This article underscores the point that maintenance should be the first priority:

Washington Metro, `America's Subway,' Plagued by Service Woes

July 21 (Bloomberg) -- After a long afternoon at a Washington Nationals baseball game, all Susan McCullough wanted was a quick subway trip home.

After two stops, her Metro car stalled inside a tunnel. ``They said it would be moving `shortly,''' McCullough said. Forty-five minutes later, the train lurched to the next station, where a voice on a loudspeaker ordered everyone off.

McCullough had had enough. The 34-year-old corporate relations associate at Washington's National Gallery of Art decided to walk to another line, in search of less-crowded trains that were actually moving.

Tales of Metro woes have become increasingly common in the U.S. capital. Hailed as a model for public transit when it opened 29 years ago, Washington's self-proclaimed ``America's Subway'' is on the skids, plagued by breakdowns, delays and overcrowding amid budget shortfalls and charges of mismanagement.

``The system ran so well for so long that people started to take it for granted and stopped investing in its future,'' said Mike LaJuene, a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Transportation, an independent panel set up by area governments. ``Now it's starting to crack on them.''

The number of passengers delayed on Washington's Metro, the country's second-busiest subway after New York, has climbed 60 percent since 2000, to 16,080 daily, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs the system. Total ridership has increased 20 percent in that time, to 668,000 passengers a day.

Deferred Maintenance

Breakdowns and other problems that force everyone off a train have risen 40 percent in the past four years and average six a day. The result is more passengers packing into fewer trains: A Metro report last year said all five of the system's lines were ``highly congested'' and threatened to become ``unmanageable'' in the next five to 10 years.

``I've noticed there are more breakdowns and overcrowding on the trains,'' said Rachel Banks, 35, as she waited for a train at the Metro Center station in downtown Washington. In the background, a Metro worker was shouting: ``Shady Grove. Cars backed up!''

Metro officials blame a lack of money. They say the system had to defer $27.4 million in maintenance and other spending in the fiscal year ended June 30 in order to break even on its $978 million operating budget.

Metro faced budget shortfalls the previous three years as well and has put off $375 million in spending for capital improvements in the past five years, according to Chief Executive Officer Richard White. Metro has had to cut corners on services such as cleaning, parking lot upkeep and air conditioning, he said.

`Passing the Hat'

White said Metro is hobbled by the way it's financed. Unlike other transit systems, it has no dedicated regular funding, such as the sales and other taxes earmarked for New York's transportation authority. On average, U.S. transit systems receive about a third of their operating budget from such dedicated sources.

Metro, by contrast, must make annual appeals for money to the four jurisdictions that fund it: Washington, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government.

``It's a pass-the-hat process, which is no way to fund a billion-dollar-a year agency,'' said White, the system's CEO since 1996. ``Everybody thinks it's somebody else's responsibility.''

In 2002, for example, Metro sought $12.2 billion from its funding partners for a 10-year capital improvement program. After discussions, Metro a year later softened the request to what a Metro report called a ``bare bones'' $1.5 billion over six years. The report was titled: ``America's transit system stands at the precipice of a fiscal and service crisis.''

GAO Steps In

Metro now has requested $1.5 billion in additional funding from the federal government, citing the 47 percent of peak-hour riders who are U.S. government employees.

Officials in Metro's service area say management deserves some of the blame for the problems. ``We want WMATA to become more proactive and vigilant,'' D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams said in an e-mail. ``We want officials to get ahead of the curve to identify where problems may crop up in the rail system next.''

U.S. Representative Thomas Davis, a Virginia Republican, also has doubts about Metro's leadership, said David Marin, a Davis spokesman. ``I think you'd have to be pretty naive to not think Metro has suffered from management problems,'' Marin said.

Davis has asked the Government Accountability Office to research Metro's ``funding shortfall and its operational and managerial shortcomings,'' Marin said. The House Government Reform Committee, which Davis heads, plans to meet this month to assess the GAO report as well as Metro's funding request.

``We're not mismanaged,'' Metro's White said. ``We've accomplished a lot in my tenure.''

Fix and Clean

Customers say they just want the system fixed and cleaned up. An independent Web site for Metro riders logs complaints ranging from delays to dark platforms to a monthlong ``smell like raw sewage'' at the L'Enfant Plaza station.

McCullough, the rider who recounted her long trip home from the baseball game, said stations look ``worse and worse'' and that escalators and elevators are ``perpetually out of service.''

At one point last month, according to Metro statistics, 19 of the system's 825 elevators and escalators were disabled; 16 had been or were expected to be out of service for at least two months. Those breakdowns add to Metro's financial straits because it must by law provide free shuttle buses to disabled riders deprived of the use of elevators.

Edmondo Saballos, a 26-year-old Metro rider who lives in Washington's Chinatown, says he's become all too familiar with the problems of the once-vaunted system. ``It's so overwhelmed,'' he said.

White concurs. ``Until we find a solution, we're basically staggering,'' he said.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jonathan Bloom in Washington at

Last Updated: July 21, 2005 00:01 EDT