Tracking Metrorail’s serious problems and daily challenges can detract from fully appreciating the transit system’s significant value for this metropolitan region. It also can get in the way of dealing with a serious flaw in how the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is constituted.
Set aside for the moment today’s frustration, dissatisfaction and complaints focused on Metro’s undeniably serious shortcomings. Consider instead Metro’s past and future advantages. No matter where you live, and even if you never set foot on a Metro train, Metro benefits you.
Imagine life in this region without Metro.
Rush-hour traffic on roadways within the city and in many parts of the suburbs would be more congested. More time would be spent in cars moving more slowly, consuming more gasoline and emitting more carbon.
With many more cars on area roads, competition for parking spaces at numerous employment destinations would greatly increase. Without Metro, millions of square feet of real estate erected near Metro stations during recent decades would have necessitated the construction of more parking garages, adding significantly to development costs and the costs of buying or renting space in residential and commercial buildings.
Thanks to Metro, owners of thousands of properties near Metro stations have realized substantial economic benefits. The market value of homes, apartments and commercial buildings within walking distance of a Metro station, or a short drive or shuttle ride away, has risen more than would have been realized without Metro.
In turn, rising real estate values catalyzed by Metro access have resulted in increased property assessments and yielded increased tax revenue for the District and surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia. Since Metro first began operating in the 1970s, these jurisdictions have collected many millions of dollars more in real estate taxes than would have been collected without Metro.
And this additional tax revenue helped pay for public services and investments benefiting local residents, whether or not they used Metro.
Metro’s regionwide benefits make it even more imperative that WMATA correct its managerial, maintenance and operational deficiencies with all deliberate speed. Ensuring reliable and safe Metrorail service is the highest priority.
Yet even after Metrorail service is again up to speed, WMATA will face several fundamental, long-standing challenges that must be addressed if Metro is to operate more efficiently, safely and sustainably well into the future.
Metro station design and function will continue to be problematic. Escalators and elevators will require more regular maintenance and ultimately costly replacement. Lighting needs improvement in underground stations, especially above and below mezzanines, as well as along some passageways. Informational signage designed almost a half-century ago should be enhanced and better illuminated, enabling riders to more easily see and read signage when trains approach and dwell at platforms.
Of course, replacing sooner rather than later the system’s aging railcars with new, safer state-of-the-art railcars will require billions of new capital investment dollars.
Accomplishing all this entails funding that WMATA has chronically lacked, which points to WMATA’s overarching political and financial problem: the multi-jurisdictional, 1967 WMATA compact for developing, governing and financing the Metro system.
Under the compact, responsibility for Metro’s annual operations and funding were put in the hands of three disparate governments and their elected officials. Thus WMATA is not a truly regional transportation authority, as it has little effective authority. The compact’s governance and financial structure was fundamentally flawed from the get-go.
Without a dedicated, regionwide source of revenue and taxing protocol, WMATA cannot issue bonds to cover capital investments and operational costs exceeding revenue generated by ridership fares, parking fees, advertising and disposition of Metro property. It is unable to plan, finance and build — apolitically and trans-jurisdictionally — to satisfy metropolitan as well as local transportation needs.
Thus, since its inception, WMATA has had to operate as a financial dependency of two states and the federal district, each limited politically and fiscally by their respective constituencies. Many voters in these jurisdictions do not think or act regionally, nor do they want to pay taxes for regional infrastructure and services they mistakenly believe offer them no benefits.
Each year, WMATA hopes that its annual budget and funding requests submitted to the District, Maryland and Virginia produce the monies needed. And each year, what WMATA actually receives depends on locally variable fiscal conditions, shifting political moods, and changing perceptions of voters and elected officials in the three jurisdictions.
Could the WMATA compact be amended to correct this flaw?
The Washington Post’s Robert McCartney reported recently that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Greater Washington Board of Trade intend to “press the Virginia and Maryland legislatures in early 2018 to approve a regional tax or other funding mechanism for Metro.” But he also reminded readers that local politicians, especially in Virginia, are “loath to raise taxes.”
Clearly, amending the compact to solve WMATA’s financial problems will not happen unless the citizens and political leadership of the two states and the District are convinced that doing so is both a necessity and a win-win proposition for everyone.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).