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Transit


Metro will start running 4000 series cars only in the middle of trains. Might 4000s be completely phased out soon?

Metro will begin "bellying" its 4000 series rail cars, meaning the cars will only be part of the middle of trains, not the front or back. That's because of a safety issue that has been present for 24 years but was only discovered on Thursday.


Photo by the author.

On Thursday, Metro published a press release saying it had recently identified a safety issue with its 100 4000 series rail cars, and that it would be temporarily pulling them from service. When 4000 series cars act as the lead pair of cars in a train, their speed readouts, which tell the operator how fast they're allowed to go on the tracks, could potentially report false information. That could lead to two trains getting too close together and crashing.

Metro's release says the agency's railcar engineering department discovered the issue yesterday and then informed management, who made the decision to pull cars from service. The cars will now only be able to be used when placed in the center of trains. 1000 series cars only run in the middle of trains as well due to a higher risk of collapsing in a crash.

It turns out that the yearly testing that 4000 series manufacturer Breda recommends hasn't been happening. According to WTOP, Metro has never performed the preventative tests and doesn't have the equipment to do so. The 4000 series railcars have been in the Metro fleet since 1992.

An opportunity to remove the 4000 series from service may not be a bad thing

The 4000 series railcars are notoriously unreliable, with more door, propulsion, brake, and AC issues than any other series in Metro's fleet of rail cars (1, 2/3, 5, 6, and 7000 series). With an average breakdown rate of every 26,000 miles in 2016 (the next-lowest is the 5000 series' 44,500), they proportionally cause around twice the number of issues of the next lowest-performers. By continuing to have to run these cars, passengers are beset by delays that ripple throughout the system and effect hundreds, even thousands.


Graphic by Matt' Johnson.

Beyond getting rid of problematic train cars, removing the 4000 series entirely would give Metro more operational flexibility. Instead of needing to worry about another type of car that can only go in the middle of trains, rail yard operators would have one less variable to juggle without 4000s in the mix.

Such a move would mean taking up to 82 active cars out of service, or approximately seven percent of the total rail fleet. Metro's press release notes that 82 4000 series cars (or in other words, 41 "married pairs") are active in the fleet, however some of these had been sitting idle during the summer/fall due to various repeated issues.

The National Transportation Safety Board instructed Metro to remove all 1000 series trains from service after the 2009 crash at Fort Totten since they're not able to protect passengers in a crash. And due to the reliability issues with the 4000 series cars, Metro's Chief Operating Officer noted Tuesday evening that the agency would be petitioning the NTSB and FTA to be allowed to remove these cars at the same time as the 1000s. If approved, Metro would be able to remove 12 4000 series and eight 1000-series cars per month, which would keep up with the new railcar deliveries.

Over 140 total trains are scheduled for use each day in the rail system, 48 of which are supposed to be 8-car trains. Removing the 4000 series would mean some of the 8-car trains might be shortened to six cars, and some of Metro's reserve cars might go into service. A rail car shortage would only be a short-term headache, however, due to the 20 7000 series rail cars being delivered each month.

If Metro cut the total number of available cars (albeit briefly) by removing the 4000s from service, there's a possibility that a dispatch or two might be missed. When a train does not operate, it means there's a gap in service. Usually, the following train ends up being more crowded, though Metro can even out the gap by holding the train ahead for schedule adjustments or expressing the following train through a few stops.

On the other hand, when a train breaks down on the line, it causes far worse problems. That train must be offloaded, and sometimes the train behind must be offloaded as well to be used as a rescue train. During the time when Metro staff are trying to clear the broken down train off the line, trains are stacking up behind, and an ever increasing gap is appearing ahead.

When that happens, it's likely better if the train hadn't operated in the first place. Since the 4000s are so unreliable, getting rid of them would probably mean fewer delays and less crowded trains.

Transit


Sexual violence isnít uncommon on Metro. Hereís what WMATA is doing to fix that.

More people experience sexual assault on Metro trains and buses than you might think, and the victims are often women, trans people, and people of color. Metro just launched a new campaign to combat that, and it's a great first step (but is just a step) toward a safer ride for everyone.


A sign from Metro's new campaign to curb sexual violence. All images from WMATA.

On April 12, a woman was sexually assaulted at knifepoint on the Red Line. It was morning rush hour.

