DC Metro’s Downward Spiral Continues

Third-quarter 2016 ridership on the DC Metro rail system was 13.5 percent less than in 2015, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s recently released ridership report. Of course, the Metro had frequent delays due to the “surge” maintenance work, but many of the riders lost may never come back.

More immediately, lower ridership means lower revenues, and that means Metro is forced to consider cuts to both rail and bus service. To fill in the gaps, Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has proposed to apply some of the federal dollars that are supposed to be dedicated to capital improvements to operating costs instead.

Worse, the agency’s inability to fix its poor safety record has led the Federal Transit Administration to punish it by reducing federal support by 5 percent. Five percent doesn’t sound like much, but when you are in a deep financial hole with a $6.7 billion maintenance backlog, every dollar counts.

Transit supporters cry that Metro’s problem is the lack of a specific regional tax dedicated to the agency. But plenty of other transit agencies supported by regional taxes are suffering from their own deferred maintenance problems. Boston’s MBTA is funded out of a dedicated sales tax but has a $7.3 billion backlog. San Francisco’s BART is also funded out of sales taxes but has a $5.6 billion backlog. New York subways are losing reliability despite all of the taxes and highway tolls diverted to their operation.

Currently, instead of collecting a tax dedicated to its use, Metro relies on annual appropriations from the states and local governments that it serves. These governments all agreed to provide these funds in a compact set up when the rail system was first planned.

Yet the real problem, as the Antiplanner has noted before, is that rail transit costs far more than anyone who agreed to the compact expected. They were told that the feds would pay most of the construction cost if the locals promised to pay most of the operating costs. But none of the advocates ever mentioned maintenance or capital replacement costs. A dedicated tax would just lead local governments to withdraw the support they now give to Metro, which could leave it no better off overall.

A few months ago, representatives of a non-profit group called the Federal City Council proposed that Congress unilaterally void the compact between state and local governments that fund the Metro, effectively forcing them to approve a new compact that–the council hopes–would improve safety and “provide dedicated funding.”

In 2015, fares accounted for $783 million in operating funds, while state and local governments provided $785 million for operations and $430 million for capital improvements (meaning capital replacement; the Silver line was funded out of another budget). In addition, Metro needs to spend about $700 million more a year than it is spending today on maintenance and capital replacement. With 1.8 million households in the region, if all of these state and local funds were instead funded by a dedicated tax, the annual tax would have to average well over $1,000 per household–even more if a Heritage Foundation proposal that the Trump administration zero out federal support to Metro is taken seriously (see p. 130). Will local taxpayers accept that cost when only about 10 percent of commuters take the Metro to work?

Instead of throwing good money after bad, it’s time to bring the transportation system in the nation’s capital into the twenty-first century. Stop building obsolete rail lines. As existing rail lines wear out, replace them with bus-rapid transit. Provide HOV or HOT lanes parallel to every major highway in the region so buses (and other vehicles) can get to where they are going in uncongested traffic. Any proposal short of these measures is simply not recognizing the facts about the truly high costs of rail transit.

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2 thoughts on “DC Metro’s Downward Spiral Continues

  1. OFP2003

    Close all stations in neighborhoods of insufficient density to justify rail transit. (Well inside the beltway) Drastically contract the system and bring the commuter garages closer to the city. Invest in hot lanes etc as recommended. I already pay well over $1000 year in user fees and that’s not enough?

  2. prk166

    At what point do things really start to fall apart? Surely the board realizes that spending capital money for things like not laying off employees and other operating expenses means they’ll be facing another set of failed insulators, more water in tunnels, more failing air conditioners, et al. in the future. Surely they know they’re just gambling that it won’t be under their watch.

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