For most of this cetury, Metrorail has lurched from crisis to crisis, but reports of its “death spiral” are greatly exaggerated. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Columnist

What’s your favorite phrase to describe the state of the Washington region’s transit system?

The ones I hear most often are “Back2Good,” a reference to Metro’s effort to improve customer service; “right-sizing,” a reference to the cutbacks in service the Metro board is about to approve; and “death spiral,” a summary of where all this may be leading.

The last phrase is uttered by local officials and riders alike. Although it’s attention-getting, I don’t believe it’s accurate.

The “death spiral” has a long history. The first time I heard the phrase in connection with Metro was spring 2004. The speaker was Metro General Manager Richard A. White.

“We’re talking about a systematic service meltdown condition as early as three years from now,” he told the Metro board. “It’s reliability failing, ridership loss, road congestion increasing and air quality decreasing. It’s a death spiral.”

Yes, for most of this still-young century, our transit system has lurched, zombielike, from crisis to crisis. Somehow, Metro patches itself up and staggers into the next inevitable problem.

The lowest low point was the 2009 Red Line crash. In 2011, Metro launched a recovery program to put the transit system back in a “state of good repair.”

That didn’t happen. Although a lot of new equipment was purchased and a lot of work was done — especially on weekends — riders failed to detect a significant improvement in their experiences.

A new wave of despair set in when a Yellow Line train was left stranded in a smoke-filled tunnel outside L’Enfant Plaza in 2015. Carol I. Glover died, and scores of other passengers were injured.

Riders and local leaders were dismayed to learn of the many safety lapses the incident revealed. In early 2016, the new general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, was dismayed, too, when he learned that electrical problems in the tunnels should have been fixed to prevent further dangers from fire and smoke.

Wiedefeld shut down the entire rail system for a day while emergency inspections and repairs were made. He then launched the repair program known as SafeTrack to target the worst sections of track. Metrorail ridership has continued to plunge.

Against this gloomy backdrop, the Metro board is about to approve a budget that is likely to further reduce the subway system’s popularity among commuters.

By now, you’re thinking, “How is this not a ‘death spiral’?”

Well, by definition, there’s death at the end of the spiral, and we would scrap the transit system.

After 13 years, it hasn’t happened. You’ve heard of institutions that are too big to fail? Metro is too necessary to fail.

The region’s plans for commercial, office and housing development presume the existence of the subway system. Even when planning other parts of the travel network — highways, light rail, suburban bus lines — our local and state governments look to leverage Metrorail to make their supplemental services effective.

Think of what you’ve seen in your local travels since 2004. How many townhouses have been built within a half-mile of Metro stations; how much development in Tysons Corner has been within sight of the Silver Line; how many construction cranes are hovering over the route of the Yellow and Green lines in the middle of the District?

The region’s leaders may have a love-hate relationship with the subway, but they’re not about to abandon it.

The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District sees fixing the Metrorail infrastructure as essential to the future of the region’s hub. The Federal City Council, an influential civic and business group, is promoting a discussion of how the transit authority should be governed in the decades to come.

These people aren’t looking to waste their time on something that is destined for the junk pile. They’re not talking about a future in which toll highways or a rapid bus system or a light-rail network replaces the subway. They know that can’t happen.

The Federal City Council’s vision is for a three-part attack on Metro’s problems. Fixing the operating problems is essential, but it may turn out to be the easiest part of the program compared with developing a new way to pay for the service and a new way to govern it.

The council, along with many other transit advocates, is pressing for a more robust financing system to replace the reliance on fares from a declining ridership and the unreliable largesse of local governments.

In particular, the council is focusing on getting rid of Metro’s governance system, as laid out in the Metro compact.

“It’s the basis for how our system works,” said Emeka Moneme, deputy executive director at the council, who has spent a lot of time thinking about how to tear up the mid-20th-century document written to build the subway.

“We need a compact to operate something,” Moneme said. The council envisions a smaller board, with members who are chosen for their transit, corporate and financial expertise and who have some freedom to apply that knowledge.

Can the region’s leaders devote the political capital to an effort that would wind up eroding their power and perks in naming Metro board members?

We’ve got to stop this spirally thing. It won’t lead to the subway’s death. But Metro is worth a lot more than we commonly allow in our day-to-day experience as commuters.

As Moneme said, “Doing nothing is unsustainable.”