METRO, THE nation’s second-busiest transit system, is getting a lot less busy. Ridership on the subway, whose safety and reliability record is execrable, is 15 percent below this year’s forecast, and a third of passengers are dissatisfied with rail service. That may sound bad but less than catastrophic — until one considers that the system had already lost more than 16 percent of weekday rail riders since the daily peak of 750,000 in 2009. As the problem of crowding recedes, the question of survival is coming into focus.
Mindful of the stakes, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who took charge of the system a year ago, has done a commendable job of injecting a sense of urgency. Closing the entire subway system for 24 hours on short notice, as he did for safety reasons in March, was a massive inconvenience; it also made the point that kicking the can down the road, as local officials have done for decades, will be harder to do (though some still manage). So did the SafeTrack maintenance surge, launched in June, which has caused daily delays.
On Wednesday, his first anniversary on the job, Mr. Wiedefeld unveiled what he called a “Back2Good” agenda for his second year on the job. Work will continue on rails and other subway infrastructure — SafeTrack is only two-thirds complete — but the focus will shift to accelerating the replacement of Metro’s antiquated fleet of rail cars, the cause of 60 percent of delays. The idea, he said, is to cut those delays by a quarter.
Mr. Wiedefeld hopes that more reliable service will lure back passengers who have fled the subway for buses, cars and bikes. That may be wishful thinking. Fare increases, service cuts or both are likely next year, to close a projected $290 million deficit in Metro’s $1.8 billion operating budget, caused mainly by plummeting ridership. That’s hardly a siren song for attracting passengers.
Mr. Wiedefeld’s methodical and aggressive approach, like his pull-no-punches assessment of the system’s decay, is a balm. Unfortunately, competent management is no substitute for sound governance and dependable funding. Metro lacks both.
Metro’s board of directors remains dominated by local elected officials rather than transit, finance and management pros. And despite decades of hand-wringing over the absence of an earmarked source of funding — Metro is the nation’s only major transit system without one — lawmakers and other local officials, especially Republicans in Maryland and Virginia, avert their eyes whenever the question arises. They insist that service improvements are a precondition for more funding, ignoring the fact that without more long-term funding, better service is a pipe dream.
Mr. Wiedefeld’s agenda is the right one for Metro, yet it will take more to get Metro “back to good.” For that to happen, the federal government, whose workforce is heavily dependent on Metro for its daily commute, will need to get involved. Here’s hoping that Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for transportation secretary, takes note before some new catastrophe forces Metro to the top of her agenda.
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