Metro’s Slow-Motion Train Wreck

What’s the real cost of running the Washington Metro? Does anyone really know? Metro authorities cite problems such as worn track fasteners, crumbling concrete platforms and corroded traction power cables, reports Lena Sun with the Washington Post. The agency needs $489 million for “urgent” maintenance work, $244 million of it in the next two years. Metro doesn’t have the money, and municipal governments in the Washington region are reluctant to cough up any more.

Please note, that half billion dollars just covers Metro’s “urgent” needs. How much would it cost to bring the Metro up to the standards of a first-class commuter rail? How would that liability translate into fiscal obligations for Virginia localities under the current cost-sharing formulas?

As gasoline prices soar, Metro should be riding high as motorists seek alternative modes of transportation. But the railway system is crumbling. Is there any hope that Metro can function effectively under its current governance structure, which must balance the interests of multiple municipalities in three different states?

One more question: Is this a system that Fairfax County really wants to buy into with the Rail-to-Dulles project? Does the county have any idea of what kind of liabilities are lurking off the books?

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Wanna good laugh?

    Mass Transit Hysteria
    Take the plunge, save the planet.
    by P.J. O’ROURKE

    “Mass transit helps preserve nature in places like Yellowstone Park, the Everglades and the Arctic wilderness, because mass transit doesn’t go there. Mass transit curtails urban sprawl. When you get to the end of the trolley tracks, you may want to move farther out into the suburbs, but you’re going to need a lot of rails and ties and Irishmen with pickaxes.”


  2. Groveton Avatar

    O’Rourke really is funny.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    The answer is obviously yes. Investment and expansion is completely worthwhile.

    Read this article about how Washington and Atlanta were similar cities. Until, Washinton invested in Metro and Atlanta didn’t.

    The Washington region would be a wasteland if Metro didn’t exist, sprawling immensely more.


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    The issue with metro maintenance is the same issue you have with fixing the superhighways. Since it’s based on the same large trunk and arterial system, fixing anything is extremely expensive. The system can’t be shutdown for extended periods just like the highways so maintenance costs multiples of what it would otherwise; it’s like trying to do a rebuild on your engine while driving to work everyday. It takes 5-10 times as long and costs way more than doing it all at once; the Springfield Interchange is a good example. We’ll see the same nightmare when VDOT finally decides to fix I-66 near Vienna.

    The only solution is to change over to a multi-access grid type system that has multiple outlets else we’ll continue to see massive repair bills. This applies to both roads and rail.


  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    well.. anything that has moving parts has to be shut down for maintenance.

    Out west, I note the way they do interstate maintenance is to shut down 2 lanes of the interstate and then force traffic to use one lane – for miles and miles… what a pain.

    In the DC area.. road maintenance costs substantially more because they have to do it at night.. and then before morning put it all back together again…

    .. and we’re gonna make an example of METRO’s struggles with maintenance?

    What I get out of the “let beat up on METRO again” dialog is a bit of a double standard.

    Did we “blame” VDOT for not doing the Springfield Interchange “right” to begin with.. and as a result of that “failure”, it cost us 600 million dollars?

    did someone make a “big” mistake when we only built one wilson bridge instead of two?

    speaking of “urgent” maintenance.. how about all those highway bridges in need of maintenance.. some of them in “urgent” need of maintenance and there is “no money to fix them”?

    oh .. but that’s okay .. because highways pay for themselves and transit does not…


  6. Anonymous Avatar

    I don’t know haw you would evaluate whether a highway “paid for itself” or not. I don’t know how you would decide whether Metro paid for itself, either.

    But, as far as I can figure out, it is true that road users pay a higher percentage of their own costs than Metro users do.

    It is also true that metro depends heavily on automobiles to provide tis customers. Metro operates the largest parking agency in the region.

    To value a road, I guess you would have to value the commerce that depends on it, and that commerce might come from far flung areas, and go to far flung areas. So, even if the road itself is valuable it might not mean much to the area it traverses.

    Same with a power line.

    Metro, doesn’t carry very much in direct commerce in the same way cars and trucks do, so its value is limited in that sense. The “commerce” metro carries is people’s brains, on their way to work and back.

    What metro does do is make a little bit of property extremely valuable. Roads make a lot of property a little more valuable, but there is a real double standard when it comes to increasing property values alongside transportation systems.

    ZS says we need more of a grid system with more outlets, and I think he is right – each of those nodes has the opportunity to become a new “place”.


    “did someone make a “big” mistake when we only built one wilson bridge instead of two?”

