In 2005, an international review panel said Metro was the best subway in the nation.
But beneath the accolades lies an aging infrastructure that has languished owing to the pay-as-it-goes partnership of the transit agency in the nation’s capital. In the wake of the crash on the Red Line last week, lawmakers are scrambling to fund fixes.
Federal investigators are still working to find the cause of the June 22 accident that killed nine people and injured 80 after a train headed toward the Fort Totten station in Northeast slammed into a stopped train during the evening rush hour.
Among the possible reasons for the crash and its aftermath: the failure of a computerized system intended to stop trains from coming too close together and the fragility of the Series 1000 rail cars that made up the striking train — a model Metro was warned three years ago it should replace.
“From what I understand, had the sensors been up and operating properly and everything done and had you made the investment, this was avoidable. I think that’s safe to say,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, who long advocated an infusion of federal dollars for Metro.
Comments surrounding the agency’s inability to replace the cars and other parts of its infrastructure are nothing new. Metro has lacked a dedicated funding source to reliably bolster its budget, and officials are forced to rely on allotments from federal and local governments, along with whatever internal revenue can be generated through sources such as fares, advertising and parking.
In other words, as the economies of the District, Maryland and Virginia go, so goes Metro’s budget.
“This vulnerability is a major problem because, unlike virtually every other major transit system in the nation, [Metro] receives no dedicated stream of revenue each year for capital or operational costs,” according to a 2004 Brookings Institution report on the agency’s financial structure.
The lack of dedicated funding means the agency has continued to accumulate an ever-growing list of deferred maintenance and been unable to address larger, systemic issues, such as completely replacing the Series 1000 rail cars — the first cars the system purchased.
“The bottom line is: Our house is getting old,” Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said in September 2008. “We have a wet basement, rusty pipes, old wires and a 1976 model car.”
At the time, Mr. Catoe said Metro needed more than $11 billion over the next 10 years to replace old rail cars, meet growing ridership and maintain its level of service.
Metro’s money issues and crumbling infrastructure aren’t unique. Across the country, cities and states are battling with deferred maintenance backlogs, in some cases with similar price tags to Metro’s.
The agency’s laundry list of repairs has included fixing leaking tunnels and crumbling platforms — problems that are hardly new. Other problems include:
• In the early 1990s, escalator steps at seven Metro stations collapsed.
• In 2000, Metro replaced 18,000 electrical switches after faulty switches failed three times in 1999, which required operators to manually run trains because the switches weren’t able to detect another train on the track.