DC Metro Crash: Who Will Die Next Because We Throw Money at Billionaries and Scrimp on the Public Good?

Who will be the next to die because our cities spend money on sports stadiums instead of basic infrastructure?

Two years ago, my former college town, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, was the site of thirteen needless fatalities when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. The tragedy occurred the same month that ground was broken on a $500 million stadium. Now, a mere ten minute walk from my home, two Washington, DC, Metro trains collided, killing nine and sending more than seventy-five to the hospital.

I spent most of that evening on the phone, either assuring people that my family was safe or checking on friends to make sure no one was in the hospital or worse. My loved ones were all in one piece. The parents of my little girl's friends were secure, although several had been on the trains involved, shaken up for sure but not grievously injured. The relief was palpable, even physical. But then the stories started to be released in small doses, and relief turned to horror.

There were the families of the dead on television: the inconsolable loved ones of train operator Jeanice McMillan, 42; David and Ann Wherley, both 62; Mary Doolittle, 59; LaVonda King, 23; Veronica DuBose, 29; Cameron Williams, 37; Dennis Hawkins, 64, and Ana Fernandez, 40. A teacher, a young mother, a retired National Guard major general, a woman who cleaned office buildings while raising six children--all gone, leaving devastated friends and family behind.

Then there are victims like 14-year-old Lanice Beasley. The tendons in her legs were severed. While she waited for rescue, Lanice comforted a severely injured woman who ultimately perished right next to her on the ground.

From her hospital bed, Lanice spoke to the press in a fading voice and kept losing consciousness, but she managed to reveal details of the ordeal: "We were by a dumpster on the ground. I saw her die. She died right there."

This is just too much to bear. My shock became anger as it became clear that none of these people had to die, that no one had to be hurt. This accident was about as predictable as the setting sun. The wreckage by my house is not an accident site. It is a crime scene. And it happened for one reason: the twisted policies of the underfunded Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The WMATA gets no dedicated federal funds despite the fact that it serves thousands of federal workers. In fact, it has no dedicated source of funds at all, depending on fares and ads for three-fifths of its budget.

The rest is a pittance from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, creating an underfunded, overstretched system called by the Brookings Institution "deficits by design."

All the dirty laundry that Metro riders catch whiffs of on their daily commutes is now in plain view. Employees have told the Washington Post that the first two cars of the striking train were two months overdue for maintenance on "braking components." In addition, the trains involved in the collision were recommended to be taken off the tracks altogether or significantly retrofitted back in 2006.

The Post also reported that Deborah Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said, "They have not been able to do that and our recommendation was not addressed. So, it has been an unacceptable status." Even worse, we now know that Jeanice McMillan probably pressed the emergency brake and it did not respond.

The Metro has now become our broken levee: An utterly preventable tragedy if only people in government had the will to do the public good. And as in New Orleans, whose Superdome sucked up public money better spent on flood control, if publicly funded stadiums hadn't become a substitute for urban policy, we wouldn't be mourning today.

The boondoggle of government-funded stadiums is just one example from a society that provides handouts to billionaires at the expense of ordinary citizens' needs.

DC Mayor Adrian Fenty should be crawling under a rock right now. Instead Fenty sees this crisis, according to reports, as his Giuliani moment. In other words, as an opportunity for him to be some sort kind of strongman visionary in the wake of tragedy. There he is in front of every camera: the very image of an urban leader.

Spare us your ambition, Mr. Mayor. Instead, explain how we are going to get Metro funded. And while you are at it, explain why the District of Columbia is on the hook for a $700 million ballpark, where the city's last-place team in the National League's Eastern Division toils in front of their dozen or so biggest fans? Why, under your watch, does the DC government own skyboxes at all sporting venues? Why are you in discussion for more stadium spending -- on soccer, hoops and the mother of all stadium deals, the possible return of the Washington Redskins from suburban Maryland to the District?

Every billionaire sports owner has his hand out because Fenty has shown that he will turn his pockets inside out for them -- this despite the fact that Fenty became mayor on the strength of standing up to the Nationals stadium deal when he was on the City Council. The Nats are now owned by the multibillionaire Lerner family, which was essentially handed the stadium and continues to exact concessions from the city.

Fenty should by no means be the only political leader to feel the heat. The state governments in Maryland and Virginia should also be doing a perp walk. But the WMATA is the DC-area Metro. If Fenty wants to own this crisis, he needs to own his own accountability.

This is a question of priorities, plain and simple. But not our priorities. A majority of DC-area residents opposed the public funding of the stadiums. These are the priorities of power and they must be opposed at all costs. The advice of peace activist Sister Joan Chittister has some relevance here. "Anger is not bad," she has said. "Anger can be a very positive thing, the thing that moves us beyond the acceptance of evil." It's time to get angry. Or the next city may be your own.

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