Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The long season of debate about WMATA budgets, fares, and service has begun, and like too many years in the last decade, the agency faces a budget crunch. Today, the agency released its first budget proposal which includes some proposals that will interest riders.

The agency is now agreeing with something riders have been saying for some time: Poor maintenance and other bad customer experiences are hurting ridership and, thus, revenue. WMATA is not planning to raise fares or cut service. It will do a few things riders have been asking for, like letting people exit without paying if they don’t get on a train, and expanding all-you-can-ride passes.

Here are a few of the key highlights:

Bad experiences are driving customers away

Riders have consistently been about 80% happy with both rail and bus service for years, but that recently changed, according to a presentation about customer satisfaction. This year, “bus satisfaction trended better while a precipitous drop in satisfaction began among rail customers, in the first three quarters of 2015 — from 82% to 67%.”

According to the survey results, about 30% of the time a customer is dissatisfied, it’s because of reliability problems. And those problems are increasing.

“Two years ago, the average customer reported less than one problematic experience during their trip (i.e. broken fare machine, non-operating gate, escalator out of service, unavailable employee). These experiences have increased nearly 300% — and now are reported by customers as two problems during an average trip.”

The presentation lists some initiatives the agency is taking to improve satisfaction. Top among them is an effort (though with few details in this document) to improve the actual reliability. In addition, WMATA is revamping the website, adding some “customer meet-and-greet events,” and modified the screens on the platforms to show trains more than 20 minutes away. (Though, honestly, if trains are more than 20 minutes away, telling riders is helpful, but it’s still too long a wait.)

While there’s no hard data yet, WMATA’s budgeters believe it’s likely this dissatisfaction is contributing to lower ridership and fare revenues. Other past trends, like the federal government cutting transit benefits or a rise in telecommuting, are likely still playing a part as well, officials say.

No fare increase or service cuts

WMATA is not planning to increase fares or cut service in the coming year, according to the budget presentation. Nor will the payments from jurisdictions rise.

It’s a smart move to not raise fares or cut service. With riders already fleeing the Metrorail system and the costs of transit for many riders exceeding what they can get from their employers as a transit benefit, higher costs aren’t a good idea. Nor is cutting service, which would just compel more people to look for other ways to travel.

If there won’t be more money coming in or less going out, what will change? This budget proposes using more federal money, which WMATA gets according to a formula, for necessary preventive maintenance. The catch is that means other capital improvements won’t have money unless local governments pay more.

There will still be enough capital money to pay for fixing track signals, bringing trains into good shape, repairing elevators and escalators, and some signal priority for buses on major corridors. However, it means WMATA won’t be able to afford to set up a more modern payment system, repair or replace deteriorating bus garages, build a new railcar maintenance facility (which might be helpful given that railcars aren’t being maintained as well as they need to be), or plan for ways to reduce crowding in the core.

These are all projects which can wait, but they can’t wait forever. Local governments ought to look for ways to help pay for these. If WMATA has to only do the minimum level of safety maintenance for long, the danger is that other, less decrepit parts of the system start falling behind, and in a few years, we’re dealing with other problems. Or, if riders come back to Metro, overcrowded trains with no relief in sight.

You’ll be able to bail out from delays

Today, if you go into a station and your train never comes or it sits on the tracks without moving while a disabled train is jamming up the works, you might decide to leave the station and take Bikeshare or a taxi. Unfortunately, Metro will also charge you for a ride. That’s immensely frustrating to riders.

The budget proposes letting riders leave for free within a certain amount of time. That’s a smart move. The budget presentation estimates WMATA could lose up to $2 million a year in fare revenue because of the change, though arguably it’s all somewhat unfairly taken today. I wonder if better goodwill could erase much of that loss.

More passes

In many cities, such as New York, most regular riders buy monthly or weekly passes for their transit. They get unlimited rides, and the main effect is to encourage people to ride more off-peak, when the transit agency has extra unused capacity anyway.

Besides the general value of encouraging people to use more transit when there’s room and providing value to residents, if people are on a sort of subscription plan for transit, it can smooth out the effects of changes. WMATA wouldn’t lose so much money if there’s a disruption and people “bail out” if they’re on a pass. Nor if there’s a big snowstorm or federal shutdown. Right now, those can blow a hole in the WMATA budget.

Passes are a little more complicated for WMATA because rail fares vary with distance. That’s not insurmountable — the Seattle area has the ORCA pass, where people can buy different levels of fares. Each person picks a fare level, buys a pass, and gets all transit of that level and below for free (and can take longer trips for an added fee). Michael Perkins has long advocated for WMATA to do something similar.

This budget doesn’t do that. But it does propose adding a pass for shorter rail trips and bus trips, so people can more interchangeably switch between the two.

More significantly, WMATA is working on a “university pass” plan where universities would pay a flat rate for every student (maybe coming out of a student activity fee of some kind) and get unlimited passes for the whole student body. The rate should be much lower than a regular pass, since all students would get them but not all students will use them often and most won’t commute daily during rush hour. The presentation said WMATA is currently working on this with American University, and hopes to expand it to more universities.

And more

WMATA also plans to add more police officers to catch fare evaders at twelve stations: Anacostia, Brookland, Congress Heights, Deanwood, Gallery Place, Judiciary Square, Minnesota Avenue, Navy Yard, Naylor Road, Pentagon, Takoma, and Tenleytown.

The agency will cut 20 positions (which, the presentation emphasizes, are definitely not safety-related), though there are no more details yet.

Finally, this is far from a minor item, but a topic for another post: The agency is pursuing signal priority, where traffic lights modify their cycles to let buses through more quickly, along Leesburg Pike (the 28 series of bus lines), Georgia Avenue (70s), 14th Street (50s), 16th Street (S lines), and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin avenues (30s).

The WMATA Board will discuss the proposals on Thursday.

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.