Tag Archives: mass transit

Metro Positions Itself for the Big Ask

metroby James A. Bacon

Staring into a fiscal black hole, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Chairman Jack Evans is trying to nail down the authority’s 2018 spending plan by November, months earlier than usual. The move, suggests Washington Post writer Martine Powers, “is a signal that the transit agency is preparing to ask the District, Maryland and Virginia for additional money if fares are not raised or the federal government does not come forward with more funding.”

How much money? Between $75 million to $100 million per jurisdiction.

Evans issued the warning after a meeting in which the WMATA board discussed a presentation by McKinsey & Company indicating that the mass transit organization was paying significantly more for expenses than comparable transit agencies.

The McKinsey report, issued in April, is must reading for Virginia legislators pondering how to respond when WMATA approaches, tin cup in hand, begging for more money or risk seeing the collapse of the mass transit service so critical to Northern Virginia’s economy. That report clearly lays out the management challenges facing the authority and provides concrete ideas on how to address them.

WMATA’s long-term mismatch between revenues and expenses has been getting worse, not better. According to McKinsey, Farebox recovery has declined from 47% of costs in 2011 to 45% today and will continue to drop further as passengers fed up with the rail system’s poor reliability commute by other means. Rail system revenues would need to grow at 7% yearly just to maintain the current operating deficit. Personnel growth averaging 5% annually has driven most of the cost inflation. The authority has more employees who getting paid more (wages growing 4% annually) to work less (regular hours per full-time equivalent employee down 2% annually).

Poor railcar maintenance is the single-most important driver of service unreliability — 63% of all rail line delays are caused by railcar failures, the report says. There are two main reasons for cars being unavailable: parts are frequently out of stock, and repair throughput is exceptionally low. “Estimated technician wrench time ranges between 25% and 40%, below a best-in-class standard of 60%.” The reasons for the low productivity can be traced to systemic management failures such as the uneven distribution of cars between shops, turnover in mechanic staff, and technicians starting work orders without all necessary tools and parts.

The report also took note of the high cost of MetroAccess, a transportation service for people with disabilities. McKinsey estimated that WMATA could cut the $110 million program’s costs 20% by experimenting with innovative delivery models. The report also recommended extensive changes to WMATA’s capital allocation model and the structure of its pension, retirement-benefits plans and workers compensation plans.

Bacon’s bottom line: The McKinsey report provides an objective checklist of reforms that WMATA needs to make before entrusted with any more Virginia taxpayer dollars. Give management the money without conditions, and the urgency to implement the reforms disappears. Make added money contingent upon implementing reforms, and WMATA actually might wind up needing less than it thinks it does. If WMATA’s board and management are unwilling or unable to execute these of equivalent reforms, Virginia should give them no more money.

Hat tip: Tim Wise

A Once-in-a-Century Opportunity to Get Transportation Right

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

Take the Uber revolution of summoning rides with a smart phone. Then add driverless cars, which eliminate the expense of paying someone to drive the car. Then overlay the emerging business model of Transportation As a Service, in which people pay for rides when they need them rather than buy cars that sit idle 90% of the day, often incurring parking fees in the process. Shared self-driving cars could take up to 80% of all vehicles off the road, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study noted in a Wall Street Journal thought piece by Christopher Mims.

How would the impact of such an eventuality ripple through the rest of the economy? While acknowledging that such things are impossible to predict, Mims speculates that shared, self-driving cars will spur “suburban sprawl.”

Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car…. With the savings you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children.

As for the putative preference the Millennial generation has for living in the city, writes Mims, it’s a myth. “Not only do 66% of millennials tell pollsters they want to live in the suburbs, they are moving there, as population growth in suburbs outstrips growth in cities.”

I don’t agree with Mims’ conclusion, but these are ideas worth exploring. I’m most intrigued by the MIT forecast that the shared, driverless-car future will take 80% of all vehicles off the road. For purposes of argument, let’s say that shared, driverless cars take only half of all vehicles off the road. That’s still an astounding number.

My first question is this: Will the streets, roads and highways in a world of shared, driverless cars be less crowded? To answer that, we must distinguish between the number of vehicles and the number of trips taken. Unless people take fewer trips, they still will need means of conveyance. If everyone rides solo cars, the country may need fewer cars but there will not be fewer cars on the road. Only if people share rides — either in conventional cars, vans or micro-buses like the one pictured above — will there be a need for fewer cars on the road. I think it’s possible that we’ll see fewer cars on the road, but no one can make such a prediction with any confidence.

