The Failure of Governance: The Dupont Circle Station Edition

In a bit, I’m going to dive into some specifics, but there’s a general problem in much of the U.S., which is that governance, on the whole, is not very good. Basically, we have two choices: Republicans who don’t believe in governance at all (with the exception of a Well Regulated Vagina) and Democrats, who when they have power and the opportunity to govern, often don’t do a very good job of it. One example–and I’m picking one that I don’t think will get wrapped up in normative issues (too much, anyway)–is mass transit. As the old saw goes, the trains should run on time.

Onto the particulars.

Something I’ve gripped about D.C.’s Metro is the failure, for four fucking years, to fix the air conditioning at the Dupont Circle station. I’ll be the first to admit, in an era where the president is an open white supremacist, this is very small scale stuff. But it’s representative of larger dysfunction–and not just at Metro. A quick update: the last announcement, after yet another unforeseen delay (a streetlight was in the way of needed street-level repairs), the AC at the Dupont Circle station was supposed to be fixed by the end of July. Needless to say, we’re in August now, and D.C. is really hot in August. Still not fixed.

As a thought experiment, imagine that the D.C. government–the Council, the mayor, and the Department of Transportation–all wanted to make this their top priority: they went all out to put pressure on WMATA to fix this (not saying it should be). Even if they did that, Metro’s governing structure is so byzantine, it still wouldn’t do much (boldface mine):

In Chicago, when things go wrong, it is clear who is to blame, but in Washington, Metro is what Eno’s Puente calls an “orphan agency,” governed and funded by three jurisdictions and the federal government.

“The problem we have here in Washington is, it is one of the most complicated governance structures,” Puentes said. “There is no other system that crosses into two states, the District, and has the federal government involved as well.”

Additionally, no elected official has stepped up to take ownership of Metro and make it a priority, critics say….

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld reports to a 16-member board — eight voting members and eight alternates, the voting membership consisting of two representatives each from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. Changes designed to streamline the panel’s decision-making reduced the role of the alternate members.

Nevertheless, Wiedefeld must still negotiate among jurisdictions that have their own agendas. Additionally, board members are responsible to the jurisdictions they represent, while many say their only concern should be what is best for the transit agency.

While Metro is an extreme example, we see this in systems that are less complex. D.C’s government passes good laws–really, they do!–but they are very poorly enforced or followed. The bureaucracy continues to do whatever it was doing before the law was passed. This often will lead to a second round of law making, which is ignored just like the first round was. What is needed is an executive–in D.C.’s case, the mayor–who actually governs and takes control of the bureaucracies. Part of the problem is that the feedback mechanisms are broken, since there is certain risk to be had taking on a bureaucracy, many of whom are also voters, while there is uncertain gain from doing so (voters might not reward you).

This is a real problem for those on the leftish side of things. It isn’t enough to pass legislation and to maintain funding, though those things are necessary. Governance–making shit work–is what will turn things around politically. It’s time to start focusing on that.

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1 Response to The Failure of Governance: The Dupont Circle Station Edition

  1. Zachary Smith says:

    *** One example–and I’m picking one that I don’t think will get wrapped up in normative issues (too much, anyway)–is mass transit. ***

    Out here in the sticks there is no passenger rail service of any kind. The intercity buses are a distant memory too. All we have now are the roads, and our fine Republican elected officials do not give a damn about very many of those roads. My current car had a many-hundred dollar repair bill after rounding a curve on a county road and hitting a very small but bottomless pothole. Destroyed the tire AND the cast aluminum wheel. A nearby town has a critical lane change Right In The Middle Of The Major Intersection. They do NOT keep paint on those sweeping curves – you’ve just got to know about the situation. Driving at night in the rain on a road without lane markings is not a pleasant experience. If a bridge must be replaced, you’d better plan on bypassing it for many months, for the contractor may be a 3-man operation who will keep that highway closed for ages. A relative once told me he’d seen a small county bridge replaced by ONE man, and it took forever and a day. “Road Repair” around here is often one man, one truck. The truck has a tank of liquid tar to fill pavement cracks, and a small pile of asphalt for tossing into holes with a shovel. Not a speck of tamping, of course.

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