Washington D.C.’s Metro Management Is Off the Rails | Citizens Against Government Waste

Washington D.C.’s Metro Management Is Off the Rails

The WasteWatcher

Since the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) 7000-series trains went offline following a partial derailment on October 12, 2021, commuters throughout the Washington, D.C. area have faced continual delays and uncertain schedules.  On November 22, WMATA delivered more bad news to riders:  limited and delayed service is now expected to last until the end of 2021, which is the earliest that safety experts can ensure that the trains will be safe to return to service. 

The delays are just the latest in a lengthy series of problems.  Six years ago, a passenger died from smoke inhalation while on a Metro train, and 12 years ago a crash killed nine people.  The current delays are happening when the Metro system continues to operate with decreasing ridership and revenues diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early reporting from federal investigators following the October 12 derailment warned that Metro narrowly avoided a “catastrophic event.”  After the derailment, WMATA admitted that the Metro rail problem that caused the derailment had been identified 31 other times dating back to 2017, yet the 7000-series trains were not pulled until after the October 12 incident.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic caused ridership numbers to plummet, the Metro system was in a dire fiscal state.  Between 2011 and 2019, Metro ridership dropped by 17 percent, from 737,000 per day to 606,000 per day, even as the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area population increased.  The decline came as riders experienced “consistent delays, single tracking, frequent fires and other safety violations due to a lack of adequate maintenance and upkeep.”  Prior to the pandemic, ridership briefly increased a meager 4 percent between 2018 and 2019. 

In November 2016, WMATA’s financial situation was  described as a “death spiral” even as it took in millions of dollars from local governments and the federal government.  Following the decrease in ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro considered mass layoffs and the closing of 22 stations due to a lack of funds.  After receiving $610 million through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, WMATA General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld noted that the funds “would likely not be enough to stop cuts in the future altogether.”  In light of Wiedefeld’s admission, even the additional infusion of $193.4 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act leaves WMATA’s future in doubt. 

If ridership fails to return to pre-pandemic levels, WMATA leadership will be hard pressed to find enough operating funds without further federal assistance.  At the same time, however, federal legislation like the Infrastructure and Investment and Jobs Act, which includes $89.9 billion for public transit over the next five years, promises to keep the Metro system and other transit systems afloat, regardless of their safety record and ridership.

WMATA’s horrid history of safety violations, cost overruns, and declining ridership demonstrates a strong need for significant reforms.  Further, as more D.C.-area residents choose to work from home rather than the office, which is likely to continue when the impact of the pandemic recedes, ridership will not return to “normal.”  WMATA must develop a sustainable transit model that ensures the safety of its passengers and stop relying on continual infusions of federal, state, and local funds to stay afloat.

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