Archive for U.S. Transit Systems

Years of trouble plaguing Washington, DC’s WMATA reached another crescendo earlier this week when one person died following a smoke incident aboard a yellow line train. Carol Glover succumbed to smoke inhalation after rescuers took over 40 minutes to reach a train stranded in the tunnel only a few hundred feet from L’Enfant Plaza, and over 80 other passengers were hospitalized. For an agency plagued with operations issues, safety concerns and very tight finances, it was yet another reminder of the WMATA’s precarious position.

According to preliminary reports out of DC and the NTSB, the incident involved an electrical malfunction inside the tunnel, and while firefighters responded, according to DC’s mayor, “within the time frames that are customary,” they waited to enter the tunnel. The delay proved deadly for Glover, and footage from the incident shows a dark and disabled train filled with smoke. It was a tragedy that creates its own bad press.

In the aftermath, coverage has focused on both short-term perceptions surrounding the WMATA and the long-term need to emphasize culture. Here’s Aaron Wiener on the former:

In an informal Washington Post poll yesterday, nearly half of respondents said they would reconsider how often they ride Metro. Variants of “I’m done with Metro” proliferated on Twitter. It’s a sensible enough position. Metro has a reputation for shoddy service and a history of not learning from its mistakes, including with this incident, apparently caused by an “electrical arcing event” of the sort that has routinely plagued the system of late. Why should we reward such a poorly run enterprise with our business, or place our lives in the hands of a system we can’t trust?

Understandable though it may be, this is exactly the wrong way to respond to the latest tragedy. If we really want to fix what’s broken with Metro, we should start riding it more, not less…

The fact is, if we want Metro to work better, we have to ride it more. Nearly 60 percent of Metro’s daily operational costs are funded by fares and other revenue. And that revenue is threatened. Ridership dropped slightly during the recession, then suddenly plummeted in the past two years, down to 2005 levels. There are a number of factors—more people are telecommuting or getting to work by bike or bus—but the effect is clear. Fewer riders means bigger fare hikes to cover costs, which in turn will likely mean fewer riders. It’s a vicious cycle we don’t want to get caught up in.

As Wiener explores, for some reason, ridership on the Metro has cratered over the past few years, and it’s now at 2005 levels. The WMATA is facing a multi-billion-dollar budget gap that makes the MTA’s fiscal difficulties look like pennies, and it can’t drum up consistent support for the politically schizophrenic Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It’s the MTA’s worst case scenario writ small.

Meanwhile, other commentators were quick to point out how much safer transit is than driving. That’s of no consolation to Ms. Glover’s family, but even as passengers grow weary of transit after high-profile incidents, these incidents gain headlines precisely because they are rare. Now, it’s easy to make the case that fatalities on rail systems are generally 100% unavoidable. This week’s wasn’t even caused by the rolling stock that the NTSB hates; it was electrical. But transit remains very safe:

In 39 years of service, the total number of passengers killed while riding on Metro rail cars is 12. Now compare that to the fatalities in cars, trucks and motorcycles in a single year — 145 deaths in 2013, in the District and the suburban counties that Metro serves…

A new, peer-reviewed academic study published in the Journal of Public Transportation casts light on the first point. It reports that the rate of passenger fatalities in cars and light trucks is 30 times as high as for travel by subway or light rail. It was based on data in the United States from 2000 to 2009.

Even with these numbers, without the culture of safety, passengers are not comforted by statistics. Metro needs to realize a new culture without enough fiscal or political support. Here, in New York, the MTA is working to do something similar, but they don’t have nearly the same track record of mistakes to overcome. If we aren’t careful, though, DC serves as a lesson. It’s New York’s dystopian transit future if no one takes care of the system.

Categories : WMATA
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No trip to Philly is complete without a walk down memory lane. #tokens #septa

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I’m in Philadelphia this week for a few days for work, and I’m always reminded when I take a trip down here how, despite the problems New York has, I’d rather have the MTA running things than SEPTA. They did manage to get commuter rail through-running through Center City right — which is something the MTA and New Jersey Transit have yet to achieve. Meanwhile, my absolute favorite part of any SEPTA trip are the tokens. Somehow, Philadelphia doesn’t even have last-generation fare payment; they have mid-20th century fare payment in place. They’re working toward a new payment technology and may have something in place nearly half a decade before the Metrocard is phased out. For now, though, I’ll enjoy using the token. It’s a public transportation time machine.

