DC’s Metro is So Bad People Are Leaving Their Cars and Walking to the Airport

When I moved to the Washington DC area in the mid-1990s the public transit train system – Metro – was a jewel. It was so badly managed that it fell into disrepair, and a number of high-profile collisions and derailments as well as death by smoke inhalation led to federal oversight of the system.

What did the federal regulators find? “[A]lthough regulations require controllers to be recertified annually, none had been since 2012. And up-to-date rule books weren’t always available, because of problems with the printer and three-hole puncher.”

Train controllers paid more attention to their cell phones than to trains. Train operators sabotaged trains.

Then-NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman called Metro’s absent-minded safety culture “a sickness” and accused subway officials of “monkeying around.” …Metro had devolved from a shining national model to a rudderless and demoralized mess.

The train system’s reliability shrunk, so fewer people rode the train even as the area has grown. So the system raised fares and reduced service, so fewer people rode the train. So they’ve been pushing hard for more tax dollars (“dedicated funding”) so that they can continue service in a way that’s immune to the pressures of their riders.

The transit authority is even worse than the area’s airport authority. Their strategy for reviving the system involves introducing retail and making stations more instagrammable.

I warned earlier in the week that they had decided to close the system at Washington National airport for the three day Veteran’s Day weekend for maintenance.

There is no Yellow or Blue service between Braddock Road and Pentagon City, so the Crystal City and National airport stations are closed. Metro claims to have chosen a 3 day weekend to “reduce the impact on commuters.” Of course this is simply work that had been scheduled earlier and then delayed.

Of course it’s a disaster.

Even the airport itself admits things have broken down.

Metro is running buses to the airport from other stations, but there aren’t enough buses. Hundreds of people have been standing in line waiting for buses. Here’s a line at the nearby Pentagon City metro station.

More people are driving to the airport so there’s been bad traffic. Traffic has gotten so bad that people just get out of their cars and walk the rest of the way to the airport to avoid missing flights.

Arriving at the airport and want to leave?

As much as I miss the best Thai food in the country Metro is one of the things that makes me glad I’ve moved away. It’s perhaps the only thing in the area even worse than the airport’s gate 35X.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You can’t say it’s bad and mangled, and then not notice the benefits in getting people out of their cars and off the roads – if there wasn’t metro, DCA would be gridlocked like it is this weekend all the time.

    It needs a lot of work. Metro sure is far from perfect, but don’t through the baby out with the bath water.

  2. @Daniel – He’s not taking issue with the Metro infrastructure – it’s the management he’s calling out.

  3. Flew into DCA last night, it took the shuttle 35m to get from Holiday Inn CC to the Airport, which is normally a 5m drive.

    It was an absolute mess, if I didn’t have 2 bags I would have made the walk across the bridge, which would have taken 20m…. absolutely a gong-show last night.

  4. @Paul

    Hard to say, actually. I’ve lived in metro DC for much of the last 20 years, and the reality is that the current metro administration inherited a system with a lot of deferred maintenance that just all piled up. One of the first things the current GM did when he took over was shut the whole system down for a day because of some incident early in his tenure.

    My problem is less the the paid metro staff (including the GM) and more the metro board. Each locality appoints its own reps, which are *not* elected. Each metro board member is responsible to the locality that appointed him/her, and *nobody* is accountable to the metro ridership or general public.

    The current GM got a broken system. If we’re going to replace him, the real question is whether a better job could be done, and if so, by whom. Those answers aren’t clear to me.

  5. FWIW, this isn’t the first time the airport metro station has been closed for maintenance. In, the station had been closed for several days over the course of the last couple of years for the major overhaul projects.

    These kinds of headlines weren’t the norm then, so I wonder what’s different now.

  6. “Then-NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman called Metro’s absent-minded safety culture “a sickness” and accused subway officials of “monkeying around.””

    After being totally confused a few weeks back when this phrase was being declared racist, I’m glad to see it is in fact more widely used. I never saw a dust-up about Ms Hersman’s statement as racist. Unfortunately, election season changes everything.

  7. WMATA management has been a disaster for too many years now.

    Unfortunately at this point there is no easy fix for getting the Metro up to where it should be. The slowest use time for the Metro trains seems to be around Christmas and New Years, but they can’t pack in all their work in those couple of winter weeks since there seems to be way to much work that should have been done earlier as part of routine maintenance over the decades but was not.

