From the first reports of a “mass casualty incident” to the grainy YouTube videos of passengers coughing violently, passing out, and praying, the horrific events on board a smoke-filled Yellow Line Metro train Monday shook the city and the region. Then came news that the incident had claimed a woman’s life. It was enough to make you never want to ride Metro again.
That’s exactly the reaction some Washingtonians have had. In an informal Washington Post poll yesterday, nearly half of respondents said they would reconsider how often they ride Metro. Variants of “I’m done with Metro” proliferated on Twitter.
It’s a sensible enough position. Metro has a reputation for shoddy service and a history of not learning from its mistakes, including with this incident, apparently caused by an “electrical arcing event” of the sort that has routinely plagued the system of late. Why should we reward such a poorly run enterprise with our business, or place our lives in the hands of a system we can’t trust?
Understandable though it may be, this is exactly the wrong way to respond to the latest tragedy. If we really want to fix what’s broken with Metro, we should start riding it more, not less.
Lest this approach appear suicidal, consider this: While the loss of a life in Monday’s accident was inexcusable and likely preventable, it’s the first fatality in an incident on Metro since 2009. In that time, nearly 150 people have died in traffic accidents in D.C. And let’s remember that more D.C. residents take transit to work than commute by car.
Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 33,561 of the 35,371 transportation fatalities in 2012 took place on roads. Four hundred and forty-seven happened in the air and 714 in the water. Just 80 were on heavy and light rail. Yes, many more people commute in cars than on subways—but in boats?
The fact is, if we want Metro to work better, we have to ride it more. Nearly 60 percent of Metro’s daily operational costs are funded by fares and other revenue. And that revenue is threatened. Ridership dropped slightly during the recession, then suddenly plummeted in the past two years, down to 2005 levels. There are a number of factors—more people are telecommuting or getting to work by bike or bus—but the effect is clear. Fewer riders means bigger fare hikes to cover costs, which in turn will likely mean fewer riders. It’s a vicious cycle we don’t want to get caught up in.
A Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments report presented today highlights the region’s conundrum. The D.C. area faces a $16 billion budget gap for public transportation (mostly Metro) in order to meet the needs of a growing population over the next 10 years, the report finds. There’s also an $8.5 billion budget gap for roads and bridges, which will only be exacerbated if more people turn away from Metro and start driving.
“Maintenance and replacement costs in critical sectors have been deferred as leaders have been faced with competing priorities, and the need for investing in new systems to support growth and maintaining a state of good repair totals in the billions,” Phil Mendelson, chair of the D.C. Council and the Council of Governments board, warned in the report’s preface. He wrote those words before the Metro accident, but they’re all the more haunting in its aftermath.
Metro has outlined an ambitious long-term plan to improve its equipment, including the installation of nearly 750 new 7000-series railcars to replace aging stock, like the outdated 1000 series. It was a 1000-series car that crumpled like a telescope and climbed atop another train in the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people, leading the Transportation Safety Review Board to conclude that the 1000-series cars were unsafe in crashes. Six years later, we’re still using them, to the dismay of NTSB, which says they pose an “unacceptable risk.” The Yellow Line train that filled with smoke on Monday contained 1000-series cars.
A year ago, Metro unveiled a proposal to build a new line through downtown, connecting Georgetown, Union Station, Capitol Hill, and northern Virginia, and to increase transfer possibilities at Virginia stations. It’s exactly the type of expansion that’s needed to alleviate overcrowding, enhance connectivity and spur development in new areas. But the plan was driven by rising demand. And if demand drops, so will the impetus for any expansion. We’ll be stuck with the same limited network for decades to come.
Metro’s plans also require money. Capital improvements typically come from allocations by the local jurisdictions, but extra fares help. “If more of the operating costs are able to come out of the farebox, certainly that frees up resources to be used elsewhere,” says Mark Schofield, Metro’s director of financial planning and analysis. And higher ridership can also help convince regional elected official to dedicate needed funds to Metro improvements over other priorities. All four Maryland and Virginia senators criticized Metro for its lax safety yesterday. If they really want to help, they’ll press their jurisdictions and their colleagues for more funding.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), in a letter yesterday to Metro’s general manager, argued that the regional delegation in Congress has fought for regular (if inadequate) Metro funding, and now Metro has to uphold its end of the deal. “With that ongoing financial commitment, we demand assurances that safety of the Metro system is indeed improving,” he wrote. “Commuters and visitors to D.C. deserve no less.”
He’s right, of course. But those commuters, visitors, and, might we add, residents can do their part as well. And it’s not by fleeing Metro when it’s in most need of our help.