In July, Metro proposed ending late-night service permanently to allow more time for maintenance beyond what it’s getting during SafeTrack. To really weigh whether this is the best option, the public needs much more information than what Metro has made available to date.
When SafeTrack started, Metro moved from closing at 3 am on weekends to closing at midnight every day, giving workers around eight extra hours for repairs each week. In late July, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said that Metro needed to permanently end its late-night service to give Metro more track time to do maintenance and repairs.
Metro is using an online survey to get public feedback on four proposals for different service cut configurations, and on Thursday it’s hosting a marathon public hearing to get more input. It’s also possible to submit free-form written comments though October 25 at 5 pm.
After that, the WMATA Board will vote on whether to approve one of the four proposals.
The public must have more information
To date, WMATA hasn’t publicly shared its reasons for why it sees cutting late night service as the best way to do necessary maintenence. Or how much it will help. Or what will be accomplished with the additional work time.
Any more late-night closures should only happen after WMATA provides more information and accountability through concrete deliverables. Many advocates we’ve talked to have asked: instead of shutting down the whole system, couldn’t Metro just follow a SafeTrack-like approach of shutting down late-night service in segments of the system? If not, why not?
Chicago, New York City, and New Jersey have all done temporary closures on isolated parts of their systems, which we know is far more efficient than continually doing track work for periods of only a few hours at night.
The mobility Metro provides is an essential service. Cuts cannot be taken lightly.
The sacrifices that Metro riders have been asked to make over the last seven years are not easy cuts to stomach. Less than a decade ago, Metro was a reliable system that was the foundation for building the region we know today.
The mass transit system’s ability to quickly and efficiently deliver commuters to their downtown jobs, take residents to retail, entertainment, civic spaces, and take tourists to museums made it possible to build the sorts of neighborhoods and places that people are flocking to.
The transit villages of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, the resurgence of Columbia Heights, the robust feeder bus ridership throughout the region; these are all things that would be impossible without Metro. Here, unlike in many parts of the country, transit is something nearly everyone uses at least some of the time. That transit culture was built over decades.
And much of Metro’s ridership has been driven by people who are willing to live a car-lite or car-free lifestyle because they know that Metro will get them around not just for their work trip, but for most of the trips they need.
Metro service has been being dismantled since 2009, and it’s imperiling the region we’ve built over decades. Metro is increasingly unreliable even during rush hour, and seems to be on the brink of ceasing to exist in the evenings and on weekends. Passengers face waits that can stretch to 25 or 30 minutes. And when the train does finally show up, it can be so overcrowded that it leaves customers on the platform to wait another half hour.
Asking riders to sacrifice their ability to travel on weekends can be acceptable, even to the car-free, for a short term. But as Metro’s overhaul stretches toward a decade of inconvenience, many are rethinking that choice. And as car ownership increases, it makes it more difficult to build the types of places, like Clarendon, that we want more of. Even when it gets better, many of the households that have purchased a car in the intervening years will be unlikely to return to Metro.
Continuing late-night cuts could make sense temporarily, but not permanently
We learned in May that the way WMATA scheduled track work wasn’t working, as there wasn’t enough time to set up for maintenance, go through safety protocols to prepare the site, etc. and get its immense backlog of maintenance work done. The Federal Transit Administration and others did indeed recommend more track time for maintenance crews.
The cuts WMATA is proposing would give it more limited operating hours than any large US rail transit system, and at lower evening frequencies. Metro should learn from how other major US rail systems perform inspections and routine maintenance without shutting down the entire system. Clearly, other systems have figured this out. Why hasn’t WMATA?
In other words, once the maintenance backlog is cleared, it’s too much to ask the region to give up late-night service. Lots of people depend on late-night Metro service, and not because it’s how they get home after a night on the down; Metro is the only option for many third shift workers and people with families.
Also, Metro needs to show it’s using the track time it already has
Metro’s core mission is to provide mobility to riders. Metro should exhaust every reasonable way to take care of its maintenance crisis without impacting service. And we need to know that it has done so.
When and only when Metro is making the most of what it has can it reasonably ask for more maintenance hours. People want to know that the sacrifice of late-night service will actually be put to good use.
Particularly in the wake of a May 6 incident where track workers couldn’t use over half of their allotted 5-hour access block, what is going to be any different if workers get an additional eight hours of late-night track access per week?
What does that look like in terms of feedback to the WMATA Board? Before it approves late-night cuts, it should require proof that staff is actually at work on tracks at least 80% of the track time already available.
If extending late-night cuts is truly necessary, certain strings should be attached
Transit is critical to our region. It would be catastrophic to have WMATA fail. Our colleagues at the Coalition for Smarter Growth are proposing that if the WMATA Board is serious about turning the system around and doing what’s best for the region, it could allow a 12 month extension of Metro closing at midnight. But they also say the Board should only approve a one-year extension if and only if that extension comes with the following conditions:
- 12 month limit on late-night cuts
- Hard, measurable maintenance goals for what to accomplish in that time. If targets aren’t met, the late-night service cuts cannot be renewed for another 12 months
- Quarterly reporting on track time used for maintenance. If they don’t use at least 80% of available track time, service cuts cannot be renewed
- Publicly-stated projection for when Metro service will be back to 2007 levels (or another target level of service)
- Night owl bus service must be provided at no more than 20 minute headways on weekends to provide alternative mobility for late-night riders
Even if you don’t agree with this list of the strings that should come with late-night cuts, you should speak up and say whatever you do think to the WMATA Board.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth has put together an editable email to the WMATA Board. You can send an email with their tool here.