One year ago, in March 2016, the entire Washington, DC, subway system was closed for 29 hours for emergency inspections. This shutdown came after a number of electrical fires in the subway system, involving fraying third-rail electrical cables. In January 2015, a Washington Metro train encountered heavy smoke near the L’Enfant station due to a third-rail electrical issue and was forced to cease service. One passenger died from smoke inhalation and others were injured. On March 14, 2016, an electrical fire, caused by the same electrical issues as the Nee L’Enfant station incident, occurred near another station. There were fortunately no fatalities. Still, the Metro management shut down subway service a few days later to allow for a system-wide inspection of all third-rail power cables to proactively address system safety before further incidents.
Run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Metro is the second-highest use rapid transit system in the United States, behind just the New York City subway system, in terms of passenger trips, serving over 700,000 riders per weekday. Metro is just over 40 years old and faces the many of the same challenges as older US transit systems, including inadequate funding and maintenance backlogs.
In May 2016, WMATA introduced SafeTrack, a comprehensive accelerated maintenance and repair program for implementing safety recommendations and needed upgrades to rail infrastructure. SafeTrack involves the use of “surges,” intensive work on specific sections of the rail network and the shutting down of one or both tracks in those sections during this work, together with the reduction of Metro operating hours at night and on weekends to make more tracks available for maintenance.
Last week, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on its audit of the SafeTrack program. GAO found that WMATA did not following leading management practices and “(1) comprehensively collect and assess data on its assets, (2) analyze alternatives, or (3) develop a project management plan” prior to implementing SafeTrack. In response to the GAO findings, Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Weidefeld stated that WMATA didn’t have time for comprehensive data collection before starting SafeTrack, because safety issues and delayed maintenance had reached a critical point and needed to be addressed as soon as possible. GAO recommends that WMATA develop a full asset inventory and a project management plan for those needed projects that may not qualify as major capital projects. WMATA is now working to address GAO’s recommendations.
The GAO report found that SafeTrack “will require an additional $40 million in fiscal year 2017 funding.” It is not yet clear where that funding will come from. Although many transit systems are challenged by inadequate funding, Metro is specifically impacted by one funding issue not faced by other large US transit systems: Metro has no dedicated funding or revenue sources for its operating budget. WMATA relies heavily on year-to-year subsidies from the governments of Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, which each have budget constraints and funding priorities of their own. In 2016, 47% of Metro’s budget came from local and state subsidies and 45% from fare revenue. In contrast, for the MBTA, 62% of the budget comes from dedicated revenue (such as the sales tax) and 33% from fares. In New York, the MTA’s budget relies 36% on dedicated funding, 52% on fare revenue, and 8% on local and state subsidies. WMATA currently has an almost $300 million annual budget gap.
The Federal Transit Authority (FTA) provided some funding for SafeTrack repairs and maintenance. Increasingly, business leaders, DC officials, and others are calling for a dedicated source of funding or regional sales tax surcharge to support Metro operations. So far, these requests have faced opposition from Virginia and Maryland officials. Proponents argue that dedicated funding is not only important for Metro system safety, but could relieve traffic congestion and spur economic development as well.
Also, last week, board members of Metrolink, the regional rail system in Los Angeles, met with the Metro Board Safety Committee to share Metrolink’s firsthand experience with the importance of making safety a priority. The Metrolink officials showed a poignant video that Metrolink made following the most deadly crash in Metrolink history, a 2008 crash in which 25 people were killed when a commuter train collided with a freight train. The video focuses on commitment and responsibilities of the Metrolink board regarding safety. At the meeting, Metro board member Michael Goldman suggested Metro could create its own video on the safety in the Metro system for its board members and the public.
By: Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow