A Dim Light Bulb Policy

By George Guess Created: December 23, 2012 Last Updated: December 26, 2012
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In this file photo, people ride the DC Metro on Feb. 9. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

In this file photo, people ride the DC Metro on Feb. 9. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the story of an inquisitive urban commuter riding the “Metro,” (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)) in Washington, D.C.

In the shadowy corner of a Metro station, a rider embarks from an arriving train and looks around for the exit escalator. He approaches someone who appears to be the Metro station manager. Almost on cue, they both stare upward at two burned out light bulbs. Being in a hurry, the rider’s features tighten and a frown comes on his face; the Metro employee only shrugs.

RIDER -- It’s really hard to see in here. When will you replace these bulbs so people can see?
METRO -- Our policy is to replace bulbs when outages are reported.
RIDER -- Hasn’t anyone reported these?
METRO -- Not to my knowledge…
RIDER -- Can I do that by reporting the problem to you?
METRO -- No, you need to dial 202-962-1234 or go on line
RIDER -- But wouldn’t that mean months before the bulbs are replaced?
METRO -- Not necessarily…
RIDER -- If someone reports an incident like this, does Metro get back to them when the problem has been remedied?
METRO -- Not to my knowledge…
RIDER -- Could you report back to me? I’d rather avoid this station if I can’t see to get around.
METRO -- No, I’m just the station manager. The Metro maintenance department would handle that.
RIDER -- Wouldn’t the maintenance department have noticed these bulbs were out as part of its normal preventive maintenance program? I know when my house bulbs are out and simply change them.

METRO -- That depends on staff availability. Our fatigue management program prevents safety-critical staff from working excessive hours. If not fatigued, they might well notice the outages. But our 21st century challenge is that Metro has over 300,000 light fixtures.
RIDER -- That’s a lot of bulbs. How does the maintenance department respond to the challenge of changing so many light bulbs?
METRO -- It monitors and replaces burned-out bulbs according to a schedule.
RIDER -- Does the schedule require reports that list the number of bulbs out and replaced?
METRO -- Again, you would have to check downtown or on line for that information.
RIDER -- As manager, aren’t you responsible for station lighting as part of its safety? Do you report to maintenance when bulbs are out?
METRO -- No, that is not part of my job. The maintenance department manages its own replacement schedule.
RIDER -- So to get bulbs replaced, the rider has to take action but not the manager?
METRO -- Yes, that’s right unless the maintenance department acts first.
RIDER -- Could you point me towards the escalator out of here? I can’t find it in the dark.
METRO -- Why yes, of course… But you will have to use the stairs or the elevator this month. The entry escalator works but the exit escalator is out of service. Do you have enough money on your card to exit the turnstiles?
RIDER -- Yes, why wouldn’t I?
METRO -- Because the fares just went up yesterday. Our service costs are increasing all the time!
George M. Guess, Ph.D. is a scholar in residence in Public Administration and Policy and Co-Director, Center for Democracy and Election Management (CDEM), American University Washington, D.C. 20016  email:

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