Our View: Metro is an ongoing train wreck

Our View: Metro is an ongoing train wreck
The Potomac Yard Metro station has been delayed in opening. (File photo)

Just when it seemed the news couldn’t get any worse for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, on Sunday it did just that: Metro workers voted to authorize a strike – during the very week when the eyes of the country were focused on the District for the Major League Baseball All-Star game.

While Sunday’s vote authorized a strike, workers didn’t immediately call one, and to their great credit, WMATA workers did not strike this week. But the mere threat of a Metro stoppage, during a week that should have been purely a celebration of baseball in D.C. with no dark clouds lurking, was unfortunate.

It’s difficult to overstate how significant this all-star game was for the District, the Washington Nationals and to baseball itself. Being granted an allstar game is a stamp of approval for a team and city. It’s an acknowledgement that Major League Baseball believes your team, and city, is functional enough to pull off the game’s annual self-celebration. The game is a showcase of its biggest stars and the home team serves as host and ambassadors for the sport itself.

The Nationals pulled off the organizational facets with aplomb, and on the field outfielder Bryce Harper won the Home Run Derby – and was named the best dressed all-star – while Nats ace Max Scherzer was the starting pitcher. He whipped the crowd into a frenzy by striking out the game’s first two batters. Even better, the game was a back-and-forth romp. But it should never have been threatened by a Metro strike.

These comments are not an indictment of Metro workers, whose contract reportedly expired two years ago. At some point, when an agreement can’t be reached, workers have to use whatever leverage they have – and there’s no greater leverage than disruption of service. So, thank you to Metro workers for not striking during All-Star Week.

This almost-strike, instead, falls at the feet of WMATA management, and is only the latest in a long line of almost unbelievable mistakes and mismanagement dating back almost to the system’s inception. While the troubles go back much further, in the past 3 ½ years alone:

– Alexandria resident Carol Glover, a 61-year-old asthmatic, died in January 2015 when a fire in a tunnel caused riders on her Metro train to become trapped in a smoke-filled car for 45 minutes. Glover’s death was the catalyst for the widespread Metro track repairs that are still ongoing.

– Those extensive repairs led to equally extensive delays, and many riders have just stopped using Metro.

– During the repairs, fares have gone up, while service has been more limited. Making riders pay more and giving them less is not a long-term recipe for building a successful business in any arena. The systemic funding shortages have required localities, Alexandria included, to pony up more money on an annual basis just to fund ongoing WMATA operations.

– Finally, of course, there’s the ongoing debacle surrounding Alexandria’s Potomac Yard Metro station. For the uninitiated, the city announced two months ago that the cost of this station has risen by around $50 million, while the south entrance, the one most accessible to nearby residents, had been eliminated. City residents were kept in the dark about this elimination for a year. WMATA and Alexandria officials have subsequently pointed fingers without accepting full responsibility.

The issues surrounding WMATA, which seem to be endless, beg the question as to whether the system’s operations need to go into receivership like the District of Columbia did in the mid-1990s.

Then, Anthony Williams ably led the District of Columbia as chief financial officer and later mayor, after Congress took control of the city’s finances. Williams, who, ironically, is probably the one individual most responsible for bringing major league baseball back to D.C., would seem an ideal person to right WMATA’s listing ship.

Williams, who is 66, may not be interested. But something, possibly a drastic measure, is necessary to fix the train wreck that is the region’s Metro system.