Metro is still falling apart but the cookies were all ready at the National Press Club event to celebrate General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s first anniversary on the job.
Photo credit: Delegate Marc Korman (D-16).
Today, I am pleased to present a guest post by Dels. Marc Korman (D-16) and Erek Barron (D-24):
When we arrived in Annapolis in January of 2015, we immediately partnered to form the WMATA-Metro Work Group and bring more attention to issues related to Metro in Annapolis. After all, the state invests hundreds of millions of dollars to WMATA each year and increased oversight is sorely needed. We are cautiously optimistic that the new General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, can bring some much needed change to WMATA. He has set out his own plan for reform, much of which we enthusiastically support. But after spending two legislative sessions hearing from WMATA officials and other stakeholders on an almost weekly basis, we have some of our own reform suggestions. Some of these are major structural or funding changes and others are more minor tweaks to Metro operations, but we think all are worthy of discussion by WMATA and the region.
Out the outset, we should note that none of these ideas can replace or should distract from the immediate safety work necessary for the system to operate. SafeTrack and other efforts are important, but it is our hope that some of these ideas can keep the system from finding itself in a situation like the one it is in now ever again.
Board Structure: The WMATA Board is the primary means of providing oversight of Metro. But each appointing jurisdiction treats the Board in a different fashion. In Maryland, Board members are Gubernatorial appointees and answer to the Governor. In the District of Columbia, usually a Councilmember and a Mayoral appointee serve as the Board Members. In Virginia, there is a divide between state and local appointees. The District and Virginia have elected officials on the Board, while Maryland and the federal government do not. The Board members all receive different levels of pay from their jurisdictions. This structural mismatch causes disharmony on the Board, makes Board members’ different perspectives even more pronounced, and is generally inefficient. Standardizing how each jurisdiction treats the Board so that their appointees are similarly positioned would improve the Board’s critical governance function.
Resources for Board Members: The WMATA Board is a strange beast. It is the primary method of oversight for WMATA, yet its Board Members essentially have no resources. Board members who are elected officials or work in government may be able to use those resources to support their work, but other members do not have those options. Consideration should be given to providing board members with the resources and ability to provide adequate oversight and independent analysis of WMATA activities, instead of being forced to rely entirely on WMATA staff.
Board Meeting Options: WMATA board meetings seem to follow a basic pattern in which WMATA staff tells the Board what they want to do on an issue, the Board asks a few questions, and the item is usually agreed to. Sometimes, the Board pushes back and the staff has to withdraw the item and come up with alternatives at a future meeting. Staff should consider providing more options up front for the Board on major issues (such as fare options) and let the Board make more informed decisions on the basis of those options.
Public Meetings and Access: WMATA Board Members have made an effort over the last year or two to show up at stations and meet with riders. Far more of this public engagement and outreach is necessary. Whether that is stepped up station visits, rider-focused town halls, or better use of social media, WMATA needs to engage its riders. Twitter, for example, is not a random sampling of riders, but the frustration expressed in the Twitterverse is palpable and more opportunities need to be created to allow riders to express their concerns to WMATA board members and personnel.
Auction Board Seats: Someone in Annapolis suggested this idea to us. If jurisdictions want more say over how WMATA operates, they could compete for additional Board seats—with an overall cap—through an auction process: a Board seat could be bought in exchange for additional operating or capital subsidies. This could provide WMATA with necessary additional revenue.
Secretarial Board: An entirely different Board model has been floated by a WMATA board member, which would be to have a more focused Board made up of the Transportation Secretaries—or an Assistant Secretary—from each jurisdiction. It would be a radical change from the current model, but might make WMATA more politically accountable by tying the Board more directly to the elected leadership in each jurisdiction. There are issues with this approach, such as how to handle Virginia’s localities, but this is a radical reform that should be discussed. If this radical reform is a bridge too far, then perhaps an “Executive Council” of each jurisdiction’s transportation secretaries could meet on a regular and scheduled basis to address major issues, providing guidance to the Board as to what will be acceptable to the compact members.