Here’s what we can predict: A shift to shared, driverless cars will reduce the number of vehicles needed to serve the population. To the extent that fleet operating companies maximize the asset value of their fleets by running them 24/7, most cars will be on the streets (or in maintenance garages or recharge stations) instead of sitting in parking lots and parking decks. The most confident prediction we can make is that America will need fewer parking spaces.

Shrinking acreage dedicated to parking will have a profound impact on human settlement patterns. While it will free up some land in densely settled urban areas — putting a lot of parking garages out of business — the biggest impact will be in the scattered, low-density areas we think of as suburbia. Millions of acres of parking lots across the country will become redundant and unnecessary.

If localities are intelligent enough to eliminate minimum parking requirements, retailers would have every incentive to convert acres of land into something useful — offices, townhouses, apartments, parks, whatever. So much land would be freed up from redundant parking lots that there would be no need to develop another acre of greenfield land for another generation. Localities that anticipate this opportunity by revising their comprehensive plans and zoning codes will enjoy a huge advantage over the laggards in attracting new development.

Now, back to Mims’ observation that Millennials prefer “the suburbs” by two to one over “the city.” That’s a meaningless statement. True, young families may prefer so-called “suburban” jurisdictions with quality school systems, but the operative factor is the quality of the schools, not the low-density and auto-centric design of the communities. Other research shows that Millennials also prefer walkable, bikeable communities. The preference for good schools may be stronger, but that doesn’t mean the Millennials wouldn’t jump at the chance to live in a community that offered both good schools and walkable-bikable places.

In contrast to Mims, I do not think that shared, driverless cars will spur more of the scattered, disconnected, low-density that we call “suburban sprawl.” To the contrary, I believe it will stimulate the redevelopment of low-density, auto-centric communities into walkable urban places.

Localities across Virginia will enjoy a once-in-a-century opportunity to convert parking lots into taxable development without incurring the offsetting liability of needing to upgrade the transportation infrastructure to support the denser population. But this will happen only if they stop mandating parking lot requirements and revise their comprehensive plans and zoning codes to accommodate the new possibilities.

Likewise, the Commonwealth of Virginia, which once again (and as predicted) finds itself short of dollars to fund the roads, highways and rail systems, needs to re-think the twenty-year future. The transportation infrastructure of the 21st century will be Uber-fied. Throw out all long-range traffic projections! Rather than sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into expensive new highways, light-rail rail and Bus Rapid Transit systems, we need to start thinking what kind of investments will expedite the coming of shared, driverless cars.

States and localities that work out the solution first will be winners. Those that stick to the current transportation paradigm will lose.

NoVa Legislators Balk at Bailing out Metro

by James A. Bacon

Eleven Virginia legislators from Northern Virginia say they would block any “new dedicated funding stream or tax increases” to fund Metro repairs expected to cost $60 million.

“We cannot in good conscience ask Virginia taxpayers to bail out years of mismanagement, negligence and wasteful spending,” stated a letter signed by House Majority Caucus Chairman Timothy Hugo, House Majority Whip Jackson Miller, Del. David Albo and Del. James LeMunyon.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Chairman Jack Evans called the letter “ludicrous.” Channel 4 Washington quotes him as saying, “The fact of the matter is, Metro has a $300 million operating shortfall, an $18 billion capital shortfall and a $2.5 billion unfunded pension liability. And we have to address it some way.”

Wrote the legislators:

Virginia has more than met its funding commitments to WMATA. In 2007, Virginia committed $50 million per year for 10 years to fund capital improvements for Metro. In 2013, the General Assembly passed legislation to increase funding for transportation, providing $300 million for the construction of the Silver Line and generating about $80 million per  year for the Commonwealth’s Mass Transit Fund. The General Assembly also provides an annual operating subsidy to WMATA of about $100 million, Virginia has delivered over and over again.

The solution to funding Metro’s safety needs and on-going operations lies internally. WMATA’s financial problems are, in our view, largely self-inflected. Metro must get labor and operations costs under control. WMATA’s labor cost increases in recent years have exceeded ridership increases and …. benefits for WMATA employees are significantly than the norm among big city transit agencies. WMATA also has a $2.5 billion unfunded pension liability.

Bacon’s bottom line: The legislators’ numbers don’t include subsidies from Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County and Falls Church, or revenues from the Tysons special tax district and toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road to help pay for completion of the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport.