  8. To blame Metro management ignores the politics that have undercut this system. This is about governments, especially in Virginia as well as the US Congress, opposing public transit and public spending in general. That anti-government movement especially defunded Metro in the 1990s but the effect was to delay repairs. Those backlogged repairs only later had their full effect which really brought down the system over the past decade. Yes, there have been management issues but that’s to be expected when you bleed a system dry and sink morale with a lack of funding. Virginia is changing now but was a part of that anti-government movement and it opposed funding increases for decades and prevented necessary maintenance from getting done. Basically it was an anchor pulling down the system. The Gingrich/Contract With America was a turning point as well.
    If you don’t like what’s happened to Metro, think about the funding history that caused this jewel of a system to fall into disrepair.

  9. You got out while the “getting is good,” Gary. The core infrastructure of this entire area -rail, highways, bridges-is in a state of collapse. Poor leadership, bad management, corruption and NIMBY all to blame.

  10. Metro has always had plenty of funding as has the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority. What they lacked was accountability due to their structure. Now they demand more funding but will not accept accountability. It’s a symptom of every major city in the USA.(all controlled by Democrats, btw) Why does a tunnel under the Hudson River cost $30 billion? It doesn’t have to.

  11. And Amazon appears to be opening shop in Crystal City…go figure! Of course, Amazon could buy the entire Metro and no doubt run it on time; but Bernie Sanders would never allow that!

  12. I disagree with Gary and Rjb’s categorization of dedicated funding. Basically WMATA for almost its entire existence was hamstrung as a system because of appropriations based unpredictable funding. What this meant is that they couldn’t issue bonds for capital expenses or maintenance like almost any other comparable transit system, impeding improvements and fixes.

    I agree that it is mismanaged in almost every way. Part of that is a pattern of decisions that show that the institution believes it is more a commuter rail system than a true urban subway. Hence, more closures on holidays and over the summer (peak tourist season).

    However, dedicated funding is a step in the right direction. On balance, so are these painful closures to fix long-deferred maintenance (ripping the band-aid off), even if the timing is bad. I had to ride the bus instead of train for two months this summer due to closures, but it is making the system better.

  13. How very sad. As Gary points out, a once-great Metro was allowed to deteriorate to the point where breakdowns, poor service and non-functioning equipment is now the norm. Like much in the District, it is likely broken beyond the capacity to be repaired by dysfunctional management. Not surprising, when you realize that the new Metro mantra is “Back 2 good”. Might as well be “Stupid is as stupid does”. See:

  14. I find it odd and amusing that DCA is quick to blame WMATA when the truth is, the terrible management of DCA and the ongoing construction project Journey has left DCA a complete mess. The traffic patterns are disorganized and illogical and the ride share system is a nightmare. DCA should focus more on improving itself and less on blaming WMATA

  15. I take the metro to work every day. It’s gotren 100% better in the last 2 years. They have a lot to do to fix the mess they’ve had to deal with since they have t performed any maintenance on it in 49 years. It’s getting better.

  16. This isn’t new .:. I’ve had to “walk” to the airport several times from a parking space in Crystal / Pentagons City. It only took me three times to learn the route without getting lost. The airport should improve its pedestrian connections making it more apparent and safer for pedestrians. It’s a cheap and easy fix to one of many problems with DCA.

  17. Jeff has laid out well what marked the drive behind WMATA’s problems manifested in more recent years.

    The DC Metro system was built to be impressive, thanks in no small part to the Cold War. But once newt Newt Gingrich got his way with playing to ideological zealotry and identity politics, DC and the Metro became a casualty of the hostile politics of Gingrich and his fanboys in and out of Congress.

  18. The ability to walk out of a bad situation is one reason why I stick to a back pack rather than a roller bag. Friday night I walked to Crystal City and got a cab. Easy.

  19. Yes, Metro – like ALL underfunded transit systems in the U. S. – is plagued with maintenance and administrative problems but most of the blame rests on the shoulders of the federal government.

    European countries are off the chain with adequately funded public transit and High Speed Rail while we are stuck in the 19th century.

