Sub­way high­lights in­fra­struc­ture woes

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Ian Simp­son

Hailed as “Amer­ica’s Sub­way” when it be­gan op­er­at­ing 40 years ago, Wash­ing­ton’s Metro tran­sit sys­tem now could serve as Ex­hibit A for the US in­fra­struc­ture woes Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump has vowed to fix. Cru­cial to help­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment run smoothly, the sec­ond­bus­i­est US sub­way is fac­ing fall­ing rid­er­ship, ac­ci­dents, a $290 mil­lion bud­get gap, job cuts and soar­ing costs to fix its crum­bling rail lines.

Its prob­lems be­came clear in March when the sys­tem shut down for a day of safety in­spec­tions fol­low­ing a fire. That caused com­muter chaos in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, leav­ing work­ers scram­bling to find trans­porta­tion via buses, car­pools and bikes. Pas­sen­ger traf­fic has fallen nearly 20 per­cent from a 2009 peak, with for­mer riders find­ing other ways to get to work or telecom­mut­ing to avoid the trains. This has set off a vi­cious cy­cle of lower rev­enues lead­ing to ser­vice cuts and higher fares that drive more riders away.

The head of the sys­tem’s largest union says the Metro is in a “death spi­ral,” and an­a­lysts sug­gest its only way out could be bank­ruptcy or a fed­eral takeover. Trump’s vow for $1 tril­lion in in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing across the coun­try of­fered a rare glim­mer of hope to the Wash­ing­ton Metropoli­tan Area Tran­sit Au­thor­ity, which over­sees the sub­way.

“Since he is a Repub­li­can and we have a Repub­li­can Con­gress, there is now no ex­cuse for not get­ting this done,” said au­thor­ity Chair­man Jack Evans, who has backed a fed­eral takeover of the 190 km sys­tem. The sys­tem is of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to fed­eral of­fi­cials since many of the 700,000 peo­ple who ride it each day work for the US gov­ern­ment. When it strug­gles to stay open dur­ing snow­storms, it of­ten snarls gov­ern­ment operations.

Metro is far from alone in fall­ing be­hind, with sub­ways in nearby New York and Bos­ton also fac­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in de­layed main­tenance. Na­tion­wide, the US pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem faces an $86 bil­lion re­pair back­log, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Trans­porta­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. Wash­ing­ton’s sub­way has long been plagued by safety sys­tems that the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board this year called “fun­da­men­tally flawed.” Eigh­teen pas­sen­gers and work­ers have died since 2005, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The agency took over safety su­per­vi­sion last year, the first time a sub­way sys­tem has come un­der US gov­ern­ment over­sight for such lapses.

Re­pair Costs Soar

Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Gen­eral Man­ager Paul Wiede­feld said he would have moved a lot faster to fix some of the is­sues had he known the ex­tent of the prob­lems when he took the job a year ago. “We are work­ing very hard to do the best that we can for the agency and for this re­gion,” Wiede­feld told a news con­fer­ence this month. He has said the re­pair pro­gram will cost $60 mil­lion, but a fed­eral re­port this month said the fi­nal price tag could be dou­ble that.

Much of the trou­ble at Metro, which also car­ries many of the 21 mil­lion tourists who visit Wash­ing­ton each year, re­sults from a two-track de­sign that means trains can­not be di­verted for re­pairs or traf­fic. The sys­tem sprawls from Wash­ing­ton into neigh­bor­ing Mary­land and Vir­ginia. It re­lies on those states, as well as fed­eral and lo­cal gov­ern­ments, to cover close to half its costs.

Wash­ing­ton’s Demo­cratic mayor has pro­posed a 1-cent sales tax to fund the sys­tem, an idea the Vir­ginia and Mary­land gov­er­nors re­jected. In a pro­posed $1.8 bil­lion bud­get for the fis­cal year be­gin­ning in July that Wiede­feld called “a re­al­ity check,” Metro warned it would need to run trains less fre­quently and raise fares to off­set de­clin­ing rev­enue. Metro work­ers flooded a board meet­ing this month to con­demn the pro­posed cuts, which in­clude hun­dreds of lay­offs. “Metro’s bud­get should not be bal­anced on the backs of riders and work­ers,” said Steve Wil­liams, vice pres­i­dent of Team­sters Lo­cal 922.

But cost cuts are not keep­ing up with the de­cline in rev­enue, and Metro will have to ask for an­other $130 mil­lion from the Dis­trict of Co­lum­bia, Vir­ginia and Mary­land to close a pro­jected $290 mil­lion short­fall in its next bud­get. —Reuters

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