The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 18, 2016

DC, Maryland, and Virginia: We need to talk about Metro

The nation’s second-busiest heavy rail transit system, the Washington, DC area’s Metro, is in crisis.

This is a long-term crisis, occasionally punctuated by national headlines, like when smoke filled a train killing one passenger in January 2015, or when nine people died in a crash in June 2009. In both cases, the tragedy was preventable: in the former, a damaged cable caused the smoke while poor communication delayed aid; in the latter, a critical circuit malfunction wasn’t detected.

This week, Metro is again in the news, this time for taking the unprecedented step to shut down the entire rail system for 29 hours for emergency inspections and repairs.

The system’s deficiencies also create countless non-fatal yet incredibly frustrating daily performance and safety issues like service delays, months-long escalator outages, and dangerous platform overcrowding. The problem is clear, well documented, and dire. Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has been refreshingly candid about the system’s deficiencies, telling the Washington Post that “turning Metro around requires us to confront some hard truths.”

And in 2015, the Federal Transit Administration issued a safety directive to Metro, detailing 91 required actions to address safety concerns that it found (progress toward completing these actions can be seen in this tracking table).

Why is it broken and how can we fix it?

However, fixing the myriad of performance and safety problems requires solving the primary systemic issue that got us here in the first place: the lack of dedicated funding.

Metro, like much of the public infrastructure in the United States, is chronically underfunded. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2013 that $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investments were needed by 2020 nationwide to reach a “state of good repair.”

The result is that long-term fixes are deferred in favor of short-term patches. Ultimately, this approach is costlier—and deadlier. But in the short run, for a system like Metro where funding is limited or unreliable, it’s the only option.

Transit systems rely on both capital budgets and operating budgets. While the former is primarily about buying new equipment and new capacity, the latter funds your ability to manage and maintain what you currently have. It’s the operating budget, and specifically the source of its operating revenue, that is major issue for Metro.

Unlike the New York and Boston transit systems, which receive about 36 percent and 62 percent of their respective operating budgets from dedicated sources, Metro relies nearly entirely on unpredictable funding: fare revenue and yearly subsidy appropriations from local governments and the federal government.

Major transit system operating budget sources, fiscal year 2016

As has been written about before, this crippling lack of dedicated funding means that Metro’s budget must compete annually for new funds against other regional priorities.

The problem is complicated by the fact that Metro is funded by multiple governments: DC, Maryland, Virginia, eight local jurisdictions, and the federal government.

Metro Subsidies Are Uneven across Jurisdictions

Metro is facing a regional “wrong pockets problem,” a variant on the tragedy of the commons in which no government partner has a clear incentive to increase its financing for the Metro system because any benefits that would accrue to that partner would also accrue evenly across all jurisdictions while one partner bears the full cost. In other words, from the perspective of one of its constituent governments, increasing funding comes from its own pocket but benefits go into all pockets.

The establishment of dedicated funding sources is critically important to improving the safety, reliability, and quality of Metro’s operations. Overcoming the wrong pockets problem is a serious hurdle and will require multiple government stakeholders to agree a permanent long-term fix is needed and must be reached collectively. Perhaps this latest crisis will yield that result, but past evidence encourages skepticism.

Passengers wait on the platform before boarding a train at the U Street Metro Station in Washington, Thursday, March 12, 2015, part of the public mass transit network for Washington. Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP


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