- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This has been a difficult year for Metro. Track fires, station closings and the accident on June 22 that claimed the lives of nine passengers have marred a system with a generally positive safety record. Unfortunately, this past weekend, Metro once again closed stations - the second time in as many months - further increasing travel times for beleaguered riders.

As passengers stood on packed platforms and waited up to 20 minutes for trains, some might have wondered if there was a better way.

More than 8,000 miles away in Hong Kong, residents, businesses and government officials seem to have found that better way. Hong Kong boasts one of the most efficient public-transit systems in the world. On subways alone, Hong Kong’s MTR transports more than 3.5 million passengers daily, all for an average fare of 84 cents.

Hong Kong’s secret is not $220 million in federal stimulus funds or the $1.5 billion earmark secured by local politicians interested in pleasing voters. It’s privatization.

Unlike here, privatization is not a dirty word to politicians on the other side of the Pacific. Its application to Hong Kong’s transit system not only has resulted in an efficient way to move 50 percent of the city every day, it also generated more than $1 billion in profits last year alone, rewarding private investors with a dividend of 2.6 percent. These profits netted the city more than $96 million in tax revenue.

There are some differences between Washington’s metro area and Hong Kong. Our metro area has about 5.3 million residents, compared to more than 7 million for Hong Kong, and the District’s subway ridership hovers around 745,000 per weekday versus more than 3.5 million passengers in Hong Kong.

However, one comparable between the two cities is performance. On this measure, Metro lags far behind the system that operates without massive public subsidies. In Hong Kong, “on-time journeys” average between 99 percent and 99.5 percent, exceeding MTR targets. On Metro, which has a 95 percent target, on-time performances ranged from 89 percent to 92 percent in the last fiscal year.

Hong Kong’s MTR, despite its lack of public money, is wonderfully efficient and far cheaper than detractors of privatization might realize. The average fare in Hong Kong is just 84 cents, compared to $1.59 on Metro, including a 75-cent subsidy from local governments. The actual cost per passenger on Metro is $2.54, three times more expensive than what a Hong Kong rider pays at the gate.

Increasing fares have been a constant headache for Metro riders in the past few years. Since 2003, the top fare has increased from $3.25 to $4.50, a 38 percent increase, while wages (adjusted for inflation) have grown just 3.4 percent since 2003.

After all the fare increases (with still more looming in the future), all the stimulus money and a $1.5 billion earmark, have riders seen a marked increase in safety or efficiency? Lines that once single-tracked are closing entire stations, and fare increases seem to be the only solution coming out of Metro headquarters.

Over the Columbus Day weekend, as riders stood once again on crowded trains and platforms, many sought an easier solution for public transportation. As our friends on the other side of the globe have demonstrated, there is an alternative. Blindly supporting Metro because it is the only choice the government allows is not the right answer. It’s time to consider fundamental changes for the city’s public-transportation system.

Sam Batkins is director of public policy at the Center for Individual Freedom.

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