Fixing the Washington Metro

“Literally falling apart” is how then President-Elect Donald Trump’s transition website described the nation’s infrastructure.  Surprisingly, in the wake of the election, a time of hyper-partisanship, many Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, lined up to work with President Trump to hammer out an infrastructure plan .  While the transition website claimed the administration will seek $550 billion for roads, bridges, airports, transit systems and ports, it remains to be seen how much money Congress might actually grant and in what form the funding will take should Congress even fulfill the President’s infrastructure aspirations.

When putting this legislative package together, President Trump should consider lending a hand to the city that is his new home.  The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), commonly known as Metro, has been a national embarrassment for years now.  This past April, the Washington Post chronicled the system’s numerous difficulties, noting many issues including its lack of a dedicated source of financing and a negligent maintenance system that has led to numerous breakdowns and safety issues culminating in the tragic death of a woman last January.  Adding to the system’s woes, Metro currently has multiple long-term expansion projects in the works – such as expanding the Silver Line to the Dulles Airport that, according to Metro’s most recently proposed budget, is expected to cost $144,850,000 over the next five years.  This expansion and others outside of the District will either be delayed or detract from Metro’s commitment to maintaining its existing transportation network if additional funding cannot be secured.

Metro has commendably already put in significant work towards rebuilding its existing tracks.  Paul Wiedefeld, Metro’s newest General Manager, should be applauded for focusing on maintenance by implementing the Safetrack program which aims to complete three years of repairs in just one by reducing or shutting down service on specific portions of track for weeks at a time.  The program hasn’t gone off without a hitch – in July, a train derailed during a so-called “Safety Surge” that targeted the very portion of the track where this occurred – but the program is now over 50% complete and is scheduled to conclude in June of 2017.  Once this project is complete, WMATA plans to focus on train car safety by phasing out old cars and improving reliability in others, which they expect to cut delays on the system by 25%.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear this is enough to ensure safe and reliable operations.  As the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) recently observed, Metro is essentially playing a game of maintenance whack-a-mole due to insufficient funding. Additionally, none of Metro’s existing programs deal with the underlying structural issue of a lack of a dedicated funding source.  This shortcoming is only compounded when considering the several multimillion-dollar expansion projects Metro is keeping on its books.

Here’s where the Trump infrastructure plan comes into play.  While both President Trump’s campaign page and his transition website were scant on details regarding how exactly his administration intends to address the nation’s infrastructure, Secretary of Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross and Presidential Advisor Peter Navarro in October drafted what is now considered an acting blueprint.  Their depiction of the plan relies heavily on private investors.  Investors would receive an 82% tax credit for investing in projects that could then generate returns through tolls or other revenue generating means.  While such a plan would do little for the existing Metrorail system short of full or partial privatization due to the need for investor returns, Metro’s expansion projects offer an opportunity to involve the private sector and relieve WMATA from the additional budgetary burden.

If both the responsibility and some portion of fares resulting from these projects were turned over to private investors, many of Metro’s problems could be alleviated overnight.  First, Metro would no longer be on the hook for hundred million dollar projects and all the money needed to construct these projects could then be redirected towards the maintenance of existing track.  Second, private investors would assume the financial risk inherent in these expansions – if ridership on expansion projects fall below expectations, then investors, not Metro, would absorb the losses.  Finally, for the Silver Line especially, a successful private takeover would help ensure Virginia’s commitment to Metrorail given its fierce advocacy for the project.

It’s hard to imagine that turning these projects over to the private sector could make the existing system much worse.  Currently, even with knowledge of existing track problems, it’s not clear the current regime can ensure safety.  With regards to July’s derailment, a follow-up investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made clear Metro knew about the problems regarding this portion of the track at least one year before the incident.  For reasons not entirely clear, these problems were not remedied.  This lack of action occurs as Metro proposes significant increases in its budget and suffers a 13 percent decline in ridership since last year.

These continued difficulties have not escaped Congressional scrutiny.  Last month, the House Oversight and Government Committee held a joint subcommittee hearing on Metro’s reforms since implementing the Safetrack program.  During the hearing, committee members were understandably hesitant to offer additional federal funds to a transit system that pays some WMATA bus drivers over $100,000 annually and has 78% of its operating budget consumed by labor costs.  Addressing this criticism will be essential to securing federal and regional buy-in in the long-term.

For Congress, there are two clear steps that could be taken.  First, as advocated by many of the city’s local business leaders, the WMATA board should be restructured to ensure that it is staffed with competent transportation professionals and that the collective interests of the system are prioritized.  In the 115th Congress, two local Congressmen have already stepped up and offered legislation to this effect.  Second, as convincingly argued by the NTSB, Congress should change federal law to allow the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to assume oversight of WMATA, replacing the Federal Transit Administration.  NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart underscored the arguments for this at a House hearing, noting the FRA has far broader regulatory and enforcement powers and could force WMATA to implement a wider range of necessary reforms in relatively short order.

In the next administration, this advocacy will likely fall to Secretary of Transportation nominee Elaine Chao.   Ms. Chao will have the opportunity to become a fierce advocate for Metro if she chooses and she should forward the NTSB’s recommendation to Congress as soon as she is confirmed.  She should not be afraid of using her powers to threaten to withhold federal funds if WMATA fails to reform its State Safety Oversight Agency to ensure it conforms to mandatory federal standards.  The Department of Transportation should also target wasteful spending at all transit authorities that receive federal funds.  If applied to WMATA, this would force a reexamination of not only labor costs but also, as pointed out by former WMATA general manager Dan Tangherlini, incredibly inefficient procedures for purchasing and then maintaining Metrorail cars.  Ms. Chao should insist Metro deploy a more uniform fleet of cars with federal funding being used effectively as both a carrot and stick to reduce spending throughout the system.

All the right cards have to fall to pull these changes off.  No player acting alone will be sufficient. Unfortunately, the customary post-election moment of bipartisanship could already be fading.  The Center for American Progress, an influential progressive think tank, has already come out condemning Mr. Trump’s infrastructure plan.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (husband of Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine Chao), for his part, has stated he is opposed to a “trillion dollar” infrastructure program – a number nearly double what Mr. Trump has actually proposed.  Political moderates from both parties should insist to our more ideological purist friends to try and find ways to fix infrastructure issues around the country and our nation’s capital. The Trump plan could be an essential starting point for national rebuilding of infrastructure. The stakes are too high to let our railways, roads, and bridges continue to deteriorate.  Hopefully with some compromise here, a little more funding there, and with plenty of luck, we can find a way to make this very broken part of the Washington swamp something the whole nation can be proud of.

 

Eamon Bousa

Pushing Forward

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