A ball of fire that erupted on the subway tracks here Thursday injured no one but set off a chain of rush-hour delays that have become maddeningly common. Two months ago, the entire subway system shut down, with little warning because of urgent concerns for safety. Last year, a train got stuck in a smoke-filled tunnel, trapping passengers and killing one.
The meltdown in the nation's second-busiest subway system, once a model of utopian design and national aspiration, is sending a direct warning to federal lawmakers that the country's aging mass transit systems need billions of dollars in repairs, that, if unmet, pose a genuine safety threat to the public.
"It is just one more example of the under-investments that have been made," President Obama said Friday, warning of more failures in the nation's infrastructure and putting a price tag of $1 trillion to $2 trillion on fixing the problem. "The D.C. Metro historically has been a great strength of this region. But over time, we under-invested in maintenance and repair."
Advocates for fixing the crumbling subways see hope amid the disastrous commutes. The presidential front-runners from both parties, who share close ties to New York, home of the busiest subway in the U.S., have found rare agreement that repairs are desperately needed, and that mass transit is crucial to the economy.
Groups from the left and right, led by the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, are gathering this month in Washington to press Congress for infrastructure spending at all levels, including roads, bridges and water pipes that have gained urgent attention after dangerous levels of lead leached into the drinking water in Flint, Mich. While few expect to get an infusion of cash this year, they are hoping to lay the groundwork for next year, when a new president often gets a brief window of cooperation with Congress to pass spending bills.
“We’ve got one good shot,” said Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania. Rendell, a Democrat, co-chairs a bipartisan infrastructure group funded by former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and also consults for industry clients.
The general manager of Washington's Metro, Paul J. Wiedefeld, announced a slew of delays, station closures, and service cutbacks Friday that will disrupt commutes around the region for a year. He cited safety and reliability as the goal, but warned that the latest repairs would not alleviate the need for more work.
“We’ve been shoveling out sand this side, but sand’s been coming in the other side just as quick,” Wiedefeld said.
While Washington's problems have been unusually severe, commuters in other cities have also faced tough times. The Chicago Transit Authority closed a branch of its subway three years ago for five months to replace 10 miles of track. Storms last winter paralyzed Boston’s web of subways, trolleys, and commuter trains, bringing the city to a near standstill for days at a time and zapping confidence in its ultimately doomed bid to host the Olympics. The same week this year that Washington's Metro closed for business, frustrated Bay Area riders awaiting late trains were treated to a blunt Twitter rant – from BART’s official account – telling them to get used to it.
“BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life,” the agency wrote in one message. “This is our reality.”
The crises facing American transit systems are complex. Many involve age, neglect, and mismanagement. One thing they share: a staggering repair bill.
“Every transportation system in America is functionally bankrupt,” said Doug Foy, who oversaw transportation for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and is now a consultant. “They have nowhere near the money to maintain what they’ve got, never mind building something larger.”
The Federal Transit Administration estimated the national repair backlog at $86 billion in a 2013 report. Other studies peg the figure higher, particularly for larger urban systems that transport the most passengers, but also have the oldest equipment.
The problem gets scant attention from Congress, which has increased transit spending incrementally but has been unwilling to provide the levels that many transit managers say is needed.
Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, who represented New York in the Senate, discussed Boston’s transit woes at length when she announced a $275-million infrastructure plan during a speech in November at historic Faneuil Hall.
“Public transit is absolutely vital to connecting people, especially students and low-income people and people of color,” she said, naming her proposal the first plank in a broader jobs program.
Donald Trump, the presumed Republican nominee, has been vague on most of his policy proposals. Yet the New York native has shown a clear interest in upgrading transportation at all levels, framing the poor state of the nation’s airports and subways as a competitive disadvantage with China.
“We have to spend money on mass transit,” Trump told the Guardian last year. “We have to fix our airports, fix our roads also, in addition to mass transit, but we have to spend a lot of money.”
Obama, who blamed the problems on congressional Republicans, urged the public on Friday to put more pressure on lawmakers and presidential candidates to explain how they will pay for any fixes.
"We're seeing these kinds of infrastructure problems spring up in communities all across the country, and it doesn't distinguish by race or by region," he said. "Everybody needs roads. Everybody needs airports. So, hopefully, this will prompt a conversation."
Many states have lost hope that the federal government, which spends about $12 billion a year on all public transportation programs combined, will upgrade its commitment to fixing roads, bridges, and subways. The federal gas tax, which provides the bulk of that spending, has not been increased in two decades and is seen as outdated as cars become more fuel efficient. Eighteen states have raised their own gas taxes over the last two years to compensate.
“America’s pretty much a Third World country when it comes to our infrastructure,” said Ray LaHood, a Republican who served as Obama’s Transportation secretary and who co-chairs the infrastructure group with Rendell. “A lot of these cities just don’t have the money, and they can’t raise the fares.”
The problem is not limited to the oldest systems, however. BART in San Francisco and Washington's Metro both opened in the 1970s. Once seen as modern, the new train-car smell has warn off. Many of the faulty power cables used by BART, for example, have not been replaced since the trains began running in 1972, and are now a leading cause of delays. The majority of the system’s train cars are also original models.
“Some of the technology is just obsolete, so the maintenance crews have to be creative about that,” said Jim Allison, a spokesman for the agency. “We’re carrying more people than ever. It’s a double-headed hydra.”
The agency is trying to build support for a $3.5-billion bond issue it hopes to place on the November ballot.
Washington, meanwhile, is trying to convince riders that the trains are still safe to ride. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx replaced three members of Metro’s board last week, part of a broader assertion of federal authority over the system, which has been plagued by safety problems.
“You can defer maintenance on a rail system and it doesn’t show up for a long time,” said David L. Gunn, a retired transit veteran who ran Washington’s subways in the early 1990s and analyzed its problems six years ago.
The key, transit veterans say, is getting ahead of the problems before they become an emergency. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in the midst of a $1.2-billion overhaul of its oldest line, the Blue Line, which is more than a quarter of a century old. LA Metro is also in the process of replacing Red and Purple Line cars.
Gunn cautions against viewing rail problems solely in terms of money. He suggested a combination of factors in Washington, including inept leadership and seemingly benign actions, such as running the trains longer at night, which reduce the time that workers have to conduct maintenance on the tracks.
“Money is an issue, but it has become the mantra, the crutch,” he said. “The board screwed it up. …They were making really bad decisions."
“The problems in Washington are really — they’re very serious.”