There are two main problems with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA): the structural/systemic, and the operational/day-to-day. The proposed solutions from all quarters are often at odds with each other – starve the authority into compliance, or dramatically increase funding, for instance – but that fact remains that both need to be addressed if Greater Washington’s transit system is ever going to achieve both a state of good repair and normal, safe operations as well as long-term planning and expansion (particularly in the area of core capacity).
It makes sense to try and break down the challenges at hand. This will be the first in a three-part series that explore the challenges and shortcomings of WMATA, and will focus on structural issues that make it difficult to improve from within. The second part will address the operational and day-to-day problems, and the third part will attempt to offer solutions and a way forward.
WMATA is indisputably and wholly unaccountable to any single official or electorate. This is baked into the authority’s structure, enshrined in the interstate compact of 1966 (and since amended). The governance structure consists of a Board of Directors with 16 members – eight principals and eight alternates – with four each appointed by the mayor of the District of Columbia, the governors of Maryland and Virginia, and the federal government. From the start, the constituent stakeholders of the authority have had wildly different aims and interpretations of their own power as well as the needs of the system. And as appointed board members, their only personal constituencies have been the leaders who appointed them in the first place, and not the riding public.
Of course, one need not let their hands be tied by a decades-old document, but no regional leader seems to want to actually untie their own and take a hands-on approach to fixing what’s wrong. Even these board members nominally tasked with the job of overseeing WMATA fall down on the ground. Presentations from WMATA staff to the WMATA Board of Directors are typically met with few questions and little, if any, skepticism. If the sentiments of Muriel Bowser, former WMATA board member, are any indication – having once referred to it as somebody else’s railroad – the board somehow sees itself as removed from playing a direct part in the operations and governance of the authority. This is truly an irony: a transit authority that has abdicated authority.
But this does a severe disservice to riders and the authority alike. The board must hold the authority accountable for its mistakes; otherwise, who will?
And fortunately, there is a single point of accountability for WMATA: the general manager, who is hired and appointed by the board, and who theoretically is beholden to it. Of course, currently there’s not much prestige to be had from running this railroad, and hence the position for the time being remains filled by interim GM Jack Requa.
But as the board searches for a replacement, it continues to persevere in the misguided belief that a transit system is but a series of columns in an accounting spreadsheet, an audit mistake waiting to happen. The replacement of democracy with audit, as Will Davies has written about, leads to a perverse set of priorities and incentives when it comes to managing a public authority.
As a public entity, WMATA’s first and foremost duty must be to the citizens it serves, and not to any outside corporate interests. This means prioritizing safety and service over fiduciary obligation, and it’s also why it is so frustrating to see the board – consisting of lawyers, health care workers, business-types, accountants, and politicians (and few members with any transit experience at all) – continue to insist that the paramount concern of a transit authority is to spend as little money as possible. And that, in turn, has led to the (now-paralyzed) search for a new GM focusing on some nebulous “fiscal turnaround specialist” while ignoring the operations that justify the authority’s very existence. The compact is illustrative: half of the first 15 pages or so deal solely with revenues, budgets, and bond issuance, devoting roughly two pages to the entirety of “planning.”
Insisting on fiscal perfection while letting actual service atrophy is part of the death spiral that’s led us to this point. Momentum 2025 and the more ambitious 2040 Regional Transit System Plan (RTSP) have understandably fallen by the wayside in favor of more basic needs such as ensuring passengers don’t die from smoke inhalation, and that trains don’t run on track that’s out-of-alignment for months at a time. When these fundamental goals aren’t met, support commensurately dwindles.
On the other hand, what’s the opposite of fiscal perfection? Because that’s the right descriptor for what WMATA has represented. A financial house of horrors awaits any firm foolhardy enough to audit the authority.
In other words, if some gung-ho executive with transit experience were ensuring safety, increasing service, and improving things left and right, it would be a lot easier for jurisdictions and riders alike to support a 12% annual budget increase, or project cost overruns.
When those aren’t the case, though, it’s a lot harder to justify. This is why fare hikes are so vociferously opposed (and yet so frequently proposed, given the dearth of dependable revenue streams) . It’s not the extra 5 or 10 cents (at least, not just those), but rather the fact that for the additional fare, riders seem to see nothing. No improvements, no extra service, just the continued deterioration of what does exist. And that, in turn, leads to revenues dropping and perpetuates the “death spiral.” This is all exacerbated by WMATA’s lack of dedicated funding sources (again, a product of the original interstate compact). When it has to approach its constituent jurisdictions hat-in-hand each year, rather than being recognized as a critical and ongoing public utility, the primacy of justifying a dollar over providing mobility is reinforced.
Compounding this is yet another failure-from-birth: WMATA’s lack of direct taxation authority. The compact allows the authority to issue general revenue bonds, but these are valid only for the period of construction plus two years, and they must be backed solely by WMATA’s general revenues (DC, Maryland, and Virginia are expressly barred from underwriting bonds; only the federal government may do so with the Secretary of Treasury’s permission). Like federal transit funding, these bonds also apply only to capital expenses, and as usual, operational funding is left to the annual vagaries of the WMATA jurisdictions.
Without the ability to implement some sort of tax or other guaranteed revenue stream across the area served by the jurisdictions, it’s difficult to come up with any long-term budget plans, or to be proactive in the face of crumbling infrastructure, declining ridership, and absentee leadership. And in this regard, WMATA has been hampered from the start.
At both strategic and operational levels, WMATA is purely a reactive agency, with few if any self-directed initiatives that aren’t a response to a larger safety or reliability issue. Which isn’t to say that these aren’t need of a response, but rather that when the authority is so fixated on crisis management, it neglects the longer term planning that could mitigate some of these issues in the first place. Lurching from crisis to crisis does a disservice to short- and medium-term plans – take, for example, the recent “code black” deletion of misaligned track that led to a derailment in August 2015. Responding to this error has meant rechecking all 117 miles of track for similar errors, while confining the “routine” trackwork – part of a separate, five-year, federally-funded repair and rebuilding initiative – to the wayside. Obviously the interstate compact doesn’t require that the authority take such an approach, but by constraining both the potential vision of its governing body as well as restricting possible and predictable revenues, it shouldn’t be a complete shock that short-term, immediate items become the priority.