Dedicated funding: Probably the number one suggestion people have about WMATA is a dedicated funding source. Currently, only Northern Virginia has any “dedicated funding” for WMATA, with a 2% gas tax being allocated to WMATA and making up less than 15% of the entire Virginia operating subsidy. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia actually passed legislation in 2006 dedicating one half of one percent of its retail sales tax to WMATA, but it was contingent on similar action by the other jurisdictions which never occurred (it was estimated that this would raise $50 million) at the time. Dedicated funding would not be a cure all for Metro’s woes, but would definitely help. Options for dedicated funding include a regional sales tax, transfer tax, a property tax supplement for property near Metro, and several other options. Although progress on this issue continues to lag, it should remain a part of the conversation. Board Chairman Jack Evans has made it front and center to his agenda, although any funding change should come with governance and management reforms.
Federal Operating Subsidy: All of the Compact jurisdictions, except the federal government, provide an operating subsidy to Metro. Indeed, the federal government was given Board seats in exchange for a non-guaranteed annual capital appropriation of $150 million. The federal government should also provide an annual operating subsidy to WMATA, just as other jurisdictions with Board seats do. This should become a top priority for our region’s Congressional leaders. Again, Board Chairman Evans has rightfully been discussing this issue.
Station Ownership: Station Managers need to take more ownership of their stations. The new GM’s plan includes establishing management ownership of each rail line to improve the customer experience and something similar should occur with the Metro stations. Some Station Managers do stand outside of the control booth and take pride in their stations, bar far too many are inaccessible in the control booth and unaware of what is happening in the station, not making sure it is welcoming, clean, and functioning. Station Managers should be appropriately compensated and incentivized to take more ownership of their stations.
Station Task Forces: In one of our districts, a group of local residents, businesses, and government leaders formed a station improvement task force to try and improve the Bethesda Metro Station. Their efforts have improved cleanliness at the station, brought in new public art, and put Bethesda at the forefront of station modernization efforts. This model should be followed at every station in the system to make sure every community is getting the attention and improvements it deserves.
Escalator Alignment: Most stations have a standard traffic flow to them. Those in downtown DC have more exiting passengers than entering passengers in the morning and vice versa in the suburbs. Yet escalators are not regularly adjusted for this natural schedule. If a station has three escalators, two of the escalators should be aligned in the direction of the most travel and that should be switched at the appropriate time during the day by Station Managers. This will reduce crowding and be generally more convenient for riders.
Vendors: Even with declining ridership, thousands of people stream in and out of rail stations and major bus stations on a daily basis. WMATA needs to focus more on revenue capture from these opportunities, such as shoeshine stands, coffee shops for those exiting, or even small pharmacy stands. WMATA needs to get aggressive about alternative revenue options besides fares and jurisdiction subsidies.
Signage: Metro stations are hard to navigate, particularly for tourists. Those unfamiliar with where they are try to squint through grimy windows into dark stations with signs few and far between. Someday, when all the railcars are new, station announcements will be clear and in-car displays will explain what station the train is at. But there is no need to wait to add additional signage throughout Metro stations.
Metro Aesthetic: Metro stations were built as cathedrals with high ceilings, dim lighting, and an expansive feel. Unfortunately, the large stations are hard to heat and cool, the lighting fixtures and walls are difficult to clean, and the darkness raises safety issues and is inconvenient for passengers waiting for single tracking trains while trying to read. Yet many traditionalists want to maintain this “Metro aesthetic” as though the system were new. We cannot be bound to the design decisions of decades ago. Some stations can be preserved for historical reasons, but most should be updated and modernized when funding is available with better signage, lighting, and less “Metro brown.”
Easy Infrastructure: Within the past few years, an additional stairwell between the platform and Mezzanine was added at the Bethesda Metro station. This low cost and easy infrastructure improvement has eased escalator crowding and spread people out at the station. Additional easy infrastructure changes should be quickly evaluated and undertaken as they are low cost but high reward.
Repeat Work: There is a concerning pattern with WMATA needing to repeat maintenance work multiple times. A recent example of this was the inspection of the jumper cables on the day of the shutdown. These cables had supposedly been inspected after the L’Enfant Plaza incident, but somehow major problems were missed. We are also on the third attempt at sustainable escalator repairs: We began with spot fixes; WMATA then tried to take apart, clean, and rebuild the escalators; and now we are on full replacement. Recent discussion of the need to potentially close entire lines for more maintenance—after years of a capital program that has been extremely disruptive—may be the latest example of the necessity for repeat work. How much other work is being done multiple times? WMATA needs to quickly get to the bottom of this problem.
