Metrorail Continues to Fall Apart

An Orange line train derailed on Monday as it headed out of Washington DC to the Court House station in Virginia. The cause of the accident is not yet known, but a previous derailment in January 2007 was blamed on “shoddy maintenance.”

“Metro’s failure to keep up with basic maintenance and refusal to take safety steps recommended for years by internal and external reviews were the likely causes” of that previous derailment, says the Washington Post‘s summary of the federal investigation into that derailment. Considering that Metro is still well behind in its maintenance program, it will not be surprising if this week’s derailment is also due to maintenance shortfalls.

The basic problem, as the Antiplanner keeps saying, is that rail transit is really, really expensive — and those who want to build it rarely take the true cost into account. Not only does it cost a lot to construct, but it costs a lot to maintain because it must be almost completely rebuilt every 30 years or so.

When the escalators break down, Metro can contribute to public health by letting everyone walk up the stairs at Dupont Circle.
Flickr photo by cameraobscura.

According to the National Transit Database, as of 2006 the average age of railcars in Metro’s fleet was more than 20 years, and Metro still has more than 200 cars that are more than 30 years old. The agency does not have the funds to keep its elevators, escalators, or other essential facilities running.

Washington’s Metrorail system was built with federal funds, but local governments were supposed to fund its operations. No one, however, provided for the 30-year rehabilitation that is now coming due. As noted here previously, Metro says it needs $12 billion to keep the trains running, and — except for hoping for a federal bailout — it hasn’t the foggiest idea of where it is going to get it.

As of 2006, Metrorail operations cost more than $640 million and collected less than $400 million in fares, leaving a $240 million deficit. Metro also spent just over $150 million on “capital improvements,” which is a misnomer because almost all of it was spent buying replacement railcars.

If we take the $12 billion in deferred maintenance and spread it over 12 years, then Metro’s real deficit is close to $1.4 billion per year. One way to cover that deficit would be to raise fares by 350 percent — from the current average of $1.45 to $6.50 per trip.

Deferred maintenance could be one reason why Metrorail’s ridership growth is so anemic. In 2005, Metrorail carried 5.1% more passengers than in 2004. In 2006, growth slipped to 3.7%, while in 2007 ridership actually declined by 1.0%. So far in 2008, ridership is 2.3% above this same point in 2007, which isn’t saying much considering the high fuel prices.

A purple line?

Despite not having enough money to maintain the existing rail system, rail backers want Metro to build an extension to Dulles Airport, not to mention a new purple line, which is supposed to be a light-rail line encircling the district. The first, 16-mile segment between Bethesda and New Carrollton, would cost $1.75 billion, or well over $100 million per mile (twice the cost of the average light-rail line elsewhere and easily enough to build an eight-lane freeway of the same length). Transit officials estimate this line would carry 68,000 people per day — but admit that 80 percent of them are already riding transit, so it won’t do much to relieve congestion.

How often in the course of debates over whether to build new rail transit lines have proponents said, “Once a rail line is built, it is there forever.” What a pack of liars.

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15 thoughts on “Metrorail Continues to Fall Apart

  1. rationalitate

    The basic problem, as the Antiplanner keeps saying, is that rail transit is really, really expensive — and those who want to build it rarely take the true cost into account.

    The Antiplanner sounds a bit hypocritical talking about proponents not wanting to include all costs in light of his tacit refusal to address the issue of the opportunity cost of the roads. In his calculations of the cost-covering ability of user fees, he neglects the opportunity cost of the roads, defined as the profit that is foregone by building a road compared to building whatever would earn the most money. For example, if the capital and operating costs of a road are 90% covered by user fees, and the potential profit from a true profit-seeking individual is 130% of the accounting costs of the road, then rather than the 11% subsidy like the Antiplaner suggests (100/90), the project is actually receiving a 44% subsidy (130/90). So, even if the project were breaking even, so long as the county isn’t experiencing Japan-esque negative interest rates, breaking even isn’t good enough to argue that the project would be financed on the free market.

  2. JimKarlock

    refusal to address the issue of the opportunity cost of the roads.
    JK: Please compare this to the 80% subsidy to the operating cost of rail and the near 100% subsidy (much of it from road user fees) to building the rails & rolling stock. Also toss in the CO2, mercury, uranium and thorium emissions from rail’s coal fired power plants.

    Thanks
    JK

  3. mattb02

    In his calculations of the cost-covering ability of user fees, he neglects the opportunity cost of the roads, defined as the profit that is foregone by building a road compared to building whatever would earn the most money.

    It doesn’t matter, rationalitate. The risk-adjusted opportunity cost of a dollar spent on roads is the same as the opportunity cost of a dollar spent on rail. It is what is foregone by not investing in the best alternative. If you want to account for opp cost then add 8 to 12% to the projected accounting costs of both projects. It just makes rail look more horrible.

