In a free society in which competition is possible, one expects price to demonstrate a connection to quality. We assume that quality is improving if the price rises. Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail system has long operated in the opposite way, with rising fares and declining service over the past decade.
On Sunday, Metro again raised fares by 10 cents for a rush-hour trip (a $50 annual increase for someone who rides Metro twice a weekday for 50 weeks a year). The increase was coupled with reduced train frequency on five of the system's six lines so commuters will wait longer on platforms. Combine that with a cut in the number of hours Metro is open, and it's clear riders aren't getting more for their money.
Even worse than those problems, perhaps, is Metro's nagging inability to be safe. Riders haven't forgotten the June 2009 crash that killed 9 and injured 80, or the January 2015 incident when a train filled with smoke killing one passenger and injuring more than 80.
The two most common scapegoats for Metro's problems, administrators and the workers union, are responsible for safety. But at least administrators are trying to do something about it.
General Manager Paul Wiedefeld fired one-third (21 employees) of Metro's track inspection department between August 2016 and January 2017 for falsifying safety records. Fourteen others were disciplined. But the union defended the workers, saying they were only guilty of "shoddy paperwork" and that inspectors were worked too hard.
So it was rich at Thursday's Metro board meeting when union members put fake blood on their hands and raised them up when union official Carroll Thomas told the Metro board, "You have blood on your hands."
Given this sort of thing, it's no surprise even labor-friendly Democrats are tired of the union's disgusting antics.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., in a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, supported the firings: "[Union claims that] ‘You can't hold them accountable for filing a false inspection report' is, to me, something that doesn't pass the giggle test for the public. There has to be accountability and the union ought to be a partner in that, not an enabler for serious misconduct that puts the public at risk."
Just as no single person or entity is responsible alone for Metro's problems, there's also no silver bullet solution.
De-unionizing Metro won't fix everything, and nor will a change in federal safety oversight or new dedicated revenue.
Some, including Connolly, want to see an annual operating subsidy from the federal government. That might fix Metro's balance sheet, but until accountability is improved, how do Metro riders know the money won't be wasted as it has been in the past? Metro launched the MetroForward program in 2010 and spent $3.7 billion through January 2016, with scant improvement in service.
Even if new money could guarantee better service, it shouldn't come from the federal government. Farmers in Idaho and Iowa who will never make their way to Washington shouldn't have to pay for Metro operations. (Likewise, city dwellers shouldn't have to pay for crop insurance or ethanol subsidies.)
Subsidies from local jurisdictions, which are part of Metro's budget, make more sense. But in the ideal world, Metro would be funded largely by rider fares without the need for subsidies.
The key, in contrast to Sunday's fare hikes, is to restore public confidence in the system so riders know their money is going to real improvements. Confidence will be restored only when Metro administrators and workers are held accountable for their failures and rewarded for their successes.