This violent attack shocked local news outlets and the general public. "I don't know many people who would have thought this would have happened in such a public arena—and that somebody would have the audacity to do that, particularly at 10 am," Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Haynos told the Washington Post.

But for those of us who have been tracking similar incidents of harassment and assault on DC's public transit system, this incident fit a pattern. Metro Transit Police data showed that most incidents of public sexual harassment and assault occurred on the busier Red and Orange lines, most frequently during rush hour, just like the April 12th attack.

One in five Metro or Metrobus riders have experienced sexual harassment on the system. That's according to WMATA's first comprehensive study of sexual harassment on a city's public transit system, which the agency partnered with Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) and Stop Street Harassment to conduct in January 2016.

Of the people who were harassed, 75% experienced verbal harassment, 26% had been touched in a sexual way, and 2% had been raped.

Metro has worked on this issue in the past, but it's beefing up its efforts

CASS and Stop Street Harassment have worked with WMATA to address the problem of sexual harassment since 2012. The two agencies have helped WMATA train its staff and track verbal and physical harassment through an online reporting portal, as well as run an awareness campaign with anti-harassment messaging across the system and annual outreach days at Metro stations to let riders know how to report.


One of the signs from Metro's 2012 campaign.

Now, WMATA is working with CASS and Stop Street Harassment on a new awareness campaign to demonstrate its commitment to serving those who are most marginalized and most likely to be targeted by sexual and gender-based harassment. This is because women of color, and especially trans women of color, experience street harassment differently, often by the people meant to protect them; this happened in a recent incident in which Metro Transit Police arrested and assaulted a young black woman at the Columbia Heights station.

On November 4th, an awareness campaign launched with ads featuring the faces of trans women of color and Muslim women. The ads, which appear on trains, at Metro stops, and on buses, come on the heels of incidents where these identities were targeted at DC's Shaw Library and Banneker Pool.

Some versions of the ads are directed toward people who experience harassment, with a simple message of support: "You deserve to be treated with respect." The remaining ads encourage bystanders to speak out and report harassment.

The new campaign has three goals:

  1. Support people who experience harassment with messages letting riders know they deserve to be treated with respect.
  2. Promote a culture of bystander intervention, where everyone is responsible for speaking out against harassment and making public transit safer.
  3. Elevate our city's most marginalized identities by featuring the faces of people who are part of marginalized groups, such as trans women of color and Muslim women, who face harassment most severely and most frequently.
This is a great start, but there's a lot more work to do

Learning to stop harassment on its own is not enough if WMATA does not take steps to ensure that its staff and police force are applying their anti-harassment training to communities of color, and especially trans women of color, who are most likely to be targeted.

CASS, in partnership with Stop Street Harassment, continues to keep pressure on WMATA to step up its efforts to address violence against DC's most vulnerable communities. Here are the latest recommendations from local advocates to make public transit safe and welcoming for everyone:

  1. Expand anti-harassment training currently required for frontline staff to include supervisors, who are responsible for building a culture of safety and respect.
  2. Disarm Metro Transit Police to reduce violence and remove barriers for bystanders who want to intervene to stop police harassment. There's a case to be made that disarming Metro Transit Police will reduce violence against riders, foster an environment where police can build relationships with community members based in mutual respect rather than fear and the threat of violence, and that it would make officers safer, too.
  3. Expand trans cultural competency training to all frontline staff. Recently, training to better understand and serve trans communities was piloted for Metro Transit Police. Local advocates still receive many reports of harassment by WMATA employees and station managers who are hostile toward trans riders. Trans cultural competency training can help WMATA better understand and serve DC's trans communities.
  4. Train all frontline staff, supervisors, and Metro Transit Police to address implicit biases, and specifically to address officers' hidden prejudices that may cause police to disproportionately stop and harass communities of color. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has recommended this training for many police departments and already implemented it for its own law enforcement agents and lawyers.
  5. Make anti-harassment materials available in DC's eight most common non-English languages: Spanish, Amharic, French, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Arabic and Bengali.
WMATA has taken an excellent first step with the new awareness campaign to demonstrate its commitment to marginalized communities. Now, it needs to back the campaign with action steps to ensure that anti-harassment advocacy serves everyone.

Photography


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 94

On Tuesday, we featured the ninety-fourth challenge to see how well you knew the Metro system. Here are the answers. How'd you do?

This week, we got 43 guesses. 30 got all five.

