Approving Metro’s Bare-Bones Capital Budget

Over the weekend the General Assembly agreed to give the Washington Metro $154 million a year in permanent new funding on the condition that Maryland and Washington, D.C., make up the balance of $500 million in new funding, reports the Washington Post. Maryland has passed its own $150 million funding bill, and the District will likely approve at least $150 million more.

Let’s assume for a moment that all the details are worked out, that all three jurisdictions come up with $450 million to $500 million a year for Metro, and that Congress adds $150 million a year to what the federal government has been contributing. Does this latest injection of money get the troubled bus and commuter-rail system out of the woods?

Metro has identified $25 billion in capital “needs” over the next 10 years. The bulk of these needs entail SGR (state of good repair) investments of $15.5 billion to maintain existing capital assets necessary for system preservation. The $25 billion figure also includes $7 billion in “new” needs which “address remediation of hazards or crowding on the rail system in core areas,” plus “unallocated” needs that include regular repairs and maintenance and services.

The added $600 million a year from Uncle Sam, the District, and the states will suffice to cover the critical state-of-good-repair needs and nothing else. Here’s what taxpayers will get for their money:

  • Replacing the 1000-series rail cars, installing a new radio system and cellular infrastructure, and replacing track circuits and power cabling where necessary.
  • Replacing power cable insulators on deep tunnels of the Red Line and other lines particularly where water intrusion occurs, which can disrupt service or cause the need for more frequent and costly repairs.
  • Replacing worn components of track and tunnels on all lines, necessary for safety and service delivery.
  • Upgrading the signaling system, which controls the movement and speed of trains, necessary for safe operations and on-time service delivery.

Nothing fancy here. Hopefully, these investments will reverse the deteriorating quality of service that has caused so many riders to desert Metro. But many desired investments will not be made. I have seen no analysis of what that portends for the quality of service.

The proposed FY 2019 budget for Metro includes no fare increases or service reductions. The operating budget assumes that management can limit spending growth to $12 million, or less than one percent “despite cost growth for legacy commitments, mandates and inflation.”

General Manager Paul Wiedefeld acknowledges that there are “substantial and ongoing risks” in the proposed 2019 budget. Foremost among these are ridership uncertainties in response to telework, gas prices, alternative transportation modes; collective bargaining; and unfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: I continue to believe that the emerging Uber-like Mobility-as-a-Service transportation model poses an enormous threat to all existing transportation modes — both the own-it-yourself automobile model and fixed-route mass transit model. In an affluent society, there will always be some people who want to own their own automobiles allowing them to travel when they wish and with whom they wish, so privately owned automobiles will always be with us. But I’m not confident that there will always be people who prefer to ride in fixed-route, fixed-schedule buses and trains instead of flexible-route and flexible-schedule buses, vans, and cars.

I’m pretty sure that Metro, no matter how competently managed, will continue to loser riders, and that it will be coming back to taxpayers with tin cup in hand in another 10 years. If declining ridership doesn’t do the trick, unfunded retirement liabilities will.

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6 responses to “Approving Metro’s Bare-Bones Capital Budget

  1. I’d make a distinction with a difference. When Metro is competently managed, I honestly don’t view Uber/Lyft/Mobility as a Service as a true threat. Now, I do agree that Mobility as a Service is a real threat to bus services.

  2. I see Metrorail as a useful part of the Greater Washington Metro Area for the foreseeable future. It is quite useful for transporting people to, from and around the District of Columbia. This is especially true so long as the federal government and related private sector businesses and associations locate offices in and near Washington. It is much less valuable for locations on spur lines, e.g., Tysons, Reston, Dulles and Ashburn.

    However, unless WMATA gets a handle on its costs and culture of any effort is good enough, Metrorail will continue to lose ridership. The rapid growth in teleworking is also diminishing the importance and use of Metrorail. But in sum, investing capital in the existing system will likely be beneficial overall.

    I agree with LGG Mobility as a Service will make most bus service obsolete except on higher density routes with short headways.

  3. How did Va. come up with the $15oM? I am thinking there was something about raising the floor of the NOVA gas tax.

  4. re: uber replacing transit – (of any kind).

    I think a bus carries 40-50 passengers.. and each METRO car carries 100 and there are 8 car trainsets?

    So how many Ubers will it take to replace a bus or a METRO car or METRO train set on NOVa’s “free-flowing” transportation road system?

    ya’ll have been drinking or smoking some powerful stuff!!! I’m totally envious!

    • Larry, Larry, Larry… I think you have been smoking something.

      Regarding the danger of Uber “replacing” Metro: You have improperly re-framed the question. The challenge I raised in my post is that Uber will drain away more passengers than it already has, thus cutting even more deeply into Metro revenue. This is not speculation. Metro acknowledges that it has lost passengers to Uber. The numbers will grow as Uber and competitors get savvier about providing their services.

    • Larry, on your next trip north, watch some of the buses. Many, both those operated by WMATA and those operated by local governments, are nearly empty.

      On some heavily traveled routes, buses are often full especially during the AM and PM peaks. But on other routes and during other times, not many people riding. One solution is smaller buses. Another I think will be transportation as a service. I’m seeing more and more energy in this area.

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