Last week, WMATA reported that one way to close its budget gap could be to close 20 Metro stations outside of rush hour, including seven that serve DC communities that are east of the Anacostia River. Moving forward with this idea would make it far harder for children to get to schools and for adults to access social and political life in the District. It could be a major civil rights violation, too.
Under WMATA’s new proposal, stations with red dots could only get service during rush hour. Image from WMATA.
DC is split up geographically into eight wards, each of which has a representative on the DC Council. The Stadium Armory, Minnesota Avenue, Deanwood, Benning Road, and Capitol Heights stations are all in Ward 7, and Congress Heights is in Ward 8; these two wards are most certainly DC’s most underserved.
There are, of course, 13 others on the list of stations that see low ridership and that Metro could consider closing outside of rush hour, from White Flint to Tysons—but they aren’t nearly as concentrated.
A lot of students use these Metro stations to get to and from school
According to research conducted by the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, an organization committed to improving education in Ward 7, 64% of children in Kenilworth-Parkside (which the Deanwood and Minnesota Avenue Metro stations serve) travel outside of their neighborhood to attend school, and many rely on Metro to get there.
Altogether, around half of Ward 7’s parents send their children to schools outside of their neighborhood. The disruption also impacts students west of the Anacostia, as DC Charter School Board notes that more than 1,100 students travel to charters in Ward 7. While schools generally begin and end during rush hours, students would not necessarily be able to rely on Metro to get home from after school activities if WMATA’s idea moves forward.
These Metro stations also have a big impact on access to jobs
Neighborhoods east of the river are predominantly residential, lacking large concentrations of commercial or government that make them destinations for morning commuters. This means that parents, like their children, travel outside their ward to jobs, often during off peak hours.
Due to Ward 7’s geography, crosstown bus service is limited to just a handful of lines lines that are already amongst the busiest in DC. Some would lose their jobs or be forced to move if Metro stopped running outside of rush hour.
This map shows the number of jobs in different areas of the District. The bigger the orange circle, the more jobs are in the area. Clearly, people who live east of the Anacostia need to travel west to get to work. Map from OpenDataDC.
These closures would hurt future development and render existing bus service less useful
Ward 7 is primed to grow rapidly in the next few years. Ward 7 has transit-oriented developments proposed at all its Metro stops, like on Reservation 13 and at RFK, which are next to Stadium Armory, Parkside (Minnesota Ave), Kenilworth Courts Revitalization (Deanwood Metro), SOME (Benning Road Metro), and Capitol Gateway (Capitol Heights Metro).
These developments’ success depends on their proximity to metrorail stations. Cutting off service would dramatically change the calculus of development in Ward 7, and communities seeing the first green shoots of growth would instantly see them snuffed out. Tens of thousands of homeowners would see their home values decline, and DC would lose millions in tax revenue.
Also, bus routes in these areas are East of the River bus routes are designed to feed into the Metro stations. A plan that would close stations without a significant upgrades to crosstown lines and within-ward service would further compound the transportation problems facing the community.
Why is ridership so low in Ward 7?
There is, of course, the fact that these stations are among the 20 Metro stations that get the lowest ridership. I’m not disputing that. But if we look at why that’s the case, it’s clear that closing these stations for most of the day is only going to exacerbate social and economic problems.
Ward 7 residents have borne the brunt of WMATA’s service disruptions since 2009. The ward’s stations are consistently among the most likely to be closed due to weekend track work. Between 2012 and 2013, Orange line stations in Ward 7 were disrupted 19 weekends. This level of disruption continued into 2015, when stations were disrupted for 17 weekends.
The impacts of WMATA’s work strategies on ridership have been predictable. In 2008, Minnesota Avenue on the Orange line had an average weekday passenger boarding count of 3,552, but by 2015 this number had declined to 2,387 (a 32% decline). This despite the construction of hundreds of new homes in the surrounding area. Benning Road station on the Blue Line declined from 3,382 in 2008 to 2,823 in 2015, or a decline of 16%.
Service to areas east of the Anacostia suffered further disruptions in September 2015, when a transformer exploded near Stadium Armory, and when an insulator exploded at Capitol South in May 2016. Both helped trigger Safe Track, along with a two-week suspension of Metro service to Ward 7 in late June. This work featured extensive reconstruction of the tracks near Stadium Armory, despite years of closures on this very section of track.
Closing these stations wouldn’t just be harmful. It could be illegal.
Again, these seven stations aren’t the only ones on the list. But the fact that they make up virtually all the Metro stations in a place where the vast majority of residents are black is enough to bring up an important legal question.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act says policies should not have an outsized effect on people from a protected class, such as race or gender, where alternatives could achieve the same objectives. The Federal Transit Administration regularly asks transit agencies to do an analysis of the impact of service cuts to make sure they don’t disproportionately affect low income and minority riders, and in this case, it’s not unreasonable to think they would.
Just take a look at this map, which shows DC’s racial makeup and density, and look again at which area is faced with taking on a large percentage of the proposed closures:
A map illustrating racial makeup and density in Washington DC. Each dot represents 25 people. Red dots represent white people, blue are black people, green are Asian, orange are Hispanic, yellow are “other.” Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Metro can’t close all these stations. It’d create a two-tiered transportation system in which 140,000 DC residents are cut off from heart of DC’s economic, political and social life.