Sunday, June 05, 2005

Does the future of Houston's Metro = the current reality at DC's Metro?

I'll open by saying I was a mild supporter of the Main St. light rail line, and mostly neutral on the expansion plan (it has its pluses and minuses) - but nightmare articles like the one below bring serious pause. It's all too easy to imagine Houston Metro in the same place in 15 years...

washingtonpost.com - OFF THE RAILS

Efforts to Repair Aging System Compound Metro's Problems

By Lyndsey Layton and Jo Becker, Washington Post Staff Writers

Washington's world-class subway system, which for three decades has shaped the metropolitan region and delivered thousands of commuters to work on time, has fallen into a decline -- and mismanagement has been a key factor, records show. Trains break down 64 percent more often than they did three years ago, and the number of daily delays has nearly doubled since 2000. Although the vast majority of trains are on time, more than 14,400 subway riders a day are inconvenienced by a delay or a mechanical problem that forces them off broken trains.

Metro officials have spent nearly $1 billion in recent years to turn around the nation's second busiest subway system, but internal records show that the projects have created new problems. To ease chronic crowding, Metro purchased 192 rail cars at a cost of $383 million. But the agency tried to rush the cars through production and often missed mistakes made on the assembly line. And on average, the new cars need major repairs almost as often as the oldest ones in the fleet.

Metro is spending an additional $382 million to rebuild rail cars bought in the 1980s. Officials failed to closely monitor the repair work, didn't catch mistakes and ignored warnings from auditors about the lack of supervision. The refurbished cars are now breaking down far more often than those that haven't been overhauled.

And a $93 million project to renovate 178 escalators has managed to make many of them worse. More than a third have been breaking down more often than they did before, a Washington Post analysis of Metro statistics shows. The project follows a failed attempt, also costing millions, to improve the aging machinery.


The article goes on into great depth on management problems at DC Metro, and this is just the first of a four article series. Here's the summary of the future articles:

Today
Washington's world-class subway has fallen into decline, and nearly $1 billion spent on projects to upgrade the system has not improved service.

Monday
As the number of derailments, rail breaks and other safety concerns on Metro has risen sharply, records show that many incidents could have been prevented if managers had heeded warnings from experts and employees.

Tuesday
MetroAccess, the transportation program for the disabled, has been plagued by poor service, rising costs and dishonest drivers and riders.

Wednesday
Even as Metro officials complain about tight finances, they continue to spend millions on projects that have little to do with the core mission of transporting customers.

Quite the depressing and scary litany. It's really hard to have good management at a public agency, and transit is a seriously complicated and expensive business with billions of dollars at stake, especially rail transit. Amtrak's a mess. DC's a mess. NY, Chicago, SF/San Jose, and LA all have serious problems with their transit agencies. What makes us think Houston Metro can buck this trend?

6 Comments:

At 7:31 AM, June 06, 2005, Blogger John Whiteside said...

Former Washingtonian here.

I think you have to keep a little perspective on the Post story and remember that despite the problems, DC Metro is an incredibly successful system whose support among the public runs very, very deep. They underestimate (as they always do) the problems that the lack of dedicated funding for Metro cause: they are dealing with years of underinvestment that are catching up with them. I don't think the mismanagement vs budget delineation is as clear as the Post writer seems to; when you are under-resourced things don't get the attention they should, and you get problems like their rail car issues.

My personal belief about the management problems is that you've got the same problems in all organizations, public and private; it's just much less often that people dig into the private ones - they need to blow up like Enron (or blow something up like BP) before it happens. So there's no magic bullet; just giving agencies what they need to do their job (something DC Metro hasn't had) and then watching them like hawks.

As for Houston, much as I love trains, I think we'd get more bang for our buck my upgrding bus service a bit and marketing the hell out of it. It's actually not a bad system. It could be a lot more useful without spending a ton of money.

 
At 4:20 PM, June 06, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Absolute and total agreement on the bus service upgrade. Much more bang for the buck.

 
At 6:54 AM, June 07, 2005, Anonymous Falafel said...

I live in the DC metro area. I used the metro orange line between Vienna and downtown Washington several times in the past and it was always a bad experience. First, you have to park your car in the metro station's garage. That's $3.75. Add to that a round trip ticket $3.65 x 2. That's $11.05 total.
It takes about 45 minutes in the train to make a 12 mile trip. There are 11 stops on the way and no express line! You would have to stop at every station on the way.

I think that our metro is the second busiest because people do not have too many options here. For example, if you are in Vienna, VA and would like to drive to downtown DC (similar to being in say Cinco Ranch and would like to drive to Galleria area) you only have several options:

1. I-66: this interstate is the best way to go. However you will not be able to drive on it at all if you don’t have a second person with you. Yes you heard right. In the morning rush hour window (I don’t know exact times) I-66 inbound between the beltway and downtown is HOV all lanes! The same is true for the outbound lanes in the evening rush hour. They had to do this some years back because if they did not, I-66 will not be drivable and becomes a parking lot!

2. Rt. 50: this is your other and probably only feasible option. It is a 3 lane road in each direction (some sections are still only 2 lanes in each direction). It has so many traffic lights. It is similar to driving on FM1960 between 290 and I-45.


http://www.wmata.com/metrorail/systemmap.cfm

Falafel,
aosman@gmail.com

 
At 6:26 AM, June 08, 2005, Blogger hcpark said...

Check out today's yahoo finance survey.

 
At 8:18 AM, June 08, 2005, Blogger hcpark said...

Interesting survey in today's yaho! finance:

How much time do Americans spend commuting to work each year on average?

How respondents have answered:
137883 votes to date
50 hours 3% 4126 votes
100 hours 11% 14982 votes
200 hours 40% 54528 votes
350 hours 47% 64247 votes
The correct answer is:
100 hours

 
At 8:32 AM, June 08, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Howard sent some additional text to go with that survey:

On average, American workers spend more time commuting to work each year (100 hours) than they receive in vacation time (80 hours) according to a recent study published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Each day the average worker spends 24.3 minutes commuting to work. An astonishing 2% of the working population spend 90 minutes or more each day getting to the office.

The census data revealed that the states with the longest average commutes included New York (30.4 mins), Maryland (30.2 mins) and New Jersey (28.5 mins). The states with the shortest commute times included South Dakota (15.2 mins), North Dakota (15.4 mins) and Nebraska (16.5 mins).

The cities with the shortest average work commutes included Corpus Christi, TX (16.1 mins), Wichita, KS (16.3 mins) and Tulsa, OK (17.1 mins). The cities to avoid if you want to avoid a long commute include New York, NY (38.3 mins), Chicago, IL (33.2 mins) and Newark, NJ (31.5 mins).

 

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