At the end of the day, Virginia has no choice but to help bail out WMATA. A collapse of the flailing giant would cripple Northern Virginia’s economy. But Virginian legislators need to drive the hardest bargain they possibly can to bring accountability to the organization or it will become a veritable fiscal black hole. It looks like senior Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly are willing to bargain hard. I have every confidence that downstate legislators will back them up.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise)

Virginia in No Rush to Address Impending Metro Meltdown

metroby James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration seems to be in no hurry to bail out the ailing Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) commuter rail system crippled by declining ridership and an $18  billion capital spending shorttfall over the next ten years. Bolstering state support for the transit authority, which has been plagued for decades by union featherbedding and short-sighted, politically driven decision-making, would divert billions from other projects around Virginia.

At a recent discussion of Virginia’s rail and transportation budget Tuesday, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said there are no immediate plans to send more money to Metro, although there could be discussions with the General Assembly in the future.

“At some point, based on the estimates that I have seen as to what the capital needs are going to be, there’s obviously going to be that discussion for additional revenues,” Layne said, as quoted by the Washington Post. “That is not contemplated in these budgets.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This discussion is unavoidable, and the sooner it starts, the better. The Washington Metro is mission-critical transportation infrastructure for Northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington region. It cannot be allowed to fail. Failure to address the system’s maintenance needs will result in more accidents, more delays, more malfunctioning escalators and other conditions that drive away ridership, which in turn will cut into operating revenues.

At the same time, Virginia taxpayers are understandably reluctant to pour billions of dollars down a rat-hole, diverting funding from their own much-needed transportation projects, without some assurances that the commuter rail system can be made to run efficiently. Among major concessions that I would push for are higher fares, revisions to union contracts, prioritization of maintenance funding over expansions of the system, and an overhaul of the governance system.

Working out an agreement that satisfies constituencies in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. will be incredibly difficult, given the different ideological and geographic interests involved — not to mention the inevitable turnovers in political leadership. Negotiations could take years. Metro doesn’t have years. Discussions need to start immediately. McAuliffe could show leadership by convening a high-level confab to bring together major stakeholders from across the Washington region and surfacing the major issues that must be resolved.

Pulse Has a Pulse after All

Click for larger image.

Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

When last I blogged about Richmond Pulse, the Bus Rapid Transit plan for the city’s Broad Street corridor, the projected cost had leaped $11.5 million over its original $50 million estimate. While I support mass transit in the right circumstances, I saw little good coming from this project, in which state and federal authorities had helicoptered dollars upon the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) and the city had done little to create the conditions — zoning for appropriate land use, funding streetscaping and planning for intermodal connectivity — needed to make the project a success.

I was worried that I might have offended my old buddies in the local Smart Growth community by my unsparing criticism of the transit project. As it turns out, I need not have worried. They shared the same concerns. Indeed, they have been working feverishly through the planning process to correct the obvious deficiencies.

“Typically plans for transit projects sit on the shelf for years while agencies try to find funding,”  says Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, “but in this case, while some planning certainly had been done, the funding got ahead of the planning.”

The project, which runs 7.6 miles from Rocketts Landing at the east end of the city to the Willow Lawn mall at the west end, is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2017. Planners have moved into high gear trying to catch up. Two important studies should be complete this fall.

The Richmond Regional Transit Vision Plan will create a regional transit vision plan to stakeholders and the public that will guide transit development in the region through 2040. The idea is for Pulse to be part of a more comprehensive regional transit system.

The Broad and East Main Street Corridor Plan will focus on the Pulse corridor, identifying where development should occur, what development should look like and how it should happen.

Meanwhile, the Richmond Transit Network Plan will rethink the design of the city’s bus network in the context of Pulse. For example, will Pulse free up GRTC resources to improve service on other routes? How can regular bus routes interface with Pulse? Can GRTC optimize its bus service in other ways? Jarrett Walker + Associates, renowned for its re-engineering of the Houston bus system, will conduct the study. That should be complete next year.

As a bonus, the U.S Department of Transportation is providing technical assistance in the Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot Initiative to promote Transit-Oriented Development in the low-income Fulton community, whose residents are expected to use the BRT to reach jobs in the West End.

While implementation of the Pulse project has not exactly risen to a top-of-mind issue in Richmond’s highly competitive mayoral race, “there is a mobilized civic community,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Civic leaders are determined to make sure the project is done right.

The Smart Growth community has a lot riding on this project. If Pulse crashes and burns, it will undermine political support for more mass transit funding in the Richmond region. Conversely, if the project is successful, it could pave the way for a regional system.