Categories : SEPTA
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SEPTA and Jefferson Hospitals officials salute Market East’s new name. (Photo via SEPTA)

Over the years, I’ve taken an interest in the push, more often fruitless than not, for transit agencies to sell naming rights for their train stations. Generally, the desire for operators to realize more revenue has far outpaced the willingness of businesses to pony up the dough, and even in New York, with ridership numbers far outpacing the rest of the nation, the MTA hasn’t found success. The agency a naming rights policy in place but have so far sold the rights to only one station and only for $200,000 a year. Philadelphia though seems to have found the magic touch.

In 2010, SEPTA became one of the first U.S. transit agencies to see real money in a naming rights deal. For $5.4 million over five years — $2 million of which went to SEPTA’s advertising agency — AT&T bought the rights to the Pattison Station near the city’s sports complex. The new name removed any geographical signifier from the station name, and I was skeptical of this approach. It’s hard to argue too much with essentially free money, and SEPTA managed to pocket $3.4 million out of the deal.

Last week, the agency again found a partner for a naming rights deal. This time, Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals will pay $4 million for a five-year naming rights deal for the regional rail’s popular Market East station in Center City. As of last week, the stop is now called Jefferson Station, and SEPTA will again earn $3.4 million — or 85 percent — of the total outlay. Jefferson holds an option for an additional four years at $3.4 million.

SEPTA officials patted themselves on the back over the deal. “It speaks volumes about SEPTA’s reputation and role as a driver of the economy that one of the region’s most respected organizations is partnering with SEPTA in such a prominent way,” SEPTA Chairman Pat Deon said.

Jefferson Hospital higher-ups meanwhile were more transparent regarding the benefits of the deal. “We’re transforming ourselves and we’re creating bold new partnerships that deliver a very exciting and different future for Jefferson, for our patients and students. We want everyone to know it and see it every day when they pass through this station,” Jefferson CEO Stephen Klasko said.

This deal for Market East is a much better one for the riders. As a key stop for suburban access to Center City, the Station Formerly Known As Market East sees 26,000 riders per day and offers connection to Philadelphia’s subway and buses. A good portion of those riders are heading to Jefferson as employees, students, patients or visitors. Unlike AT&T, which is a brand name and not a location, Jefferson Station signals to riders a potential destination, and the utility of Market East as a name was unsettled at best.

On another level though, we should question these deals. SEPTA is pocketing $680,000 per year for these naming rights against an annual operating budget of over $1.3 billion. The agency claims the money will allow them to invest in Jefferson Station, but 700 grand only goes so far. Is it worth the effort, the public reeducation campaign and everything in between? I’m still not quite convinced. But when it comes to transit in the United States, a dollar earned is indeed a dollar earned.

Categories : SEPTA
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For the better part of the last year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been toying with the idea of naming rights, and toward the end of 2013, they issued an RFP as part of the initiative. For the low, low price of $1 million a year, you could buy the rights to name a T stop. Well, the results are in, and the project is, you will be surprised to hear, a total flop.

As the Boston Business Journal reported yesterday, the MBTA will make no money from the program this year. The responses to the RFP were due yesterday, and only one company — JetBlue — submitted a bid. Furthermore, their bid came in well below the minimum requirements. The MBTA failed to disclose the total JetBlue bid for rights to the blue line, but the agency had set the minimum bid at $1.2 million.

The MBTA isn’t closing the door to future naming initiatives, but agency officials seem unaware of the practical realities of the situation. One spokesman told that it was “unclear” why more companies did not submit proposals. The Loch Ness Monster of transit agencies lives on for another day.

Categories : Asides, MBTA
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Every few months, another transit agency comes out with a proposal to generate revenue through naming rights, and every few months, I sit back and shake my head. The money and the interest just hasn’t materialized yet, and while its time might one day arrive, selling naming rights is much more of an idea in theory rather than practice. This time around, Boston is going to learn this lesson.

