Another Reminder of the Impending WMATA Disaster

Photo credit: Washingtonian Magazine
Photo credit: Washingtonian Magazine

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is a slow-motion train wreck unfolding before our very eyes. An article  in the December 2015 issue of Washingtonian Magazine, The Infuriating History of How Metro Got So Bad,” provides a timely reminder of just how dysfunctional the commuter rail system has become. One glaring example:

The [Rail-Operations Control Center] was sorely understaffed—according to the FTA, of 52 controller positions this past spring, 18, or about a third, were unfilled. Because of the shortage, controllers could significantly augment their salaries with overtime; the FTA found that some worked 12-hour shifts as many as seven days a week. “You’d have people in there making almost double their salary in overtime,” [former control center trainee Ray] Scarbrough says. According to the trainees, the parking lot reserved for ROCC staff was filled with Mercedes and BMWs. “It looks like a CEO’s parking lot,” [former trainee Kenneth] Colvin says.

That’s what you get when you combine a strong union and weak management, and it goes a long way to explaining why workforce accounts for nearly 75% of WMATA’s 2015 operating budget. But labor unions aren’t the metro’s only problem. So are unrealistic demands for improved service pushed by WMATA board members. According to the article:

Board reps began to press for longer service hours—another way to score points with constituents. In 2003, Metrorail pushed back its closing hours to 12 am on weeknights and 3 am on Fridays and Saturdays. That was good news for riders, businesses, and the environment. But it accelerated the infrastructure’s deterioration. The new schedule left less time when Metro was closed and maintenance crews could access the tracks. On weeknights, “you’re talking about three hours of actual work time,” says Aaron Wiggins, a maintenance manager who retired in August after 27 years. “Ain’t a lot you’re going to get done in three hours on a nightly basis. It’s impossible.”

The scaled-back hours make it all but impossible to perform proper track maintenance. In turn, maintenance backlogs create delays and safety issues, which turns off riders. Even as the region’s population has grown, concerns about Metro’s reliability contributed to a 5% ridership decline between 2010 and 2015.

Yet another problem: Despite the fact that the operation faces a $2 billion funding gap by 2015, two Washington board members have threatened to veto any proposal to increase fares.

Conclude authors Luke Mullins and Michael Gaynor:

After a lifetime of shortsighted decisions, Metro is now trapped in a cycle of dysfunction that threatens its existence. Neglect has led to delays so frustrating that commuters are abandoning the system and therefore putting its main source of revenue at risk. Former GM Richard White predicted as much back in 2004. “We’re talking about a systemic service meltdown condition as early as three years from now,” he warned. “It’s reliability falling, ridership loss, road congestion increasing and air quality decreasing. It’s a death spiral.”

Washington wanted a world-class subway, one accessible late at night and on weekends. But after years of extending service while neglecting repairs, we might now have to live with longer waits. Officials say there simply isn’t enough time in off-hours to handle all the repairs required. The only option, they say, is for crews to do this work during the day. Trains will have to continue single-tracking through work zones. And this won’t be a short-term slowdown. The disruptions are likely to increase in the future, as the region grows and the infrastructure gets even older.

Bacon’s bottom line:

This is just one more warning that WMATA is heading for a system crash. Unfortunately, the governance system, which gives representatives from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., effective veto power over necessary but unpopular reforms, may make the transit system unreformable. If WMATA can’t scale back service, can’t raise fares, and can’t tackle labor featherbedding, there’s only one option left: pass around the tin cup. One thing we can count on, WMATA will dun the Commonwealth of Virginia and the municipal jurisdictions it serves for mo’ money.

Virginia can’t let the system fail — the Northern Virginia economy would gridlock without it. But the state can’t continue subsidizing a dysfunctional status quo either. If Virginia taxpayers are going to fork out over the next decade a billion dollars or so in increased financial support — over and above what they’re already paying — they should insist upon real reforms that put WMATA on a path to fiscal sustainability.

(Hat tip: Rob Whitfield)

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


16 responses to “Another Reminder of the Impending WMATA Disaster”

  1. CrazyJD Avatar

    “Washington wanted a world-class subway, one accessible late at night and on weekends.”
    How is it that the French can maintain a first class Metro system for its capital and we can’t? The French, for God’s sake!! Both are supported/run by the government. But let’s set aside the problem of anything that is ever run by the government. For one thing, the Paris Metro closes every night… that’s every night… by 12:30 (last train leaves terminus station by that time). So maintenance gets done, even with frequent strikes by the CGT (their union, which is much more powerful than the unions here). Now, more recently I found that the Paris Metro is dirtier than it used to be, but so is Paris generally. I’m not aware that anybody thinks it’s not “world-class”.

    Why is it that just about anything run by Washington is, or soon turns to, dross? Can you say: Obamacare?

