Episode 001 of the FixWMATA Podcast was recorded in November, 2017 and features news, rider interviews, and an interview with @UNSUCKDCMETRO.
Link to Ian Sutherland's Music: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/ian_sutherland
Text of this episode:
I’m Chris Barnes and this… is the FixWMATA Podcast
This week we take a quick look back at the news – then we talk with riders outside Metro Center – and finally, you won’t want to miss my interview with UNSUCKDCMETRO….
In WMATA news this week…
WAMU reporter Martin Di Caro asked why ride-share partnerships that are working elsewhere aren’t happening for WMATA and also has a story about how WMATA is making cosmetic changes to 500 rail cars to make them look like new rail cars…
Stephen Repetski has a story in Greater Greater Washington about a track worker who was sent to the hospital after coming in contact with electricity. The take-away from this story is WMATA’s response which says the employee was NOT electrocuted but “sustained an electrical injury”. Quite a conversation about what exactly constitutes being “electrocuted” followed on Twitter. Stephen also points out a continuing problem with track workers and electricity – this is the 3rd incident in 2017 alone.
Max Smith with WTOP has a couple of articles about the ongoing feud for funding at WMATA. This week DC Councilmember and WMATA Board Chair Jack Evans passed an act that would raise DC sales taxes to fund the system – an act that only takes effect if Maryland and Virginia do the same – a long shot by most estimates. Meanwhile, failing to come up with a plan to fund WMATA the Metro Washington Council of Governments’ Metro Strategy Group has shifted towards a last-ditch effort to fund WMATA for a year while they continue to work on a long term solution.
Progressive Railroading has a great article about WMATA’s public outreach for upcoming Metro station changes to accommodate the Purple Line in Maryland.
And Kathleen Stubbs with The Sentinel has an update on the ongoing efforts to stop water leaks on the Red Line – a pilot program is continuing to cause off-hour delays between Medical Center and Grosvenor.
Finally – Max Smith with WTOP has a great guide to getting around WMATA’s upcoming closure on the eastern end of the Red Line. Takoma station will be closed November 25th through December 10th and there will be no rail service between Silver Spring and Fort Totten.
All of these stories and more can be found on FixWMATA dot com where new stories are added throughout the week.
[segment 1 introduction music]
I spent some time this Saturday outside Metro Center talking with riders – asking them the core question: “What’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA”. Here’s what they had to say…
[Eric] My name is Eric and my home station is Bennett Road Station.
[FixWMATA] OK, cool. What’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[Eric] What I think is wrong with Metro is like they’re inconvenient to people’s schedules, like when they do the little trains, fixing the trains and stuff they’ll stop like in the middle of a station and be right there for like hours – or not even hours let me not exaggerate it like for a good like 30 minutes at least. Or 15 minutes. That’s what I think is wrong with it. And then it’s the buses – what I think is wrong with the buses is it don’t be enough frequency and security, like Transit mostly.
[FixWMATA] Do you ride the X2 at all?
[Eric] I used to but I stopped because of the things that happened on the X2. So, yeah.
[FixWMATA] Name one thing you like about Metro and one thing you don’t like.
[Eric] It’s sometimes it’s real reliable transportation like if I don’t have enough money in my Lyft account I can just hop on the train. Like I really like the train more than Metro buses. So it’s the train that I like more, so yeah – it’s reliable.
[FixWMATA] And one thing you don’t like?
[Eric] I have to say… the fares. The fares went up, extremely. Extremely. From $1.25 to $2 and now I’m hearing from $2 probably to $3 by in 2 more years.
[FixWMATA] On both the buses and the rail, right?
[Eric] Yeah, so it’s the fares.
[FixWMATA] Awesome, thanks for your time!
[Vivian] My name is Vivian and my home Metro is Dupont.
[FixWAMTA] OK, great. What’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix it?
[Vivian] I think that it’s an aging system and it needs money.
[FixWMATA] Money, OK. Money’s a big topic right now. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to pay for Metro. Are you for or against the sales tax or do you have any other ideas how we should fund Metro?