Up in Beantown, the MBTA has some ambitious expansion plans on the table. Using DMUs, the transit agency hopes to drastically expand its reach over the next ten years and will of course need money to do it. One way to generate funds could be through naming rights, and although the MBTA has been talking about naming rights for nearly a year, the agency seems ready to try to draw in advertisers.

Boston Magazine has the story:

For the low, low price of $1 million, corporations and businesses can slap their name on select MBTA stops or stations, or even name an entire rapid transit line after their brand. [A few weeks ago,] the MBTA put out Requests for Proposals for the naming rights on nine stations along the system, which includes Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, Park Street, North Station, State Street, Boylston, South Station, and Yawkey Way.

The asking price to add a moniker to each station starts at $1 million per year, except for Yawkey Way, which starts at $500,000. The contracts would last five years. The call for interested companies to shell out cash to rename stops and stations also includes an opportunity to have their name on some rapid transit lines—specifically the Red, Blue, and Green Lines. According to documents, prices vary for each line, but the most expensive starting bid is on the Green Line for $2 million per year.

If a company opts to purchase transit line naming rights, they would have their brand printed on station maps, and on system signage. The chance to take over the naming rights of certain MBTA properties, under the “Corporate Sponsorship Program,” was a directive of the state legislature as part of an extensive transportation bill passed over the summer.

That last line — that’s the crazy part. In the same bill that will allow the MBTA to run T service later than it currently does, the Massachusetts legislature required the agency to issue RFPs for station naming rights. Agency officials still believe naming rights could generate upwards of $18 million for transit, but so far, the grand total has been a whopping $0 in revenue after two years of searching.

According to the MBTA’s RFP, advertisers could host promotional events in their stations, have their brand broadcast via the subway’s PA system and have their logos appear on the T subway map. Rightly so, though, station names would retain their geographic identifier while adding the advertiser much as the MTA has done with Atlantic Ave./Barclays Center.

On the one hand, it’s admirable for the MBTA to try, and maybe they can be the ones to succeed. On the other hand, it seems like these efforts have been a waste of time and money. SEPTA in Philadelphia has managed to sell one subway station, and even the MTA hasn’t been successful here in New York. Furthermore, the MBTA is asking for an annual fee that’s five times what the MTA received from Barclays for stations that have, at most, two-thirds the ridership of Atlantic Ave. Many have much less than that.

Overall, the idea of corporate naming rights as a revenue generator seems to have peaked. The Nationals’ baseball stadium in DC, for instance, has gone without a corporate sponsor for nearly a decade, and Met Life paid only around $1 million per year to name the new Meadowlands stadium. As skeptical as I am, though, if the MBTA’s legally-required due diligence leads anywhere, it will have been worth it.

Categories : MBTA
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DC is moving forward with another fare payment system that far surpasses New York’s.

The MetroCard just hit the big 2-0 earlier this week, and while the MTA desperately wants to find a suitable replacement, the familiar gold-and-blue piece of plastic is likely to live to see 25. In fits and starts, the MTA has tried to find a way to bring on board something better, something with lower fare collection and maintenance costs, something that will survive the next two or three decades. But an effort that was restarted last year has yet to bear fruit.

Meanwhile, other transit systems are moving forward quickly with their own plans to find a next-gen fare payment system. Earlier this week, Washington’s WMATA announced that it will begin testing a new electronic payment program that, if all goes according to plan, will replace the current scheme. It builds off of the SmarTrip tap-and-go system and could give riders more options for paying their fares.

The WMATA opted to give the $184 million to Accenture, and while I’ll touch upon the problems with that decision shortly, we have details from a press release:

The new system will be designed to provide a state of the art system for Metro customers that enables them to continue to use SmarTrip cards, while expanding fare payment to chip-enabled credit cards, federal government ID cards, and mobile phones using near field communications (NFC).

“While Metro pioneered the tap and go system we currently use, by today’s standards that system is cumbersome and the technology is not sustainable,” said Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles. “The new technology will provide more flexibility for accounts, better reliability for riders, and real choices for customers to use bank-issued payment cards, credit cards, ID cards, or mobile phones to pay their Metro fares.”

