When I was in Washington for Greenbuild I was totally stunned by the Washington Metro system. I had never been in one so beautiful; grand vaulted and coffered ceilings, designed by Harry Weese, that reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome. Quiet trains. Lights that turned on when the trains were arriving. Then I got on one that was so crowded that I couldn’t breathe and I asked “is it always like this?” They others laughed and told me no, it was because of a breakdown, which happens just about every day.
Today in Washington the trains aren’t running; on Monday a jumper cable between sections of the third rail caught fire. The trouble is, this happened last year, with fatal consequences, and all the jumper cables were inspected after that. So when this fire happened the authorities decided that they had to shut down the whole system and inspect all 600 jumper cables again.
The problem is really one that everyone in North America is facing: deferred maintenance and deteriorating infrastructure.
Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott writes:
It isn’t, of course, just the Metro system. As you walk the city today, take note of the urban landscape — the broken benches, crumbling curbs, rusting light posts. If you drive, suffer the pot holes one by one, cross your fingers and hope you’re not on one of the country’s more than 70,000 structurally deficient bridges, and remember: We made this landscape, through neglect and dysfunction. It represents our loss of faith in ourselves, our contempt for beauty, and ultimately, our anger and our pessimism.
He notes that there are many reasons the subway is closed, including mismanagement and misplaced priorities. But the over-arching problem is much larger than one metro system:
But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: Years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness.
And it's everywhere, not just Washington.