[Vivian] I think Congress needs to fund Metro. A lot of Congress people use the Metro and they live here in the metro area and they should understand that we all need it and contribute to it. Because it’s not just about getting everybody to and fro in this day and age it’s also about safety and security and it’s, you know, the nation’s capital.
[FixWMATA] OK. Just last question: name one thing you like about Metro, I think you kinda already did, but name one thing you like about Metro and one thing you don’t like about Metro.
[Vivian] I love that I can live in DC without a car and walk and use the Metro and get virtually everywhere I need to go. I think it’s wonderful to have a serious mass transportation system in DC. What I don’t like – again I just think it’s aging and it’s showing it’s age and it needs, you know it’s not sexy, but infrastructure needs to be kept up.
[FixWMATA] Awesome, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.
[Vivian] You’re welcome.
[FixWMATA] Really I’m just asking what’s wrong with Metro. So if you could just start with your first name and home station.
[Alling?] OK, my name is Alling and I get on at Union Station.
[FixWMATA] Awesome. What’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[Alling] Ah… being on fire is bad. I just came here from Manhattan where you basically have to take a flying leap into a train car to get on at rush hour – I think that’s a huge problem.
[FixWMATA] OK. Name one thing you like about Metro and one thing you really don’t like.
[Alling] The new cars are nice. They’re clean. I like them. Don’t like – I think that, I mean knock on wood, I think that I’m lucky that I primarily take the Red Line and there don’t tend to be huge shortages and shutdowns on that but I think I would be mad if I was on the Blue Line or in a suburb where they routinely shut down the service.
[FixWMATA] I’m up in Silver Spring myself and we’ve got that coming. People are floating the idea of a sales tax to pay for Metro. Do you support that or do you have other ideas how we should fund Metro?
[Alling] Um…. I haven’t… I know that it’s a problem I haven’t formed an opinion about it yet. I’m frustrated by how expensive it is, however on the global scale it needs more money to get better. So, I’m not exactly sure. I guess a sales tax would be a good way to do that.
[FixWMATA] Could you just tell me your first name and your home Metro station?
[Carol] Carol Morgan and I usually come from Columbia Heights. And I’m not the right person to speak to you – I have no problems with Metro.
[FixWMATA] That’s fine too. That’s fine too. That was my first question – what’s wrong with Metro – but you say “nothing”.
[Carol] I’m very pleased. I’ve been very pleased.
[FixWMATA] Let me ask you one other question then that I’m sure you have an opinion on: some people are floating the idea of a sales tax to pay for Metro, do you think that’s the right thing or do you have other ideas of how we should do it?
[Carol] I think the government should pay for it.
[FixWMATA] The government?
[FixWMATA] Like, the federal government?
[Carol] Yes. Yes. And the state and local out of taxes. Not a special tax. I think people… I think there’s money already to pay for it.
[FixWMATA] OK, great. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
[FixWMATA] So, can I get just your first name and home station?
[Sam] Sam and Bethesda.
[FixWMATA] OK, Sam – what’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[Sam] I mean it’s really just scheduling and like reliance on the schedule and waiting around and stuff. I mean, I don’t really see… SafeTrack was good, I think. I think I can feel a difference. I’ve been here like 4 years so I see a difference. I think – yeah – for me it’s just mainly the schedule. The trains are getting better. It is of course annoying with the escalators sometimes.
[FixWMATA] So, are you talking about relying on the published schedule or are you talking about headways in general? Like, how long you wait between trains?
[Sam] Well, I mean it would be real nice if it was open later and if we had like… it’s so 9-to-5 Monday through Friday oriented and it sort of makes weekends really annoying so I mean all these things but then… it’s an older system too so I don’t know how far we can push it to like meet all our wishes.
[FixWMATA] OK so…
[Sam] You know, we complain a lot but I’ve talked to people from other cities and they’re like “oh my god this is so much better than from where I’m from”, you know?
[FixWMATA] It looks a lot better on the surface, doesn’t it?
