What Can DC Metro’s Past Tell Us About Its Future?

May 12, 2016

The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro

By Zachary Schrag (2006, with a new paperback edition in 2014)

(Available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or the publisher.)

Photo: Amazon.com

Photo: Amazon.com

The ongoing problems of the Washington, DC regional rapid transit system (“Metro”), long obvious to local residents, have now leapt into the national spotlight with last month’s unprecedented one-day shutdown of the whole system for safety inspections and a very public bureaucratic tussle between the Federal Transit Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the local agency over who gets to set the safety agenda.

(A stunning YouTube video of an electrical explosion last week prompted the latest round of FTA safety orders even as the NTSB reiterated its recommendation that safety oversight of the system be taken away from FTA and as the new system manager released a new safety plan for shutting down whole segments of the system over the next year to perform urgent maintenance.)

Meanwhile, sentiments within Congress are oscillating between “how does this get fixed” and “how much is this going to cost us?”

All this hubbub prompted your intrepid correspondent to pull down a book from his I’ve Been Meaning To Read This Eventually shelf in order to get a better understanding of how the DC Metro system came to be and how the federal role has evolved over the decades.

Zachary Schrag, a history professor at George Mason University, converted his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of the DC-area transit system into a book published in 2006, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Converted dissertations are often difficult reads, but Schrag’s book is the exception to the rule – he is a lively and engaging storyteller, able to synthesize years of research into a very readable narrative. (The book is physically difficult to read, however – the paperback version purchased by this reviewer had the margins on the even-numbered pages set inaccurately, forcing the text up against the spine of the book. Perhaps try the e-book version instead.)

Schrag’s overall conclusion is implicit in the title of the book. He believes that Metro (unlike other transit systems, none of which had nearly as much direct federal involvement) is inextricable from the other Great Society programs pushed by the Johnson Administration in the mid-1960s. He writes that “Metro emerged as public transportation intended not merely to transport commuters, but to build, in Johnson’s terms, ‘a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.’”

However, the book does not start with LBJ. Rather, Schrag first gives a brief outline of the development of the District of Columbia as a city and the unique federal role therein. It was President Coolidge who in 1926 signed a law creating the first federal planning commission for the capital city, and the original survey for a mass transit system in DC came under President Eisenhower with funding appropriated in 1955.

Even laymen will remember that subway building was not the top federal transportation priority in the mid to late 1950s. And it is impossible to separate the story of Metro from the larger story of the “Freeway Revolt” – pushback in certain big cities against the extensions of the Interstate highway system and related freeways through the inner cities. Starting in San Francisco in 1959, residents of big cities who feared eminent domain, noise, congestion, and the division of neighborhoods by limited-access roads began organizing to demand that the proposed urban Interstate extensions not be built.

In these cities, the residents often proposed that local transportation needs be met by creating or enhancing rapid transit instead of by building roads. (Schrag notes that the residents weren’t always sincere about wanting transit in their neighborhoods, either, but they had to be seen as being for something instead of against everything.)

Schrag focuses on the DC-area story as a microcosm of the larger revolt – even though the first plan for any kind of DC subway (in 1959) happened under President Eisenhower’s watch, and it was Ike who signed the 1960 law creating a National Capital Transportation Agency to carry out a Transit Development Program, that agency, “once it became active during the Kennedy administration, proposed a much more divisive program: save the city by rejecting freeways. Such a reversal illuminates a broader shift in federal transportation policy under Kennedy and Johnson…executive branch officials did begin to fight the freeways authorized under Eisenhower. Their battleground was Washington, and their weapon was rapid transit.”

The Freeway Revolt is not only inseparable from the development of DC Metro as a conceptual or planning matter – the Freeway Revolt also led to a principal means of financing the system (not just in Washington but elsewhere). Anti-highway forces within Congress had built up enough strength by 1972 to kill the biennial highway reauthorization bill for the first time. A new law negotiated in 1973 created a program by which cities (with the consent of the state governor) could petition the Federal Highway Administration to remove planned Interstate segments from the map. The city would then receive contract authority from the general fund of the Treasury to use on other roads or on new mass transit systems (with an 80 percent federal cost share).

About $2 billion of the $10 billion eventual cost of the Metro system (as completed in 2001) came from such Interstate withdrawal and substitution programs, canceling Interstate 266, the extensions of Interstates 70 and 95 south from Maryland through the District, and other planned roads.


