Metro Systems of U.S. Cities Faced With Growing Challenges

By Mack Wilowski, National News Editor

Despite its booming local economy, favorable prospects for job growth, and a growing population, Washington D.C.’s subway system has fallen on hard times in recent years.

The Metro Subway, established in 1976 as one of the city’s largest subway lines, has seen daily passenger ridership decline by about 19 percent in the period from 2011 to 2016, according to a recent report by the American Public Transportation Administration in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. The main culprit, according to local officials, involves a string of safety concerns caused by accidents in recent years, which have commuters doubting the safety and reliability of the metro system. Deteriorating subway conditions due to aging infrastructure, tracks, and cars have caused widespread delays as sections of track are often shut down for days at a time to complete repairs.

The most notorious safety incident occurred in 2009 when a head-on collision between two subway cars killed nine people, causing demand for ridership to plummet the following year. Minor electrical incidents and the derailment of a train in 2016 have also exposed the poor state of the subway system and highlighted the need for repairs and renovations. That same year, the implementation of a new repair program called Safe Track allowed more sections of track to be renovated simultaneously, but at the cost of longer wait times and delays.

To remedy this situation, local officials in the nation’s capital, along with parts of Maryland and Northern Virginia, have called for infusions of new capital funding to the tone of $500 billion, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Virginia’s Senate and Maryland’s General Assembly have approved bills that would expand infrastructure funding for local transportation systems, in addition to the millions of dollars that municipal governments contribute to the Metro authority. Lawmakers are eyeing the potential of luring Amazon Inc. into one of three possible locations near the capital for its second headquarters, as the company chose Northern Virginia, Washington D.C. itself, and Montgomery County, Maryland, within its list of 20 final candidates. Indeed, infrastructure improvements would do very well to improve chances of Amazon locating its operations there.

The capital isn’t the only major city experiencing troubles with its metro system. Neighboring Baltimore and more importantly, New York City, have also struggled to keep up with the demands of an aging subway infrastructure, and, unlike Washington, have witnessed ridership increase substantially over the past decade. As reported by the Washington Post, a recent review of track conditions encompassing the metro in Baltimore reported that 17 out of an evaluated 19 [sharp] track curves were deemed to be in “black condition.” This meant that trains could not safely operate on the sections of track with greater curvature without a slight risk of derailment. Officials overseeing Baltimore’s metro system have scheduled repairs for the summer of 2018 costing $20 million, acknowledging the safety issue posed by aging rail lines and readying replacement rails to accompany the procedure.

In New York City, the primary impediment to issuing repairs on one of the oldest subway systems in the nation has been the exorbitant costs involved. Subway expenses per-track-mile are higher in New York than in any other major metropolis worldwide, according to Yale University researcher David Schleicher in an interview with the New York Times. Possible reasons include the city’s expensive real estate, aging utilities, high regulations and zoning requirements, and massive ridership requiring large stations and consistent repairs. However, further renovations have the support of local officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio, with significant funding being applied to address needed infrastructure improvements.

As transportation systems across the country age, it will be crucial for administrations and communities to address these issues to ensure both the safety of passengers and reliability of public transit. Strengthening job growth and urban migration trends throughout the country will only elevate the strain put on metro and other transportation system. Unless expanded and improved to accommodate growing numbers of travelers and commuters, metros such as those in Washington and Baltimore may become increasingly inefficient and unsafe, jeopardizing the experience of public transportation for thousands of passengers.


A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 27th print edition.

Contact Mack at


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