[Sam] Um, I guess so – yeah. It’s cleaner and yeah the ceilings are higher and New York is really claustrophobic… yeah. So. I don’t know. Do you guys feel like your complaining is working?
[FixWMATA] Uh… yeah.. yeah…
[Sam] I mean I want it to work. I mean I want whatever you’re… if you’re not so happy I’m on the same page – but I don’t know if they listen?
[FixWMATA] Um, well I’ve been doing this for 7 years. There’s several of us who’ve been doing this a long time that are finding there isn’t really anything that’s working…
[Sam] Do you feel like SafeTrack worked?
[FixWMATA] I think it helped but I think it’s a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem… and that kinda brings about funding. So, some people have talked about having a gas tax or a sales tax, are you in support of that or do you have other ideas how we should fund Metro?
[Sam] Oh boy, I mean I don’t even have a car cause I came from LA and my car broke down on the way and I was like “maybe I can try it without a car” and I’ve been OK for 4 years – it’s unbelievable. So, Metro’s a big part of that but so is Lyft and so are the bike share and I do everything I can, you know?
[FixWMATA] So, how do we pay for Metro? I don’t know if you know but there’s a huge budget short and no one knows how to pay for Metro and now taxes are coming up…
[Sam] Taxes… so would I be willing to pay more in taxes because of the Metro? For sure. Because I think public transportation’s super important.
[FixWMATA] Sam, thank you very much!
[Sam] Yeah, thanks!
If you’d like to have your voice heard you can call me at 202-709-6282 and leave a voicemail to be included in next week’s podcast.
He’s self-described as a “metro lover hater” and he’s probably the first person you think of when you think of WMATA and Twitter where he’s @UNSUCKDCMETRO. When I first started doing this 7 years ago it was quickly obvious that when it comes to Metro and Twitter this guy is the king.
For my first interview I wanted to sit down with him and give him more room to expand on the issues than can be contained in 280 characters.
Here now is my interview… with UNSUCKDCMETRO:
[FixWMATA] How long have you been doing this?
[UNSUCKDCMETRO] I started in January of 2009… so almost more than 8 years.
[F] How did you land on the name UNSUCKDCMETRO?
[U] I am a journalist and I used to cover the military and in the military they sometimes talk about…. Am I OK to swear on this? They talk about un-#@*#$ing something. “Get that un-#@*#$ed”. This and that. So I thought it was a kinda play on that that was PG.
[F] OK. So now every time I see UNSUCKDCMETRO I’m going to think of something else… alright. Why are you anonymous and does it make it easier or harder to do what you do?
[U] Well, when I first started, you know, I think it was just one of these harebrained ideas that we’ve all had you know I’m going to start a blog about this and in a month it goes stale and you don’t do it anymore. So I didn’t feel the need to put my name on it. And though as it kinda grew in popularity I got some… I think threatening would be a little bit strong but… some emails that, let’s just say were kinda creepy from people saying they were with Metro – I have no idea if they were or not. So I just decided to stay anonymous and then also there’s an element that I don’t want it to be about me. Plus I’m shy.
[F] OK. The question I’m asking everyone, and I actually just got finished asking a lot of riders this, what’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[U] Well, I’ve never tried to portray myself as any kind of a transit expert or.. but to me it seems pretty obvious and I’ve, you know, I beat the drum of accountability almost daily on my Twitter feed – it’s who really owns Metro? That’s the question. If you want to apply change to the organization where do you push? I don’t think there’s a really clear answer to that because I think it’s designed to defuse responsibility.
[F] So, what you’re saying is wrong is that there’s no “where the buck stops” with Metro and you’re not sure how that gets fixed?
[F] WMATA’s largest union, ATU Local 689, is holding elections in December for a new President while an agreement with WMATA is still not settled. If you were elected President of ATU Local 689 what is the most important change you’d make?
[U] Well, the chances of me getting elected President of a union is slim to none.
