DC area Metrorail's future requires dedicated new funding source

The decades of deferred maintenance and trimming of funds have left the once-gleaming national capital rail system in a mess. Bill Mosley writes that only a dedicated source of regionally based funding can give it a permanent new lease on life.

/By Bill Mosley/ The one-day shutdown of the entire Metrorail system on March 16 for safety checks was unprecedented for our local rapid-rail system.  Whether it was necessary has been a lively topic of debate; but new General Manager Paul Wiedefeld obviously felt, with safety meltdowns coming in rapid succession, that it was time to go big on safety or go home.  The 2009 Fort Totten crash that killed nine and last year’s electrical arcing incident that caused the death of one passenger from smoke inhalation and sent dozens of others to the hospital were only the ugliest symptoms of a system in crisis.  And last month’s closure might be only the beginning:  Metro now is considering shutting down entire lines for repairs for months at a time.

The current state of Metrorail represents a long, sad decline from the palmy days of the 1970s and 1980s when the system was spanking new and a rebuke to the dirty, often unreliable and sometimes unsafe systems in older U.S. cities.  In the early days Metro prided itself on being as unlike New York’s crime-ridden, rat-infested, graffiti-scarred subway system as it could be – with clean, airy stations, graffiti-free cars and smooth and efficient service.  Today, a ride on the New York subway shows that Metro could learn a lesson or two from its big sister on how to turn around an aging urban rail network.

A lot of media coverage and political sniping has cast blame on Metro management for the deterioration of the system.  But no management, regardless of how brilliant or dedicated it was, could succeed in the face of decades of underinvestment in Metro by the local jurisdictions as well as the federal government.  The lack of a dedicated local source of revenue has been a festering wound that has left Metro short of reliable funding since its beginnings.  This was an issue that the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America helped bring to light when it spearheaded the creation of the Coalition for Fair Transit Finance (CFTF) in 1984, demanding that Metro stop filling budget gaps with annual fare increases and that DC, Maryland and Virginia work together to create a dedicated funding stream for the system.  CFTF did succeed in helping convince WMATA to forego further fare increases for several years, but a dedicated source of funding remains an unfulfilled demand.

A region-wide gasoline tax is often suggested as a means to provide Metro with dedicated funds.  Drivers who might object to paying a few pennies a gallon to support Metro might consider how the Metro system – both bus and rail – benefit all commuters in the region.  The March 16 traffic was not as bad as some had feared – largely because the federal government allowed most of its employees to stay home – but if Metro closed for a longer period and everyone who had access to a car used it, the resulting gridlock would bring the region to a standstill.  In addition, riding Metro contributes less to climate change and other environmental ills than driving, and transit riders don’t gobble up parking in congested areas.  Transit is a public service that benefits everyone whether they ride it or not, and it deserves better than to be nickeled and dimed to death.

So don’t complain about Metro – demand that your elected officials summon the will to give it the funding it needs to fix its safety and reliability problems before they get worse.

Bill Mosley writes on regional transportation issues. A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 Washington Socialist.