The one-day shutdown of the Washington DC Metro is a useful call to arms about the dreadful state of maintenance in some of the US’s major rapid transit systems — a subset of a larger issue about deferred maintenance in all kinds of infrastructure. If it seems like this makes the US like the developing world, NPR reminds us that most developing world metro systems are in much better shape. (My Moscow correspondent Ilya Petoushkoff was also quick with an email reminding me that when even one Moscow subway lines go down, emergency bus lanes are created with Jersey barriers.)
The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott is also fine on how the subway’s failure ties to great themes of US urban decay.
I have no opinion about the wisdom of DC Metro CEO Paul Wiedefeld’s decision to shut down the subway for a day to inspect faulty wires, except that it seemed sudden and left little time for preparation. Its attention-grabbing effect was unmistakable, and perhaps that was necessary to shock everyone into understanding the urgency of the problems. But it doesn’t appear to have been a PR stunt: the system’s faulty wiring had already caused a fatality, and sure enough, the one-day shutdown to inspect these wires turned up even more dangerous ones.
But do read this Vox piece by Libby Nelson on how transit agencies can be more honest with their customers, including on Twitter. Bravo to the Bay Area Rapid Transit for telling customers the truth about the problems facing the agency — which is to say, facing the region.
The problem with the Washington Metro (and BART, which had to shut down a station “indefinitely” due to power problems) is that when they were first built, and for the first 20 or 30 years, they were the shiny new systems that were meant to be the antithesis of the dingy and decaying “legacy” systems like the NYC Subway or Chicago L. But they never made the effort to seriously invest in heavy maintenance, which they could get away with while everything was still shiny and new. But as bits of the system started reaching the end of their useful lives, it seems like many weren’t really replaced or repaired at the rate necessary. Maybe they just never realized that it was necessary in the first place, because it hadn’t been for as long as the systems had been around up to that point. It also seems like a general trend with infrastructure in the US: lots of money and attention for building shiny new stuff, and very little funding for boring maintenance of what already exists. I suppose it makes sense given the rate at which the US was growing and conquering new frontiers for most of its history.
Indeed, US culture enshrines breakdown maintenance. We are shocked and surprised that infrastructure wears out. However, pending final analysis, I suggest that the BART and METRO situations are very different. In the Metro case, the widely circulated picture of a seriously damaged cable indicates shoddy maintenance at best more likely fraudulent “inspections”. The damage doesn’t look recent. If this is the case, WMATA , as has often been suggested, needs a thorough house cleaning. Once that difficult political hurdle has been overcome, a larger stable funding mechanism needs to be instituted. One less F35 each year would cover superior maintenance and upgrades.
BART OTOH may have a more subtle problem. The late February/early March car issues were apparently caused by the behavior of a recently installed substation or parts thereof. There is some evidence that PATCO had a similar issue with Alstom rebuilds of their 1969 fleet in 2014. Just what the culprit is in the N Concord to Pittsburg segment is not yet clear, but isolating the area of the problem is the correct approach.
While I would welcome less military spending on near worthless projects and more infrastructure spending, it’s not as if members of Congress (and by extension the nation’s taxpayers) are responsible for funding Metro. Although it’s billed as “the nation’s subway,” the vast majority of its riders are locals and thus it shouldn’t be privileged over, say, rebuilding any other city’s metro system.
Containing some of the nation’s 10 wealthiest counties, Maryland and Virginia (and DC) are certainly able to pay to rebuild Metro themselves… Just like how NYC had to pretty much rehabilitate their subway with no help from DC in the 1980s. Maryland and Virginia already benefit more from federal spending than virtually any other state – hence why they never seem to suffer from recessions – why reward their negligence in overseeing Metro by having the Feds swoop in and pay to fix it all?
While the suburbs are well off, IINM a majority of Metro riders are Fed employees. When I was a student in MoCo public schools, the Fed Gov paid the county a per capita impact fee for each child of a Fed employee. My point about the five sided money BBQ in Virginia was not DC exclusive; we as a nation need to totally re-orient out spending priorities. DOD wastes enough money everyyear to fix all of our infrastructure AND build miles of new transit.
I’ve lived in DC all of my life and never heard of a federal govt paying a per capita fee for fed. employees children. As far as I know those systems are fully funded by tax dollars from local/state sources. The majority of metro riders also don’t work for the federal government as, they make up around 40%.
Ryan. You may not have heard of the fee system, but I remember carrying the paperwork home for the parents to fill out and then bringing it back to school to turn in. As I am about to turn 72, perhaps my memory antedates your’ recollection.
In any event, my point is that funding public works is a duty of the various levels of the governments which extract taxes from us. The obsolete borders between MD, DC, and VA in Metro’s case merely encourage each to finger point while failing to adequately fund the obviously necessary public services. Federal funding for “local” services has a long history.
Metro has a huge institutional culture failure to correct, but they also need a stable and adequate funding mechanism to operate the system competently