D.C. Metro Shutdown Should Be a Wakeup Call: Spend Smart on Transit

Today’s emergency 24-hour shutdown of the D.C. Metro system is a transit embarrassment of epic proportions. The shutdown follows an electrical fire in a subway tunnel Monday, and will allow for system-wide safety inspections. Metro has been under federal control following a smoke inhalation death caused by a similar problem last year.

Is the Metro shutdown a preview of things to come? Photo: Mike on Flickr va GGwash
Is the Metro shutdown a preview of things to come? Photo: Mike on Flickr va GGwash

David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington wonders how the region’s transportation system will hold up for today’s commute (the word from early reports: badly). Even acknowledging Metro’s abysmal management failures, Alpert is struck by how things got this bad:

[Action Committee for Transit’s] Ronit Dancis said, “Elected officials take note: this is what happens when you don’t fund maintenance of public infrastructure and public utilities.”

While many riders often rightly blame past WMATA managers and safety officials, there’s no doubt that this situation was able to become so dire over time because local and federal governments underfunded maintenance for decades after the system was built. They were able to put less into upkeep without penalty, because things weren’t breaking. Now, so much is broken.

Indeed, the nation’s largest transit systems face $102 billion in unfunded maintenance obligations, according to a 2015 report from the Regional Plan Association. But WMATA’s investment actually outpaces transit systems in other big cities, like Boston and Chicago, reports Transit Center:

[T]he National Transit Database shows that the D.C. rail system is firmly in the middle of the pack in capital investment terms, not far behind the New York City subway in capital spending per track-mile over the last five years.

Average Capital Expenditures ’10-’14 Track Miles Cap Expenditure/Mile
LA $611,676,009 99.2 $6,166,089
BART $484,618,245 107 $4,529,142
NYC Subway $2,680,521,976 660.75 $4,056,787
Washington $331,364,631 117 $2,832,176
Miami $56,540,473 24.4 $2,317,233
Atlanta $100,382,300 48 $2,091,298
Boston $237,454,946 185 $1,283,540
Chicago $260,288,231 224.1 $1,161,483

Notably, these figures do not even include much of the money spent constructing WMATA’s new Silver Line, as that undertaking is being managed by Washington’s airports authority and was recorded separately by the NTD.

The data suggest that Metro’s problems lie elsewhere, such as poor spending of the money WMATA already has and ineffective monitoring of the system’s infrastructure and equipment.

Nevertheless, Metro’s troubles could be the canary in the coal mine for other transit systems. Transit Center notes that “all of the systems… have significant unmet capital needs and should be investing more,” and that Metro “is hardly the only subway system in the country that could see significant trouble ahead.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Transportationist says replacing asphalt with brick streets could be a win for traffic calming. And Vibrant Bay Area explains why education isn’t enough when it comes to pedestrian safety.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

D.C. Metro Shutdown Should Be a Wakeup Call: Spend Smart on Transit

|
Today’s emergency 24-hour shutdown of the D.C. Metro system is a transit embarrassment of epic proportions. The shutdown follows an electrical fire in a subway tunnel Monday, and will allow for system-wide safety inspections. Metro has been under federal control following a smoke inhalation death caused by a similar problem last year. David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington wonders how the region’s […]

Will Federal Oversight Help or Hinder DC Transit?

|
The feds have taken over safety oversight of D.C.’s embattled Metro, and that could actually be cause for concern, says David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx laid out his vision for safety-related reforms under the aegis of the Federal Transit Administration in a recent piece in the Washington Post. One person was killed when smoke filled […]

Today’s Headlines

|
FTA Proposes New Transit Safety Rules (PDF) Sen. Rockefeller: Shutdown Blocking Essential Transpo Safety Inspections (Senate Commerce Committee) The Federal Shutdown, From the Vantage Point of California’s Transportation Officials (SF Gate) Minnesota DOT: Widening I-94 Is Not the Answer to Congestion (AP) How Much Will a Compromise Water Down the Pennsylvania Senate’s Transportation Bill? (Inquirer) […]

What D.C. Metro Inspectors Found During the System Shutdown

|
The D.C. Metro was shut down for 29 hours straight earlier this week while inspectors checked for defects in jumper cables, which transmit power between sections of the electrified third rail, along all the track in the system. To its credit, WMATA publicly documented the process. Stephen Repetski at Greater Greater Washington reports that inspectors found 26 jumper […]

House to Tackle Transit Safety Gaps in December Hearing

|
The debate over setting national standards for transit safety — which the federal government has yet to do — will take center stage at a December 8 hearing of the House transportation committee’s transit panel. The D.C. Metro (Photo: WaPo) The lack of nationwide rules for transit safety has become an acute concern in Washington […]