With all of Metro’s problems handling emergencies and running day-to-day service, it’s only natural that the riders who follow my online chat would raise the possibility of an outside entity taking over the D.C. region’s transit system.
Most comments suggested turning it over to a private company. But they should be careful what they wish for.
Let’s go through the readers’ case, starting with the original poster. Then I’ll tell you what I worry about.
Q: Metro Takeover?
“Has there been any response of substance from Metro to the various issues raised by the FTA and other reports? For example, what was their reasoning/excuses for allowing Train Controllers to be using cell phones? Why would they allow such egregious behavior? On a related note, is there any chance of Metro being taken over by an outside entity like the FTA?”
This was my response during the chat: “The Metro staff is still developing a response to the Federal Transit Administration report. You can see The Post story about the FTA report here.
“Meanwhile, I think a bunch of the Metro board members are hopping mad about the contents of the report. They see the FTA highlighting problems that they think their own transit officials should have brought to the board’s attention long ago. Despite the many reviews of Metro still underway, I don’t see any move afoot to put Metro under the control of an outside entity. That’s basically what’s happening in Boston. Do you think it would be a good idea here or would it just be an extra layer of bureaucracy — a new level of government to blame when the trains are late and crowded?”
But the readers who responded generally were not looking for a another government entity to take over. Here’s what they said.
Q. Metro takeover
“The only takeover that could help would be a private firm taking over the management. You say the board members are ‘hopping mad’ but has anyone be fired? Or even disciplined? Getting mad doesn’t help. Writing reports doesn’t help. Newspaper articles don’t help. Action is needed and action seems to be something the board is incapable of taking.”
Q. Privatize Metro
“Sell it all and let a private company do it. They cant do any worse. VA gets 65% of the proceeds, MD 32% and DC the rest.”
The original poster came back with the following comment, which I didn’t have a chance to post during the live chat.
RE: Metro Takeover
“I have no idea who or what is even capable of a takeover. I’m reluctant to say it should be private, as I don’t see how running a transit system could possibly have enough returns given the investment without significantly raising fares (especially when they’re too high to begin with) or drastically altering operation. Some kind of federal takeover was all I could think of.
“Whatever it is, I only suggested it because the current leadership and workforce seems incapable of creating any change. When they tolerate such ridiculous behavior and terrible performance, I don’t see how they can turn it around and run a tight ship. They need outside help or at least totally clean house, top to bottom. I’m shocked to hear that the board members are ‘hopping mad.’ None of what’s in the reports or our day-to-day experiences should be a surprise to them if they were doing their jobs of oversight and making impactful decisions.” [The “hopping mad" quote refers to a comment I made about the anger some Metro board members showed toward the transit staff during the Thursday meeting of the board’s safety committee.]
This is a related comment I didn’t get a chance to publish earlier.
“Regarding Metro management, to what degree are management decisions about personnel and pay constrained by Metro’s contracts with its union? I note that I have never seen a union contract that prohibited firing an employee for good cause, but sometimes proving cause is difficult, expensive and cumbersome.”
DG: Now, this is my view. While many riders and government officials are raising questions about just how far Metro has come since the Red Line crash in 2009, there’s little public discussion about a drastic reorganization or outside takeover. Riders looking for a current example of what could be done should check what’s going on in Massachusetts with the troubled Boston T. This late May story from boston.com provides a good summary of the political and organizational issues involved in changing the management of a large public transit system.
Right now, Metro lacks sufficient oversight. The Tri-State Oversight Committee can’t do the job and neither can Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council.
Meanwhile, the Metro board, the governing authority for the transit system, has spent half a year trying to resolve what it wants in a new general manager. Should this person be more of a transit manager or a management reformer?
But I think advocates of privatization would find even less to like about customer service if transit operations were in private hands.
Big urban transit systems and the profit motive aren’t a good fit for each other.
Big transit systems don’t make profits. Fares can’t be pushed high enough. Metrorail has a fairly high farebox recovery rate for a U.S. subway system, yet the transit authority loses money every time you ride. (Taxpayers make up the difference.)
A corporate turnaround specialist would certainly target the system’s expenses. Look for Metro to become much more efficient. Many bus routes would be completely eliminated. Others would operate on greatly reduced schedules. Forget dreams about a 24-hour rail service. Many rail stations would close after the evening rush. Weekend service would need to be reduced. Forget about investment in added capacity. And just kill the MetroAccess paratransit service, a huge money loser.
None of those drastic steps will be taken for the simple reason that there’s no private company or consortium of companies that could put together a credible bid either to buy or manage one of the biggest transit systems in the United States. And there’s no set of governments that would impose such a risky and untested strategy on the traveling public.