On Monday, a panel of leaders from five major North American transit agencies stressed the importance of building credibility with customers, mapping out long-term maintenance plans, and identifying stable funding sources at a forum on restoring Metrorail’s “world-class” reputation.
Metrorail at 40: Lessons from Major North American Transit Systems brought together more than 90 area government and business leaders and featured executives from the Toronto Transit Commission, Chicago Transit Authority, Miami-Dade County Transit, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, and New York City Transit. It was the second event in a series being sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and Greater Washington Board of Trade during Metrorail’s 40th anniversary year.
COG Board Chairman Roger Berliner said the forum was organized to examine what Metro would look like if it were functioning like a world-class system and focus on operating benchmarks and performance metrics. Forum topics included funding and governance as well as challenges in operating and maintaining transit systems.
The transit officials began the discussion by noting that Metro’s challenges and current SafeTrack initiative are not unique. They all cited aging infrastructure as a major concern. Dorval Carter, President of the Chicago Transit Authority, said Metro’s current maintenance needs and track work disruptions are something his agency and other older transit systems have been dealing with for decades. He said Metro needs time and money to succeed.
Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, President of New York City Transit said communication with customers is critical, especially in regards to maintenance and corresponding disruptions. “If you explain to riders what is being done and why, you can garner a tremendous amount of support,” she said. “You have to be out there with officials, transit advocates, and others explaining the why.” According to Keith Parker, the General Manager and CEO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), another way to build support and credibility with customers is to demonstrate progress on short-term efforts. For example, he cited rising customer approval after MARTA instituted a zero tolerance policy for bad behavior in the system and increased its police presence.
Andy Byford, CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, stressed the need for transit agencies to be strategic and proactive regarding maintenance. He recommended developing a clear plan to identifying maintenance needs and costs, such as developing a list of assets. Byford also urged transit managers to energetically engage with employees to ensure buy-in to these plans.
In addition to the agency executives, the forum also featured a presentation by transit expert Alex Barron of Imperial College London on attributes of world-class systems. Barron noted that among eight older U.S. systems, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) had the lowest reinvestment rate between 2003 and 2014. During this period, WMATA’s average capital spending on the existing system was 40 percent of its annual operating cost.
Barron said transit systems require continuous reinvestment and that unpredictable funding makes planning difficult and often leads to “band-aid maintenance.” WMATA, unlike the other transit systems represented at the forum, does not have a stable, predictable source of funding.
Barron also noted several strengths of the Metrorail system, including its distance-based fares, capacity for 8-car trains and automation, and support of many transit-oriented developments throughout the region.
Former Congressman Tom Davis recounted his work in helping secure new funding for Metro through a 10-year, $3 billion federal-regional agreement in 2008 and pointed out the challenges in obtaining additional funding from the federal or state levels. He said Metro must demonstrate progress to restore confidence and regional leaders should emphasize Metro’s vital role in supporting the region’s economy to make a strong case to legislators and citizens who don’t use the system.
Board of Trade Chairman Daniel Waetjen encouraged business and government leaders to continue to work together, noting that the vitality of the region depends on a safe and reliable Metro. Building on the discussion at the forum, COG and the Board of Trade will hold another Metrorail at 40 event this fall. Details will be released soon.
In addition, at its June meeting, the COG Board tasked a technical panel to develop financial and operating data on Metrorail by October, which will support the regional effort to restore the system’s world-class reputation. The technical panel will coordinate with WMATA to develop new benchmarks and performance metrics for operating the current system in a safe and reliable manner, document funding projections to meet these benchmarks, and explore potential sources for any additional revenue needed.
View the Metrorail at 40 event page for links to event documents, transit agency profiles, and a summary from the first event in the series.
View the Board of Trade event page for audio recordings and news clips.