Image by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

This is the first in a three-part series by GGWash board member Dan Tangherlini on the Metro governance crisis and our need as a region to address it.

Individual tactics are easier than big picture strategy. That is why when people talk about WMATA reform, they usually focus on the immediate and specific issues of the board, labor contracts, and funding. But if we really want to fix Metro we have to start with a bigger strategic question: what is the underlying problem we are trying to fix?

The answer to that question is not much different than when WMATA was first created fifty years ago. We have a financially unsustainable public transportation system that is not fully addressing the mobility needs of a successful, growing region. At the same time, a disruptive mobility technology is upsetting a well-established status quo. In the 1960s it was the mass adoption of the automobile. Today it is ubiquitous access to a ride on demand (Lyft, Uber, etc) and the prospect of autonomous vehicles.

There are many forms of transportation in our region, and we need one system for regulating and providing it.

Metro is actually very good

We need to build on the substantial, successful investments we have made as a region. That starts with the single biggest transportation asset we own as a region: Metro. And while it gets quite a bit of criticism these days, Metro is actually very good.

During Inaugural weekend Metro made the best case for its continued, prominent role in our transportation consciousness. The system carried a contested, but indisputably large, crowd to the inauguration of our 45th president. It then carried a near-record setting load the next day for the Women’s March.

Metro comported itself so well that the usually prickly Post editorial page had to concede the point: Metro nailed it, with a finish of friendly crowd control to boot. In the end, it is still the most modern, efficient and well-designed system running in the United States.

Yup. I said that.

That’s not to say it has not been neglected, depreciated, politicized and disowned. In that way it is also the most dysfunctional and fractious system running in the United States.

And while I have a variety of ideas about how to fix its governance and finances that I will share in later posts, I think we need to first take a big step back and ask what role we want/need public transportation, and by extension WMATA, to play in this region?

What role does WMATA play in our regional transportation network?

When discussing issues with Metro we are making a very common mistake: we are jumping straight to the solution. We are also taking a shortcut by ignoring that Metro (the trains) is part of a bigger public transportation system that includes WMATA (trains and busses) and a variety of other public transportation providers in the region, including MARC, VRE, DC Streetcar, Ride On, ART, Fairfax Connector … I think you get the point.

To that list one needs to add individual jurisdictions’ control and oversight of car-for-hire, livery, and, increasingly, ride-sharing services. Also, don’t forget transit access for the disabled and school transportation networks as well.

Looked at from that distance, one begins to understand that our regional public transportation system is atomized, overlapping, costly and largely uncoordinated. That wasn’t supposed to be the case.

We almost had regional coordination for all forms of transportation, not just Metro

In fact, WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration, and its lesser-known cousin, WMATC, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission, were created in the 1960s to provide coordinated public transportation regulation and service delivery for the Washington region. WMATA with a focus on building and providing mass transit service and WMATC regulating for-hire or privately operated public transportation (cabs, livery and private bus).

The idea never really gained full traction.

Local and state jurisdictions jealously guarded their control over aspects of the system, such as taxi regulation, and stopped WMATC from serving a more important role in coordinating private sector public transportation service. The current effect of this weaker than proposed WMATC is the regional quilt of taxi regulations and a near non-existent regional position on ride-sharing services. A weakness that, in the near future, will likely both hamper adoption and lessen oversight of autonomous vehicles.

WMATA, much more successful in some ways, undid its powerful regional role in public transportation asset development and service provision by proving to be a very expensive option for providing those services.

Recent atomization of funding and governance with the creation of NVTC; NVTA; outsourcing the construction of the Silver Line to MWAA (Airports Authority); and MDOT never considering WMATA to build the Purple Line, are examples of this continued trend. (Montgomery County’s decision to build its own transit center set a low water mark for this divestment from Metro project management.) In short, oversight and control are divided and scattered.

A profound problem with the missed opportunity of regional coordination is a reduced ability to create a critical mass of the highly skilled people necessary to build an efficient transit network. The relatively few skilled managers, technicians, engineers, mechanics, and inspectors that exist in the marketplace are sprinkled across an assortment of agencies, authorities, services and contractors.

Furthermore, a multiplication of small systems increases costs in other ways. We have little or no shared buying power. And we have little or no consistency that drives down cost and increases quality. (You can read my earlier post related to that subject.) While some people decry the cost of direct transit labor, an equivalent burden is put on the farebox and the subsidizing entities by the management and overhead expense of having so many redundant providers.

Let’s double down on WMATA and focus our public transportation decision-making and investments

We should rebuild WMATA with an emphasis on realizing its original vision. Combine the many regional management, operating, and engineering capacities into a single entity with scale and buying power. That buying power should be applied to providing competitive service, with equal emphasis put both on contracted and direct service provision. Bringing together all the public employees under one umbrella would both enhance job opportunities for the existing workforce and create an opportunity for managed competition by private providers.

This genuine regional system should also include breathing new life into WMATC and enhancing coordination with local and state-level regulators. Both traditional and autonomous ride-sharing service regulations should contemplate the role of these services to feed and expand the reach of affordable access to mobility and traditional public transportation.

By evaluating heavy rail lines, bus routes, and service areas, including the potential to use ride-sharing services to extend access, we could offer affordable, accessible transit to 100% of the region at less cost than our overlapping and inefficient structure provides today. That is the goal we should be focusing on.

Later posts will cover how to govern and pay for this truly regional transit system.



Sebastian Smoot is this month’s sponsor for posts about Transit. Learn more »

Dan Tangherlini has had a diverse public service career in local, regional and federal government, including service as Director of the District Department of Transportation, interim General Manager of WMATA, DC City Administrator, CFO of the US Department of the Treasury, and head of the US General Services Administration. Dan lives on Capitol Hill.