Birthing Mass Transit in the DMV: WMATA and the Difficulties of Multi-Jurisdictional Transportation Systems

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Carol M Highsmith, Metro train on Washington, D.C.’s subway system arrives at the suburban Twinbrook station in Rockville, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“It’s a system that’s maybe safe, somewhat unreliable, and that is being complained about by everybody,” – Jack Evans, WMATA Chairman and District of Columbia Council Member[1]

The subway that serves the Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area, known locally as “the metro,” is running through hard times these days. On January 12, 2015 one passenger died after a train car filled with smoke, and on March 16th, 2016 the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the body in charge of the metro, announced a complete service shutdown for one full day while repairmen could run safety checks on all lines. Shortly after the announcement the Washington Post editorial board posted an article expressing its belief that the rail system was a “national embarrassment.”[2] Most recently, WMATA chairman Jack Evans announced that WMATA may shut down an entire line for up to six months so it can complete needed repairs. How is it that the system based in the nation’s capital, and the primary means of daily transportation for some 700,000 people, is suffering through such failings?[3]

Since WMATA is ultimately in charge of the metro, they rightly deserve public criticism. But, WMATA is not entirely in control of its own fate, and there’s a fundamental reason why this is true, and why it is important. Better understanding of the history of WMATA and its position as a government body is necessary for understanding its behavior. Beyond looking at current leadership, board structures, the by-laws, or meeting schedules, the system’s birth and the concessions made to facilitate its creation deserve attention.

First, WMATA, the body in charge of the metro system (Metrorail), as well as a bus system (Metrobus) and paratransit system (MetroAccess), is defined by its status as an interstate compact between Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the federal government. Greater awareness of why this is, and what this means, will lead to better understanding of WMATA’s policies and operations.

Interstate compacts exist in the United States as legal agreements between states that share governance and decision making over a particular policy or issue area. They are power-sharing pacts between states, which are equal powers, as opposed to vertical ones which would exist between different hierarchies of government, like between the federal government and a state government, or the state government and a municipal government. Article I, Section 10, Clause III of the U.S. Constitution governs them to some extent, though only inasmuch as they prescribe when Congressional consent is required to enact them. Compacts exist for a variety of reasons: common arrangements concern water access and sharing rights, environmental controls, utility regulation, criminal justice, and public transportation[4]. These agreements can range from benign and on agreed upon territory, like sharing traffic violation information between states, to highly consequential and divisive issues, such as managing nuclear waste and water resources.

Compacts exist as unique, one-off arrangements, as opposed to more formalized and standard ones that exist in vertical, intergovernmental relations. While the law will bind the behavior of the signatories, the realities of power imbalance often persist, and frequently the agreement will have enshrined the circumstances in which the terms were originally drawn up. Existence of compacts does not preclude conflict, and enforcement mechanisms are often not robust, which allows for disputes to arise over interpretation of clauses, states using their other powers to influence affairs to their favor, or sometimes simply letting the momentum of current events carry on. Because they are standalone agreements, they are not under the same kinds of pressures that traditional government instruments are, nor do they enjoy the same types of support.

Warren K. Leffler, Metro Center subway station being being constructed at 13th and G Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., November 16, 1973, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Warren K. Leffler, Metro Center subway station being being constructed at 13th and G Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., November 16, 1973, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The reasons a state may choose to enter a compact will depend on the specifics of the policy in question, the interest groups attached to that policy, or prevailing interests among the public, but the original cause will always be the same: externalities outside a state’s control, which that state would prefer to manage through compromise rather than let alone.[5]

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LBJ put the D.C. Metro into action; Photo from “The Johnson Years”, January 13, 1969, Thomas G. Corcoran Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Birth of WMATA

In the early 1950s, business interests and decision makers in and around Washington D.C. realized that current transportation means were incapable of keeping up with development in the region. The daily movement of thousands federal employees, expansion of housing and employment, increasing automobile use which led to congestion, and inadequate transportation options for the car-less urban population dictated that change was needed. Because of the limited size of D.C., and its status as an employment hub for middle to upper middle class populations, transportation patterns spread into nearby Maryland and Virginia. Decisions on transportation methods would therefore require input from those areas, as well as decision makers in D.C.

In the early fifties, the patchwork system of private bus companies regulated by the different jurisdictions created incoherent fares and schedules, making it a nightmare to travel across state lines on public transit. Planners recognized that transportation decisions would be better made on the metropolitan level, with all parties coordinating their actions[6].

