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Is Metro system becoming obsolete?

Passengers on board a Metro train in this 2017 WTOP file photo. . (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

WASHINGTON — As Metro pushes for more funding to cover major short-term and long-term needs, one Metro Board member warned Thursday that the system needs to do more to plan for the future or risk becoming obsolete. 

“This exchange reminds me of the expression about deck chairs on the Titanic,” federal appointee David Horner said during discussions about Metro’s budget proposal for the year starting next summer that asks for $165 million more from local governments.

“Throughout the narrative that accompanied the financials we were presented, the term ‘unsustainable operating model’ is used repeatedly,” Horner said.

With Uber, Lyft and possibly at some point self-driving cars, Horner urged Metro management to consider selling off assets like parking garages that may no longer be needed if self-driving cars continue on after dropping the user off. He also advised them to consider more drastic overhauls to current service plans based on “new realities in the delivery of transportation services to the public.”

“We don’t want to wind up being a Sears Roebuck in an era of Amazon, and there is this existential risk that we will become that if we don’t begin to think futuristically about the delivery of the service to the public,” Horner said.

“This presents an existential question, and I think we should grapple with [it].”

Metro is already considering a complete overhaul of its bus system in coming years, based on data about population, ridership and more. The agency has considered partnerships with ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said.

He said Metro is asking: “Are there opportunities to look at that totally differently, particularly with technology?”

What future transportation looks like will be part of the discussion during Metro’s meetings with international transit agencies in December.

So, will Metro still exist in 40 years?

“Forty years from now, I don’t know what the world looks like, but I’m just saying right now, I think with everything we know, it stays,” Wiedefeld said.

As Metro asks for increased funding to recover from decades of neglect, Horner suggested the “star” management in charge now needs to show that there is a true plan for the future.

“The funding jurisdictions … need to have confidence that the funds they will be asked to appropriate — the dedicated funding source that is often mentioned in discussions here — will be expended on assets that are relevant to the future and are not very quickly made redundant by new realities in the delivery of transportation services,” Horner said.

“We can’t reach momentous funding decisions without confidence that we are funding something that remains viable for decades forward,” he added.


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