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Metro's 'Ambitious' Rebuilding Program Leaves $1.3B Unspent, Projects Unfinished

With so much money dedicated to rebuilding Metro, why are signs like this still so common?
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
With so much money dedicated to rebuilding Metro, why are signs like this still so common?

Over the past half decade, Metro has touted an “ambitious” program to rebuild its decaying rail infrastructure, rectify safety problems exposed by the 2009 Red Line disaster, and purchase new railcars and buses. The figures are impressive: a six-year, $5 billion capital improvement program.

Ambitious it may be, but it has proven more than Metro can handle.

The transit authority has spent only 74 percent of the allotted funds, or $3.7 billion, blaming an array of factors for the slow pace of completed projects, according to documents presented to the Metro board of directors on Thursday.

Problems with management controls, contract and schedule delays, and changing priorities are listed among the reasons why Metro has left so much money unspent. About 50 percent of the funds are federal grants that do not have an expiration date, according to transit authority staff.

Metro report on Capital Program

The report lists plenty of positives: about 1,000 buses replaced or rehabbed, thousands of new track circuits, rail ties, and power cables, rebuilt escalators and elevators, fresh lighting, better signage, repaired platforms at 10 stations and several new canopies, etc.

Yet Metro’s key performance indicators — on-time performance, fleet reliability, and customer satisfaction — are at their lowest level, leaving commuters puzzled why service can be so poor after so much time and money spent to fix things.

Metro’s inability to deliver capital projects is getting worse, according to transit authority figures. In fiscal 2014, Metro spent 79 percent of the approved $996 billion capital budget. In fiscal 2015, only 65 percent was spent of an approved $1.1 billion.

“Insufficient management controls were put in place to establish formal processes and procedures to initiate projects, efficiently monitor progress based on scope and schedule and validate budget requests for future years based on schedule,” the report says.

Contract delays also affected important work on track maintenance equipment, bus replacement, and fulfilling key National Transportation Safety Board recommendations made after the deaths of nine people in the 2009 Red Line disaster at Fort Totten.

“In December 2010 the Board approved a resolution creating 19 new projects to address a portion of the NTSB recommendations that resulted from the 2009 Fort Totten accident,” the report says. “In FY2012 this project was one of the top five projects with the largest unspent budget and a significant portion was not under contract.”

After these early failures, Metro made progress catching up on the NTSB recommendations.

“Starting in FY2013 and moving forward, this project was better budgeted to reflect lessons learned and the percentage able to be invested each year continued to rise to a maximum of 93 percent in FY2015,” the report adds.

New general manager Paul Wiedefeld, intent on avoiding fare increases next year, is proposing using a portion of the unspent capital funds to cover a projected hole in Metro’s $1.8 billion operating budget plan that takes effect July 1.

The transfer of $64 million from the capital to operating budget would cover labor costs associated with preventive maintenance.

Some board members have questioned whether the transfer is wise because it could lead Metro’s jurisdictions to provide less money for future capital projects. The transfer is largely the reason why Wiedefeld’s proposed budget is balanced without raising fares, cutting service, or increasing jurisdictional operating subsidies, or laying off workers.

In December, Wiedefeld defended his proposal. “It’s not a gimmick,” he said. “We have what’s called roll over in the capital budget, meaning we are not spending all the money in the capital budget. And the number is pretty large.”

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