What the ‘Dumpster Fire’ D.C. Metro Says About Federal Bureaucracy
The District of Columbia Council voted in June to impose a tax increase 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 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 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 and sexual assaults in broad daylight. Even the D.C. government admits that Uber is a faster way to get around the District 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” 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.
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 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