Why Washington’s Metro may be even worse than the T

Washington's Metro: Beautiful stations, big problems. Photo (cc) by Mustafa Khayat.

Washington’s Metro: Beautiful stations, big problems. Photo (cc) by Mustafa Khayat.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Not long ago I had to navigate the sort of public-transportation meltdown that is familiar to any Bostonian. The subway wasn’t running, and I had some important meetings to get to. I took a Lyft into the city. After my meetings, still no subway—so I took advantage of the nice weather and walked.

Ah, the MBTA. Except this wasn’t the T. Instead, it was Metro, the fast, clean, and—until recently—reliable rail system that serves Washington, DC, and its environs.

Those of us who rely on the T have long considered Metro to be the very model of what a modern subway system is supposed to look like. It may be 40 years old, but compared to Boston’s 1890s-vintage patchwork of subway lines and streetcars, it’s brand spanking new.

Now, though, both systems are suffering from what happens after many years of chronic disinvestment. Believe it or not, the problems facing Metro may be more acute. The infrastructure needs of both systems are huge, yet the political will to meet those needs is lacking. And if two cities like Boston and Washington—a regional hub and the nation’s hub—are behind the eight ball, what hope is there for the Buffalos and the Worcesters, the Detroits and the New Bedfords?

Metro’s most recent woes began on March 14, when an electrical fire broke out near the McPherson Square station. Because of similarities to a fire last year in which one person died and 84 were hospitalized because of smoke inhalation, the folks in charge decided to shut down the entire system all day on March 16 in order to conduct extensive safety inspections. Metro’s many woes—which include a crash that claimed nine lives in 2009—made it to the front page of the New York Times this week.

As it turned out, that was the first of two days for which I had scheduled interviews in downtown Washington. To my relief, the roads were not gridlocked, and Lyft didn’t take advantage of the crisis by jacking up prices. My three-mile walk from K Street through Georgetown, over the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and back to my hotel in Rosslyn was pleasant—it was a warm late-winter day, and the cherry blossoms were out.

Metro reopened the next day. But get this: The system’s leadership is now considering shutting down entire lines for six months at a time in order to carry out long-overdue repairs. A Post editorial thundered:

Do they want to scare commuters into expecting the worst so they won’t complain when the shutdown is only three months? Are they trying to rattle the federal and local governments into ponying up more money? Or are they really so cavalier about disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of Washington-area residents?

By comparison, our own MBTA looks like the gold standard. Sure, we put up with delays, cancellations, fires, and Orange Line passengers being forced to climb out windows. But I can’t remember a time when the entire system was shut down for a day except for extreme weather. And the idea of closing a line for six months is just too awful to contemplate.

And yet. Gabrielle Gurley, who knows both the Boston and Washington systems well (she was an editor at CommonWealth Magazine in Boston and is now an editor at The American Prospect in DC), insists the MBTA is actually in worse shape than Metro, and that it’s only a matter of luck that we’ve been spared the worst. Noting that the MBTA’s maintenance backlog is about $7 billion, Gurley writes:

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.

David Alpert, who blogs at a site called Greater Greater Washington, wrote recently: “Metro has twin challenges of disinvestment and mismanagement, and both feed on one another. The agency’s failures make people understandably more reluctant to throw money at what seems like a black hole, but underfunding and unusually high expenses have put the system on a knife’s edge where a small mistake has big consequences.”

That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Here in Greater (Greater?) Boston, Governor Charlie Baker deserves credit for making at least some strides toward reforming the MBTA’s broken culture by establishing a Fiscal Management and Control Board to oversee the system.

But the T needs a massive infusion of funds in addition to management controls. And as former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi wrote for WGBH News, the 9.3 percent fare increase recently approved by the T not only squeezes money out of the wrong people but isn’t even remotely adequate.

Safe, reliable public transportation is good for the economy and good for the environment. Yet in both Boston and Washington, government seems unwilling to do what it takes to get it right.