[F] Alternate universe…
[U] But.. if somehow magically I were to become President of that union… You know, I get their mission. I get that they’re supposed to protect their workers and I get why they fight for worker’s jobs… that’s their responsibility. But again, and this is the same with Metro – the organization or management – I don’t think they have a good appreciation of who pays their paychecks. They don’t seem to have a sense of being a part of the community. They seem to be “I’m gonna get mine and screw the rest”.
[F] Well, how would you fix that?
[U] Well, I think you need to instill the idea that you’re working for these people.
[F] And by “these people” you mean Metro riders?
[U] Exactly. You’re working for the Metro riders. And there’s no excuse to be rude to riders. Maybe there are a couple… but in general there’s no excuse to be rude to these people. And have a sense of pride. I don’t see that.
[F] OK. Same question if you were named WMATA General Manager tomorrow?
[U] Well, I think it would be the same thing. You know, we talked earlier before we started recording about how the Houston mass transit when the Astros won the World Series and they had a celebration the Houston Metro was free, they wanted to get as many people down there to celebrate… where’s the, I don’t see one thing that Metro’s done to try to generate any good will. We basically get PR programs that are frankly insulting. And that seems to be their “reaching out”. I made air quotes.
[F] I’ll be sure to put that in the transcript. Of the local WMATA reporters – or the local DC transit reporters – who, if anyone, do you think is doing a good job?
[U] I’m not going to name names but let’s just say that as a print guy – I’m a journalist of print, online writing – I’m a little bit embarrassed that the radio guys here are better than… they’re the best of the bunch covering Metro.
[F] Yeah, yeah, I completely agree to that. How do you cultivate relationships with WMATA employees to get their take on what’s actually going on there and are they just as frustrated as riders are?
[U] The ones I’ve talked to, absolutely yes they are frustrated. In some cases because they think they could get killed. As far as cultivating relationships – a lot of them came to me and the ones that didn’t… there’s an incredible amount of paranoia at Metro. People are, you know they’re technically not allowed to talk to the press – just your average workers. I don’t get why that’s true. So, from that – as a starting point you’re not allowed to do it period even if you’re going to say “Metro’s the best”. So I just can’t believe how paranoid some of them are. And so, obviously I don’t work at Metro, but I respect that and try to do everything possible to keep them anonymous or keep them out of suspicion. You really have to be – they’re very paranoid and I think it’s a culture that – it’s the culture that starts that. It’s the culture where that starts.
[F] So you just start with one person and gain trust and others start coming towards you?
[U] Well, no – I would say that of the.. there have been quite a few people that I’ve talked to over the years – I’m not sure any of them knew any of the others. So I don’t think it was word of mouth among Metro employees. I think it might have been that they could see that I was taking steps to mask the identities of people I was talking to so they felt comfortable coming to me.
[F] And that goes back to the days of the blog, right?
[U] Correct. But I still am in touch with several and you know its the same – somebody will send me something and it’s unbelievable and they’ll say “you can’t use it because it might finger me” and I’m not going to burn anybody like that.
[F] Yeah. Absolutely. I think we use humor and a touch of snark – I’ll concede to a touch of snark – do you think this is mostly because the situation is just so hopeless that it’s become laughable?
[U] Basically, yeah. I mean, yeah. And I think mockery is a very potent weapon to try to affect change. Mockery works. And Metro deserves every bit that they get.
[F] By big city standards WMATA seems to be failing the late-night workers and partiers. What can WMATA do to help those folks while also continuing to get maintenance done?
[U] Well, you know this maintenance thing… I can’t remember now how many hours these new service hours bought them for maintenance – it wasn’t a lot, you know – it wasn’t night and day. It was a marginal amount of time. And given the way Metro plans projects – I’m not sure that they’re adding anything by reducing their hours. I still get messages from Metro workers like “hey, we’re here on the whatever project and we’re just chilling out because something hasn’t happened or somebody’s not here or this other group isn’t out of the way or we don’t have the materials” it’s really just poor planning.
[F] So they’ve removed some service but on the opposite side of that they haven’t gotten their ducks in a row to get done what they’re actually trying to get done by removing the service?
