As if it were jealous of all of the attention that has been focused on the DC Metrorail system, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is having its own maintenance problems. Its railcars are old and need to be replaced; last week a series of mysterious power surges disrupted trains; and the agency recently admitted that many of the security cameras on its trains are either fake or broken.
In response to these problems, BART sent out a series of less-than-apologetic tweets to its customers listing a variety of excuses for its failings. “Planners in 1996 had no way of predicting the tech boom – track redundancy, new tunnels & transbay tubes are decades-long projects,” says one. “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality,” adds another.
The agency is apparently arguing that it needs more money, but it’s really making the case against a rail transit technology that can’t quickly respond to changes in demand because it is too expensive and time-consuming to expand. For example, instead of doing basic maintenance or expanding capacity where it was needed, BART–like the Washington Metro–decided to build new lines that aren’t needed and that will only add to its long-term maintenance woes.
One such unnecessary line is the $6.5-billion route to San Jose, which won’t be completed before 2025 and is redundant anyway as San Jose already has commuter trains to San Francisco. Another is the Oakland Airport Connector, a 3.2-mile rail line that cost half a billion dollars and charges $6 fares while buses on the same route cost only $2.10.
Meanwhile, back in DC, the board chair of Metro, Jack Evans, has effectively admitted that last Wednesday’s shutdown was a Washington Monument tactic. “I hope this is a wake-up call for the entire region–for the District, for Virginia, for Maryland and the federal government–that we need to invest in our system once and for all,” said Evans, who called for a “regional funding source,” that is, a dedicated tax to pay for Metro.
The Washington Post‘s “Dr. Gridlock” asks why last week’s Metro shutdown didn’t lead to worse congestion. “Metrorail carries people on more than 700,000 trips” per weekday, he said. “Its role can’t be overstated,” he added, overstating its role.
According to 2014 data from the American Community Survey, only 248,000 people out of 2.6 million employed workers in the DC urban area commute by Metrorail, and that number has probably declined since then. At least, Metrorail ridership has declined, as the system carried more than 900,000 trips per weekday in 2014, which itself is down from nearly a million weekday trips in 2009.
In any case, at least 200,000 of Metrorail’s daily riders aren’t commuters, so they probably travel during less-busy times of the day. While even 248,000 commuters sounds like a big number, it’s not. With 2.6 million employed workers in the DC urban area, Metro rail carries less than 10 percent of DC-area workers, and (since some people work at home) slightly more than 10 percent of DC-area commuters.
Dr. Gridlock is correct that the effects of the shutdown weren’t as bad as some expected because people adjusted: they worked at home or found alternate means of getting to work. But a planner he quotes is probably wrong in saying, “We can’t live with this sort of experience on a regular basis.” In fact, DC can probably live without Metrorail easier than it could live with the higher taxes that would be needed to keep the system fully functional.