Getting WMATA out of crisis: a continuation of a multi-year problem that keeps getting worse, not better
Tom Toles Editorial Cartoon, 8/9/2015
The media reports that WMATA track maintenance personnel identified problems with the track at Smithsonian station more than one month ago. The problem went unfixed and last week there were massive problems with failures on many of the lines because of a train derailment at, yes, Smithsonian station ("Metro board can't break chain of failure," Washington Post).
The WMATA Board blames employees for the derailed train").
Up until the 2009 crash, I was pretty sympathetic to WMATA, because planners in the early 1990s said that if funding wasn't increased for maintenance, serious problems would occur and the system would degrade. Money wasn't increased for maintenance and serious problems have occurred.
It's not unlike how the NYC Subway system was allowed to decline in the 1960s, and while it is still underfunded, a State authority was created to take control of New York City area transit services, because the city was too hard pressed financially to be able to operate the subway system on its own. Even so, it took a few decades to get the system back in decent working order, and of course, it is still underfunded today.
But for a long time, even before the 2009 crash, I've argued that there are problems in how transit is managed in the metropolitan area--in fact, I wrote a long letter in response to the very first article of what became the Dr. Gridlock feature in something like 1990 or 1991, almost ten years before I started getting personally and heavily involved in local revitalization and transportation matters.
Anyway, here is a partial list of some of the posts:
-- What it will take to get WMATA out of crisis (2015)
-- What it will take to get WMATA out of crisis continued and 2016's 40th anniversary of WMATA as an opportunity to rebuild (2015)
-- "WMATA and two types of public relations programs (2015)
-- WMATA 40th anniversary in 2016 as an opportunity for assessment (2014)
-- St. Louis regional transit planning process as a model for what needs to be done in the DC Metropolitan region (2009)
For some time, I've argued that the metropolitan area and region (DC+Baltimore) needs to do transit planning at the regional scale, separately from the transit agencies.
-- Metropolitan Mass Transit Planning: Towards a Hierarchical and Conceptual Framework
(presentation in 2010, at the University of Delaware Institute of Public Administration)
-- (Sort of a repeat) Without the right transportation planning framework, metropolitan areas are screwed, and that includes the DC area (2011)
-- Proposed WMATA fare increases (DC region) (2012)
The big issue is the pressure to keep the system running. That means letting maintenance and safety slide.
There's been a lot of pressure on the agency to hire a CEO/General Manager ("Regional Officials Urge Metro To Hire General Manager," WAMU-FM).
In some respects I think the focus on speed is misplaced, because only if you know where you're going is it possible to hire someone to take you there.
In the crisis piece from April I identified many problems, and I don't think that the agency's leadership and stakeholders take any responsibility for those problems:
WMATA's problems are deep rooted
1. It's not just "management", if by that I presume people mean "within the agency," it's also "management" as it relates to the way that the "owners" of the agency, DC, Maryland and Virginia, plus the federal government "manage" the agency via their control of the board.
2. Financing too--lack of dedicated revenue streams is just one element.
3. Use of the federal transit benefit by commuters inflates the farebox recovery rate beyond comparable systems.
4. Distance based-fares also inflate the farebox recovery rate compared to peer systems.
5. WMATA charges two separate fares for bus+rail or rail+bus when most other systems do not, further inflating farebox recovery rates compared to peer systems.
6. Combined, the comparatively high proportion of fare-related revenue has allowed WMATA to build a higher cost structure than would normally be sustainable compared to a peer transit agency.
7. And until now, the comparatively high proportion of fare-related revenue has allowed the jurisdictions to pay less into the system than normally would have been required compared to peer systems.
8. Now that the Washington Metropolitan area is no longer in full growth mode, the agency can't maintain that kind of cost structure, because revenues are likely to plateau.
9. Especially because fares are very high, near the ceiling point--the highest fares are comparable to commuter rail fares, and double the typical fare in a flat-rate system.
10. Fare pricing for revenue to reduce financing demands from local and state governments causes conflicts between DC and the suburban jurisdictions because of incongruent policies concerning transit use--DC is more focused on "transit as a utility" and as a preferred substitute (along with biking, walking, and car share) for car use and ownership, which requires a lower fare structure comparable to NYC or San Francisco's MUNI system.