  20. Yes, Metro – like ALL underfunded transit systems in the U. S. – is plagued with maintenance and administrative problems but most of the blame rests on the shoulders of the federal government.

    European countries are off the chain with adequately funded public transit and High Speed Rail while we are stuck in the 19th century.

  21. “I’m so glad I moved away” (from Washington, DC). Like public transportation is superior in Austin?

  22. Samuel Augustus,

    I’ve encountered more train service disruptions in Denmark and Sweden and France in the past 10 years than I have had in DC in the past 25 years.
    Sacrificing maintenance timelines and near-term capital investment for budgeting/financing reasons is a problem in even the relatively wealthy parts of Europe too. And the issue of public transit financing is getting worse for users of the system in Europe as income inequality increases, social-economic mobility decreases and the beneficiaries of public transit are increasingly perceived (by those in power) as being disproportionately “the other” — such as immigrants and/or the descendants of relatively recent immigrants.

    Europe isn’t as pretty a model as some of my fellow Americans think it is.

  23. I LOVE DC.

    And Metro is one of the main reasons I chose to retire in pricey Dupont Circle instead of public transit starved Florida, where I was born and bred. Despite mega-problems the Red Line is my life line…and I thank God for Metro Rail, Uber and Lyft.

    Most auto-addicted big cities in the U. S. don’t even have a rapid rail system to complain about.

  24. Just dropped my wife off at DCA and the airport has two of the four lanes on the B/C departure level closed. Does not look related to their ongoing construction. Of course, traffic is a disaster. Tomorrow will be another day of hell.

  25. What’s in the Potomac people that are drinking who are responsible for financing and managing WMATA, as it reads like Amtrak on a local scale?

    And the issue is not limited to how “the fish rots from the head,” as we have noted a failure of common sense and responsibility of the subway crew by running red signal lights, no interest in seeking upgraded operating manuals, or, to have their union leaders surface the issue, etc.

    Unlike our airlines, transit systems are hard-wired to their transit union contracts that cannot be outsourced to lower costs; contract negotiations consist of only what else is on the table, and not, givebacks. Yet, management, as with Amtrak, historically has ingeniously created a “plug” in their new budget year to ensure senior and executive management secure their anticipated bonus for that new year–all with the knowledge and consent of a corrupted Board of Directors at Amtrak.

    Of course, WMATA’s deterioration is nothing compared to NYMTA, which has negatively benefited from the pincers of Governor Cuomo re-directing dedicated transit funding for signals and infrastructure to his favorite self-serving PR or bridge program; compounded by the recently resigned MTA Chair Lhota who had no qualm grabbing a board position at the Madison Square Garden company concomitant to its negotiations over Penn Station, while he also served his other full-time job on NYU Langone Medical Center’s board.

    Tammany Hall lives; so, if you do not approve of the growth of union wages, benefits, contracts, lack of operating standards, look at the management and its alleged Board oversight (except when the Board is negotiating from both sides of the table, as at NYMTA, Amtrak, etc.) Almost makes American’s new seats acceptable…

  26. You all should know what their newest marketing campaign is….”Back To Good”

    I wonder how many thousands of dollars this cost….sigh

  27. Lots of folks posting here who apparently haven’t flown out of DCA lately – exception seems to be “JR”, who gets it. Railing on Metro is fine, but it’s not the root cause of what Gary observed.

    While the traffic this weekend may have been exacerbated due to the metro shutdown, it’s the “construction” (and by “construction” I mean multiple lanes of arrivals/departures areas being blocked off by cones with nothing being visibly constructed whatsoever) that is causing the main issues. For the past few weeks, the cabbies I’ve been riding with – both to and from – having been giving me an earful…

  28. CW Is correct: as someone who used national every week or so for the past 6 months I can tell you that the weekend metro closure is a nuisance but NOT the problem.

    The problem is the massive all-at-once construction project at the airport. Traffic there has been gridlocked for weeks. It can take 30 minutes to get from the parkway to the terminal in a car when metro is running smoothly.

    In fact, I stopped ubering to/from DCA and started metroing because of the car traffic situation.

    Metro has been a blessing in this situation. So I can understand how frustrating it is to have it not available.

    But let’s focus on the real problem here: the airport authority. Not the metro system that is finally getting the attention and money it needs.

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