Trust me, as a limited government conservative typing out the words “the federal government takeover” absolutely kills me. However, this thought has been swimming in my mind lately as I drive in from Manassas to Tysons every morning with my family and seeing the traffic even worse thanks to the SafeTrack repairs going on right now. The oversight of Metro, both in its finances and its safety procedures, as we all know are overseen by a regional authority that has actually no authority at all. WMATA is made up of local politicians from DC, Maryland, Virginia and the Feds and that conglomeration is why we are in this mess now. The key to all of this is the money … where does it come from so the system can run effectively? Every other major metro system has dedicated funding because it is in a single city that sits in a single state, nice and streamlined. Metro crosses four jurisdictions, and all four are very different from each other. Not only does Metro need approval from two state legislatures, it needs it from the City of DC whose budget is controlled by the US Congress, which is currently run by a different political party from the executive office and the Transportation secretary. Trying to get money from Virginia and Maryland is challenging, why would a Republican state senator from someplace like Spotsylvania county want to throw more money at this, and the same question can be asked of a Democratic state delegate from Baltimore whose constituents are dealing with their own issues that need money to help?
The overwhelming need for Metro is to get federal employees from the suburbs to work in the District. It is not 100% of its ridership of course, but anyone who’s ridden Metro during the week knows that is who the main customers are. With Metro is shambles, an already disastrous traffic situation in both Virginia and Maryland has only been exacerbated that will continue to affect quality of life here in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. This is a problem whose magnitude is beyond the scope of what that state of Maryland and Commonwealth of Virginia can deal with, and certainly not deal with together along with the DC government. We live in a unique area where the major urban city is a federal city run by Congress and not by itself within a state, so the usual rules of dealing with a public transit crisis like this don’t apply.
Metro is an institution that serves a federal city filled with federal employees that is overseen by a board of local and state politicians with competing interests that don’t have Metro’s well-being at heart. It might be time to think about a full federal takeover of MWATA and Metro itself in total. Get rid of the board, get rid of the local politicians and federalize the system under the direction of the Department of Transportation. We are already getting there, and this could be the only way to ensure rider safety and a system that will work we need to streamline it. There are too many cooks in the kitchen and that paralysis has led to an internal stasis that allowed mismanagement, employee apathy and institutional failures from management on down as disturbingly outlined by Washingtonian. The sheer size of this ineptitude is at this point scary because actual lives have been lost in both the Fort Totten crash as well as the smoke inhalation incident at L’ Enfant Plaza. With the federal government in charge of the Metro, perhaps we can finally have real accountability instead of do-nothing 15-member board meetings where everyone just argued about where the money is coming from rather than true oversight.
I’m slowly becoming convinced that this might be what is needed despite every fiber of my political principles shouting against it. This should also be a time for some soul-searching among Northern Virginia residents who have bought, hook line and sinker, the idea that Metro is the be-all, end-all of our area’s traffic woes. Time after time we have turned our backs on rapid bus, road construction in favor of more Metro. Is it a surprise that once the Silver Line was up and running the system, so poorly run for so long, was finally stretched to the breaking point? Past just Metro, drive around Tysons, Fairfax, Reston and Ashburn and look at the unchallenged development going on, the skyscraper apartment complexes that supposedly will be served by Metro. But Northern Virginia is not a city, every single person in those buildings will have at least one car. That’s more traffic, not less. The fact of the matter is there is no cure to our traffic woes right now. There is no silver bullet. Too many people live here for what our infrastructure is built to handle, and or amount of Metro, HOV lanes, bus system or streetcars can solve our issues right now. The best we can do is make the pain chronic, dull enough to live with. Right now Metro has failed even that chronic pain threshold and drastic actions are needed.
To think long term, both government at every level and industry in this area needs to think about changing the way we work here. Technology in enabling telework like never before, the internet and cloud computing allows us to work from anywhere. New ways of thinking about working need to be explored, like four days, ten-hour work weeks and even having our elected officials advocate for moving non-national security and military federal agencies across the country. Metro is just the tip of the iceberg in the DC area, the pressure the population is putting on the physical infrastructure is dangerous and while SafeTrack is a good step and I think the new General Manager is doing great since he fired roughly 30 employees, are we just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? I think it’s plain as day that the current setup is a failure and not only should we think hard about the federal government taking over Metro, but the community in total needs to think about new ways of living and working altogether.