In Metro’s Disruption, a New Opportunity

metroThe good news is that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is making the tough but desperately needed measures to maintain the commuter rail system serving the Washington region. The authority has announced a “massive” maintenance surge to address chronic infrastructure issues that have created safety issues and hindered trains from staying on schedule.

The bad news is that the surge will require closing portions of the system for weeks at a time, requiring thousands of commuters to find other ways to get to work. The inevitable result: more congestion on already-overloaded streets, roads and highways.

Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, is calling upon businesses to prepare for the disruption by creating flexible work schedules, encouraging telework, and promoting van books. Uber will be in heavy demand, he predicts. Parking may be in short supply.

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s my hope: that entrepreneurs take advantage of the opportunity to Uber-ize shared ridership across the full spectrum of price points from luxury rides to Third World-jitney like travel. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.


Driving Down, Mass Transit Down, Telework Up


Graphic credit: Transportation Planning Board

by James A. Bacon

The trend toward less driving in the Washington metropolitan area has conformed to the devout wishes of greenies and planners alike over the past decade: Average daily vehicle miles driven per capita has declined steadily since 2005 from 25.7 miles to 22.6 miles. (Driving in 2015 showed a 0.1 mile up-tick, not surprising given the plunge in gasoline prices.)

But not because people were shifting to mass transit. Weekday ridership on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) also declined: from 748,000 per day in 2009 to 701,000 in 2015. More people are biking, but the numbers are so small that biking as a transportation mode can’t move the needle. Something else is going on.

The Washington Post‘s Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, thinks that telecommuting might explain the difference. He cites a 2013 State of the Commute study that says more than half of commuters either can or could telework. As it turns out, the percentage of telecommuters is highest among those who also rely on rail transit, as shown in the chart above.

I find that counter intuitive. All other things being equal, I would expect commuters with the longest, most grueling ride to the office would have the greatest incentive to work at home. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why not? Perhaps commuters consider mass transit even more unpleasant or unreliable than spending time behind the wheel — not implausible, given the widely publicized safety, maintenance and reliability issues plaguing WMATA.

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon is worth exploring. We’re spending billions of dollars patching up Northern Virginia’s transportation infrastructure. There’s got to be a better way.

Somehow, This Comes as No Surprise

Photo credit: Richmond.com

Photo credit: Richmond.com

Here’s the latest news about the proposed Richmond Pulse project: The expected cost of the project, which would extend Bus Rapid Transit service along 7.6 miles of Richmond’s Broad Street, has just increased by $11 million.

In other words, the contract to design and build the project came in 32% higher than estimated. “Unfortunately, there are estimates, and then there’s the market,” remarked Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, according to Robert Zullo writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The price does include a $3.5 million bonus for completing the project on time.

It’s not clear where the state will find the extra money. But it’s clear from Zullo’s article that the money will be found, and that the state will cover it. The federal government has promised $25 million, the city $7.6 million and Henrico County $400,000. The total project, which includes the purchase of natural gas-powered buses and the removal of 300 parking spaces, originally had been estimated to cost $50 million.

Bacon’s bottom line: This sort of thing happens with such regularity that it is entirely predictable.

Step 1: Create a low ball estimate for a transportation project.

Step 2: Generate a lot of support based on that low ball estimate, and work the project through the elaborate, years-long approval process, creating enough commitment and buy-in from stakeholders that backing out would seem unthinkable.

Step 3: Put out the project for bids, discover the real price of the project, and fund the inevitable shortfall with money from somewhere.

Step 4: Never, ever admit to taxpayers the way the game works.

I support mass transit (though only under the right conditions, not as a universal proposition) as an integral part of a well-functioning transportation system. I have seen this Lucy-pulling-away-the-football-from-Charlie-Brown scenario play out so many times now that I have no faith whatsoever in official cost estimates. If mass transit advocates want to win the trust of taxpayers and gain broader political support, they need to stop this travesty.

I have reached the point where I assume cost estimates are low, the only question being by how much and whether the underestimate was the result of deliberate subterfuge — nod, nod, wink, wink, Mr. Consultant, give us an estimate we can sell to the public — or just systemic incompetence.

Once upon a time, road-and-highway cost projections were equally unreliable, but the Virginia Department of Transportation has done a better job of delivering projects on budget and on time in recent years. As for ridership and traffic projects, I distrust them all equally, whether for roads or transit. Political elites and business leaders continually lament the sorry state of Virginia’s infrastructure. Maybe they could gain political support for more investment if they did a better job of winning the public’s trust.


