The other night I had dinner here in Washington with a New Yorker, one currently living not 10 blocks from the place where I grew up in Manhattan. As we parted -- me to drive home, her to take the metro back to her hotel -- she remarked how lucky I was to have moved to a city with such a nice subway system.
“Well,” I said, “ours is cleaner, but yours doesn’t catch fire so often.”
In truth, both New York’s subway and the Washington Metro are in trouble. By ridership, they are the top two rapid transit systems in the country, the best in their class. But like aging prizefighters that have taken too many blows to the head, both of them seem to be struggling to keep it together.
The foremost symptom on both systems is delays. In New York, 500 people recently exited stalled trains to walk back to the platform through dark, filthy tunnels. In DC, delays are so routine that I try to steer clear of Twitter during rush hour, knowing that I will be barraged with the details of acquaintances stuck on platforms or stalled between stations. In both cities, these delays are hugely disruptive. The economies have evolved to depend on hundreds of thousands workers and consumers getting from A to B via subway. The streets simply cannot accommodate that many souls.
The similarity in the symptoms does not, however, mean that the causes are exactly the same. Both cities are struggling to maintain aging infrastructure. But New York’s biggest struggles stem from its rising ridership. The subway now carries more people than it has since the 1940s, which leads to lengthening “dwell times” of trains at platforms, as the crowds try to force themselves out of and into overflowing cars.
Washington, meanwhile, has seen ridership fall over recent years, even though the city’s population has been booming. Partly this is because telecommuting and Uber have given people viable alternatives to getting on a train every morning. But one of the reasons that riders are so eager to get off the trains is that short-sighted planning, shoddy operations, and years of delayed maintenance have finally caught up with the system in the form of safety hazards and inconvenience. As a result, the system seems to be caught in a vicious cycle: as operations get worse, more people exit the system, leaving even less money to fix the operational problems.
New York City’s transit system is ultimately run by the state, which perennially bickers over funding. Washington suffers because of its dysfunctional regional authority, and its self-dealing unions that blatantly prioritize their paychecks and their perks over doing an adequate job for the riders. In both regions, there are obvious sources of the problems, and no obvious way to implement the solutions.
“Too many customers” is, after all, a problem that most businesses would like to have. And when they have that problem, the normal solution is to scale up their operations. New York understands this, but the opening of the first stage of the Second Avenue subway line, 99 years after it was conceived, illustrates just how hard it is to get this done. Why? In part because the system operates 24/7, which makes it a challenge just to upgrade the antiquated signaling systems, much less add major new capacity. But also in part because New York’s construction costs are astronomical, running into the billions to lay a kilometer of track.
There is much speculation about why the costs are so high, and the answer is probably “a little bit of everything”: bad project management, old streets with a lot of (badly documented) stuff running underneath them, unions that demand high wages without delivering commensurate productivity, layer upon layer of government regulation that drags out both design and build, and a legal system that gives practically everyone who ever strolled by a subway stop the right to sue if they don’t like the plans for the system. But they all add up to the same thing: it’s nearly impossible to build new capacity, because the cost-benefit ratio is wildly out of whack.
Washington’s problems are also obvious. The system needs to be primarily run for the benefit of the riders, and only secondarily for the benefit of the employees -- if for no other reason than that the employees are going to be out of a job if the system can’t turn itself around. The system also desperately needs more funding, and fewer politicians sticking their hands in to get constituents perks -- like diverting rail money for more bus stops -- that over the longer term harm both the system and the constituents.
These observations are not news to anyone who has followed the saga of the Washington Metro’s decline. So why hasn’t anything changed? Because the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is run by a dysfunctional regional authority, and has become the forum for gladiatorial combat between Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Everyone wants more funding for their area, and to heck with folks who don’t vote in my elections. Everyone also wants their constituents to pay as little as possible of the bill for the services they collectively consume.
The politics are further complicated by upstate/downstate politics in Maryland and Virginia; metro service is vital to the economy around Washington, but counties outside the commuting zone resent seeing state funds poured into a system they don’t use. The result is a system that can be neither rationally designed nor adequately funded to meet the region’s transportation needs.
At their heart, both of these problems are the same problem: America is terrible at infrastructure. The stereotype is that we don’t like spending money on it, which is true as far as it goes -- but even in areas where we do have mass transit systems, and need them to move large numbers of people into busy downtowns, we still can’t seem to spend that money well. Our fractured political systems have too many levels, and too heavy a deadweight of bureaucratic proceduralism, to function effectively, especially on projects that cross local and state boundaries, as major transportation systems are unfortunately apt to do.
Solving these problems won’t be easy. To cure them, we need to do a lot more than palliate the most annoying discomforts. We need to get an accurate diagnosis of the disease -- and then we need to commit to treating it at what will probably be enormous inconvenience and great expense. Because if we don’t, the sickness will only get worse. And when ridership declines as it has in Washington, the sickness may even prove fatal to the transit systems.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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