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.

Metro Boston changes hands

The subway freebie Metro Boston and its sister papers in New York and Philadelphia have been sold to a newly formed company.

In Boston, the situation is complicated by the fact that the New York Times Co. owns 49 percent. Recently I argued that the Times Co.-owned Boston Globe should use Metro to promote more vigorously the paid print edition and Boston.com.

It’s possible that this deal will pave the way for that. But the Times Co. is still stuck with just enough of Metro Boston not to have a say over what goes into it. (Via Romenesko.)

First thoughts on the Herald redesign

As you can see from the page image at left, at least one late edition of today’s Boston Herald included the Red Sox’ heart-thumping win over the Angels. But not the one I bought on the North Shore at 3 p.m.

I’d be perfectly happy if the Herald switched to Web-only distribution. But I can’t imagine this is what Pat Purcell had in mind when he outsourced printing to Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal plant in Chicopee.

Herald editor Kevin Convey tells the Phoenix’s Adam Reilly there are still some bugs to be worked out:

In the early going, we’re being extremely conservative about our press times and deadlines to make sure we get the paper out on the street. As time goes by, I expect that our ability to put complete information in more papers will increase to a considerable degree.

As promised, the paper looks a lot better, even though it has shrunk vertically by quite a bit. Photos, including color, are sharp both inside and out. The stories were already so short that making them a bit shorter still shouldn’t make much difference.

In the current confused media environment, it’s hard to say with whom the Herald is competing. Mainly, it’s competing for people’s time. If I had 20 minutes to while away, I’d much rather drop 75 cents on a new, slick-looking Herald than, say, pick up a free Metro Boston, because the Herald’s got more and better content. And now it looks better, too.

On that basis, the new Herald is a success.

A free Herald?

The plunge in Metro Boston’s circulation remains a mystery, with the biggest mystery being whether there really was a plunge or just a change in accounting. (Like, the auditors discovered 50,000 copies in a Dumpster somewhere?)

Boston Herald editor Kevin Convey suggests a new slogan to Boston Magazine’s Amy Derjue: “Metro: We Can’t Even Give It Away.” More substantively, Convey says, “If economics were ever to permit us to go free we would give away one hell of a lot more papers than the Metro has managed to do during its lifetime.” (Via Adam Reilly.)

Maybe, maybe not. It all comes down to those economics. If I could choose between a free Herald as it is today and a free Metro, there’d be no contest — I’d grab a Herald every time. Trouble is, it’s highly unlikely that you could turn the Herald into a free paper without laying off most of the staff, cutting way back on pages and — yes — turning it into something very much like Metro. Or BostonNOW.

Unless — and here’s the big unless — the Herald could find a way to make the Web pay, and then publish a small, free paper as a supplement to the online edition. But we’re probably a long way from that becoming realistic.

Jumping off the Metro

The Phoenix’s Adam Reilly finds that Metro Boston‘s reported circulation has plunged from 187,000 to 136,000 since last fall. That’s some plunge. But what does it mean?

The owners of Metro (including the New York Times Co., with a 49 percent share) can control the circulation to a large extent, given that it’s a free paper. Did the owners decide to cut back? Or did the auditors discover that 50,000 copies were ending up in the trash every day? Adam promises to get to the bottom of it.

Here’s another possibility — the BostonNOW [link now fixed] effect. Don’t laugh. My students tell me it’s got a much better crossword puzzle.

Globe denies layoff story

Globe spokesman Al Larkin calls the Metro report “factually incorrect,” according to accounts by the Phoenix’s Adam Reilly and the Herald’s Christine McConville, although he doesn’t rule out the possibility of some layoffs.

Credit where it’s due: Looks like Lisa van der Pool of the Boston Business Journal was the first to report the Globe’s denial. Meanwhile, in today’s Metro, Saul Williams says he stands by his story. (9:40 a.m.)

Can the Globe really lay off “hundreds”?

This item in Metro Boston looks pretty alarming. But if the Boston Globe lays off “hundreds,” as Metro claims, wouldn’t that pretty much empty out the building? And wasn’t it just yesterday that Joe Keohane reported at Boston Daily that the Globe had messed up a story about downsizing at Metro? And aren’t the Globe and Metro corporate cousins? And isn’t it a full moon tonight? (Close.)

The Newspaper Guild is taking the Metro report seriously. This one obviously bears watching. But I’m skeptical about the prospect of “hundreds of layoffs” — and I hope I’m proven right, given what it would mean for journalism (and journalists) in Boston.

Trashing the competition

A few delivery drivers for the Boston Herald have found a surefire way to make their product stand out from the free competition, Metro Boston and BostonNOW: grab stacks of Metros and BostonNOWs and, you know, throw them out. Herald spokeswoman Gwen Gage tells Boston magazine that such tactics would never, ever be condoned at One Herald Square. (Via Romenesko.)