Last week, WMATA announced over $11B in capital improvement spending needs. Where would the money be spent? I found a staff report (PDF) before the Planning, Development and Real Estate Committee of the Board that laid out what WMATA is proposing for capital needs.

WMATA breaks it out into three categories:

  1. Performance Focus - What do we need to keep the system running the way it is now?
  2. Demand Focus - What do we need to meet the demands of increased ridership?
  3. Customer Focus - What should we do to improve the customer experience?

The highest priority funding is in the “Performance Focus” category, since that funding is what will keep the system from degrading. The major categories and examples of spending are:

  • Vehicles - replacing and rehabilitating old railcars that have reached end of design life, and replacing buses that have reached end of design life
  • Systems and technology - rehabilitating power systems and automatic train control systems that have reached end of design life

  • Maintenance and other facilities - replacing old bus garages and rail maintenance facilities
  • Track and structures - replacing and refurbishing rails and platforms
  • Passenger facilities - Rebuilding or refurbishing escalators, elevators, parking lots

The next highest priority is ensuring that increased passenger demand does not cause congestion or overburden the system. Major categories and examples are:

  • Vehicles - Purchase enough railcars to run 8-car service during rush hours, increase bus fleet by over 300 vehicles
  • Maintenance and facilities - Build maintenance and storage facilities for the new vehicles
  • Passenger facilities - Core station capacity enhancements, build pedestrian tunnels for transfers between the Farragut Square stations and Metro Center/Gallery Place stations
  • Systems and Technology - Electric rail power upgrades necessary to run a significant number of 8-car trains, new farecard machines

Unfortunately, the last priority items are the upgrades to the customer experience that get most people excited. Here are some highlights:

  • Passenger Facilities - Above ground stations would get canopies for the entire platform length, more stations would have entrance canopies
  • Safety and Security - “MTPD Priorities” (bus cameras, etc.), better station lighting, better direction finding signage at stations
  • Systems and Technology - Disposable Smartrip cards, EZ Pass at parking lots, more Smartrip dispenser machines, new web page
  • Maintenance and Other Facilities - Test track and commissioning facility (for all the new railcars and buses we’ll be buying, hopefully)

If WMATA doesn’t get at least $6-7 billion over the next 10 years for capital needs, we’re going to be in some serious hurt. There is not much from the Performance Focus category that can be easily cut, and the items that appear borderline (to me) could probably be justified if I had access to more detail.

Even if we fund everything from Performance Focus, increased system load will be nearly unbearable for passengers. Everything from Demand Focus is necessary to meet the increased ridership. We’re going to need more railcars, buses, maintenance facilities, electric power systems, and ways to get passengers around the bottlenecks to relieve congestion.

It’s a shame that after we fund the first two categories, the sources of funding will likely be completely tapped out, because there are some exciting things in the Customer Focus category. Out of this category, my favorites would be disposable Smartrip cards, Enterprise GIS (better geographic data recording and reporting), and the webpage upgrade (though I question what WMATA is proposing for $32 million for a new “Web Portal”).

Last time we went through this, we ended up funding $1.5 billion over 6 years, or about a third of the bare minimum under this plan. This time, if we don’t get to at least $6-7 billion, the system will suffer. Cross-posted on

Michael Perkins blogs about Metro operations and fares, performance parking, and any other government and economics information he finds on the Web. He lives with his wife and two children in Arlington, Virginia.