MTA vs. WMATA: Why Metro Is Terrible

a | A

By Josh Barro

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs transit and commuter rail in the New York City region, announced that successful cost controls would enable it to delay a planned fare increase for two months and expand subway and bus service starting in the fall. The delayed fare hike will have a one-time cost of $75 million and the service expansions will cost $29 million per year.

Two years ago, I moved back to New York from Washington, D.C., and one of the many joys of that move has been traveling with the MTA instead of WMATA, the transit agency serving the capital region. The difference between the two agencies is a reminder that not all government bodies are the same, and while government agencies are often bad at serving their missions, they don't have to be.

Before I praise the MTA, I should note, it's not without its problems, the main one being that both its capital and operating costs are too high.

The median MTA bus driver made $72,000 in cash compensation in 2010, about 50 percent higher than is typical for bus drivers in the region. As with every other government agency in New York, pension costs have skyrocketed in the last few years. Governor David Paterson made a serious error by sending the MTA's labor contract into binding arbitration in 2009, which committed the agency to a series of wage increases during the recession that forced service cutbacks.

Capital costs are also a problem. Subway expansions are limited by the fact that costs are so much higher than elsewhere in the world. There are only four ongoing urban rail projects in the world that cost more than $1 billion per kilometer, and they include all three of the MTA's current rail projects in Manhattan. If the MTA could build more cheaply, it could build more.

But those problems are not of the MTA's making -- its hands are tied by politicians in Albany who won't do enough to control pension costs or reform collective bargaining. And despite its high cost structure, the agency serves its mission remarkably well. Trains and buses show up approximately when they are supposed to, maintenance gets done (a change from the 1970s), ticket machines and escalators work.

Joe Lhota, the MTA's executive director, has now made clear that even without control over employee compensation, he can find cost savings that make service expansion possible. He has also proposed bigger operational changes, like through-routing Long Island Rail Road trains to New Jersey, which would bring bigger improvements.

While the MTA shows that a transit agency can be too expensive but still functional, WMATA is too expensive and dysfunctional. You can follow @unsuckdcmetro on Twitter to see an aggregation of users' aggravating travel experiences -- long and unexplained delays, trains taken out of service for no apparent reason, indifferent staff.

WMATA's dysfunction is best exemplified by two ongoing operational failures that the agency cannot seem to fix. One is that the Automatic Train Operation system on Metrorail malfunctioned in 2009, which led to a train crash that killed nine people. The crash was three years ago and the agency still has not been able to fix and reactivate the ATO system. The system was designed (at great expense) to run automatically -- manual operation reduces capacity and also leads to jerky stops and starts in stations.

The other is the poor performance of the system's escalators. WMATA sets a goal of 89 percent escalator availability, meaning that one of every nine escalators can be out of service, but hasn't even been consistently able to meet that. Last summer, escalator performance fell as low as 80 percent. It is not uncommon to see WMATA announcements that certain deep stations, such as Dupont Circle and Bethesda, have no working up escalators.

What's amazing to me is not that WMATA is so incompetent, but that Washington commuters put up with it. Where is the outrage? Why are politicians not running on a platform of making the agency fix its systems and provide decent service? Why isn't WMATA accountable like the MTA is?

The answer seems to be the difference in how the two agencies are structured. The MTA is a state agency and the buck stops with the governor, who can fire its executive director. Since most voters live within the MTA region, the governor has a strong incentive to demand good performance.

WMATA, on the other hand, is an interstate compact. Its board is divided evenly among representatives appointed by the federal government, Washington, and jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia. Responsibility is unclear and voters don't know whom to vote against because they hate their transit service.

WMATA's geography is a fact of life; we can't vest control of the agency in the Mayor of Washington D.C. because too much of its service area lies outside the city. But a directly elected board with fewer members might lead to more accountability and better results, even if that board were still left with little ability to control labor costs.

As the MTA shows, you don't need to fix every problem with a transit agency to serve customers much better. But you do need politicians to see good service as essential to continuing their careers.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.


-0- Jul/20/2012 20:21 GMT