Washington Metro, Meet the Titanic

Plagued by years of deferred maintenance, the Washington Metro system will have to undergo severe cuts in service if new funding isn’t found. General manager Paul Wiedefeld is asking Maryland, Virginia, and DC to increase their F.Y. 2019 contributions to Metro by $165 million, which is more than 10 percent of what they are giving in 2018. But Wiedefeld’s hopes for a “dedicated fund,” meaning a sales tax paid by all the regions’ residents, have been dashed by Maryland’s governor, who says there is no chance of that happening before 2019.

Ridership reports indicate that rush-hour ridership has recovered since Metro ended the “safe tracks” maintenance program that delayed many trains, but off-peak ridership has not. Moreover, the rush-hour recovery has been to 2015 levels, which themselves were 4 percent lower than the system’s peak in 2008. Weekday ridership in FY 2017 was 18 percent less than in 2008.

Since a large part of this decline is due to competition from Uber, Lyft, and similar services, some are beginning to doubt whether a full recovery will ever be possible. Metro board member David Horner notes that financial reports to the board repeatedly use the phrase “unsustainable operating model,” and he suggests that the rail system may be obsolete. Wiedefeld’s efforts remind Horner of “the expression about deck chairs on the Titanic.”

In addition to Uber/Lyft and the rail system’s unreliability, the Antiplanner has previously suggested that the opening of the Silver Line may have contributed to the system’s declining ridership. Silver Line trains use the same crossing of the Potomac River as Orange and Blue line trains, and those trains were using the full capacity of that crossing before the Silver Line was opened. To accommodate Silver Line trains, Metro had to reduce Blue and Orange line trains.

According to Metro ridership numbers, stations unique to the Silver Line–Wiehle-Reston, Spring Hill, Greensboro, Tysons Corner, and McLean–saw 15,874 boardings per weekday in 2015, the year it opened. This declined to 14,143 in 2017. Close to half of those boardings, however, were not new riders, as many people in the Silver Line corridor had previously driven or taken a bus to the Vienna station on the Orange Line. Boardings at that station declined by 7,546 the year the Silver Line opened. By 2017, boardings had fallen by 8,186 per weekday.

Immediate changes in boardings at other Blue and Orange line stations west of Roslyn were not so dramatic, but it is likely that people frustrated with overcrowded trains switched to other modes of travel. Between 2014, the year before the Silver Line opened, and 2017, boardings on the Blue Line stations west of Roslyn declined by 20 percent, while the other two Orange Line stations beyond the Silver Line declined by 31 percent. Since the rest of the system declined by just 15 percent in that period, a quarter of the Blue Line and half the Orange Line decline can be attributed to the opening of the Silver Line. That’s about 6,700 weekday riders, or 48 percent of the Silver Line’s 2017 boardings.

In short, losses on the Blue and Orange lines almost exactly offset the new riders from the opening of the Silver Line. However, the losses aren’t large enough to explain a significant amount of the system’s overall loss. The Silver Line’s multi-billion-dollar cost appears to have resulted in no net ridership increase, but it didn’t reduce riders much either.

The real problem with the Silver Line, then, is that it used resources that could have been used to rehabilitate the other lines. Similarly, Maryland has deemed it more important to build the Purple Line than to maintain the Metro rail system. With friends like Virginia and Maryland, Metro rail hardly needs any enemies.


3 thoughts on “Washington Metro, Meet the Titanic

  1. LazyReader

    That word megaproject, denotes an idea that it’s gargantuan in scale, but scale is a topic based on present technology at the time. The Hoover dam was a megaproject. It was finished ahead of schedule and on budget. Not only did they do it on budget but it’s also beautiful. Tey turned it into a masterpiece of Art Deco design. https://i.imgur.com/2s36pgS.jpg

    But this was an era when the government was………..I don’t know, competent…………more competent.
    While the Suez canal was 1,900% over budget by the time it was finished….The Panama canal was finished 6 months ahead of schedule. So megaprojects aren’t a matter of cost they’re a matter of usefulness. The best way to justify a megaproject is to ratio it’s cost to person service. A hydroelectric dam is more useful to millions than a train to a few thousand. California’s high speed rail budget is greater than the GDP of Guatemala. The UK’s 2nd gen HSR project is equivalent to the entire GDP of Kenya. From 2004-2008 China spent more on infrastructure in real terms than the whole of the 20th century. And that’s gonna come back to bite them in the future. Buildings are being constructed in China basically to fall down and be built again. Most of the buildings going up now in China have lifetimes of just 20 to 30 years, essentially rendering cities virtually disposable. The Three Gorges Dam has plenty of issues, though it generates enough electricity to power Switzerland. It has necessitated the relocation of over a million people, and its construction has come at a huge environmental cost. Lately, a change in the reservoir’s water level has resulted in dangerous landslides and the lack of sediment deposits down river will likely cause Shanghai (a city built on this muck) to sink. China has made colossal infrastructure investments over the past decade, but it’s becoming clear that their intentions may have been misplaced. A 2008 stimulus plan allotting $600 billion to infrastructure projects helped China maintain economic growth throughout the recession. But now it seems that not only might the construction have been a bit too shoddy, but national debt incurred by the projects has begun to weigh heavily on China’s shoulders. Like Japan who in the 80’s sank billions into large infrastructure projects with little net return, both nations serve as a reminder that a blank check for engineering firms is no solution to the nations infrastructure problem. Infrastructure is only useful when it doesn’t burden a society.

    Infrastructure plans should have a golden rule. NO spending on any new infrastructure until whatever current systems they have are repaired. Since DC’s Redline will never be repaired, we’ll never have to worry about DC ever spending money on rail ever again. Since New York’s IRT never will either.
    The Metrorail was built for two reasons, shuttling federal bureaucrats unimportant enough to warrant a limousine. And bicentennial pride. Some pride, 40 years later Metrorail is the ugliest fucking installation ever made.
    Meanwhile the communists made the most beautiful subway ever made.
    I guess when you threaten artists with gulags they’ll do anything on budget. Gotta hand it to the Russians they really knew how to patron the arts, the US not so much, we got crucifixes submerged in urine. They built subway stations that look like the palaces.
    I wish our Automotive infrastructure was as aesthetically pleasing.

  2. prk166

    Claims of the Panama Canal finishing ahead of schedule are common. Nevertheless they are not consonant with the historical record.

    The US inherited the repeated failed attempts by the French to construct a canal there. The French attemp___S___ were a disaster. Not only did they fail to make much progress but over 20,000 workers died. The original canal project did not finish on schedule.

    So at least one project there wasn’t just behind it failed. The US had the benefit of the French work and learning from their mistakes. Yet even then the original project schedule was that the Panama Canal was to open early in 1912. It did’t open until April 1914. And at that, there were some problems with the Gaillard Cut and landslides that have some arguing it wasn’t truly finished.


    French attempts to build a canal through Panama (province of Colombia) advanced further. Led by Ferdinand de Lesseps—the builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt—the French began excavating in 1880

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