Metro Crash Politics
I agree with Matt Yglesias that “it’s a bit ugly to talk politics in the wake of a tragedy” but, like him, I will nonetheless point to a couple of interesting, related debates that have been sparked by yesterday’s crash on DC’s Metrorail system Red Line.
This report, naturally, is causing some finger pointing:
The subway train that plowed into another, causing a crash that killed seven and injured scores of others in the nation’s capital, was part of an aging fleet that federal regulators had recommended three years ago be phased out or retrofitted, a safety investigator said Tuesday. Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said the Metrorail transit system “was not able to do what we asked them to do.”
Glenn Reynolds quips that, “If this hapened in the private sector, we’d be hearing about ‘greed.'” That’s probably true. The fact of the matter, though, is that, prior to yesterday’s tragedy, there had been precisely one fatal crash on Metro, a 1982 derailment that killed three. And Metro spokesmen said that they were in fact responding the the 2006 NTSB finding and have new trains on order.
But, as in the private sector, replacing potentially dangerous equipment can be expensive and cash might not be available to do everything right away. In both cases, someone has to pay for it. In Metro’s case, that means some combination of 1) the paying customers, 2) DC-Virginia-Maryland governments who maintain the system and have an interest in getting people off the roads, and 3) Congress.
As James Ridgeway notes, Sen. Tom Coburn has been almost singlehandedly blocking a $1.5 billion investment in upgrading the system, arguing that those who directly benefit from the system should pay the cost, not taxpayers in Oklahoma. That’s a view that I’m largely sympathetic to.
But the practical problems are manifold. First, increasing rider fees substantially will reduce ridership considerably. Not only could that make it harder to raise the funds to upgrade the system, but it increases the strain on already unmanageable local road traffic. Second, most Metrorail riders are commuters who are outside the ability of DC’s uniquely non-independent city government to tax. Third, because DC is the national capital, it is in some ways the country’s city almost as much as it is the local residents’.
My guess is that the tragic crash will make it politically impossible for Congress not to pony up emergency repair money. That’s probably an irrational response to a freak occurrence. But, often, that’s how legislation gets passed.
UPDATE: And, no, a metropolitan subway system is not the equivalent of any other business that should be expected to sustain itself through profits. It’s part of the transportation infrastructure just like roads, regular rail, airports, seaports, and so forth. The “competition” for Metro is publicly financed highways.
Photo credit: David Corn.