Normally when we get so many perfect scores, we don't list everyone. But this week it feels like people could use some positive energy, so here goes. Great work, TWillis, kevinfly, hopscans, Steven Yates, PLKDC, MZEBE, Wizfan, JessMan, MtPDC, Stephen C, Solomon, Andy L, JamesDCane, Transport., lioki, Yes2Kwasi, bsl35, DM, Justin..., Robb, Kevin M, Peter K, J-Train-21, Adam H, AlexC, Ampersand, dpod, ArlFfx, We Will Crush Peter K, and Peter K is a nice guy, don't be hatin' on him!


Image 1

The first image shows the sales office at Metro Center, near the south entrance to the station. This office will be closing permanently on November 15 as part of Metro's budget cutting. Whether the structure will be removed, I don't know. The sales office is itself fairly distinctive, but other clues included the broadness of the vault (the Blue/Orange/Silver platform below is wider than at typical stations) and the lamps on the far wall, part of an art installation.

40 guessed correctly.


Image 2

The second image shows the sunset viewed from the Cheverly station mezzanine. You can tell from the photo that this is one of Metro's few side platform stations. Since it's outdoor, that limits the possibilities to just three stations. One of the clues here is the transmission line visible at left.

These structures stand above the CSX Landover Subdivision, which used to be part of the electrified Pennsylvania Railroad freight bypass of the city. The catenary has been removed, since the line no longer uses electric locomotives. But the overhead lines still carry power to the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, which is located on the other side of the station, out of frame to the right.

36 got it right.


Image 3

The third image shows a sign outside Arlington Cemetery station. This station is only open to serve the cemetery, so when the cemetery is closed, the station closes. Since the cemetery has different hours in the winter months, so does the station. One other clue is barely visible: the platform elevators are screened by tall hedges, but you can just see them peeking out.

41 knew the right answer.


Image 4

The fourth image shows a closed entrance to Pentagon City station. This entrance leaves the station directly across from the mezzanine entrance and tunnels under Hayes Street to the northeast corner of the intersection with 12th Street. The entrance has been closed for years, but I've heard Arlington plans to reopen the entrance in the near future.

The station's southeast entrance and street elevator are also visible here. 33 got the answer correct.


Image 5

The final image shows the eastern escalator and platform elevator at Tenleytown station. The station is not directly under Wisconsin Avenue here. Instead, it's angled to make the curve into Yuma Street less sharp. Tenleytown is the only Arch I station to have a direct street-to-platform elevator, with a faregate on the platform. Because the station is angled, the elevator is also. The back wall of the elevator (left from this vantage point) is even with and parallel to the south wall of the station, so that should give you a sense of where the station sits relative to Wisconsin Avenue.

The angled elevator was certainly the primary clue here, as was the canopy-free escalator entrance. Some of you also recognized the awnings for Panera to the left.

37 came to the correct conclusion. Great work!

Thanks for playing! We'll be back in two weeks with our next quiz.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Photography


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 94

It's time for the ninety-fourth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

This week, there's an additional challenge. Before submitting your guesses, if you are eligible to do so, go vote (if it's still Tuesday before polls close when you are reading this). That is the most important thing you can do.


Image 1


Image 2


Image 3


Image 4


Image 5

Please have your answers submitted by noon on Thursday. Good luck!

UPDATE: The answers are here.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


How much of a workout would you get walking from one Metro stop to the next? This map shows you.

How realistic would it be for you to walk rather than take the Metro? This map of the DC Metro system includes number of miles between stations, how long it'd take to walk that distance, and the number of calories you'd burn if you did:


A zoomed in look at Wells + Associates' map. Here, you can see the short distances between some stations and the longer ones between others. Images from Wells + Associates.

The map, created by Wells + Associates, with data from Google Maps, tells commuters just how realistic it might be to leave a station and walk rather than take a train.

Between each station, there are three numbers: the first one, which is blue, says how many minutes it'd take to walk; the middle one, which is purple, says the distance between them in miles; and the third one, which is green, says how many calories you'd burn if you made the walk.

If you're using Metro in downtown DC or in Arlington, where many stations are less than two miles apart,making the final leg your commute by foot or bike may just save you time, reduce stress, and burn off a few calories before you settle down at your desk.

