Photo by Paul L on Flickr.

The Washington Post, several bloggers, and many Metro riders have been hammering WMATA recently for being so opaque about its timetable for Metro Forward repairs. Besides leveling with riders about how long repairs are going to take, WMATA could build confidence by also being more forthcoming about how much money it will need in the long run.

The constant refrain from CEO Richard Sarles about maintenance is, “it’ll be done when it’s done.” As Dan Malouff wrote yesterday, that isn’t good enough. “The more confident we are that this painful time will end someday, the better we can support Metro in the meantime,” he said.

The same questions apply to WMATA’s budget. Year after year, we find out that there’s a shortfall, or maybe not; a fare hike has to go into effect, or maybe not. The budget precipitates a crisis where local jurisdictions have to come up with money or service cuts have to take effect.

Last April, I suggested a long-range financial and capital plan for Metro with specific information:

  • Until 20XX, Metro will be in “catch-up mode.” After that, they’ll be in “keep it working” mode.
  • During catch-up mode, Metro needs $x million in capital funds per year, increasing at a rate of x% per year. After that, they’ll need $y million in keep it working mode (less than in catch-up mode).
  • If we can still afford the catch-up mode funding once Metro reaches a state of good repair, then we can start using the surplus to pay for some projects to deal with the high passenger loads that there will be by this time, like adding physical walkways between Metro Center and Gallery Place, new entrances at busy stations like Foggy Bottom, or new lines or tracks in the core.
  • If Metro doesn’t get enough money in catch-up mode, then that mode will have to last longer. If it doesn’t get enough in keep it working mode, then it may have to go back into catch-up mode.
  • In keep it working mode, to maintain the existing service, given wages, pensions, fuel, health care, and so on, Metro will have to increase its budget by z% each year. A certain percentage of that can come from riders, while jurisdictions should plan on increasing their Metro contributions by the remaining amount necessary to reach the z% per year.
  • In good years, Metro will use the extra money to top up its rainy day fund; in bad years, it’ll spend money from that fund.

From talking to some WMATA employees, my understanding is that many but not all top leaders want to be able to project like this. Some of the information about asset lifecycles they have, while some they hope to collect. It’s less clear how much consensus there is over how deeply to share the information with the public.

Along with revealing how much money the agency needs, there needs to be transparency about what we get for it. If the region keeps up funding maintenance, then we need to be able to know that, indeed, the system is maintaining a state of good repair. It’s a two-way street: a good system will cost this much, but then residents can know they got a good system out of the deal.

More long-term budget information will also help leaders and riders know whether the pension obligations and other retirement benefits are unsustainable over the long run. If they are, we need to start finding ways now to keep paying good workers a living wage and ensuring they have health care, but with a package that WMATA and the region can keep affording for decades to come.

Without long-term budgeting, it’s always too easy to shortchange the present. It’s easy to skip out on keeping up state of good repair during an economic downturn, and then not make up the funds during a boom. Before 2008, WMATA’s pension funds rose in value, so the agency didn’t salt as much money away; that ultimately let jurisdictions spend less. Then, the funds dropped, and it had to come up with more money during the toughest times.

It’s always easier to get through the immediate problems and push the long-term questions out of mind until they’re imminent crises. Certainly that’s what we do with road projects, too — as Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn keeps chronicling, few jurisdictions really plan for the lifecycle replacement costs of the new road infrastructure from a new subdivision. Someone else will deal with it later.

Metro took a big step forward by releasing its long-term vision for capital projects, like upgrading to 8-car trains and relieving the Rosslyn bottleneck. Now we know how much those should cost, and local governments can start thinking about how to pay for it. Now, we need the equivalent for the Metro Forward maintenance plan and the operating costs for all services. We need better data to make fully informed decisions.

The Metrorail system is one of our region’s greatest assets. We have to keep it working for the long term. Riders need confidence that we will get past the immediate problems and avoid getting into this kind of hole again. Otherwise, even if Metro does regain rider confidence, it’ll always be on the precipice of more crises that squander it again.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.