Anyone who has used Metro during the past few years knows that the system has been running a low-grade fever for some time.
Service has declined noticeably, and once-gleaming stations have taken on a grimy tinge. When Metro's systemic difficulties began to collide with its self-inflicted traumas and blunders, the decline accelerated, and an already weakened patient went on the critical list.
A chronic condition usually develops slowly, lasts a long time, and receives considerably less care and attention than an acute illness. But neglecting a chronic problem invites serious complications and always adds to expenses -- as Metro is discovering. Through a failure to fix what was once a low-grade problem, Metro has managed to squander an enormous amount of public support and goodwill.
Among the many chronic issues plaguing Metro, two stand out.
The first, an unusual and problematic revenue base, cannot be blamed on the system's managers. But the second, the collapse of the public's confidence in the ability of Metro to run an efficient and safe system, is all Metro's fault.
Transit systems have capital costs and operating costs. Capital costs include expenditures for items such as new stations, tracks, buses and trains, maintenance yards, and land purchases. Big transit agencies obtain most of the money for these kinds of outlays from the Transportation Department. That's the good news.
The bad news is that federal law prohibits the use of these funds for covering operating expenses. Unlike capital expenses, operating costs, which are used to run the place, are the responsibility of the transit agency. Metro uses more than 75 percent of its operating budget to cover salaries and benefits for its employees.
The fare box covers about 55 percent of Metro's operating costs, significantly more than the national average for public transit systems. The remainder of the money comes from state and local tax revenue and other sources, such as advertising. In other cities with subways, dedicated taxes and tolls provide the revenue stream for the state and the local contribution. That's the hitch for Metro. It is the only system in the country without a dedicated source of funding.
For transit systems nationally, about a third of funding generally comes from dedicated sources. For Metro, less than 2 percent does. Metro must rely instead on general fund revenue from Maryland, Virginia and the District and its local partners, all of which are feeling a financial pinch lately.
Obviously, the decades-old formula used to fund Metro no longer works, but nothing is being done to rectify that. Metro, the fourth-largest transit system in the country, must continue to beg for its money.
Washington area residents know how indispensable Metro is to the social and economic fabric of this region. Many people love the system and respect the valuable contribution it makes to our area. But at the same time, they have little or no confidence in Metro's leadership.
The list is long, but we can begin with the Metro board's dopey idea of reducing the size of trains to two cars after 10 p.m., which, before the move was rescinded, caused uncomfortable conditions and, at times, dangerous overcrowding.
Then, add the parking lot scandal, which allowed millions of dollars to be stolen. Compound that with Metro's decision to convert its parking lots' payment system to SmarTrip cards -- without having the foresight to have enough cards to meet a perfectly predictable demand.
Toss in the operator who abandoned her train in a station during rush hour because her shift was over -- and left her conductor's compartment wide open on the first day of a Code Orange terrorist alert. And the station manager who berated a couple because they made an inquiry about a broken escalator. And the Red Line train that was stranded in a tunnel for more than a half-hour because controllers didn't notice that it was in trouble.
Stir into that mix the lawsuit filed against the para-transit service, which is supposed to help the disabled get around but often ends up punishing them for their attempts at mobility.
Finally, add in the constant mechanical problems, breakdowns, overcrowding, and elevator and escalator malfunctions, and the reasons that people distrust Metro management become clear.
But don't look for the present group of managers to be in the stations and on the trains with the resources at hand, sleeves rolled up, working to fix what's broken. They're not the type.
Expect instead the same tired act of more brochures, customer surveys and news releases announcing the latest "brush-up" classes for workers who should know better -- paid for by the taxpayers, of course.
Area residents should not confuse a system that is sick with a leadership that is inept. Metro badly needs a dedicated funding source that enjoys broad public support. But it also badly needs managers who have the talent and dedication to maximize the benefits of that gift.
Metro helps us with our worsening air quality by eliminating 10,000 tons of pollution every year while saving the region 75 million gallons of fuel. Without Metro, traffic congestion would be 40 percent worse than it already is. That's unimagined anguish.
Metro helps to keep us healthy; now, the favor needs to be returned.