The little engine that couldn’t: The story of a Metro mess

There are many rapid transit systems in the United States designed to be cheap, reliable, safe and convenient ways to navigate cities. But the United States has only one capital, Washington, D.C., and its rapid transit system, known as “Metro,” is, to put it politely, a mess.

{mosads}Let’s start with the recent disaster of Jan. 12, when Yellow Line trains at L’Enfant Plaza filled with smoke, leaving stranded passengers gasping for air for 45 minutes before being rescued. Over 80 people ended up in the hospital, and one woman, Carol Glover, died from smoke inhalation. Her sons are now suing Metro for $50 million. Although a National Transportation Safety Board investigation is not complete, preliminary reports suggest that intake fans in the trains did not work, a communications radio failure prevented emergency workers from talking to train operators, and passengers could not get the train doors to open. If the crisis was a test of how Washington would fare in a terrorist incident or mass casualty situation, we flunked.

Putting aside safety, there is the issue of the reliability and convenience of using underground trains instead of driving. Imagine the scene this past weekend when 20,000 fans left the Verizon Center after a nail-biting basketball game between the Washington Wizards and the Toronto Raptors — many of those fans heading for the Metro. Passengers waited 45 minutes for a train on a crowded platform in frigid air while inactive trains passed them by. Metro can’t claim they didn’t have enough warning — the game had gone into overtime! Think about how police officers felt patrolling a platform jammed with post-game fans whose team had just lost. Thankfully, there was no incidence of violence with huge numbers of frustrated people standing alongside a track.

Public transportation is a public good. Underground transit systems are the arteries that make cities work. With urban sprawl reducing access to city centers, and concerns about long commutes and pollution-causing vehicles crowding America’s roads, subway systems and metro rails become key to the flow of commerce and the resilience of communities during ordinary times and in a crisis.

President Obama’s new budget proposal includes additional funds for America’s highways and transit systems — about $478 billion to overhaul the infrastructure — a desperately needed investment. It can’t come soon enough, but early reactions from members of Congress suggest there will be a budget fight that will paralyze the process, leaving passengers stranded again.

For now, Washington needs to get its Metro running right. Imagine if we had won the bid for the Olympics. Perhaps this explains why we are not hosting the Games. In either case, the nation’s capital is supposed to be a good role model for the rest of America, so let’s get on track.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs and teaches at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

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