Friday Question of the Day – Should The Feds Take Over Metro?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Beau Finley

Have we reached the nadir? Earlier this week the Post’s Editorial Board wrote:

“IT IS time to consider a radical step to arrest what looks increasingly like a death spiral for Washington’s transit system: federal intervention and control. It is not just folly, but willful neglect, to wait any longer to see if Metro’s problems will somehow solve themselves. They won’t.”

What do you guys think – can the Feds save Metro? Or is there still time for General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to make the necessary fixes?

77 Comment

  • Kind of hard to argue for turning DC into a state if the Feds have to take control of metro…

    • Keep in mind the Metro crosses state lines in MD and VA so I think it’s independent of DC statehood.

    • This has very little to do with DC statehood. As noted above, the system crosses into three different jurisdictions. This wouldn’t be the only system that is linked to the federal government either: Amtrak’s board is presidentially appointed…

      • Agreed.
        WMATA has serious problems, and much of the D.C. government is less than fully competent… but they are two distinct entities. WMATA has nothing to do with D.C. statehood. And statehood isn’t something that could or should be granted when a jurisdiction “proves” itself; it’s an issue of granting representation to citizens. D.C. has more residents than Wyoming or Vermont, and is being denied federal representation.

        • Amtrak is a financial dumpster fire. Not sure how the Feds would help WMATA given their inability to keep the USPS or Amtrak solvent.

    • Also the DC government doesn’t even run Metro now? It’s run by WMATA which is independent of the DC government.

  • It’s crazy to me that people who (rightfully) complain about congressional meddling and taxation without representation would then turn around and ask congress to take over the train system.

    • The feds take over failing administrative apparatus in states too – the Newark school system is just one example. This has nothing to do with DC’s lack of representation.

      • Tom

        +1. As I understand it, Congress enacted a control board to manage the District’s finances in the ’90s, and the guy who led that charge did a good enough job for the people to elect him mayor.

      • But people in Newark have federal representation. We don’t. What we have is a long history of being used by Congress and the White House as a political pawn ( “John, I will give you D.C. abortion,” , etc). And furthermore, our partners in WMATA, Maryland and Virginia do have representatives who would be able to influence a federal control board. It would be a disaster for DC.

      • Agreed with dcd on this. Congressional meddling is one thing, but WMATA could benefit from a federal takeover in the manner that D.C. benefited from the federal control board in the 1990s.

  • Tom

    On the surface, this idea is intriguing to me mostly because it’ll shake up the board structure. I’m under the impression that it’s mainly a tool for forcing Metro’s hand in making hard calls re: operations and financial affairs, and will change into something else if and when Metro gets its house in order, but please correct me if I’m not seeing it right or too narrowly.

  • What have the Feds ever made better?

    • DC actually. The 90s federal oversight got the city’s credit rating on track, took out the Marion Barry cronies, and put the city on the path that it is on today.

      • + 100. A number of District agencies were taken over by the feds in the 90s and the feds made them much better before returning control to the District. One of them was a transit system, DCPS’ school buses. Before federal oversight, school buses simply were not picking kids up from certain neighborhoods. It was a transit nightmare.

  • Terrible idea.

  • Tsar of Truxton

    I think we should shut down the Maryland and Virginia portions of the Metro unless those states each agree to supply 1/3 of the funding necessary (that is not otherwise covered by Metro fares) to keep the system afloat. I’m kidding obviously, but there is no reason that the District, Maryland, and Virginia can’t figure out a way to get metro the funds it needs without federal intervention. The new GM seems to genuinely care, so that is the first step. Now, he just needs the resources to fix all the neglect that has occurred over the years. It might help to clean house with poor performing employees as well.

    • I’m all for each jurisdiction paying their fair share…but arguably it isn’t a 1/3 contribution for each if there isn’t 1/3 of the system within their borders. But, the thing is, it’s not just funding. It’s the way the system is managed and the oversight that’s in place. The problem with cleaning house is the protections in place with most of the unionized employees.

      • gotryit

        That’s true – we should negotiate the amount, and I know who can negotiate for us. This guy who makes the best deals. In fact, he can get Mexico to pay for metro.

        Or maybe we can just stiff VA and MD and tell them to sue us. That should go over well.

      • Tsar of Truxton

        I obviously don’t have the numbers, but I don’t the the percentage of track is relevant to the funding. If anything, it should be based on the percentage of riders. I would be willing to bet that on any given weekday a large percentage of the riders (perhaps more than 2/3rds) originate in MD and VA.

      • or DC could just pull its funding entirely, give transportation credits directly to its residents and leave VA and MD commuters to pay the resultant increased costs while the states and everyone in them suffer from increased traffic congestion…

    • Why do you think the problem is funding? Remember when we gave Metro $5 billion for MetroForward, and they squandered it, failed to take basic safety measures, lost a ton of riders, and then launched SafeTrack?

