Mid-life crisis: BART, WMATA, and America’s modern subway systems

America’s few modern subway systems are facing a mid-life crisis. In the past month, WMATA had to shutter the entire system for emergency inspections of the power supply system, while BART had to shut down one branch of the system due to a mysterious power surge problem disabling trains. Both systems are no longer the ‘new’ transit systems in the US, they find themselves in mid-life crises. Aging infrastructure requires repair, existing governance and funding systems haven’t had to deal with the costs of maintaining these systems as they age.

Route miles of modern US subway systems, by year of segment opening. From Christof Spieler via Twitter.

With that context, I came across this tweet from Christof Spieler, showing the length of “modern” grade-separated subway lines opened for service in the United States from 1965 to today. A few observations:

BART, the snake digesting the mouse: Until seeing the data presented this way, I never appreciated how much of the BART system (navy blue on the chart) was built in quick succession in the early 1970s. The system didn’t add any route miles until the first phases of the San Mateo-SFO Airport extension came online starting in 1995. Contrast that to the history of WMATA (gray bars on the chart) regularly opening smaller system segments over a span of 20 years. MARTA also expanded by adding segments over the course of two decades.

The implication for maintenance is that BART is kinda like a snake digesting a meal – the bulge of maintenance needs/life cycle costs now coming due. WMATA has a similar length of track to maintain, but won’t have to deal with such a large portion of the system reaching mid-life at the same time.

End of Federal (Capital) Role: It’s hard to overlook the long-term trend as well – cities aren’t opening new third-rail, fully grade-separated transit systems anymore. There are only seven of these systems, most of which received substantial capital funding from the predecessor to the Federal Transit Administration, the Urban Mass Transit Administration; and there have only been a handful of expansions of these systems (absent federal funding) since 2004. Of those recent expansions, two are airport connectors (Miami and Oakland – and the other is WMATA’s first phase of the Silver Line, eventually destined to reach Dulles International Airport).

Limited federal funding, rising costs, and limited flexibility of fully grade-separated systems meant that capital spending shifted away from subways and towards light rail systems.  Even high capacity transit projects (such as Seattle’s light rail system) with substantial grade separation have opted for the flexibility of a light rail platform. Subway system expansion in the US is limited to regions locked into that technology.

End of Federal (Governing) Role:A diminished federal role doesn’t just impact capital spending. Writing about WMATA’s governance and maintenance struggles, Ryan Cooper makes the case for DC Statehood to help clarify WMATA’s convoluted regional governance. And while I share the desire for DC home rule and full federal representation, I’m not sure DC statehood alone would resolve WMATA’s governance issues.

Cooper correctly identifies several of WMATA’s key governance shortcomings: a lack of clear lines of authority and accountability and a short-term fiscal focus. He suggests that WMATA should address these issues by reconstituting itself under a fully empowered DC state, with the transit system “ideally under the primary responsibility of the D.C. mayor.”

However, statehood for DC won’t change the broad funding share (DC pays about 1/3 of WMATA’s subsidy) or the location of tracks and stations (the District is home to just 40 of the system’s 91 stations). Statehood for DC won’t assert authority over either Maryland or Virginia, nor would it redraw state lines (no matter how much it might make sense to do so).

WMATA’s original planning assumed a stronger federal role – both for federal transportation spending to direct and supersede state-level planning (with UMTA’s ambitions to fund and build subway systems in American cities), as well as for a stronger role for the feds acting as the local government for the national capital region. WMATA began as the federally chartered National Capital Transportation Agency, in the same era when the Federal Aviation Administration directly built and operated airports in the DC region.

The federal government is uniquely positioned to address some of these issues of both funding and governance, as it did in the Great Society. Since then, we’ve muddled through.

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