I love trains, and the first time I stepped into a Washington Metro station in 1977, it was like entering Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Today, it’s like entering Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
The problem is that rail lines are expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain, especially after they reach 30 years of age. The federal government paid most of the cost of building Metrorail and local governments pay the subsidies required to operate it, but funds to rehabilitate the lines that are over 30 years old are sorely lacking, so the system is falling apart.
Rather than assist with rehabilitation, the federal government has a slush fund dedicated to new rail construction. This enticed the region to build the Silver and Purple lines, when the matching funds required to build those lines should have been spent rehabilitating Metrorail instead. One way the region can solve the problem is to kill the Purple Line and stop construction on the Silver Line and rededicate those funds to the existing system.
WMATA may also have to accept the painful reality that rail was probably the wrong choice for D.C. in the first place. Rail transit is both expensive and inflexible, while Curitiba, Brazil has shown that a well-designed bus corridor can actually move more people per hour than WMATA’s eight-car trains. Rather than rehabilitate the existing lines that are falling apart, WMATA should consider replacing them with bus-rapid transit lines.
Over the next ten years, shared, self-driving cars are going to replace most transit. WMATA’s cost of moving one passenger one mile by rail is more than twice as expensive as moving them by automobile today, and Uber (which recently hired 40 self-driving car engineers) has promised that its shared, self-driving cars will cost less than owning a car.
This means transit won’t be able to compete with self-driving car sharing. Until this becomes a reality, WMATA and other transit agencies should focus on low-cost bus service rather than expensive and clunky rail systems.