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).”