Paul Kupiec is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Ryan Nabil is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute
Metro officials have been quick to capitalize on the recent subway service crisis by requesting an additional $25 billion in taxpayer support over the next 10 years to fund its operations and safety improvements, and an additional $2.5 billion for underfunded pensions.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting congressional delegate, made the case for additional funding before Congress: “When Metro shuts down, the federal government shuts down. So just try getting along without a Metro if you want a federal government at all.” But taxpayers should not be fooled into providing additional funds to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority until it meets minimum operating benchmarks.
Metro has many problems, but the biggest one is not inadequate taxpayer support. Metro’s subsidies are not so different from other mass transit system subsidies. Taxpayers provide a subsidy of $2.02 for each Metro passenger trip Metro’s figures exclude the implicit subsidy it receives from the many federal government employees who use the system and have their fare paid as a tax-free employee benefit. In contrast, New York’s system receives a subsidy of $1.92 per ride. Even the wildly inefficient Amtrak system receives only a 25-cent subsidy per passenger mile, compared with $0.42 for Metro.
Metro’s problem, first and foremost, is management. The WMATA board allowed prior managers to defer Metro’s maintenance and lose control of the system’s operating costs. Expanded Metro operating hours, a WMATA board decision, shortened the time available for track maintenance. Weak Metro management oversight failed to ensure that reported maintenance and system problems were properly rectified. A Federal Transit Administration safety study found more than 3,000 unresolved serious maintenance issues, some outstanding since 2002, and the National Transportation Safety Board identified instances in which, for months at a time, Metro continued to run passenger trains over areas with known track defects that could cause a train derailment.
Wages and benefits consume nearly 78 percent of its operating budget, and the share would be larger still if Metro properly funded its employee pension liabilities. Metro spends $3.10 in labor costs for each passenger trip, compared with $1.92 in New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and $1.88 in Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
The most common WMATA job, a bus operator, requires a driver’s license and a high school diploma or equivalent. The job pays an average of $63,000, with extensive benefits and overtime pay. This salary is 57 percent higher than the national average for transit system bus drivers ($40,160) and 66 percent higher than the average salary of a non-transit bus driver in the area ($38,000). With overtime, experienced WMATA bus drivers can earn more than $100,000 a year.
Despite its rich salaries, Metro has historically not filled many of its open positions. Indeed, Metro has been accused of creating position shortages to justify overtime hours. Many Metro employees earn as much in overtime as in base pay. Excessive overtime not only increases Metro’s current operating expenses, but it also increases the pensions of many Metro workers earning overtime.
Instead of cowering before D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents the District on Metro’s governing board, and Norton’s veiled threats to cripple the federal government unless taxpayers commit billions of additional dollars to support Metro, Congress, Maryland, Virginia and the District must hold WMATA accountable for meeting minimum operational benchmarks.
Imposing only one single required benchmark would have wide-ranging implications for Metro’s operations. For example, Metro could be required to reduce its labor costs per passenger trip to meet specific targets over the next few years or reduce its operating cost per passenger mile, currently 83 cents toward the national average of 64 cents.
Metro has a number of options available to reduce its labor cost per trip. It can reduce the use of overtime, control upcoming union contract increases and promote Metro ridership by improving reliability and altering Metro’s fare structure. Metro fares are very expensive compared with those of other mass transit systems.A monthly pass for Metro costs $237, compared with $116.50 in New York and $75 in Boston.
Metro’s problems are a consequence of Metro’s failure to manage the system. Before Metro gets additional taxpayer support, it should be required to demonstrate concrete operational improvements. Congress, the District, Maryland and Virginia must have the good sense to withhold additional funds and keep pressure on Metro to meet minimum benchmarks of performance.