Short of Funds? Give the Feds More Power

In 2006, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 298 subway cars in the Washington Metrorail system are “vulnerable to catastrophic telescoping damage” and should be replaced or reinforced immediately. They weren’t, which was a major reason why nine people died in a rail collision last June.

In 2007, supposedly fail-safe circuits in Metrorail’s train detection and control system began to “intermittently malfunction.” This contributed to at least one near miss before the fatal crash, and was the other major reason why nine people died in June.

Clearly, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority is short of funds. It still has not begun to replace the 298 cars; instead, it is merely inserting them into the middle of trains so that, in the event of a crash, the will be buffered by newer (and hopefully stronger) cars.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, it will cost nearly $50 billion to bring rail lines in Washington and five other urban areas – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco – up to a “state of good repair.” Current rates of spending are not even adequate to keep these systems in the miserable condition they are in today. As an official with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority says with resignation, “there will never be enough money” to restore New York’s rail system to a state of good repair (see p. 15).

The problem, of course, is that rail transit does not come close to paying for itself out of transit fares. Fares cover about 60 percent of the cost of operating Washington’s Metrorail system, but none of the costs of building or maintaining it – and has one of the highest cost recovery ratios in the industry. Transit agencies have convinced most legislators that transit shouldn’t have to pay for itself – but that leaves them perennially short of funds and their patrons in danger of deadly accidents.

Legislators love to fund “ribbons, not brooms” – that is, new, highly visible projects such as the $5.2 billion silver line to Dulles Airport rather than the cost of maintaining the existing system.

So what’s the solution? How about federal regulation of transit agencies? That won’t solve any of the problems, but at least we’ll have a whole new layer of bureaucracy to blame the next time people are killed in a train crash.

The real solution is to stop building expensive rail transit lines that cities can’t afford to maintain. Transit should be privatized, which will lead transit companies to run vehicles – mostly buses – where people want to go, not where bureaucrats and politicians decide they ought to go.