Remember how the Washington Metro Rail system shut down for an entire weekday on March 16 so the agency could inspect all of the rail insulators, and replace any that were worn out? This was supposed to be needed to prevent fires such as the one whose smoke killed a passenger in 2015.
It didn’t work. On May 5, passengers at the Federal Center Southwest station were treated to a huge fireball of sparks when another insulator caught fire. Moreover, says the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Metro officials responded poorly to the fire, continuing to run trains on that track until a second fire started several hours later.
On May 6–coincidentally, the day after the latest fire–Metro announced its maintenance plan that calls for shutting down some segments for as long as seven days and single-tracking many more lines for weeks at a time, which will slow service on those routes. That’s not good enough for the FTA, which ordered the agency to rearrange the schedule to work on lines that the feds think are at the highest risk sooner than Metro planned.
On the heels of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that found that Washington Metro “has failed to learn safety lessons” from previous accidents, Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld will announce a plan today that promises to disrupt service for months in an effort to get the lines safely running again. While ordinary maintenance can take place during the few hours the system isn’t running every night, Wiedefeld says that past officials have let the system decline so much that individual rail lines will have to be taken off line for days or weeks at a time to get them back into shape.
The Washington Postblames the problems on “generations of executives and government-appointed Metro board members, along with Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending.” That’s partially true, but there are really two problems with Metro, and different parties are to blame for each.
First is the problem with deferred maintenance. The Metro board recognized that maintenance costs would have to increase as long ago as 2002, when they developed a plan to spend $10 billion to $12 billion rehabilitating the system. This plan was ignored by the “Washington-area politicians who ultimately dictated Metro’s spending” and who decided to fund the Silver and Purple lines instead of repairing what they already had.
Last week, the Washington State Senate refused to confirm Lynn Peterson as state Secretary of Transportation, effectively firing her three years after she was nominated to the job by Governor Jay Inslee (and during which she served in the job). In effect, the Senate turned her down after a three-year interview period.
Peterson was a curious choice for the job as she was an Oregonian who had been a Clackamas County Commissioner. Her background also included working as a transportation planner for Portland’s Metro, transit planner for TriMet, and an advocate for 1000 Friends of Oregon. Given that resume, she clearly supports the “build-it-and-they-will-come” ideals of light rail and conversely, don’t-build-it-and-they-won’t-come opposition to highways. Just as Washington imported its 1990 land-use law from Oregon’s 1973 law, it made sense to import an anti-highway, pro-high-cost transit planner from Oregon to run Washington’s transportation department.
Of course, it only made sense if you believe those ideas, but from any realistic view they are nonsense. Portland and Seattle both suffer from housing affordability crises born out of the inane “density-reduces-driving” myth. Their ever-more-expensive light-rail and streetcar lines combined with subsidies to transit-oriented developments are bankrupting the cities. Failing to build new roads hasn’t led people to drive less; instead, traffic congestion (measured by hours of delay per commuter) has more than tripled in Portland and more than doubled in Seattle since 1982.
New York City was harder hit by snowstorm Jonas than Washington, getting 27 inches of snow compared with 18 or 19 inches in Washington. Yet New York’s subways kept running and commuter trains and buses operated for as long as they could, while Washington Metro shut down its system before the storm got serious.
This is what it takes to shut down Metro subways. Flickr photo taken Sunday morning after the storm by Ted Eyten.
Sunday morning, New York sprang back to life while Washington remained shut down. By this morning, the vast majority of the New York system, including most commuter-rail lines, almost the entire subway system, and some buses will be operating. Washington, meanwhile, will operate the subway portions of its rail lines and just 22 out of 325 bus lines.
Despite all those years of planning, the streetcar continues to be accident-prone, partly because the streetcar route is too close to a parking strip and partly because streetcars, unlike buses, can’t swerve around poorly parked cars. When the streetcar hit a city police car that was parked over the white line, the city suspended the streetcar driver for five days without pay, but otherwise DDOT blames the motorists for improper parking. Of course, it wasn’t the motorists who decided to run inflexible, 30-ton vehicles down a busy street just inches from a parking strip.
Over at Market Urbanism, economist Emily Washington argues that Washington, DC’s Silver Line was the result of a deal between property owners, urban planners, and Washington Metro (WMATA). The result was a new rail transit line that harmed just about everyone except those who were party to the deal.
Washington’s tale is correct in general, but my memory of it differs in the particulars. She is right that the main pressure for the Silver Line came from the owners and developers of Tysons Corner, who wanted to build more high-rise housing, hotels, retail, and office space. Fairfax County wouldn’t approve these plans because the area wasn’t served by adequate transportation.
Far from favoring the rail project, however, Fairfax County planners recognized that too few people would ride the rail line to support the proposed new developments. Though the planners questioned the new plans, they were overruled by the county supervisors.
The Washington City Paper asked “thirteen riders, advocates, and experts” how to fix the Washington Metro Rail system. Former Metro general manager Dan Tangherlini and former DC DOT director Gabe Klein offered banalities about “putting the customer first.”
Smart-growth advocate Harriet Trepaning thinks Metro “needs a different kind of leader,” as if changing the person at the top is going to keep smoke out of the tunnels and rails from cracking. She admits that “I don’t think we’ve been straight with anybody, including ourselves or our riders, about what it really takes to [keep the rails in a] state of good repair.” But her only solution is to have “a dedicated source of revenue,” i.e., increase local taxes for a system that already costs state and local taxpayers close to a billion dollars per year.
Coalition for Smarter Growth director Stewart Schwartz and former APTA chair Rod Diridon also want to throw money at it. Others dodge the money question and suggest that Metro do all sorts of things that it can’t afford and doesn’t have any incentive to do anyway.
Washington DC’s H Street streetcar ran down a police car last week. But, as the Washington Post headline notes, it’s “still not carrying passengers.”
Still in the testing stage a year after construction was supposedly complete. Wikimedia photo by Michael J.
The District Department of Transportation began testing the streetcar about a year ago, and the result was so many accidents that the DC council seriously considered scrapping the whole thing. Instead, it asked for an expert peer review by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Since APTA has never met a rail transit project it didn’t like, the review’s conclusion was pretty much predetermined.
Eight years ago, the Antiplanner argued that San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority was the nation’s worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.
Metro’s numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system but now expects to scrap it for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
One of Metro’s power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
Metro’s fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
WMATA’s most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn’t found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership report;
Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
That hasn’t fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.
These are only the biggest ones the Post happens to remember. According to table 16 of the data tables in the National Transit Database, Metro suffered more than 1,200 “major mechanical failures” in 2013, which is 16 failures per million passenger-car miles. That’s nearly twice the rate of other heavy-rail lines in the country; Atlanta and Baltimore are worse, while New York City lines are much better (yet still have many problems and San Francisco’s BART is much better.
According to one insider, most of the failures are train breakdowns, power supply problems, and cracked rails. The breakdowns are mainly in the 1000 series cars that date back to the 1970s, the 4000 series cars from the 1990s, and the 5000 series cars from the early 2000s. The 5000 series is so bad that the agency would like to get an exemption from the Federal Transit Administration to scrap them before they reach their full, 25-year lifespans, but it has no cars to replace them with. Washington Metro has purchased 7000-series cars, but doesn’t expect to have them all in service before 2020. The power-supply problems include smoke from burning insulators and power failures such as the one in Fairfax County. Metro is spending less than a billion dollars a year on capital replacement, which is probably less than half as much as it needs to spend to put its system in a state of good repair.