- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

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.

• In 2004, the year a Red Line train rolled backward into another, injuring 20 riders at the Woodley Park-National Zoo station, crews found hairline fractures and a 54-inch horizontal crack on the rails on different days.

• In recent years, Metro has had a persistent problem with track fires, many of which are caused by worn track bolts. The bolts are susceptible to catching fire as they age.

The National Transportation Safety Board in 2006 issued a recommendation that the transit agency speed up the retirement of the Series 1000 rail cars involved in the recent Red Line crash or to retrofit them with better collision protection, noting their potential for a “catastrophic compromise of the occupant survival space.”

But the following year, NTSB officials said that Metro did not plan to overhaul the cars, but instead to replace them with Series 7000 cars and that the older cars were expected to remain in service until late 2014 because the agency was constrained by tax-advantaged leases.

Officials continue to point to cost concerns when explaining why the cars have not yet been replaced — an agency spending document shows that the total cost for replacing the cars would be more than $841 million, or $2.8 million per car. Because it can take up to five years to receive new cars after an order is placed, many will be pushing 40 by the time they are retired, Mr. Catoe said in September 2008.

Metro’s capital funding agreement with the District, Maryland and Virginia is set to expire in 2010. Agency officials have long argued that the federal government should contribute because Metro serves the capital and about 40 percent of rush-hour riders are federal workers.

In the wake of the June 22 accident, members of Congress vowed to push through a measure that would ensure that Metro receives $1.5 billion of federal funds mandated as part of a new capital funding agreement. The funding was passed by Congress last year but left out of President Obama’s budget.

Still, despite its apparent, desperate need, Metro has had a constant fight with members of Congress, who see funding the sprawling system as another example of irresponsible pork-barrel spending.

In a 2008 Op-Ed article in The Washington Times, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, decried requests by Mr. Catoe.

“Area transit authorities and congressional leaders have got to be kidding,” he said. “They want American taxpayers to buy additional rail cars and to finance a slew of Metro maintenance projects, new capital improvement proposals and dozens of personnel hirings. The Metro wish list doesn’t end there.”

Mr. Coburn also mentioned the need to replace 220 rail cars but said that “to expect taxpayers to foot the bills without an accompanying and concrete pay-as-you-go proposal is irresponsible.”

Some critics say that the cost of expansion might come at the expense of infrastructure issues. Federal officials under the Bush administration balked at providing funds for Metro’s planned expansion to Washington Dulles International Airport over concerns that it wouldn’t be able to maintain its own infrastructure while expanding.

The expansion of track for the Dulles rail line nearly doubles the miles of the original Metrorail system.

Meanwhile, in the wake of a troubled economy, ridership has skyrocketed. Eight of Metro’s top-trafficked days have been in the last year.

• Gary Emerling can be reached at gemerling@washingtontimes.com.

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