DETAIL, SOUTH FACADE, CENTRAL SECTION (ESCALATORS TO METRO SUBWAY IN FOREGROUND) - Pension Building, 440 G Street Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

DETAIL, SOUTH FACADE, CENTRAL SECTION (ESCALATORS TO METRO SUBWAY IN FOREGROUND) – Pension Building, 440 G Street Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of the first formal suggestions for a regional transportation body came in a report drafted by Jerome Alper, a private practice lawyer hired by the Joint Transportation Commission (JTC), a project of the D.C. Board of Commissioners, and Maryland and Virginia legislators. In December 1955 Alper released a report, “Transit Regulation for the Metropolitan Area of Washington D.C.” in which he suggested the creation of an interstate compact to act as the regulatory body in charge of transit decisions for the area. Harland Bartholomew, who was working on the Mass Transportation Survey that would detail many of the District’s transportation plans for the next few decades, endorsed the plan, seeing it as the necessary bureaucratic instrument that would manage his larger plans for the region[7].

There was little in the way of metropolitan governance at this time, though many saw a need for interstate management of not only transportation but also crime, water resources, and pollution. But approaching metropolitan governance when the District of Columbia is involved gets immediately complicated because of the uncertainty over who speaks for the District. In 1955, District of Columbia was still 18 years from returning to home rule, and was instead being managed by a three-member commission, with many of its affairs being legislated in Congress. Planning was sometimes managed by commissions such as the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Within this framework there were numerous boards and commissions representing business or professional interests who were also vying for influence[8]. What was certain was that there was no one body endowed with democratic legitimacy representing the people of the District. Democratic legitimacy or not, Maryland and Virginia knew they preferred to deal with the District, as opposed to the federal government, and hoped any eventual arrangement would host some form of District-specific representation.

Fortunately, the concept of interstate management of transportation appealed to members of Congress, and in 1960, Congress passed the National Capital Transportation Act, which besides creating the National Capital Transportation Agency (NCTA), also endorsed the creation of an interstate compact between Maryland, Virginia, and the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia for the purposes of organizing and managing regional transit facilities.[9]

In a few months’ time, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission (WMATC) was born and assumed responsibility for regulating public transit buses for the region. It was not, however, a body endowed with the capability to build and operate a rail transit system. Creating a body that would have this power became a struggle between the JTC and NCTA members, with both jockeying for their version of the body to be the one to prevail. The JTC wanted their bill to prevail so that decision-making power stayed out of the hands of the federal government, and they also hoped to create a body that would not have comprehensive control over transportation policy, thus leaving highway policy untouched. Its makeup was tilted towards suburban interests, and included the D.C. Board of Commissioners, traditionally the voice of business interests in the district and not always kind to the idea of home rule. Their organization also included Harland Bartholomew, the famed urban planner who at the time was drafting the pro-highway Mass Transportation Survey of 1959.

The NCTA, however, was led by Darwin Stolzenbach, who opposed the highway plans of Harland Bartholomew, and strongly favored home rule. The big questions both men faced when designing the interstate body included how much the Federal government would pay, how much it would control, and what was the best way to balance the interests between the District of Columbia and suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

Competition for influence between the JTC and the NCTA prompted the JTC to draft the compact language in such a way to have their proposal passed quickly, before either the NCTA could generate enough momentum for their own plans, or the federal government would assume control. The NCTA had in September 1965 received $150 million in funding, and JTC members calculated that if the NCTA were able to get the ball rolling on a mass transit system for the capital region and prove to Congress it could finish the job, there would go JTC’s chances to shape transit planning in the region[10].

EASTERN MARKET METRORAIL STATION ENTRANCE IN RESERVATION NO. 44/45. - Eastern Market Metro Station, Washington, District of Columbia, DC, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

EASTERN MARKET METRORAIL STATION ENTRANCE IN RESERVATION NO. 44/45. – Eastern Market Metro Station, Washington, District of Columbia, DC, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

There was also a procedural concern that compelled the JTC to act fast: the legislative schedules of the different compact members. Much like negotiating international trade agreements, compact designers knew they had to craft a deal that would then be debated in the individual legislative bodies of each state and the district, rather than a system where all parties are at the table at the same time. Unfortunately, the legislative schedules of Maryland and Virginia meant that any alteration made to the agreement would mean a delay of two years before the other state would review. So, in the interest of timeliness, drafters knew they had to submit an agreement devoid of controversy to ensure it would be accepted by all parties, including Congress, without any need for amendment[11].

