Setting Priorities; Fixing Blame

It’s no secret that WMATA is in serious trouble. We’ve become a cautionary tale for cities across the country:

And Ben Kabak writes:

Passengers are not comforted by statistics. Metro needs to realize a new culture without enough fiscal or political support. Here, in New York, the MTA is working to do something similar, but they don’t have nearly the same track record of mistakes to overcome. If we aren’t careful, though, DC serves as a lesson. It’s New York’s dystopian transit future if no one takes care of the system.

There is no doubt that Metro is facing something of a perfect storm right now: chronic underinvestment couple with endemic mismanagement have led to a region-wide shortage of confidence in all transit whatsoever (fairly or unfairly). DC’s streetcar network is in serious jeopardy, the Purple Line in Maryland is on the chopping block, and there’s little political appetite, it seems, to think big.

Which, of course, puts off actually solving the many problems with WMATA, in particular. These boil down to two key points, both of which are inescapable, and yet which have somehow pitted the region’s heartiest transit advocates and loudest critics against each other. WMATA receives inadequate funding. WMATA needs wholesale organizational reform. These are both entirely true.Those who focus on the former are shouted down as “apologists.” Those who argue the latter get perceived as wholly anti-transit. Both of these are unfair caricatures. And both sides desire the same outcome: a safe, functional, effective transit system that carries riders from origin to destination reasonably quickly and and an affordable price. Some of the difference can be seen in light of Alon Levy’s “politicals v. technicals” dichotomy, though the mapping isn’t 1:1. But there is also a difference in mindset, to some extent. The “reformers,” for lack of a more concise term, tend to believe that continuing to fund things like system expansion and replacement support systems that already exists (e.g., the Next Generation Payment System) is a waste of money. As long as the current organizational structure is in place, therefore, asking to give WMATA even more money is like tossing change into a leaky bucket.

The “funders,” on the other hand, believe that despite WMATA’s organizational malpractice, you can’t starve an agency of needed upgrades like fare systems and new cars. Insisting on some unspecified change before giving money to perform routine maintenance and improvements would allow current conditions to deteriorate even further, which leaves everyone worse off than they were before.

Reconciling these two shouldn’t be difficult; funding can be predicated on reform (though naturally promising a dedicated source of revenue presents its own difficulties). But that also assumes that there’s a governing body capable of (and prepared to) impose its will on the agency.

If there is actually any layer of WMATA’s governance that one could find some degree of accountability in, it’s the Board, which consists of elected officials (generally), appointed by the various jurisdictions. One would imagine that with career politicians on the scene, the urge to cover one’s ass would be irresistable. But instead, astonishingly, there’s been a near-compleet abdication of any meaningful oversight role or even a strategic vision. WMATA statistics and excuses for accidents and delays (and the agency’s denial that these exist in really significant numbers) are taken as the gospel truth.

This has been apparent to riders for some time, but apparently no Board members have ridden the system during Sarles’ tenure, as the following comments about the search for his replacement show:

“What Sarles was commended for, what he was praised for up and down, was imbuing a safety culture in the organization and moving forward with the state-of-good repair program that came out of the Red Line disaster,” one board member said Monday. But for some members, that perception of Sarles’s tenure “has really changed” in recent weeks.

Considering the myriad safety and technical problems in the rail system that were revealed by the Jan. 12 incident, “my mind-set is, we’re no longer looking for another Richard Sarles,” the member said.

Problems have been apparent for years, but it took an actual death to jolt the Board out of its complacency. I know we’re all relieved to hear that the second-largest rapid transit system in the country will not be managed by the former executive of a peak-oriented commuter agency. But that shouldn’t have to be a welcome surprise.

It’s pretty clear that either changing the mindset of the WMATA Board or eliminating it all together will be critical to restoring some semblance of control over the agency’s operations. The “blame” for WMATA’s current state lies neither with transit advocates nor budget hawks, but rather with a GM who seems oblivious to the very real problems facing a troubled agency, and a board of elected officials content to receive and regurgitate WMATA talking points rather than engage candidly in discussion and reform, and a set of regional governments with a history of prioritizing capital improvements over operational ones at the expense of actual service funding.

