It’s very difficult to find any agreement in Washington DC. From budgets to healthcare to social issues to even Redskins or the Ravens, disagreement is the norm. But there is one issue that is completely nonpartisan, on which all agree: the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the agency that runs the buses and the subway, stinks.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post, DC’s major liberal paper, in an editorial called WMATA a “slow-rolling embarrassment.” In one of it’s last daily editions, the Washington Examiner, a conservative publication, blasted WMATA for falling behind on its repair schedule. There is no shortage of outrage and hate directed at the public transit system, which is slowly grinding to a halt—unlike its trains, which often stop abruptly for little to no reason.
The problems that WMATA has—constantly broken elevators and escalators, power outages, unresponsive and even rude employees—are all related to WMATA’s status as a public, government backed entity. Unlike a private sector organization, dependent on the will of the customer, WMATA doesn’t have that, so it has no incentive to actually improve and serve customers better.
Here are the top 5 policies that are keeping WMATA dysfunctional.
5 – Focus on appearance rather than performance
WMATA boasts that it is a clean metro service, and that they don’t have the rats that other metro services (which will remain nameless) carry. But while I wouldn’t want rats riding next to me on my way to work, I would actually like to get to work, and everywhere else.
Rail ridership has actually declined 5% from March 2012 to March 2013. It’s not hard to understand why. While WMATA is preening over it having a clean subway system—which is not quite true—their train lines are failing. During the middle of rush hour, you can expect 10 minute delays, at a minimum, due to track circuits failing, or up to half an hour due to “steam” being on the tracks—and this is rush hour. During the weekend it is as if WMATA doesn’t operate at all. Thanks to only having two tracks for each line—no backup or secondary tracks—WMATA must single track it’s way past all the “construction” work, meaning trains take half an hour or more to arrive at stations.
This is a subway service, not AMTRAK, or the MARC train, or VRE—all of which have experienced slight increases in the number of riders.
Perhaps if WMATA focused on their core product—getting people to their destination on time—and not side items that are ultimately not helping the experience, we could get somewhere. Unfortunately….
4 – Untransparent, unresponsive communications strategy
A business must engage with its customers to survive. It has to respond to their concerns, wants, and needs. This includes explaining itself to them when they’re unhappy. WMATA? Apparently, that’s just too much work for them to bother.
WMATA does have mechanisms in place to hear customers…supposedly. There is the Riders Advisory Council, a panel of WMATA riders—explicitly forbidden from being WMATA employees—but unfortunately, RAC has no investigative power, and it is not truly independent from WMATA management. Prospective candidates must submit an application to WMATA, and they are chosen by WMATA management.
The lack of transparency and oversight over WMATA was highlighted when in 2011, RAC member Christopher Schmitt resigned. The reason? WMATA did not respond to even the most basic of information requests, requests including “performance data, as well as information on the safety of and changes made to the signaling system in the wake of the 2009 Red Line crash.”
Meanwhile, while this goes on, WMATA increases their fare prices, squeezing poor DC residents—including the vast number of unpaid interns living here—even more, while also changing its rider schedule, reducing service in areas where its needed most. (I’m looking at you, “Rush+.”)
Perhaps even worse, WMATA even goes so far as to deliberate shut out negative feedback it receives. One of the agency’s leading critics on Twitter, Chris Barnes (@FixWMATA), was actually blocked when he made his frustration known. Why? Nobody has any idea.
“What WMATA does with those complaints or feedback,” Chris says, “is usually spin it into something that was the rider’s fault or somehow removes WMATA from the equation.” He adds:
Other times they spin the Hell out of something. For example: over the last 2 years riders have complained about the “fish smell” stinking up stations. Once WMATA finally did address the complaints - after someone from the media asked about it - they said it was dried up sewers under Gallery Place - which is total BS. Everyone knows its the organic brake pads on the trains. Why they felt they needed to lie? I have no idea.
It should be noted that Mr. Barnes has applied to join the Riders Advisory Council three times in as many years. He has never received as much as a phone call from WMATA.
