Shut the Subways Down

When the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority shut down its subway system for an entire day in March for emergency repairs, it sent a shockwave through the country. People and pundits wondered: How could this be allowed to happen in the nation’s capital? Who’s to blame? What were they thinking?

The unfortunate reality is that this is not an isolated problem. The subway infrastructure in many American metropolitan areas is in dire need of repairs, maintenance and – in a growing number of places – wholesale rehabilitation. The latest data from the Federal Transit Administration shows a backlog of about $60 billion to begin to bring the nation’s rail transit to a state of good repair. After that, another $9 billion is needed annually just to maintain that level of service. Additional upgrades and investments are billions more.

These kind of doom-and-gloom assessments are not new, and the nation’s infrastructure gap is well known. The French make fun of us regularly. Both of the presumptive nominees for president talk about fixing infrastructure to boost the economy, put people to work, compete globally.

But what is different now is that this is not about those lofty goals, nor an inconvenience of slow and crowded trains. It is about safety.

Last year, smoke from old, short-circuiting jumper cables on the electrified rails left one passenger dead near Washington’s L’Enfant Plaza station. Similar incidents have occurred on the system since then. An explosion just last week precipitated the agency’s move to announce rolling shutdowns of entire stretches of the rail network so necessary repairs can occur as fast as possible.

While this move has been described as unprecedented for Washington, it is becoming more common in cities across the country as they deal with their own maintenance backlog. New York City’s L Line (running under the Hudson River between Brooklyn and Manhattan) may shut down completely for 18 months or partially for three years due to damage caused by Superstorm Sandy. The L Line carries approximately 225,000 people under the river every day. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is doing its best to explain the potential solutions to New Yorkers, but there is no doubt that this will be a painful process either way.

The Chicago Transit Authority shut down multiple parts of its system for extended repairs, the most drastic in May of 2015. An embankment supporting part of the line collapsed leading to a five-month closure of a portion of the tracks. The line reopened last fall, but during the five-month shutdown, many passengers were forced to use the free transit authority shuttle (which ran at about triple the nine-minute trip between the two stations adjacent to the damaged tracks) or find alternative means of transportation.

In March, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit shut down service between its Pittsburg-Bay Point and North Concord stations for more than two weeks due to electrical surges that damaged many of its trains. The shutdown gained wide attention thanks to a communications manager for the agency who decided to be honest with riders, tweeting out, “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life.”

Baltimore is shutting down parts of its rail service for three weeks this summer for repairs. The state officials that run the system are not apologetic about it either, noting that ceasing the service is necessary and will actually “minimize” overall inconvenience. It’s as close to waving a red flag as these guys get.

Subways shutdowns are common during weather events like snowstorms and hurricanes. However, given the need to overhaul many of these lines in the name of safety, these more drastic and potentially more inconvenient kinds of stoppages are now just as familiar. And they are also wholly necessary.

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