[U] Yeah, that’s what I think. I mean, I guess they could.. if this were Tokyo an hour or 2 of extra time might really make a difference. Unfortunately this is Metro I don’t see them putting it to good use. I don’t see them being efficient.
[F] I’ve often wondered if WMATA’s workforce was more like the military how things might be different…
[U] When you look back – I can’t remember the name of the first GM or the 2nd GM – but one of them was a military general and Metro used to be very attractive to veterans so there was a military sort of “let’s get it done” efficiency pride in work. That used to be there. But as Metro moves away from that – I think that’s gone away.
[F] We’re quickly approaching the 10 year anniversary of the 2009 Red Line crash. Do you think we’re less likely to have such an accident now or are we still at risk?
[U] You know you hear about some of the shoddy work that’s been done over these multiple years of track work and rebuilding and… I just don’t know. It doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. And we’re not on ATO – that seems to me to be a priority but it doesn’t seem to be a priority for Metro or there’s something they’re not telling us.
[F] I often wonder: it’s what you don’t know that could come back to bite you.
[U] And there’s a heck of a lot that we don’t know about Metro because it is – they are about as opaque as it gets.
[F] The WMATA/NATS debacle for baseball season is now several years running. Who needs to blink first to fix that situation?
[U] That’s a tough one because I really don’t want to be on the side of the pro-sports team that makes bazillions dollars and gets tax payers to build their stadium. But I kinda feel like that deal – whatever it was – was done with Metro service kinda baked-in and now Metro’s reneging on that – or maybe reneging is not the right word but Metro has changed the goal post there. So, it’s kinda like Pepco and Metro – not a hero among them. But I guess I’d go on the NATS side on that one.
[F] NATS need to blink first?
[U] No, Metro needs to.
[F] Metro does.
[U] Again it goes back to the establishing good will in the area.
[F] And being part of the city you serve?
[U] Being part of the city you serve… rather than extortionists.
[F] You and I survived Richard Sarles and now we’re 2 years in with Paul Wiedefeld on the 30th of November – this month. Of the 2 who do you think is a better general manager and why?
[U] Boy, you know the General Manager – the press makes it out to be such a big job – and it is a big job – I wouldn’t want to be General Manager of Metro – but kinda fundamentally they don’t have a lot of power. It’s kinda a job that goes to hacks and I think both of these guys are hacks. I guess I’d go with Sarles being worse because he was given access to $5B for MetroForward – I think they only spent $3.7B but all of the disruption created by that and then immediately roll into SafeTrack which was over a year of big-time disruptions and now this thing that they don’t have a name for it but it’s SafeTrack still going…
[U] SafeTrack 2.0. And also a lot of the stuff that was repaired during SafeTrack seems to be problematic again so… what’s going on?
[F] I think back to the Sarles years and not only did Sarles come in but he brought in so many people that are still there that may or may not be part of the problem now.
[U] Well I think that’s very common in US transit – I don’t know about other transits but Catoe who was before Sarles what I’m told is when he came he brought in his cronies. Sarles came in brought in his cronies. And Wiedefeld’s doing it as well. In fact the other day somebody told me there’s some big changes coming so we may see an influx of Wiedefeld… Wiedefeld… Wiedefeld?
[U] Wiedefeldian folks coming in from the hugely successful MTA.
[F] Speaking of Paul Wiedefeld – what advice would you give him if you sat down in front of him?
[U] You know one of the best leads I read in a story about Metro was in the City Paper and I can’t remember who wrote it – and I actually tried to look for it the other day – but it was about something about Metro unveiling a new program or something like that and the reporter said “but they just seem to not get that people don’t like Metro”. And it’s – people don’t like Metro because the service sucks, that’s true. But it also just has such an arrogance to it that they don’t like it for that as well. And I’ve seen nothing that Wiedefeld’s has done to reduce that sense that Metro is – I don’t know – they just don’t seem to really care. Like, when MetroForward was over why didn’t they have a free weekend? You know – “come and see what we’ve done, come ride Metro for free”.