    1. When WMATA was created (by Interstate Compact) in the late 60s it was a lowest-common-denominator creation with all the goodies you’d expect from the Great Society Congress and New To Home Rule DC including Davis Bacon Act protection for the unions, a dysfunctional governance structure with each jurisdiction having a veto, and funding by consensus. It’s amazing that it got built! The Paris Commune in 1790 was better equipped to run a subway system.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Geeze…. WMATA is the Obamacare of transit?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    was reading this:

    MTA vs. WMATA: Why Metro Is Terrible

    and this –

    ” Why isn’t WMATA accountable like the MTA is?

    The answer seems to be the difference in how the two agencies are structured. The MTA is a state agency and the buck stops with the governor, who can fire its executive director. Since most voters live within the MTA region, the governor has a strong incentive to demand good performance.

    WMATA, on the other hand, is an interstate compact. Its board is divided evenly among representatives appointed by the federal government, Washington, and jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia. Responsibility is unclear and voters don’t know whom to vote against because they hate their transit service.”

    we’ve plowed this ground before on BR and to me it’s pretty clear – when legislators create organizations that are beyond the reach of legislators and voters – accountability is often lost and there is no easy way to fix it short of dissolving it and transferring the operation to an agency that has some level of accountability.

    but don’t let that lull you into any trust as even state agencies from the Dept of Corrections to VDOT and even local police agencies like the FAIRFAX police run their own shows at times…

    hey.. and don’t threaten to turn VDOT over to toll road companies – the wailing and gnashing of teeth gets even WORSE!!!!!

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      For too many years, elected officials ignored one of the most mismanaged agencies in the United States. And as Larry notes, the passengers and taxpayers had virtually no input. Complaints were ignored. Transit equals good. Operating costs, including salaries bloated by unlimited overtime pay, surged. Fares increased faster than inflation and value to consumers. Expanding rail at huge cost to provide more density to landowners was and is the norm.

      I say this as person who rode Metrorail for most of my time working in downtown D.C. I still take the train when I go to D.C. for meetings.

      WMATA has a culture of no control. The public be damned. I’m not sure what can be done, but the current system of oversight is a farce.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    The great irony here is that the very same people who harp endlessly about the need for building more mass transit systems have proven themselves totally incapable of operating and maintaining the mass transit system already built for them. Instead, they, through their own gross negligence, waste and destroy the mass transit system that others have built for them to simply operate and maintain.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Good point. Building something new is always more exciting than operating what already exists in an effective, efficient and safe manner. That’s why we see proposals to build air gondolas over the Potomac, when WMATA cannot operate its buses in a manner that leaves passengers in D.C.’s Wards 7 & 8 unable to get aboard.

  5. JohnHop Avatar

    You’re blaming the union for Metro being badly understaffed? Seems to me that particular problem is management’s fault. Fill the vacant controller posts and you go a long way to cutting the overtime spending.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    what happened – from the Conservative perspective to “market-based” transit?

    I mean if we can do health care by the free market, surely we can do transit, eh?

  7. intelfinder Avatar

    Metro is a disaster. The Executive Leadership team are part of the old boys network and completely inept – new GM should fire them all – clean house. They’ve made bad decisions in operations and terrible decisions in hiring. They lose they star performers quickly or their star performers find themselves coasting until the best new thing comes along. Performance management is non-existent with poor performers being given high marks or still left to keep their jobs with not even a performance conversation. Corporate is full of fluff staff who need to be fired. Policies are not stuck to and what works for one person does not for the next. Excuses are made.Rail and Bus have no hiring criteria taking anyone off the street (ok they pass their drug and background checks thank God). Safety issues are overlooked and corners cut. They do safety checks at every meeting and instead of focusing on what safety means in public safety these statements are joke focused on how not to fall sick, how not to fall on leaves or get run over (prob. by a metro bus), etc. how this has ANY relation to safety at WMATA is beyond any comprehension by anyone with a brain. Senior Management almost all looking to end their third or fourth retirement at WMATA. Do not hire the best and certainly do not pay them. everyone sings the tune of “that’s the way we have always done it”. DISASTER. HR is ridiculous too from what I have heard. Dysfunctional. Just look at hoe people dress walking into their main office in chinatown. It is not professional where even business casual looks like something you would wear to the mall and not to work. Clean house is what we should hope new GM does. Begin to hold yourselves accountable to the taxpayer and your customers from who you take revenue. (they have no checks and balances inside so I suppose they cannot do much outside if the inside of their house looks like a war zone). Your ridership is not getting the service it needs.

  8. CrazyJD Avatar

    Who said on this blog that free market transit can’t work? Not this writer.

    Isn’t D.C. a microcosm of what would happen here in Richmond if area-wide cooperation, the darling of the left, were implemented? As it is, isn’t RMTA a mini-total-disaster. Without significant changes in Richmond City management, isn’t regional cooperation a non-starter. Who would want to cooperate with those idiots who can’t keep their financial books in order?

    Larry, you routinely attack/ridicule free market, which of course is not perfect. But I’ve never heard you allow for the possibility that it’s merely better than the other possible economic systems. When you do that, I’m more willing to listen to what you have to say. We still agree on WSJ, however. 😉


  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: better than other systems

    I guess that depends on your opinion of “better”, eh?

    so , for instance, can you name a true free market transit system on the planet?

    you got 200+ countries.. can you find a couple?

