In cities around the country, mass transit ridership is on the climb. In New York, around 5.2 million per day ride the subways around the city. In Washington, D.C., site of this week’s fatal train collision, daily ridership for the Metro is around 730,000, an all-time high for the WMATA.
Meanwhile, investments are down, and financial crises for transit authorities are on the rise. From Chicago to New York, Boston to Washington, transit agencies are looking for ways to cut costs and cut services while raising fares in order to bridge budget gaps. Local and state municipalities are scaling back investment levels, and federal contributions, while higher than they’ve been in the past, can’t begin to overcome the funding abyss these transit authorities face.
For New York, the funding decisions — what to cut, what not to cut, how to invest — have been seemingly easy and transparent. The MTA will cut the frequency of train service as a last resort. They will close stations as a last resort. They will instead turn to fare box revenue and somewhat superfluous services that make the system nicer. Station cleaning staff will be reduced; station agents will be eliminated through attrition.
What the MTA has not been willing to cut are its modernization and security measures. By developing two separate budgets with two separate revenue streams — one for capital, one for operations — the authority can continue to invest in new rails, new signals, new stations and new train cars while the day-to-day operations of the system may be scaled back. Safety, security and the comforts of getting from Point A to B are paramount, and if straphangers have to wait a few minutes more or suffer through more crowded trains until the economy improves, so be it.
Not every system has the same structure in place. ,As we head south to the site of this week’s horrific and deadly train crash on the D.C. Metro’s red line, we come to another overtaxed system. As D.C. and federal transit officials investigate the cause of a high-speed rear end collision that left nine people dead and nearly 80 more wounded, they are finding that a lack of investment may be one of the culprits. Ian Urbina reports:
[National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie] Hersman said the federal safety board had recommended that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs the transit system, “either retrofit those cars or phase them out of the fleet.”
“They have not been able to do that, and our recommendation was not addressed,” Ms. Hersman said. She called the transit authority’s response to the recommendations “unacceptable.”
The authority’s general manager, John B. Catoe Jr., said the transit system had been waiting to receive proposals “over the next month or so” to replace the old cars. The new trains were still years away from being added, he said.
Why didn’t the WMATA heed the government’s safety warnings? Because, as Doug Feaver writes in the Washington Post, they didn’t have the money. They have old cars that haven’t been retrofitted because politicians have shoved mass transit to the side. As Feavers, transit is far safer than driving and is becoming an increasingly popular mode of transit. We as a nation should be investing in it.
In New York, the MTA on Tuesday took great pains to ensure costumers of the safety of its fleet. The MTA does not use any of the types of cars damaged in Monday’s accident, and as officials explained, the subway’s fixed-block signal system has better crash-prevention measures in please than the new WMATA system does.
Nationwide, there have been few bad transit accidents over the last few years. When they happen, they earn top headlines because they are so rare, and we as a public consider trains infallible. When cars age, when systems aren’t upgraded, they break down and become dangerous. With so many people recognizing the value of transit, it’s time to invest in both our safety and our future.