[F] Yeah, I think Paul issued, what was it – like a 2 line thank you note to the city. Final question: Jackie Jeter, Paul Wiedefeld, and Jack Evans walk into a bar… who picks up the tab?
[U] Hmmmm… by pick up the tab do you mean who has the most money?
[F] Who’s paying for the round of drinks?
[U] It’s all so symbiotic but symbiosis kinda has a positive – it’s the opposite of symbiosis it’s working together to suck instead of working together to be better.
[F] I think the riders pick up the tab.
[U] And they always will the way this Metro is run.
[F] Awesome. Thank you for doing this. And again you’re @UNSUCKDCMETRO with an S – with an S – on Twitter. Thank you so much.
[U] Thank you.
Before we wrap up this episode I wanted to say a couple things about how WMATA communicates with riders…
It was announced this week, amid a firestorm of braking news about how WMATA could be funded, that Metro is running a pilot program that could eventually result in 500 3000 and 6000 series rail cars getting new exterior vinyl wraps and an interior makeover. Metro announced all of this with a video on YouTube that had only background music as audio which made the video pointless for vision-impaired riders. The 30 second video basically advertised how WMATA is going to spend money to make old rail cars look similar to the new 7000 series railcars – and oh, something about being environmentally friendly.
If it wasn’t for Twitter this is where the information would have stopped. Many on Twitter had questions. Most wanted to know how much this was going to cost and why WMATA was putting lipstick on a pig in the middle of a funding crisis. None of the proposed changes made the rail cars function better or increased service.
Others asked if the vinyl was flammable and if it did catch fire is the smoke toxic? Questions that sadly are appropriate for WMATA.
One rider also pointed out that if WMATA was going to wrap the rail cars for appearance sake – why not wrap them with ads and generate some income?
It wasn’t until riders started asking these questions – stemmed from the 30 second YouTube video and a vague tweet by @WMATA – that reporters started asking the same questions to get answers.
WMATA claims the wraps, which cost over $4000 each, will save the authority money over the long-term by not having to paint the old rail cars – something that apparently costs over $14,000 each time. This prompted questions about the paint – are these cars currently getting painted, it certainly doesn’t look like it.
WMATA expanded on the vague “better for the environment” claim from the video by explaining that harsh chemicals used to scrub the rail cars could be swapped for more environmentally friendly wash solutions on the vinyl.
The point I want to make here is that WMATA could have done a better job communicating in the first place. Nobody told WMATA the video had to be limited to 30 seconds. Why not a minute and a half video that explained more?
Nobody told WMATA the video couldn’t have a voiceover that – at a minimum – read the captions as they appeared on the screen.
It’s been said that WMATA has a vast EREL or External Relations department. One could assume at least one of those employees were involved with the making of this video. Nobody looked at this and asked the questions riders asked within 10 minutes of seeing the video and thought just maybe we should expand on some of this IN THE VIDEO?
And after the video was released – why was it that not until reporters got involved did riders begin to get answers that could quell the rage over spending money while begging for money? Instead of replying to riders WMATA responded by texting reporters – as though the DC media was an extension of the EREL department.
This isn’t a new problem. WMATA has a history of making videos that act more as a way to advertise for the authority instead of educating riders. All of their videos can be found on YouTube under the MetroForward account.
MetroForward – by the way – was a rebuilding campaign that hasn’t been active for over 4 years. And despite that inactivity EREL actively uses that name for WMATA’s YouTube and Facebook accounts. Why?
I’d like to encourage riders to reach out to Lynn Bowersox, Chief of External Relations at WMATA, and encourage better communication with riders going forward. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is rider fare money and tax payer money they’re spending after all.
I hope you’ll join me again next time. Until then take care of yourself and your fellow rider – we’re all in this together!
If you would like to be featured on a future FixWMATA podcast or have segment suggestions please contact me at email@example.com or on twitter @FixWMATA.
If you have something to say about WMATA and want to leave feedback you can call me at 202-709-6282 and leave a voicemail that may be included in a future podcast.
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The music used in the podcast comes from Ian Sutherland and a link to his music can be found on the website.
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