    Cost is cost. How a project is financed is not relevant to its opportunity cost.

  4. craig

    Maybe if rail and transit capital construction costs were not taken from transportaton funds that were collected from user fees paid by truck and auto users for roads.

    The roads woulds not need other funds to back fill the very small part of building roads.

  5. rationalitate

    Please compare this to the 80% subsidy to the operating cost of rail and the near 100% subsidy (much of it from road user fees) to building the rails & rolling stock. Also toss in the CO2, mercury, uranium and thorium emissions from rail’s coal fired power plants.

    First of all, in order to see which would win out in the market place, carbon emissions and pollution in general are irrelevant. Second of all, you can’t simply add up the subsidies and say the one with the least wins, because regulations also force certain outcomes, and they aren’t so easily quantifiable. Rather than add up all the subsidies and say the one with the least will come out on top, why not oppose vigorously all intervention? Given that the system of incentives and distortions is so mind-bogglingly complex and entirely unquantifiable, why the hell are you trying? And yet, the Antiplanner adds up the subsidies and then opposes the project that gets the most, while adamantly believing that these are all that matter. Thirdly, I said nothing about rail (by which I presume you mean passenger rail and mass transit? Because as far as I know, freight rail isn’t really subsidized much at all…) – my comment focused solely on the Antiplanner’s flawed methods for calculating subsidies, but I never conceded that this was a good way to compare the market-worthiness of plans in the first place. For the reasons I just stated, it’s ridiculous to say that the project with the least subsidies would win out in the marketplace, without taking into consideration the non-subsidy regulations that skew people’s choices towards that project.

    Maybe if rail and transit capital construction costs were not taken from transportaton funds that were collected from user fees paid by truck and auto users for roads.

    Wrong – the 80% figure that the Antiplanner likes to throw around (or is it 88%?) already accounts for money taken away for mass transit.

  6. Dan

    in order to see which would win out in the market place, carbon emissions and pollution in general are irrelevant.

    No, because if externalities were internalized, there’d be a demand to lessen the health care costs associated with mobile source emissions, reduce the costs to the industries affected by the acid rain from point source emissions, lower costs of eutrophication of receiving waters (to lessen treatment costs), etc.

    DS

  7. Pingback: Metrorail is great! It only loses $240 million a year on operating costs alone. | Life, Liberty, and Property

  8. Ettinger

    “If you’re going to try to internalize every externality, you’ve got bigger problems.”

    We’ll just hire more planners to solve them! 🙂

  9. Dan

    Have a freer market, and these things come out because of better calculations of Pareto optima (we wouldn’t want a freer market without better information, right? right?).

    Such harmful externalities benefit in an information-restricted (or manipulated) market, not an information-rich market. Agents will be freer to not absorb costs on them imposed by others.

    DS

  10. prk166

    “How often in the course of debates over whether to build new rail transit lines have proponents said, “Once a rail line is built, it is there forever.” What a pack of liars.”

    It’s frustrating to see people make those sort of claims. Here in Colorado there is actually a group that is claiming that a rail line using a “new” light rail technology (FLIRT) can be built from Denver to Vail on an elevated rigth-of-way (ie bridge) for less per mile than plain-vanilla LRT built on the flat lands costs. They’re also claiming that it won’t disrupt freeway traffic despite some construction that would literally occur over the freeway.

  11. MJ

    ..in order to see which would win out in the market place, carbon emissions and pollution and irrelevant

    I agree with Dan that pollution externalities are not irrelevant. Just because these costs are not internalized by either producers or consumers, this does not mean they don’t exist. Arguing about which alternative is superior in their absence is irrelevant, because it says nothing about economic efficiency.

    If you’re going to try to internalize every externality, you’ve got bigger problems.

    Certainly not every externality can (or should) be internalized, but in the case of pollution, a great deal of research has been able to put ballpark estimates on the costs of relevant externalities, and also to suggest which abatement methods might be most cost-effective. This would go a long way toward promoting social effiency, not to mention directly addressing the arguments of some of the shrillest environmental critics.

  12. Kevyn Miller

    “If you’re going to try to internalize every externality, you’ve got bigger problems.”

    Yep, that’s one reason why property taxes have been retained as a source of funds for local roads. To the extent that the external benefits of good road access to properties are reflected in property values then a tax on land and/or improved value makes a lot of sense.

    Much of the payback from better roads has come through reduced costs in services dependent on roads, such as emergency services or through increased ability to centralise services at hospitals, high schools, etc.

    Those are the sort of externalities that really create problems if you try to rebate them to the road users or property owners that payed for the better roads in the first place.

    Imagine trying to charge businesses for the improved profits made possible by good roads. That woulf really set the cat among the pigeons!

    If you want to internalise external costs you not only have to decide what are the relevant negative externalities but you also have to decide what are the relevant positive externalities and cost those as well. Then you will arrive at the nett external cost that has to be internalised.

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