AMID THE drumbeat of news about Metro’s tailspin — plummeting ridership; declining service; maintenance mishaps and safety breakdowns — the fact that the transit system rose to the occasion for back-to-back special events last week was a heartening relief. It also raised the question of whether, given the system’s current trajectory, it will be able to do so again in four years, or eight — or even sooner if faced with some special event or emergency.
Eight years ago, just before passenger trips on the subway system began what has become a long-term nosedive, Metro issued a swaggering-sounding news release pledging that “America’s subway system” stood ready to handle the crush of riders for Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which turned out to be the system’s busiest day ever. This year, there was a sense that Washington was holding its breath, hoping the transit system would just survive whatever numbers were thrown at it for President Trump’s inauguration last Friday and, on Saturday, the Women’s March.
In the event, subway ridership for this year’s inauguration (about 570,000 passenger trips ) was smaller than for a regular weekday (639,000) and about half what Metro handled for Mr. Obama’s event in 2009. But the crush of passenger trips for Saturday’s march, which exceeded 1 million, was the second-busiest day in Metro’s 40-year history and a record for a weekend. That the system coped relatively well — no major service lapses, accidents or injuries, and many instances of helpful service by transit police and other employees — is a feather in its cap, if not necessarily a promise of smooth sailing ahead.
Think, for a moment, where this region would be without a transit system that could accommodate such a surge — not just for a quadrennial inauguration, but for the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve or, heaven forbid, a terrorist attack. For years, the region took Metro’s capacity for granted. No longer.
A pair of local members of Congress, Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and John Delaney (D-Md.), are drafting separate measures that would force Metro’s stakeholders — the District, Maryland and Virginia — to overhaul the agency’s basic governing agreement in a way that would address some, but not all, of the agency’s critical challenges. The bills aim to rewrite Metro’s compact, as the agreement is known, in order to replace elected officials on the agency’s board with experts in transit, finance and management; add oversight; and roll back organized labor’s clout in the agency’s operations.
A particular point of contention is likely to be Ms. Comstock’s goal of eliminating binding arbitration in the case of impasse in contract negotiations between Metro and its union. That would be seen by the union as a radical step, but it could also ease Metro’s burden of mounting labor costs, a key force driving projected deficits.
Equally or more important is that stakeholders furnish a dedicated and reliable source of funding for Metro, the only major American transit system that lacks such an earmarked source of cash. Without that, and more long-term dollars, structural reforms will not reverse decades of decay, or prepare Metro for the next big events.
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