D.C.'s Transit Agency Is Selling $45 Leggings Instead of Fixing the Damn Subway

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority is rife with mismanagement and dysfunction. So its decision to open a store is actually on-brand.


The subway system in Washington, D.C., routinely catches on fire. Large portions of the system were shut down for a massive maintenance project last year, only to have to be closed again this year because more repairs are needed. Personnel costs are bankrupting the system, ridership is declining, and the officials in charge of the mess are trying to convince various governments to give the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) more money, forcing non-riders to fund a larger share of the costs.

So, hey, how about a T-shirt?

Metro Catalog 2018

WMATA is pivoting to retail this week, with the grand opening of its new "M Store" tomorrow at the Metro Center subway station in downtown Washington. Today it released a catalog of the new store's offerings, and subway riders were absolutely stoked by the opportunity to purchase Metro-branded leggings, socks, T-shirts, and accessories.

Just kidding.

And if you think opening a retail store in the year 2018 to sell overpriced stuff that no one really wants is a colossal waste of money that could be spent instead on fixing some of the subway's many, many problems—well, just wait until you see the video they made to promote the new store.

Reason has asked WMATA for an accounting of money spent on the M Store marketing campaign, along with a revenue projection for the store itself. We will update when that information is provided.

The opening of the new retail store coincides with an ongoing push from the WMATA to get governments in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. to provide a new stream of "dedicated funding" for the system. In other words, because fewer people are voluntarily giving their money to WMATA, the agency is asking to have the money taken from riders and non-riders alike.

That argument would be a little less laughable if it weren't coming from the people who thought "Foggy Bottom" leggings were a good idea.

Mass transit agencies exist for one purpose: to move people around a city. WMATA frequently fails to do that. But even if the D.C. Metro always ran on time, never got into accidents, and consistently ran a budget surplus, opening a retail store to sell Metro-branded gear would be a questionable use of the agency's limited resources and its employees' time. There is no universe where "run a glorified gift shop" is a core function of mass transit.

That's especially true for WMATA, which is a bloated mess of bad contracts and poor accountability. More than 1,000 of WMATA's 12,500 employees make salaries in excess of six figures. Personnel costs (those salaries and the pensions for retired Metro workers) account for a whopping 74 percent of the agency's operating costs. Efforts to rein in those costs—say, by shifting workers into 401(k)-style pension plans—have predictably been opposed by unions and Democratic politicians.

Meanwhile, ridership declined by 12 percent during 2016, while the system's budget deficit ballooned to $125 million. Unfunded pension and health care liabilities come to nearly $3 billion.

And the problems at the top manifest themselves in a workplace culture that leaves something to be desired. "Consciously or subconsciously, everyone at Metro knows they've got a job for life, unless they sit there and smoke crack in the middle of the platform," one former WMATA mechanic told Washingtonian in 2015.

The WMATA is rife with mismanagement and dysfunction. Which means that, actually, the decision to open a retail store is exactly on-brand.