Death Spiral or Not, Washington's Metro is a Total Disaster

Washington Metro at Capitol South station. Flickr/Creative Commons/@Hawthorne Ave

Metro should do all it can to bring in private firms to do maintenance and operations work.

It’s a cardinal rule of crisis management: Don’t affirm a negative accusation, especially if it’s true. (See: “I am not a crook.”)

But Paul Wiedefeld, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), apparently never got the message. Recently, he felt it necessary to declare that “Metro is not in a death spiral.” Washington residents immediately knew they should be very concerned.

Whether you want to call it a “death spiral” or not, it’s undeniable that Washington’s Metrorail system is in dire shape. Ridership has fallen every quarter since its peak in 2009—remarkable, given that the Washington metropolitan area’s population has grown nearly 8 percent since 2010. Metrorail’s most recent quarter saw ridership fall 11 percent from just a year ago, signifying that the decline is not just prolonged, but precipitous as well.

Metro admits that its ridership losses stem largely from poor service quality and reliability. Trains are late more than a quarter of the time, and only 48 percent of Metrorail riders said they are satisfied with their experience. These trends will only get worse, due to service disruptions caused by Metro’s SafeTrack repair program, the inconvenience of which has recently reduced ridership by 20 percent on its most-traveled Red Line in a single day. Many of these riders will likely never return, given their frustration with the subway and the convenience of other alternatives.

Unsurprisingly, Metro’s problems manifest themselves in its budget. The general manager’s proposed budget for 2018 projects that WMATA—both rail and bus services—will run a $290 million shortfall. Even that is a suspiciously rosy scenario, since it wishfully assumes a 0 percent raise for WMATA’s unionized workforce and discounts the cost of future pension liabilities.

This projected deficit comes after factoring in nearly $1 billion in subsidies from local governments. Metro is further subsidized by the federal taxpayers. This includes Federal Transit Administration grants, direct appropriations from Congress—a gift to Metro that is unique among U.S. transit agencies—as well as a transit subsidy for the federal employees who constitute about 30 percent of WMATA’s riders. Billions more in federal and local funds are being poured into building out the system’s Silver and Purple lines—even as the existing system catches on fire routinely.

This lavish taxpayer support masks Metro’s significant problems and subsidizes its continued slide. Viewing itself as “too big to fail,” Metro counts on always being bailed out by taxpayer dollars. Thus, it has little incentive to operate efficiently or meet customer demands. Instead, Metro officials focus on demanding more money from both local residents and federal taxpayers, who will likely never ride it.

Not only have these subsidies allowed poor service to continue, but they’ve produced high costs and exceptional bloat, even for a public agency. On a cost-per-passenger-mile basis, WMATA’s rail service ranks as the most expensive major Metro system to operate in the country. Its heavily unionized workforce is truly massive—totaling over 14,500 employees, more than twice its similar counterpart in Chicago. Indeed, Metro has the most full-time employees per rider of any major heavy rail system. Worse, Metrorail has more administrative workers relative to its ridership than any other system by a long shot—roughly five times that of its peer rail lines in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles.

This featherbedding is extraordinarily costly—especially considering that total compensation for WMATA employees averages out to nearly $125,000 apiece. Additionally, it’s extremely difficult for WMATA to discipline ineffective and even negligent employees. That’s a sweet deal for underperforming workers, but a nightmare for taxpayers and riders—as evidenced by Metro’s current debacle.

There’s a bright side, however. WMATA’s previous plan to regain riders was simply to wait until gas hits $5 per gallon again. So it’s encouraging to see that officials are increasingly aware that corrective action is needed.