In the plan drawn up by the JTC, power between Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. was distributed evenly, with each member having two votes, and the federal government having no formal role. Representation from Maryland and Virginia would be based on special suburban districts that would better represent the metro region’s interests, while D.C. had no need for the creation of such a district. Selecting the geographic sources of these districts was simple for Maryland, as Prince George’s County and Montgomery County offered themselves as obvious choices, whereas in Virginia it was more complicated, with Arlington County, Fairfax County, and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax City all jostling for influence. The compact was limited to rail and bus transit, meaning it would not have control over roads and highways. The circulated plan also did not mention route planning, funding, or financing.

While it would have been unlikely in the past that Congress would approve a plan that left the federal government out of the compact, the political climate in the White House was by this time friendly to the idea. Through the early sixties there had been other moves towards relinquishing federal control over the District’s business. The Washington Metro Regional Conference, which had been formed in 1957 and later became the Metro Washington Council of Governments, or simply “COG”, was one of the bodies the federal government increasingly looked to for decision-making in the District. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson, himself an advocate of home rule, turned over the powers previously held by the National Capital Regional Planning Council (NCRPC) to COG, even though there was no formal federal representation on this body. In light of the trend towards home rule and devolving federal control over many of the District’s concerns, including urban transit, the compact agreement made its way through Virginia, Maryland, D.C, and eventually Congress.[12] On 20 February, 1967, after agreement from all of the bodies, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was born.

Carol M. Highsmith, Red Line Metro subway train going one way arrives to join a train about to head the other direction at Metro Center Station, a transfer station to other lines beneath downtown Washington, D.C., Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Carol M. Highsmith, Red Line Metro subway train going one way arrives to join a train about to head the other direction at Metro Center Station, a transfer station to other lines beneath downtown Washington, D.C., Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How Design Leads Us to Today

The concessions made by JTC drafters hobbled WMATA from the start, making it particularly vulnerable to economic downturns and reliant on majority rule of diverse interests. One of the key preemptive concessions was to not give the body the power to directly generate its own revenues through taxation or other means. Instead, WMATA would need to get by on contributions from its member jurisdictions, ticket sales, and federal grants. None of these were guaranteed, or fixed, in the same way they would be for similarly sized transportation agencies. This has remained true even after Congress in 1979 passed the National Capital Transportation Amendments, which included funding for WMATA and required that members of the compact have “stable and reliable” sources of revenue, and Department of Transportation staff even explained that this meant dedicated or earmarked sources[13].

Whereas other transit agencies serving similarly sized populations may have up to 50% of their capital funds, or a third of operating funds coming from dedicated sources, until recently WMATA had only approximately 2% of its operating funds from a guaranteed source, and none of its capital funds from a dedicated source. Instead, a third of the operating funds come from compact members’ General Revenue funds—the broadest pool of tax revenues from which many government agencies draw their budgets—compared to roughly 14-16% for other transit agencies, and 44% from fare revenues, compared to 33-35% for other transit agencies.

Indeed, the Metrorail services that WMATA provides has one of the highest ratios of fare revenue to operating expenses, or “recovery ratios,” in the country, second only to New York City[14]. Placing such a high burden of revenue on the ridership alone, while understandable from the perspective of efficiency or fairness, goes against other understandings of public transportation that see it as a benefit of the city at large, not just its ridership. And, while General Revenue fund pools are large, they are also subject to the whims of the appropriations process, and in economic recessions can see sharp reductions.

Dedicated funding has gone up somewhat in recent years. In WMATA’s 2015 budget, for example, it was up to 16% of the capital budget, as a result of Congress in 2008 enacting Title VI of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which promised $1.5 billion in federal funds over 10 years if compact members put into place dedicated funding streams[15]. But, this only appears to have increased the amount of dedicated grants, not earmarked funding streams, like a gasoline tax that would go directly to WMATA and serve as a truly long-term, dedicated source. While WMATA is not alone in facing funding issues in recessions, its lack of dedicated funding makes it particularly vulnerable to political and economic swings.

Beyond poor financing, WMATA also seems beset with poor leadership structures. The 16-member board of directors has been criticized in the recent past for its inability to set broad policy agendas, focusing instead on minutiae and day to day management concerns, and lacks an effective process for strategic planning[16]. Having a board that micro-manages at the expense of setting larger priorities could be a sign of leadership that does not feel they have either the political clout or financial backing to implement their plans. This problem is a common feature of government agencies that are young, or do not exist in a system where influence and support come from clearly defined or sustained sources. The bulk of recommendations in the recent past, however, have centered around management and administrative reforms that are intended to increase the speed and effectiveness of WMATA decision-making. Changes to WMATA’s Board such as removing the alternate members, encouraging greater expertise of its members, extending terms, and empowering the general manager could lead to fresh ideas and an improved ability to execute them.

