The Washington Metro system was shut down completely for a day this week to allow crews to inspect all of the power cables in the system. They found 26 cables and connectors in need of immediate repair.
This is just the latest in a series of safety problems and breakdowns that have plagued the system.
Metro has a large unfunded maintenance liability. This doesn’t surprise us because we expect American transit systems to have a backlog.
The difference is that unlike NYC, Chicago, Boston, etc., which have systems a century old, the Washington Metro system is actually new.
The oldest part of the Metro opened in 1976. That means Metro is 40 years old – max. Much of it is actually newer than that.
Forty years after opening, Metro already faces a maintenance crisis.
This should give other regions pause when it comes to building a rail transit system. My colleague Alex Armlovich points out that NYC has more or less been on a 40 year refresh cycle, with two rounds of major system investment since the subways opened. This doesn’t seem out of line as a capital life heuristic to me.
So cities need to keep in mind that if they build a rail system, they not only have to pay to build it, they pretty much have to pay to rebuild it every 40 years. This is a challenge because as we see it’s easier to muster the will to build something new than to maintain something you already have.
Given the huge permanent capital outlays implied by rail transit, you only want to build it where there’s sufficient value to justify it. Washington unquestionably achieves this. It simply hasn’t been able to capture the value into a maintenance revenue stream, plus Metro (like many systems) has been badly mismanaged.
The problem comes in for cities that aren’t NYC, Chicago, Boston, Philly, DC, and San Francisco. Once you get below that group, the value starts becoming more debatable.
Exhibit A is Los Angeles, which has spent untold billions on a huge rail system as ridership actually declined. LA is continuing to build more and more rail.
But what happens when this system is old?
LA’s Red Line opened in 1993, so is 23 years old. By the time LA finishes its current rail build out, it’s likely that the original parts of the system will be coming into the zone for a major capital refresh.
Thus shortly LA will find itself in a perpetual capital catchup cycle starting in only a couple decades. This possibly may not happen, but it has happened everywhere else, so why should LA be different?
Given the ridership levels we’ve seen so far, will the value added from rail vs. the old bus approach be there? It’s not looking good. And if the case in LA is looking weak, certainly smaller and less dense places are even more speculative.
All these smaller cities investing billions into rail had better hope their projections of massive benefits come true, because all too soon the rebuild bill will start coming due.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Washington.
Arlington County planned to increase density – e.g. real estate value at Metro stops, taking advantage of the capacity of the Metro systems. That was not done, for example, at the Vienna metro stop. Parking garages do not add to general revenue which has to pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure improvement. All elements of the built environment, public or private, have life cycle maintenance and replacement costs. One infrastructure can substitute for another in a total system, but all have costs. Anything of high value is also high maintenance. Even dumb gold is high maintenance in terms of security requirements. If you don’t build it, you don’t have to maintain it. We could disperse to be hunter-gatherers or go forward with civilization based on community infrastructure that is maintained in perpetuity. No new taxes or fees means increasing risk in all public infrastructure, which will also diminish the value of private property whose value is created by that very infrastructure. Pure land has very little value. To cultivate it for crops takes time, labor and investment.
Vienna is not in Arlington County. It’s in Fairfax County. Arlington County stops on the Orange Line include Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, Virginia Square, Ballston and East Falls Church, all but the last of which have seen significant increases in density since the 1980s when they opened. Don’t blame Arlington County for what Fairfax County failed to do, i.e. increase density to support the investment in Metro.
Chris Barnett says
Aaron, what provides the tax base for Metro? I assume it’s an interstate-compact agency since it benefits DC, MD, and VA. I also assume that since it’s a transit agency, there is some gap between farebox recovery and budget that is paid through some form of local taxation.
As a resident of the District, I can answer this: there is no dedicated local tax for WMATA (“Metro”). For bus routes, WMATA simply asks each local jurisdiction’s government to pay up or they’ll cut their bus service. For rail routes, WMATA has a complex funding formula under which they collect as many fares as possible and then a few variables (each jurisdiction’s ridership and number of stations being 2 of them) determine how much each jurisdiction owes towards any deficit between the total spent on rail and fares collected. The lack of a dedicated local tax is one major contributing factor to why WMATA is constantly lurching from crisis to crisis – other factors include gross mismanagement of staff and decades of neglect in maintenance.
Pedro Jenkins says
The urban transit picture is changing rapidly.
1. The impending erosion (elimination?) of office jobs will diminish commuting.
2. Autonomous vehicles can easily handle what’s left.
3. The industrial transit model is headed for extinction.
Michael W. Perry says
You might want to look into another factor with rail transit. Where it makes little sense, cities resort to nasty schemes in an effort to increase the number of rail passengers.
