- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Many of you do not know and do not remember that public transit used to be privately owned and operated.

And it’s time to query whether Metro, the D.C. region’s public and heavily subsidized transit system, should be privatized.

Our tri-jurisdictional Metrorail and Metrobus system, which was conjured by a Democrat-controlled Congress in 1967 (with Lyndon Johnson in the White House), is run by the D.C., Maryland and Virginia governments with considerable federal oversight.

So let’s take a fairly quick ride in the way-back machine. The District’s first streetcars, like those in much of the nation, were drawn by horses. Next came electric cars, and by the mid-1930s, folks were hankering for “rapid” transit, and three regional rail lines merged into the Capital Transit Co., and some rail lines switched to bus lines.

In the mid-1950s, the company was ordered to end the streetcars and switch to bus routes. New York financier O. Roy Chalk bought Capital Transit Co., renamed it D.C. Transit, and bought new streetcars and buses. But the system was a money loser.

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After Congress created the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in 1967, the new transit agency sucked up Chalk’s D.C. Transit, including the streetcar system.

Metro failed to heed a lesson, however. Chalk did not raise fares and began losing money — and he received no public subsidy. So, poof! Presto, change-o!

Metro, which is a money loser, is left holding an empty bag.

Interestingly, Jackie Jeter, longtime president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, opposes privatization of transit service. She said in an email that “outsourcing public transit drives up fares, jeopardizes safety, results in service cuts, and fosters an environment for political corruption.”

Yet Metro has a very troubled history that ” jeopardizes safety,” “results in service cuts” and “fosters an environment for political corruption.” Indeed, she makes a cogent argument for privatization and the need for fare increases.

Moreover, experts say that transit unions increase government costs in many ways. For example, union contracts limit the use of part-time workers, making it difficult for transit agencies to deploy workers at will.

Metro might tumble into that firing line when it tries to uses buses to replace rail service during the upcoming Metrorail overhaul. And do not forget that public officials don’t exactly play the Big Mama role during negotiations. When they’re seated at the table, they’re more likely counting votes in the next election than dollar signs being racked up by concessions.

Remember, all politics that matter are local.

Which brings us to Matthew F. Letourneau, vice chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, who used the “P” word when he and colleagues learned Metro is facing an $18 billion capital budget deficit over the next 10 years.

“I haven’t heard that kind of discussion from the Metro Board,” said Mr. Letourneau, a Republican on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. “We just heard everybody talking about how Metro can’t fail and that it’s the spine of the region, so that needs to be on the table.”

That a regional leader who represents a Virginia county that is not even connected to Metrorail and Metrobus but has Metrorail and Metrobus riders is a good sign.

These are the types of policymakers who need to be at the table when dollar signs are dancing in union leaders’ eyes.

When it comes to public transit, the past is always prescient.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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