First off, don’t expect a glitzy new passageway through the Rosslyn bottleneck, or the Vibranium-fueled trains from “Black Panther,” or a fleet of autonomous buses to carry Metro into the self-driving age. A new tunnel to permanently fix the leaky western segment of the Red Line, an area prone to arcing insulators, isn’t in the plans either.
For Metro riders watching as the agency inches toward securing $500 million in annual, dedicated funding, the most realistic outcome is that $15.5 billion over 10 years could restore Metro’s standing, with the overhaul of degraded tracks, the maximizing of train capacity and fewer of the kinds of routine disruptions commuters have grown so used to, according to the agency’s 10-year capital needs inventory.
It’s an urgent injection of funding to chip away at a maintenance backlog built up over decades, agency leaders contend. Metro would embark on power upgrades to fuel all eight-car trains, modernize the vast majority of its railcar fleet and repair tracks and structural components that have been neglected. The agency would replace a pair of crumbling bus garages and undergo a sweeping replacement of track circuits critical to detecting the locations of trains. By 2026, Metro would reduce its $6.8-billion repair backlog to just over $2 billion, the plan says. (By contrast, the backlog merely drops from $6.8 billion in 2017 to $6.6 billion in 2018, according to Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly.)
The transit agency is fast approaching a milestone after the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation earlier this month to provide Metro with $154 million in annual capital revenue — with the District and Maryland expected to follow suit with their own contributions totaling the $500 million Metro is seeking. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has said that to ensure a safe and reliable system, Metro needs $15.5 billion over 10 years — including $500 million a year in dedicated funding –a reliable revenue source that Metro alone lacks compared to its peers. The transit agency would stretch the annual funding into $15.5 billion by turning to the bond market.
But for those who aren’t versed in the nuances of the funding fight, there’s a key question: What would that money buy?
The short answer, agency and local officials say, is time. Wiedefeld has said the funds are for “nonnegotiable” safety fixes and essential system upgrades, and has hinted that he would step down if the agency doesn’t receive enough funding to ensure safety. Former transportation secretary Ray LaHood put it this way in his report on the finances and governance of Metro:
“[Metro’s] infrastructure is aging and needs renewal, and the funding it receives today is not enough to get this done. Not even close. I think $500 million per year should be our target. [Metro’s] problems will never be solved without this new money.”
For example, the 10-year plan would direct funding to a track rehabilitation plan to repair the “80 percent” of the system that wasn’t covered by the yearlong SafeTrack program. It would pay for a yearly initiative to swap out old components, including railroad crossovers, wooden crossties, metal fasteners and third-rail insulators, based on condition. It also would allow Metro to finish upgrading its radio systems and cellphone communications infrastructure, a project that is expected to cost $332 million and be completed by 2022.
Further, the funds allow for ambitious planning to design, but not build, solutions to some of Metro’s biggest problems: the chokepoint in the Rosslyn tunnel, which can handle a maximum of 26 trains per hour; the leaky Red Line tunnel to Shady Grove, core capacity concerns on the Red Line and crowding at Gallery Place and Union Station, among other places. Metro also would replace buses that are reaching the end of their serviceable lives.
But much of the capital funding would go toward Metro’s railcar fleet, and to make the necessary power upgrades to support the operation of all-eight-car trains. The agency recently accepted its 500th 7000-series railcar, and the last in the batch is expected to arrive by mid-2019, according to the plan, replacing the clunky 5000-series. In subsequent years, Metro also would replace is 2000- and 3000-series legacy railcars with the upcoming 8000-series, which has yet to be designed. At the end of the program, Metro says, 85 percent of its fleet would consist of new railcars.
For Metro, the prospect of new funding comes at the tail end of a six-year, $5 billion capital investment plan that ultimately did not inspire confidence among the public and elected officials, coinciding with the fatal 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, chronic safety and reliability issues and the steepest ridership declines in the agency’s history. (Metro had said that the $5 billion in capital funding was less than half of what it needed; the agency also fell short of spending all the available funds, provided by federal and local governments following the fatal 2009 Red Line crash at Fort Totten that killed nine, according to a Washington Post retrospective on Metro’s decline in 2016.)
This time around, local officials and transit advocates urged governance reform to ensure the money is spent wisely and the agency is held accountable. But despite minor provisions to increase efficiency, major reforms such as the five-member reform board sought by LaHood have been elusive. A reform board was not included in the Virginia bill, and Maryland legislation and an upcoming D.C. proposal appear to position new funding first.
Wiedefeld has steered clear of the fight over governance. Meanwhile he has shopped his plan as a package of essential needs, crafted as an antidote to past preferences toward expansion and cavalier attitudes when it came to keeping the system’s existing infrastructure in a state of good repair. To be sure, Metro does plan to expand over this period; the Silver Line’s second phase to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County is expected to open in 2020. Wiedefeld has suggested Metro explore outsourcing the line’s operations and facilities. And he and board members have expressed concern about what Wiedefeld’s long-term plan does not pay for, including operating funds for new Silver Line service. The plan requires a 3 percent cap on annual operating subsidies from the jurisdictions that fund the agency.
In essence, it builds on the preventive maintenance plan Wiedefeld launched when he cut back service and curtailed late-night hours last July. It rings of the attitude in a July 2017 New York Times piece: “Let’s Get Excited about Maintenance!” which addressed how the New York subway faced the same quandary when it came to deferred repair work. Here’s how The Times put it (“innovation” here can be swapped for “expansion.”:
Why are we in this predicament? One obvious answer is that officials in federal, state and local government do not allocate the resources necessary for preventive maintenance. But their inaction is a symptom of a deeper problem, one that is too seldom discussed: Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.
Still, a 2017 Post story captured some Metro board members’ incredulity that the plan did not include funding for an estimated $9.5 billion in unfunded needs, such as the Rosslyn tunnel to relieve delays on three lines, a new Red Line tunnel and the excavation of new entrances to reduce crowding.
Some, like Metro board member Christian Dorsey, are concerned about what’s already being left on the cutting-room floor.
“This in no way reflects what I’d love to see Metro become, and that’s my big worry,” Dorsey said. “When it comes time to making that ask [to pay for additional capital funding], will people think that they have nothing else they need to contribute? It’s a big fear.”
And Board Chairman Jack Evans broke with Wiedefeld at one point, arguing the general manager should have asked for $25 billion rather than the smaller number to cover the essential needs. Evans and the rest of the board are broadly supportive of the plan today.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth, acknowledged the $500 million was a “modest” ask, but is supportive of the direction Wiedefeld is taking the agency with it.
“The reason why the $500 million in Metro funding is so critical is — while it’s capital funding — by providing it we’re reducing the need to further cut service or raise fares,” he said. “I find that we are already seeing readily discernible improvements with the capital investments we’re making — by accelerating the purchase of 7000-series trains, improved quality of service.”
Schwartz said he is hopeful that as service improves Metro can take a look at a return to more frequent service and longer service hours.
Back in September, pitching his plan to the Board, Wiedefeld was clear about what it covered and what it didn’t. From the Post story:
For too long, he said, Metro officials ramped up bus and rail service without coming up with a long-term plan for how to pay for them.
If officials want longer hours, or more frequent trains, or new bus routes — or a fully-functioning western end of the Silver Line — then the jurisdictions will need to find a way to pay extra.
“We cannot assume it’s somehow taken care of in the existing budget,” Wiedefeld said.