Paul Jacob

Others argue that if only the Metro system had greater and more stable funding these problems could be solved. But if throwing money at problems were the same thing as solving them, our panoply of local, state and federal governments would have ushered in nirvana many moons ago.

The Washington-area Metro system faces a myriad of troubles, but behind and beneath them all lies the specter of profit. A lack of profit.

Oh, I know we’re used to hearing profit attacked, attached to greed — all that “people before profits” stuff. But without profits, products cannot be produced, nor services rendered.

Even subsidies cannot be maintained except for the ability to tax profitable economic activity to subsidize unprofitable endeavors. (I realize this is Econ 101 for most folks, but transportation experts need to hear this.)

Many years ago, I knew trouble was brewing when a newspaper report stopped me cold. It mentioned and moaned about a critical new problem for the Metro system: Too many riders!

When on earth does a business complain about lots of new paying customers?!

When it isn’t really looking to make a profit, and instead receives its lifeblood through taxpayer subsidy, making every new “customer” an unfunded liability.

So, today, without any incentives related to turning a profit, the service of a Metro train ride is underpriced and over-used. The income from more riders doesn’t cover the cost of maintenance to keep the system working efficiently, and most of all, keep riders and operators safe.

If Metro were profitable, an accident would not only produce ugly headlines and ill-will among the public, but potentially significant financial penalties.

Better safety would follow.

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.