Paul Jacob

There is no such thing as a free . . . ride. Washington, D.C.'s transit system, known as Metro, provides ample proof.

Years ago, when friends or relatives would visit and marvel at our clean, state-of-the-art subway system, I'd quip, "Enjoy it; you paid for it." Federal taxpayers were responsible for more than two-thirds, $6.4 billion, of the $9.4 billion cost of building Metro.

Now I warn visitors of the myriad dangers lurking within our transit utopia. Those dangers include being pushed, pummelled, cursed at, and threatened with violence. Not by hoodlums, mind you, but by station managers tired of hearing complaints.

Then, of course, there are the arrests. Don't try sneaking a French fry on board, or entering the no-eating zone of the subway system chewing your very last bite of a candy bar. (It doesn't matter that you've conscientiously thrown the wrapper in the wastebasket.) I won't trouble you with a recount of all the silly incidents, children bullied, pregnant women shoved to the ground. The list is simply too long.

Metro's solution has been to provide special training to Metro police, including an introduction to Eastern philosophy. Station managers are also being retrained, "brushing up" on "skills" such as courtesy and common decency.

There is another side, too. Over the first six months of this year, assaults on Metro bus drivers increased 50 percent from the previous year. I won't excuse these assaults. But they do merit explanation. Might not buses hours late raise the temperature of individual tempers?

Which brings us to actually getting from here to there. Metro trains and buses are aging; they are breaking down twice as often as they did just a couple years ago. That means that the bus or train you catch may be going nowhere ? save into the shop.

The epidemic of maintenance problems and the inability to solve them led an independent review to suggest hiring outside maintenance firms. Predictably, Metro management says union contracts forbid this option. Instead, Metro is providing (you guessed it) further training to their existing mechanics.

In this environment, mistakes are inevitable. Recently, workers at one subway station ignored repeated alarms while the station flooded, impeding the Red Line for more than a week. There was the train conductor who left his train idling in the station as he caught another train, what with his workday over and all. Unfortunately, his replacement was nowhere in sight.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.