It is an increasingly familiar story across the country. Aging infrastructure and tight budgets have hobbled many of the United States’ most formidable subway systems, including the “L” in Chicago and BART in San Francisco. In New York, where construction at Pennsylvania Station and chronic subway delays are taking a toll on riders, the season has been called the “Summer of Hell.” And with big-ticket federal infrastructure legislation looking increasingly unlikely, nothing is poised to change anytime soon.
“This is going to be more the norm than the exception in the future,” said Robert Puentes, the chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Mr. Puentes said other cities should study Metro’s approach for how to balance rider safety, reliable service and transparency while operating in an unforgiving financial circumstances.
Metro’s particular woes are the product of years of neglected maintenance, poor management and oversight and uncertain finances. The system is younger than Boston’s or New York’s — the Red Line opened in 1976 — and its leaders spent much of their time and money on expanding it deeper into Maryland and Virginia rather than maintaining what was already built.
That began to change in the past decade after a series of accidents resulted in gruesome deaths and injuries that federal investigators traced to avoidable safety lapses. After a tunnel fire in March 2016, Metro’s general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, on the job only a few months, shut the system for a daylong emergency inspection. He eventually settled on the SafeTrack program as the best way to fix the worst parts of the system. The program compressed three years of work into a single, painful one. Sections of the system’s six lines were shut down or severely delayed for weeks.
The costs have been high. Rail ridership was down 10 percent through March compared to the last fiscal year. And ridership is down close to 20 percent, about 150,000 trips per weekday on average, since it peaked a decade ago.
Mr. Wiedefeld said it was clear to him that Metro’s long-held practice of skimping on maintenance to fund operations had put the whole operation at risk.
“That has to come to an end,” he said in an interview. “You could get away with it when you were a 20-, 25-year-old system. Going into your 40s and 50s, you can’t do that anymore.”
Three major maintenance projects are already planned for the coming year, beginning in August.
But the long-term solution, Mr. Wiedefeld and regional leaders say, comes down to funding — an issue that has bedeviled transit leaders here for decades. Metro relies on annual allocations from Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and the federal government to supplement revenue from riders. But when those funds, which are subject to local political squabbles, fall short, Metro is left with few options, like raising fares, curtailing service or delaying maintenance. It is the only major public transit system in the country without a dedicated and permanent funding source, like a sales or business tax.
Metro hopes to close a gap for the coming fiscal year by raising fares and curtailing service — changes that took effect on Sunday.
Regional leaders and outside experts who have studied the issue say they hope to change that, most plausibly with the adoption of a regional sales tax dedicated to Metro. The challenge is that any such fix would require action by the patchwork of local jurisdictions and the states, which each have their own ideas about overhauling Metro’s unwieldy 16-person board and potentially its labor agreements.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a Democrat, has asked Ray LaHood, the former transportation secretary and Republican congressman, to study the issues and make a much-anticipated proposal that could guide the region.
“It is one thing to get this system back to good,” said Sharon Bulova, the chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who has led a group of local leaders studying the issue. “But that is not going to serve us into the future if we don’t make some major improvements in the way we continue to fund the Metro system.”
However they proceed, Metro’s leaders will have to contend with a deep well of skepticism among riders who say they have watched for years as Metro’s pledges and promises have done little to slow declines in service. Trains are rarely overcrowded. It’s mostly that service is unreliable. A 15-minute commute one day can take an hour the next.
Riders returning on Monday will be greeted by a new public relations campaign, Back2Good, which though not exactly inspiring, has found its way onto posters across the system citing improvements like new escalators and on-platform Wi-Fi. And 41 years after they first rolled through the region, the last of the system’s original cars were finally decommissioned on Sunday. Growing numbers of shiny, cleaner, safer new ones have taken their place.
Riders say they are waiting to see more.
“No, not yet,” Brenda Paige, a regular rider, said when asked if she thought the system had turned a corner. “I’ve been riding too long.”
Ms. Paige, 52, a medical assistant who relies on the system to commute from Northeast Washington to Foggy Bottom, said she had been particularly spooked by a 2015 episode that left one woman dead and scores of others hospitalized after smoke filled a Metro tunnel. A monthlong SafeTrack project that added two bus rides to her normal rail commute only added to her frustrations.
So for now, even as she roots for the system’s rebound, it remains mostly the stuff of prayers.
“I’m still skeptical,” Ms. Paige said Thursday as she exited a station downtown. “I always pray before getting on trains: ‘Get me there safely. Get me home safely.’”
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