The hidden story of Washington’s subway system

From our overstocked archives. Washington’s Metro subway system is in big trouble for failure to maintain its physical structure. There’s talk of it having to close for six months or even close entirely in about ten years. In the DC Gazette, as the Progressive Review was then called, we raised serious questions about the system. Here’s an article from 40 years that describes some of the issues that weren’t considered well enough. It is an interesting example of how governments can do things badly

Sam Smith, May 1976 – In answer to your question, yes I have ridden the subway. Unlike many of Metro’s most avid supporters and most important officials, this carping critic actually uses the city’s mass transit system. Except on Thursdays, when I have the car, and on pleasant days, when I run, I use the bus to get around town. Over the past few weeks I have altered my route in order to take advantage of the first few miles of the Great White Way. No matter how I mix my modes, it takes me approximately the same time to cover the distance between my home in Cleveland Park and my office at 8th and Mass. NE. It takes an hour on the 96 or 98 bus; a fine line that runs north of downtown thus avoiding the worst of rush hour traffic. If I take a bus from my Capitol Hill office to Union Station, change to the subway and then again at Farragut North to the L Route, it takes about the same time. This is also true if I run to work, although running home takes slightly longer since it is up-hill.

But it provides an extra incentive to run to realize that a 38- year-old jogging a leisurely 6-8 miles an hour can compete with urban mass transit. The thought should also provide an extra incentive to those planning the city’s transit. They might wish to establish as a planning goal a bus system significantly faster than a middle-aged jogger.

Of course, when the subway opens up further along Connecticut Avenue, it will be far the fastest route for me. And I want all those taxpayers who will not be so well served to realize how much I appreciate what they have done for my transportation problems . That’s one of the things about subways. They accommodate, at tremendous public cost, some people very well and many more not at all. For example, 55% of the [suburban] Montgomery County workforce works within the county, another 6% works in Prince Georges County. For the most part, the subway will not serve them. Suburban workers driven to the subway in the morning will find Metro a quick way to get to dense downtown employment areas where they can walk from the station to their work. On the other hand, DC workers heading for a job in the suburbs will get a speedy ride to a point that, in most cases, will still be some distance from their final destination in the far less dense areas around suburban stations.

But these days, in the euphoria over Phase I, it is not nice to mention such things. It is implied, by the daily rave reviews in the press, that the fact that the thing works, and is attractive, fast and comfortable, provides sufficient justification for the billions spent and still to be spent. The fact that the thing works, is attractive and fast and comfortable should, however, come as no surprise. For all that money, you were expecting graffiti-splattered rattletraps? …

Certainly there was no transportation reason to operate a system at a deficit of $75,000 a day. You could run more than 400 buses all year free of charge for the annual cost of Phase I. Including the subsidy, Phase I is the most expensive ride you can take in the world — about ten times as expensive per minute as a rented limousine. Further, despite all the talk about the hoards riding the system, they amount to less than 4% of the capacity of the route.

The outlandish costs of the subway, compared to other alternatives, are constantly minimized by Metro, most local officials and the press. The mere suggestion that a study be made of these costs inspired a diuretic flow of protest from the media and Metro that included the totally untrue claim that Metro had been studied enough. In fact, there has never been an official study of the relative costs of and benefits of a subway compared with other transit systems. The only studies that have been done have raised serious questions about the feasibility of the project.

The federal Urban Mass Transporation Administration has clearly indicated that what it has learned from studying Metro is to discourage other communities from following suit. The city government has had for some time a privately prepared consultant report that demonstrates the advantages of streetcars for DC, but it has failed to act on it. And, most recently, a Library of Congress report, prepared with the assistance of some of the smartest transportation people in the country, produced figures strongly favoring cutting the system down to 41 miles.

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