During my morning commute I often think: “Once I step through these doors, there is no turning back.”
Some theologians dispute the existence of purgatory. However, I am no longer skeptical. As a born-again heathen, even I have to set aside my doubts, breathe deeply and say a little prayer just as my train takes off.
Every time I board a train in the Metrorail system, I know there is a chance that I may not reach the office on time.
How long has it been? I am a proud, 12-year, hard-nosed Metro commuter. I can hardly believe I have made it so long. When I first used the system, I was struck dumb and filled with awe by its efficiency. In each subsequent year, I have witnessed a major subway system decline and deteriorate.
During my first Metro delay, I panicked. I did not understand what was happening. I remember the frustration and anger of the other commuters. Their rage resembled the sound of a thousand tortured souls crying out. When there is a disruption now, the emotions wash over me like white noise. Like me, most regular passengers strategically use indifference as a shield to survive.
We live in the age of the Internet. Smartphones and tablets are important tools for getting information. And yet I have to strain my ears to understand messages from Metro operators. Unfortunately, their monotonous verbiage reminds me of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the “Peanuts” TV shows. Still, by some miracle, I have become proficient in Metro-speak and can interpret for tourists and other commuters alike.
As an actively interested consumer of public transportation, I keep up with the latest and greatest events affecting the system. So I know that Metro’s general manager, Richard Sarles, is leaving after almost five years. Sarles is the latest to pass through a revolving leadership door. However, he guided the transit agency to a safer culture after a deadly accident in 2009. His successor will take responsibility for a system that is reliably inconsistent.
In 2016, Metro will close parts of the Red Line for 14 consecutive weekends. Even though the District has the second-busiest subway system in the country (behind New York), there is no reliable source of funding to sustain its repair work or expansion. Metro’s pay-as-you-go approach means it must plead with Virginia, Maryland and federal officials for funding.
The system needs a permanent funding source. In a review of Metro’s management, the Federal Transit Administration uncovered questionable financial practices. The report did not accuse Metro of wrongdoing but identified weaknesses in its approach to money management.
Regardless, WMATA will continue to squeeze passengers’ wallets by raising fares. In New York City, riders pay a flat-rate fare to enter the subway system and go anywhere they wish, no matter how far or long the trip. Metro commuters pay up to $6.90 one-way ($5.90 with a Smart Trip card) for an extremely long trip. As for the quality of the trip, the rush hour often involves riders packed like sardines – assuming the doors close and trains don’t have to offload over packed passengers to prevent a system shutdown.
“We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience,” is the standard line designed to appease harried customers, heard all too often these days.Until the system changes, passengers will face an uncertain future filled with empty apologies, delays and service disruptions,not the kind of future worth fighting for or that Washingtonians deserve.
Originally published in The Washington Post.