This week the Senate held hearings on the safety problems of the subway system in Washington. Naturally, politicians like Senator Mikulski (D-MD) blamed Metro officials for the problems. Yet if one looks at things objectively they would realize many of the problems are not the fault of Metro officials, but of the politicians, who over the years, made bad public policy decisions.
It is not the fault of current Metro officials that the designers of the Metro forty years ago were short-sighted and only built two lines through most of the system. If they had designed it with three tracks, many of the delays due to the inevitable breakdown of trains or problems with the tracks would be averted.
Second, government officials created the Metro to work as a quasi-private business in that it requires it to generate most of its operating revenue from user fees. Yet public officials hamstring Metro by making it difficult to collect the needed revenue. Metro has to borrow millions of dollars just to keep the system running. Obviously what they need to do is raise fares to make up the difference. To do so, Metro has to hold hearings and predictably, those who attend (less than 0.1% of the ridership) are the ones who oppose any fare hikes. Politicians see this and back the small vocal riders by opposing fare increases, but at the same time being reluctant to increase public funding of the system.
If one takes a look at a map of the Metro system, you will see it was designed to do one thing—bring a large number of people into downtown Washington. It was not designed to move people around the suburbs. Yet federal, state, and local government officials make policies where people need to get from suburb to suburb.
A good example was about fifthteen years ago. The late owner of the Redskins, Jack Kent Cooke, wanted to build a new football stadium—with his own money—but got the run-around frompoliticians in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. He finally built the stadium in the Maryland suburbs, a mile away from the nearest Metro station. Instead of thousands of fans taking the subway, like they did when the Redskins played at RFK, they drive to the game.
Then there is Washington DC’s archaic law, which limits the height of buildings to roughly thirteen stories. This has forced developers to build office and condo buildings farther and farther out into the suburbs. Had there not been such a law in place for the past century, more of these buildings would be located in DC rather than in Rockville or Tysons Corner.
As well, Washington, as the nation’s capital, has numerous government agencies, which are needed to keep it running. Yet members of the Maryland and Virginia Congressional delegation, like Senator Mikulski, use their power to locate many of these agencies in their districts. These agencies employ thousands of people but most of them work nowhere near a Metro station. If they are, only those who live and work along the same line will take the train. Remember, the system was designed to move people into DC. If someone lives on the Orange line in PG County and works on the Green line in PG County, they have to take the train into Washington, transfer, and ride it back out into the suburbs. Most people would rather drive.
Over the decades, hundreds of millions of dollars in public revenue were spent to build the Metro far out into the suburbs. Yet local officials, for whatever reason, failed to take advantage of this system. In Montgomery County, they like to brag about the “I-270 Corridor”, which is an area just off the interstate which includes scores of office buildings which employ thousands of employees who work for high-tech related firms. This corridor runs parallel to the Red Line, five to ten miles to the west. In other words, Maryland spent millions of dollars on a fixed rail system, but then encouraged developers to build office buildings nowhere near it.
This article is not meant to imply that Metro officials are not at fault for many of the problems of the system. What it is meant to convey is many of the problems lie with bad public policy decisions, which have created a situation where the Metro system is not used to its optimal potential. These policies have deprived Metro of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from riders who would have taken the train had government officials had the good sense to make it worth their while.