Tag: DC

Privatize Washington’s Metro System

Some members of Congress are considering restructuring DC Metro’s management and oversight. Big reforms are needed given the disastrous service, safety, and financial performance of the system in recent years.

Why not privatize Metro? Countries around the world have been privatizing their transportation infrastructure in order to improve management and efficiency. Privatizing Metro buses would be straightforward, but even privatizing the subway system would not be an unheard of reform.

Hong Kong privatized its subway system in 2000. In a recent study on infrastructure, McKinsey reported:

Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation has defied the odds and delivered significant financial and social benefits: excellent transit, new and vibrant neighborhoods, opportunities for real-estate developers and small businesses, and the conservation of open space. The whole system operates on a self-sustaining basis, without the need for direct taxpayer subsidies.

MTR’s railway system covers 221 kilometers and is used by more than five million people each weekday. It not only performs well—trains run on schedule 99.9 percent of the time—but actually makes a profit: $1.5 billion in 2014. MTR fares are also relatively low compared with those of metro systems in other developed cities. The average fare for an MTR trip in 2014 was less than $1.00, well under base fares in Tokyo (about $1.50), New York ($2.75), and Stockholm (about $4.00).

That sounds pretty darn good. The average fare on the DC Metro is about $3. The on-time record of Metro is unclear, but in technical terms I think “crappy” best describes it. Note that Hong Kong’s 99.9 percent on-time record means that “of the average 5.2 million passenger trips made on the MTR heavy rail and light rail networks on each normal weekday, 5.195 million passengers safely reach their destinations within 5 minutes of their scheduled arrival times.” In 2014, “the system ran for 120 consecutive days without a single delay over eight minutes.” Wow.

That stellar performance induces strong demand for the Hong Kong system, which in turn generates high fare revenues. The ratio of passenger fares to operating costs is a high 185 percent, which means that fares fully cover operating costs and part of capital costs. MTR raises other funds for capital from real estate deals under which it gains from land value increases near stations. The Hong Kong system is profitable and unsubsidized. By contrast, the average ratio of fares to operating costs for U.S. subway systems is just 46 percent, and the systems are heavily subsidized.

The MTR is probably the best-run subway system in the world. The system is an “immaculately clean, well-signposted, cheap, regular, convenient system.” And there’s free Wi-Fi in most stations.

The system is so admired that MTR has been contracted to run systems in other cities. CNN says: “MTR Corporation now operates the London Overground, and two lines of the Beijing Metro, as well as parts of the Shenzhen and Hangzhou Metro systems in China, the Melbourne Metro in Australia and the Stockholm Metro in Sweden … London Overground enhanced its punctuality from 88.4% in 2007 to 96.7% in 2013 after MTR took over its operation for a year.”

Can we get MTR Corporation to expand into Washington? Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans wants a federal takeover of Metro, but how about a private takeover?

D.C.’s $15 Minimum Wage Will Dim Employment Prospects for Younger, Less-Skilled Workers

Yesterday the D.C. City Council unanimously approved a measure that would gradually raise the $10.50 minimum wage to $15.00 by 2020, and then index future increases to changes in the Consumer Price Index. These new scheduled increases will come on the heels of an already significant 39 percent increase currently being phased in. With the passage of this bill, D.C follows California and  in passing substantial minimum wage hikes beyond the scope of past experience in the U.S. The related adverse disemployment effects will primarily impact younger workers and people with limited job skills or educational attainment, putting the important first rung of the job ladder out of reach for many of them.

While proponents of an increase tend to focus on families, roughly half of minimum wage workers are between 16 and 24, and a more than one-fifth are teenagers. People lacking a high school diploma are more likely to be in minimum wage jobs, and even with some recent incremental improvements, the 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate for D.C. public schools is only 64.4 percent and for African-American students it is less than 62 percent. While the aggregate unemployment rate for the District might not seem alarmingly high at 6.4 percent in April, there is a lot of variation between the eight wards, with the unemployment rate as high as 9.9 percent in Ward 7 and 12 percent in Ward 8.  One survey found that almost half of responding businesses had already reduced staff or hours to cope with the first raft of minimum wage increases. Younger workers and people with limited educational attainment will find it increasingly difficult to find employment as labor costs continue to surge.

These minimum wage jobs often play an important role in helping people develop the skills they need to eventually move on to more lucrative and promising jobs, far from being a dead-end where these workers get stuck forever. The majority of minimum wage workers that stick with it get a raise within a year. An earlier study looking at data from 1979 to 2002 found that almost two-thirds of minimum wage employees who continue working earned higher than the minimum wage within a year. More recently, 72 percent of minimum wage earners got a raise between 2014 and 2015. About a fifth of these people saw their earnings rise due to mandated minimum wage increases, but 57.5 percent of people working continuously got a raise or moved into a higher-paying job outside of those effects, and this share could have been even higher in the absence of those legislated minimum wage increases. Far from stagnating in these entry-level jobs, most of the people in these positions use these opportunities as a springboard to better things.

Supporters of the new bill may say that they want to ensure that hard work is rewarded and that people can support their families, but D.C.’s substantial minimum wage increases will make it much harder for many people, especially younger workers and people with limited job skills, to find any work at all.