Remember the Y2K bug, the infamous computer “glitch” that was poised to throw the world’s legacy computer systems and everything they controlled into turmoil the second their clocks struck midnight on January 1, 2000?


Though it failed to fulfill its hype nine years ago, a different strain of Y2K appears to causing a fair share of havoc in the 21st Century, as evidenced by the failure of two major transportation-related computer systems in metropolitan Washington last week.


On Wednesday, the computer that synchronizes more than 750 traffic signals across suburban Montgomery County crashed. With no “brains” to coordinate and control rush hour/non-rush hour settings, the hundreds of wayward lights left commuters in a mobility nightmare typically associated with natural disaster and terrorism scenarios.


It wasn’t until Thursday night that the county’s engineers were able to fully restore connections across the traffic network, putting the signals literally and figuratively on the “same page” with each other.


Wednesday wasn’t a much better day at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency’s downtown DC headquarters, as a blown circuit breaker knocked out a power unit for the agency’s system-wide control computers. Although train movements were unaffected, Metrorail stations were left without their public address system, while buss drivers were left without radio communication and functional fare boxes.


The system collapse was the latest in a string of technology troubles for the beleaguered agency, whose long-troublesome train control system is suspected of contributing to the deadly collision of two trains this past summer.


Both computer crashes were attributed to a cause typically associated with other types of infrastructure problems—old age.  Richard Nixon was president when Metro’s power units were acquired, while Montgomery County’s traffic control computer was developed during the original age of disco.


Not surprisingly, both problems share a common remedy—money that isn’t readily available.


Fortunately for Montgomery County motorists, a six-year, $35 million program to upgrade the traffic control system is already underway. Despite local leaders’ vows to find some way to accelerate the process, however, it’s likely that they and motorists will have no choice but to cross their fingers and hope no similar system crashes occur before the upgrade is complete.


Resolving Metro’s computer problems will require a lot more than blind faith and dumb luck.

The $14 million pricetag for replacing the broken power unit and equally aged related equipment joins an already lengthy list of system maintenance needs facing an agency burdened with a $22 million budget gap for 2009, and substantially higher shortfalls projected for next year. The outcome of the National Transportation Safety Board’s crash investigation could exacerbate Metro’s money problems if major infrastructure upgrades are required. 

Unfortunately, similar incidents and resulting dilemmas will likely become as frequent as water main breaks, pavement failures, and other “out of sight, out of mind” infrastructure failures, particularly the longer these one-time marvels of technology remain in service long past the cyber Social Security age. 


Though it is tempting for cash-strapped governments to apply the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule to these systems, anyone who’s ever used a home or office computer user knows that technology trip-ups have an annoying habit of occurring at the worst possible times.


Seeing as how the safety of a lot of people depends on the performance of these systems, it’s a bit disturbing to contemplate when that “worst possible time” could be.