Photo by cranneyanthony on Flickr.

Waits for a Metro train could get longer or trains could not run at all after midnight on weekends, if the WMATA Board adopts a budget proposal released yesterday. Fares would also rise by 10¢. Many bus lines could also come less often or stop running earlier, and Metro buses to the airports would stop completely.

Is this for real? It’s likely that fares might rise, but doing so could just drive more riders away from Metro, giving it a bigger budget gap next year and starting a “death spiral.” Or, local governments could come up with the money WMATA needs, but until and unless that happens, riders will be caught in the middle of a high-stakes game of “budget chicken.”

WMATA’s costs have increased four percent while ridership is down, a change WMATA attributes mostly to cuts in federal transit benefits that force more federal workers to pay out of pocket for transit or switch to driving.

What WMATA might cut, and why

The agency therefore says it needs $140 million more from DC, Maryland, and Virginia ($919 million versus $779 million) to keep service running. If they don’t get it, then fare hikes and/or service cuts are the only option, and yesterday, WMATA officials released a proposal for how that might work.

They are proposing a 10¢ hike in both bus and rail fares (and, once again, a double increase for bus and rail riders).

For rail service, there are two options. In one, trains would only come every eight minutes (up from six today, at least when Metro keeps to its schedule) during rush hour, except the Blue Line which is already less frequent and wouldn’t change. Off-peak weekdays and Saturdays there would be 15 minutes instead of 12 between trains, and on Sundays trains would come every 20 minutes instead of 15 (when not further disrupted by track work).

The second option is to end rail service at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays instead of at 3 am. That’s the same closing time Metro had until 1999, when it started getting later as our urban areas started seeing more late-night activity. The agency floated the same possible cut in 2011.

As for the buses, the B30 to BWI, 5A to Dulles, and 13Y to National Airport would end completely, and there would be a plethora of other, smaller cuts (the 30th page of the PDF, numbered page 63).

Event organizers who want to open Metro early would have to pay $50,000 an hour instead of the current $29,500, and the TransitLink card that offers rides on Metro along with MARC, VRE, or Maryland MTA commuter buses would go away.

There are a few seemingly sensible changes to parking fees: the Minnesota Avenue garage costs $1 less than other garages, but more people are parking there, so it no longer makes sense to offer a discount at that one garage. Parkimg becomes free after midnight Monday to Thursday and 3 am Friday, but some parkers wait until after that time to leave and get free parking.

Our contributors react

How should riders feel about this? We posed the question to our contributors.

Kelli Raboy said,

The proposed rail service cuts are definitely the biggest punch to the gut. 25 minute headways (weeknights and weekend evenings/nights) would make any trips requiring transfers more or less impossible. And I can’t imagine how much worse crowding would get with increased headways during peak (from 6 to 8 minutes).

The option for rail service cuts is presented as 1) increase headways overall OR 2) cut all weekend late night service (12pm to 3am); I’m pretty sure all the jurisdictions would pick option 2.

I think the proposed bus service cuts could also have a big impact, but it’s (obviously) harder to see on a regional scale. They also snuck in a proposal to defer the Priority Corridor Networks program for buses, which is the main means for improvements like transit signal priority and bus-only lanes.

Matt Johnson added, writing on his phone on his way home last night, “Incidentally, I’m currently waiting 16 minutes for a Green Line train. And this is before the service cuts.”

Gray Kimbrough pointed out that the service cuts actually don’t save that much money:

What I find most shocking is how little those proposed rail service changes would actually save. In particular, cutting all weekend rail service after midnight would have projected gross savings of $8 million, which would fall to a net savings of $4 million after reduced revenue.

Increasing headways at all times by from 2 minutes (peak service) to 5 minutes (most other times) would have a projected yearly gross savings of $24 million. Offsetting this by the projected revenue loss of $11 million, it would only save $13 million.

So I guess my main takeaway from this is how little it would cost to reduce most headways and provide better service if we actually had the political will and rail cars to do so.

All of the changes that harm riders (the fare hike and all of the service cuts) would save DC, Maryland, and Virginia governments a total of $46 million, out of $140 million total WMATA wants to add to the jurisdictions’ bill.

Death spiral of budget chicken?

Kelli Raboy added, “This is my first round of the WMATA budget game of chicken so I’m not sure how nervous I should actually be about all these proposed changes, but as someone who relies on Metro, it’s pretty tough to see on paper.” Nick Keenan agreed, saying, “I had to wonder if this was indeed ‘budget chicken.’”

WMATA officials know that riders will hate this and protest loudly. And they should. Service cuts like these threaten to send Metro into a “death spiral” where lower service and higher costs drive people away from transit, further decreasing ridership and creating new budget problems.

Each year, the agency does manage to squeeze down its budget a little bit, and so there is indeed a game of “budget chicken” where the jurisdictions might hold out to pressure WMATA to save a little money here and there elsewhere before either going for a fare hike, service cuts, or ponying up more for the bulk of it. Unfortunately, riders are caught in the crossfire.

This is also a more public process than most budget issues. Staffing and other costs rise inside the DC budget and other local jurisdictions’ budget, but outside of a recession, so do tax revenues. Maybe there’s a surplus or a gap, but the money coming in often balances out the money going out and you don’t see the higher costs in the same way you do for Metro.

In the long run, the region ought to dedicate some sort of funding stream to Metro which can predictably grow about as fast as Metro costs. However, to get public support for this, WMATA is also going to have to more directly confront its constantly-rising costs and the things that frustrate riders, like surly employees, eternally broken escalators and elevators, and constant track work without trustworthy information about if and when the rebuilding will end.

A lot of change has to also come from the executives and legislatures of DC, Maryland, and Virginia. As a multi-state agency, WMATA is just doing the bidding of its constituent governments, but because it’s not under a single chief executive, no elected official really takes responsibility.

If DC Public Schools proposed big cuts or needed more money, Muriel Bowser would have to address the problem, for example. She should take responsibility for addressing Metro’s short-term and long-term problems too. So should Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and Larry Hogan in Maryland.

Ben Ross wrote, “Anger should be directed at the overlords in Annapolis, the District building, and the Virginia counties whose emissaries comprise the WMATA board, not at WMATA.” The WMATA Board can only ask for more money or make cuts; the governments of the region can fix the real structural issues here.

Having a transit system scraping along year after year on the verge of ruin is not good for the people of our region. Our leaders need to get WMATA onto a sustainable footing at the same time the agency admits to its problems, fixes them, and gets long-term costs under control. So far, there’s no sign that’s about to happen, and instead, we face the threat of a death spiral and a game of budget chicken.

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.