Be­fore Metro drowns

It needs gov­er­nance changes. And, just as im­por­tant, money.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

TELLING METRO that it must re­form it­self — by im­prov­ing gov­er­nance, ser­vice and safety — be­fore it can re­ceive more fund­ing is like telling a drown­ing woman she must learn to swim be­fore she’s en­ti­tled to a life­line. At a cer­tain point in the fore­see­able fu­ture, the wise ad­mon­ish­ments are ir­rel­e­vant. It’s just too late.

That point is draw­ing nearer. Even as rid­er­ship on the na­tion’s sec­ond-busiest sub­way sys­tem con­tin­ues its dizzy­ing de­scent, Metro’s board this month adopted a bud­get for the com­ing fis­cal year that raises fares and cuts ser­vice — a recipe for fur­ther de­clines in rid­er­ship.

It’s be­come al­most a cliche to speak of Metro’s “death spi­ral,” but this is what a death spi­ral looks like: Rail trips in the sec­ond half of 2016 plum­meted by 12 per­cent mea­sured against the same pe­riod a year ear­lier, one of the steep­est year-on-year de­scents in mem­ory. Av­er­age week­day trips on the sub­way sys­tem last year fell to their low­est level since 2003, when the metropoli­tan area’s pop­u­la­tion was 20 per­cent smaller than it is now. Since 2012, rid­er­ship on the sub­way has fallen short of pro­jec­tions ev­ery year, even as Metro has tried to re­cal­i­brate ex­pec­ta­tions in an era of telecom­mut­ing, Uber and al­ter­na­tive work sched­ules. In the cur­rent fis­cal year, end­ing June 30, Metro projects the de­cline in rid­er­ship to leave a $125 mil­lion short­fall, equal to about 15 per­cent of the $839 mil­lion that had been pro­jected in pas­sen­ger fares and park­ing rev­enue.

When sub­way rid­er­ship and rev­enue con­tinue to tum­ble even as pop­u­la­tion and the lo­cal econ­omy boom, the time for dras­tic mea­sures has ar­rived. This page has urged of­fi­cials to con­sider a fed­eral takeover of Metro, whose board, be­set by parochial­ism of com­pet­ing state and lo­cal of­fi­cials, lacks ad­e­quate ex­per­tise in tran­sit, fi­nance and man­age­ment.

That rec­om­men­da­tion has now been taken up by the Fed­eral City Coun­cil, led by former D.C. mayor An­thony A. Wil­liams. The coun­cil, backed by more than 100 ex­ec­u­tives from ma­jor lo­cal busi­nesses and univer­si­ties, pro­poses that a tem­po­rary five-mem­ber fed­eral con­trol board take over from the cur­rent 16-mem­ber Metro board.

The idea is that a con­trol board could em­power Metro’s man­age­ment, grant­ing it the free­dom to scrap un­af­ford­able la­bor agree­ments and con­tracts and ac­cel­er­ate pri­va­ti­za­tion. At the same time, the aim would be to per­suade lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions to de­vise an ear­marked, on­go­ing fund­ing source for Metro, which, alone among ma­jor Amer­i­can tran­sit sys­tems, has al­ways lacked one. That, in turn, might con­vince Repub­li­can lead­ers in Congress to in­crease fund­ing for a net­work used on a daily ba­sis by 40 per­cent of fed­eral work­ers.

Gov­er­nance re­forms at Metro are cru­cial; so is more fund­ing. To pre­tend that the former must be the fo­cus be­fore the lat­ter is achiev­able is to push back the goal­posts into the in­fi­nite dis­tance, leav­ing Metro gasp­ing for oxy­gen. Real im­prove­ments in ser­vice, re­li­a­bil­ity and safety — the only sure­fire way to re­verse a free fall in rid­er­ship — will re­quire in­vest­ment.

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