But the bulk of the money to pay for the initial construction of the system was to come from the federal government. The first construction authorization statute, in 1965, approved a bare-bones system almost entirely confined to the District of Columbia with an estimated cost of $431 million, of which $100 million was to be a federal appropriation, $50 million was to be from the District’s budget, and the remainder was to come from a local bond issuance that would eventually be repaid through farebox revenue. (Farebox revenues were assumed to be sufficient not only to pay off the bonds but also to pay all system operating expenses.) The law established a 2 to 1 federal-local ratio for direct funding. Even this amount, which seems tiny today, was not free from controversy – Schrag says that the House sponsor of the bill “feared the bill could not pass a roll-call vote. Eventually, he persuaded enough congressmen who opposed the bill but liked him to remain in the House cloakroom, and the bill passed the House on a voice vote.”

Metro under construction at the Navy Yard in 1989. Photo: Wikipedia

Metro under construction at the Navy Yard in 1989. Photo: Wikipedia

However, in 1966, Congress approved amendments to an earlier interstate compact between the District, Maryland and Virginia expanding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission (which regulated bus fares and had ended the practice of having to change buses and pay new fares when you crossed the DC-Maryland line or a bridge from Virginia) into a new Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to take over the planning and construction of the system and absorb the NCTA. Schrag notes that “where the NCTA had been responsible primarily to Congress, WMATA had to please its eight constituent jurisdictions as well. Rather than stick to thrifty plans that [the chairman of the transit subcommittee of the House D.C. Committee] could sell to his fellow representatives, the new Authority was tempted to think big in an effort to please as many people in as many places as it could.”

Recognizing that it would be unfair to force the District to pay the entire cost of building the central segments of the system, the WMATA planners designated the twelve miles closest to downtown as “Sector Zero” and allocated those costs system-wide. Schrag reports that after the Sector Zero miles were subtracted, the remainder of the final system map approved in 1969 split its miles almost evenly between the District, Maryland and Virginia.

The National Capital Transportation Act of 1969 authorized construction of the February 7, 1969 plan revision, at an estimated total cost of $1.7 billion, with the federal government to pay two-thirds ($1.147 billion, inclusive of the $100 million authorized in the 1965 law). (The 1969 law also authorized $150 thousand for a feasibility study of extending the system to Dulles Airport.)

The map of the 98-mile system approved in February 1969 is basically the same as the 103-mile system that was completed in 2001 (the Orange Line was always supposed to follow the route of Interstate 66, but the route of I-66 itself was not settled until 1976). But the final cost of $10 billion was far in excess of the $1.7 billion 1969 cost estimate. Some of that is typical of the wishful thinking that seems to accompany most large construction projects. Some of it was intentional lowballing on the part of the Johnson Administration (Schrag cites Lyndon Johnson drawing the analogy of how to get an inexperienced drinker to swallow a glass of harsh whiskey – one small sip at a time).

But perhaps them most important reason is something that applies to all studies of federal fiscal affairs from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s – the Great Inflation. Persons fortunate enough to have come of age in the post-Volcker world (meaning after Fed chairman Paul Volcker, with support from Presidents Carter and Reagan, killed inflation through harsh monetary policy in the early 1980s) often fail to understand how inflation affected almost every decision made for almost two decades.

30-year inflation

At 12 percent inflation, prices double every six years. For construction projects in a time of high inflation, delays equal significant price increases. (Schrag tells the well-known story of how funding for Metro was held up for several years by the demands of the chairman of the House District of Columbia Appropriations Subcommittee, William Natcher (D-KY), that D.C. build the Three Sisters Bridge to carry Interstate 266 between Arlington and Georgetown before they could spend money on a subway. Those years of delay drove up the overall system cost.)

Not only that, but Schrag also writes that “When inflation is high, investors demand higher interest rates. The inflation of the 1970s thus ripped through WMATA’s plan for 5 percent interest bonds, which were supposed to finance about a third of the system’s capital costs. By December 1970 WMATA’s financial consultants were warning that they could not sell the bonds. Only a June 1972 Congressional bailout – a federal guarantee plus an interest subsidy – made them marketable.”

WMATA was conceived as a rail-transit-only entity. But the collapse of the privately owned DC bus service under “the infamous transit baron O. Roy Chalk” in the early 1970s forced Congress to pass a special law in 1972 seizing control of the DC bus system and turning it over to WMATA, which then also acquired the other bus companies operating in suburban Virginia and Maryland. This stuck WMATA with unprofitable bus service that also had huge labor costs (which also had to be adjusted for inflation).

