America’s Best Ride? Understanding Government Reports on the Washington Metro

Executive Summary 

Understanding Government, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., is committed to better government through better reporting, with a special focus on the executive branch and government agencies. We have issued numerous reports on federal agencies — from the FBI to the FAA to the CPSC.

"America’s Best Ride?" is our first report on a regional agency. It examines how the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – a key “circulatory system” for the national capital region – works from the inside and explains the challenges WMATA will face in the years to come.

For this report, Understanding Government met with WMATA officials and employees from the general manager to station managers, from engineers to in-house economists. We also talked to passengers and outside experts who have studied Washington’s Metro system for years. Among our surprising findings:

  • WMATA suffers from a “reputation deficit” given its overall record of achievement and its size (second largest subway system in the U.S. after New York City’s MTA) that detracts from the agency’s ability to advance mass transit solutions for the Washington, D.C. metro area;
  • Solutions to Washington, D.C.’s overloaded highways are more likely to be found in WMATA’s less-regarded Metrobus service, not the higher-profile Metrorail system;
  • WMATA is an “unsung hero” in the economic development of the Washington region, helping spark economic renewal both in Washington, D.C.’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs and in several D.C. neighborhoods;
  • Intensive quality improvement and personnel training efforts at WMATA may not allow the nearly 40-year old agency to “catch up” with infrastructure problems that have been inherent since the transit system opened in 1976;
  • If it overcomes these problems, WMATA has an opportunity – seldom commented on by agency officials or outside observers – to be a leading force for mass transit improvements in the U.S. as a whole.

The full report includes interviews with more than a dozen key WMATA employees and Board members and is intended as a long-term resource for journalists and anyone who is interested in mass transit, organizational behavior, and government performance.

For more information, please contact Ned Hodgman at Understanding Government, tel. (202) 775-8080 or reach us through our website,

Download the full report here. ( PDF 1.4MB)

PRINT COPIES of the report can be obtained by contacting Understanding Government.