Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Riders have been deserting Metro. If the agency ran even fewer trains, the trains were slower, and they didn’t run at night or on the weekends at all, would that make people start riding again? No? But that might be exactly what US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will force upon Metro if he’s serious in his recent rhetoric.

Metro has severe problems with operations, with finances, with communication, and with safety. The agency needs to improve in all of those areas, all at the same time. But in a recent op-ed, Foxx, whose agency just took over safety oversight, says the agency may only work on safety, seemingly to the exclusion of all else.

We all want Metro to be safe, and the agency has earned our anger at its recent behavior. However, it’s not actually unsafe today, and if the federal government insists it drop everything to work on safety without also working on the immediate and long-term problems with the quality of the service, we may soon find ourselves with a much less useful transit system and an overall transportation network that is less safe rather than more.

Foxx takes charge

Foxx’s agency recently took over Metro safety oversight through the Federal Transit Administration, which regulates US transit systems. Metro is the first and only transit system where FTA is directly monitoring safety.

This situation arose because the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the joint entity between DC, Maryland, and Virginia which was supposed to be monitoring safety, dropped the ball multiple times over the past few years. The National Transportation Safety Board suggested giving oversight to the Federal Railroad Admnistration, which monitors safety on commuter and freight railroads, but Foxx opted to give it to the FTA instead.

This weekend, he published an op-ed explaining just what he expects of Metro. And it amounts to insisting Metro not do a single thing except work on safety until FTA is 100% satisfied.

Here are a few quotes:

  • “The FTA … will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements.”
  • “We may also require periodic closures of some Metro facilities to ensure safety measures are implemented.”
  • “There will be no new projects until Metro completes its punch list.”
  • “Metro can forget any new rail-expansion projects until it meets our safety standards.”

You might say, what’s wrong with that? Everyone agrees safety is the most important priority — including the WMATA Board. But there’s a huge difference between something being top priority and being the only priority.

How much will Foxx hamstring Metro?

Some of Foxx’s quotes sound frightening. FTA might force Metro to shut down some facilities? When? For how long?

If FTA just pushes Metro to do a longer closure here and there to get more repairs done, well, maybe that’s reasonable (though both Metro and FTA should be open with the public about the tradeoffs inherent in such decisions rather than just making a choice behind closed doors).

What’s more scary is the idea that FTA might force Metro to run fewer trains, or trains farther apart, or make the trains slower, for months, years, or even permanently. After all, it’s surely safer if all of the trains run at no more than 30 mph, or are always at least 5 minutes apart, for instance.

Already, riders at Stadium-Armory are suffering with most trains skipping their stop thanks to the transformer fire. Blue Line riders have suffered from scarce trains for years now. Trains are running slowly in parts of the system. Metro is not putting as many trains out as its own service plans call for. Will the FTA impose more of this on top?

I’ve contacted FTA to ask for more information, and will follow up if they provide more details.

Will FTA care about service at all?

Foxx doesn’t sound like he’s completely ignorant about how important service is. He even mentions it a few times:

  • “While the FTA will oversee Metro’s safety activities, Metro must step up maintenance and operations, improve service and earn back the confidence of riders and workers.”
  • “Metro and state and local officials must pull together and do what is necessary to make Metro a safe, reliable and desirable option for travelers.”

These sentences are absolutely correct. But they contradict his statements elsewhere that he “will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements.” Making Metro reliable and desirable, as well as safe, will require some dollars, too. So will stepping up operations, improving service, and earning back confidence.

Those shouldn’t come at the expense of safety — and sometimes in the past, they have — but need to happen concurrently.

The “Federal Less Transit Administration”?

There’s particular reason to worry because the FTA has not behaved in the past like an organization that wants to help transit agencies. Instead, it’s like a sword of Damocles hanging over each transit agency, ready to fall if the agency missteps.

State transportation officials who weren’t willing to speak publicly (for fear of retaliation from FTA) have told me that at industry events, FTA representatives generally lecture transit agencies on their compliance responsibilities but don’t try to work collaboratively to make the bureaucracy work well for everyone. FTA has been far less flexible than the Federal Highway Administration on things like putting tracks on bridges.

Already, FTA has one hand around Metro’s throat: It’s been withholding federal funds until after Metro spends money on repairs, only reimbursing WMATA after the fact and only if officials fill out all of the paperwork perfectly. It had a legitimate reason to start this penalty: WMATA had lax controls that led to procurement missteps and bad contracts. That’s been fixed now, though, yet Metro continues to labor under deep restrictions on getting the money it needs.

This is the transit equivalent of the old saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

FTA regularly behaves as though there’s no problem with transit agencies running very little transit, yet spending huge dollars on expensive bureaucratic overhead. I’m sure not everyone at FTA feels this way, but the ultimate stance of the agency often ends up being that it doesn’t matter if the transit gets run, only if every comma is in place on the forms.

Foxx seems to be saying he’ll stand firmly behind FTA’s safety people if they take the same attitude as the rest of the agency. If there’s a way to improve safety by 0.000001% but it causes thousands of hours of rider delays, well, safety is number one.

Metro isn’t dangerous

If riding Metro actually posed a serious risk of injury, then I’d be the first to say shut it down until it’s safe. But it’s pretty darn safe now.

It’s terrible that a woman died of smoke inhalation at L’Enfant Plaza in January, and even more unforgivable that Metro had been keeping quiet about the fact that radios didn’t work. WMATA needs to not only fix the problems that led to this, but also be far more proactive about identifying, disclosing, and fixing safety risks.

Still, you have to put this in a bit of perspective. Just this weekend, people driving killed one person walking and two people biking. Crashes that kill drivers on high-speed roads are a sadly common feature in the news.

If platforms get more crowded, that will harm safety too, perhaps far more than whatever a long-term shutdown or slowdown will fix. Same if people switch to driving, where they might imperil not only themselves but others. Shutting down night Metro service might help with repairs but also increase drunk driving, for instance.

Anthony Foxx has been a strong proponent of road safety, no doubt, and deserves credit for it. Still, none of us expects him to write that “America can forget any new road-expansion projects until the roads meet our safety standards.”

Even if he wanted to say that, Congress wouldn’t allow it. And not just Republicans; Senator Barbara Mikulski has been the first to be outraged beyond belief at any safety lapse at Metro but quiet on both Metro’s service lapses and road safety. Foxx is just hearing the message loud and clear.

Will Foxx and FTA make Metro better or worse?

Of course Metro needs to do better on safety. Its lapses have been intolerable. The current oversight scheme has failed to actually provide oversight. DC, Maryland, and Virginia transportation heads failed to ensure the oversight officials in their employ had the tools to properly monitor safety.

The Federal Transit Administration could be a positive force here or a negative one. It could watch for the real safety risks and insist Metro address them while also recognizing there has to be some balance of prioritizing service, safety, and other imperatives.

Or, it could force Metro to sacrifice its service until ten years from now we’re left with something no better than a commuter rail system, lines useful at rush hours and nearly useless at any other time, trains that crawl along most of the way, and an agency continually unable to communicate or set long-term plans.

We’d get increasingly-congested roads as more people abandon Metro and more net deaths, but nobody would blame FTA or Anthony Foxx. I’d like to hope that people at USDOT and FTA recognize this issue, but that will require Foxx sending a different message to people inside the agency from his bellicose posture in this weekend’s article.

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.