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Once A Jewel Of Public Transit, D.C. Metro Stumbles Under Crisis


Washington, D.C.'s public transit system was once hailed as America's subway. It was a symbol of Washington at its best - clean, efficient, modern. Now the system is an example of dysfunction. It's unreliable, sometimes dangerous. Transit managers are scrambling to figure out how to fix it. Martin DiCaro of member station WAMU reports.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Step back, doors closing.

MARTIN DICARO, BYLINE: Ridership is down. On-time performance is at its lowest level ever. And a string of incidents is eroding the confidence of riders like Marcus Goldstein.

MARCUS GOLDSTEIN: It's getting less and less attractive to ride with the delays every week and trains not running on time. It's not a dependable way to get to work.

DICARO: Fellow commuter Paul Miller says he knows whom to blame.

PAUL MILLER: I think they should hunt down the guys that started the system. And they should put them on trial for malfeasance.

DICARO: Metro opened in 1976 with only two tracks. It was built that way to save money. But the lack of extra tracks guaranteed that any incident, however minor, would slow down the trains.

MILLER: They said they were spending the biggest chunk of money at the beginning traveling around the world to find all the mistakes in all the train systems so they wouldn't make them here. And they made them here.

DICARO: The largest error was failing to maintain what is now a 117-mile rail system. And there were warnings.

ZACHARY SCHRAG: A key report came in 1986.

DICARO: Zachary Schrag is the author of "The Great Society Subway: A History Of The Washington Metro."

SCHRAG: What they were projecting was a pretty steep rise in both breakdowns and subsequent costs.

DICARO: He says the challenge was not met.

SCHRAG: Metro has never had really ample capital funds. Since even before it was authorized, people have been trying to figure out how to build a big, ambitious system with the least amount of money possible.

DICARO: Catching up on the maintenance backlog will cost billions. But the cities and counties that fund Metro have their own budget constraints, and federal officials are reluctant to give more.

JACK EVANS: It's becoming worn out.

DICARO: D.C. Council member Jack Evans became the chairman of Metro's board of directors this year. He says Metro won't get well without more money.

EVANS: People want more security guards. They all cost money. People want better lighting in the system. That costs money. Better signage - cost money. Everything everybody's talking about costs money.

DICARO: People also want service, but federal safety officials have chided Metro for staying open too many hours and not doing enough maintenance, leaving the new general manager in a sticky situation.

PAUL WIEDEFELD: You know, I come to work every day just trying to get this system better (laughter).

DICARO: Paul Wiedefeld says he'll soon unveil a plan to speed up maintenance that could mean shutting down segments of some of Metro's six rail lines during the work week.

WIEDEFELD: I do not see any very large closures. But we are looking at things. For instance, we may have to close a station or two to get in to do the work around those tracks and go around those stations.

DICARO: Recent history proves how important Metro is for keeping commuters on the move. On March 16, Wiedefeld shut down the entire rail system for emergency inspections after a track fire. Thousands had to scramble to find a way to get to the office. But just this past Saturday, another track fire sent smoke seeping into a train.

JIM RUSSELL: People really started to fear for their lives.

DICARO: Jim Russell was aboard that train.

RUSSELL: But I tell you, if that train had been crowded and packed in a rush hour situation, you would have had absolute panic, probably some heart attacks and strokes - right there.

DICARO: When a passenger died on a smoky train last January, it was the 15th death of a rider or worker since 2009. That figure, more than any other, speaks to Metro's decline. For NPR News, I'm Martin DiCaro in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin DiCaro