3 – Free funding from federal, state, and local governments
One of the key reasons for WMATA’s failures is that it has no incentives to actually respond to customers. If it starts losing money, it can simply increase fares—it’s not like it has any competition. Or, if that doesn’t work, it can get money from the member governments (Virginia, Maryland, and DC—so the feds are included.)
For the 2014 proposed operating budget, WMATA will receive $702.1 million dollars from “state and local funds.” What that means is taxpayer dollars; not only are you paying when you hop on, you’re also paying whenever you receive a paycheck, and that comes from everybody, even those who don’t even use WMATA! That $702.1 million makes up a hefty 46% chunk of the operating budget. Meanwhile, rider fares makes up 51%, barely a majority.
Budgetary restraint is simply not a concern to WMATA, as long as they have free money from local and state governments (and not to mention roughly $300 million from the federal government for their capital budget.) This means an essential feedback mechanism—profit—is short-circuited. Businesses use profits to gauge if they are serving their customers; if profit drops, they know they’re not doing as good and need to improve. But WMATA never receives those signals, so of course it doesn’t improve.
After all, words and complaints may be something, but money does all the real talking. If customers really want WMATA to improve, they should demand it be run more like a business, not less.
2 – Travel subsidies that blunt WMATA responsiveness
This one will likely annoy a chunk of WMATA’s riders, but it’s something to consider: the many travel subsidies that WMATA riders receive also affect WMATA’s feedback mechanism. A great deal of riders have their Metro fares subsidized by their employer (usually the federal government—so everyone is still paying for that).
The fiscal cliff deal that was passed in January raised the transit subsidy for DC federal workers to $240 a month. That’s essentially a pay raise of $2,880 a year. Those workers, while they may be aggravated by WMATA’s service, don’t have to pay for it, so they have less of an incentive to actually complain.
Is this a major problem? Does this really have an impact on WMATA’s performance? I think it’s questionable; I don’t think anyone has really researched this. However, if a chunk of their riders aren’t paying the $11 a day that everyone else is paying, it seems rather clear that WMATA will receive fewer complaints.
So should the subsidies go? File this one under “Needs More Research,” but it is something to consider.
1 – WMATA’s unionization
And we come to WMATA’s major flaw, the epicenter of WMATA’s difficulties: it’s heavily unionized workforce
Labor costs constitute over 70% of the 2014 WMATA budget, making it the single largest expenditure WMATA has to worry about. And it’s no wonder why it’s the largest bit. In 2011, during the middle of the recession, Amalgamated Local 689, the WMATA union, dragged a 3% annual raise out of management. The agency’s board declined to protect taxpayers and riders by not appealing the arbitration result. Naturally, riders were incensed—but WMATA paid no heed.
In addition, the many many problems of the escalators failing—in some cases, even injuring riders—can also be attributed to the union’s “Pick” system. Under this arrangement, workers get to choose where they report to work, based on seniority. What happens? More experienced workers go to newer escalators and elevators that don’t need nearly as much work, while less experienced workers get stuck with the more broken, time-consuming ones.
There is also the problem of failing upwards. In April, the man in charge of WMATA’s escalators and elevators was transferred to run its track and engineering services department. With such incidents as the one reported above being less rare than they should be, and escalator failures being common, everyday occurences (with repair times sometimes stretching into weeks, rather than hours), you would think Mr. Bitar would have been fired. Instead, he’s essentially received a promotion.
Other incidents include WMATA employees frequently parking in handicapped spots (and when asked about them, resort to vulgarity towards riders) or otherwise taking up spots reserved for customers (and when customers park there, they get ticketed), bus drivers nearly killing bicyclists (and then yelling at them), or even just sleeping on the job.
This is not how you serve customers. This is not creating value for riders. The single best change that could happen at WMATA is eliminating the union agreement and moving to a non-unionized workforce. Having a workforce built on rewarding performance and delivering excellent value is what WMATA needs to succeed. Having a workforce built on cronyism, corruption, stifling union agreements, and essentially delivering the worst customer service possible, is not how WMATA will succeed.
Washingtonians are crying out for a better Metro. If they really want one, they need WMATA to fix the above problems.