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Larry, you routinely attack/ridicule free market, which of course is not perfect.”

    I do when the proposal is so obviously flawed as to be unworkable and hardly a single example of it exists on the planet.


    but I think you sell me way short on my support of supply and demand for products and services – including those provided by the govt.

    For instance, I do support things like toll roads, surge pricing for parking, willing-seller, willing-purchases sans eminent domain for roads and pipelines and similar, Basic public school like Europe and Japan have, sans the sports and other extras or at least those extras paid for by those that want them. College loans tied to market demand occupations. Non-indigent Medicare folks paying for the actual costs of the program – not taxpayers.

    I can go on and on on the supply/demand things I DO support but I do not support frying-pan-into-the-fire, cockamamie free-market theories to replace existing systems unless we have some kind of idea that there are practical working examples somewhere.

    and I especially do not support holding existing systems legislative hostage until we agree to be forced to adopt unproven cockamamie theories to replace.

    the current food-fight over road tolls is an excellent example of folks who say they want less govt and more free market – raising holy hell when the roads are turned over to the private sector. So much for the free market, eh?

    I think if you actually tolled roads to support the costs needed to maintain and operate them – AND took away parking subsidies, then you COULD -at the same time- use free-market principles for transit so that those folks also paid more for that service.

    and if we did that – people who wanted to live far from work – those folks would be personally paying for that choice instead of having others pay for it

    so – see… that’s just one example where I actually “deliver” on this issue.

  11. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    It’s my recollection that, earlier in the 20th Century, most transit operations were privately owned and regulated. Public takeovers occurred in mid-century. Everything was public for decades. Now we are seeing many transit projects developed under public-private partnerships. An interesting trend.

  12. CrazyJD Avatar

    Actually, Larry, no, I dont’ see. And it’s apparent you fundamentally misunderstand free markets.

    1. There is no such thing as a free market where the government is involved. Further, some of the items you cite are the exact opposite of free market. Public schools are the antithesis of free market. A kid takes what the government provides. This is the left’s classic confusion between a public education and a publicly provided education. Now, if you say you will provide the funds at public expense, but the kid can take the funds and go where he wants, that would be closer to free market. Of course, that is anathema to the left. Their friends in the unions go nuts.

    What you say about “basic school like in Europe” is also the antithesis of free market. It’s only free market –Larry’s way. Larry would go along with that approach. In a free market, the kid could choose a totally sports school without the “basic school” for whatever reason satisfactory to him. Maybe he’s a lock for the NFL. But folks like yourself want to circumscribe how much free market there is. It’s only ok if they think, in their humble opinion, that it’s not “unworkable” or isn’t “obviously flawed” Not a free market when controlled by the government elites.

    1. You can’t disprove my “better” contention by citing one subsystem of the overall operation of society. But perhaps we are talking past each other here. My “better” comment is along the lines of Winston Churchill’s comment that “Free market capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the other ones ever tried” Transit systems are obviously a sport in the overall context of a free market. They necessarily mix some elements of free market and government control. As I say below, roads and transit are legitimate functions of government because of the nature of the systems. In any given place, you can only put one road or one train (But See, contra, municipal bus systems: no reason you can’t run more than one of them). Roads and trains would be unlike, for example, cable tv systems, where you can indeed put more than one system along the side of the road, or between posts or towers. The nature of the project allows it. In any event, roads and bridges and transit systems are classic monopolies because of the barriers to entry and therefore not free market. You can’t just get into the road running business, say, along Broad Street. There’s only one Broad Street and somebody else runs it.

    Toll Roads: Who sets the tolls? Government. It is not a free market and can’t be. I either pay what the “government” wants or the highway (no pun intended). Even with “rush hour pricing” it’s not a free market. The government still sets the price. I can’t go down the street and get another government that will make me a different offer. Now, if you used technology to allow the drivers to bid on the toll while on the road and on the fly, then you might be coming closer, but really toll roads are not a good example of anything one way or the other. Roads, like fire and police and EPA (yes, EPA… from a conservative; the free market really can’t handle the problem) are legitimate functions of government, though my friend Mitch Daniels was successful in selling the Indiana Toll Road to private industry and made a killing for the government. Sorta like the Pocahontas Freeway. A complete disaster, but who cares. Private sector is taking it in the shorts on that one. And I see where they just raised the toll to $4.00 so that absolutely no one will use the road.

  13. slowlane Avatar

    The Washington Times in 2012, reported in depth, how WMATA is plagued by reverse discrimination (97% African-American staff, even in a city where most construction workers are Hispanics) ….a supervisor who added a big picture of Malcolm X on all her E-mails… entrenched culture of “covering up” and ignoring safety problems….station attendants asleep or watching games on TV….an instance of promoting an employee recently out of prison, over another a guy with longer service and a Masters degree.

    Sorry, I only have the first of the three articles

Leave a Reply