October 1, 2015 11:23AM

The Nation’s Worst‐​Managed Transit Agency

Eight years ago, I argued that San Jose's Valley Transportation Authority was the nation's worst managed transit agency, a title endorsed by San Jose Mercury writer Mike Rosenberg and transit expert Tom Rubin.

However, since then it appears that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or just Metro) has managed to capture this coveted title away from San Jose's VTA. Here are just a few of Metro's recent problems:

  1. Metro's numerous service problems include a derailment in August that resulted from a flaw in the rails that Metro had detected weeks previously but failed to fix;
  2. Metro spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a new fare system that it now expects to scrap for lack of interest on the part of transit riders;
  3. One of Metro's power transformers near the Stadium/Armory station recently caught fire and was damaged so badly that Metro expects to have most trains simply skip that station stop for the next several weeks to months;
  4. Metro's fleet of serviceable cars has run so low that it rarely operates the eight-car trains for which the system was designed even during rush hours when all the cars are packed full;
  5. WMATA's most recent general manager, Richard Sarles, retired last January and the agency still hasn't found a replacement, largely due to its own ineptitude;
  6. Riders are so disgusted with the system that both bus and rail ridership declined in 2014 according to the American Public Transportation Association's ridership report;
  7. Metro was so unsafe in 2012 that Congress gave the Federal Transit Administration extra authority to oversee its operations;
  8. That hasn't fixed the problems, so now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress to transfer oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration, which supposedly has stricter rules.

A complete listing of Metro's problems could fill a book (and in fact have already done so). The "solutions" implemented so far have been ludicrous. That idea that giving FTA safety oversight over WMATA would solve any problems relies on the fantasy that top-down bureaucracy works better at the federal level than the regional level. Meanwhile, NTSB's proposal to transfer authority to the Federal Railroad Administration is more rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship than providing any real fix.

WMATA's fundamental problem is that it isn't truly accountable to anyone, and particularly not to the people who ride its buses and trains. It gets away with a safety record that includes 18 deaths, mostly in the last six years, and a reliability record that includes numerous shut-downs and delays because it isn't answerable to anyone. Most people think the only fix is to reward Metro for its failures by giving it more money. But that won't solve the problem either because it doesn't address the underlying cause, which is lack of accountability.

The best way to influence a bureaucracy is to influence its budget. WMATA knows that the worse it manages its system, the bigger the budget it will get to fix the problems. A system dependent on user fees works just the opposite: the better the system is managed, the more fees it collects.

WMATA's user fees cover a higher share of its costs than most transit agencies, but still well under 50 percent. Local governments fill in the gap for operating costs while Congress funds capital improvements such as the system-draining Silver Line, but no one is funding all of the system's maintenance needs, so it is slowly grinding to a halt. The best way to solve Metro's problems, and those of the transit industry in general, is to fund transit out of user fees, not tax dollars.