PATH system in New Jersey, in that its a two track system which runs 24 hours," Justin said. "Another model raised was SEPTA night owl service, which runs busses overnight parallel to rail routes."

People also said WMATA should consider doing maintenence SafeTrack-style, closing segments of lines for longer periods of time (or even entire lines if absolutely necessary) but not the entire system. Patrick Kennedy, a GGWash contributor and ANC commissioner, said this in his testimony:

Rather than taking a meat cleaver to the hours of the system across 110 miles of track, I'd encourage the Board to consider a more surgical policy of prioritizing limited service reductions—single-tracks, early shutdowns, etc.—in discrete locations where maintenance tasks are to be performed. This would require additional effort for planning purposes in order to inform customers and manage impacts on revenue service, but it would carry a significant dividend for riders over a complete service reduction as proposed.
Another common refrain: if Metro does go forward with permanent late-night rail closures, it's got to provide the bus service needed to bridge the gap—and right now, the proposal on the table doesn't come close.
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