Taken for a ride

Posted: Nov 28, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Worse yet, a serious collision recently caused minor injuries to 20 passengers and blocked the tracks for days. Accidents do happen, but investigation into this one showed Metro had ignored recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board after a similar accident years ago.

To add injury to insult, Metro runs advertisements urging riders to save themselves the hassle of driving and parking at Washington Redskins football games. Take Metro instead, we're told. And with the horrendous traffic we face in the Washington area, the pitch has appeal. Yet even while taking an $18,000 per-game fee from the Redskins to provide enhanced service for the games, Metro ran trains so infrequently that fans were stranded for hours.

Said one fan: "It was horrible. We paid a fare ? it wasn't like they were doing it for free."

No, not for free. At a loss.

Metro's problems, like those of public transportation across the country, can be summed up in the one word that transportation planners never utter: profit.

The problem, of course, being the lack of any. For Metro, profits are not even under consideration; they don't exist even as a pipe dream.

"It's a death spiral," says Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White. He's talking about Metro's need for more money to fix or replace aging equipment and to build an even bigger system to follow the population's changing travel patterns, while unable to handle the strains of increased ridership. But he may as well be talking about the lack of profit.

Users pay only about half of the annual cost of running Metro, much less the billions to build it. Without making a profit, Metro is hardly in a position to fix its crumbling infrastructure or expand its failing operation. In fact, since every customer represents a loss in revenue, it fears what most businesses desire: more customers.

The human side of the lack of profits is a deteriorating system that fails customers and leaves employees with lots of explaining to do. No wonder there is conflict between customers, promised a service, and employees, unable under the circumstances to deliver it.

In the private sector ? which, incidentally, has made America the world's biggest economic power ? profits are the bottom line, creating a system where products and services are produced and sold by enterprises that survive or die on profit, and thus a system whereby costs are contained and customers satisfied by that wonderful, almost magical force, known as self-interest.

People want to make money, so they constantly strive, on their very own accord, to cut the costs of providing that service. Then, they also strive to provide the service to more people and at greater value.

This is a foreign concept to Metro. And, as readers of my Common Sense e-letter have learned, profit is unthinkable to most of the putative problem solvers engaged in today's most intractable problem areas ? which is why those areas remain problems.

If there were a profit motive alive at Metro, it would not have taken four years to investigate its parking employees' million-dollars-per-year thieving habits.

A profit motive would cause managers to suggest selling customers food ? at a profit ? rather than arresting them for eating. It would suggest they fire station managers who threatened customers. An enterprise that was making a profit would see an advantage in keeping equipment working and saving capital to make expansion possible.

Without profit, enterprises must beg government for our tax dollars and find other measurements of "success." When Metro turned 25 years old back in 2001, Metro enthusiasts talked little about moving people efficiently from point A to point B. Instead, the Metro was called "an incredible social success," and was even credited as a "matchmaker" for bringing couples together.

Metro spends $9.4 billion to build a subway system and nearly a billion dollars a year to run it, only to claim credit for men and woman falling in love.

That's what we've come to expect from enterprises that spurn the very idea of profit.