Saturday, May 14, 2016

Infrastructural Rot in the Nation's Capital

From my admittedly limited observations, this week has been a relatively good week for the Metro, which is what everyone in Washington, D.C. calls our subway system.   Only once was I told that my train had to be off-loaded because of maintenance problems.  Only one of my business meetings was delayed because an attendee assumed that he could trust the Metro to run on schedule.  Only twice did I walk into a Metro car that literally smelled like a skunk.   And it was only about three or four times that I heard people complain about their subway-related commute, or about the prospects of going weeks at a time later in the year when their Metro line will be completely shut down.  I’d say that’s a pretty good week, all things considered.   Hey, at least I didn’t notice any fatalities or subway-related fires.  I didn’t even inhale any smoke.  So why should I whine?  Life is good here in the nation’s capital.

                The thing is, though, that I’ve been to European capital cities before and ridden their subways.  Somehow, their systems seem to function.   Why doesn’t ours?   How could the nation with by far the largest GNP in the world allow its infrastructure – as exemplified by the public transportation system of its capital city – to completely fall apart?   Did we not think this would be an embarrassment to tourists, both domestically and abroad?  Or that this would create tremendous inefficiencies with our workforce?  Or that this would discourage people from taking public transportation at a time when our environment desperately needs us to stop driving all the time?  Or did we flat out just not think?

                While the decrepit nature of the D.C. Metro system is merely a microcosm of the rotting infrastructure that is plaguing America generally, there is something especially illustrative about this example.  Our liberal politicians talk about the importance of public service or about the scourge of climate change.  Presumably, they should love the idea of a functioning DC Metro – how else can we get our public servants to the office efficiently and in a way that is gentle on the environment?   Indeed, the federal government provides subsidies to its employees to encourage them to take the subway or other forms of public transportation.  It all makes sense – except the part about the system being slow, unreliable, and sometimes even deadly.

                One thing you have to love about the deterioration of the Metro is that it has been a team effort.   The federal government has a general oversight role over the system, which includes the power to order that work be done to ensure that the trains run safely.  Then we have the local governments of Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., which are supposed to be working together on a regular basis to ensure that the system has all the support it needs.  No doubt, Congress could also lend a hand by appropriating money to protect the system from falling apart.  It would seem like a no-brainer that one way or another, the Metro wouldn’t be allowed to deteriorate.  

Then again, that would ignore the reality of America today.   Our citizens are sick of paying taxes – so they don’t clamor to pay more even if it means sacrificing necessities like a modernized infrastructure or quality schools.  Our politicians love to demagogue against public-sector hiring and out-of-control deficits – so they wash their hands with programs that involve government spending.   And to the extent money is given to the government to spend, it is handled by bureaucrats who are often more concerned with their own turf than their constituents’ needs – making it the exception, rather than the norm, when different government bodies work well together.  

It wasn’t that long ago when the DC subway system was the envy of the world.  And it could still be a great asset to the nation today, if only we had bothered to apply the basic principles that any of us who own property understand.  If you’re a homeowner, you either build in some periodic maintenance expenses or expect your home to fall apart.  If you’re a car owner, you either get regular tune ups and inspections or expect to replace your car every few years.   This isn’t rocket science – you can’t be in charge of bridges, roads, railroad tracks or whatever else and wait for fatalities before you address your system’s needs.  But that’s precisely what we Americans have decided to do with our infrastructure.   We wake up to problems only after the casualties start to mount.  

Here in D.C., the casualties on the Metro have already started to mount, and not coincidentally, we finally have a General Manager in charge of the system who finally seems to want to take his job seriously.  I support him in those efforts.  What I lament is that we have become a country of skilled damage-control experts, when what we need even more are those who can prevent the damage from happening in the first place.  You can have your top surgeons.  I’ll take the top nutritionists.  I think we both know who would live longer.

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