But it is impossible, without radical reform, to address the greater issue, which may go well beyond managerial reforms. WMATA will remain an organization led by seemingly similar, yet very different actors – Virginia and Maryland, two suburban districts of differing economic development agendas, a District that must balance serving federal government commuters with its own population’s needs, and a federal government that will often have its own definition of efficiency and effectiveness. Balancing those interests is, and was, tough—and that’s why the framers of compact kept the arrangement so diluted.

This gets to what may be the heart of the problem for WMATA, and which is a problem inherent in any interstate compact: compacts do not possess the legitimacy and acting power enjoyed by states or the federal government, simply by the fact of their having spread responsibility across multiple actors. Compacts can work in areas where there is agreement and the stakes for engagement are relatively low.

 L'ENFANT PLAZA METRO STATION ENTRY IN FORMER RESERVATION NO. 200 WITH RESERVATION NO. 113 IN BACK GROUND, LOOKING WEST. - Maryland Avenue, Washington, District of Columbia, DC, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

L’ENFANT PLAZA METRO STATION ENTRY IN FORMER RESERVATION NO. 200 WITH RESERVATION NO. 113 IN BACK GROUND, LOOKING WEST. – Maryland Avenue, Washington, District of Columbia, DC, Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

But WMATA is the fifth largest transportation agency in the country: its fiscal year 2015 budget was $2.9 billion dollars, which is more than some states’ entire budgets. The contributions from the compact members are sizable and, because they rely on legislative action every year, rather than coming from dedicated sources, remain open political questions where even small differences in appropriation have a large impact.

This is not meant to excuse the failings of WMATA leadership, or to offer a comprehensive explanation of the body’s behavior. Regional transportation agencies across the country are under immense pressure to maintain their systems in a period where even highways could use some extra spending, so WMATA is not alone in this, nor are its troubles explained solely by the above. But it is worth remembering that WMATA is not a governmental body that can behave like other transit agencies. It was designed to balance the interests of bodies that, while more or less equal, have very different priorities. It is vitally important for the region that WMATA perform the best it can, so if we as citizens wish to do our part, we must remember that it’s not as simple as saying “Hey, WMATA, what gives?” Rather, it should be something more like: “Hey, suburbs of northern Virginia, Maryland, D.C., and General Services Administration, get it together!”

Evan Thomas-Arnold lives in Washington D.C., where he works in governance reform. He has a Masters in Public Administration from American University, where he focused on election administration, issues in public management, and urban governance. His research interests include governance reform movements in the U.S., metropolitan governance, election administration, U.S. public administration ideals, and the history of Washington D.C.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/04/us/washington-metro-40-and-creaking-stares-at-a-midlife-crisis.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-official-metro-is-a-national-embarrassment/2016/03/15/3a33c828-eaf7-11e5-bc08-3e03a5b41910_story.html?postshare=2511458125842332&tid=ss_tw

[4] http://www.csg.org/knowledgecenter/docs/ncic/UnderstandingInterstateCompacts-backgrounder.pdf

[5] Bowman, Ann O’M. “Horizontal Federalism: Exploring Interstate Interactions.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 14.4 (2004): 535-46.

[6] Schrag, Zachary M. The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. JHU Press, 2014.

[7] Schrag, Zachary M. The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. JHU Press, 2014.

[8] Gillette Jr, Howard. “Between Justice and Beauty.” Race, Planning and the Failureof Urban Policy in Washington DC, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins UniversityPress (1995).

[9] National Capital Transportation Act of 1960. U.S. Congress 1960.

[10] Schrag, Zachary M. The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. JHU Press, 2014

[11] Schrag, Zachary M. The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. JHU Press, 2014.

 

[12] Gillette Jr, Howard. “Between Justice and Beauty.” Race, Planning and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington DC, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins UniversityPress (1995)

[13] Applying Dot’s Rail Policy to Washington D.C.’s Metrorail System Could Save Funds: U.S. General Accounting Office, 1983

[14] Puentes, Robert. Washington’s Metro: Deficits by Design: Brookings Institution, 2004

 

[15] Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, FY2015 Approved Budget Book

[16] FIsher, John W, and William J Mallett. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Wmata): Issues and Options for Congress: Congressional Research Service, 2010; Moving Metro Forward: Report of the Joint Wmata Governance Review Task Force: Greater Washington Board of Trade and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 2010; Washington Metro Could Benefit from Clarified Board Roles and Responsibilities, Improved Strategic Planning: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2011

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