How to fix Metrorail in D.C.

Randal O'Toole says he once rode a Washington, D.C. Metro train into a station, where the train sat for 10 minutes with its doors closed. There were no announcements from the train operator. Eventually, the operator made an announcement in a groggy voice and moved the train to the next station. Everyone who wanted to get off at the first station had to get off at the next one and take a different train back.

"The only thing I can think of is the driver fell asleep," O'Toole told the Washington Examiner. "Why aren't drivers like that fired? Well, they can't be, because they're union workers."

As a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, working on urban and transportation issues, O'Toole has plenty of ideas about how to reform the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates Metrorail. His ideas fill a gap in my recent research on WMATA, which includes riding Metro to every station in one day and speaking to frustrated riders.

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O'Toole says that ATU Local 689, the union for Metro's operating, maintenance and clerical staffs, is too strong. Federal grants empower the union, giving transit agencies nationwide more money for union-friendly policies. "In order to qualify for a federal grant, [WMATA] has to keep the unions happy," O'Toole says. "So they give the unions extremely generous contracts in order to get federal dollars." Removing criteria for union-friendly policies in federal transportation grants could allow Metro to adopt rider-friendly policies instead.

Still, O'Toole believes the biggest problem with WMATA are the incentives it creates to waste money. The worse Metro gets, the more it can ask for subsidies from local, state and federal governments.

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