Before Metro drowns
It needs governance changes. And, just as important, money.
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.