Single Tracking: One of the major frustrations with Metro’s rebuilding efforts is the single tracking and long delays. Indeed, the system is virtually un-rideable on the weekends. But many transit systems operate on only two tracks. New York is actually unique in the amount of track redundancy it has built in. WMATA should canvass other transit systems to make sure it is using modern best practices when it comes to serving its customers safely while doing necessary rebuilding.
Low Income Fares: The maximum WMATA rail fare is a whopping $5.90, compared to a flat cost of $2.75 in New York City or $2.50 in Atlanta. Because of that high cost, many low income riders cannot use the system. Some jurisdictions, such as Boston, are experimenting with lower fares for low income riders. WMATA should follow suit.
SmarTrip on MARC: Baltimore City and WMATA have an interoperable SmarTrip card. But the transit option that connects them—the MARC train—does not accept SmarTrip. WMATA should work with the Maryland Transit Administration to change this and truly connect these two urban centers. We are biased towards Maryland, but if Virginia wants to pursue something similar on the VRE, that should be supported as well.
Safety Culture: Safety culture is discussed a lot in reference to WMATA. Supposedly, a safety culture was established after the Fort Totten incident but ongoing events suggest otherwise. The new General Manager seems to have really changed the tone at WMATA. One of the issues we have observed is that the “safety culture” at WMATA often boils down to checking off NTSB or FTA safety recommendations and directives. But a safety culture is not just checking boxes to rectify previously identified problems. It requires all WMATA personnel to be looking over the horizon for other safety issues and concerns. That is the attitude WMATA management needs to demand and implement.
Rail Operations Control Center: Reports about the Rail Operations Control Center (“ROCC”) are incredibly concerning. WMATA claims it has new employees in training to re-staff the ROCC, which is currently understaffed. But there are reports that the current staff at the ROCC push new people out to protect their overtime. This obviously needs to be seriously addressed. One idea is to raise the base pay of those in the ROCC and bring on more, trained people quickly. Some may view such a move as rewarding bad behavior, but something has to be done quickly to improve the climate at the ROCC and its contribution to a safe system.
Bus Mirrors: Many of the safety issues currently discussed relate to rail, but there are bus issues as well. One issue raised by bus drivers is that the side rear view mirrors block sight lines and endanger pedestrians who drivers cannot see. This has been the subject of litigation in other jurisdictions and there are simple solutions to reduce the size of mirrors and improve safety.
Automatic train control (“ATC”)
Metrorail has operated largely without automatic train control since the 2009 Red Line collision. Last spring, ATC was restored for eight car Red Line trains, but six car trains and trains on the system’s other lines remain in manual control. Restoring ATC system-wide is crucial for both safety and reliability. Currently, it is not uncommon for train operators to have to move their train a few additional feet forward to meet the end of the platform after stopping at the station. This creates a jerky experience for riders as they prepare to exit the train, since most don’t expect the train to move again once it’s already stopped. Less frequent but far more inconvenient are instances where a train operator overshoots the platform and must skip the station altogether. Returning to ATC will eliminate these problems while increasing safety and reliability. While restoring ATC and ensuring that it functions safely is a large and complex task, it must remain a priority in order to make the system safe and convenient.
Riders Advisory Council (“RAC”)
RAC Selection: Metro’s RAC has six members each from Maryland, Virginia, and DC, two at-large members and the head of the Accessibility Advisory Committee. Members are appointed by the WMATA Board. An alternative approach that would improve RAC independence would be to have the RAC appointed by the heads of the state or local governments in the WMATA Compact. That would ensure that the RAC is truly independent of the Board and representing the riders.
RAC Jurisdictions: RAC’s members in Maryland and Virginia are all from the local jurisdictions that make up the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Zone (Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon, Alexandria, Falls Church, Montgomery, and Prince George’s). But there are many riders from other nearby counties such as Frederick or Prince Williams. The option should be available to have RAC members, perhaps the at-large members, from these other jurisdictions.