In other places, like on the far east end of the Green Line where the Suitland and Branch Avenue stations are 2.8 miles and a 55 minute walk apart, and on the west end of the Silver Line, where the distance between the Spring Hill and Wiehle-Reston East stations is a whopping 6.9 miles apart, that isn't exactly a realistic choice.

In cases like these, if driving isn't an option, biking or waiting might be the only feasible option.

Would you be less likely to wait out that final 8, 10, or 20 minutes for the next train if you knew your destination was just a few blocks away?

Transit


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.

Budget


WMATA says bus fares are low (while trying to raise them). That's not really true.

The latest WMATA budget proposal would raise fares on Metro rail, bus, and parking, while also cutting service. It's a crushing plan for everyone. In proposing to raise bus fares, the agency claims they are lower than in other cities, but for many riders who ride both the bus and rail, our bus fares are actually among the highest.


Image from Arlington Transit.

When announcing the fare hike plan, the WMATA press release read:

For bus riders, one-way local bus fares would increase from $1.75—among the lowest nationally—to $2.00.
We've heard "Metro bus fares are low compared to other cities" before. Last time Metro raised fares, in 2012, the PR around the change said the same thing. However, that's misleading at best—at least for the many riders who ride both bus and rail.

A lot of people don't just ride the bus. They take a bus from home to a Metrorail station and then ride the train, and back again in the evening. Or a bus to a train to another bus.

That's not just because they are using a lot of transit. Large parts of the bus network are designed as feeders to the rail system. In fact, many buses don't go downtown at all, but end at a Metrorail station. When Metro opened, many existing bus lines were cut back to the nearest rail station, with the expectation that riders would take the bus only locally or to the nearest rail station rather than all the way to a distant job center.

If you do ride bus to rail or vice versa, you pay the full fare on both minus a 50¢ discount. By comparison, New York (for eaxmple) charges non-pass users $2.75 for any bus (or rail) trip, but a trip on a train and a bus (or more than one bus) still just costs $2.75, no more. You can't ever take a Metrorail and Metrobus trip for only $2.75.

How do bus fares really compare?

This table compares fares for combo trips in the eight cities with the highest transit usage. Since our rail system's fares vary based on how far you travel, it's more complex to compute the bus-to-rail fare, so for simplicity let's look at how much you'll pay for a bus trip once you've already paid for a rail trip from some other location.

City & agencyBus fare (w/card)1Bus fare after railBus fare after other rail
Washington (WMATA) proposal$2.00$1.50FREE from VRE and for MARC or VRE pass holders
Washington (WMATA) today$1.75$1.25
Philadelphia (SEPTA)$2.25$1.00$1.65 from PATCO2
Chicago (CTA)$2.2525¢Full fare from Metra
New York (NYCT)$2.753FREEFull fare
Atlanta (MARTA)$2.50FREENo other rail
San Francisco (MUNI)$2.504FREE$2.00 from BART
Los Angeles (LACMTA)$1.75FREEFREE from Metrolink
Boston (MBTA)$1.70FREEFull fare from commuter rail
but free for pass holders

1 All fare calculations assume you have the electronic fare media for that city. Most agencies offer better fares for people with the card (SmartTrip in Washington, MetroCard in NYC, Clipper in SF, Breeze in Atlanta, etc.)

2 Riders transferring from PATCO to select city train and bus lines can buy a round-trip ticket for $3.10, for an effective per-direction fare of $1.65.

3 Riders using the pay-per-ride MetroCard also get an 11% fare bonus when putting $5.50 or more on the card, making the effective fare for riders who don't have passes as low as $2.48.

4 SF MUNI fares are scheduled to rise from $2.25 to $2.50 on January 1, 2017.

By this computation, the cost to get on a Metrobus after riding rail is more expensive than on any other system in the eight cities where people ride transit the most. Five offer free transfers, and of the other three, Metro is by far the stingiest with its transfer discount. It's definitely misleading to say the bus fare is lower in Washington than other US cities.

Free transfers for Metro?

WMATA could make free transfers part of a fare increase package. There's precedent for that, most recently in Los Angeles. LACMTA used to charge full fare for a bus ride after a subway ride (and even switching from one bus to another), but instituted free transfers in 2014 as it raised the base fare from $1.50 to $1.75.

There are other good reasons to institute free transfers. Because there's no free transfer, and because the base bus fare (to compensate somewhat) is lower than elsewhere, many poorer residents ride the bus long distances on the lines which don't just end at a rail station. The trip from Southern Avenue to Foggy Bottom on the 32 local might be excruciatingly slow compared to a two-train trip, but it's cheaper. This exacerbates a class disparity between rail and bus riders.

Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel confirmed via email that the current fare increase proposal "does not contemplate any changes to existing transfer discounts." The region needs to work to find alternatives to fare increases that could trigger a "death spiral," but if a fare increase does happen, the agency should reexamine its transfer policies.

Correction: The initial version of this post omitted Los Angeles' Metrolink under the "other rail" column in the table, and omitted some free transfers for MARC and VRE. These errors have been corrected.

Transit


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.

Transit


Metro is being more transparent (and persuasive) about late-night closures... and weekend track work

After hearing strong opposition to his plans to cut late-night Metro service, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and his team have been opening up about the system's maintenance needs.

They're making a strong case for why Metro needs a lot more downtime for track work—both at nights and through periodic weekend single-tracking and shutdowns, which will have to continue into the future.


Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

Metro is now making the case for late night maintenance, and the reasons seem strong

I sat down with Wiedefeld, Andrew Off, WMATA's Assistant General Manager for Transit Infrastructure and Engineering Services, and a few other Metro officials along with the Coalition for Smarter Growth for a briefing. Off will be presenting the same slides to the WMATA Board Thursday and recently showed them to Bob Thomson of the Washington Post as well.

Off went into details about the kinds of maintenance his team wants to do, like "cable meggering" (testing cables so they don't catch fire) and "tamping" (smoothing out the ballast under the tracks to make the tracks more stable). You can read lots about this in his presentation.

To keep up with this maintenance requires bigger chunks of time. After the system officially closes, some trains are still taking passengers to the end of the line for up to another hour. It then can take an hour to drive the work trains from the yards (which are mostly near the ends of lines) to the work sites, shut off the power, and so forth.

Couple that with an hour on the other end to close up and get the equipment off the railroad, and a 4-hour overnight closed period only allows one hour for work. (Plus, Metro has to pay for an 8-hour shift for all the workers.)


Image from WMATA.

And, Off argued, there's just so much work to be done that Metro needs these windows every day. He also said they can't do this work in "surges" like with SafeTrack, or close just one line at a time. On an average night, Metro may have 57 work crews and work on 164 of the system's 234 miles. That's a lot of maintenance, and more than can fit in a smaller, targeted shutdown, Off explained.

He added that the "surges" aren't fixing everything. They're just dealing with some issues, mostly on outdoor tracks, like deteriorated rail ties. The surges have not gone into the core and not covered the same kinds of maintenance that Off lists for the night shutdowns.

I don't want to support any reduction in Metro service lightly. Still, if Off's presentation is correct, it does seem that Metro needs this time. We all know the system is in bad shape and needs work. Limping along with fires and derailments is absolutely not an option.

When criticizing the initial late night plan, I focused on two issues: First, WMATA wasn't explaining, in detail, why another alternative wouldn't work. Second, there was no analysis available about adding "night owl" or other bus service to help people get around late at night without the rail system.

Off has begun; other people who know more about track maintenance than I should listen to the board meeting Thursday (the audio will be archived after the meeting as well) and put questions in the comments to this post. I'll pass on the best ones to Wiedefeld, Off, and the others and try to get you answers.

WMATA doesn't need to just convince me, or other activists; it needs to give engaged members of the riding public the information to be persuaded as well. This is a good start, but not the end.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Nights won't be the only time for track work—keep expecting shutdowns and single tracking

Remember those great days of the mid-2000s, when Metro ran late at night, didn't single-track on weekends, and was reliable? Those days are not coming back, unfortunately.

Hopefully the reliable part will come back. But Off made clear that the agency just wasn't keeping up with its maintenance then. We were enjoying long hours of service while the then-shinier, newer tracks and circuits were gradually decaying right under us.

Off thinks Metro needs to do this amount of maintenance at nights forever. Further, and this is important to understand: late nights won't be the only time for track work. Weekend single-tracking and shutdowns will continue as well.

There are two kinds of track work which we might colloquially call "maintenance," explained Off and WMATA COO Joe Leader. The late night closures will permit what's called "preventive maintenance." There, track workers look for parts that are wearing down, coming disconnected, etc. and fix them. That work helps forestall most (but never all) track fires, bumps, and risks of derailments.

