Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Here at Greater Greater Washington and elsewhere in the press there’s a tendency to concentrate on new, shiny projects. We drool over the possibility of a new Blue line underneath Georgetown or M Street, we publish fantasy maps showing new streetcar and bus corridors. We think, wouldn’t it be great if Metro had more faregates? A pedestrian tunnel?

But what if instead of Metro reaching more areas, having more capacity and capabilities as time goes on, we were actually looking at having “less Metro” in the coming years?

This isn’t a “what if”. If Metro’s funding partners do not figure out a way to significantly increase capital funding for our transportation system, Metro’s capabilities will be significantly degraded over the next 10 years. The promised federal capital funding will help, but isn’t nearly enough on its own.

Metro staff recently put together an inventory of capital needs for the coming decade. The larger and most serious category of items was the “Performance and Safety” category, which totaled just over $7.6 billion in needs. These are items that Metro needs to replace, refurbish, or restore just to be able to run the same system it does today. We’re not talking about expanding capacity, we’re talking about maintaining the capacity we already have.

This includes replacing or refurbishing railcars and buses, maintaining tracks, switches and signals, and maintaining or replacing Metro’s maintenance and storage facilities. Here are some of the major categories:

  • Vehicles: Between rail cars, buses and Metroaccess vans, Metro outlined $2.6 billion in needs over the next 10 years.
  • Railcars: Metro operates over 290 1000-series railcars, that have been in operation since 1974-1978. Additional 2000 and 3000 series railcars will also be nearing the end of their service lives by 2020. Since railcars have a long lead time for purchase, it’s important to line up funding well in advance of the need. NTSB has already recommended replacing the 1000 series railcars due to safety concerns, and Metro is eager to replace them once funding is available. Allowing these cars to continue in operation past their service life could result in decreased reliability, degraded passenger comfort, or severe consequences should the cars be involved in an accident. In addition, series 4000 and 5000 cars are reaching the middle of their service life and should have a major overhaul.

  • Buses: In 1999, Metro was still operating old 1960’s GMC diesel buses. The buses were unreliable and dirty, worn out. Typically, buses only have a 20-25 year service life, with a major overhaul in the middle of life. It was only through the “Metro Matters” capital program, where jurisdictions agreed to provide extra capital funding, that Metro’s bus fleet average age has been able to improve to 7.5 years today. Underfunding bus purchase will backtrack on the progress we’ve made recently, requiring Metro to operate buses longer into their service lives.

  • Rail infrastructure: Metro estimated its capital need for rail infrastructure maintenance at $1.8 billion.

  • Tracks: Metro’s running rails in above-ground locations are supported by large wooden beams called sleepers, which are embedded in a consolidated pile of gravel called ballast. Over time, the sleepers can rot, degrading the load-bearing capacity of the rails. This can significantly increase the risk of a derailment. Chicago’s transit authority (CTA) waited too long to replace a lot of their rail infrastructure, and eventually over 20% of their track miles were allowed only to operate as “slow zones”, where trains were limited in speed, sometimes to as little as 15 mph. After a concerted, multi-year effort to repair or replace as much track as they could, spending hundreds of millions per year, they have reduced the number of “slow zone” miles to only 8% of the system.

  • Maintenance Facilities: Metro says they need $1.2 billion to replace and maintain maintenance facilities. This includes the construction of a new test track facility to allow a large number of new rail vehicles to be delivered and tested in a short period of time.

  • Other: Other capital needs include software and computer upgrades, rail power system upgrades to allow 8-car trains. These needs total $2 billion.

All in all, Metro needs $7.6 billion over ten years just to keep running the system we already have. What about expanding the system to accommodate the expected the increase in customer demand? Metro has $3.8 billion in identified need for that, including more buses and rail cars, associated maintenance and storage facilities, and a major upgrade of heavily traveled Metrorail stations. This could include pedestrian tunnels, larger platforms, more elevator and escalator capacity, including backup elevators, and extending canopies to keep all those passengers out of the weather.

To meet these needs, Metro will need about twice the level of capital funding support that they receive now. Congress is on track to provide the $150 million a year that they’ve promised, but that only comes to $1.5 billion. Local jurisdictions are required to match this, but they could legally use some of the “overmatch” they already provide above the federally-required contribution, instead of actually increasing their contribution. They’ll need to maintain the current contribution, add the additional match, and then help Metro find even more capital funding, whether federal or local, to keep the system running for the next generation.

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.