    Wilson bridge was never intended to do the job it did. it was pressed into service when foes terminated 395.

    I did a cost analysis on a water pipeline once, and the question was whether to build a big one, or a smaller one knowing it would need to be expanded later.

    The right answer turned out to be to build the small one, but plan the terminals so that they could easily be doubled up in pumping capacity later. It was a cost of money problem: even though it made sense to build one big pipeline, you just couldn’t afford it. In the very long run it turned out to be a mistake because the cost of pumping the water in two pipes is higher. But, at leasty you have some redundancy in case of failure.

    It’s a lot easier in hindsight.


    Here is the thing about Metro, great as it is.

    It has never lived up to the promises made for it. We still have congestion, it still doesn’t carry the passengers it was predicated on, and now it is entering a phase of constant reconstruction. It will require subsidies, forever.

    Metro and the automobile are simbiotic, not competitors. There is only so much money to go around, and we need these assets to get us all the most good possible.

    It does no good to champion one over the other, ignoring the faults of our favorite while hyping its benefits. There is too much money at stake to spend it badly.

    Lets not spend a lot of money on things that do not provide as advertised. When we talk about the efficiency of buses, let’s make sure we are talking about true, on the ground efficiency, and not some potential efficiency,or one that is only based on revenue miles.

    When we talk about people killed by autos, lets count the ones saved by autos as well.

    There are ways to evaluate all these things, but we don’t want to, because it might undermine our favorite argument.


  7. Michael Ryan Avatar
    Michael Ryan

    “it still doesn’t carry the passengers it was predicated on”

    Damn! I’d hate to see that. I used to have to wait for two or three trains to go by my station before I could even find one to squeeze on to. A couple times I gave up and went back out and wandered around Lafayette Park for a half hour before going back and trying again.

    Maybe with gas at $3+ they should reevaluate the $7.80/day all-you-can-ride fare.

    And yeah, a grid system makes more sense. Now explain to me the part about boring several hundred miles of underground tunnels and stations. Or is this the new street car?

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Damn! I’d hate to see that.

    I know, it’s amazing. No wonder they call it the Orange Crush. It’s hard to imagine what the original predictions were based on, but overpredicting the ridership is pretty common.

    To be fair, I read that several years ago, and the ridership has increased since then. It may actually no longer be true, but the gist of it is correct.

    After you build the subway, you still have to wait for the city to grow into it. How old is the new york subway? And it still carries a fraction of trips in the city.


  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think Gilmore should energize his Senatorial campaign to re-take NoVa for the R’s by promising to work to get Metro shut down by earmarking Metro funds for highways.

    He could make it his next act after the car tax repeal.

    don’t ya’ll think that will make him a hero in NoVa?

    and the real benefit is.. no more maintenance woes for Metro.

  10. Politically Incorrect Avatar
    Politically Incorrect


    Gilmore would be a hero if he advocated spending 5 billion on new toll lanes and toll roads instead of Metro to Dulles.

    5 billion in roads would add more capacity than the Metro extension. Express buses could carry most of those who would have ridden Metro anyway.

    The new toll revenue would pay off the bonds used to build the road, and would pay for all future maintenance costs.

    The Dulles Toll Road now brings in more toll revenue every year than it cost to build.

    Even after a 5 billion subsidy for Metro to Dulles, we will have to spend 100 million a year to subsidize its operations forever, not to mention the deferred maintenance that will accumulate.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    PI – well.. the Virginia R’s seem to be concerned about losing NoVa.. so Mr. Gilmore should find those issues that resonate with NoVa voters – right?

    Do we think that NoVa voters will thank Gilmore for shutting down Metro and using the funds for roads?

    He could do that as Senator.

    Earmarks work both ways. A Senator can put an earmark in that de-funds something and moves the money to something else.

    So why not do that – and take back NoVa for the R’s?

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    NoVa is no longer competitive to the Rs

    A majority of people Want Metro to Dulless

    A majority of people want more services and higher taxes.

    Welcome to Maryland and one party rule


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    NoVA would be in serious trouble if Metrorail were to shut down. However, that does not justify either the mismanagement at WMATA or expanding the line to Dulles, as proposed.

    People who already ride Metro would like service improvements. Many people who want to see the expansion of rail through either own land there, work for a company that does, or have the foolish belief that expanding rail will cause their neighbors to ride rail and improve traffic conditions.

    None of these are good enough reasons to spend billions on a boondoggle.

