Expect Delays: Washington Metro Leaves Riders Waiting for Change

January 26, 2018

Grace Laria (SFS ’19) was on the Metro near Friendship Heights in March 2017, when an electrical fire broke out and passengers were evacuated.

“The lights in the car went off and the train stopped,” Laria wrote in an email to the Voice. “I didn’t really think anything of it because the D.C. Metro is so finicky, but then a Metro attendant burst into the car from the one ahead of us, yelling for everyone to get out of the way and move to the back of the train.”

Laria said she remembers an acrid smell and heard three explosions, signs of the fire that had occurred under one of the train cars.

“Every time the doors opened as we passed from car to car the train would fill with a foul smelling smoke, smelling like chemicals, not like a typical wood burning fire, and people started coughing,” Laria said.

Stories of delays and closures are also common among riders. Sam Seitz (SFS ’19) recounted a Saturday morning in January 2017, when an unexpected series of shutdowns prevented him from reaching the Wiehle-Reston station.

“I got to Rosslyn at around 7:30, 7:40, and the entrance was completely gated up,” Seitz said. “I waited around for five, 10 minutes, until an attendant came out and said the station was temporarily closed and that it was unknown when it will open.” Seitz then walked from Rosslyn to Foggy Bottom, where the entrance to the Metro station was also closed.

A deeper dive into the history and structure of the Metro reveals not only individual negative experiences but also organizational limitations that have affected the system, which serves the residents of the greater Washington area. According to a 2017 Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) report, Metro ridership declined 12 percent last year. WMATA forecasted around a $125 million loss in earnings. A poll conducted by the Washington Post shows 52 percent of riders evaluate the Metro as “not so good” or “poor.” Daniel Rathbone, former chief of the Transportation Planning Division at the Fairfax County Department of Transportation and an adjunct professor at Georgetown, identifies the Metro’s unreliability as a primary cause of the growing discontent among D.C. area riders.

“We are in a situation where when people make a choice between what mode of transportation they should take, reliability becomes a very important factor to consider, in terms of whether they should go by car, bus, or rail,” Rathbone said.

A reliable system that takes a long time, Rathbone contended, is preferable to a faster system with greater volatility.

Some, including former Metro General Manager David Gunn, have pointed to harmful budget decreases of the Metro by D.C. politicians who serve on the Metro Board of Directors. Gunn told the Washingtonian that funds allocated for rail services were instead transferred to handicap services and buses. For Gunn, these cuts have further hamstrung a system which, according to Washingtonian, collects just 2 percent of its funding via money directly from taxes. Faiz Siddiqui of the Washington Post has suggested that the rising popularity of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have played a role in Metro’s falling revenue.

However, certain organizational deficiencies endemic to the original Metro system still haunt the system today. According to a 2015 report from Washingtonian, the Metro was hastily put together in the 1960s as highway lobbyists called to scrap the project, and the federal government made aims to take over the system.

Metro planners decided to divide control of the system among political appointees from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government. This arrangement has raised concerns over unclear accountability for the Metro’s woes by prominent critics of the system.

One of these popular critics is Unsuck the DC Metro, an anonymous blog and Twitter account that tracks the Metro’s problems. The lack of clear leadership means it is difficult to direct complaints about the system to any one person, wrote a representative of the blog in a message to the Voice.

“They [WMATA] are not accountable to anyone,” wrote the representative. “Who owns Metro? The [general manager]? No. The Board? No. The lack of accountability trickles from the top to the bottom.”

Rathbone also said the planned expansion of the Metro into suburbs and newly redeveloped areas will loom large over the system’s future sustainability.

“There’s been millions, if not billions of dollars of investment made by developers at transit stations in D.C.,” Rathbone said. “A perfect example is the Ballston corridor, with a lot of high density development around the station.”

Rathbone explained that developers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into high-density residential buildings with the expectation that a reliable railway would be built nearby. Ideally, according to Rathbone, more people in the coming years will live within walking distance of a Metro rail station, largely because the developments would become accessible by rail. This process could also be self-reinforcing. If people see the Metro as the easiest way to access these high-density developments, then the system has a future, as Rathbone sees it.

But in order for the Metro (and Washingtonians) to experience this reality, there need to be clear alterations to the status quo. On this point, Rathbone and Unsuck the DC Metro share similar views on the necessity of heightened citizen involvement, albeit on different scales.

“I think riders should be represented on the board of directors,” wrote the Unsuck the DC Metro representative. “Right now, the Metro is effectively run by local developers. The compact needs to be blown up, the board needs to be blown up. There needs to be a pressure point on which the public can voice its concerns. There isn’t one.”

Unsuck the DC Metro is pessimistic about the Riders Advisory Council, the current body that acts as an intermediary between riders and WMATA. The representative referred to the council as “a sham.”

“Continued citizen participation is such an important part of transportation and transportation planning,” Rathbone said.

For continued success, questions around the location of the line, stations, and impact on the community would need to be answered with the help of the public.

“The bottom line is public participation from the start has to be there,” Rathbone said. “And [citizens] need to be seen as not only providing their opinion, but also as participants.”

Santul Nerkar
Santul is the Voice's former executive culture editor and Halftime Sports editor. Follow him on Twitter @SantulN to become one of his rare few followers.

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