The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Metro has a chance to break out of its tailspin of turmoil

A passenger waits for a train on April 19 at the Metro Center in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Donavan Wilson is a freelance writer based in Germantown.

Last month, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board announced the resignation of General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld. He had previously announced that he would retire on June 30, but his departure came earlier than planned. Good riddance. Metro’s new leader, Randy Clarke, can implement long-overdue modernization.

A blossoming scandal over rail operators accelerated Wiedefeld’s transition into retirement. Metro recently removed rail operators who lacked required retraining and testing for recertification. Seventy-two operators lacked the minimum requirements to operate trains efficiently and safely. According to a WMATA statement, it will take two to three months to recertify those rail operators.

Metro’s passengers continue to pay the price for WMATA’s incompetence, indifference and endless mismanagement.

Since the beginning of May, ridership has increased. That presents the perfect opportunity for improvement and reform. Metro needs to prove that the system is reliable, efficient and stable.

Yet, Metro mishaps hardly inspire the confidence necessary to prompt people to return to the rails in greater numbers. For example, the lack of operators will affect waiting times for trains. The waiting time for both the Green and Yellow lines increased from five minutes to 20 minutes. Commuters don’t want to spend time standing on the platform wondering whether they’re about to be late for work.

In September, WMATA shut down both the Shady Grove and Rockville Metro stations to replace the canopy at the Rockville station and make improvements at the Shady Grove station. The timing of the project was terrible for employers determined to have their workers return to the office. Shady Grove is a major station that serves as an essential starting point for the Red Line. Rockville is a hub for Metro, MARC and Amtrak.

In October, a Metro train derailed on the Blue Line near the Arlington Cemetery station. According to one commuter, there was a “fair amount" of smoke on the train as it ground to a stop. The incident took trains off the tracks and caused delays of 30 minutes or more. Since that derailment, Metro removed its 7000 series cars from the system. They have not returned, and they represent a large portion of Metro’s rail fleet.

Metro’s merry-go-round of agony continues to torment commuters. As more Washingtonians return to the office, they face deteriorating public transportation conditions and a significant increase in wait times for trains. In the past, people put up with the insanity because they held on to Metro’s past glory. Metro once was a defining feature of D.C. The opportunity to get to work on time without a car was tremendously enticing.

Of course, commuters also didn’t have many choices 20 years ago, and WMATA sat on its captive clientele. The system’s decline, therefore, caught an inattentive leadership off guard.

Today, individuals have other options. The federal workforce, which makes up the largest group of rush-hour commuters, can telework at least twice a week. Through ride-hailing apps (Uber or Lyft), drivers scoop up passengers quickly. Improved bicycle infrastructure provides a safe travel mode much of the year.

Public transportation advocates fight for additional funding for Metro that they say can boost safety and capability. However, political leadership and the private sector are reluctant to secure those funds while management problems continue to fester. Meanwhile, Metro’s budget is hemorrhaging. Federal subsidies have kept it afloat, but service cuts remain a possibility if government handouts dry up.

Metro’s failures are a disappointment to both tourists and residents who depend on the system to make their way around the Beltway. Simply put, Metro’s leadership has not risen to meet this moment.

Unreliable service will hardly entice commuters back. The next generation of employees will expect a greater amount of flexibility without wasting hours every week on Metro’s unreliable, unpleasant trains and buses. Wiedefeld’s departure and the rail-operator scandal are Molotov cocktails of commuting misery, but they clearly point the way to change.