    First, we sould put Metrorail expansion on hold until the capital problems for the existing system are fixed. WMATA must also negotiate reasonable contracts with its labor union.

    Then, if rail to Dulles is to be built, it should be constructed as rail to Dulles and must avoid the expensive loop through Tysons Corner. Rail should be built in the median of the Dulles Toll Road. Any intermediate stops should be paid for by local landowners.

    The landowners who spent hundreds of millions buying land at Tysons on the speculation that rail would go through Tysons Corner should just suck up the losses. And then hire better lawyers to do their due diligence next time.

    Whichever politicians embraced these sensible solutions would likely be elected again and again.


  14. Groveton Avatar

    “After you build the subway, you still have to wait for the city to grow into it.”.

    It sure seems that way. And Arlington County (for example) seems to have grown into Metro. The Wilson Blvd corridor has made great progress with respect to human settlement patterns. Is it possible that the value of mass transit goes beyond measuring the number of riders? For example, a lot of young people moved to Wilson Blvd because their homes were near a Metro stop. The cumulative effect of these decisions created a density that supported a lot of restaurants, offices, etc. Now the people walk for a decent percentage of their trips. You can’t see that benefit from transit riders – can you?

  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    hmmmm… can’t quite hear… but it sounds like the “Gilmore shut down Metro” idea .. would likely result in Gilmore get run out of town on a rail…


    So.. the folks in NoVa want METRO but they want a more efficient, less wasteful version..

    Well.. geeze .. what is Gilmore to do with ideas that can win over NoVa?

    What, for instance, might be his plan for METRO if it is agreed that what it needs is something besides shutting it down?

    So what would a Gilmore BIG “R” plan for NoVa Metro be if the idea of shutting it down.. won’t bite?

    Doesn’t he need something more than his one-trick pony car tax cut to win over NoVa?

  16. Groveton Avatar

    Gilmore is running for US Senate – right?

    Not State Senate.

    Not Governor of Virginia.

    What would make NoVA happy (or … at least me)?

    1. Strategy for Afghanistan / Iraq
    2. Resolution of US financial crisis
    3. Limitation of lobbyist influence
    4. Growing wealth gap
    5. Income tax reform
    6. Philosophy regarding appointment of federal judicial positions (strict construction vs. liberal interpretation).
    7. Ethics
    8. Immigration
    9. Abortion / Woman’s choice

    If he’s campaigning on the basis of Metro funding – he’s doomed.

    Hopefully, Gilmore understands that the US Senate isn’t the Virginia GA. Gross incompetence in the US Senate would be real problem.

    Maybe the candidates for governor (in the upcoming election) could address Metro (including an explanation of how to persuade the feds to fund some of it – or not).

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: U.S. Senate involvement in Metro.

    Isn’t John Warner in there swinging for NoVa for Metro funding?

    I don’t remember any VA GA guys making a difference in Metro but perhaps I’m wrong…

    It appears to me that the Feds are not happy with METRO .. in it’s operation, maintenance nor expansion.

    Some folks think it is a huge money hole not worth it…

    Gilmore.. and the R’s are fretting over losing NoVa …

    What is it SPECIFIC to NoVa that Gilmore could offer to make him a hero to NoVa AND prove to everyone else that the R’s still “have it” in Virginia?

    I mean Kaine and Warner have weighed in on Metro funding.. and so far have come up with a goose egg.

    How about Gilmore sharing his “vision” for Metro .. and in the process.. he earns his spurs for the Senate by proving that the and the R’s are connected to urban Va.

    Of course.. if the solution is for Metro to cut itself free from the Feds and become self reliant on whatever they decide needs to be done…

    How about such a plan coming from Gilmore?

  18. Groveton Avatar

    Larry –

    I was born up here. I have lived here (with a few interruptions) for all of my life. There is a big difference between a US Senator “weighing in” on a local issue and campaigning for office on a local issue. You get elected on broad issues, you stay elected (in substantial part) by bringing home the bacon (i.e. pork).

    If Gilmore is smart (and he is) he’ll lay off Rail To Dulles on the bumbling incompetence Gerry Connolly and Tim Kaine. Two Democrats who didn’t stay on top of the obvious problems with Rail to Dulles. Two Democrats that didn’t keep the plan in synch with the Fed’s requirements. Two Democrats that lost the funding. Then he’ll say he will do what he can to recover from this fiasco but Connolley and Kaine have done a lot of damage with their neglect.

    It doesn’t have to be true, it just has to sound plausible.

