LEIPZIG, Germany — Give Metro some credit: The Washington region’s troubled transit agency has developed a global following.
As transportation ministers, infrastructure experts and transit administrators from around the world gathered here last week at the International Transport Forum — an annual conference on transportation policy and innovation — they weren’t just talking about the state-of-the-art transit systems and gleaming infrastructure characteristics of Europe and Asia. Talk among international leaders also centered on the transportation world’s cautionary tales: agencies or public investments that have begun to decay because of poor governance or inadequate upkeep.
And the subway struggles in the nation’s capital, it turns out, have become a stark international example of what not to do.
During a panel discussion on operating a successful subway system, a London-based transit expert highlighted Metro as an “interesting example” of the woes that can befall a major public transit agency when maintenance is put on the back burner.
At another seminar, the head of a Brussels-based public transit consortium criticized political “cowards” who shortchange their transit systems by avoiding fare or tax increases. Later, he said he considers the Metro system in Washington a notable example of such an approach.
Among these officials from all corners of the globe, mention the words “Washington Metro” and you’re met with a knowing look — somewhere between a pained grimace and a “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God” nod of empathy.
“It’s so sad. So sad,” said Tony M. Ridley, former chairman and chief executive of the London Underground. “I knew the people who built the system, and they did a good job. . . . Now, it’s a hell of a problem. ”
Ridley was one of several transit officials from around the world who say they’re keeping close tabs on Metro’s travails — out of a sense of professional obligation, personal interest or both. Ridley said he was shocked by last year’s shutdown, when the entire rail system was closed for 29 hours to conduct emergency safety inspections. Why, he wondered, didn’t transit officials realize decades sooner that they needed to institute a maintenance program to protect their transit system? He called Metro’s previous leadership “utterly, sadly misguided.”
“They took pride in the fact that they were fortunate they could keep the fares down because they didn’t need much replacement to do, and they failed to build up a fund so that as it got 15 years old, 20 years old, all of a sudden someone thought, ‘Oh my God, what the hell are we going to do?’” Ridley said. “And now — I won’t say that it’s too late, but it could have been so much better.”
To be sure, officials said at the conference sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Metro isn’t alone in its structural and financial backslide.
“Many governments approach . . . [transit] projects as though they culminate in the initial opening of a system,” said Dominic Patella, senior transport specialist for the World Bank. “Some even embark on metros without planning what comes next after they succeed in building it.”
When asked for their advice on how to fix Metro in Washington, some pointed to what they viewed as unnecessary reluctance to ask for additional funds to pay for the system.
“Poor governance and poor attention to the long-term investment . . . are really starting to hamper the sustainability of the Metro in Washington,” said Richard Anderson, director of the Railway and Transport Strategy Center at the Imperial College London.
Anderson’s research center highlighted Metro’s struggles in a new interim report co-sponsored by the World Bank about the successes and challenges of some of the world’s major subways, based on benchmark statistics provided by 34 transit systems, as well as in-person visits to 10 transit agencies — including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Asked by a reporter about Metro’s most recent round of fare increases, and whether the move could spark a “death spiral” — a cycle in which higher fares drive down ridership, depleting funds available to help fix the system and win back riders — Anderson said that’s not the usual course of affairs.
“The evidence we’ve got says that demand for public transport is far more responsive to quality and capacity than to fares. So, if you increase fares by 10 percent, say, then you might lose 3 percent of passengers. If you increase capacity by 10 percent, then you get 5 percent more passengers,” Anderson said.
“So there’s a virtuous cycle that relates to fares,” he continued, because if fares increase annually to keep pace with inflation, “then that could be used to invest in quality, which attracts more passengers.”
Still, he said, fares are only one part of the puzzle. “Long-term dependable funding,” such as a dedicated revenue stream from taxes, is necessary to Metro’s survival, he said.
Ismael Uruén Pueyo, director of financial services at Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona, the Spanish city’s major transit agency, said Metro may need to take extraordinary measures to preserve current levels of service. He used his agency as an example. Faced with dire financial circumstances during the Spanish recession that started in 2008, Barcelona transit officials opted to borrow more money rather than cut service that could dampen ridership in the long-term.
“Going into debt looked like a very bad decision back then. But we were able to keep the ridership from declining,” Pueyo said.
Jacob Kam Chai-Pui, a managing director at MTR Corp., which operates Hong Kong’s mass transit rail system, said Metro serves as a concrete example when he persuades politicians at home that they must identify a long-term revenue source before they start building a new rail line. “Unfortunately, this is not a unique problem faced by Washington,” he said.
It’s not too late to save Metro, said Alain Flausch, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport. One idea he supports: a property tax on businesses that benefit from proximity to subway stations. He also said officials should not be squeamish about raising fares.
“If you do it regularly, every year — inflation, plus something — it’s just normal, like any price of any service. And this is acceptable if people get used to this,” said Flausch, former chief executive of the Brussels Intercommunal Transport Co., the city’s public transit agency. “Of course, on Day One of the fare increase, you get headlines in the press. But it’s just one day. And then it’s over, and people have forgotten it.”
Flausch’s advice isn’t merely a shout into the void. For months, he said, he has been communicating with Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld about how to use insights from other transit agencies to create a path forward for the Washington system. Flausch said that his organization and Metro are close to finalizing a December conference, where international transit administrators will come to the District to troubleshoot Metro’s problems.
“We must do something to fix it,” Flausch said. “Because if we don’t, it will go down, down, down, down.”
Wiedefeld did not attend the conference, and there was no indication that a member of his staff attended.
Despite Metro’s challenges, international observers remain optimistic that the system can regain its former glory. They pointed to other transit agencies that have risen from the ashes of operational and financial hardships: An escalator fire at King’s Cross St. Pancras Tube station in London in 1987 killed 31 people, prompting a flurry of resignations in senior management — including Ridley, the former chairman and chief executive — and an intensive investigation into the safety culture at the London Underground.
Now, the Tube is considered the pride of London. It’s a lesson that the Washington Metro can take to heart, the World Bank’s Patella said.
Patella offered some advice for the region’s political leaders: Find ways to help Metro through legislation or public policy, rather than exclusively criticizing the agency.
“You don’t kick your home team when they’re down,” Patella said “I think that’s very important for WMATA.”
But some solutions offered by international transportation experts were more modest in scope.
Klaus Gihr, head of urban development and natural resources at the German state-owned development bank KfW, said he’s a frequent D.C. Metro user. His problem with the system? It’s “really, really a dark place.” Literally.
“Increase the lighting in the premises,” Gihr said. “I’ve never come across any subway, any metro system, that is so pitch dark. It’s really — it’s frightening, and I’m not easily scared.”
He was happy to hear that Metro is working on that.