Remember that thrill in Reston in July 2014 when the Silver Line station at Wiehle Avenue finally opened? After 45 years waiting for rail down the middle of the toll road, we had our own train station! We boarded a train that very first afternoon and rode it to the other end of the line—Largo. We stopped at Eastern Market, which we’d never visited, and on the way home, we stopped in Tysons Corner for a nice dinner at Coastal Flats. It was great!
Two and a half years later, we watch what appears to be a collapsing Metro system. Today if we need to go to Washington, we are inclined to drive due to doubts about Metro’s reliability. Train accidents, fires and smoke in the tunnels with no timely response to aid passengers, failed maintenance, aging and filthy train cars, and constant delays are now the system norm. General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, frankly assessed Metro’s ills as: 1) a system with total maintenance failure—hence the accidents, delays; 2) a culture of carelessness and worse, including routinely falsified inspection and maintenance reports: 3) shortfalls in new equipment; and, 4) failure of Metro’s member governments to provide the funds essential for critical infrastructure and equipment as well as operating costs.
Mr. Wiedefeld has courageously addressed numbers 1) and 2). He has instituted a huge maintenance catch-up program, but at great cost to system service over a year and a resulting sharp drop in ridership. He also fired 20 managers. Number 3 has proven tougher as he confronts the difficulty of getting member governments to commit the essential funds each cycle, which leads me to number 4. Unlike most public transit systems in the U.S. and elsewhere, area governments have refused to provide a guaranteed source of funding to meet the system’s needs. Thus, there is a constant wrangling among the District, and Maryland and Virginia jurisdictions who “own” the system. Critical needed infrastructure—e.g., to build additional capacity like bridges or tunnels to conquer the Potomac bottleneck—is the can they keep kicking down the road.
Lately the political glue holding the Metro together shows signs of simply coming unstuck altogether. In apparent desperation, Wiedefeld and others have suggested that the federal government take over Metro, presumably to restore order and create a permanent revenue stream to provide the subsidy essential to operate a public transit system. To date there is no sign of consensus among Metro’s constituent governments to press the Feds to consider absorbing the system. Nor has anyone of stature among the Feds volunteered to explore this alternative. And, don’t bother looking for leadership on Capitol Hill.
Instead, squabbling among the jurisdictions has broken out again. This time, two DC Council members have come up with an innovative cost reduction proposal. Simply kill the second phase of the Silver Line, thus eliminating a chunk of future operating costs and relieving pressure for major new infrastructure such as a tunnel or a bridge. Unfortunately, the second phase of Silver is already halfway built and just leaving it there for all to see ain’t gonna happen. Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova rightly pointed this out to her DC colleagues. She then put her foot in it, saying the solution is for “member jurisdictions to join together, leverage our collective resources and ingenuity, and fix Metro”. Sadly, she offered no concrete proposals or cash to do so.