The Real Reason DC's Metro Doesn't Work

by Sean Riley


The National Interest

The continuing decline of the Washington Metro Rail can be traced to two mistakes made by the people who planned it. Their first was to choose an expensive, obsolete technology that most American cities had already abandoned. Of the hundreds of cities that had rail transit in 1910, only eight were left when the Metro Rail system was planned in the late 1960s.

By sharing infrastructure with cars and trucks, buses cost far less than trains and can go anywhere there are streets. The high costs of rails means they can only reach limited destinations.

The second mistake was to fail to plan for maintenance and rehabilitation costs. Such costs start out low but rapidly grow rapidly as rail lines approach thirty years of age.

Congress funds capital costs with the expectation that local governments won’t build more than they can operate and maintain. But DC Metro is one of many transit agencies, including those in Atlanta, Boston, Portland and San Jose, whose leaders have proven they will ignore future maintenance costs because these costs are two or more decades down the road.

Politicians in general prefer to fund ribbons, not brooms—that is, new projects rather than maintenance. That’s why the Silver Line was built and the Purple Line was funded when Metro desperately needed those funds for maintenance.

Planners of the Metro Rail system may have subscribed to two popular myths, both promoted today by rail-construction companies. The first is that rail transit is a necessary part of a world-class city. Most world-class cities also have slums, but that doesn’t mean Washington DC should cultivate more slums.

The second myth is that rails can move more people than buses. This has been disproven by cities around that world that have installed high-capacity bus-rapid transit lines.

I recently visited Istanbul, where a thirty-one-mile Metrobus line carries eight hundred thousand passengers a day—nearly 90 percent as many as the entire, 135-mile DC Metro Rail system. Bogotá’s seventy-mile bus-rapid transit system carries 2.4 million passengers a day, or five times as many per mile as DC Metro Rail. [MORE]