When Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans arrived at the panel’s general meeting last month, he carried a copy of the New York Post featuring a characteristically provocative front page recounting the latest troubles of that city’s subway.
“For F’s sake,” read the headline, with a clever insertion of the orange symbol for New York’s “F” train. “Fix the subways!”
Evans used the headline as an opportunity for reflection on his own troubled transit system.
“Not that misery loves company . . . but I think this is another indicator that every one of the six subway systems throughout America is struggling with the same issues,” Evans said. “We’re not alone in this.”
Evans, it seems, is suffering from the affliction affecting many in the region: an acute case of subway schadenfreude — a slightly perverse sense of satisfaction in watching the failures of the nation’s premiere transit agency.
A look at the recent state of affairs at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will probably ring familiar to D.C.-area commuters. In the last several months, chronic breakdowns and track problems have caused rush-hour meltdowns and lengthy, widespread delays. Late last year, protections for workers became a major cause for concern after one longtime employee was struck and killed by a passing train in a tunnel.
Two weeks ago, a derailment in Upper Manhattan may have been caused by equipment left on the tracks, resulting in at least 30 injuries. And soon thereafter, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) declared that the MTA was in a state of emergency and pledged an additional $1 billion to the MTA’s capital budget to expedite improvements.
Suddenly, Metro isn’t looking so bad, right?
“Some of these stories about what’s going on in New York — you could take out the proper nouns and insert ‘Washington’ and they’d make sense,” said Zachary M. Schrag, a historian at George Mason University and author of the seminal Metro tome, “The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.” “So I guess that’s somewhat of a consolation.”
That’s how it looks on Twitter, where Metro riders — their tweets dripping in the usual #WMATA levels of sarcasm — seem downright defensive about the New York subway, America’s busiest public transit system, making moves to unseat Metro as America’s most dysfunctional one.
“I guess New York felt left out with all the publicity @wmata got by being a bloody awful mess,” quipped one Metro rider.
“Hey look at New York trying to be like DC, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery @wmata,” joked another.
“Maybe we should invite folks to DC & show them what a truly awful commute looks like,” added another.
“WMATA should send the MTA a fruit basket with a note along the lines of ‘thanks for taking the heat off us!’ ” another tweeted.
But the similarities between the struggles at the MTA and Metro also point to a larger story — about the state of the nation’s infrastructure, the challenges of securing long-term investments for dull but necessary maintenance work, and about just how quickly a premiere transit system can begin to come apart at the seams.
“It is a national problem. It’s something that’s happening in lots of different Metro areas across the country. And New York is starting to get a taste of it,” said Robert Puentes, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, a national think tank on transportation issues.
Puentes said significant responsibility for the MTA’s problems lies with Cuomo, who has prioritized projects such as the recent opening of the Second Avenue Subway and the completion of the 34th Street-Hudson Yards station — perhaps at the expense of paying adequate attention to state-of-repair needs.
“He has focused on newer investments and major infrastructure building projects, and now he has to play catch-up,” Puentes said, “because while you can cut a ribbon in front of new infrastructure, the unsexy stuff like day-to-day maintenance is much tougher to promote.”
Sound familiar, Washington?
And though Puentes said he certainly does not rejoice in the challenges faced by riders and transit executives in New York, he does feel like he has firsthand knowledge of their troubles.
“My brother calls me from New York and asks, ‘Can you fix this?’ ” Puentes said, chuckling.
Until recently, the MTA was performing better than Metro in a few categories, but much worse in others. According to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, New York City Transit — the part of the MTA which runs subway, bus and paratransit service — reported 0.053 derailments per million train revenue miles in 2015, while Metro’s rate was much larger — 0.26 derailments per million miles. But the MTA also reported a collision rate of 2.5 per million revenue miles, vs. Metro’s rate of 0.51, and New York experienced 28 fires per million miles vs. Metro’s 4.2 fires.
In 2014, the total mechanical failure rate at New York City transit was 36 failures per million miles, compared with 20 mechanical failures per million miles for Metro.
But Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has been careful not to use New York’s worsening problems as a foil for what’s happened with Metro — especially because his high-profile hires, Metro’s chief ty officer Patrick Lavin and chief operations officer Joseph Leader, were both brought to Washington last year after spending most of their careers at the MTA.
“It’s not just the MTA,” Wiedefeld said recently. “We all have similar issues that we deal with. San Francisco is dealing with major issues, Philadelphia, Boston. . . . It’s across the board. There are things we could learn from each other.”
And, in Schrag’s mind, New York’s struggles also highlight the complexity of Metro’s problems. To many Washington-area residents, the root of Metro’s reliability and safety issues are found in simple, structural issues: It lacks a two-track system. There’s a complicated multi-jurisdictional governance structure. There’s no dedicated revenue source.
But New York’s MTA has all of those things, Schrag pointed out — and yet still couldn’t manage to avoid a precipitous deterioration in the quality of service.
“Transit is hard,” he summarized.
But the shared woes at Metro and the MTA are even more stark because of the historic differences between the two agencies. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was conceived and designed in large part to be everything the MTA wasn’t, according to Schrag. New York’s subway was considered dirty and crime-ridden, and its stations cramped and inelegant. (The New York subway had such negative connotations in Washington that officials avoided calling their plans for Metro a “subway” system, and instead opted for the more benign sounding “rapid transit” system.)
Metro, in comparison, was conceived to be much grander, brighter and more futuristic. Of course, the realities of the two systems have often overlapped. In 1977, just a year after Metro opened, a rider bemoaned to The Washington Post that the breakdowns and delays he experienced on the new system reminded him of the worst of the MTA.
Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, New York’s system got much worse. Scheduled maintenance fell far short of the system’s needs. Derailments were a weekly event. Ridership declined rapidly. The MTA embarked on an aggressive turnaround campaign that rebuilt a large portion of the subway’s tracks and put the system on a path to success for years to come.
That comeback was part of what inspired Metro’s year-long SafeTrack maintenance project, which concluded last month. With short, intense periods of round-the-clock repair work, a transit agency could wrench itself back from the brink and win back legions of riders.
Mortimer L. Downey, a former Metro board chairman and former executive director and chief financial officer at the MTA, said New York’s recent challenges demonstrate the precarious state of any transit system dependent on decades-old infrastructure.
No matter how good a system might appear, he said, just a few years of inadequate maintenance can bring an agency teetering to the edge of failure.
“It’s awful easy to slip backward,” Downey said. “You’re only as good as your last rush hour.”
But, he pointed out, Metro must also use New York’s challenges as a warning of problems that may come down the road. The MTA, he said, is “a prisoner of its own success.” The system is experiencing its highest ridership in decades, and the chronic overcrowding on trains leads to systemwide delays when trains at stations throughout the rail network must idle for longer to allow throngs of riders to alight and disembark.
Someday, Downey said, that might be a pressing problem for Metro, too.
“Metro better start thinking about what happens if they ever get to a million passengers per day,” he warned.
Metro riders, meanwhile, say New Yorkers’ whining about the MTA is much ado about nothing.
D.C. resident Matthew Jacobs, 37, was among those who took to Twitter to make his own (slightly off-color) jokes about Cuomo’s declaration. He commutes daily from his home near Shaw to his office near the Franconia-Springfield station. Delays are a given. No way New York’s problems are even close to Metro’s, he said. Besides, he visits New York frequently and never has problems.
“Here in Washington, this is a system that’s been in decline at least since the early 2000s,” Jacobs said. “The MTA stuff — they’ve had some hiccups lately, but it’s nothing like this, like SafeTrack. They still have a world-class system.”