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A Metro Issue to Weigh: The Price of Parsimony

By Doug Feaver
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

It will take the National Transportation Safety Board a while to determine exactly what caused Monday's disastrous Red Line accident, but there are two factors the board should specifically address: the parsimony with which all levels of government treat public transit and the silliness of the Washington system not having a dedicated revenue source.

Had there been enough money at the right time, Metro could well have replaced or substantially refitted the 30-year-old rail car that ran amok, as the safety board recommended five years ago after another fatal Metro accident.

We still do not know why the train that crashed did not stop automatically. Its operator was killed in the accident. But Metro's electronic system, which should have braked the train, has failed before on older cars, and officials said yesterday that the car was two months overdue for brake work. Some of this is management, and Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has been wrestling with deferred maintenance (which is almost always a money issue) since taking the job in January 2007.

"We recommended to either retrofit those cars or to phase them out of the fleet," National Transportation Safety Board member Deborah Hersman said yesterday. "They have not been able to do that and our recommendation was not addressed. So, it has been an unacceptable status."

I start with the question of money because it has been Metro's Achilles heel from the beginning. This is a complex region politically, with strongly held but differing social philosophies about fares and taxes. That Metro exists is a small miracle. Its construction required the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia, the D.C. Council and the U.S. Congress to agree on the same word-for-word, comma-for-comma enabling language. That nailed down the construction agreements.

Construction is fun and politicians love it. Running and maintaining something, however, is hard work, and it is much less visible to constituents, until something goes wrong. As Ted Lutz, Metro's former general manager (and later a Washington Post Co. vice president) once told me, "You never saw a politician cut a ribbon at an asphalt overlay project."

Most transit systems in this country have dedicated tax revenue to run their bus and rail operations. Some sort of regional tax for Washington and its suburbs is proposed periodically, but Maryland and Virginia have traditionally seen such concepts as a sneaky way for the District to impose a commuter tax. The idea never gains traction.

Many politicians (and their constituents) firmly believe that transit services (and Amtrak) should pay for themselves through fares. It won't happen. It doesn't happen anywhere. The French and Japanese bullet trains that we all admire are heavily subsidized. So are Europe's transit systems, which serve its cities uncommonly well.

There has been some recent progress for Metro. On May 5, the D.C. Council passed legislation that matched language already enacted by Maryland and Virginia. That action meets conditions set by Congress last year when it authorized spending as much as $1.5 billion over 10 years to help maintain the Metro system. A large federal contribution has been defended by locals and The Post's editorial page as only fair, given that many Metro riders are federal employees.

Interestingly, around the nation, cities including Los Angeles, San Jose and Honolulu have voted recently for transit-specific taxes, possibly because of concern about global warming and rising gasoline prices. Last year transit ridership nationally rose 4 percent, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

The recession-imposed limits on government budgets and increased demand are doubtless among the reasons why "transit systems are strained all over the country," said Art Guzzetti, the association's vice president for policy. He said that 80 percent of the systems in a recent APTA survey are dealing with the same or less money than they had the previous year. That inevitably results in reduced or deferred maintenance.

Metro still has 293 of those 30-year-old rail cars and forecasts that it will cost $811 million and take three years to replace them. That is part of a projected $11 billion in unfunded capital expenditures that Metro has forecast for the next decade.

Despite its concerns and Monday's accident, Metrorail is extraordinarily safe. About 40,000 people nationwide were killed in traffic accidents in 2007, the last year for which totals are available. Heavy-rail transit -- the technical term that includes Metrorail -- had 25 fatalities. A total of 12 passengers and two Metro employees have been killed since the system opened. The National Safety Council says there are 0.71 highway fatalities per 100 million passenger miles and 0.05 per 100 million passenger miles for rail systems. There are excellent safety, ecological and community reasons to improve our support of public transit.

Doug Feaver, who writes the dot.comments blog for washingtonpost.com, is a former Post reporter who covered Metro and other local and national transportation issues for 12 years.

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