A Tale of Two Subway Systems

(Photo: AP/Alex Brandon)

Riders sit in a train in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station on March 15, 2016, the day before a one-day system-wide shutdown.

Kvetching about the decline of Metrorail is a popular pastime in Washington, D.C. But area residents may elevate complaining to an art form if Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) officials decide to close off entire lines or sections of the region’s subway system for weeks or months at time—something they said was a real possibility earlier this week.

Yet if Washington riders want to experience how bad commuting can get when a transit agency fails to properly maintain its transportation assets, they can head to the other end of the Northeast Corridor for a preview of coming attractions: Without drastically accelerated repairs, Washington, D.C., will soon have a subway system like Boston’s.

The Metro announcement comes less than two weeks after WMATA General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld ordered an unprecedented one-day shutdown of all Washington Metro subway lines after a fire prompted system-wide safety inspections. But as disruptive as this closure was, it may be just the beginning. On Thursday, Wiedefeld warned that wide-scale safety and maintenance issues may prompt even longer closures in the future, adding that Metro’s piecemeal approach to safety fixes has not done enough.  

To be sure, longer interruptions in service are possibilities that some local officials are not eager to embrace. “Shutdowns over an extended period of time will have a significant impact on our residents and businesses who rely heavily on Metro operating regularly,” Prince George’s County, Maryland, Executive Rushern L. Baker III said in a statement.

Others want the general manager to do whatever it takes to ensure that the system is safe. “If General Manager Wiedefeld feels that he cannot run certain Metro lines safely then he must take the appropriate steps to bring those lines to the proper safety level,” U.S. Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia’s Tenth Congressional District told the Ashburn Patch.

But the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) would love to operate a system like WMATA. For all that Washingtonians grumble about their 40-year-old Metro, it remains an engineering marvel (albeit a sputtering one) and a tourist attraction in its own right. Boston’s subway system, the country’s oldest, opened in 1897. It barely gets commuters around the region on sunny days. The fifth-largest mass-transit network carries about $9 billion in debt, making the MBTA one of the most financially distressed transit agencies in the U.S.

The MBTA maintenance backlog is about $7 billion. Like Metro, the MBTA’s decaying infrastructure has brought the system to national attention in recent years. The winter of 2015, a historic, meteorological gut punch that produced nearly 100 inches of snow over a few weeks, crippled a system that had long ceased being able to cope with a half dozen or so inches that small New England winter storms can bring.

The weeks of delays and the service interruptions that continued long after the snow stopped falling convinced Republican Governor Charlie Baker to ask state lawmakers for legislation to put the transit system into what amounted to a de facto receivership.

But the MBTA was floundering long before last year’s snows. Regular delays caused by disabled trains as well as signal and switching problems had been a grim reality for more than a decade. Gaps of 20 minutes or more during rush hours are not uncommon. The long waits between trains that D.C.’s Metro riders face on weekends during which repairs are conducted are the norm during non-peak periods on the Boston system.

The MBTA has made some strides in recent years. State transportation officials have poured more than $80 million into the system to beef it up for future winters and recently celebrated the grand re-opening (after a two-year renovation) of a downtown station near City Hall. But at another major station just several blocks away, rainwater regularly cascades from the ceiling during downpours.

The political will to confront the state capital’s transit crisis has been lacking. Neither Republican nor Democratic governors, nor the Democratic-dominated state legislature, have been able to get control of the agency’s finances. Massachusetts taxpayers aren’t willing to countenance even the smallest of additional investments, either. In 2014, voters repealed a statute that indexed the state’s gas tax to inflation, the proceeds from which would have funded transportation. In a state where the legislature doesn’t grant municipalities much leeway, local governments lack the power to come up with transit funds themselves.

Despite those issues, some Boston Twitterverse denizens confidently asserted that the MBTA would never inconvenience riders with a total shutdown. They also couldn’t imagine going months without one subway line, a prospect that Washington residents may have to confront in order for WMATA to perform the maintenance work it needs to make it safe and efficient. Others appreciated Metro’s ultimate goal. “The MBTA actually should be doing this too,” noted Tim Lawrence, a Boston area resident. “D.C. will have a reliable, safe system. We will continue to not have one. Simple.”

According to Jim Aloisi, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary, MBTA riders are kidding themselves if they think that the MBTA subway system is in better shape than Metro. In 2009, during Aloisi’s tenure at the helm of the state transportation department under former Governor Deval Patrick, an electrical fire broke out at a station at the edge of the city’s financial district. The incident, which Aloisi called “nasty,” happened late at night, and there were no injuries or fatalities.

“You cannot run public transportation by luck,” Aloisi says. “[The MBTA] also has to address the state of good repair gap,” he adds. “You have to have a comprehensive plan because it is the lack of such a plan that gets you into the kind of trouble that WMATA finds itself.”

Does Aloisi see any signs that the MBTA is moving to implement a master plan to deal with its maintenance issues? “No,” he says. “What I sense is that people once again have an appetite for the incremental. After the winter [2015] meltdown, we are well past the point of dealing with this problem in increments.”

It is no simple matter to convince taxpayers to allocate the dollars or riders to endure the inconveniences required to bring mass transit infrastructure back from the brink of crisis. That may be one reason why Wiedefeld, WMATA’s general manager, may be moving away from his original comments regarding shutting down Metro lines or stations for prolonged periods of time. He noted that “no decisions have been made.”

According to Aloisi, Metro has an obligation to minimize disruption to commuters (especially since the agency is at fault for failing to do due diligence on maintenance issues), which may take longer and cost more money. But the Washington case also illustrates that transit priorities need to change. “One of the things that needs to come out of this, not just for WMATA, is a federal safety protocol that requires transit agencies to do a kind of deep dive, a forensic engineering review on a regular basis,” Aloisi says. That way, “we’re staying on top of these issues and are not letting them get worse, so that then we don’t have to talk about shutting systems down.”

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