IT IS time to consider a radical step to arrest what looks increasingly like a death spiral for Washington’s transit system: federal intervention and control. It is not just folly, but willful neglect, to wait any longer to see if Metro’s problems will somehow solve themselves. They won’t.
The hemorrhage of subway ridership began several years ago. Slashing Metro’s budgets, laying off workers and cutting train and bus service — the prescription now offered by Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld — will accelerate the vicious cycle of declining passenger counts and fare revenue, and accumulating deficits. It is wishful thinking to expect big annual subsidy increases from Metro’s funding partners — the District, Virginia and Maryland — while service deteriorates and fares rise, as Mr. Wiedefeld also proposes.
SafeTrack, the current surge in repair work designed to reverse further decay, is a stopgap. It is unlikely to entice riders back to the subway absent more ambitious infrastructure upgrades and systemic reforms.
Metro’s problems are not only about money, but without money they will not be addressed. It is now apparent that the funding needed to cover a projected operating deficit of $290 million next year, plus much more in capital needs in coming years, exceeds available resources.
One option is to continue allowing Metro to wither, ensuring the Washington metropolitan area’s economic degeneration and imperiling the federal workforce. Maybe it is time to consider Option B: a federal control board, modeled on those that intervened to manage the District of Columbia amid its fiscal meltdown in the 1990s or, just this year, to rescue Puerto Rico from its debt crisis.
Washington, namely the Federal Transit Administration, has already stepped in to take temporary control of safety oversight and upgrades at Metro’s rail operations, in an extreme step occasioned by local jurisdictions’ failure to fill that role effectively. And there is a legal basis for more far-reaching intervention.
The interstate compact that serves as Metro’s founding charter required and received the federal government’s consent. That consent can be withdrawn and the compact dissolved, along with local funding agreements — a useful point of federal leverage. Congress could also assert its will to establish a control board under its explicit constitutional authority over the District; under the interstate commerce clause; or under its homeland security obligations, given Metro’s centrality to emergency preparedness in the event of attacks on the nation’s capital.
A control board is not a free lunch. The price of an infusion of federal cash for Metro would be sweeping reforms and service improvements. A control board would also in effect become the arbitrator of last resort for labor contracts with Metro’s reform-resistant unions. (It’s useful to bear in mind that the projection for next year’s daunting deficit may be substantially understated, as it wishfully assumes no wage increases for Metro employees.)
Along with new investment, Metro must have new governance. Under federal auspices, that would include a governing board of transit, finance and management professionals, not local politicians, who have overseen the agency in its descent. The status quo is untenable; Metro desperately needs a clean slate.