Reviews | Washington’s metro system needs help for it and the region to recover

Too bad for transit commuters in the Washington/Baltimore area. The average waiting time for trains and buses — 17 minutes, according to Moovita widely used transit app – is among the worst in the US, among the longer in the northern hemisphere, and at least 50% longer than the waiting times passengers face in most Western European countries, Australia and Russia. More than a quarter of local passengers in DC and Baltimore wait more than 20 minutes for their journey; among major US cities, only Los Angeles, San Diego and Miami are worse, and only slightly so.

Much of the blame for Washington’s poor performance lies with Metrorail, the second busiest – and occasionally dysfunctional – subway system. Its health and the economic vitality of the region are inseparable; bustling neighborhoods in Arlington, Bethesda, the District and elsewhere were virtually dead before the subway stations opened nearly half a century ago. Now, the region’s post-pandemic renaissance critically depends on Metro returning to good health.

For that to happen, Maryland, Virginia and DC will have to open their wallets. Strategizing how to do this must start now.

The timing of the severe service cuts Metrorail faces is one question; the stark reality of the system’s financial needs is not. Weekday subway ridership has been stuck for months at 60% below pre-pandemic levels. Even though drivers have returned to the roads — highway traffic in the DC area has rebounded almost to its congested 2019 numbers — Metrorail remains underused.

This is partly because many office workers remain telecommuters, working remotely from home. As government agencies and businesses enforce back-to-office orders, ridership should gradually increase — or so Metro hopes. But the system’s own problems compounded its woes. The long waits have gotten even worse since late last year, when a safety glitch took more than half of the system’s cars out of service. And this month alone, more than 8,000 additional weekday riders were further hampered when Metro shut down the yellow line for eight months. The system is carrying out long-scheduled repairs to the Potomac Bridge and Tunnel that connect the Pentagon in Northern Virginia to L’Enfant Plaza in downtown Washington. some may never return to the subway.

It is a danger signal. Already, Metro faces an annual shortfall of $500 million — about 20% of its operating budget — starting next summer, when $2.4 billion in federal disaster relief funds pandemic will be exhausted. Metro’s new chief executive, Randy Clarke, says he can postpone major service cuts until mid-2024; he is counting on improving ridership as the suspended cars are put back into service. Whether he’s right or not, time is running out.

Elsewhere, leaders are moving aggressively to shore up damaged systems. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) offers $750 million in grants to promote free rides for three months. In Chicago, the city council gave the green light to Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) plan for rate card gifts. In the Washington area, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the governors of Virginia and Maryland will need equally bold thinking. Without it, the region they serve will struggle to regain its former vibrancy.

Lance B. Holton