Benchmarking: One Montgomery County Councilmember has called for benchmarking WMATA to peer systems. This type of public benchmarking would be helpful and is already in use by some systems. Every system is different, but it would be useful to see how WMATA compares to peers on some key indicators such as on-time performance, car utilization, and so on. Community of Metros (“CoMET”) is already doing this type of work and WMATA should join the effort.
Ride Sharing: There has been concern expressed recently about ride sharing’s effect on transit and whether ride sharing can be adequately used for paratransit. WMATA should begin pilot programs to use ride sharing to connect some riders’ last mile connections to bus and rail transit. Usually, riders need to be less than a half mile from transit to regularly access it on foot. Ride sharing can expand that envelope.
Archives/Documents Office: WMATA no longer has an official in charge of preserving and making publicly available historic documents. This reduces public accountability for WMATA’s actions. If you have ever read Zachary Schrag’s The Great Society Subway, an incredible account of WMATA’s history, you know the insight that can be provided by making historical material available.
Ridership Reports: Last year, Maryland passed legislation requiring a Maryland-specific ridership report from WMATA. Most of the data is already collected by WMATA, but this required a jurisdiction-specific report to demonstrate how WMATA is used, especially by those outside of the Montgomery and Prince George’s County. Ridership from other counties outside the compact helps justify the substantial expense Maryland rightly pays for WMATA. Ridership reports that similarly track DC, Virginia, and even federal employee and contractor ridership would go a long way to demonstrating in detail the benefits of the system.
Jurisdiction Work Groups: WMATA oversight is complicated because of its multi-jurisdictional nature. When we were elected, we formed a work group in Annapolis to try and provide some oversight to the system. Indeed, almost every week during our legislative session we are joined by a WMATA staff member or other stakeholder to discuss in detail some of the issues, challenges, and opportunities before Metro. We believe this is a useful model that the other jurisdictions should follow. Oversight by the jurisdictions tends to come after emergencies, but real oversight is regularly occurring and not just reactive.
Reduce Turnover: WMATA has a surprisingly high turnover rate. Between 2009 and 2013, 417 of 535 train operators turned over. Considering that these are well compensated union jobs, that is a high turnover rate. Reducing that turnover rate for train operators and other positions will allowed better trained and experienced personnel to operate the system. That does not mean WMATA should retain personnel not acting appropriately, but turnover should not be systematically high.
Real Estate Coordination: WMATA has a robust real estate development operation as it tries to improve transit-oriented development on land it owns around stations. That office could improve in two ways. First, much more communication and coordination is needed with local elected officials who represent the areas around the stations and with the local business community and residents. These stakeholders have little insight from WMATA on their plans. Second, the real estate office is solely focused on WMATA’s holdings. But it has great expertise in transit-oriented development that it could offer to other landowners around stations to make sure that we are meeting our economic development goals around Metro. Another outside the box idea being floated is to spin-off this function from WMATA entirely, which is certainly an idea worth considering.
Parking: WMATA operates 44 parking facilities at Metrorail stations. This means that in addition to all of its other functions, WMATA is also managing a whole other line of business, parking. WMATA needs to consider whether the parking business should be subcontracted or even spun off into another public entity to better manage its operations.
Metro Innovation: Another unfortunate trend we have noticed during our Work Group meetings is a status quo culture: WMATA personnel’s insistence that everything is going according to plan. WMATA rarely admits errors or mistakes and often gives the impression that if they were just left alone by the public and the press, everything would be fine. This status quo attitude is obviously not shared by the new GM, but that is another cultural issue that needs to be addressed at the agency. To change this culture WMATA should encourage its leadership teams to select system challenges and, following the path of the tech industry, think of new approaches to bring value to WMATA and its customers. One area ripe for innovation is Metro Access, the paratransit service. This service is costly and causes frustration for many users. Innovation in Metro Access is absolutely necessary whether it is more pilot projects for certain populations as currently exists in Montgomery and Prince George’s County where regular, dedicated drivers are being used for certain groups; better GPS technology for routing; or even ride sharing with adequate protections where appropriate.