  • Anyone who wants thinks giving congress more authority would yield a positive result is out of their mind.

  • I have heard that the reason why Paul Wiedefeld is having a hard time getting the metro in shape is in large part due to the union. apparently letting people go is no walk in the park.

    • A Metro worker falsified maintenance records about a fan shaft that contributed to Carol Glover’s death. He said the service had been done; it had not. He was then fired; an arbitration panel gave him his job back, and the union sued because the worker didn’t get his job back fast enough.
      The union is protecting people whose lies result in death. If that maintenance worker can’t get fired, no one will be able to. The union is literally putting everyone’s lives in danger, and no matter how great Paul Wiedefeld is or wants to be, he faces steep opposition with them.

      • HaileUnlikely

        I don’t think it is fair to say that the false inspection contributed to the death. It may well have contributed to the death had the train operators and Rail Operations Control Center had any idea what the f*ck to do with the fans in the case of a smoke event, but they demonstrably did not, as they set the fans to blow in the wrong direction thus directing the smoke toward the train and causing it to hover over the train rather than pulling it away from the train. For all we know Ms. Glover may have been better off had the fans been completely inoperable. Your larger point is still valid nonetheless.

        • That’s a good point re. the incompetence of the ROCC… but I agree with Cleveland Park Runner that the union is protecting people whose actions defy belief. (The union also defended train drivers who were filmed asleep at the wheel back when trains ran under automatic train control.)

      • Without union protections, workers would be putting their jobs at risk to actually report safety failures. Is that a workplace we want? This whole “federal” takeover is but a thinly veiled attempt to place blame for WMATA’s failure on its union. An ideological framing that evidently people seem to be falling for. Meanwhile, the failed leadership over several decades by both WMATA and politicians is conveniently swept under the rug. But it is always easier to punch down.

  • NO! First let the new manager do his work to turn it around bc it seems he has experience running a big city system well. That said the underlying problem is funding; VA and MD never pay their fair share. As a drastic step, WMATA should stop service outside the district until they pony up the $$ owed.

    On a side note, dont do idiotic things like extend the streetcar system through downtown. The circulator is fabulous. If you want to extend that route, just add more buses.

    • Given the number of commuters from VA and MD, that would surely put the system into an even worse death spiral…

    • maxwell smart

      “WMATA should stop service outside the district until they pony up the $$ owed.” While I see your point, this would be problematic on so many levels. For starters, there are stations (like Friendship Heights) that are in both DC and MD… does the train only open the doors in DC? Also, no metro service to DCA… essentially DC’s airport (and on land that was once DC).

    • Wrong. Metro received $5 billion for MetroForward and wasted it, often failing to implement even the most basic safety measures. Reliability collapsed and people left. Riding Metro is a daily disaster despite all the money Metro has been given. How on eartg would more money fix Metro, and how can you tell MD and VA to pay more and more for a system that fewer and fewer MD/VA constituents use??

      • +1. It’s odd to see this thrown about so frequently when anyone who’s lived here since 2010 or knows we’re MANY years into really expensive and disruptive repair work, and that quality of service keeps dropping year to year.

    • Why do people always say the issue with Metro is lack of funding? Metro doesn’t manage the money it has well now so I certainly don’t think we should be giving it MORE money to mismanage. Most of Metro’s overhead is poorly negotiated union pension/benefit/wage contracts. Before Safetrack Metro didn’t even spend all of its budget for capital improvements.

    • How about the Feds orchestrate negotiations between DC, Maryland, and Virginia to come up with an agreement and possibly a regional tax to provide Metro with a dedicated source of funding? Metro has a lot of other management/labor issues, but a lot of the current problems stem from funding (or lack thereof).

      If the US can negotiate an nuclear deal with Iran I would say there’s an outside chance they could obtain a funding deal for Metro.

      • What makes you say that a lot of the current problems stem from lack of funding? The way I see it the current problems stem from delayed maintenance (not due to lack of funds but poor management/oversight) and a lack of accountability in the workforce.

  • Can we ask Japan to take it over for a few years? They get train transit right over there.

    • Tom

      I think the Japanese government privatized their subway system in the ’80s.

      • The train system was privatized, but I’m not sure that holds true for the various subway systems. I don’t know about Tokyo, but my impression had been that the subway systems in Kyoto and Osaka were municipally run.

      • More on the privatization (which wasn’t entirely on my radar — I knew that private entities like Hankyu operated train lines, but I’m not sure I realized that the JR (Japan Rail) lines were also run by private entities):

      • It works in Japan (and Hong Kong and China) because the social contract is alive and well in those countries. The social contract is dead in America. Hence you have jurisdictions not paying their fair share, Metro workers/union doing their best to hamstring reform, etc.
        A public transportation system requires trust and buy-in from LOTS of actors, including those who do not ride it themselves (but understand the economic benefits). Impossible to undertake infrastructure improvements when everyone is looking to profit at others’ expense. The failure of Metro speaks to a much larger structural issue in American society and governance that isn’t going away.

