Secret plan stock photo from Danomyte/Shutterstock.

This weekend, Faiz Siddiqui at the Washington Post reported that the WMATA Board had not seen, discussed, or devised a plan to reverse the dangerous drop in ridership on both the train and bus. Wednesday, he got just such a plan, a 26-page document which WMATA's planning and performance departments had created five months ago. Only, according to statements, WMATA GM Paul Wiedefeld hadn't been shown the report, and the agency isn't (yet?) doing what the report says.

It reads like a transit advocate wish list, though, only with real data and analysis to back it up. And it's only from transit advocates in the sense that WMATA employees also really want transit to succeed.

Here are the key recommendations:

  • Continue to improve reliability, including restoring Automatic Train Operation. Stephen Repetski wrote about this, but WMATA has been backing away from this rather than moving toward it.
  • Provide quality service in an era of perpetual maintenance, like managing schedules around single-tracking and closures to maximize the amount of rail service outside and inside the work zone. Here's Travis Maiers and Stephen Repetski on that.
  • Speed up buses with more bus lanes, signal priority, and faster boarding. (Metro is doing some of these, to the extent it can, like piloting a cashless bus line on the 79 Georgia Avenue Limited; others require support from local governments, who have been slow to make changes.)
  • Extend the Yellow Line to Greenbelt to deal with crowding north of Mount Vernon Square, especially at U Street, Columbia Heights, and Georgia Ave/Petworth.
  • Operate peak headways all day and until 9 pm instead of forcing riders to wait long times outside peak hours. Many advocates say this, most of all Graham Jenkins, whose Twitter handle is even @LowHeadways.
  • Deploy 100% 8-car trains to relieve crowding and stop making customers run down the platform.
  • Transform the bus nework, which is starting to happen through the Bus Transformation Study.
  • Convert customers to pass holders to encourage people to ride more outside their regular commute. GGWash made some recommendations as part of a public engagement project funded by WMATA, though there hasn't been action yet.
  • Improve customer interaction with more real-time information, making it easier to pay the fare, making station managers ambassadors for service, and allowing unfolded strollers on buses. (The stroller one is happening.)
  • Implement free rail-bus transfers. I've been on this one for years.
  • Subsidize fares for low-income customers to make the system more equitable.

Let's do these!

Another part of the report talks about how long entrance closures for escalator repair, like the five-month closure at U Street last year, cost significant ridership. That closure dropped ridership at the U Street station by 20%, and it's still down 15%, according to the report. Pushing harder to finish projects quickly, maybe with incentives for the contractors, could make a difference, it suggests.

I'm not saying we'd talked about these to pat ourselves on the back or take credit. Rather, it addresses a long-standing rider advocate frustration, that advocates including GGWash contributors, people who tweet about WMATA, and others have felt that there are many common-sense approaches other cities have used, but which WMATA wouldn't even really discuss.

Did Paul Wiedefeld really not see this report?

Siddiqui reported that WMATA GM Paul Wiedefeld hadn't seen the report before now:

If this is really true and I were Paul Wiedefeld, I'd be asking some real questions about whatever processes lie between me and the teams that made the report. Because the loss of ridership is one of Metro's major, critical, future-threatening issues. And if a bunch of my employees had written 26 pages of detailed analysis about that problem and nobody had told me, I'd really like to know why.

Clearly the report went to someone, because not long after it was written, two small ideas from the report did turn into real policy proposals: allowing unfolded umbrella strollers on the buses and allowing bikes on trains all day.

Stephen Repetski said that “layers of WMATA management below the General Manager/Board of Directors act as 'gatekeepers' to what they see. If reports don't make it up the chain, they never get to the GM.” That seems profoundly unhealthy. Not every random employee's every idea should go right to his desk, but this is a 26-page report from the planning and performance departments, who you'd expect to be making recommendations about, well, planning and performance.

We don't need an “internal WMATA resistance” like the group of people who supposedly try to prevent Donald Trump from seeing things that would make him launch World War III. Paul Wiedefeld is highly competent, and he should be the one deciding whether a serious staff recommendation like off-peak rail frequency, free transfers, or more passes happens or not.

Or the board should be deciding that with Wiedefeld's input. WMATA needs to stop keeping ideas and analysis like this from the board and public. If I were a board member, I'd similarly be asking why potential approaches like this aren't coming to the board. These are policy level issues, and while the staff certainly should devise its recommendation, well, at least some of the staff did devise one and this is it.

The board and public aren't rubes and should seriously participate in a conversation about WMATA's problems and how to fix them. Yes, WMATA has some bunker mentality from years of being attacked in the press and on Twitter, but some of that criticism was deserved. Wiedefeld is doing a better job of pulling the agency out of its hole; keeping real ideas buried from him, the board, or riders is only going to harm WMATA's efforts to regain credibility.

I often hear from or see tweets from folks who think WMATA doesn't know its head from its behind. It doesn't help dispel that notion if WMATA pretends the dog ate its good analysis.


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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.