Washington Metro will be among the first transit systems in the United States to use this advanced technology to enhance reliability, and make travel more convenient for riders. Accenture will help deliver the electronic fare management system by combining its transit experience with industry and functional management consulting expertise in mobility, analytics, customer service, payments, financial services, retail and marketing science. Accenture has successfully implemented similar technology in Canada and the Netherlands.

The driving goal behind this plan, as it is in New York, is to reduce the costs of ongoing maintenance and completely phase out paper farecards. Metro says that just 10 percent of riders still use those clunky cards, and the WMATA’s vintage fare gates will be replaced if all goes according to plan. The initial pilot will be implemented in 10 Metro stations — or around 12 percent of the system — and on 50 buses as well.

The choice of Accenture is not without its problems. As a WAMU report detailed, Accenture had some issues implementing a similar technology in Toronto back in 2012, but WMATA officials said they were confident the company could deliver. “Our procurement was very thorough and competitive. We looked at a ‘best value’ procurement and we felt that the partner we selected is going to work the best for Metro,” Metro CFO Carol Kissal said. “We considered their technical design, their history and their background, and all those things were factored in the decision.”

This, to me, is forward progress. While the Metro is much smaller than the MTA’s with many fewer stations, the nation’s second busiest subway system is moving forward with a fare payment system that isn’t only more advanced than New York’s but will lap us as well. Already, Metro has a tap-and-go system; now they’re moving further beyond any sort of swipe-based technology. Hopefully, we won’t be commemorating the MetroCard’s 30th birthday in 10 years, but who wants to take any bets?

Categories : WMATA
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Is this the Washington DC Metro system of the future? Plans for 2040 call for a loop line servicing ten stations.

When the MTA unveiled its Twenty Years Needs Assessment earlier this year, I was disappointed. The fantasy planner in me wanted something more adventurous, and the 20-year wants were more exciting the 20-year needs. A few decades ago, when the MTA’s needs assessment included East Side Access and the Second Ave. Subway, the report seemed more exciting, but now the agency needs to make sure its trains can keep running over the existing track over the next few decades. Expansion will have to wait.

To the south of New York City, though, expansion is all the rage. If we want to find a transit agency eying a multi-billion-dollar growth initiative replete with fantasy maps that could become reality, we need look no further than the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. As part of their 2040 assessment — or really their needs for today or tomorrow — the WMATA has proposed adding 10 stations and a new loop line that would alleviate congestion on crowded trains while serving criminally under-served areas. The plans don’t, unfortunately, include bench seating in their new rolling stock, but their $26 billion investment could solve a lot of Metro’s access issues.

When the plans were first announced a few weeks ago, The Washington Post ran an extensive piece on the upgrades, and Metro’s own planning blog showcased the map. The Post summarized:

Metro’s planners have begun suggesting that the region add 10 new stations and create four “super stations” by adding capacity and connections around the two Farragut Square stations, Union Station, the Capitol South station and the Pentagon station.

The 10 new stations have not been named. But going clockwise from Rosslyn, they look something like Rosslyn II, Georgetown University, Georgetown, West End, Thomas Circle, Mount Vernon Triangle, Capitol Hill North, Navy Yard II, Waterfront II and Potomac Park.

The actual locations have not been decided, but the idea is to have them built by 2040…The proposed stations and connections, chosen over three other concepts, reflect the need to expand capacity in the system’s core, said Shyam Kannan, Metro’s chief planner. “The inner lining, where we share tracks for two lines, worked for 40 years but becomes a problem going forward given the demands of the system,” he said.

The Post goes on to discuss the challenges facing the WMATA, and they, of course, start with the price tag. It’s not a stretch to say that $26 billion for new or expanded stations and a good amount of tunneling is wildly optimistic. It would require Virginia and DC to convince their third partner to spend on a rail extension that doesn’t touch Maryland and would need to convince everyone that more than 14 percent of area residents would turn to the subway for their daily commuting needs. Despite population growth in D.C. and crushing congestion, that figure hasn’t gone up in nearly two decades.

Outside of the WMATA, DC is forging ahead with transit in ways New York is not. They’re planning out a streetcar/light rail system that will put our Select Bus Service to shame and seem willing to tackle capacity issues. Whether the money and political support materializes is another question entirely, but the will is there in a way it doesn’t seem to be in New York right now.

