Is Metro Fixable? If So, Why Doesn’t Our Political Class Fix It?

Yesterday’s lethal smoke episode in a tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station of Washington’s Metro system was like one of the disaster scenes in Atlas Shrugged, from the controllers’ instructions (eventually disobeyed) to riders not to evacuate the eight-car Yellow Line train even as it rapidly filled with smoke, to a spokesperson’s insistence that there were “no casualties in the traditional sense” even as workers above ground were seen hustling unconscious persons on stretchers into emergency vehicles. One person was killed and more than eighty taken to hospitals; the National Transportation Safety Board, ironically itself located at L’Enfant Plaza, says an “electrical arcing event” caused the smoke. Track fires have become common in recent years in the WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) rail system, as have train breakdowns, escalator closures, delays, and other disruptions. In 2009 a crash on the Red Line between Takoma Park and Fort Totten killed nine and injured 80. 

While the commuters who keep the nation’s capital running see Metro’s problems every day, elected officials in the region tend to show less sense of urgency. Last March, in an interview with DCist, then-mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser spent 450 words responding to a question on the state of the Metro system. All 450 were on the topic of how to get WMATA to hire more D.C. residents/voters. Because that’s obviously the key problem with Metro these days, right? (To be fair to the now-Mayor, who took office recently, it was the interviewer who’d introduced Metro as a topic that way; she merely gave no hint in her long response of seeing riders as an equally vital constituency.) 

At any rate, Metro’s wretched governance long predates the election of any current official, and there’s plenty of blame to spread around for it, especially in its division of responsibility among appointees from multiple local jurisdictions, who are not answerable to each other or to most of the system’s users. (In a city like Chicago, voters can punish poor subway management by changing mayors.) Still, there’s a question here. If the cream of the nation’s political class, living within a 50 mile radius in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C., cannot arrange to obtain competence from their elected local officials in delivering a public service that’s vital to their daily work lives, what does that tell us about their pretensions to improve through federal action the delivery of local government services – fire and police, water supply and schooling, road maintenance and, yes, transit itself – in the rest of the country?