Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

What to do about DC area Metrorail?

 A few months ago I wrote a couple posts about how it seems as if DC area transit planning and operations is deliberately designed to destroy support for transit and transit expansion.

-- "Sometimes you have to wonder if transit/transit projects are being deliberately screwed up to make transit expansion almost impossible
-- "A tenure of failure doesn't deserve encomiums: Paul Wiedefeld, WMATA CEO"

The second entry criticizes the Washington Post editorial board for saying the CEO was great even though WMATA got even worse during his tenure, not better.

Then a few days later the Post editorialized something similar ("Metrorail is a mess. What’s going to happen when more commuters return?").   

Tom Toles editorial cartoon, Washington Post

This after most of the trains are out of service because of a derailment problem that has sidelined most every train, leading to service of 3-4 trains per hour, in each direction, on each line ("Dramatic drop in DC Metro's on-time performance, rider satisfaction: Report," WJLA-TV).

How could things get any worse?

But they did!

Last week, it was announced that half the train operators aren't certified, that service had to reduced further, and abruptly the CEO accelerated his retirement and the COO resigned ("Top Metro leaders step down one day after agency announces training lapses," Washington Post).

In 1994, the New Yorker ran a story, "Lost in the Mail," about the repetitive failures of the post office system in Chicago.  I remember how they said  because post offices are so embedded within communities, they are more a part of local bureaucratic systems than national (this has changed in the years since) and it was emblematic of local government failure.

WMATA's repetitive failures since 2009, when 9 people died as a result of a signals failure that had been identified but mostly ignored as anomalous rather than an indicator of a systematic problem, have gotten worse, not better.

  • The signals problem still exists.  
  • Financial problems still exist. 
  • Inspection problems and tunnel fires led to a death and injuries
  • ... abetted by poor emergency response action and coordination failures.  
  • For a time financial reporting problems made WMATA ineligible for funding from the Federal Transit Administration.  
  • There are continued problems with how the Operations Center operates
  • and safety on the tracks for workers ("Metro commits to more stringent safety standards to protect track workers," Post)
  • The wheel problems were known but not addressed, until the oversight body required trains be taken out of service.  
  • Now the certification of train operators.

Although under Wiedefeld there has been a reasonable program of station and system infrastructure improvements 

And we're not even counting the effects of covid, which has led to massive ridership drops, leading to major financial problems.

Why is organizational failure so endemic to Metrorail?

After the crash I did write a piece suggesting that 30ish years after the initial opening, it was time to rebuild regional consensus about transit and Metrorail.  That didn't happen and later I suggested the same thing, using the 40th anniversary of initial operation as the lever.  

-- 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)
-- 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)

Later writing about financial issues ("Proposed WMATA fare increases (DC region)," 2012) and points about problems resulting from system design especially interlining ("More on Redundancy, engineered resilience, and subway systems: Metrorail failures will increase without adding capacity in the core," 2016), I suggested that the region should reorganize transit along the lines of the German set up of "transport associations," which links but separates planning, ownership,  operation, and budgeting.  

-- The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association, 2017
-- 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)

By contrast, there isn't really true transit planning for the DC area at the regional scale.  By default WMATA is the planner, but too often transit service is satisficed because of budgetary considerations.

The same goes for buses: 

-- "Will buses ever be cool? Boston versus the Raleigh-Durham's GoTransit Model," 2017
-- "Making bus service sexy and more equiable," 2012
-- "Route 7 BRT proposal communicates the reality that the DC area doesn't adequately conduct transportation planning at the metropolitan-scale," 2016

charlie argues that the problems result from the tension of acting as commuter rail versus a city subway for DC and Arlington (see comments here, "Can WMATA's death spiral be staunched?," 2016).

Definitely the agency is schizophrenic in terms of mission between commuter rail, in-city rail, and bus operator.

A new leader as the solution?  WMATA announced a couple weeks ago that the next CEO will be Randy Clarke, from the Capital Metro transit agency serving Austin, Texas.  He worked for MBTA in Boston, and has a great deal of expertise in safety management.  But it is enough?  

Is failure systemic and endemic?  Is he so capable that he can reorient WMATA towards excellence and away from systematic and endemic failure? ("Metro’s new general manager is optimistic riders will return," Post).

For years, I've suggested that a top notch transit executive from Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, France or London should be recruited to fix Metrorail.  

But probably the best transit executives aren't interested.

What is it about WMATA that generates failure as the routine outcome?

Although part of this is that often failure begets failure because in the best of times, people aren't very good decision makers.  And crisis makes it worse.

My joke is that the problem started at the beginning, when the first CEO came from the Army Corps of Engineers.  With a very bureaucratic orientation.

It didn't help when the system stopped expanding, and so Metrorail RIFed most of its construction engineering and planning personnel, excising from the system decades of engineering and operations experience.

