Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.
I spoke on a panel this morning at the National Press Club about the future of WMATA. Pat Host hosted WMATA board member Tom Bulger, union president Jackie Jeter, @lowheadways’ Graham Jenkins, and me. We were all asked to prepare statements about the “challenges facing Metro and its riders.” Here is an edited version of my statement.
Here we are, again. Someone reading the headlines about WMATA could easily think we were back in 2009.
The agency faces a budget shortfall. Service cuts are on the table. Trains and buses are breaking down. Riders are frustrated. And then, a fatal crash exposed safety failures that they knew about but didn’t address.
The riding public sees WMATA as perpetually in crisis. Yes, this year’s particular budget gap is largely a result of the cutbacks in federal transit benefits, but we’ve been here in past years and will be again. Can WMATA get out of this cycle, reach a sound financial footing, fix broken systems, and regain the public’s trust?
Picking the right general manager
Everyone agrees WMATA needs fixing, but not on how to fix it. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser wants as the next General Manager a “turnaround specialist” from outside the transit industry while recent board chairman Tom Downs thinks another experienced transit executive, just like the last few GMs, is the right pick.
I worry about both possibilities. Another career transit operator for whom this is the last job before retirement would not shake up deeply entrenched problems within the agency, like an insular culture impervious to outside information, a hierarchical structure where people do not question higher-ups, and poor customer service from a few employees whose actions reflect badly on the whole but go unchecked.
But a pure cost-cutter could sacrifice service at the altar of the bottom line. Our region’s residents depend on transit service. Far more people live car-free in walkable urban places than when Metro was new. It would be deeply wrong to retrench Metro as merely a suburban commuter system designed to move workers downtown at rush hours.
There are those who say Metro’s problem is that it has too much service. Late night and weekend service makes track work more difficult. It would be easier to shut the whole system down to make repairs. Sometimes that is appropriate, but it must be as minimal as possible, not just expansive for convenience’s sake.
I believe WMATA does need an outsider, not another member of the transit executive club who thinks the way it’s always been done is just fine. But to ensure an outsider changes the right things, riders need to be involved.
The current debate over a turnaround expert versus a transit operating expert has been happening almost entirely behind the scenes. Scant information can lead officials to make bad decisions. Muriel Bowser, Terry McAuliffe, and Larry Hogan need to reach out more to riders about what they’d want from an outsider, and riders need to make their views heard.
Fix the mismanagement and the funding stream
Metro has twin challenges of disinvestment and mismanagement, and both feed on one another. The agency’s failures make people understandably more reluctant to throw money at what seems like a black hole, but underfunding and unusually high expenses have put the system on a knife’s edge where a small mistake has big consequences.
WMATA needs a reliable and dedicated funding stream to insulate against the vagaries of the political winds in Annapolis, Richmond, and Pennsylvania Avenue, but riders and local governments will need better guarantees of what will happen next.
A plan to stabilize WMATA must go beyond dollars and give riders a much clearer understanding of how long they must endure this level of weekend track work, when Metro can reach a state of good repair, and then what level of maintenance to expect beyond.
People need to know not only how WMATA will make it through the next year’s budget, but also how this stretches into the long term. They need to know whether WMATA can live within its means with only inflationary fare increases while boosting rather than cutting service. And riders will expect customer service to become a higher priority.
Without change, Metro will probably muddle through. It muddles through, year after year. We’ll be back in a few years discussing how to close a budget gap or deal with decrepit systems. When ridership grows again we still won’t have 8-car trains or a second Rosslyn station to allow more Blue Line service. Most buses will still be too infrequent and too slow, or end too early, to really offer an alternative to car ownership.
We can’t afford the status quo
But the region can’t afford a transit system that is just going to squeak by from one challenge to the next. Whoever the next general manager is, he or she needs to be able to right the ship.
WMATA faces management challenges that need resolutions. And the agency’s program of rebuilding after decades of deferred maintenance still has years’ worth of work left. Rising costs are driving an annual budget battle with no end in sight.
But WMATA’s next leader will also have to deal with a deficit of public confidence. Riders are tired of constant work, frequent delays, and surly employees. And that is afflicting the political will to solve the funding situation.
I hope that the region can mobilize to do better, to make Metro again a jewel of our national capital that can be proud of. Can we do it?