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.

Wiedefeld has made some laudable proposals in his budget for the next year to address the $290 million shortfall. They include shedding one thousand jobs and focusing service on peak hours. Yet even these steps have generated staunch political pushback from riders and union members, and thus are unlikely to be enacted as proposed.

Separately, WMATA board chair Jack Evans has proposed turning over management to the federal government (as did the Washington Post), but the Feds’ abysmal record on managing Amtrak and, until 1987, Washington’s airports suggests that this is an ill-advised path to go down.

Instead, one truly remarkable inclusion in the public agency’s budget points toward the right direction: privatization. Mentioned only in passing in the budget’s presentation section, privatization should not be a footnote to the agency’s approach; it should be the approach.

Given the immense cost and unaccountability of Metro’s current workforce, Metro should do all it can to bring in private firms to do maintenance and operations work. Private companies would compete to provide services more inexpensively. Meanwhile, Metro would have the ability to set quality standards and remove the firms if its standards are not met. This establishes a far superior incentive structure that would yield myriad benefits to riders and taxpayers.

One final thought: emerging technologies, such as driverless vehicles, are throwing the future of mass transit into uncertainty, so now is an opportune time for Metro to define its future. Taxpayers should question whether it truly makes sense to continue dumping billions in subsidies into a system that may be largely obsolete in a decade or two.

Either way, both commuters and taxpayers deserve better from WMATA, and they will continue to be disappointed if WMATA is enabled to continue down its current path. Whether that will lead to a rapid death spiral, slow decline, or increasingly untenable taxpayer bailouts is anyone’s guess, but we know from Metro’s current state that it won’t be pretty.

Michael Sargent is a research associate in The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for economic policy studies.

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

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