But this leads me to my final point; which is one about priorities. Getting WMATA back on its feet will not be an easy undertaking, and indeed, whatever emerges from the process may not even be called WMATA. But there are some things that should be self-evidently more important than others. Yes, these are in order:

  1. Safety – In this litigious culture, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see anything like the Japanese reliance on 100% crash prevention. But step one is ensuring that, y’know, maybe we have a few less track fires and smoke incidents? If not 100% crash prevention, let’s at least adopt 100% death prevention.
    It is, though, important to maintain a sense of perspective. Track fires and tunnel ventilation failures are crucial defects. Poor CPR training and missing defibrillators is a low-probability, high-impact issue. Scraps of paper floating around the tracks, along with other debris, is of little concern.
  2. Service – Aside from not killing people, this is literally the most important thing a transit agency does. It is its raison d’etre. Current levels of service, particularly offpeak (and especially interpeak) service is wholly inadequate, and nights and weekends? Forget about it. We all understand the need to rebuild the system, but when it’s done in such a piecemeal way as to render all six line unusable every Saturday, it’s self-defeating. Continuing to add service and respond to crowding and customer demands is key. WMATA has not added any Metrorail service in a long while.
  3. Efficiency – I mean this in two senses. In the first, is WMATA making full use of its existing capabilities and infrastructure? Are we running as many trains per hour as the signalling will allow? Are we looking at signalling and other upgrades to make full use of the track? If we’re building anything, does it help maximize usage of infrastructure already in-place? Basically, is WMATA fully utilizing its existing assets?
    The second meaning of this is financial. Are dollars being put to good use? Are equivalent skillsets hitting 40 hours per week before anyone is given overtime? Is WMATA management making full use of labor concessions and any leeway in its union contracts? For what WMATA pays, is the work received actually worth it? Is maintenance being performed properly and in adequate quantity? What in the actual fuck is the deal with WMATA escalators? Obviously, a lot of this – working conditions, payscales, and the like – are out of WMATA’s control due to contracts, but everything should be on the table when it’s time to renew. This also affects fares: are we all getting what we pay for? Fares have become seriously disconnected from service quality, and moving forward, it’s incumbent on WMATA to realize that.
  4. Expansion – Planning for this must continue even while other issues are being fixed and addressed. System expansions should emphasize core capacity and of maximizing the usage of existing track; anything that splits lines (e.g. the separated Blue Line) should be a top priority. If Robert Moses teaches us anything, it’s that the agency with a plan in hand is the one that gets the funding. Expansions, however, should not come at the expense of existing operations or infrastructure. It’s more important to achieve 100% 8-car operations on the current Metrorail system than to support 6-car trains on some future line.
  5. Governance and Accountability – In short, the governing structure of WMATA is just a means to an end. If WMATA can meet all the above benchmarks and requirements, who cares what the Board looks like? But the truth is that right now, it can’t, and that’s in large part due to the structural impositions of the Interstate Compact. And if it continues to look like WMATA is the cause of its own problems, this would easily rank higher. Some of the rumblings from the Board since the fatal smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza in January have been encouraging, but if everyone loses interest as they so often seem to, it will be clear that no change is forthcoming from this Board as currently constituted.
  6. Customer service – to include things like station managers, cleanliness, mopping stations at busy times, and so forth. These are all basically nice-to-haves in an ideal world. Plus, if we get the first two right, you’ll be waiting for such a short period there won’t even be time to notice the niggling little details.
  7. Other passengers – feet on the seat, taking up two seats, big backpacks, bicycles at rush hour, “manspreading,” whatever: they’re all out of WMATA’s control.

I would like to think that these are self-explanatory. People shouldn’t die, your train should arrive shortly, we should use our existing resources wisely, we can’t be satisfied with what we’ve got, reform is probably necessary, and don’t sweat the small stuff. I think where there’s disagreement, it would be over these rankings. Personally, I’d rather put too much taxpayer money into a well-functioning system than pay less for what we’ve got right now. But that’s me; I rank quality of service above fiscal efficiency.

What I’ve been trying to say is that accusing others of ulterior motives, or of being “bad” for regional transit policy, misses the point. We all focus on different things. Pointing out that Arlington and the John A. Wilson Building are both much more hostile to streetcars than they were a few years ago shouldn’t even be news, much less as evidence that streetcar advocates don’t support serious reform at WMATA (and, just as a reminder, the streetcar is under the remit of DDOT).

It’s a question of priorities, which funders and reformers alike will have to agree to disagree on. But we all want the same thing: a safe, frequent, efficient rapid transit service. We just have to figure out how to get there.


In the future, I’ll be taking a look at alternatives to the interstate compact. Not that there’s any political will to accomplish something so radically different these days, but it’s always good to have ideas in the back pocket.

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