How Not to Think about Mass Transit


GRTC bus bound for Chesterfield Plaza. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Michael Paul Williams, a feature columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, takes a dim view of a decision by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to discontinue a subsidized bus route between downtown Richmond and Chesterfield Plaza. “Chesterfield, despite its dramatic demographic shifts and an increasing poverty rate, continues to turn a blind eye to residents who don’t own cars due to choice, age, disability or the inability to afford one,” he writes in his column today.

He indicts Chesterfield’s decision without ever revealing (a) how much it costs to maintain the service, (b) how many passengers used the service, or (c) how much the subsidies amount to per passenger, much less asking (d) how such a sum might be spent more beneficially in other ways.

The prospect of such reasoning taking hold in the Richmond region and driving the expenditure of real money should be terrifying in the extreme to anyone who objects to the squandering of tax dollars on symbolic gestures rather than on remedies that actually work. Walk with me through his column and despair.

Williams writes:

The supervisors gutted the budget of the Route 81 Express, creating the ridership decline they used to justify killing it. What exactly did the board expect from a route that offered one round-trip in the morning and a single one-way trip from downtown Richmond to Chesterfield in the afternoon with no stops in between? The board couldn’t have undermined the bus route more effectively if it had let the air out of the tires.

He has a point. Sort of. True, the route structure was idiotic. From Williams’s account, it sounds like the Chesterfield supervisors were trying to provide mass transit on the cheap and the route was doomed to fail. The obvious solution, however, is to pull the plug on the project before wasting any more money — just what the board did. The alternative is to double up on a bad situation, spending money to beef up the schedule or add interconnecting lines in the hope of creating critical mass. But what would such an arrangement look like, how much money would it cost, and how many people would be likely to ride that route? Just how much money does Williams propose throwing at the problem?He doesn’t say. He just wants more.

Williams brushes close to enlightenment when he quotes Jesse W. Smith, Chesterfield’s transportation director: “The county really doesn’t have the density to support traditional bus service.”

Bingo. The rule of thumb is that people are willing to walk 1/4 mile to avail themselves of mass transit. If 500 people live within a 1/4-mile radius of a bus stop, that represents far fewer potential customers than if, say, 2,500 people live within a 1/4-mile radius.  It also matters how walkable the streetscapes are. Are there sidewalks? If so, are they set away from streets with cars whizzing by at 45 miles per hour? When pedestrians cross the street, do they feel like they’re taking their lives into their hands? Is the walk visually interesting or is the view monotonous and undifferentiated?

Chesterfield is the epitome of the autocentric suburb. Given decades of low-density, hop-scotch, pedestrian-unfriendly development, Chesterfield County has a pattern of land use that is totally hostile to walkability and inappropriate for transit. Trying to implant mass transit in such an environment would be like planing a banana tree in Alaska: It can’t possibly thrive.

Chesterfield fully deserves criticism for its horrendous land use decisions, but that is no reason to compound the error by superimposing an unsuitable mass transit system. If Williams would like to spark a useful discussion, he could start by suggesting which transportation corridors might lend themselves to mixed-use development at higher densities that might one day, given sufficient redevelopment, support a bus line at reasonable cost.

“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” Williams then quotes my old friend Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, as saying. Williams summarizes Schwartz as making a point similar to one that I have often made on this blog:

In today’s competitive marketplace for corporations and employees, the suburban office park model of the late 20th Century is fading fast as companies seek to appeal to a millennial workforce that increasingly eschews the automobile and would rather walk, bike or ride mass transit to work. From Charlotte to Phoenix to Denver to Cleveland, “elected officials and business leaders recognize that transit provides a competitive edge,” Schwartz said.

That’s all very true. But it’s also totally irrelevant to Chesterfield. The transit systems he mentions serve areas that have far more people within walking distance of their bus stops than Chesterfield can ever think to have. Buses and Bus Rapid Transit might make sense in Richmond’s urban core (assuming City Council enacts appropriate zoning and invests in walkable streetscapes) but none at all in Chesterfield.

Williams then quotes former Sen. John Watkins, a Republican who represented Chesterfield County, who “was a lonely voice in the wilderness on the need for mass transit” (and who also was a prime mover behind the Rt. 288 corridor that opened up vast new swaths of the county to autocentric development). When he joined the legislature in the 1980s, Watkins observed, Fairfax County was adamant about not wanting buses, “and how they’re the biggest user of transit dollars in the state.”

