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Playing The Metro Blame Game? Start With Decisions In Decades Past

Transit system recovering from years of deferred maintenance

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A sign at the Rosslyn, Va., Metro station notifies riders that the system is closed for emergency inspection Wednesday, March 16, 2016. An unprecedented safety shutdown of the Metro subway system inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people in and around the nation's capital on Wednesday.
(AP Photo/Jessica Gresko)
A sign at the Rosslyn, Va., Metro station notifies riders that the system is closed for emergency inspection Wednesday, March 16, 2016. An unprecedented safety shutdown of the Metro subway system inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people in and around the nation's capital on Wednesday.

As riders returned to Metrorail following an unprecedented all-day shutdown on Wednesday for emergency safety inspections, a familiar argument was raised by everyone from ordinary riders to political leaders, from historians to former WMATA officials.

They contend that Metro’s current mess was created decades ago in a series of decisions about how to fund what is now the second-busiest subway system in the country. Deferred maintenance turned into a disaster for riders and taxpayers alike, as the costs of fixing the existing system and expanding its capacity have soared high into the billions.

'Everything wears out'

When engineer Gus Ubaldi was designing Metro’s track and third rail system, it was plain to see that the massive project — like any major infrastructure piece — would require decades of expensive maintenance. He worked on the original WMATA system for five years starting in 1974.

“Everything wears out,” says Ubaldi. “If you have a major system like this, there are so many things that can wear, and a combination of those can create a problem, so you want to take protective action.”

Ubaldi, who consults with transit systems on engineering and safety issues, believes Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld made the right move by shutting down the system instead of risking another day with a fire. But Ubaldi is surprised electrical problems continue popping up 15 months after the fatal L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, which the National Transportation Safety Board said was caused by electric arcing involving third rail cables.

“Here we are over a year later. I have to say, if this were my railroad, I would have been out inspecting all those the week after,” he says.

Whether the problem du jour is jumper cables, railcars, tracks, or signals, Metro still is recovering from years of deferred maintenance. Although the transit authority has spent $3.7 billion over the past half-decade — boosted by an infusion of federal and local dollars totaling $300 million annually — rebuilding the 40-year-old system, a substantial maintenance backlog remains.

That is why Metro finds itself in a new crisis every few months, Ubaldi says.

“Deferred maintenance is always going to put you at risk for accidents, and it is going to require that when you do get around to doing it, you are very possibly going to have to do more,” he says.

Unhappy 40th

Metro turns 40 this month. Riders are reminded anytime they board a 1000-series railcar because the soon-to-be replaced models date to the system’s opening.

And although Metro’s oldest riders can remember the days when it was considered a model transit system, both clean and efficient, collecting enough money to operate, maintain, and expand it always was difficult, according to George Mason University historian Zachary Schrag, the author of "The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro."

“There has never been a golden age of Metro finances,” Schrag says. Funding battles began in the 1960s when the Red Line was being planned.

“Possibly in early 1972 things were looking okay. But before then and ever since, Metro has had significant money problems. When you talk about infrastructure, it is very hard to get the costs and revenues aligned,” Schrag says.

Read this 1986 report forecasting increases in maintenance costs.

Early warnings

Just a decade after Metro’s 1976 opening began to redefine work and life in the capital region, local leaders sounded warnings about an unsustainable course.

In 1986, the Federal City Council produced a 250-page report forecasting enormous increases in maintenance and replacement costs.

“Already they were looking toward vastly increasing costs for the existing sections of what were then the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines,” Schrag says.

“There is a really interesting graph where they show expenses for maintenance and rehabilitation tripling between the mid-1980s and 2000. They pretty much predicted in 1986 that you would have a lot of problems by the late-1990s, and that's indeed what happened,” he says.

Also in 1986, the Metro board created a fund to pay for equipment replacement and repairs to stations and railyards, but the fund failed to receive the necessary dollars. Maintenance would suffer as a result.

“One line that really jumped out at me from that report was the statement WMATA had one of the best maintenance records in the industry. I don't think people would likely say that today,” says Schrag.

The Council’s study was cited by Ralph Stanley, the administrator of the Urban Mass Transit Administration (now the Federal Transit Administration), in testimony before Congress on March 25, 1986. Stanley made clear that the responsibility for operating and maintaining Metro would fall on its city and county jurisdictions, not the federal treasury.

“By the year 2000, when portions of the Metrorail system will be 25 years old, the annual amount required for rehabilitation and replacement of Metrorail and bus will be $157.5 million, in constant 1986 dollars, compared to $42 million today, a 400 percent increase,” Stanley testified.

“These findings mean that the recurring annual cost to public entities of operating, maintaining, and rehabilitating the WMATA system will rise from $253.4 million today to $414 million in the year 2000, a 63 percent increase,” said Stanley, who spoke before the House subcommittee of government operations and metropolitan affairs.

Jump to Gunn

By 2010, a year after the Fort Totten Red Line disaster, when Metro’s maintenance problems were dire, former WMATA general manager David Gunn produced for the transit authority a comprehensive report on what needed attention.

“They were putting in one-third the amount of rail they needed… They were putting in half the number of ties. And they were replacing about a quarter of the fasteners they needed to replace,” says Gunn, a career rail executive who now lives in Nova Scotia.

His report also detailed the water infiltration in tunnels that is believed to be a cause of track fires, and it noted railcar maintenance problems that still bedevil Metro today.

‘The maintenance guys were constantly running out of parts,” says Gunn, who faults the deferred maintenance for the current troubles.

“The demands on the system are growing and it hasn't been maintained. So you have two things happening which are creating a real nightmare for the passengers and for the city. And that deferred maintenance is the result of a totally dysfunctional board,” Gunn says.

Calls to reform Metro's 16-member board of directors, possibly by shrinking its size, would require Congressional action to proceed. In the meantime, Metro still has to fix what is broken.

“I mean, what in the name of God are they doing?” says Gunn, whose irritation at the present state of WMATA bristles in his voice.

After this week, it may seem as if Metro is crumbling. But the emergency inspections produced evidence of what is possible when the necessary work is performed. The inspection of more than 600 track-based power cables found no problems on the Red Line, the oldest line. The Red Line was rebuilt after the Fort Totten crash. The construction firm Mass. Electric replaced the line’s third rail jumper cables, which all checked out fine during Wednesday’s shutdown.

All 26 damaged cables were found along the tracks shared by the Silver, Blue, and Orange Lines downtown. The Blue/Orange portion of the system happens to be next in line for reconstruction.

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