The Vienna station on the Washington, D.C., Metro's Orange Line is a pleasant 12-minute stroll from my home in Virginia on a nice summer day, and Farragut West is a brisk five-minute walk to my downtown office.
Like so many of my fellow Washingtonians, I rarely use this crown jewel of our region's infrastructure.
That's not to say I have never tried, but my employees who rely upon the Red and Orange lines for their daily commutes remind me every day why I don't. These young, energetic and talented individuals routinely arrive late to varying degrees and are often irritated beyond measure when they do finally arrive.
D.C. Metrorail – the 17th-largest system in the world – is unreliable, unpleasant, expensive and occasionally deadly. It has become so because the system through which it operates is outdated and incredibly resistant to any sort of change, from innovation, to private investment to energetic leadership.
The problem is that the transit industry, like our country's greater infrastructure industry, doesn't recognize that technology has rendered its basic assumptions obsolete, and dangerous to our prosperity.
The problems with Metrorail highlight three false beliefs that drive the industry and confuse us into inaction.
First, experts know best. Actually, this has never been true. Experts just know best when they are instructed on what to do and how to do it. Today's projects traverse an average 9.5-year permitting process, which kills initiative and repels creativity from an already highly risk-averse environment.
Companies – who employ the engineers, finance professionals and consultants – spend their time, money and expertise in a defensive vacuum. The system forces them to say, "We are the experts, and the best that we are going to deliver is 40-year-old technology and brutalist architecture with no customer amenities. Do you want it or not?"
Experts often don't know best. The Golden Gate Bridge, the most-photographed bridge in the world, was designed by a poet, and a Greek scholar managed its construction. We need to build a system in which the best young entrepreneurs and the most visionary minds again lead in the definition and creation of great projects.
Second, infrastructure is a public good, and as such it should remain the province of public financing. This could not be more wrong. Hong Kong's metro brings a range of private financing to the table, and covers operational costs at a 186 percent rate even before engaging the private sector in even more profitable leasing space for stores, office buildings and housing.
D.C. Metrorail covers only 67 percent of its operational costs and taps the private sector for virtually no revenue. In Hong Kong and Singapore, and now even in London, the private sector plays an outsized role in maximizing profitability, allowing for real innovation. D.C. Metrorail could easily fill its stations with shops, lease the land it owns around stations for offices and create private sector opportunities to invest in its rolling stock (so we don't have to use rail cars that are 25 years past their 15-year design life). It does none of that.
Free market investment works for public endeavors. Beyond metro systems, the privately financed I-495 express lanes – which I use whenever I can – are a prime example. Because technology offers all sorts of new avenues for investment in innovative and profitable infrastructure, I even look forward to one day directly investing in undertakings that will benefit my community, just like my grandfather did when he built a dam in 1898 that created the Anderson Electric Company in Manitowoc, Wis.
Third, great infrastructure is too expensive. Actually, it's too slow. How do we attract the resources that everyone believes are critical to long-term economic success if projects take so long to permit? We need to show results, quickly and consistently, so that the public can measure the real benefits of great infrastructure such as jobs, opportunities, improved quality of life and the promise of greater prosperity in their lifetime.
How is one of the richest metropolitan areas in the country so congested, and with such a miserable transit system? The Silver Line took nearly 20 years from award to half-way completion. In the public's mind, modern infrastructure is at the wrong end of a cost-benefit analysis. Compare the costs of Amtrak's proposed Washington/New York/Boston high-speed rail project with a price tag of $151 billion – and uncertain benefits so far into the dim future that we lose interest – to the $32 billion dollar, four-year Beijing to Shanghai build-out, a stretch that is nearly double the distance of the Boston/Washington route.
Here is where leadership is required to clear the underbrush and break the Leviathan framework that holds America back.
We need to demonstrate to the current generation – and to ourselves – that we possess the visionary leadership to move with haste, despite the risks, to propel our country into an incredibly prosperous future.
Norman F. Anderson is the President and CEO of CG/LA Infrastructure, a global consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., an adjunct professor in the School of Engineering at Columbia University and a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Infrastructure.Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.