“If we don’t do something, ten years from now the system won’t be running,” said WMATA Board chairman Jack Evans. “The financial situation is dire.”

COG chairman Roger Berliner addresses a summit of regional leaders on Metro. Photo by the author.

Evans minced no words while speaking at a summit Wednesday morning on the future of Metro, which has just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Regional leaders, convened by the Council of Governments and Board of Trade, gathered to discuss how to ensure Metro thrives in its next 40 years.

“There’s no pride in Metro any more,” said Doug Duncan, who served for 12 years as county executive of Montgomery County and now leads the regional Leadership Greater Washington program. “The cars are pigsties,” he said, with banana peels and the like everywhere.

Duncan compared the state of Metro, which he said he rides every day, to the early days. So did Evans, who likened riding Metro in 1976 to the Jetsons. But, he noted, if you want to see one of those 1976 cars you don’t have to go to the Smithsonian. You just have to hop on one of many running Metro trains.

WMATA is trying to replace the old 1000 series cars, but production from Kawasaki was delayed due to the Japanese tsunami and has remained behind schedule and below quality expectations.

Evans castigated his own baby boomer generation for allowing this situation to develop. “Our generation took our parents’ accomplishments and let them go to wreck and ruin,” he said. It’s not just WMATA; he mentioned the Memorial Bridge, which may have to close to traffic entirely in five years. “I don’t want that to be our legacy. I want our generation to leave things better than we found them.”

A 1000 series railcar. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Leaders unite behind Wiedefeld

Speakers across the region and the political spectrum agreed that Paul Wiedefeld is well-equipped to address many of these problems. Pete Rahn, Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation, said, “Somehow the board found THE person who can make the changes that must occur.” And he urged the WMATA board to let Wiedefeld work, focusing on policy rather than the operations of the agency.

District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo, who is also a member of the WMATA board, said Wiedefeld has the necessary “back to basics” focus on “safety and reliability.” He added, “There was a misdiagnosis about the core problems of Metro a year ago because of a lack of information of what the problems were,” but now, the leadership has the right priorities.

Getting those priorities to filter down to all ten thousand WMATA employees is not an easy challenge, however, like the issues with railcar cleanliness Duncan mentioned. Wiedefeld said a big focus of his work will be on the front-line employees. “There has been a disconnect between management and employees,” he said, and in past comments has been clear that he thinks management bears much of the blame for that situation.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Show us the money?

There wasn’t the same unanimity when the discussion turned to funding Metro. Evans is adamant that Metro needs a substantial infusion of new cash to succeed.

He’d served on the board many years ago while the system was being built and it was a jewel of the Washington area. After being re-appointed last year, he said, DC CFO Jeff DeWitt came into his office and said the finances were “in shambles.” Just as one example, WMATA has a $2.5 billion unfunded pension liability.

Evans said that former WMATA General Manager Dick White warned of this very crisis in a report a decade ago. He predicted the agency would hit a wall financially and, Evans said, White’s predicted timeline was only off by two months.

The agency will be starting labor negotiations in June, and Evans predicted that will mean labor costs rise (as they have regularly in the past). Labor makes up $1.2 billion of WMATA’s $1.8 billion annual operating budget. All labor contracts go to binding arbitration, and since past arbitrators have generously interpreted WMATA’s means, salary levels are only somewhat in the board’s control.

Evans said he’s absolutely opposed to raising fares or cutting service. That just leaves more funding from local and federal governments. Evans proposed the region’s governments find another $900 million a year for Metro, and the federal government commit $300 million.

It’s not clear other governments will go along. Maryland’s Pete Rahn said it will be difficult to get more money until WMATA can “get its own house in order.”

Rahn said WMATA already takes up 11% of the state’s transportation budget. That’s funding the Hogan administration supports because of Metro’s importance, but they have also sought to limit spending, such as refusing to pay for Maryland’s ridership share of the 5A bus to Dulles Airport.

Evans compared the situation to DC’s fiscal straits in the 1990s, when a federally-chartered control board reformed the city’s finances. Evans was very involved in that turnaround as a councilmember at the time, and said Metro can reform as well and gain the credibility it needs to win funding.

But, he also warned, this can turn into a catch-22. “We heard, ‘get your house in order’ before we’ll give you money” during the control board era, Evans said. “Then we got our house in order, and they said, ‘you don’t need money.’”

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Governance changes are “a waste of time”

One oft-heard recommendation is to reform the WMATA board. There was widespread agreement that it’s probably too large, at 16 members. There have long been debates over whether the board has too many elected officials or not enough of them.

However, several argued this isn’t WMATA’s biggest problem and changing governance is probably not worth the effort. Dormsjo said when he worked for Maryland, he thought that state’s method of appointing board members was the best one. But once he came to DC, he saw the value of DC’s method as well.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne reminded participants that to change the compact requires DC, Maryland, and Virginia to pass identical legislation, then receive approval from Congress. That’s very hard, he said. Recently, there was a very minor compact amendment to let the US Department of Transportation appoint federal board members instead of the General Services Administration; the Virginia House initially voted that proposal down before ultimately agreeing to it.

Evans agreed that trying to amend the compact would be “a waste of time.” He said he absolutely thinks the board is too large, and he’d eagerly join any effort to shrink it, but noted that any such change would have winners and losers, and those who lose would not acquiesce quietly.

What’s next?

Wiedefeld is intent on tackling WMATA’s challenges. “We cannot go on moving from crisis to crisis,” he said. But the solution “may be hard on riders and jurisdictions.”

Evans agreed. “The only way to get the system fixed is to make unpopular decisions.” Whether more shutdowns or finding more money in the budget, fixing Metro will demand political courage from regional leaders. That is, if DC, Maryland, and Virginia can all agree on which courageous step is needed.

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.