Sherwood's Notebook: So, Metro, Where You Going?

Have you stopped using the Metrorail transit system?


It’s not reliable or quick? It’s bad enough on weekdays, maybe worse on weekends? “Track work,” whatever that is, always seems to be happening on the line you’re using? The newest line — Silver — was hobbled by snow? You’re sick of non-working escalators and/or elevators?

And worse, whether you are young or old, you are feeling or starting to feel unsafe? Yes, when the train breaks down, but even more from the threat of serious violence and harassing crime?

You are certainly not alone.

The new chair of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board says he hears you.

“The whole [safety] element of the system and your feeling safe has to be addressed,” said Jack Evans, speaking Friday on Kojo Nnamdi’s WAMU “Politics Hour.” Evans, the Ward 2 D.C. Council member, said a lot more after being elected Metro chair last week:

  • “Public transportation works when two things exist, when it’s inexpensive and convenient. And Metro is neither.”
  • “Riders must have confidence [the system] is safe.”
  • “No fare increases. I will not support any fare increases while I am on the board.”

Evans said on the “Politics Hour” that he would support a simpler fare system, if the finances can be worked out, with maximum fares of maybe $5 for suburban rides and $2 in the city.

“You have to be a mathematical wizard with a computer to figure out these fares. It’s crazy,” he said. “Why not make it simple. You would fill your subway cars.”

Reports of more crime on Metrorail, specifically groups of young people screaming vulgarities and intimidating riders, could scare away even more riders.

But where are police? Metro Police Chief Ronald Pavlik says he has a force of fewer than 500 officers with a 10 percent vacancy rate. That’s for a rail system of 117 miles and 91 stations, not counting the expansive bus system.

Evans said riders must “have confidence it’s going to be safe. It may mean that we’re going to have to add additional police officers; I think that’s what we are going to have to do on Metro.” Even the subdued lighting in rail stations, initially seen as groundbreaking, is now seen as too dark. Brighter lights are coming.

Evans recalled the more hopeful days of Metro’s past. When he served on the Metro board from 1992 to 1999, “Metro was a shining example of regional cooperation,” he said. Now, “15 years later, we are anything but.”

Evans wants to help mend professional and personal strains among the 16-member board to ease management woes.

But mostly he wants to lend a strong hand to new general manager Paul Wiedefeld, who Evans says “knows what needs to be done.”

It’s not like Metro needs to fix this or that — it basically needs to fix everything: organization, finances, management, labor and infrastructure. You can arrange those in any order you wish.

Before he became chair, Evans said he went to a recent community meeting in Ward 2, where he is running for re-election. He said 13 of the 15 questions were about Metro, not the ward.

In the cruelest cut of all, Evans told the “Politics Hour” that Metro today reminds him of the near-bankrupt District government in 1995 when a federal control board took over city finances. “We have to show Congress and the jurisdictions that we can run this system,” he said.

That means Evans will approach Congress for operating funds, but not anytime soon. As much as 70 percent of rail riders in rush hour can be federal workers, Evans said. But Congress won’t be likely to support Metro operations for the first time if its reputation reminds everyone of the old D.C. government.

A management shakeup is necessary, Evans says, but the system also can’t continue to absorb soaring labor costs.

“Over the years, the contracts we have lost either by arbitration or entered into have produced a situation where all of our labor issues are the most expensive of any system in the country,” Evans told us. “I know the contracts are up and they will be coming back looking for increases, et cetera. If we don’t raise fares, which we are not going to do, the money has to come from somewhere if we are to agree to these changes.”

Evans and the Metro board don’t have a full plate — they have a full platter or two.

■ Costs of snow. WTOP radio reported that Metro lost about $7 million in revenue because of the big snowstorm, in part because of riders not showing up or the free rides offered on Monday. Metro still is adding up the overtime and other operating costs. General manager Wiedefeld said he expected the total to be “significant.”

■ Another surplus. D.C. officials on Monday announced a surplus of $293 million for the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30. It is the 19th year in a row of audited balanced budgets. And this audit is the first with no major accounting suggestions.

The city now has about $1 billion in its required reserves — a far cry from the days of near-bankruptcy and federal control in the 1990s.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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