    Also, he’s not going to win based on the votes he’ll get in NoVA. The conservatives will vote for him. The liberals will vote for his opponent. He’ll try to carry the NoVA moderates with talk of a strong defense, bringing his competent approach to government (from his time as Governor) to the feds, his distaste for tax hikes….

    George Allen lost by 10,000 votes state-wide. He lost by 65,000 votes in Fairfax County.

    Gilmore doesn’t have to be a hero in NoVA, he just needs to avoid being a goat.

  19. Anonymous Avatar

    A little perspective. The following is a discussion of road improvement and rail costs for Tysons Corner from the 1994 revision to the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan. The brackets are mine.

    “Increase Funding for Transportation Facilities. Transportation improvements needed to support Tysons Corner area development will require substantial capital investment. At least $300 million (in 1990 dollars) will be necessary to implement the recommended arterial roadway improvements. Of this total, it has been estimated that approximately $120 million would be needed to improve the Capital Beltway and Dulles Airport Access and Toll Roads, (including interchange improvements) and that at least $180 million would be needed to improve primary arterial roads, such as Route 7 and Route 123. With respect to public transportation approximately $175 to $500 million or more (in 1994 dollars) would be the additional funding needed to establish an alternative rail alignment through the center of Tysons Corner as opposed to an alignment that uses the median of the Dulles Airport Access Road (i.e., an elevated alignment through Tysons Corner, as identified on Figure 15 in the Transportation Section, has been estimated to cost at least $175 million in additional funds whereas if placed underground, the estimated additional cost would be approximately $500 million or more). The entire Dulles Airport Access Road rail alignment from Falls Church to the Airport has been estimated to cost over one billion dollars.

    “The above cost estimates are based on estimates from preliminary engineering studies or the application of unit cost estimates for various categories of facilities to recommend improvements affecting Tysons Corner. Cost estimates will be revised when project planning studies are undertaken. The roadway cost estimates reflect a magnitude of expenditure necessary to construct roads and interchange improvements that are identified on the Transportation Plan adopted in 1991. The Dulles Corridor Transportation Study conducted by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) estimated future rail extension costs and recommended to the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) the more costly alignment through Tysons Corner including direct service with three stations, due to a variety of benefits such as increased ridership and development potential. In August of 1996, the CTB adopted the concept of an alignment through Tysons Corner as recommended in the VDRPT study for inclusion of the project in the Commonwealth’s Transportation Improvement Plan.”

    It was about this time that Rail to Dulles was hijacked by the Tysons Corner landowners and their lackies and stopped being about transportation.


  20. Anonymous Avatar

    “After you build the subway, you still have to wait for the city to grow into it.”.

    It sure seems that way. ……. You can’t see that benefit from transit riders – can you?”

    I don’t understand how you get this out of anything I ever said.

    Yes, absolutely I see that benefit – and others. Metro has undoubtedly had benfits in terms of land use and valuation.

    But – Metro does not get ALL the credit. Ballston would have been rebuilt with or without Metro, so we only get to credit metro with the net difference between Ballston like areas without Metro and Ballston itself.

    Then, take that (current) difference and discount it backwards 30 years to the time metro was proposed and started. That’s what I meant by waitng for the city to grow up around it. Like growing olive trees from scratch: you need to have a really small discount rate to make this pay.

    I think metro should get all the credit it deserves – and no more. Undoubtedly metro has reduced congestion over what it might have been, but it has also brought more people to the area, and they drive more than they use metro. We can’t give metro credit for traffic reduction on a one passenger one car trip basis – it isn’t realistic.

    “The Wilson Blvd corridor has made great progress with respect to human settlement patterns. ” Maybe, but how do you measure this kind of progress? Per cent gentrification? Is the traffic on Wilson Blvd really a lot less than on another similar street?

    Is Wilson Blvd really all that different from Wisconsin Ave? Yes, people in that area walk some places. What researchers have found is that those trips are in ADDITION to their driving trips, and not instead of.

    My brother lives there. If I go visit him and if we go out, we are still more likely to drive than walk or metro. Not because we don’t like walking or metro, but because where we chose to go is too far or not near metro.

    Yes, my brother drives less distance than I do. But his total annual transportation costs are as high or higher than mine.

    Is the city better with metro than without? Sure.

    Is metro everything some people claim it to be? Nope.

    Is it worth what it costs, all things considered? Probably.

    Who should pay the costs? The people and businesses that benefit most from it. And by the way, if they are adertising a billion dollar problem, then it is probably much worse.