Here’s the flaw with that comparison: Fairfax County had a population density of 2,862 inhabitants per square mile in 2014; Chesterfield had a population density of 742. Fairfax had nearly four times the population density! Moreover, there are sections of Fairfax that have far higher density than the average, while population in Chesterfield is smeared uniformly across the landscape. Buses make far more economic sense in Fairfax than Chesterfield.

Yes, Chesterfield has made a mess of itself. Yes, Chesterfield has created a land use pattern that makes life difficult for poor people lacking access to automobiles. But, no, compounding one folly with another is not an answer. Chesterfield needs to develop corridors of high-density, mixed-use development capable of supporting mass transit before adding new bus routes. Only then will the cost-benefit ratios look remotely favorable.

Another Reminder of the Impending WMATA Disaster

Photo credit: Washingtonian Magazine

Photo credit: Washingtonian Magazine

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is a slow-motion train wreck unfolding before our very eyes. An article  in the December 2015 issue of Washingtonian Magazine, The Infuriating History of How Metro Got So Bad,” provides a timely reminder of just how dysfunctional the commuter rail system has become. One glaring example:

The [Rail-Operations Control Center] was sorely understaffed—according to the FTA, of 52 controller positions this past spring, 18, or about a third, were unfilled. Because of the shortage, controllers could significantly augment their salaries with overtime; the FTA found that some worked 12-hour shifts as many as seven days a week. “You’d have people in there making almost double their salary in overtime,” [former control center trainee Ray] Scarbrough says. According to the trainees, the parking lot reserved for ROCC staff was filled with Mercedes and BMWs. “It looks like a CEO’s parking lot,” [former trainee Kenneth] Colvin says.

That’s what you get when you combine a strong union and weak management, and it goes a long way to explaining why workforce accounts for nearly 75% of WMATA’s 2015 operating budget. But labor unions aren’t the metro’s only problem. So are unrealistic demands for improved service pushed by WMATA board members. According to the article:

Board reps began to press for longer service hours—another way to score points with constituents. In 2003, Metrorail pushed back its closing hours to 12 am on weeknights and 3 am on Fridays and Saturdays. That was good news for riders, businesses, and the environment. But it accelerated the infrastructure’s deterioration. The new schedule left less time when Metro was closed and maintenance crews could access the tracks. On weeknights, “you’re talking about three hours of actual work time,” says Aaron Wiggins, a maintenance manager who retired in August after 27 years. “Ain’t a lot you’re going to get done in three hours on a nightly basis. It’s impossible.”

The scaled-back hours make it all but impossible to perform proper track maintenance. In turn, maintenance backlogs create delays and safety issues, which turns off riders. Even as the region’s population has grown, concerns about Metro’s reliability contributed to a 5% ridership decline between 2010 and 2015.

Yet another problem: Despite the fact that the operation faces a $2 billion funding gap by 2015, two Washington board members have threatened to veto any proposal to increase fares.

Conclude authors Luke Mullins and Michael Gaynor:

After a lifetime of shortsighted decisions, Metro is now trapped in a cycle of dysfunction that threatens its existence. Neglect has led to delays so frustrating that commuters are abandoning the system and therefore putting its main source of revenue at risk. Former GM Richard White predicted as much back in 2004. “We’re talking about a systemic service meltdown condition as early as three years from now,” he warned. “It’s reliability falling, ridership loss, road congestion increasing and air quality decreasing. It’s a death spiral.”

Washington wanted a world-class subway, one accessible late at night and on weekends. But after years of extending service while neglecting repairs, we might now have to live with longer waits. Officials say there simply isn’t enough time in off-hours to handle all the repairs required. The only option, they say, is for crews to do this work during the day. Trains will have to continue single-tracking through work zones. And this won’t be a short-term slowdown. The disruptions are likely to increase in the future, as the region grows and the infrastructure gets even older.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is just one more warning that WMATA is heading for a system crash. Unfortunately, the governance system, which gives representatives from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., effective veto power over necessary but unpopular reforms, may make the transit system unreformable. If WMATA can’t scale back service, can’t raise fares, and can’t tackle labor featherbedding, there’s only one option left: pass around the tin cup. One thing we can count on, WMATA will dun the Commonwealth of Virginia and the municipal jurisdictions it serves for mo’ money.

Virginia can’t let the system fail — the Northern Virginia economy would gridlock without it. But the state can’t continue subsidizing a dysfunctional status quo either. If Virginia taxpayers are going to fork out over the next decade a billion dollars or so in increased financial support — over and above what they’re already paying — they should insist upon real reforms that put WMATA on a path to fiscal sustainability.

(Hat tip: Rob Whitfield)