Calculating the Real Cost of Metro

According to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority website, the Metro generated $617 million in revenue in fiscal 2006, spent $1,049 million and required an operating subsidy of $432 million. Those raw numbers understate the real cost of operating the system, however. If Metro is allowing the system to depreciate, it is generating bigger losses than the raw operating numbers let on.

The Washington Post provides an example of the slow-motion depreciation that appears to be taking place. Citing the “escalating” cost of repairs, Metro management is looking at replacing 23 escalators with conventional stairs at 15 stations. Writes Lena H. Sun:

Nonfunctioning escalators trigger more complaints from Metro customers than almost any other problem. Metro has so many escalators because the subway was built so deep beneath swampy Washington. In some places, stairs aren’t an option because all available space is devoted to escalators.

Metro, with 86 stations and average weekday ridership of about 720,000, has 588 escalators and 267 elevators. In contrast, the London Underground, which serves 275 stations and carries more than 3 million passengers a day, has 412 escalators and 112 elevators.

At any given moment, 40 to 45 of Metro’s escalators and about six elevators are typically broken or scheduled for maintenance.

The Metro is a critical transportation asset for the Washington Metro area. There may be a case for expanding the system to Dulles airport and other locations in Virginia. But Virginians will want to be assured that the system isn’t slowly disintegrating before signing up for billions in construction charges and multi-millions in ongoing maintenance costs.

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5 responses to “Calculating the Real Cost of Metro”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar

    So, for every $6 you spend to ride Metro, you are sponging $4 off of someone else, probably a motorist.

    And, even if we do nothing more with Metro we still need another $100 million or so a year, just to make it run properly and not fall apart, so the above numbers are even worse than they appear.

    And, just as with other alternaive modes of transport, all of this is in addition to the roads: existing, new, and maintenance.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    The same criticisms with regard to VDOT and roads – apply to Metro in my view.

    Neither can.. or apparently is willing to justify their operations on a cost-effective basis.

    One of the things that Kaine said he would do is what JLARC recommended and that was to create an umbrella intermodal office in Virginia.

    Here’s a fun link for those who LIKE transit… though :

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Hey Ray .. how would you feel if Metro was totally paid for by… sales taxes (rather than gas taxes)?

    How about if Metro was paid for by CDAs on adjacent development?

    Finally – do you think that HOW Metro is paid for has anything to do with whether or not Metro is operated in a cost-effective manner?

    DITTO – same question with regard to VDOT?

    How about VRE or MARC?

  4. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Metro could be operated much more efficiently than it is. That is not to say there would not be any need for tax subsidies.

    Metro has long reported that its escalators and elevators maintained by third party vendors are in service more than those maintained by WMATA employees.

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I don’t understand your questions, Larry.

    My underlying argument is that it all comes out in the wash. Trying to allocate costs so that someone else will appear to be paying for what they benefit from is a fool’s game, and highly inefficient. We can collect one pile of money and then argue about how to spend it for much less money than we can collect 50,000 piles of money and do the accounting for 50,000 purposes.

    And we would still spend the same amount of time arguing about what the piles should be. The argument for allocating costs is a real red herring if the underlying cause is that you want someone else to pay for things you don’t agree with: what is a subsidy and what is an incentive?

    User pays is a stupid idea, unless it is really user pays, in which case it boils down to having a free market for goods and services, including government services.

    But the reason we have government services is so we won’t have to pay for them. Or because there is no market. Only when we have so many homeless on the streets that they pester us to death or annoy our conscience will we agree to have the government pay to solve “our” problem and contribute our money to do so. (pick your own crisis and substute for homeless people.)

    I grow and manufacture much of what I use, so sales taxes work to my benefit. I admit to self interest, and greed.

    I think, that if Metro was paid for by CDA’s on adjacent development, then we should consider paying for roads the same way. The obvious problem with that is that a lot more people benefit than just those that live or work or own propery adjacent.

    If they benefit. An awful lot of people use the highwy that they drove though the farm and they benefit, all the farm gets is the noise, and apparently that is all it will ever get. But, when I do leave the farm, I go out and get on the highway myself.

    It all comes out in the wash.

    We agree on one thing, no matter how something is paid for, it ought ot be operated as efficiently as possible. Maybe we accept that Metro as a whole is inefficient: that you cannot justify what it costs for the number or area it serves. Even so, it is no reason to make the situation even worse through bad management.

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