A Poster Child for Government Waste

February 21, 2018

The Maryland Transit Administration suddenly shut down the Baltimore Metro last week, forcing commuters and other riders to find alternatives with less than 24 hours’ notice. The state said an inspection had found unexpectedly excessive wear on the rails that could have caused a derailment, and it plans to keep the line closed for a month while it fixes the problem – and then to close it again this summer for further work.

The coincidence that the shut-down took place the same day the White House announced its infrastructure plan led the Washington Post to call the metro the latest poster child for the need for more infrastructure spending. In fact, it is a poster child for less infrastructure spending, as it should never have been built in the first place.

 Productivity of United States Metro Systems

Thousands of Trips Per Year

New York Subway3,2115,699$1.64
NY-NJ Path2,0496,7941.60
Los Angeles1,3492,8757.82
San Juan3225139.17
Staten Island2713912.34

“Subsidies” equal operations & maintenance divided by fares. Source: 2016 National Transit Database.

As the above table shows, Baltimore’s metro is one of the least-productive and most subsidized heavy-rail lines in the country. It’s even worse when stacked up against metro’s worldwide. Of 158 metros for which data is available, Baltimore’s ranked 150th in trips per station and 152nd in trips per mile.

1990 US DOT report found that the first 7.6-mile segment was supposed to cost $800 million to build but actually cost $1.3 billion (about $1.5 and $2.4 billion in today’s dollars). It was supposed to carry 103,000 riders per weekday, but in its early years it only carried about 43,000. Maryland has since extended the line to 17 miles, yet weekday ridership in 2016 was less than 41,000, effectively meaning the extensions attracted no new riders.

To make matters worse, Baltimore bus ridership declined from 106.1 million trips the year the Metro opened to 75.6 million trips in 2016. Since Baltimore light-rail and Metro lines together carried less than 20 million trips in 2016, transit ridership would have done better if the state had put a much smaller amount of money into bus improvements.

Baltimore Metro cars have 76 seats yet carry an average of just 11.5 riders over the course of a day, which is fewer than the 13.5 passengers carried by Maryland Transit buses. Buses also cost less to operate: in 2016, MTA spent $15.73 per vehicle-revenue mile on operations and maintenance for its buses but $17.60 per mile for its Metro railcars.

In other words, buses could have performed the job of the metro for a lot less money. Now that the line is more than 30 years old and worn out, it should be replaced with buses. Instead, they are going to spend millions of dollars making token fixes and let passengers suffer increasing reliability problems.

Naturally, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan blames previous administrations for underfunding maintenance. Yet he has been in office now for more than three years, so he can’t really blame the problems on previous administrations. Why didn’t the transit authority detect the track wear sooner? Why weren’t they able to fix the problem when they were recently single-tracking the line for maintenance work?

One answer is that Hogan and his Department of Transportation have been focused on new projects rather than maintaining old ones. He was the one who decided to build the Purple Line, which will cost more than $2 billion and make congestion worse. He is also pushing for a ridiculously expensive mag-lev line from Baltimore to Washington.

This is what politicians, even supposedly fiscally conservative ones like Hogan, do: go for the glory rather than the mundane. That’s why Trump’s infrastructure plan should, but doesn’t, dedicate funds to maintenance rather than new construction. That’s why infrastructure should be funded out of user fees rather than taxes. Unfortunately, for too many the only lesson of the Baltimore Metro line is that someone else ought to pay more money to keep it running.

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