I don't believe that necessarily it is the Compact, that it is necessarily the tri-partite structure involving the States of Virginia and Maryland and the City of Washington in joint ownership and management.

But it is problematic that support for transit waxes and wanes depending on who is in office.  Eg., Maryland Republican Governor Hogan wasn't too keen on WMATA.  Now, the Republican Governor of Virginia isn't either.  Even before, when McAuliffe was Governor, he understood that Metrorail favored DC and he pursued other transportation priorities.  And DC's elected officials just don't feel it in their bones that DC's competitive advantage as a place to live and work is built on the foundation of strong transit.

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At 9:30 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

" And DC's elected officials just don't feel it in their bones that DC's competitive advantage as a place to live and work is built on the foundation of strong transit."

You and I tangled on the role of Zimmerman on the board. You could probably add that. One difference is historically Arlington was more desperate for metro rail; DC as you say isn't that committed.

It is like water.

Cities use their scale to get what they want. Water is precious, but it also applies to transit. (Or sewage).

I think everyone would be happier if WMATA because an obscure federal agency that is primarily about bringing federal workers into downtown. Much like the DC aqueduct, or DC not taking control of the airports.

There is a fiscal space issue on both but as you can see from the massive rise in budgets (in 95 the DC budget was about 3.5B, it is now 19B) there is money to do this stuff.

(even more if you offload it out like DC water).

At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It needs to be run like a transportation authority focusing on on-time performance and safety. Instead it is a jobs program.

"For years, I've suggested that a top notch transit executive from Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, France or London should be recruited to fix Metrorail."

No sane person would give up a good life in civilization to take a job in a declining sh*thole country.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Theoretically DC should take it over, but it's never demonstrated it has the managerial capacity to do. Cf 20 years of failure with 911 and forensic sciences, lack of decent oversight ir success with DCPS (there, in effect DC "fixed" schools by letting charters take over the space).

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Wrt jobs program, yeah. Real problem. I don't know how much truth to accord to management versus labor, the role of labor etc. But given the success of DC government to improve and its ability to express vision, especially in DCPS, the term "jobs program" is probably accurate. EXACTLY AS DESCRIBED IN THE NEW YORKER ARTICLE ABOUT THE CHICAGO POST OFFICE.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

And yes, what really good transit executive would take on WMATA?

To me, the Wiedefeld appointment demonstrates the need for transit expertise. Catoe was an experienced transit executive but in bus. His lack of rail experience was a huge negative. The new guy, if he doesn't have operations experience in rail, only in process, that could be a problem too. I think that Tangherlini hurt the system by riffing the construction engineering people.

A "foreign executive" would probably face massive resistance. The problem with "DC" is it believes it is naturally world class because it is the national capital of the world's still most powerful (albeit declining) nation. Without regard to actual competence. (Anybody remember during the Barry years when DC people went to the US Virgin Islands to help develop their government accounting systems? Junket!)

Maybe letting the agency go bankrupt is the way to start over, especially with labor. It would be such a s***show politically and or wise that it would destroy the agency and transit.

For awhile I know that Hong Kong MTR was in the outsourcing game. While I know they stumbled building an HSR connection to China, maybe that would be the only way. But they would have to have a free hand, including dealing with labor.

APTA has technical peer group evaluation services. I wonder what they'd say. But in North America maybe DC could be evaluated by Chicago, Toronto, and Montreal.

All operate much better although Toronto has construction/expansion issues. But again, not operations.

Maybe Mexico City, but they're closer to NYC in size and ridership. OTOH, they function in a difficult political and operational environment which is comparable peer wise.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The driver of the second train, Robert Jeffrey, survived. He’d only been on the job two days when he ran three sets of red lights before rounding a curve under Russell Hill Dr. shortly after 6 p.m., only to realize a train was stopped ahead.

Coupled with this driver error, a design flaw with the Ericsson trip arm, a safety device meant to engage the brakes of trains passing through stop signals, contributed to the crash.

The tragedy led to sweeping changes throughout the transit system. An internal TTC investigation and coroner’s inquest resulted in 236 recommendations, all of which have since been closed out, according to the TTC’s chief safety officer, John O’Grady.

Within the TTC, there was a culture shift, O’Grady says.

“I think if you could characterize it, when we built the subway in the early ’50s it was beautiful, it was state-of-the-art, modern, new, nothing was worn out,” he says.

“We got used to the TTC being one of the top subways in the world. By the time Russell Hill came along 25 years later … it was kind of a wakeup call for us, for that culture of concern (about) the state of good repair.”

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The Washington Post: Opinion | Metro riders are unhappy — and they have every right to be.

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Metro’s recurring problems raise questions about oversight, management

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Metro board eyes more hands-on, stricter oversight after crises

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Metro is short on trains, drivers — and public confidence

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