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Metro derailment drives home need to improve and save system

By Robert McCartney
Saturday, February 13, 2010; B01

The sadness and concern were evident in the phone calls and e-mails that I began receiving within minutes after the news broke: "Oh, no. Not again. What is happening to Metro?"

Thankfully, no one died in the derailment at the Farragut North Station on the Red Line. But it's awfully discouraging when it's a relief to report that the transit system's latest mishap resulted "only" in three passengers being slightly injured.

The bad news about Metro just doesn't let up.

The transit system was barely functional during the week of blizzards -- when, frankly, we needed it most. And as soon as it was close to returning to normal, this happened, reminding everyone that getting around the capital of the free world is sort of a crapshoot every day.

Metro's deterioration is the result of inadequate funding and ineffective leadership that goes back many years.

Starting last Saturday, we were reminded that the rail system operates on only about half its track in a major snowstorm, whenever accumulation reaches eight inches or more. All aboveground stations were shut for five out of six days from Saturday through Thursday, and the system had only partially reopened Friday when the accident occurred.

The underground service has been slow, too, with waits of half an hour or longer between trains. The system has been using only a single track, instead of the normal two, in many places. That's partly because underground tracks were being used as storage space to keep rail cars out of the snow.

Now that a bright winter sun is beginning to melt the white stuff, we're right back to worrying about Metro's safety record. It has acquired the unwelcome distinction of having more deaths from accidents than any transit system in the nation.

What will it take to turn it around? First, the Metro board must find a strong new general manager to succeed John B. Catoe Jr., who's leaving in early April. The new chief will have to shake up a workplace culture that has neglected safety.

We'll have to wait awhile to get that person, though. The board hasn't selected an interim manager.

Second, the region and the federal government need to provide adequate funding. The system is looking at a deficit of about $200 million for operations for its next budget year.

If more money isn't found, the system risks getting stuck in a downward spiral in which it cuts service to cover the red ink, then loses passengers and revenue because of declining service.

The snowstorm's impact could potentially have a benefit by encouraging the federal government to help cover Metro's operational costs (in addition to the funds it has started providing for capital investments).

The partial Metro shutdown for snow was, in turn, partly responsible for closing the federal government for four days in a row, which the Office of Personnel Management estimated cost $400 million in lost productivity. Some local officials say the federal government would save money by giving more to Metro to help it stay open.

Third, there's the need for capital investments for Metro -- for modernization of equipment to make it safer and more efficient.

A good start has been made, with the Obama administration and Congress approving $150 million a year for 10 years for capital improvements to the system (assuming the money gets appropriated each year as planned). That's to be matched by $150 million each, annually, from the District, Maryland and Virginia.

It's only a down payment, though. The system needs that much again, and more.

And fourth, the Metro board needs to be less parochial and more conscious of the needs of the region as a whole in its approach.

All of this is going to take time. But for all its troubles, Metro is still much safer than driving on the Capital Beltway. It's the most efficient, least-polluting means of transportation in our region. We need to save it. The latest missteps should drive home that message for us.

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