As cost estimates continued to mount, WMATA admitted in November 1974 that farebox revenues would not be sufficient to cover operating expenses or pay off bonds. But Congress refused to countenance any federal operating subsidy. Additional funding authorizations – in a 1980 law and a 1990 law – authorized increased federal appropriations for the ever-increasing costs of building the full 103-mile system – always with the same two-thirds federal share of the cost. (The increased costs to the local governments were mitigated by the unique nature of the Interstate system. The Interstates were constructed on a “cost to complete” basis – if the proposed map entitled you to a 10-mile segment from Point A to Point B, you were entitled to have Uncle Sam pay 90 percent of the cost of building that segment no matter when you got around to building it. The expensive proposed Interstate extensions through D.C. therefore had inflation increases built in, which came in handy when D.C. withdrew those segments and used the cash to help pay for the Metro system.)

Schrag notes that the authorizations for WMATA funding always went through the House and Senate District of Columbia Committees (and later the Governmental Affairs panels), not the committees that deal with mass transit generally. At first, this was through inertia – in Congress, the first committee to pass a law on a new subject gets to keep that jurisdiction, and the original NCTA law came from the D.C. Committees. But later on, when Metro had to come back for more and more money, this actually became a selling point within Congress – only by making the Metro construction subsidy totally separate from the Urban Mass Transit Administration could legislators be certain that DC’s subway would not compete with the money they might want for transit projects in their own states or districts.

Schrag also mentions that WMATA and its backers had good reason for wanting to avoid going through UMTA wherever possible. Even though the federal transit program through UMTA gave out money with a four-fifths federal cost share (as opposed to the two-thirds under the D.C. Committees’ authorizations), from its earliest days, UMTA tried to require communities to perform “alternatives analysis” (basically, asking if a road or a transit system or no improvement at all would serve the community best), which Metro boosters wanted to avoid. And all new projects funded through UMTA had to be built one “Initial Operating Segment” at a time, whereas Metro was trying to build the whole system at once.

Readers familiar with the Congressional authorization-appropriation process have seen how often the Appropriations Committees underfund spending authorizations, particularly for discretionary appropriations from the general fund. This makes the synchronization of the authorization levels for Metro and the eventual appropriations remarkable. The 1969 law authorized appropriations of $1.147 billion; total appropriations eventually reached $1.165 billion. The 1980 law authorized appropriations of $1.700 billion; total appropriations over FY 1983-1991 totaled $1.656 billion. The 1990 law authorized appropriations of $1.300 billion; total appropriations over FY 1992-1999 totaled $1.344 billion. And the 2008 law authorized a total of $1.5 billion in appropriations over the ten-year FY 2009-2018 period (this time for capital maintenance, not new construction); appropriations to date have averaged $148.9 million per year.

Schrag takes the time in his book to demolish several long-held conspiracy theories or urban legends pertaining to the development of Metro.

  • Did the vast bus conspiracy kill DC’s streetcar system? Not necessarily. Federal antitrust policy forced the fiscally prudent owners of Capital Transit and other utilities to divest, and the only bidders were four brothers from Florida who then systematically raided the company’s cash holdings. The D.C. utility commission prevented the company from raising fares, and a 1955 strike by the local labor union prompted Congress to repeal Capital Transit’s charter. The condition under which the Presidentially-appointed DC Commissioners and Congress allowed the transfer of the franchise to a new bidder, the aforementioned Roy Chalk (who financed the deal almost entirely with debt), was the phaseout of DC’s remaining streetcars with buses. If the Justice Department had not broken up the utility trust, things might have played out differently.
  • Did Georgetown residents prevent a Metro stop from being built there? Schrag says that “a Georgetown station was never seriously considered” due to the steep slope of the land towards the river and the relative lack of jobs in the neighborhood to which people would need to commute.
  • Why was the Green Line – serving the poorest, blackest parts of the District – built last? Schrag says that “the delay resulted as much from extreme sensitivity to inner-city demands as from official disregard…the District’s protracted routing studies, Prince George’s County’s indecision about the termini, Reagan’s budget priorities, and WMATA’s management decisions all slowed progress on the line. Well-intentioned choices, such as the decision to investigate contractors for links to South Africa’s apartheid regime, took time. Planning well had become the enemy of building quickly.”