In addition, Metro needs to regularly replace aging equipment and sections of track, such as rail ties. (SafeTrack was mostly about replacing rail ties.) For that, Metro will need to occasionally take whole sections of track off-line for a weekend or more.

In the past, riders have often gotten the impression that if we just soldier through a few years of fixes, things will be "back to normal." That was certainly the subtext of Richard Sarles' Metro Forward efforts. It wasn't said explicitly, but I've talked to many riders who thought that was also true of SafeTrack—that we'd have some pain for a year and then things would all be pretty much fixed again.

Things can get fixed, but the new normal won't be the same as the old. SafeTrack is repairing and replacing some of the most critical systems that were causing the worst problems and posed safety risks, Leader said, but that still leaves all the other equipment that's working okay but will need repair and replacement in the future. SafeTrack isn't making Metro new, just (hopefully) taking it off life support.

Successive General Managers have been unwilling to speak the truth about the system's needs. They'd paper over the problems, letting the maintenance picture grow worse and worse; they'd launch repair initiatives and make rosier pronouncements than were grounded in reality. Wiedefeld joked that he's too old for that; he's going to prescribe what he thinks Metro needs and not pretend it'll be an easier task.


Transparency on Metro. Photo by anokarina on Flickr.

What should Metro do next?

If Metro does go forward with cutting late-night service, I'd like to see a strong commitment on these five points:

1. Be more open. This level of detail is much more compelling than the "trust us, we need 20 hours a week" we got before. In the past, WMATA has also been so afraid of bad press that many people in the agency didn't want to admit how bad the problems were. Instead, the information came out anyway, but WMATA lost the public's trust.

Metro officials need to abandon any mindset that information about the system's operations might be too detailed for the public. Let riders decide how much they want to know, but help them know as much as possible. Surprises, cover-ups, etc. are worse than admitting to problems.

Also, we need transparency about the maintenance that's done. I don't think Off and his team will get the 20 hours a week of maintenance time and then just sit on it without doing much work, but the board and riders should be able to "trust, but verify." Provide information for our wonkier transit followers about how many cables were meggered, how many still need to be, where, and when. Let people check for themselves that Metro is really using most of its work time effectively.

2. Deliver on safety. This is a no-brainer. The system has to get safer. Track fires and such won't go away completely overnight (or ever—any transportation system will have occasional problems, though they should never be fatal or hazardous). But the system has to get to the point where safety overseers are confident it's meeting the standards of a well-run transit system.

3. Deliver on reliability. Metro has been promising a lot of service but not always delivering on it. Travis Maiers has documented how Metro isn't meeting its targets for trains at peak times. Off-peak, there are often longer waits than expected as well.

Wiedefeld promises that with more maintenance (and adequate funding), Metro can set a schedule it can keep. The agency needs to deliver on that.

This has sometimes been worst with weekend single-tracking. The agency says trains will come every 20 minutes or something, and then the gaps might be far larger. Single-tracking has made riding Metro on weekends extremely unappealing for anyone with an alternative (like a car). It doesn't have to be that way, and Metro should ensure that its weekend track work doesn't mean no schedule at all.

4. Maximize alternatives to rail. The train isn't the only way to get around. Metro also operates a large bus network, and can and should identify ways to beef up late night service in the absence of rail. Its significant job and tax benefitsthe Downtown DC Business Improvement District estimated that late-night service cuts could hurt 2,000-4,000 jobs and cost up to $12 million a year in tax revenue.

Our region has grown housing, jobs, restaurants, and more near transit with the expectation that it would offer a way to get around nearly any time of day. We shouldn't abandon that if there's any alternative. If the rail system needs fixing, fix it, but provide other options.

5. Watch for that death spiral. Metro is in danger of a "death spiral" where riders leave, fare revenue declines, the budget shows a deficit, and the agency has to cut service which only drives even more riders away. Arguably, it's already about there.

Wiedefeld said to me that he thinks the bigger "death spiral" danger is about poor safety and reliability rather than service. He wants to ensure that Metro is safe and reliable.

The main risk, if Metro cuts back on service like late at night, is that it promises less AND still doesn't deliver. Then riders are worse off, the system is worse, and we've backed away from the region's commitment to transit service.

If more maintenance windows is what it'll take to get out of this hole, I'm willing to support Paul Wiedefeld, who certainly seems to be making a start at turning things around. Let's all help him succeed—and help hold the agency to its promises to do better.

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