Operation Flower Destruction

Washington Metro trains catch fire. The trains are supposed to be run by computers, but since a June, 2009 crash the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) hasn’t trusted the computers, so it has human drivers who aren’t any more trustworthy.

With numerous elevators and escalators out of service and frequent train breakdowns, WMATA is subject to increasingly harsh criticism from even its usual friends at the Washington Post. Even WMATA’s high-paid general manager admits the agency is only half done with the repairs it has scheduled (which are probably less than it needs).

So what does the agency have its employees do? How about spend a day ripping out all of the flowers that a self-styled Phantom Planter put in at the Dupont Circle subway station? Because it would be horrible if non-agency approved flowers bloomed in red, white, and blue, as the planter expected would happen next month.

None of this should be a surprise. A Washington Times story from more than a year ago argues that WMATA suffers from a “culture of favoritism” in which “the inept get promoted, and the capable get buried” and people who note safety violations risk an end to their careers. Given this, many within the agency were unsurprised by the 2009 crash that killed nine people; “Is this the one we all dreaded?” asked one disgruntled employee. The Times seems especially annoyed that 97 percent of Metro bus and train drivers are black, but take out the racial element and the report provides a disturbing inside look at the agency.

The resulting reliability problems have contributed to a 4.9 percent drop in Metro rail ridership. Despite this sorry record, seven out of ten DC-area residents still give Metro positive ratings. This suggests they are victims of the boiled-frog syndrome, in which the system is crumbling so slowly that no one really notices, or perhaps the 70 percent who approve of Metro are among the 81.6 percent of the region’s residents who don’t rely on it to get to work.

Either way, this shows that a government agency can completely screw the pooch and still bamboozle taxpayers into supporting it. So why should it bother to do a good job? As one free-market group puts it, “One of the key reasons for WMATA’s failures is that it has no incentives to actually respond to customers . . . as long as they have free money from local and state governments (and not to mention roughly $300 million from the federal government for their capital budget).”

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7 thoughts on “Operation Flower Destruction

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    So what does the agency have its employees do? How about spend a day ripping out all of the flowers that a self-styled Phantom Planter put in at the Dupont Circle subway station? Because it would be horrible if non-agency approved flowers bloomed in red, white, and blue, as the planter expected would happen next month.

    Talk about screwed-up priorities!

    Of course, WMATA GM Mr. Sarles just assured us that Everything Will be O.K. at WMATA. Soon. No mention of any flowers.

    Please read the reader comments in the hyperlinked article. Very interesting.

  2. OFP2003

    You left off the part about the prostitution ring being run in one of the stations.

    I haven’t seen my pet mice in L Enfante station for several days, maybe they’re tending to a new litter of WMATA riders?

  3. Frank

    Interesting timing. Was at a BBQ in West Seattle yesterday where one attendee extolled the many virtues of the DC metro. Mostly kept quiet, although I did mention the flower incident. No point exposing facts to someone who opines, “I just want a train to take me to work; is that asking too much?” I wanted to reply, “At $150 million per mile, yes. Yes, it is asking too much.”

  4. JOHN1000

    Tearing up the flowers (when so many other projects are needed). Unbelievable.

    And no one will be fired or even docked a day’s pay (all too Believable)

  5. C. P. Zilliacus

    Frank wrote:

    No point exposing facts to someone who opines, “I just want a train to take me to work; is that asking too much?” I wanted to reply, “At $150 million per mile, yes. Yes, it is asking too much.”

    The Washington Metrorail Silver Line (a/k/a Dulles Rail) cost is currently estimated at $6.8 billion for 23 miles (including stations). That works out to about $296 million per mile.

    Your $150 million per mile would be a bargain by comparison.

  6. kens

    C.P. Zilliacus wrote: “The Washington Metrorail Silver Line (a/k/a Dulles Rail) cost is currently estimated at $6.8 billion for 23 miles (including stations). That works out to about $296 million per mile.”

    Wow, our late Columbia River Crossing project was projected to cost about the same, $293m/mile ($850m for 2.9 mi.), and that’s for light rail, not heavy rail like Metro. It’s also just the initial cost estimate so doesn’t include any of the inevitable overruns. And the $850m would have been even more if they hadn’t rigged the cost allocation for the main bridge to undercharge the light rail component and overcharge the highway component (by assigning light rail only the increase over what a highway-only bridge would have cost).

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    kens wrote:

    Wow, our late Columbia River Crossing project was projected to cost about the same, $293m/mile ($850m for 2.9 mi.), and that’s for light rail, not heavy rail like Metro. It’s also just the initial cost estimate so doesn’t include any of the inevitable overruns. And the $850m would have been even more if they hadn’t rigged the cost allocation for the main bridge to undercharge the light rail component and overcharge the highway component (by assigning light rail only the increase over what a highway-only bridge would have cost).

    Compare and contrast with the new Md. 200 toll road (same labor market as the Dulles Rail project).

    Full access control, freeway-standard road, mostly six lanes (there’s a short four lane section at one end) and very expensive and extensive environmental mitigation and stewardship package included. $2.6 billion for about 17.5 miles of road ($2.6 billion may actually be a little on the high side). Works to about $149 million per mile.

    Local and national-level environmental and anti-highway groups screamed that this was “far too expensive” (along with a long list of other objections) yet not one peep from them about the enormous expense of the train line to Dulles.

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