  21. Anonymous Avatar

    Ray is correct about the R-B corridor in Arlington. Metro certainly helped, but the area had some positive factors outside Metro.

    Arlington had a grid of streets, which does help move internal traffic better than, say, Tysons Corner. The R-B corridors is also very porous. There are many routes into and out of the urban area. Contrast Tysons Corner, which is hemmed in by the Beltway and the DTR.

    The Arlington planning process was also conducive to progress. There were sufficient citizen seats at the table, such that no plan could be adopted without the assent of both the developers and the neighbors. Contrast Tysons Corner, where Task Force Chair Clark Tyler let citizens speak at Task Force meetings only after being told to do so by new Supervisor John Foust.

    Like most things in life, success comes in urban planning when multiple factors come together in a way the more than one stakeholder group wins.


  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    there’s an interesting and informative discussion of Virginia, the Dillon Rule and how some Va cities become independent…from counties.. and annexation came to the fore.

    I’ve stumbled across this website several times and find it fascinating…

    Anyone else familiar with it?

  23. Anonymous Avatar

    “success comes …..when more than one stakeholder group wins.”

    There you have it.

    We succeed best when everybody wins.

    Anyone who thinks he wins by pullingone over, is missing the point, and wrong besides.

    Is that a call for socialism? Absolutely not. Socialism believes we can succeed by spreading the wealth of a few. Capitalism believes we can succeed if a few get wealthy.

    As TMT notes, there are many, many of those “multiple factors” to success. It means, fundamentally, that when multiple stakeholders win, that they can at least keep what they have.

    It all comes down to property rights.


  24. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: Gilmore & NoVa

    yeah.. I was pushing the envelope .. with a dual purpose…

    wanted to see if Metro despite the problems is a valued aspect of NoVa


    what Gilmore and the R’s might do to win back NoVa by appealing to NoVa values…

    The vote difference on Allen is stunning….

    At first one could perhaps posit that there was something about Allen in particular but then it appears to have followed with other candidates like Webb.

    What’s interesting is that as distinct that NoVa has become demographically and powerful economically, it has yet to assert itself politically at the Va GA where RoVa still rules the roost….

    anyhow.. back to METRO…

    I think several, including TMT have stated what they think Metro should be .. and not be.. etc.. and opposed to agreeing that Metro should be shut down….

    and if Gilmore used that as a talking point (similar to what he did with his idea of “downsizing” VDOT) – I think he would be a goat and run out of town.

    However, if he did say he would fight for METRO funding.. would that help him with NoVa voters?

    and if not Metro.. is there anything that Gilmore and the Va R’s in general could do to win back NoVa?

  25. Anonymous Avatar

    If I were Gilmore, I’d start hammering Mark Warner for his no-bid contract with Bechtel for the Silver Line. No one in NoVA thinks that this contract arrangement is good. Warner also has received huge amounts of money from West Group and other landowners at Tysons Corner. What was the quo for their quid?


  26. Anonymous Avatar


    Virginia is about 20 years behind Maryland politically

    Fairfax has turned into Montgomery County (one party rule, citizens demand high services and pay high taxes for it and don’t mind)

    It is only a matter of time before the major Democrat population centers outnumber the rural Republican areas

    I grew up in Maryland and there are 26 counties. The Ds win most elections by only winning 3 areas Balitmore City, Prince Georges County and Montgomery County. Almost all of the other counties are Republican but cant make up the population totals.

    The Ds are approaching 75% in Arlington/Alexandria and 66% in Fairfax. The Rs cant make up the vote total difference anymore


  27. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    NMM –

    You make the same point that other NoVa bloggers have…

    … Does that mean – that the Wash Metro Area – regardless of the Maryland/Virginia State line – are aligned with similar packyderm/donkey percentages?

    There DO APPEAR to be electable R’s in Wash Metro…

    are ALL of them METRO supporters?

  28. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry I would argue

    There are very few electable Rs in Wash metro.

    Its a simple demographics game

    Rust is holding on via incumbency

    Albo, Hugo, and Cucinelli are in the final Springfield firewall of Fairfax County…. and even Springfield is rapidly approaching Purple status

    Loudoun is the current battleground but is gradually turning more and more blue

    Prince William is red due to demographics

    To your question though

    All Rs are against Metro and for BRT/Congestion Pricing instead

    I think with the correct message the public could be swayed back to BRT but it would take some work

    As far as if Gilmore actually came out for Metro I don’t think things would change much. People are voting on other issues.


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