Monday, April 25, 2016


Metaphor on Rails

Train stories aren’t my usual thing, though I have friends who enjoy them.  (Stephen Karlson, I’m looking at youuuu.  And Rebecca Townsend, who sometimes goes by “Becky” and does, in fact, have good hair, but is not Becky with the good hair.)  This one seemed like a ready-made metaphor, though.  It’s about the sorry state of the Washington DC Metro system, though it could easily have been about community colleges in America.

Apparently, the Metro system is faltering because decades of neglect have led to degraded service, which, in turn, is reducing ridership.  And why, you ask, has the system been neglected for so long?

Let’s just say I saw some family resemblances.

Divided jurisdiction?  State/county/student(federal) sources with different priorities.  Check.

Deferred maintenance?  Most community colleges in America were built in the 1960’s or early 1970’s, a genuine low point in American architecture.  (Not to mention interior design.  Harvest gold, anyone?)  And while donors like to put names on buildings, they tend to prefer new ones.  I’ve never seen a donor earmark money to redo an aging HVAC system.  Check.

Lack of operating funding?  Check, with a vengeance.  

Ample blame for disappointing results while cheaping out on the resources that could have prevented them?  Check.

The two systems suffer from similar failures of accounting.  Public transportation is expensive, but private transportation is much more so; it’s just that the costs of private transportation are much more hidden and diffused.  People who don’t pay much attention take traffic jams as neutral facts of life, but see train delays as the result of negligence or incompetence.  They recoil in horror -- rightly -- at a train wreck in 2009 that killed nine people, but couldn’t tell you how many multiples of that died in car accidents that year.

Similarly, public higher education is expensive, but much less so than public ignorance or private higher education.  It’s just that the taxpayer burden of expensive private higher ed is hidden and complicated, where appropriations to colleges are open and obvious.  Shut down community colleges, and good luck keeping newly-scarce nurses’ salaries from breaking the bank.  But that cost is a step removed, and requires thinking a step ahead.

In both cases, systems that serve huge swaths of the public suffer from the political inability to capture a significant fraction of the benefits they generate.  

The Metro piece would have been stronger if it had been comparative.  It suggests that the Metro is unique in crossing state lines, which would come as a surprise to anyone who has taken a PATH train.  And whatever the quirks of DC, the BART in San Francisco and the T in Boston are struggling similarly.  That suggests that the issues transcend any one person or set of people.  They’re structural.

Within higher ed, different systems have their various quirks, but community colleges across the country are struggling.  That suggests that the issues transcend any one person or set of people.  They’re structural.

Some contend that the answer is to give up on the public provision of anything, and to resort to a sort of Randian hellscape.  But that ignores the real and substantial public resources poured into supporting supposedly private transportation and education.  And it writes off entirely the folks for whom public options are the only practical options.  Somalia’s experiment with the absence of government doesn’t seem to have led to a libertarian paradise.  Perhaps there’s a flaw in the theory somewhere...

Yes, both systems need to work on internal improvements.  But at some level, real improvement will rely on resources commensurate to the benefits provided.  That will require political leadership far beyond what we have seen to this point.  But the fact that both systems exist at all -- that they were humanly created in the first place -- gives me hope.  We’ve had moments of clarity before.  We can have them again.  We just have to be willing to pay the fare.

It has been my great good fortune to have the biggest railroad project since the Powder River Basin coal line being proposed in my neighborhood, and here I'm retired and able to cover that without neglecting my day job.

But there are plenty of parallels to the troubles community colleges and the rest of higher education currently are having with the railroad experience, well beyond Washington's Metro hitting the wall that predictably happens with any publicly funded internal improvement. (Public officials love groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings. Keeping the Mechanical Department in replacement brake cylinders, or the Mathematics Department in chalk and notepads, not so much.)

And I've been pointing out the parallels for a long time. "The railroads discovered that in some ways they had to turn the clock back to 1945, replacing some second and third tracks, and replacing some main lines that had been taken out of service. Are any academic administrators sufficiently forward-looking today? Or will the current crop of administrators have to retire, as was the case with the old-line railroad administrators, before there is any change?" I think you were with DeVry at the time, Matt. We were into our second decade of excellence without money at Northern Illinois.

And what headquarters measures, it gets more of. Lots of ominous rail parallels there. Then there's the inevitable conclusion. "Run-down track, demoralized crews, chronic mechanical failures. Finish the argument yourself."
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As a DC-area resident and someone who commuted via Metro for seven-plus years, lemme tellya, it's a spectacular mess. The horror stories of how it's mismanaged now would make a great book. (A dirty open secret: train operators are known for intentionally disabling trains and taking them out of service if they feel slighted by someone at Metro Operations Center. This does not lead to firings, because yeah.) But there's yet another failing you don't mention above that should resonate with the education sector: Metro was not designed to be doing what it's doing.

The NYC subway is much more robust than the DC Metro in large part because when they initially created the Metro, they weren't envisioning the population of today. (The roads are the same way, and oh man.) The Metro was intended as a way to get suburbanites into and out of the city for work and major events. This led to two decisions that made sense at the time and bite everyone in the ass now.

First, since the trains weren't going to run all the time, maintenance could be done on nights and weekends. In the face of demand -- DC's population explosion of recent decades -- they greatly expanded service hours, thereby cutting into maintenance time. A fat political win at the time, a giant nightmare now.

Second, when they designed the system, they did not design it with redundant track lines. The entire system is only two track lines wide, everywhere. Underground line construction is hideously expensive, and adding whole redundant lines in case of problems would have added more to a budget that was already in peril. There was plenty of maintenance time built into the schedule anyway, right? Well, yeah. So now if there is a problem on a track, that part of the line has to "single-track," with trains taking turns in the one open tunnel. This slows traffic very badly.

(Another bit of amazing design short-sightedness was in station design. Escalators. Holy crap, the escalators. I could talk for an hour on the abundant stupidity behind Metro's escalators. What seemed like a brilliant design for the 1970s-80s aged very, very poorly.)

They built a fairly simple, brittle system that only functioned with constant maintenance. Since it worked well and served a huge need (traffic here is mind-blowing), it was pushed and pushed without consideration for what that would mean. And yeah, now it's collapsing. Metro is now talking about shutting down entire lines for months at a time to fully repair everything. People are freaking the hell out.

Meanwhile, they just recently opened up the Silver Line, a monstrously expensive extension of the system towards the wealthier burbs that took forever and a day to finish, and intend to keep pushing the line towards Dulles Airport. [facepalm]

It's a great system with some massive underlying issues that have been pushed down the road for decades. Now the road has ended and it's fugly.

Yeah, the parallels to the higher education sector kinda leap out and bite your face, don't they?
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