Time to make a federal case out of Metro rail failures

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In normal times, the grounding of more than half of the Washington metro rail fleet would be a huge snag for federal government operations. With pandemic levels of teleworking, so far it’s mainly an inconvenience. But our guest argues local jurisdictions need to get going now with alternative ways for feds and contractors to get to work. Salim Furth, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Salim, good to have you on.

Salim Furth: Good morning.

Tom Temin: And let’s talk about the effect of Metro normally on Washington DC. Is it fair to say that in Washington, the Metro has a bigger effect on the ability of the government to operate smoothly than any other Metro system in another city has on any other profession. That make sense?

Salim Furth: Sure. The DC workforce and downtown DC as an economic and employment entity absolutely relies on Metro now. Maybe the finance industry in New York is as reliant on the New York Metro. But the point is not comparison. The point is, in normal times, DC can’t run we can’t move people through the city without Metro

Tom Temin: And those finance people all have limos anyway with chauffeur drivers, don’t they and red carpets rolling out of the sides, I don’t know.

Salim Furth: That’s why you can walk faster than the traffic in NYC.

Tom Temin: That’s exactly right. And give us a sense of how over the decades of Metro that it maps to where the federal government is. I mean, the original model of Metro was a hub and spoke situation where everything was downtown, and everybody lived on the suburbs ringing around it. That’s not really the case anymore, though, is it?

Salim Furth: That’s true. So Metro still is mainly hub and spoken and that’s the right way to do rail, right. So you can’t match all these suburban origins and destinations via a fixed line system. But as the federal government has expanded its chosen sites outside of DC that are served by Metro, whether that’s contractors in Tyson, the NIH in Bethesda, the Census Bureau in Suitland. So lots of folks now actually live downtown and then commute out when they know they have stable employment with one major employer by Metro site in the suburbs.

Tom Temin: Yeah, they add IRS in New Carrollton, also to that mix. Alright, so just maybe paint a picture for us what it would look like if it was normal times and all of the people were scurrying to and from on L’Enfant Plaza and some of these big downtown areas, normal times, no pandemic, and this happened to Metro. What would it be like?

Salim Furth: The Metro right now is basically capped out carrying something like 150,000 people a day with a very reduced service, having pulled their 7000 series rail cars out of service for an indeterminate amount of time. That’s 150k, that’s not too far below what it was two weeks ago, because of pandemic work. But if you go back to 2019, Metro was carrying daily about 650,000 people, right. So we’re at something like a quarter of the normal service. And it’s busy, at rush hour it’s hard to get on a train. If this was 2019, people didn’t have their home offices set up to work, we would be in just an absolute crisis. It’d be like one of those massive snowstorms, but going on without end. And I think there’s actually a little bit of complacency that’s been bred by the pandemic, because we don’t know what the solution is and how long it’s going to take Metro to get itself back to normal here.

Tom Temin: And there’s one added effect too in that is that the district has deliberately pinched road capacity pretty steadily over the past couple of years where maybe there were two lanes on a street, now there’s one lane in each direction, and the bicycles and scooters and little rented death traps that people like to ride on are taking up that leftover lane. So it would be harder to drive in if people suddenly drove on moss too. Fair to say?

Salim Furth: Yeah, well I think I differ with you on on the usefulness of removing car space. And in general, cars are the least efficient way to move a large number of people into a small area. So having those kind of last mile options does bring people to Metro, it does move people around the city more freely. The big solution has got to be bus lanes, to replace Metro service. Cars are ultimately kept up by parking spaces. You’ve got these parking garages, they’re sort of at an equilibrium. It’s a pre pandemic equilibrium, there’s going to be lots of empty spaces now, but if we were to try to function for a long time without Metro, you’re not gonna be able to build drive space fast enough. You’ve got to move people in ways that imitate Metro capacity, and that’s got to be buses on dedicated lanes. Thinking outside the car is really the only solution with a large number of people to a small area.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Salim Furth, he’s a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. And you’ve got this multi jurisdictional involvement in Metro and operations and the interrelatedness of buses and rails and different divisions, the federal government’s something of a peripheral player in all this, money aside. So what should happen now to mitigate the situation and make sure that suppose the take out the 7000 cars, 648 of the 7000 series cars — at some point in the future when things are fully open, then what?

