A few weeks ago, the New York Times was trawling for comments about the D.C. Metro. Yours truly put together a letter. Since it seems nothing came of their (actually, submitters’) efforts, I’ve reprinted the letter here. Kinda tame by my standards:
I am a regular user of the Metro (I don’t own a car), and use it daily to get to work, as well as on the weekends to get around DC.
The good thing about the Metro is that it’s a very good short-haul commuter rail system–it is not a mass transit system (more about that in a bit). To get from DC to Bethesda, MD takes about 25 minutes; that’s an eight mile trip. When I lived in Boston, the idea that an eight mile trip on the T would take 25 minutes would be met with disbelief. Metro also has a good bus system, though like every U.S. municipal system I have ever used, the buses need to run more frequently, especially on weekends and evenings.
The fundamental flaw of the Metro is that its governance system is a mess–and that is putting it kindly. There are three state level governments (DC, MD, and VA), the federal government (which also uses DC appropriations as a political football), and a Board that is selected by DC, MD, and VA politicians. As a result, there is no accountability to speak of; there’s plenty of political posturing when something goes wrong, but no ability for citizens to hold anyone responsible. This is the root cause of so many of the problems the Metro faces.
One specific problem is, given the changes in the District and inner suburbs over the last twenty to thirty years, the Metro needs to add more evening and weekend service, since the Metro is more and more being relied on as a mass transit system–that is, it is a way to get around DC and the close-in suburbs (e.g., Silver Spring). This will not happen as long as two of the three partners–ones, that unlike DC, have functional Congressional representation and thus more clout–view Metro as an alternative to rush hour commuting. In addition, agreements among the various government entities make it impossible for an individual entity to improve service; for example, DC, at one point, was willing to fund late night train service out of its own budget, but that would have violated a revenue agreement.
Then there is the general state of disrepair of the Metro. Maintenance has been delayed for so long that weekend repairs are necessary, making weekend Metro trips far longer than they should be. Of course, the decrepitude has also led to travel delays during the week, as well as the awful fire that occurred this year. Trains and stations in a Southern climate should have working air conditioning during the summer. All of these issues are caused by both managerial (WMATA officials) and funding problems, but which elected officials do I ask to fix the problems? My councilman? The mayor? Federal agencies? Unlike the MBTA in Massachusetts, where ultimately the buck stops at the governor’s office (and funding at the Legislature), it’s not even clear who should be yelled at when things go off the rails (figuratively and literally).
This is not helped by the political fatalism that infects local politics on both sides of the river. Too many people seem to resign themselves to lousy service when it could be better–though, as noted above, the byzantine WMATA (along with management’s unwillingness to directly engage riders) does nothing to encourage citizens to take a more active role in improving the Metro.
I guess what infuriates me about WMATA is that I can’t even figure out how it can be so dysfunctional. It’s a level of incompetence that transcends ordinary corruption. Probably should have included that as well.