THE MORE we learn about last month’s fatal smoke emergency on the Yellow Line, the harder it becomes to have confidence in Metro. How could a system that ostensibly devoted the past half-decade to developing a “safety culture” botch something as basic as ventilation fans?
But here is the tricky thing. To reduce funding for Metro would be an understandable response from frustrated local governments. It would also be the worst possible response, because it would send the system farther down a spiral from which there would be no escape. No matter how plentiful the failings, and they are plentiful; no matter how serious the lapses, and they are grave; no matter how irritating the excuses and the lack of transparency — none of this can serve as an excuse to deprive Metro of critically needed resources. Local governments may seek to punish Metro with cramped funding, but the victims would be Metro riders and the region as a whole.
The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the Jan. 12 incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station which left one woman dead and dozens of passengers hospitalized. Its preliminary findings revealed that the train control center couldn’t quickly identify the source of the smoke and then made the situation worse by deploying fans in the wrong direction. Equally troubling, investigation by Post reporters showed, Metro had known for months that such troubles could arise but moved with little urgency to fix the problem.
All this raises questions about Metro’s leadership. Nonetheless, Metro also has been chronically underfunded. A recent report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments looked at the problem of deferred maintenance and overdue upgrades, estimating the cost at $16 billion over 15 years.
To cope with ongoing shortfalls, Metro officials have broached the possibility of fare increases and service cuts. But Metro increased fares only last year, and further degradation of service would, as Jim Dinegar of the Greater Washington Board of Trade forcefully told Metro officials at a recent hearing, have serious repercussions for the area’s economic strength. We hope, as Mr. Dinegar urged, that Metro can make the case to area jurisdictions for additional funds to forestall fare hikes or service cutbacks. The District is seen as the jurisdiction most willing to commit more money while Maryland, historically the most resistant and now with a governor seemingly less committed to transit, is seen as the hardest sell.
Even if Metro succeeds in eking out additional money, more lasting solutions — foremost a stable, predictable source of funding — are needed. To get there, Metro will need strong leadership, so the search for the next general manager, now underway, is critical. Simply being knowledgable about transit won’t be sufficient in turning this troubled agency around. The board needs to find a real change agent, someone nimble in thinking, determined in action and not given to making excuses.