Closing 20 Metro stations except during rush hour? Cut bus service around the region? Raise fares? WMATA is facing a budget crisis, and some of the solutions on the table look grim. Even these ideas don’t get serious consideration, our contributors say putting them on the table is a door we should leave closed.
Metro should be very careful about what it says is on the chopping block. Photo by Michael Coghlan on Flickr.
On Thursday, WMATA’s staff will give a presentation to the Board of Directors on potential ways to close a $275 million budget gap. Or, put another way, staff will warn the board that without more money, some drastic measures may be inevitable.
The draft presentation that came out on Tuesday lists options like closing 20 stations during off-peak hours (nine of them on the east end of the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines, along with three on the west end of the Silver Line) and shutting down a number of bus lines, including the brand new Potomac Yard Metroway.
Under one possible proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.
The first thing to remember is that this isn’t an official proposal; it’s a cry for help. It’s WMATA saying that it needs more money to operate the entire rail system, and if that money doesn’t come in, these are possible options for cutting costs to a level commensurate with current funding.
“These sorts of things are usually setting the doom an gloom in hopes that the jurisdictions up their contribution or become more amenable to higher fares,” said Steven Yates.
WMATA has certainly done that before, like in 2011 and in 2015. Payton Chung also pointed out that Chicago’s CTA spent much of the mid-2000s preparing and releasing two budgets per year: “a ‘doomsday’ budget that assumed no emergency funding, and included savage service cuts, and a business-as-usual budget that could be implemented if additional operating subsidy were granted.”
But even if this is just a play in the game to get more funding, it’s a move that has real consequences in and of itself.
“I don’t know how well that plays anymore given the very short leash that Metro is on,” said Travis Maiers. “I get the sense patience has run thin and everyone is tired of Metro crying wolf and/or begging for more money, coupled that the system never seems to visibly improve. “
Justin Lini, an ANC Commissioner in DC’s Kenilworth neighborhood, where the Metro stop would be one of the ones affected, said that even floating this idea sends a message to an entire portion of the region that’s already disadvantaged:
I’m a big supporter of Metro— I chose a job, bought a house and basically planned my life around the system. I’ve worked with their staff on issues big and small. I publicly laud them when they do something right, even small victories.
But then WMATA publishes a document that says “We’ll just have to stop providing service to the black folks east of the Anacostia.” How am I supposed to support them when they’re using all of east of the river as a bargaining chip? At best this is a tone deaf distraction, but I can guarantee you most people east of the river aren’t going to see it that way.
No one wants to stand up and vouch for Metro, and frankly, it’s very difficult to do that even if you want to. In many ways Metro is its own worst enemy, with the subpar service it provides, the constant breakdowns, and its poor accountability and maintenance record. And I feel this kind of proposal only makes it more difficult in persuading people to contribute more money.
Either way, what a lousy situation we are in. WMATA acknowledges that poor service is hurting ridership, so what does it propose? Make service even worse and charge more for it! Even if it’s bluster, it’s a sad state of affairs.
Mike Grinnell was particularly concerned about Metroway BRT:
Potomac Yard’s Metroway route is an important investment in the region’s first BRT line. Alexandria and Arlington have over $40 million and years of planning and construction invested in the project. It seems very short-sighted to cut the program only two years after it came on line as the large apartment buildings start to fill with potential riders. Service cuts will only sour the region’s opinion of this affordable option.
That said, it does receive by far the largest subsidy listed on slide 36. It should make for an interesting discussion.
Canaan Merchant agreed with Mike, and pointed toward what giving these possibilities serious consideration would say about our outlook on public infrastructure:
That and the Silver Line are two sad examples of the way we’ve gotten about transit projects in this country. If they are not an instant success then they’re deemed failures. It’s not like we built either to just stick around for a year or two and then take out if they “didn’t work”.
It’s not how we planned those projects and it never was a goal to treat them like that and now we have one group saying its better to abandon it now despite all the other plans that has gone into all of this work.
And it unfortunately provides one answer to the question of “what should we build first, transit or density?” because apparently if we build the transit first we might just end up threatening to take it away faster than you can get a building permit for an apartment building nearby.
“Considering how many mixed-use developments will be coming online in Tysons, Reston, and in Loudoun over the next 5+ years,” said Kristy Cartier, “Not giving the Silver Line a chance is extremely short-sighted.”
Do you agree? Is WMATA crying wolf, and if it is, are the townspeople going to come save it or leave it alone because of all those other times?