Metro's 'Watchdogs' Are Part of the Problem

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Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Politicians often obscure the truth. A mailer sent to weary commuters in Virginia’s 11th Congressional District last summer certainly seemed to follow this unfortunate tradition, even though it was, ostensibly, a public “service to constituents” rather than a campaign ad.

Adorned with a picture of the Wiehle-Reston East Metro Station and a portrait of Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the taxpayer-funded mailer read: “Gerry Connolly is our Metro Watchdog.”

It was an odd message to trumpet, considering that Metro riders were (and still are) enduring grueling shutdowns and delays because of Metro’s SafeTrack program — a belated attempt to make up for years of neglect. To nobody’s surprise, these repairs are now slated to drag on for months longer than originally planned with a price tag nearly double the original estimate.

Yet, basic safety remains a daily concern for Metro riders, and just 48 percent of Metro riders say they are satisfied or very satisfied with the service, a precipitous decline from 67 percent just three years ago. Last year, Metro ridership fell to the lowest level since 2009, and it is down another 13 percent from last year, despite the region’s population growth. What watchdog would be proud of that record?

In reality, the local politicians who claim to be Metro’s watchdogs have turned a blind eye to the system’s endemic problems. Rather than examine what’s really wrong with Metro, they cling to the baseless claim that Metro’s problems stem predominately from a lack of taxpayer funding. Never mind that Metro ranks solidly in the middle of the pack when it comes to capital spending (even excluding funds for the Silver Line) or that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is the only transit agency in the country that receives direct appropriations from Congress on top of Federal Transit Administration grants. WMATA has shelled out $3.7 billion on capital improvements since 2011 with little to show for it.

But none of that matters to political “watchdogs.” Instead, they insist that Metro would be a world-class transit system if only it had more subsidies. Sticking to this article of faith allows them to avoid addressing Metro’s real problems: feckless management, staggering costs and a union that prioritizes its bloated membership’s salaries over the safety of the customers it purportedly serves. Indeed, there’s a reason Metro’s huge costs and employee count outpace those of similar rail systems when adjusted for ridership.

Connolly’s website boasts that he secured billions of dollars in federal grants to undertake the massive Silver Line project. But that expansion has failed to meet its ridership projections and came in $100 million over budget. Yet while billions were spent on the new line, the preexisting system was literally left to burn.

D.C. Council member and WMATA Board Chairman Jack Evans takes the same approach. Evans is a fixture at congressional hearings, perpetually demanding more money.

Evans’s chairmanship has focused largely on squeezing more out of the nation’s taxpayers. Indeed, his chief complaint about a dangerous train derailment was that “It makes it really hard for me, when I’m out going to talk to members of Congress and senators and business leaders, trying to get more money to Metro, and these idiotic things happen.” Safety of the riders was relegated to the back seat.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) has been critical of WMATA’s union, but even she caves when it comes to preserving Metro’s federal golden goose. Comstock fought (alongside Connolly) to preserve Congress’s annual discretionary grants of $150 million, which continue to subsidize Metro’s slide into poor service and dilapidation at the expense of Americans who will never use the system.

There are many offenders, but the reality is that shoveling more money into Metro will not make it the service that riders deserve or even want.

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