- Assembling against WMATA. (Photo: Rachel Fauber)
Many Metro riders and media reports seek a silver bullet to nail WMATA. A perverse thrill accompanies any Metro bad news, any discovery of incompetence and wrongdoing, to allow for a moment of, "Aha! Now you've shown your true terrible ways!"
But where does that get us? Accountability is good, and yes, riders should voice all their concerns. But so often people talk about Metro in a way that appeals to outrage without any vehicle toward resolution. Several incidents this week have turned into minor Metro outrages. Are they all so damning though? Although most of the concerns deserve discussion, not all amount to evidence that WMATA is disgraceful, malicious, and an institution that's tearing D.C. down.
Let's grade these different events from A to F based on how valid the criticisms may be — A for the most valid case for riders to make, F for the least. Here's what people are worried about these days:
♦ Metro is stealing money: The UnsuckDCMetro blog shares a tale of rider woe, in which a woman named Sarah recounts losing $40 at the Silver Spring Metro station trying to add money to her SmarTrip card. Calls to Metro's Credit and Debit Office go unreturned.
Grade: C+. Sarah herself has a legit beef with WMATA based on what allegedly is an incompetent machine and bad follow-up. But today news of this incident spiraled through the Internet with the implication that WMATA is playing the system to actively, intentionally try to steal money. Does the transit agency need to resolve the situation of that machine and that rider's loss? Yes. Does it make WMATA a brutish thug looking to snatch your bills? Not quite.
The implication that Metro is rigging machines to steal your SmarTrip money though, is more than a little ridiculous.
♦ More than a hundred WMATA employees have take-home cars: 122 Metro employees, from transit police to managers, have access to official vehicles. This data, provided by a FOIA request of The Examiner, is helpful to have, and it's sparked plenty of conversation.
Grade: C-. But I feel this bit of news is delivered with the expectation that people will bellow out rage, and frankly, it's not necessarily the wildest news. Yes, as I talked about in a past idea of the day post, it's generally good for officials who deal with transit to ride the rails they serve. But employees still need to get around. If there's evidence that these vehicle priviledges are being abused, then that's one thing, but WMATA is a huge organization of people. Is this really any scandal?
♦ Transit police can be brutal: Holla Back D.C. offered the account of a woman named Ana yesterday. She wrote about how multiple transit police officers allegedly interrogated and roughed her up over a stray remark on July 1, 2011. Ana's story spread around the transit spheres yesterday with great concern from Metro riders, in part due to the photos of bruises that Ana includes with her account. All her attempts at following up with WMATA and offering a complaint seemed to go nowhere.
Grade: B+. Although these allegations would benefit from substantially greater confirmation and more detail, they as well as the photos are alarming and a genuine cause for concern about the state of security on the Metro. The incident here suggests actual malice rather than mechanical failure and incompetence, as in the SmarTrip incident.
♦ Metro escalators are the worst: Tom Friedman says it. Twitter says it. Half the time, I'm prepared to say it, especially lately given the chaos at Rosslyn and multiple incidences of dead escalators at L'Enfant Plaza and elsewhere. As Metro Forward efforts strive to repair and replace escalators, the numbers keep getting worse. By late summer, close to one in five escalators didn't work in the system, and Metro announced last week that the Dupont Circle Metro station escalator replacement could take up to a year.
Grade: A+. Although WMATA is rightly making efforts to remedy the escalator situations with contractors and that part of the situation owes to more inspections, riders have every right to be frustrated at WMATA for letting the system deteriorate to a point where it is today. The blame here goes back years, and the concern is valid.
♦ A Metrobus driver tosses a person to the ground. This happened in recent weeks, and the video burst onto national blogs and news. WMATA judged the behavior "completely unacceptable" when seeing the video.
Grade: B+ for the video and questions it raised about WMATA employee behavior, C+ upon hearing the full story of what happened that day. Although the bus driver probably shouldn't have laid hands on the person, the situation was a delicate and complicated one. At the least, the incident likely shouldn't amount to a full-on indictment of WMATA and its employees. The life of a bus driver isn't always easy, and statistics suggest they face their own share of assaults and disrespect.
♦ The Bethesda station should get a new entrance before new escalators: The Montgomery Action Transit Committee has been passing out flyers protesting the fact that the Bethesda Metro station will see its escalators replaced in 2014 but will receive a new station in 2015. Why not build a new entrance first to alleviate the strain of escalator replacement? the committee asks.
Grade: A for the sentiment, F for the critique against Metro. The committee is essentially right, despite inflammatory rhetoric ("disaster looms"), but the problem, as they point out, lies more in Montgomery County than with WMATA, as far as I can tell.
These incidents all inspired pockets of outrage in the last week or so but are certainly not comprehensive of all the cases that could be made against WMATA — or touching on all the things the tranist agency has been doing right. From my perspective, they've handled the recent natural disasters and September 11 anniversary well in addition to significantly upping their communications game. They're in the process of rolling out new features like the Farragut Crossing virtual tunnel, the abillity to upload money to our SmarTrip cards online, and other tweaks to service, as well as designing a new Metro map to accommodate countless little changes (and asking for rider feedback in the process). Institutional complications arise, but despite the valid and less-than-valid complaints about WMATA, the organization is attempting to respond to criticisms in many cases.
How valid do you feel these various criticisms against WMATA are? Again, virtually all strike me as worth discussing, but not many seem to the smoking gun that some Metro critics seem to hope they are. Naturally sentiments may differ.