Of course, maybe this is all just fantasyland. It’s easy to make a map and toss up on the Internet. It’s hard to fight for dollars, spend them properly and improve service. Still, for once, I envy DC and the WMATA’s forward-looking proposals. It’s a hell of a lot sexier than a bunch of signal system upgrades.

Categories : WMATA
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In case you were afraid that New York is the only city where current mayoral candidates are offering laughable transit proposals, worry no longer. Thanks to our neighbor to the north with the far inferior baseball franchise, we have company. As Bostonians convene to elect a new civic leader, those hoping to inherit Tom Menino’s mantle are starting to promise the sky when it comes to the T.

As a variety of candidates take to the streets, transportation issues are front and center. This time, though, candidates are talking about money. They recognize the T’s limitations. It closes earlier; the MBTA is constantly scrounging around for state dollars; the city has little control over its own transit system. But the funding proposals are far more creative than anything we’ve seen in New York.

In The Globe, Martine Powers summarized the campaign:

Transportation is a frequent topic on the campaign trail, with candidates releasing detailed platforms coupled with gimmicky appeals to voters, such as three days of car-free campaigning.

In a Boston Globe survey answered by eight of the 12 mayoral hopefuls, many of the candidates’ visions for Boston’s transportation future aligned: Most they said they plan to push for 24-hour T service, will embrace technology to reduce gridlock in the city, institute major changes in the city’s taxi industry, promote biking, and encourage car-free commuting.

The differences in candidates’ platforms are in the details. Councilor Michael P. Ross said he would consider offering special late-night licenses to bars and restaurants that would allow them to stay open later, with the fees funding extended T hours, while Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley suggested that Boston sports teams and cultural institutions bundle CharlieCards with their season tickets and annual memberships, adding an influx of cash to the MBTA.

Beyond these ideas, certain mayoral candidates have also suggested that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority beg the region’s myriad universities for funding assistance or ask hospitals and corporations — those economic drivers with workers who need late-night transportation — to chip in. Of course, since the MBTA is a state-sponsored agency, these suggestions will be for naught, but they’re far better than the Triboro RX SBS route or Joe Lhota’s park-and-ride plans.

But while we can nod knowingly in Boston’s direction, something is driving this push toward outlandishly inane or inanely outlandish transit ideas in mayoral campaigns. Is it because cities should have tighter control over their transit systems? Is it because states and the feds aren’t adequately funding transportation investment? Are these zany ideas simply a cover for an unwillingness to do anything serious? I’m sure the answer is somewhere betwixt and between all of these questions, and the answers are rather uncomfortable.

Categories : MBTA
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Even with a corporate name, the intricate Atlantic Ave. tiling remains on the Brooklyn station’s walls. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

As my Brighton Beach-bound B train departed DeKalb Avenue last night, the conductor mangled the next stop. “Barclays Center, Atlantic-Pacific,” he said, promoting the corporate sponsorship while restoring the station complex’s former name to what many consider it to be the rightful position. I chuckled at the name and realized that $200,000 a year doesn’t go that far. It is but a drop in the bucket as far as the MTA’s bottom line is concerned, and yet it seems to represent the pinnacle of subway corporate sponsorship in New York City.

Now, in this age of transit austerity, naming rights and creative corporate partnerships seem to be the ideas that just won’t die. Every now and then some state legislature is urging his or her local transit agency to go out and find some corporate sponsors. They wonder how hard it can really be. After all, sports teams and non-profits do this all the time.

If only life and the advertising industry were that easy. Transit agencies though do not carry positive connotations as sports stadiums do. People scorn the subways and look down upon the MTA. Thus, transit naming rights are a delicate matter for any corporation, and the executives in charge know it. Barclays was willing to pony up the bucks because the arena is a destination atop the old Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. station. For everyone else, the equation tilts toward no investment.

That said, the effort to secure these dollars goes ever onward. Yesterday, the Madrid Metro announced a three-year, €3 million deal to rename an entire subway line for Vodafone, the European cell phone carrier. As part of the agreement, all signs and maps in the system’s 272 stations and 2311 cars will include the Vodafone logo along with the Line 2 and Sol station names. Recorded announcements will include the name, and Vodafone will earn some display advertising rights in stations as well.

