Friday, news broke that WMATA could be unable to repay its loans by June. Monday, Blue, Orange, and Silver line service melted down. Then an Amtrak train derailed Tuesday night, killing six.

What’s going on with our trains?

Photo by Make Lemons on Flickr.

Certainly, money is a big part. Amtrak officials have been warning for years that the infrastructure is falling apart due to lack of funds for maintenance. It’s a sad, tragic, but perhaps not so surprising turn of events that a train will derail if maintenance is ignored (and there have been several more minor derailments recently).

Metro’s infrastructure, too, is in bad shape after decades of neglect while the region’s governments let a brand-new subway system degrade. It needs repairs all over the place, and while the agency works on repairing one set of things, like the track circuits that led to the 2009 Red Line crash, other things don’t get the attention they need, like radios or arcing insulators.

It’s not sustainable to lurch from one crisis to another, never getting to work on the second-tier, but still high-priority, items.

Everyone in frustrated with WMATA

Still, from talking to government officials, business leaders, advocates, and riders, all express how frustrated they are at trying to work with WMATA. Just look at Friday’s meeting with the DC Council on the financial crisis. DeWitt said insolvency could be just a month away. Jack Evans said there is “cause for concern.” Corbett Price said, “This company has been building on a sandy foundation for a long period of time now.” But “Transit officials … said Metro could scrape together” the money.

The Federal Transit Administration put WMATA in a “penalty box” last year because the agency allegedly wasn’t properly documenting expenses, awarded some no-bid contracts, and paid some people improperly. This means that auditors won’t sign off on the agency’s books, which is precipitating this crisis.

Clearly, WMATA screwed up, big time. But a number of officials who aren’t inside either WMATA or the FTA do say privately that they feel the FTA is also being far too demanding. To implement (strict) federal procurement rules, they have layered on more and more regulations which put a tremendous burden on already-strapped transit agencies. FTA officials would say they had to take this step with WMATA, but it’s worth asking the deeper question: is our federal transit bureaucracy also stifling transit in its zeal for regulation?

Even so, this doesn’t excuse WMATA. Yes, they don’t have enough money. Yes, they probably labor under the heavy yoke of federal overseers. Yes, the infrastructure is in bad shape since long before any of the current people were here.

But we don’t hear about these problems from the agency. Instead, we hear about them when they get so bad that the agency can’t deny their existence any more. Officials said last summer they thought the FTA problem would get cleared up in a month or two. I’m sure they hoped so, but always putting on a brave face to the public just makes supporters feel betrayed when it turns out the problem is far worse.

The same goes for escalator repair projects where the reliability is less than promised, cell phone service which takes longer than promised, delays which are worse than promised, and much more. It’s like people think if they just don’t fess up to problems, they’ll go away. They won’t.

And now, officials in DC, Maryland, and Virginia don’t trust WMATA, nor do most riders. That makes it even harder to come together to find a solution to the problem.

I discussed many of these issues Tuesday with Bruce DePuyt on his show NewsTalk Tuesday morning (other than the Amtrak derailment, which hadn’t happened yet.) You can watch our interview below:

Tagged: amtrak, transit, wmata

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.