Schrag also points out several areas where those involved in planning the system were their own worst enemies. All those who ever wondered “why are the elevators in the Metro stations placed so inconveniently?” now have their answer – the system was designed without elevators. Jackson Graham, the powerful WMATA chief from 1967 to 1975, firmly believed that persons with all but the gravest disabilities needed to be taught how to ride escalators. (Schrag relates a horrifying story about how Graham called a press conference at Dulles Airport and then put on a variety of leg braces, crutches, canes and walkers to demonstrate to the cameras how handicapped people should ride escalators, climaxing in his ride up an escalator in a wheelchair.) But a series of court decisions and laws in the early 1970s forced the installation of elevators, which in several cases had to have shafts drilled through already-completed stations. The federal government paid 80 percent of the accessibility retrofitting costs.

In case anyone wonders why the original system bypassed the Tyson’s Corner area of Virginia – now the largest collection of commercial real estate between New York and Atlanta – Schrag provides this little nugget of information: “Taking their land use projections from the Council of Governments [in 1967], WMATA’s consultants predicted that only 4,617 people would work in Tyson’s Corner in 1990..At the point when alignments were most plastic, neither NVTC nor WMATA planners seriously considered bringing rail to the place Fairfax planners designated as the crossroads of the county.”

(Speaking of bad forecasts, Schrag writes that “In 1967, the system’s traffic consultant predicted that in 1990, the rail system would carry 281 million riders per year.” Instead, ridership peaked in 2009 at 225 million according to Metro’s latest annual summary document. So, everyone who likes to complain that Metro is too crowded now, bear in mind that it was planned to be even more crowded.)

The author relates how the National Park Service denied Metro the opportunity to have an entrance in the middle of the National Mall and how the NPS refusal to allow a Metro bridge over Rock Creek Park led to the cancelation of a station serving the Adams Morgan neighborhood. But where one branch of Uncle Sam could hobble Metro, another could help ensure that station developments were a success. Schrag cites the General Services Administration’s preferences for siting new federal workplaces near Metro stops as ensuring the success of the Ballston (National Science Foundation), White Flint (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and Silver Spring (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) station development plans.

Schrag’s book was first published in 2006, and while the book does discuss the then-looming maintenance backlog at Metro (greatly exacerbated, as Schrag and others have noted, by the constant desire of politicians to prioritize shiny new stations and extensions over boring old maintenance work), the book came out before Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) achieved his goal of authorizing another round of special federal subsidies for WMATA in the 2008 rail safety law – this time, $1.5 billion over ten years, and only at a 50-50 federal matching share. Davis said in a hearing on his proposal that “Metro is an entity in which all American taxpayers have an interest. It is time to recognize that shared national interest, even if we are to protect past investments and prevent the system from collapsing. It is time again for Congress to recognize Metro’s importance to Federal operations and commit to a long-term partnership with WMATA and its member jurisdiction.”

And the book also came out before the June 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured 80 more. The book itself scarcely mentions the safety issue because Metro’s safety record prior to the book’s publication was pretty solid. However, Schrag does give many illustrations of the dysfunction that is inherent in WMATA’s governance structure and the difficulty of getting the elected officials of D.C., Maryland and Virginia to agree to do anything difficult – the same governance dysfunction that allowed deferred maintenance needs to build up into threats to rider safety. (The direct federal role here is far from clear. At present, the U.S. Department of Transportation is using what statutory leverage it has to force those three local governments to establish a better joint safety board to oversee WMATA safety – asking them to form an interstate compact in order to oversee another interstate compact controlled by the same three political entities.)

Demands are already coming from local legislators to provide another round of direct federal funding for Metro capital maintenance and repairs (in addition to the remaining $300 million yet to be appropriated from the 2008 authorization law and in addition to the regular capital maintenance money that WMATA receives via formula from the Highway Trust Fund just like all the other subway systems in the land.) Will Congress provide more money? If so, how much, from where, and what will the federal share be?

Schrag’s book is an excellent tale of how the federal government set out to build a model transit system for a model capital city. But the story of how the system was originally planned and funded hold limited lessons for how funding will (or should) be provided in the future. As with the rest of the Great Society programs, the original planners of the Metro system in the 1960s did not appear terribly concerned with the issue of how future generations would pay to support those programs five decades down the road.

(Eno has put together a WMATA reference webpage with links to laws, studies, and hearings throughout WMATA’s history.)

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