    • Tsar of Truxton

      Doesn’t Japan have massive issues with overcrowding?

      • no, i was there in april and most of the lines were extremely clean and clear of crowding. If you are at certain stops during rush hour, it is super crowded, but at least the trains run on time, to the second. Its actually kind of nuts to see it in person. riders set their cellphone alarm clocks to wake them a few seconds prior to their stop and it works!

      • Privatize then! (says someone who has done zero research on this topic). Also, yes I think they do have some overcrowding issues and is it there where they have to have women-only trains so they don’t get molested?

        • Although Japan has very low crime rates and you can walk around at night without fear or being mugged/raped, it also has an unfortunate problem with “chikan” — molesters/perverts — who use crowded trains to grope women.

          • DC also has that problem.

          • How can you have very low crime rates and very high rates of molestation? Is molesting women on trains not a crime?

          • Japan has low rates of crime with regard to homicide, robbery, etc.
            I don’t know what the rates of train molestation were — unsurprisingly, it often went/goes unreported — but incredibly enough, the laws actually had to be changed to make it a crime. Originally the only charge women could bring was a property-damage one — that the gropers had damaged their underwear or something. Outrageous!
            Groping happens on D.C. trains, but my impression when I lived in Japan was that it happened MUCH more often in Japan, in part because women are even MORE acculturated in Japan to “not make a fuss” than women are in the U.S.
            In Japan it happened/happens only on crowded trains where the crowdedness affords the perp some level of anonymity. So it’s mainly an issue in large cities, and even then, solely during rush hour. I get the impression that gropers in D.C. are more bold and don’t necessarily require crowdedness/anonymity.

  • This sounds tempting. But this scares me — metro might be a bit of a mess but you can argue that our current legislative scenario is a bigger mess. Moreover, it appears highly likely that anti-transit republicans are going to be in control of budgeting next year. Do you want to entrust your public transit management to the Freedom Caucus?

  • Feels like we would be exchanging one set of problems for another. I do think that the oversight/governance structure needs to be scratched and something new put in place. What is currently in place is not working and is frankly, making things worse.

    • Yeah, I would agree with all of this. I wonder how having the feds take over would affect the unions? Would it have anymore power to get rid of problem employees?

  • Absolutely. It’s broken and there’s no end in sight.

    At the board meeting yesterday, numbers for the most recent quarter were released, and ridership is down more than 13% year-on-year. The current budget proposes cutting the number of trains and raising fares.

    The death spiral’s happening, people… it’s not just talk anymore.

    • This is probably just another indication of WMATA’s incompetence. Are they factoring in SafeTrack at all? Of course numbers are down compared to the same time last year: they have less trains and segments of track shutdown!

      • There’s nothing to really “factor in”, as those are just raw percentage drops, which is all that’s relevant to the budget.

        I’d also point out that it looks like service interruptions are going to carry on for years at this rate (check out the FTA reports on quality of Safetrack repairs). There’s no reason to think ridership won’t continue to drop for the next couple of years, at least.

  • Why anyone thinks the feds can run Metro any better is beyond me. It’s not like the FTA knows anything about running a transit system. And every other branch of the fed’l gov’t is run horribly, and we know first hand. The NPS can’t balance a budget or run our city parks.

    We need a private company like Hong Kong’s MTR, which has a track record of turning around bad transit systems.

    • “And every other branch of the fed’l gov’t is run horribly, and we know first hand.” Seriously?

    • “And every other branch of the fed’l gov’t is run horribly, and we know first hand.”
      Thanks for your usual thoughtful, nuanced analysis, Brett.

  • We should be demanding that our tax dollars go to fully funding a world-class system — like Germany. It irritates me to no end when we let government, which gets its money from those of us who pay taxes, underfund our transport system (or schools, or roads or health system) for DECADES then blame the system and its workers for it breaking. Public transportation is a public good that should be managed by the public sector as it is supposed to benefit the majority of the public, which is paying for it with taxes and fees.

  • I think the idea of bringing in the Feds for a *temporary* takeover is to dismantle the compact/neuter the union and have some actual leverage to go back to the drawing boards on pensions, salaries, firing ability, etc. Forget the funding piece (there is evidence Metro has (a) not even spent Metro Forward money when they had it, and (b) squandered the funding they had on shoddy fixes (See: SafeTrack; Metro Forward). This is all about personnel. Paul W. can’t do anything with Metro if the longstanding personnel issues remain untouched. Service cuts and fare hikes continue the spiral as people vote with their feet- if you can’t touch the personnel, you might as well call it quits!

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