Why the Washington DC Metro System Is a Complete Disaster

The capital of the world’s only superpower has a third world problem.

The capital of the world’s only superpower has a third world problem: You can’t get there from here using public transportation.

The forty-year-old Metro mass-transit system, designed to be a model for the rest of the world, is falling apart. And though there’s widespread agreement that the system needs a drastic overhaul, deep political divisions impede efforts to find a solution. So the failures mount.

Complaining about Metro has become a favorite pastime uniting Washingtonians of all political allegiances. And it certainly appears that the system is in a death spiral: Service and safety issues have caused ridership to decline when it had been projected to increase. In response, the transit system’s governing agency, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, is cutting service times and raising fares—an action likely to send more commuters back to their cars.

“For several years now, WMATA has been a system in crisis—all lights blinking red,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said at a March 29 hearing.

The lack of a strict safety culture has resulted in derailments, falsified track inspection reports, fires, major track defects and has actually claimed lives. Reliability concerns and a crisis in customer confidence are depressing ridership…by a magnitude that is driving down national transit ridership numbers now.

Money is a major factor driving the death spiral, and it’s at the heart of the intense political debate over how to reverse it.

Metro’s revenues from fares, parking and other business cover only about 45 percent of its $1.838 billion operating costs in the fiscal 2018 budget. An annual allocation from governments in the area it serves would cover the shortfall.

General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who took over in November 2015, says Metro needs $15.5 billion in new funding over the next ten years to “remain safe and reliable” amid growth in operating costs that system leaders say is unsustainable.

“What I’ve heard from all stakeholders, the business community, elected officials, riders, is that we have to start to address these issues. We cannot continue this path,” Wiedefeld told WAMU on April 20.

Meanwhile, he and board Chairman Jack Evans, a Democratic member of the DC City Council, are pushing for a dedicated funding source to bring stability to the system. Proposals have included a region-wide Metro sales tax.

But that’s not the whole story. Though there’s general agreement that fixing Metro requires more money, many of the region’s voters and politicians don’t trust the current version of WMATA to spend it well. They have good reason to be skeptical: Much of the system’s predicament is the result of mismanagement, poor accountability and overspending.

Operating Metro’s 117-mile rail system is more expensive compared to other transit systems in the United States. The cost per passenger mile on Metrorail was 62 cents in 2015, versus an average of 49 cents for the top fifty transit systems in the country.

Metro’s labor costs—including salaries and benefits—took up 79.7 percent of the operating budget, much higher than the average of 66.1 percent, and have been rising at a rate much faster than revenues. Average total compensation for the more than 13,000 WMATA employees is $123,617.

Meanwhile, questions have arisen over whether riders and taxpayers are getting their money’s worth out of those expenses as the system’s safety woes persist.

A 2012 investigation of Metro by The Washington Times found a link between safety violations and a “culture of complacency” among transit system employees.

This connection was starkly illustrated on April 19, when a federal court ordered WMATA to rehire a senior mechanic who falsified maintenance logs on ventilation fans, at least one of which failed at a key time on Jan. 12, 2015, when an electrical malfunction caused a train to fill with smoke, killing one passenger and injuring others. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg ruled that he had “little choice” but to order Seyoum Haile reinstated as an arbitrator had decided because the decision “meets the low bar required for confirmation.”