A totally weird thing happened in the nation’s capital this week: Metro riders were happy. Ecstatic, even.
And not only was there actual joy, but some of it was coming from the fiercely independent “Taxation Without Representation” D.C. statehood types who were delighted to learn that the federal government wants more power over our dysfunctional and sometimes deadly subway system.
“HELL YEAH, BRING IN THE FEDS,” crowed @PhilthePill on Twitter when the National Transportation Safety Board announced the proposal Wednesday.
“It’s about time @wmata answers to somebody!!!” exulted @PhilnTheThrill.
What? Are we hearing this? Residents praising more federal intrusion when most can’t stand the District’s overbearing overseers in Congress?
Yes, believe it. Riding Metro has become such a mishmash of delays, malfunctions and miscues that its furious passengers are putting out the welcome mat.
“Usually I want the fed gov’t to stay out of #DC politics,” wrote @novalsi before applauding the “long overdue” federal oversight.
“You know #wmata is screwed up when a possible Fed takeover is viewed as an upgrade over the current situation,” wrote @NatsBandwagon.
Eighteen people have lost their lives to Metro’s safety lapses and incompetence over the past 33 years. The NTSB has opened 11 investigations, with relatively little response. It wants to move oversight of Metrorail to the Federal Railroad Administration, treating it like a commuter railway rather than a city subway system.
A federal tri-state oversight authority is responsible for running the trains. But the NTSB report noted that the body is so toothless that few safety improvements recommended after a horrible 2009 crash killed nine people have been implemented.
The flaws and mismanagement have continued. In January, more than 80 people were sickened and a 61-year-old Alexandria woman died when thick, black smoke filled their train after an electrical fire.
Less dangerous but hugely irksome for thousands of commuters: an electrical failure in September that led to the evacuation of more than 200 passengers from a Green Line tunnel and an August derailment that forced the day-long shutdown of two stations.
It’s those grinding, daily delays and inconsistencies that make it a crapshoot for hundreds of thousands of people who rely on Metro. It’s a tri-state commuter railway with a huge impact on local and federal economies. And it needs to be better than what we hear about every day.
The morning Metro gripe fest on Twitter gives you a feeling for how frustrated riders are.
A sampling from Thursday morning:
“I broke up with @wmata and drove to work today,” from @TrustyMcLusty.
“Just once I’d like to have a NORMAL Metro experience,” tweeted Black Esquire.
“Every day is a new chapter in my @wmata struggle. The book is 1000s of pages long,” tweet-moaned @zac_bear.
You know how we all have an idea for an app?
Here’s mine, and it would come free with your SmartTrip card:
It would automatically text or e-mail one of the 67 Metro-related reasons you’re late to your employer, spouse, partner, school, babysitter: “Orange Line, 4-car train, running late” or “Evacuated, gagging on smoke and feeling my way through a dark tunnel, will be late” or “Can’t talk now, performing CPR on fellow passenger, gonna be late.”
We can call it MetroSoft, because when you’re a Metro rider, all plans are soft.
Metro isn’t always bad.
The day before Pope Francis was about to hit town, Metro had a major meltdown, and we all feared the worst. But once that little Fiat started cruising our streets, Metro was as smooth as butter and service was primo. But the problem is, we need a safe, reliable system that functions even without the pope’s blessing.
Sure, take a ride in New York, meet the rats who live there and drag pizzas through the stations.
Or have an assignation with the Parisian system, where glorious Art Deco archways lead to decrepit stations with broken chairs, confusing signage (even if you speak French) and glitching ticket machines.
Or visit Los Angeles, where — Oh, wait. That’s barely a system.
Every time we travel, my kids exhale when we return to our egg carton caves, our orange carpet and our clean stations.
Still, our region’s traffic gridlock is among the worst in the nation. And it’s only going to get worse now that gas is so cheap, encouraging more people to drive.
It may feel like Throwback Thursday to let the feds come in and exert more power in our daily lives. But this is the one area where closer oversight actually can help.
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