In the wake of yesterday’s blue skies Metro shutdown, the Maryland Public Policy Institute says it’s time to “end Metrorail”:
The closure will prompt yet another round of calls for increased government funding of the system. But instead of forcing federal, Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. taxpayers—most of whom scarcely use the rail system—to further subsidize Metro and its riders, public leaders should be discussing how to wind down and ultimately close the failed transit system. . . .
Dauntingly, Metrorail is about to face enormous new expenses. The core of the system is reaching the end of its 40-year functional life. WMATA officials can try to nurse it along, but that will be costly and riders will face many more disruptions like today; ultimately, costly and environmentally damaging reconstruction will be needed. And after all that expense, the system will still be a high-cost, low-capacity, inflexible failure.
The Maryland Public Policy Institute is the think tank arm of the Hogan administration with Hogan serving as an Emeritus Director of the group along with former Gov. Bob Ehrlich. Hogan’s brain trust proposes that we shut Metro even as Hogan moves forward to build the Purple Line to connect its defunct branches.
Beyond its modest proposal, the piece raises the issue of how Hogan plans to help fix Metro and to cover the State’s share of the ever increasing costs of fixing its aging and ailing infrastructure. So far, the Governor and the General Assembly, as well as Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, have been silent on this question.
This lack of direction continues even as riders long ago grew tired of the decline of the system with no sign of management or leadership able to address the serious problems. The Purple Line increases the pressure, as its commits the State to a large but ultimately unknowable sum of money (estimated at $5.6 billion). Conveniently, the bill comes due only after Hogan has long skedaddled out of the Governor’s chair.
Metro ridership is down 5% over last year. As Metro did not project this decline, this means that Metro faces a substantial budget shortfall of $15 million from the decline in rail revenue and $5 million in bus revenue. Yet, Metro plans to add another 59 employees to the system.
If it raises fares, ridership will decline even further. Metro also needs to spend money on the rail system, as its reliability still seemingly continues to decline on a near daily basis. People don’t want to ride a system that is undependable.
Bringing it home to Maryland, it would be interesting to know how many few people are boarding or alighting at Maryland Metro stops. Additionally, how does the steady decline in ridership affect the projections for Purple Line ridership, as many of its passengers are expected to change to the Red or Orange Lines?
Maxwell Roberts has developed circle-style maps for many of the world’s subway systems. They often don’t go terribly well with geography but are elegant and fun to see. Here is the one he designed for Washington:
A train has died at Farragut North and causing paralysis up and down the Red Line this afternoon.
After taking one-half hour to go from Gallery Place to Metro Center, Metro attempted to offload its passengers on to a very full platform. But they were so fed up that they mutinied and refused to get off. At last report, Metro is single tracking on the Red Line.
As one @HokiEsq put it: “DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES ATTEMPT TO RIDE THE RED LINE FOR THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE.”
Making This Work Should Be Our #1 Priority
In a series of posts, I’ve outlined how the major light-rail and streetcar projects are in deep trouble and why. Today’s final post completes the more recent portion of the series on what we should do to spend smart to produce workable, effective transit.
Members of the Maryland General Assembly have rightly come to the conclusion that they have had enough of the failing WMATA status quo and want to grapple in a serious way with the issue. Fixing the Metro system should be our #1 transit priority because it remains the lungs of the region’s public transit network. We need a serious assessment of how to turn the corner on this one because the problems have only been getting worse. MTA also has major problems that need attention and merits more oversight.
I love solutions that don’t cost any money. This isn’t a case of getting something for nothing (that just doesn’t happen) but getting a lot more out of our existing budget. Houston just showed the way by reorganizing its bus routes in a smart way:
The old system, like many bus routes in the United States, expended a lot of resources on very low-ridership routes for the sake of saying there’s “a bus that goes there.” The new plan says that the focus should be to provide reasonably frequent service on routes where reasonably frequent service will attract riders. That does mean that some people are further than ever from a transit stop. But it means that many more Houstonians will find themselves near a useful transit stop.
Just check out the before and after maps. I’ve often heard advocates of light-rail claim that we need it because there is no bus route that does not connect place A to place B. But this is, after all, an easily solvable problem without building light rail. In Houston, the difference is amazing and it didn’t cost the city any more money. Now that’s smart growth.
