The second leadership forum for Metrorail at 40: Restoring a World Class System featured panelists from Atlanta, Chicago, Miami-Dade, New York City, and Toronto, who outlined the challenges and expectations for their own transit systems. The first forum, in early April, outlined the maintenance issues facing Metro, and heralded the first inkling of what is now the SafeTrack shut-down of various lines for extensive work. The forum last Monday, hosted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Greater Washington Board of Trade at The Mayflower Hotel, brought together the same local business and elected leaders, but this time, sought to learn lessons from other systems.
What was clear from the panelists is that major city transit systems have similar challenges for maintaining current systems and obtaining funding for capital needs, as well as labor and governance issues. Money and time are needed, Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford said, but time is precious when you are trying to move hundreds of thousands of customers every day. Chicago’s system is more than 100 years old, said Dorval Carter, CEO of the Chicago Transit System (CTA). Although CTA’s operations budget is funded by a dedicated sales tax, the unmet capital needs are $13 billion. He added that shutting the system down at times is the new reality for CTA customers. The Atlanta MARTA system is newer, but full expansion has been constrained by available funding. Instead, said Keith Parker, MARTA CEO, they have moved full steam ahead on WIFI installations, a new phone app, and dealing with urine in elevators (strobe lights will focus on the miscreant, cameras are activated, and police are called). A “no knucklehead behavior” campaign on the system suspended 8000 people, with great support from other customers.
New York City Transit president Veronique Hakim reminded forum attendees that much of a transit system’s infrastructure is invisible. Politicians don’t cut ribbons for new tunnel ventilation systems, she said, but without tunnels, tracks, pumps, and signals, you don’t have a system. Investment in asset management systems is crucial, she added, since most of the reliable “historical memory” has retired. Former Congressman Tom Davis outlined the process he used to secure Metro funding at $150 million a year (for ten years) from Congress, but added that Metro needs to prove that it can fix its current maintenance, governance, and labor problems before going back to Capitol Hill for help, a process that will take at least a few years.
One speaker pointed out that the Metro system is an invaluable resource for the region, and has a lot to build on. But it is a big job, and it is expensive. The region’s stakeholders must be aligned, but we are not alone. The transit CEOs and other speakers on Monday made it very clear – we are all in this together, and it will pay dividends over the long haul. Toronto CEO Andy Byford pleaded for time. I’d say patience is needed, too.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.