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What the ‘Dumpster Fire’ D.C. Metro Says About Federal Bureaucracy

The District of Columbia Council voted in June to impose a tax increase [1] of almost 500 percent on Uber and Lyft users to help fix the Washington Metro transit system.  Anyone who summons a Lyft or Uber ride inside D.C. will now be hit with a 6 percent fee to bankroll a subway that a top Obama administration official aptly labeled an “ongoing dumpster fire” two years [2] ago.

I traveled downtown via Metro a couple times recently, departing from a station where one track was closed for overhaul. I saw plenty of loitering Metro employees but work seemed sparse.  Three guys in the repair crew were hanging by a Mercedes in the Twinbrook station parking lot, chatting and snacking. Another repair crew member was standing outside avidly checking his cell phone and glowering at passers-by. Not a bad gig if you can get it, considering that Metro spends an average of $125,000 in total [3] compensation for each employee—probably at least three or four times the earning of the typical Uber/Lyft driver.

The Twinbrook station slackers reminded me of my summer on the Virginia Highway Department payroll decades ago. As a 16-year-old flagman, I held up traffic while highway employees idled away the hours. I was usually assigned to the crew with the biggest goof-offs in the Shenandoah Valley. Working glacially to slipshod standards was their code of honor. Anyone who worked harder was viewed as a nuisance, if not a menace.

The most important thing I learned from that crew was how not to shovel. Any Yuk-a-Puk can grunt and heave material from Spot A to Spot B. But, with a little practice and savvy, a mule-like activity can be refined into an art.

To not shovel right, the shovel handle should rest above the belt buckle while one leans slightly forward—but not enough to evoke comparisons to the Tower of Pisa. It is important not to have both hands in your pockets while leaning, since that could prevent onlookers from recognizing “Work-in-Progress.”

The key is to appear to be studiously calculating where your next burst of effort will provide maximum returns for the immediate task. One should exude the same keen-eyed concentration a falcon shows before swooping down on its prey.

My crew was diddling on building a new road that summer.  The assistant foreman scoffed at that task: “Why does the state government have us do this? Private businesses could build the road much more efficiently, and cheaper, too.” I was puzzled by his comment, but by the end of the summer I heartily agreed and later recognized this as one of my most valuable political economy lessons.

The Highway Department could not competently organize anything more complex than painting stripes in the middle of a road. Even the placement of highway direction signs was routinely botched. The more highway officials became involved in a decision, the more likely the final result would be imbecilic. The bureaucracy consistently produced results more boneheaded than any individual would have devised.


When I worked for the Virginia Highway Department, there was no danger that its snafus would compel drivers to abandon the roads.  But Metro now has collapsing ridership and proliferating scandals on falsified inspection reports, bogus overtime claims, endless broken down escalators and elevators, safety problems (including blind people falling between badly designed new train cars), and murders [4] and sexual assaults [5]in broad daylight. Even the D.C. government admits that Uber is a faster way to get around the District [6] than Metro.  

The skewering of Uber and Lyft riders was spurred by the D.C. government’s promise to ante up $178 million a year in “dedicated funding” [7] for the subway system. Virginia and Maryland are also chipping in massively for this “solution” that threw the Washington Post editorial board, which retains boundless faith in the magic of government spending, into ecstasy. Metro managers had long claimed that dedicated funding would sway passengers from comparing the subway to Dante’s Inferno. But as soon as the funding deal was done, Metro stunned riders with plans for a vast array of new service disruptions, including shutting down subway lines south of Reagan National Airport for more than three months. [8]

Much of the prolificacy and inefficiency in local transit systems is the result of federal mandates. As a Heritage Foundation analysis noted, “Federal subsidies decrease incentives…to control costs, optimize service routes, and set proper priorities for maintenance and updates.” Transportation scholar Randal O’Toole observed, “Innovative solutions are bypassed and high costs are guaranteed because of the requirement that transit agencies obtain the approval of their unions to be eligible for federal grants.” And the unions often don’t give a damn about the traveling public. Unions representing DC Metro workers blame riders for the system’s problems [9]and denounced as “diabolical” a plan to contract out custodial jobs. But union campaign contributions make politicians happy, which trumps reducing costs.

If money could solve Metro’s problems, the heavily-subsidized system never would have commenced a death spiral.  But neither the feds nor local politicians have the courage to compel radical changes to curb the power of unions, end anti-work rules, and vastly reduce a bureaucracy that makes endless excuses for the system’s other failings. Nor is it likely that Metro employees will even learn the art of non-shiftless shovel leaning.

James Bovard is the author of Lost Rights, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today contributor. Follow him on Twitter@JimBovard [10]

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "What the ‘Dumpster Fire’ D.C. Metro Says About Federal Bureaucracy"

#1 Comment By polistra On July 10, 2018 @ 3:11 am

Sounds good. Anything that slows down the operations of DC is beneficial to America. Ideally the whole monstrous area will grind to a total halt.

#2 Comment By JonF On July 10, 2018 @ 6:25 am

Unmentioned here is the fact that the Metro is answerable to four governmental authorities: Congress, the District, the state of Maryland, and the state of Virginia. It might as well try herding cats.

#3 Comment By Kent On July 10, 2018 @ 6:30 am

Well, down here in Florida, we’ve outsourced essentially all road work to private businesses. They quickly adopted government practices. The 5 guys standing around one guy with a shovel is apparently impossible to improve upon.

