- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

To hear Metro General Manager Richard White tell it, he's doing the best he can with what he's got. So do not complain, dear public, about broken escalators or late trains unless you support his plan to spend billions more for repairs and upgrades. And, sorry, only 15,000 to 18,000 of you rail commuters are inconvenienced any given day, he says, so that's no huge concern of his either. The problem, Mr. White said, is that taxpayers and commuters just expect too much.
"We perform 97 percent reliable rail service (and) we get crucified … anywhere else in the country, that's great … but in Washington, D.C., it's got to be 100 percent," he told editors and reporters of The Washington Times in a recent meeting.
Last month the Federal Transit Administration released an audit of Metro showing it had not complied with more than half of the regulations governing its procurement, including failure both to obtain independent cost estimates and to perform mandatory cost analysis involving sole-source contracting. Following a rash of breakdowns, accidents and fires on the system, the audit led Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, to schedule oversight hearings.
Mr. White would rather talk about the need for a $10 billion Metro rehab program, the purchase of new rail cars and plans to buy a fleet of clean-air buses. He also has pledged to open the final few miles of the 103-mile rail system by spring 2001, and is studying expansion plans that would open new rail stations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. He refuses to raise fares to cover the costs.
The public surely is interested in the future of Metro and in the possibility of getting reliable, fire-free service. But there is evidence to suggest that funding even a well-run Metro system may not be the best use of transportation dollars.
A new report from the Heritage Foundation by Wendell Cox, "Competition, Not Monopolies, Can Improve Public Transit," questions proposed increases in spending for public transit nationwide (from $4.6 billion in 1998 to a proposed $8.2 billion in 2003), suggests that costly rail systems undermine bus service that benefits low-income groups and concludes that competitive contracting would benefit taxpayers and transit riders.
Although Mr. Cox acknowledges that Washington may be one of the few areas where mass transit has a useful role to play in transportation policy, the record suggests not to expect too much from Metro. Because most urban rail riders are former bus or carpool passengers, he says, rail systems have little effect on traffic congestion or overall commuting patterns. Washington Metro "has had a minimal effect on the share of commuters who drive to downtown Washington," he says. Because rail does not affect congestion or commuting patterns, it has little effect on pollution too. According to a Department of Transportation study, Metro removes barely 1 percent of emissions in the area.
Mr. White is in an awkward position, trying to justify $10 billion in "emergency" expenditures to maintain the status quo while, at the same time, trying to explain underutilization and the need to expand. Mr. Davis' hearings should prove quite interesting.

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