11. The jurisdictions believe that they don't need to pay more money into the system than they are currently paying.
12. The organizational structure is ossified, likely due in part to the agency's first CEO being a General from the Army Corps of Engineers.
13. Safety is compromised by a focus on keeping the system running.
I don't think a savior can save the agency until there's a greater acceptance of responsibility for the problems on the part of the jurisdictions and the board, and then the ossified nature of the organization too.
-- NTSB report on WMATA safety failures (2015)
I'd argue that there needs to be a series of analyses commissioned from various sectors, like the "Vision Papers" for the DC Comp Plan process back in 2004. They weren't official policy documents, but idea-concept papers, commissioned by the Office of Planning to inform the planning process.
If the region's leaders were committed to change and truly fixing WMATA and the transportation planning and operation regime, the area's jurisdictions would commit to getting a set of vision-policy papers so that they could do a deeper dive into the issues, and if they would do so they should also commission knowledgeable outsiders, including people like me and yes, even unsuckmetrodc, and more traditional organizations to do comparable kinds of analyses of the problems.
Then the thing to do would be to reconstruct the consensus around the value of transit and mobility, and how to reconfigure the mobility system going forward. And that is in terms of planning, operation, and funding.
I've argued for a long time that the planning function needs to be separated from the operating function, that operating could be and probably should be bid out.
WMATA doesn't see itself as the primary transit provider for the region as much as they see themselves as the heavy rail operator complemented by regional bus service.
Yes, there are ongoing coordination planning operations between all the agencies, but WMATA is seen as the lead.
While that is the default position, WMATA isn't operating at a level of excellence where they deserve such consideration.
Note that it could be seen as somewhat of a contradiction to argue that the region's transit should operate like it does in London, Paris, or Hamburg, because in those areas, transit planning and transit operators are brought together in one collaboratory organization.
BUT, there is the overall transit collaboration, TfL in London, RATP in Paris, and HVV in Hamburg. Each has primary operators. In London, the city runs the subway system, but for the most part, the railroads and buses are run under contract. TfL has planning responsibility for the buses and for some, but not all of the railroad lines.
In Hamburg, two agencies, Hamburg Hochbahn (subway and bus) and Deutsche Bahn/S-Bahn (commuter railroads) provide the bulk of the service. But 30+ other operators provide services as well, mostly bus, but also ferry (one organization) and other rail services (a couple of operators). HVV does the transit planning for Hamburg as well as the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony, even though the HVV organization provides actual transit service to only portions of the latter two states.
In each of these regions, transit services are coordinated over a wide geography. Here it would be as if transit planning were integrated for much of the area between Richmond and the Maryland-Delaware line within one master organization.
What to do in the short run
I don't think the best people in the industry are interested in running WMATA because of the structural dysfunction and the difficulty in dealing with it because the primary actors don't recognize that they are part of the dysfunction.
It's asking too much of an outsider to be able to pull that off.
To get the thing running right, probably they need to hire a CEO with almost total authority, separate from the funding-planning-financing-jurisdiction end (could be the general manager), to get the "railroad" (which is how WMATA refers to the subway system) back on track.
I used to say it needed to be someone from TfL or MTR or Japan or Hamburg or Paris, but if you split it out, it could be a top notch freight railroad person.
But they'd have to be paid a lot more than what WMATA salaries are. But then, it be seemingly a lot simpler than running a many thousand mile network of railroad tracks of a major Class I railroad.
But I'd say, because of the dysfunction, the job should be split out, at least to get the heavy rail system running again.
In short, get a top notch railroad operator to be appointed as President and CEO of the Subway system, now. They could come from either the heavy rail/railroad commuter side or the freight rail side of the industry.
And hire a separate CEO to deal with all the other stuff that needs to be fixed.
But a hurry to hire, to get anybody isn't the focus, get someone great.
And if it means waiting until after a broader reconsideration of the transit system occurs, then wait.
This is one of the biggest and most important "government" positions in the DC-MD-VA area. Making the right decision is imperative.
And in the meantime, begin the kind of planning and visioning processes to change the way transit is planned for, provided, operated, managed, and overseen within the DC-Baltimore region at the very list, along the lines of HVV in Hamburg, ideally