For Madrid, this figure represents a 10 percent bump in advertising income, but it’s a modest amount at best. In U.S. dollars, the investment is $1.3 million a year for an entire line that sees 122,000 passengers a day. Still, Ignacio González, president of the Community of Madrid, boasted of the deal, “Naming rights are an enormous source of income for the metro. We have another 11 lines and many more stations to offer.” Enormous is all relative.

Closer to home, the Massachusetts Senate wants the MBTA to sell station naming rights, and these politicians seem to think they can out-do Madrid. Their off-the-cuff estimates believe the MBTA can generate $20 million in revenue. It’s unclear over what time period the MBTA would realize should revenue, but this isn’t the first time Massachusetts has pondered such an arrangement. So far, though, no naming rights deals have materialized in Boston, but the politicians press on, undeterred by the fiscal reality.

The promise of naming rights revenue, I’ve long maintained, is a false one that allows politicians to shirk on their responsibilities to transit agencies. Instead of finding long-term, sustainable funding sources, politicians point fingers at transit agencies that simply cannot sell undesirable or less-than-lucrative naming rights to their transit assets. Thus, transit systems do not get paid, and transit agencies do not enjoy progressive policies or true investments. Madrid’s $3.9-million, three-year deal should be a warning: The money for transformative transit investments won’t be found in naming rights, and the sooner politicians who control the purse strings come to grips with that reality, the better off the transit riding public will be.

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Some of WMATA’s capital goals include in-system transfer points between popular stations.

The MTA’s capital plan may be considered something of a mess. For $25 billion – give or take a few billion – every five years, the MTA embarks on a steady stream of expansion and rehabilitation projects. Sure, new construction efforts cost far too much, and sure, nothing seems to be completed on time. But the capital program, born out of the system’s 1970s nadir, isn’t going anywhere. It’s too important to the city, its subway riders and its construction lobby.

Of course, the capital plan isn’t perfect. I can’t overstate how project costs and construction pace have hindered rapid subway expansion, and the MTA is constantly fighting for the dollars it so desperately needs. It’s clear from even cursory glances around the system that the Momentum which includes a modest expansion of the Metro system, some long-awaited transfer tunnels between the Farragut stations and between Gallery Place and Metro Center and, finally, some express tracks along certain routes. Total expenditures would add up to approximately $1 billion a year through 2040, low by New York’s standards but high nonetheless. There’s a catch though: No one knows how these plans will be funded.

Dana Hedgpeth of The Washington Post delves into the funding issue. She writes:

Dubbed “Momentum,” and 18 months in the making, Metro’s new strategic plan catalogues the system’s needs and renews the long-standing argument for Metro to have a dedicated funding source, just as many big-city transit systems do. Metro’s lack of capital investment in the past decade has been blamed on that lack of dedicated funding, and planners say that unless that changes, there is little hope of executing the ambitious strategic plan that will be formally unveiled Thursday.

A new Metro line is being built in Northern Virginia, but it is being constructed for Metro by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, with revenue from the Dulles Toll Road financing a significant part of the line’s $5.6 billion cost.

No such obvious source of financing exists for the new rail line and tunnels proposed in Metro’s new strategic plan, and the plan does not specify how the agency would finance the rail expansion and other costly improvements….Unlike other transit agencies in New York, Boston and Los Angeles that depend on some level of dedicated funds from specific taxes, Metro receives contributions from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government for its operating and capital budgets, which total $2.5 billion. Shyam Kannan, Metro’s chief planner, said it will take a “reliable, sustained stream of capital funding from a combination of local and federal” moneys to pay for the slew of proposed projects.

Metro is nearing its maximum capacity, and at some point, the region’s planners and politicians will have to address that prickly issue. If D.C. is to grow, its subway system must grow as well, but without a steady source of funding, that growth is never a sure thing.

Here in New York, we argue for more funding. We argue for direct contributions instead of debt financing, and we argue for more subsidies for the operations budget. Although our system is still struggling to overcome decades of deferred maintenance, a plan, no matter how tough to realize, exists. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact, but it’s one we should not take for granted. After all, it could always be worse: The MTA could be the protect of four governments all with their own political viewpoints, interests and financial endgoals at stake.

Categories : WMATA
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