Salim Furth: Yeah, and that’s why I started writing about this on day one, because this isn’t the kind of problem where one person, one mayor, one president, anyone, can drag all the people into the room and dictate a solution, right. There are DC, Maryland, Virginia, there’s the feds, who do own some of the highways, etc. And it’s distributed across a bunch of authorities, even within these jurisdictions, any kind of solution to reorient our transportation system involves a lot of people compromising. And so starting that conversation before you need a solution is imperative, because you just can’t expect this many jurisdictions to come to a solution very quickly. So you want to have some game planning, some open lines of communication where the person who gets to decide how streets are laid out in the district, the person who decides that in Maryland, have each other’s cell phone numbers and develop some rapport and figure out, okay if we’re going to create a bus lane, it’s going to be on Georgia? No, it’s gonna be on 16th. Okay, let’s work that out ahead of time so that when we’re suddenly in crunch time, we’re not just starting these conversations, just trying to figure out who is it that I call in this other jurisdiction, if I want to know what their bus schedule is? So starting that planning process, that’s really, I’m not a transportation planner, I can’t figure all this stuff out, but I do know enough about the politics of this area to say that the solutions aren’t going to just be one smart person sitting down with a pencil and paper, it’s going to be a big group effort and it’s going to take time.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I do nominate 13th street, dividing the distance there in half. Let me ask you this. What about the transportation department, the federal transportation department? I’m trying to figure out how it could play a role because if you look at all of its components, none of them really have to do with getting the federal government to and from work.

Salim Furth: Yeah, that’s right. So I can imagine Secretary Buttigieg or someone who deputizes being a figurehead or a convener of this kind of conversation, right. So if you’ve got these turf battles, maybe it pays to have someone who’s kind of above the fray, maybe has a little bit of money to sort of soften out the edges around some of these difficulties. I don’t know that for a fact, but if at least DOT can kind of listen quietly and find out, are these conversations happening, or are the local jurisdictions working this out well? If so, great, stand back offer to be as assistance, but if not, if they’re if they’re having turf wars, then maybe it’s time to step in and kind of use that bully pulpit. Because right as you said at the top, the federal government is Metro’s biggest customer. And it might be actually OPM, rather than transportation that says, hey we need to be part of this conversation. Because OPM can’t conceivably get everyone back to work without a functioning transportation system at the district.

Tom Temin: I guess if DOT required everyone to attend meetings at DOT headquarters and take the green line to get there, it’s right across the street, that might focus the minds of the people attending the meeting. And just in your studies, do you know whether if somehow a big bus component were added here now or to maintain in the future when things are somewhat more normal, does Metro have the capacity, not only the number of buses, but in the ability to operate that many buses because sometimes bus service can be a little dicey?

Salim Furth: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. If this were normal times, I’m sure they wouldn’t have the number of buses. Now buses, the great thing about buses, they’re easy to move around, right. So one of the problems that Metro’s had with the rail cars is they have literally some working rail cars which at the beginning of the pandemic they parked at the back of the parking lot. And it’s actually like they don’t know how to get them out right now, buses are very easy to move. So if we needed to rent buses from Allentown, Pennsylvania or Chicago or whoever, we would be able to do that. The other solution is the private market, right. So allowing coach carriers, vans, Uber and Lyft pools, allowing them to operate and having some so if you create bus lanes that have some capacity left. You have to have at least four people in the vehicle or at least 10 people vehicle, whatever your capacity is, and allow those operators to use the bus lanes as well, then you’re kind of getting all the advantages of the private market with profit seekers coming in and saying, oh my gosh, people need to get to work in DC, I can make money providing that service, that’s great. And then the public doing what the public realm does well, which is providing infrastructure coordinating, and setting up clear rules and boundaries to make sure that everyone can operate within that safely and efficiently.

Tom Temin: And we could say to the federal contractors, buy us a bus and you get to wrap your company logo and marketing materials all over it for as long as that bus is an operation.

Salim Furth: Yeah, the revenue possibilities are endless, right.

Tom Temin: All right. And selling coffee. Salim Furth is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Thanks so much for joining me.

Salim Furth: Thank you. Good luck getting to work today everyone out there.

Tom Temin: All right. By the way, I take a motorcycle to work most of the time. That’s a lot of fun in the traffic around here.

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