Never Read The Comments When It Comes To Transportation

And I broke the rule. Last week, I tweeted a picture of a protest, which was picked up by D.C. blog PoPville:


The protestors were chanting, “Fuck it. Make it fair. Fix it”, and calling for a flat Metro fair. I actually think that will make things harder for low-income people: the stations that serve low-income people might very well see higher fairs, and would subsidize lower fairs for people living in wealthier outlying areas. But policy aside, I found it more bizarre than anything else: the protestors didn’t seem to realize that when both trains are in the station, no one can hear them chanting, which struck me as kind of funny.

Anyway, there are two things one should never do:

  1. Fight a land war in Asia.
  2. Read the comments about transportation in a local news blog.

It’s probably for the best that I don’t have much say over #1, since I foolishly did #2. The very first comment was someone going off on the transportation workers union. It was the typical anti-worker douchewonkery: the unions are horrible and the workers are paid too much. First, if the WMATA is such an awesome place to work, go work for the WMATA! They have job openings. Oddly enough, no one complaining about wages ever seems to do this.

Second, the reality is that WMATA employees aren’t paid too much (boldface mine):

A new study shows Metro workers’ pay and benefits are in line with those of other major transit systems, blunting long-standing criticism of the agency’s labor costs….

The report by a consulting firm hired by the state of Virginia undermined complaints that Metro’s labor costs are excessive — an allegation aired frequently by critics including GOP political leaders.

The study by the firm WSP USA said total employee compensation at Metro was $56 for every hour worked by a Metro employee, compared with an average of $58 at four other transit systems that, like Metro, do not allow workers to strike.

The average was $61 for four systems that do permit strikes….

The WSP study found Metro was more generous than other transit systems in a few respects. Unlike most systems, Metro credits overtime pay in calculating pension benefits. Also, the average Metro union employee contributes just 3.1 percent of salary to their pension, compared with an average of 7.1 percent for U.S. public employees.

But Metro was squarely in the mainstream by numerous other measures:

The average Metro employee earns 106 percent of the amount needed for one adult and one child to attain “a modest yet adequate standard of living” in the D.C. region — equal to the average for eight other major transit systems.

Average retirement benefits at Metro are 56 percent of final salary, compared with 60 percent for 20 selected local governments.

Metro’s pensions are 77 percent funded, which is the average for the nation’s 100 largest public pension funds.

So what is making Metro so expensive? Well:

At the Wednesday meeting, Virginia Del. James M. LeMunyon (R-Fairfax) pressed Kienitz to explain why Federal Transit Administration data show Metro’s rail operating cost is 62 cents per passenger mile, compared with 32 cents in San Francisco and 39 cents in Chicago.

Kienitz said the higher costs were attributable to higher maintenance expenses at Metro, and because Metro keeps trains in service for more hours each week relative to its ridership. He also noted Metro pays more than other systems for riders’ comfort, offering “big wide cars and nice, comfy seats.”

Remember that this study was commissioned by the state of Virginia, not exactly known as a bastion of unionism.

These, like many of WMATA’s fuckups, are managerial decisions, and aren’t under control of WMATA workers. I’m all for being pissed at WMATA, but aim your anger at the right targets: the leadership and the governments who chronically underfunded Metro for so long–and are now having to make up for that with high maintenance costs.

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