Washington Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has earned plaudits for his forthright management style and the improvements he has instituted since taking over the troubled commuter bus and rail system in 2015. But the latest news raises questions whether he, or anyone, has the grit to take on a deeply corrupt organizational culture.
Reports the Washington Post based upon a newly issued Office of the Inspector General report:
Metro crews copied and pasted language from prior years’ structural inspection reports for the Rhode Island Avenue station and in other instances skipped hard-to-reach areas, culminating in a steel beam and concrete chunks falling from the ceiling in 2016, the agency’s inspector general concluded in a report released Thursday.
No one was injured, but the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland stations will be shut down for 45 days starting July 21 to permanently address the structural failures that came to light when debris tumbled from the station’s ceiling Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 2016. …
The audit found 49 times over three years in which the annual inspection reports for Rhode Island Avenue contained identical wording to prior years, the IG concluded in its year-long review. In 29 of those cases, the inspector general could not determine what Metro crews had inspected, while in 20 other cases, inspectors simply said nothing had changed since the prior year’s inspection, according to the report.
The findings, reflected in three annual reports examining a single station, suggest broader problems within Metro’s structural inspection department.
The organizational rot runs deep in Metro. According to the WaPo, Metro fired a third of its track inspection department for widespread record fabrication contributing to a 2016 train derailment. At least there was a modicum of accountability in that case. But the track derailment represented incompetence so extreme that management had no choice but to respond forcefully.
It’s not clear what Wiedefeld intends to do about the latest revelations when nothing so visibly alarming as a train derailment occurred. His first instinct, it appears, is to minimize the significance of the abuses. Writes the Post: “Wiedefeld defended the agency’s inspection practices, saying that the situation differed from the problems within the track inspection department. But he declined to elaborate, pending an official response to the IG it plans to submit by June 1.”
Bacon’s bottom line: The private sector is a messy, messy place where corruption and incompetence can occur, just like in government and quasi-governmental agencies. The difference is that the private sector is a self-correcting system. If a corporation gets as corrupt, incompetent and inefficient as the Metro, it eventually goes out of business. It goes into bankruptcy, its assets are reallocated, and its failed organizational structure is extinguished forever. Not so with the Metro. Because commuter transportation is deemed “essential” to the functioning of the Washington metropolitan area, including of course Northern Virginia, the system simply extracts more wealth from taxpayers to paper over the corruption.
My sense from afar is that Wiedefeld is a good man doing the best possible job under the circumstances. But I fear that decay so permeates the organization that it is unreformable.
The question, as always, is what Virginia should do about it. The Northam administration has agreed to hand over more money with a few conditions requiring governance reforms and burden sharing from Maryland and D.C. Whether the governance reforms are forthcoming remains to be seen. Likewise, whether the contemplated governance reforms will give Wiedefeld the power he needs to carve out the rot also is an open question. Meanwhile, Metro continues to hemorrhage riders and revenue.
What alternatives are there to a corrupt Metro? One is to build more road and highways. But fiscally speaking, that is not a remote possibility. The cost of adding more lanes of highway in a dense urban environment would be astronomical. Another is to ration scarce roadway capacity through pricing mechanisms like time-of-day tolls. That’s an elegant solution from an economist’s perspective, but it’s a non-starter politically. Yet another option is to encourage higher density development in walkable communities in the hope of getting more people to abandon their cars and, New York style, get around by walking, biking and mass transit. But overcoming NIMBY opposition and transforming land use patterns is an incremental, slow-motion process that takes decades to accomplish; land use reform is necessary but it is not a near-term or even intermediate-term solution.
That leaves the Uber revolution. Within a decade or so, self-driving cars will cut the cost of riding-hailing services by half. Passengers will have the option to ride solo or share rides with others, trading some time and convenience for even lower prices. Companies will be offering integrated services providing access to taxi-like services, van services, commuter bus services, car rentals, bicycles (both of the peddle and the electrified varieties), and other variants no one has thought of yet. I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out, but for a metro like Washington, I see no other hope.