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.

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

  1. Those numbers don’t include the Silver Line costs, but do they include expansion costs for the other systems? It’s hard to compare systems because every one is different. Maintenance of way is different from new train cars are different from station renovations are different from expansions. All are important, but you can easily spend billions on capital expenditures while letting your infrastructure rot.

  2. The article does not take into consideration that transit is constantly underfunded by all sources — WMATA by DC, Virginia, Maryland, and the Feds; NYC MTA by NY State. You can’t spend what you don’t have.

  3. It’s interesting that Chicago is at the bottom here. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is at a point in 2016 when it has the lowest number of slow zones (track in a condition that requires the train to go slower because its quality is lessened), and has refurbished massive sections of routes, and entire branch (Dan Ryan South on the Red Line). Based on this info, it seems the CTA is getting a good deal from its contractors, or it was less behind in “catch up” maintenance than the others listed here.

    I’m currently reviewing a report (made by the CTA’s overseer agency) that says for 2014, CTA’s train cars “ranked first for miles between major mechanical failures for the 4th consecutive year”.

  4. I wonder where Toronto would be on this chart. They have less funding than any US transit agency, hands down, but seem to be doing quite a lot of capital upkeep ever since they had a bad accident in the 90s (which at the time was similar to what DC is seeing now as a once-shiny new system starts to age out).

  5. In the last 2 years, I’ve experienced very few problems with CTA train doors failing to open or close properly, fires in the undercarriage of cars (happened often for a while), or other issues that used to be common. Slow zones are still an issue in some places, but it’s a LOT less mileage than it was 5 years ago.

  6. I was reading about that earlier today. Yikes! Sounds like that power surge did MAJOR damage in the East Bay.

  7. The Washington Metro was the best system in the US when it opened, shiny and new. It still has the nicest stations. But the easy way out was not to plan for, and allocate funds for, maintenance.

    Visiting Washington in early February, during a non-snowy week, my husband and I had several problems with delayed Metro trains, to the point we gave up and walked the last three-quarter of a mile to our hotel. I was also surprised to see that Metro trains look a lot grungier these days than BART trains (floors, walls and doors.) Note: carpet in transit only works if you steam clean it regularly and replace it every so often. On the plus side, in every Metro train car there is an LED indicator of the next stop, something BART could really use. And I was happy to be able to take Metro almost to Dulles.

  8. Chicago must be getting good results from its contractors.

    NYC is famously getting *horribly corrupt* results from its contractors — shoddy work, nickel-and-diming, unnecessary delays, stuff which should cause the contractors to be blacklisted. Nothing has been done about this.

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