Washington, D.C.’s subway system, known to locals as Metro, has long provided grist for grumbling among the region’s commuters. But recently, a spate of major service disruptions and serious (sometimes lethal) accidents have transformed the system from a local headache to a national embarrassment, prompting miserably timed examinations of its dysfunctions right on time for its 40th birthday.
The latest and most prominent airing of Metro’s dirty laundry appeared on the front page of Monday’s New York Times, in an article cataloguing the system’s myriad problems and, just as worrying, its paralyzing organizational structure. Metro runs through DC, Maryland, and Virginia, but is controlled outright by none of them. It has no dedicated revenue stream, a source of crucial financial stability to other cities’ subways (accounting for one-third, and in some cases more than half, of the budget in other major systems). This chronic funding shortage, partly a predictable result of Metro’s design (one expert calls it an “institutional orphan”), is worsened, the Times notes, by the fact that the federal government “does not contribute to the system’s $1.8 billion annual operating budget,” a situation which could only change if Congressional Republicans suddenly decide they like generous public financing of urban mass transit. There’s also its massive understaffing, petty infighting, and toxic workplace culture, all documented in a blistering Washingtonian story late last year.
Weirdly, the Times story frames all this not as poorly considered design and inept management, but something like an inevitability facing ambitious public projects in general. Not just Metro’s fatal crashes, but its “petty annoyances like broken escalators and train delays” together “reveal how a grand vision of American liberalism has collided with reality.” The story traces Metro’s bleak present back to its origins in a Great Society-era attempt to make “a visual statement about the power and prestige of the American government,” a contrast seemingly intended to demonstrate the hubris of midcentury liberals who, Icarus-like, dared to…build an attractive and functional subway system for the capital of the wealthiest nation in history.
It should go without saying that this does not seem a particularly unrealistic ambition; certainly, other cities and world metropolises seem to get by reasonably well. The narrative that there’s something inherently unworkable about these systems is a hoary yet venerable conservative fable about public services of any kind. True to form, one Heritage Foundation researcher responded to Metro’s recent problems by asserting that a lack of funding was “clearly not the problem.” Rather, “in stark contrast to most businesses, which rely on their actual customers to fund their bottom line and need to be responsive to them by necessity,” Metro is “a bloated, unaccountable system with little incentive to be responsive to market demand, minimize operating costs, or allocate its funding efficiently.” It’s true that Metro’s structure inhibits accountability, but the sweeping assertion about market incentives is not a claim about Metro, but about any good that’s provided in a non-market fashion. Businesslike management and market incentives are no panacea for these kinds of services.
Precisely because liberals are opposed to these stale and gloomy conservative narratives, they should reserve special scorn for services run as poorly as Metro has been (and not just because D.C. is a city full of liberals whose already-long commutes are getting even worse). Liberals have special reason to worry about mismanaged public services—since an ideology advocating for more government action needs to first convince voters of the government’s basic competence. Ambitious theories that seek a universal explanation for the success or failure of public services generally have a poor track record; we can learn more by studying the problems of such services on a case-by-case basis. As recent policy briefs from the Center for American Progress have acknowledged, accountability is lacking in Metro’s system, but it’s also the only major system without taxing authority, and replacing it would require gargantuan spending on highway construction. This would be a terrible way to spend money even if Metro were only required to maintain its present level of operations; in fact, it will need to expand to serve the nearly three million-person population growth expected in the D.C. region over the next four decades.
Solving these problems does not require some kind of policy alchemy. It demands careful attention to the stable funding, effective management, and unexciting everyday maintenance that characterize public services at their best. In Metro’s case, this will probably require basic changes to the system’s governance (and having one political party with a gut-level dislike of public transportation is certainly no help). But it’s dangerous folly for those disappointed in Metro’s unfulfilled promise to play into ideological fairy tales about the inescapable doom facing public services. They may not be the most dramatic achievement of American liberalism, but they are rightly one of its proudest.