Bus-rapid transit (BRT) has real cost-benefit advantages over other more expensive modes. You can build an equivalent mode of transit at a far cheaper price. Montgomery County has already moved forward tentatively in this area. I hope they will continue.
The key lesson from Metro is that transit systems take a lot of money to operate and to maintain. Governing recently highlighted an even more disastrous example from the Boston area. Though Boston is a slow-growing area, it embarked on very fast paced transit growth that it could not afford either to build or to maintain. Beyond the system’s collapse this winter:
Today the MBTA owes nearly $9 billion in debt and interest, which translates into more than one-quarter of its operating revenue going to debt service. And since money that should have funded maintenance had to be diverted to the legally mandated expansions, the system faces an estimated $5 billion maintenance backlog.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t build anything. It means that we need to spend smart because money is always tight and we need to build future operation and maintenance costs into the plan before we begin construction.
The point of this series was not just to discuss how and why we arrived in our current cul-de-sac of overly expensive projects but how we can get out of it through transit that provide more in the way of transit and economic benefits at a much lower cost and will be more sustainable over the long term.
This was not a good weekend for public transit in Washington be it streetcar, light-rail, or Metro.
Here is a summary of this weekend’s record, though I’m not sure I caught all of the incidents:
Fortunately, no one was hurt in these incidents. As usual, @unsuckdcmetro has absolutely the last word with his tweet: “Metro should vape instead.”
On Saturday, the DC streetcar and a car parked a foot from the curb had a close encounter. Think car mirror meets streetcar exterior and neither is better for the experience. Apparently, this was not its only collision that day.
But that turned out to be small beans compared to the fire on the DC streetcar. Still in its prolonged working out the kinks phase, the streetcar experienced an “unexplained” flash fire on top of the car.
Again, no one was injured.
In a letter to the Gazette, the guy who named the Purple Line says the project is a mistake:
There are many problems with the Purple Line that give Mr. Hogan pause. It should have been part of Metro. A trip from one end to the other takes too long. It cost too much and its benefits are too small.
The most important cost, though, isn’t in dollars it would take from better transit projects, but the destruction of a priceless pedestrian/bicycle connection between Bethesda, Rock Creek Park and Silver Spring. Maryland and Montgomery transit officials have been obsessed with claiming the Georgetown Branch for their own, regardless of the lack of benefit and destruction it would cause.
They’re shutting down the Bethesda Metro Station on Saturday and Sunday as part of the escalator reconstruction. But you probably wouldn’t want to ride anyway because trains will leave Shady Grove only every 20 minutes due to another project downtown. This is now par for the course for Metro weekend “service.”
Dr. Gridlock also reports that the escalator work, which has been going on for some time, will continue for another two years. This seems incredibly slow:
Replacing the three escalators at the Bethesda entrance is a major undertaking for the transit authority. The Bethesda escalators are the second-longest in the Western Hemisphere, second only to those at the Wheaton station, on the other side of the Red Line.
They must be removed and replaced one by one. That’s part of the reason this job, which began in the fall, is more complicated than the original installation of the escalator bank more than three decades ago. . .
The project could take about two more years to finish.
Dr. Gridlock communicates the idea that this is all normal because it’s a tough project. Except that other transit systems–visit the London Underground sometime–seem to manage to keep their very long escalators in better service. Yes, they have problems too but not at our scale. Even when Metro escalators are supposedly fixed, they’re often not, as the experience of users of the reopened Dupont South entrance discovered.
Part of the problem here seems increasingly to be the normalization of a level of service quality that should be accepted and always blamed on lack of funds even as we’re wondering what they did with the money already allocated.
Riders are voting with their feet and abandoning the system despite significant population increases–a real indication that all is not well despite those who minimize its problems, which have not been ongoing for years. People don’t want to ride unreliable transit systems.
At this point Metro needs an intervention to get it back on track and start tackling real problems in a way that earns trust, increases reliability. But I increasingly have little confidence that additional money would help much unless the problems are more directly addressed. Meaningful reform needs to be in place in order to merit more money–and ought to be a top transit priority.