Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Today is the 3rd anniversary of Metro’s Red Line crash. Three years later, residents still consider Metro maintenance and reliability the top regional priority. Transparency and management effectiveness also came up as a very important issue.

In a recent focus group, respondents ranked the problem of deferred Metrorail maintenance as the top transportation challenge facing the region, ahead of traffic congestion.

Respondents also said that finding funding to repair transit, roads and bridges was the most important strategy to pursue, with circumferential transit behind that. Highways like an Outer Beltway (and more bike sharing) brought up the rear.

I’ll be on NewsTalk this morning from 10-10:15 to talk about Metro’s progress; you can watch the segment live the archived video is online.

Metro maintenance rates as number one challenge

AmericaSpeaks conducted the focus group for the Transportation Planning Board on June 2. It recruited 41 people from around the region, whose geography and demographics fairly closely match the overall regional makeup, except that there weren’t as many people in the highest income bracket as in the general population.

The organizers posed a series of transportation challenges and had respondents vote, using small remote controls at their seats, on how important each one is on a scale of 1-5 where 5 was the most important. Here are the average scores:

Deferred Metrorail maintenance causes unreliability4.62
The transportation system is too congested4.36
Many people cannot access affordable and convenient transit4.22
Many residential areas have limited transportation options4.11
Aging roadways need repair4.11
Bottlenecks are causing delays of inter-regional movement4.00
Development and transportation are often not well-coordinated3.89
Natural resources are threatened by transportation and growth3.89
Traffic incidents are a major source of delays3.87
Travel times to & from airports are increasingly unreliable3.59
Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities are a growing concern3.56
Air quality and public health standards are getting stricter3.14

69% of respondents ranked Metrorail maintenance as “very important,” with nobody ranking it “low” or “very low.” The much lower ratings for pedestrian and bicycle fatalities point to potential challenges in dealing with road safety; commuters may not be very eager to accept speed enforcement and traffic calming if they don’t think that crashes are a big problem.

“Fix it first” is clear; suburban transit beats Outer Beltway

In a later part of the session, organizers asked participants about 6 potential strategies to improve transportation, and got these ratings:

Secure Dependable Sources of Funding to Ensure “State of Good Repair” for Highways and Bridges4.45
Create a Dedicated Regional Funding Source to Ensure “State of Good Repair” for Metrorail Trains and Facilities4.43
Connect Existing Metrorail Lines with High-Quality, Circumferential Transit3.51
Improve Pedestrian Facilities and Safety Around Bus Stops3.29
Expand the Region’s Highway Network, Possibly Including New Potomac River Crossings3.05
Expand Bike-Sharing2.18

Clearly, repairing both roads and rails is the highest priority for people in this focus group. The perpetual boosters of the Outer Beltway, who have started talking about the idea as “new Potomac River bridges” instead, will likely be disappointed to find weak support for this compared to circumferential transit.

At the same time, sustainable transportation advocates may be disappointed at how bike sharing came in last. That is, at least, a far less expensive solution than most of the others.

Metro fares aren’t that confusing after all

One other tidbit: Despite the common suggestions to create a flat or simpler Metro fare, participants in the focus group didn’t seem to feel that the fare structure was any problem. In one section, they came up with their own sets of transportation challenges at tables, then voted on them.

In one set, someone came up with “Metro system, including cost structure, is hard to understand,” but nobody voted for that one; “Lack of funding to support maintenance or expanding transportation options” got 43% on that vote, and “Existing funds are managed poorly, limiting quality of transit” got 34%.

Later, a potential strategy to “Simplify and/or restructure Metro fares” only got 4 votes out of 74 (I assume people could vote multiple times); the top choices were “Increase incentives and improve infrastructure for the use of transit, carpooling, walking, and biking,” “Require agency transparency to ensure accountability,” and “Encourage employers to support telework and alternative work schedules.”

Transparency is on people’s minds

In the aforementioned question, the way WMATA manages its money is clearly an issue people worry about, coming in second, with 34% of votes, to the need to just have enough money to make repairs, at 43%.

Later, the tables came up with 3 challenges around maintenance, repair and safety of transportation: “Lack of funding,” “Lack of transparency, trust in management, and maintenance oversight,” and “The general public doesn’t realize the extent of maintenance needs.” Here, again, the votes came out similarly. Lack of funding got 56% of the votes, while lack of transparency and oversight got 38%.

The two absolutely go together. If WMATA can show the public that it is managing repair funds effectively, riders and jurisdictions will be more willing to increase funding to achieve a state of good repair. Communication and customer service has improved, but it still can be better. WMATA remains a fairly secretive organization that often acts like riders don’t need to know what’s going on beyond the most basic customer information.

This mindset will remain a political obstacle until this CEO or a future one makes it a priority to reform the insular culture and turn riders into advocates instead of frustrated skeptics or angry critics.  Because no matter how pressing Washingtonians think Metro’s state of repair is, they’ll be hard pressed to cough up more money to an agency they can’t trust.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.