What to do about WMATA?, the DC area transit system: the Federal City Council says create a Control Board
WMATA, the operator of the metropolitan area's Metrorail heavy rail service that is a combination of subway and commuter rail, along with "regional bus services" (Metrobus) is in crisis and has been for awhile. From the Washington Post editorial "Metro needs reform -- and dollars":
It’s fair to demand management improvements, governance reforms and a workable long-term recovery plan at Metro. What’s not workable is to set goalposts for the transit agency that could recede indefinitely before Congress comes up with more funding. Already, Metro is facing huge projected revenue shortfalls — more than $660 million for operating and long-range needs in the fiscal year starting in 2019 alone.
Metro is scrambling to downsize its workforce and slash service to balance its budget — measures that will only drive more passengers away and further depress revenue. Short of a new and dedicated source of local funding and substantial new infusion of dollars from Congress, the agency’s death spiral will accelerate.
Tom Toles editorial cartoon, WMATA derailment, 8/14/2015
Note that the DC area's transit system isn't the only one experiencing serious problems. MBTA in Greater Boston is still reeling two years after service came to a standstill in the face of multiple snowstorms, which brought to a head years of underfunding. The recent crash at Hoboken Terminal of a New Jersey Transit train brought to the fore the reality that the system has experienced significant financial shortfalls for years.
Even MTA in Greater New York City faces problems, partly because of tension between the State of New York, which controls the system, and the City of New York, which is built around the effectiveness and centrality of transit.
Federal City Council calls for a Control Board to fix Metrorail. Today the media reports that the Federal City Council, the "growth machine" coordinating body for the city (Disclosure: I am doing some consulting for one of its projects, concerning the Anacostia River), is calling for the creation of a federally-chartered "Control Board" to take over Metrorail.
-- "Influential business group says Metro needs an emergency control board now,"Washington Post
-- "Federal City Council pushing for emergency control board for Metro," Washington Business Journal
This builds on earlier calls for action dating to last fall ("The solution to Metrorail woes? Start over, says Federal City Council," WBJ).
A similar type of organization was imposed on DC when it faced bankruptcy in the early 1990s.
The successful resolution of that problem led to the Control Board's CFO, Anthony Williams, becoming Mayor, where he continued to work on re-setting the city's direction and operational effectiveness. (Mayor Williams has been President of the FCC for a couple years now.)
Tom Toles Editorial Cartoon, Finding a leader for WMATA, 8/9/2015
Rather than being emboldening, crisis usually paralyzes government. While I probably favor the calls by FCC for a WMATA Control Board, because the representatives from the local jurisdictions on the WMATA Board seem to be overwhelmed by the task before them, and because Virginia, Maryland, and DC oftentimes have different goals for the service that are sometimes not resolvable, I am not supra-hopeful that the many of the kinds of problems I've identified with WMATA and metropolitan and regional transportation planning will be addressed altogether or in an innovative fashion.
It's mostly false that government can work out and work out of a crisis innovatively and creatively, because of cross-cutting goals and objectives that split various stakeholders. People focused on incremental improvement at best aren't usually full of transformational ideas and approaches to programs and management.
Even I'm overwhelmed. The steady drumbeat of bad news about the Metrorail system has overwhelmed my capacity to write about it. There are just so many countervailing and conflicting issues that it makes it difficult to write the kind of supra-authoritative pieces that I tend towards.
For example, over the weekend it was reported that the system is close to insolvency.
Fortunately, even though the situation is complicated, I can fall back on a large body of work on the topic that I have produced over the years, including these broad themes:
1. Needing to rebuild a regional consensus about what transit means, its importance, and how to go about achieving it
• St. Louis regional transit planning process as a model for what needs to be done in the DC Metropolitan region, 2009
• TriMet (Portland): CHALLENGES & CHOICES A Budget Discussion Guide, 2012
• WMATA 40th anniversary in 2016 as an opportunity for assessment, 2014
2. The failure of the area's Metropolitan Planning Organization, tasked by the federal government to do and coordinate transportation planning to execute that role to its logical extent, so that by default WMATA ends up being the primary metropolitan transit planner by default
• Metropolitan Mass Transit Planning: Towards a Hierarchical and Conceptual Framework, 2010
• Without the right transportation planning framework, metropolitan areas are screwed, and that includes the DC area, 2011
• Route 7 BRT proposal communicates the reality that the DC area doesn't adequately conduct transportation planning at the metropolitan-scale, 2016
3. Various pieces about WMATA's current conditions in operation, financing and governance shaping today's crises
• Defining service standards down as an indicator of breakdown in metropolitan transit planning, 2012
• Getting WMATA out of crisis: a continuation of a multi-year problem that keeps getting worse, not better, 2015
• 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
4. Related to point #2, it is possible to redesign the metropolitan and regional transit system in ways that achieve more and better service, but I am not holding my breath:
• Will buses ever be cool? Boston versus the Raleigh-Durham's GoTransit Model, 2017
• One big idea: Getting MARC and Metrorail to integrate fares, stations, and marketing systems, using London Overground as an example, 2015