#4 Comment By Stavros On July 10, 2018 @ 9:22 am

This is an unfortunate anecdotal screed that obscures the fundamental issue plaguing the DC Metro: a hideously unwieldy governance structure combined with a beg-by-the-year funding structure from each of four separate and frequently arguing entities. The result? Poor decision making in a chronically underfunded atmosphere that postpones needed maintenance in favor of politically attractive options such as line extensions and higher union wages. If Metro had been given an efficient and representative governing board and dedicated, adequate tax streams, they would be a far more effective entity. As for the DC council taxing Uber, I say “bravo” since the latter is a parasitic wasp serving primarily upper income customers while burrowing into public infrastructure and adding virtually nothing except lowly paid “independent contractors” in return. Let them help contribute to the costs of public transit and make it possible for lower-paid workers to get to work.

#5 Comment By Jon in Maine On July 10, 2018 @ 11:19 am

To me this article was a wasted opportunity to dig a little deeper beyond the standard Conservative view that anything run by the Government must be bad. After all there are well run transit systems in this country not to mention Europe. Stavros’s comment above is a good starting point.

#6 Comment By sglover On July 10, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

@ JonF — yeah, well, if Bovard had spent any time on the always unwieldy, multi-jurisdiction organizational structure of WMATA, he wouldn’t have been able to drone on about his teenage summer jobs. By TAC editorial standards, “things I learned in puberty” is much more important than, you know, actually conveying factual information.

#7 Comment By John Thacker On July 10, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

Eh, it’s just applying the standard sales tax, with the same sales tax rate applied to everything else, so I’m not bothered by this aspect at all. There’s no particularly good reason to exempt services from the sales tax. The Metro and its management and spending may have problems, and overall spending has problems, but I’m perfectly fine with a broad sales tax on everything with the lowest possible rate rather than lots of exemptions but a higher rate on what is taxed.

Describing it in this way is as misleading as when feminists talk about a “tampon tax” because feminine hygiene products are taxed the same as everything else and not exempted.

#8 Comment By davido On July 10, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

Just a little historical perspective.
I lived in DC from 1984 -89, a long time ago, but then the Metro was superb. Immaculately clean, safe (I never heard of anybody being assaulted), ran on time, reasonably priced. The exact opposite of NYC. I rode it extensively and was always impressed. Guess times have changed.

#9 Comment By One Guy On July 10, 2018 @ 5:32 pm

I fail to see why on Earth I should care one whit for the DC Metro System.

#10 Comment By cka2nd On July 10, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

Bring back The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation!!!!

And thank you, Stavros, sglover and John Thacker for adding some actual, you know, information to the discussion.

#11 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On July 10, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

It took six years to renovate the Hutchinson River Bridge on the Bronx.

That “bridge” was about 300′ long!

And then there was The Big Dig in Boston-billions and billions in cost overruns.


#12 Comment By Argon On July 10, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

1) Group A works to actively break a government run system.
2) System breaks.
3) Group A says, “See?! You can’t trust government systems because they always break.”
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

This is why we can’t have nice stuff.

#13 Comment By Mightypeon On July 11, 2018 @ 4:57 am

The government run moscow metro meanwhile runs pretty well.

The issue isnt government, the issue is being a falling empire.

#14 Comment By balconesfault On July 11, 2018 @ 11:27 am

As a 16-year-old flagman, I held up traffic while highway employees idled away the hours. I was usually assigned to the crew with the biggest goof-offs in the Shenandoah Valley. Working glacially to slipshod standards was their code of honor. Anyone who worked harder was viewed as a nuisance, if not a menace.

Oh god … another “those guys digging ditches are overpaid slackers” who leech off keyboard jockeys earning 6 figures working in air conditioned buildings and having power lunches while performing such essential services as Washington Lobbyist, DOD contractors, and think tank researchers.

FWIW, when you see those guys “standing around” you can blame OSHA for rules like mandated break times for manual labor, and “competent persons” whose sole job function on the site it to observe the guy down in the trench or manhole, or up on the scaffolding or catwalk, making sure that safe work practices are being followed and being dedicated to immediate response if an unsafe work condition or accident happens.

But hell, they’re just low education workers. We used to build things a lot faster and cheaper when we weren’t really encumbered by all those cumbersome “safety” regulations (you know how much longer it takes to work on a ladder when you have to keep unhooking and hooking in your safety harness each time you move?).

This is why countries like Qatar are smarter than us … they import construction workers from places like Bangladesh, India and Nepal who they can send home when they get injured on the site, and don’t have to deal with fatherless families after a workplace fatality.

#15 Comment By Thaomas On July 11, 2018 @ 4:53 pm

Metro should be funded with a congestion tax since the main beneficiaries of Metro are automobile drivers whose driving is made less hectic by having x thousand fewer cars on the road,

#16 Comment By Nelson On July 11, 2018 @ 8:37 pm

Other countries can efficiently build and maintain subways, why can’t we? What do they do that we don’t?

#17 Comment By Moone Boy On July 11, 2018 @ 11:07 pm

“The 5 guys standing around one guy with a shovel is apparently impossible to improve upon.”

Holy cow – you have the same system in America too?!

#18 Comment By Barry On July 13, 2018 @ 4:15 pm

I remember while visiting DC in the early 70’s there was big hole in the ground where buildings used to be. I asked what was going there. I was told the subway. Maybe they should have left the buildings or maybe they should have left the hole and they could have shoveled all of the garbage these DCcrats produce. On second thought the hole wouldn’t have been big enough.