Take Seattle and one of the city’s busiest transit routes, that between downtown and SeaTac airport. Before light rail, there was a convenient bus between the two whose only failing was that it made typically made too many stops along the way. That said, it was convenient, dropping off and picking up passengers only about 100 yards from the air terminal.
Then came light rail. To get the public to sign on to the huge costs, one of the early routes was described as being between downtown and the airport. Left unsaid were two factors: 1. Because the route was far longer, it was no faster than the bus route despite those many stops. 2. For reasons that defy comprehension, the light rail line ends a half-mile from the airport with no shuttle service. Passengers are forced to drag their luggage a half mile through a maze of parking garages. If you’re elderly or disabled, tough luck.
Ah, but passengers can still take that direct bus can’t no? No longer. To get from downtown to the airport, you must first take a bus to a transit terminal about two miles away. Then you must take another bus whose schedule always seems to mean at least a 15 minute wait. That’s no accident.
But that other bus takes you to the airport, right? No, that’d be easy enough to do, but even with the transfer, that’d still make the bus cheaper, easier and faster than light rail. No, that second bus only takes you to the same station as the light rail, the one that forces you to walk that half-mile.
The last time I flew in and out of SeaTac, I repeatedly asked staff at the airport if there was a better way. No, was their reply. When asked them to explain the madness, they explained that the new scheme forced most air passengers to pay twice. They paid once for their bus ticket downtown. In the past, that same ticket would have covered the bus to the airport. Now most, rather than deal with that time-delaying transfer, were forced to pay yet again for a ticket on light rail. That I refused to do, but most people aren’t as stubborn as me.
In Seattle’s case, there’s another factor. With its Scandinavian cultural ancestry, Seattle voters are too nice. Not only has their Metro transit authority trashed one of the city’s most important transit routes, the billions light rail is costing has meant slashing bus services even as the city’s streets become choked with traffic, moving the city from the seventh worst rush hour in the country to the sixty. Just after I moved out of Seattle in August of 2012, the city was planning to slash some 175 bus routes. And that’s coming on top of bus fees that almost doubled ($1.25 to $2.25) between 2007 and 2012. By 2050, I told friends who live there, Seattle will be like today’s Detroit and for much the same reason, corrupt and incompetent politicians and bureaucrats.
In the article above, Aaron Renn is describing only one of the many problems with light rail, particularly in all the cities with less population density than Manhattan. There are many, many others.
Thank you! Seattle is incapable of admitting what a disaster the SeaTac rail link is. I travel to Seattle monthly, and looked forward to to a fast rail link from airport to downtown. But no! A long confusing walk through the parking deck, just so you know you should have taken a car instead, stopping to help tourists (“We look for train!”) followed by a excruciatingly slow rail tour of south Seattle, moving through local traffic at the speed of (yes) a local bus. A grade level streetcar for “rapid rail” transit, really guys? So now I, like all my biz associates, take a taxi downtown. Sound transit indeed. Time is money, you urban planning idiots!
According to Google Maps, it’s about a 1000ft walk from the SeaTac rail station to the terminal through the parking garage, one which can be completed in 3 minutes by a person with normal walking ability. 1000ft isn’t a “half mile.” https://goo.gl/maps/8Wkawu2Z2G42
Sure it sucks to drag luggage for 0.2 miles if the bus used to drop you off at the front door… but it’s hardly the end of the world, like your rant suggests. Other airports have rail stations further away from their terminals.
Obviously, you are not aware of public transit’s obligation under Title VI or the Environmental Justice regulations.
What does this mean? Neither Title VI nor “Environmental Justice regulations” requires an urban area transit authority to build rail ever.
Rebecca Leigh Randolph says
This is exactly why down here in Va Beach we have to vote NO on the idea of extending the light rail they wasted money because they see us as tax $$ and they’d love for our idiotic city council to forget about the fact that only a small part of Va Beach residents would be able to take advantage of it Norfolk knows that we have about twice as many people that live here to bail them out! I went to ODU back when they were building tracks around campus and they told us it was gonna be a monorail. This drama has been going on for at least 15 yrs!
Roland Solinski says
“[Y]ou only want to build [rail] where there’s sufficient value to justify it. Washington unquestionably achieves this.”
Washington only achieves value through transit because of conscious decisions made over six decades. The city wasn’t ready-made for Metro. It had to be re-fashioned around the new rail system in order to produce value. Notably, DC residents rejected almost all freeways inside the Beltway and have generally supported dense, mixed-use development next to stations. They also supported the sky-high cost to build a truly useful, high-speed system, and to build the vast majority in only 20 years – this was key to building effective ridership.
DC exists at a vastly lower density than New York on average, so I don’t think you can apply some kind of deterministic filter to rail projects wherein they “only work in dense cities”. If you were to build the same system in, say, Houston’s 610 loop or Minneapolis, I think you’d see similar things happening and similar value created.