WASHINGTON— The closure of the subways in the nation’s capital in the middle of the workweek to inspect and repair power cables that could otherwise burst into flames was just the latest symptom of a lengthy decline for the Metro system, once a source of regional pride.
Metro, which reopened Thursday morning after emergency repairs, is now known for broken escalators, frequent delays, an acrid smell in the stations and aging railcars with carpets caked in decades of grime. The system’s board chairman, Jack Evans, says walking into the stations is like entering a “dungeon.”
Metro opened in 1976, but its problems date back even farther, to decisions made in the 1960s when construction began and its unusual governing structure was established.
Metro belongs to everyone and to no one: Its board of directors includes elected officials from Maryland, Virginia and District of Columbia, and all three jurisdictions have to agree every year to provide the money needed for the system to operate. The federal government provides oversight and Congress chips in with funding, but it comes with strings attached. It’s also the only major transit system in the United States without a tax that provides a dedicated revenue stream.
“I am caught in a bind,” said Evans, a D.C. Council member who became the Metro board chairman in January. “I have jurisdictions who won’t pay more money, I have people who ride the system who don’t want to pay higher fares, and I have labor who want to be paid more wages.”
Maintenance has been put off for decades, employees have repeatedly failed to report safety lapses and the system’s executives have to answer to the board’s often conflicting agendas. The system went most of last year without a general manager as the board debated whether to bring in a traditional transit executive or a corporate turnaround specialist.
In January 2015, one passenger died and dozens more were sickened after a train filled with smoke inside a downtown Washington tunnel. The smoke was traced to a problem with the electrical third rail, and a similar fire on Monday prompted General Manager Paul Wiedefeld to order the shutdown. He said Wednesday evening that inspections revealed three areas where the cables were so badly damaged it wasn’t safe to run trains; that damage was repaired before the system reopened.
In its early years, Metro was praised for having qualities the New York City subway and other transit systems lacked: clean, quiet cars, with carpets and comfortable seating; distinctive architecture in its stations; and a user-friendly, color-coded map that became an iconic symbol of Washington as new stations opened throughout the 1980s.
“It was the pride of the region. It was clean; it was efficient; it was safe. Everyone boasted about it,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a northern Virginia Democrat. “I believe we can restore that luster, but it’s going to require investment, it’s going to require good management, it’s going to require a sense of accountability that the commuters and the political leadership impose on Metro.”
Despite its lengthy honeymoon period, some argue that Metro is now suffering from money-saving decisions that were made during the construction. Metro’s physical layout leaves no room for error. Unlike in New York, each line has just one track going in each direction. That means any time a track is closed or a train becomes disabled, trains in both directions have to take turns on a single track, causing major delays that reverberate throughout the system and linger after the initial problem is resolved.
The system also has choke points, notably a tunnel under the Potomac River that trains on three separate lines are forced to share.
Since 2008, Congress has provided $150 million a year to Metro for capital improvements, with the District, Maryland and Virginia each chipping in $50 million. The following year, Metro endured the worst accident in its history, a collision between two trains that killed nine people. Since then, most of those capital dollars have gone toward buying new rail cars. Metro still uses some of its original cars, which can collapse into each other during a collision.
Former Rep. Tom Davis, a northern Virginia Republican who worked to secure the federal funding, said he’s frustrated that it wasn’t used to fix the electrical cables before they became a major problem — and that Metro has repeatedly left some of its capital budget unspent.
“My legislation gave them a billion and a half dollars to spend on capital improvements that they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Davis said. “That money has been appropriated every year. You just wonder what the heck they have done with this.”
For all of Metro’s struggles, there’s no doubt that Washington has benefited from it. Metro helped drive the revitalization of downtown Washington, and the decision to build a subway system instead of a network of new highways preserved historic neighborhoods that now enjoy surging property values. Suburban communities including Arlington, Virginia; and Silver Spring, Maryland; also concentrated development around Metro stops.
“These jurisdictions benefited enormously,” said David Alpert, the founder of Greater Greater Washington, a pro-transit blog. “But that didn’t mean that necessarily everyone was saying, ‘Let’s pour that revenue into keeping up with the maintenance.'”