Forget the weather. In Washington, nothing beats the Metro for small talk, whether it’s debating the subway’s cleanliness relative to New York’s, comparing wait times for trains or discussing the dramatic lead-up to the hiring of Paul Wiedefeld, former head of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and now the leader of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Decades of chatter have also created plenty of myths about the region’s subway system. As Wiedefeld prepares to take on his new job, we thought we’d give him a head start by clearing up some common misperceptions about Metro.
1. Metro would be better if it were privatized.
Metro had a bad year. In January, a passenger died after she and hundreds of others were stranded aboard a smoke-filled train near L’Enfant Plaza. Metro underwent two days of hearings before the National Transportation Safety Board and a series of critical reports from the Federal Transit Administration, and the Government Accountability Office and outside public-transit experts questioned the agency’s management and its commitment to safety.
The answer to Metro’s woes? According to some, it’s privatization. During a House hearing in July on the smoke incident, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) declared, “I’m fed up with this mess,” adding, “There are companies that can operate transit systems.”
It’s no secret that public transportation agencies such as Metro are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. So a transit system in private hands has to find other ways to make up that revenue: think less-popular routes cut and hours of service reduced.
In Boston, the private company that took over the city’s commuter rail system is failing to turn a profit on the deal. Its efforts have been hampered by the age of the system — problems with old trains and tracks that don’t go away when ownership changes hands. According to an audit obtained by the Boston Globe, Keolis Commuter Services ended 2014 with a net loss of $9.97 million after taking over the rail system that summer, and the company expects to lose more money in 2015. As far as service? Keolis was hit with a $2.6 million fine for poor performance, pegged to late trains, cleanliness and staffing.
2. NIMBYs kept Metro out of Georgetown.
Georgetown could have had a Metro stop, the oft-told tale goes, but residents fought the plan out of fear that it would bring “undesirable” elements into their neighborhood. It’s the whack-a-mole of Metro myths — despite numerous debunkings, this one keeps popping up. Robert Pohl, author of “Urban Legends & Historic Lore of Washington, D.C.,” suggests that the story endures because it mirrors many locals’ views of Georgetown, the insular nature of that neighborhood and “the fact that they look down their noses at others in D.C.”
Some Georgetown residents did oppose the rail line — just as some Van Ness, Cleveland Park and Bethesda dwellers did. But resident opposition did not halt Metro’s plans for a Georgetown stop. Metro historian and George Mason University professor Zachary Schrag addressed this in his book “The Great Society Subway,” writing that it was a combination of geography and population that ultimately doomed the Georgetown station. The likely location at M and Wisconsin was too close to the Potomac River, posing significant engineering challenges. The construction wasn’t impossible, but the Metro was designed as a means to connect workers with jobs, and planners concluded that Georgetown lacked both the workers and the jobs to justify a stop.
It’s possible that Georgetown residents could at long last put this myth to rest. An ambitious $26 billion plan unveiled by Metro in 2013 calls for a stop in the neighborhood. And officials in Georgetown? Already on board.
3. Placing older rail cars between newer ones keeps passengers safer.
One of the first actions Metro took after the 2009 Red Line crash near the Fort Totten station that killed nine people was to reconfigure trains so that the oldest cars in its fleet would be sandwiched between newer cars. The old 1000 series cars had been criticized by federal safety officials for their tendency to fold into themselves like a telescope during a crash.
At the time, Metro officials implied that the move might improve safety. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, then-General Manager John Catoe wrote: “We have placed the 1000-series rail cars at the centers of our trains, hoping that this will make them less vulnerable.”
But a Post investigation later found no evidence of a safety benefit to the revised configuration. No studies or analyses were done before the change was made.
“In reality, we knew it meant nothing, but the perception was that even if we don’t think it matters, we need to do it because it gives people a sense of security,” Jeff McKay, a member of the Metro board at the time, said in response to The Post’s findings.
Metro officials conceded that no specific engineering analysis was done before the change. “It was a decision made by the then-board and then-general manager in an abundance of caution after the Fort Totten collision,” a Metro spokesman said in response to recent queries. “The practice continues to this day.”
Does placing the old cars between the new ones make riders less safe? Not necessarily. Does it make riders safer? The transit agency has provided no proof that it does.
4. Riders would benefit from a flat-rate system.
Metro isn’t the most expensive subway system in the country (that honor goes to San Francisco, where the maximum fare tops out at $7.10), but figuring out how much you’ll pay is complicated. A fare depends on a variety of factors including distance and the time of day when you travel. So why not make things easier for everyone and go with a flat fare like Boston, where passengers all pay $2.10 for a ride? It’s a common rider refrain, and one occasionally echoed by those in charge, including Metro’s Virginia board member, James Dyke, who in 2012 suggested that the system look into flat fare.
But moving Metro to a flat-fare system might violate federal law, specifically Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While the law, which focuses on equal access, does not specifically bar Metro from moving to a flat-rate fare system, it would require the transit agency to conduct an analysis of the impact any fare changes might have on certain populations.
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly explains that the current system is more fair because it reflects the distance a person travels. “Considering a flat rate for Metro would result in setting the fare somewhere in the $3 to $4 range,” she says, “which would result in a significant fare increase for those taking shorter trips.” Ly compares a trip from Anacostia to L’Enfant Plaza with a ride from Bethesda to Metro Center. “When you apply a Title VI equity analysis to a flat-fare scenario and look at the demographics of who would benefit vs. who would be negatively affected, it is widely believed such a fare policy could have a disparate impact and not meet federal Title VI requirements.”
Should someone traveling from Reston to Farragut North pay the same as someone traveling there from Dupont Circle? It might seem simpler to move to a flat rate, but it’s simply not fair.
5. Metro is growing.
When the first phase of the Silver Line opened in July 2014, Metro added five stations and more than 11 miles of track to its system. The Wiehle-Reston East station quickly joined the list of Metro’s busiest stops; projections were that the Silver Line would attract 740,000 riders in its first year. This past week, Shyam Kannan, Metro’s managing director of planning, appeared before the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board to make the case that the region needs to invest in Metro now to prepare for future growth.
But while the Metro system is growing physically, its ridership is shrinking. Despite rosy predictions, rail ridership has steadily declined since 2010 and is causing fiscal headaches for the transit agency. Bus ridership also is down. And those Silver Line projections? Ridership is 30 percent below forecasts. The final environmental impact statement on the project estimated that average daily ridership would be about 25,000 a day. But only 17,000 passengers are boarding the Silver Line on a typical weekday. It’s not something that Metro is eager to talk about, but an internal analysis obtained by WAMU blamed the lack of sidewalks and bike lanes at Silver Line stops.
Metro officials, however, maintain that the system is poised for growth. Their $26 billion expansion plan includes running all eight-car trains during the peak commute (though that might be changing) and building a second station in Rosslyn. Kannan argues that while overall ridership is down, there has been growth at certain core stations.
But as Metro struggles to maintain the current system and as ridership declines, the case for expansion is much more difficult to make.