It's hard to believe today, but when it first opened, the Metro rail system in Washington, D.C., was greeted with amazement, even wonder. Where New York City's subway was a dark rabbit warren, all close-set ranks of steel beams and decades of caked-on grime (despite being, then and now, vastly larger and more effective), the D.C. Metro's enormous vaulted stations seemed like something out of a European capital. American public transit is traditionally grim and utilitarian, but here was an elegant, efficient, awe-inspiring train system made lovely simply because a gigantic rich nation ought to take some dang pride in itself.
Those halcyon days are sure distant now, as the Metro confronts crippling maintenance problems and a possible months-long shutdown of entire lines to make repairs. Metro officials, national and local politicians, and D.C. residents are all extremely annoyed and trying to figure out how to fix the problem.
The technical problems with the Metro could undoubtedly fill several books. But beyond the actual mechanical details, this is a political problem, and one solution is obvious: Make D.C. a state.
First, serious employee dysfunction. The controllers, who direct the trains, are badly shorthanded (so as to collect maximum overtime) and lacking comprehensive, up-to-date written procedures, which leads to continual technical errors, like activating the wrong fans during a smoke emergency that killed a woman. The train operators, meanwhile, have an often-terrible relationship with the controllers, and sometimes even deliberately cripple their train if they are disrespected. It's a classic case of an incompetent, feuding, low-morale bureaucracy.
Unlike virtually every other subway system, Metro's governing authority has almost no dedicated revenue stream, meaning it has to regularly beg for cash from all political jurisdictions in which it operates — D.C. and counties in Maryland and Virginia — plus the federal government. This means some places pay much less than others, and the system is constantly at risk of money being cut off.
Surprisingly, though the lack of a fixed subsidy has surely harmed long-term planning, Metro is not immediately short of cash for capital improvements. From 2010-2014, it has dedicated an average of $2.8 million per mile to capital spending — a ways below New York's $4.1 million, but far above Chicago's $1.2 million. Indeed, about a quarter of a $5 billion capital fund set aside in 2011 remains unspent as of January. As usual with American infrastructure, the problem is prices and competent delivery, not lack of funds.
The basic sketch of a solution is obvious enough. Employees need to become more professionalized and rediscover an esprit de corps. Management needs a strategic, long-term focus, buttressed by clear lines of authority and responsibility — ideally under the primary responsibility of the D.C. mayor. Metro funding needs to be placed on a permanent footing, to enable better planning and greater efficiency, with contributions assessed roughly according to a community's benefit from the system.
It basically can't be that difficult. All it requires is catching up to where London or dozens of other cities were decades ago.
But this requires political reform. Metro's top management structure is a complex committee with representatives from D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and the federal government, with no one entity in charge. This is a big part of why past committees have focused on short-term service boosts at the expense of long-term viability, like extended operating hours, which are nice but have made it nearly impossible to do any serious repairs at night.
As the heart of the Metro system, D.C. has the greatest gravitational weight on the committee, and contributes more than any other single jurisdiction to Metro's budget. But D.C. (being notoriously corrupt and all) is also blamed when things go wrong, like the 2009 crash that killed nine people. After all the recent troubles, as of October last year, the Federal Transit Administration took over direct control over Metro's safety system.
Such federal interference is a regular feature of D.C. history, typically over budget problems (or from Southern racists in Congress eager to dominate a majority black city). Poor performance is invoked as an excuse for another round of outside domination, which never seems to instill quality governance.
The reality is the opposite: Like so many colonies, D.C. is often governed poorly because it is a subject population with few political rights. Dignity, self-respect, and equal treatment are prerequisites to a healthy and competent democratic culture. A proper state government would go a long way toward providing those values, a national career track for politicians who might otherwise be tempted into corruption, and a restoration of many legal rights taken away during the home rule negotiations.
So make D.C. a state — after which a new Metro management structure can be negotiated between political equals.
Because the reality is that greater D.C. cannot possibly function in anything like its current form without the Metro. Despite all the problems, it's still the second-busiest subway system in the country. No dense city can thrive without the sheer people-moving heft of a heavy rail system, which can provide over 40 times the throughput of a lane of highway traffic, if properly managed. Full statehood is the road to the healthy politics that will enable a crisp and efficient Metro.