Several members of Metro's Board of Directors appear to have given up on trying to attract its former riders back and are content with relegating it to a 9-to-5 commuter rail system. This goes against everything the board — and local elected officials — should be trying to do.
The Metro Board of Directors met on October 11, where it heard an outline of what the General Manager plans for next year’s budget: no fare increase, but also no service cuts or increases. Instead of coming up with a plan to increase its steadily dropping ridership, Metro leaders seem to be leading the charge in the opposite direction.
Metro board member Steve McMillin, appointed by the US Department of Transportation, suggested that Metro has no need to try to win back the riders it has lost over the past decade: “It would be crazy for this authority to simply run more trains in off-peak times chasing additional passengers,” the Washington Post quotes him as saying.
Maryland Metro board appointee Michael Goldman sees no reason that Metro should operate good service for people traveling outside of rush hour: “I’d much rather spend money trying to encourage people to use Uber and Lyft to get to the trains...I think that’s a better use of money than to try and spend a lot of money just to run trains empty throughout the day.”
“Did Metro’s leaders surrender today?” asked the former WAMU transportation reporter Martin Di Caro.
Metrorail and Metrobus’ services eliminate hundreds of thousands of car trips on the area’s highways and roads, and allow dense (read: more sustainable) communities to thrive. Good transit enables local jurisdictions to waste less land on roads, and to build businesses and badly-needed homes instead. We need a useful Metro system if we're serious about meeting our sustainability and road safety goals — and we need leaders who will actually work to make it better.
WMATA leaders are prioritizing their own interests over the system
Flash back to 2015: the Metro board was searching for a permanent leader for the agency, and had been doing so for nearly a year. It ended up with Paul Wiedefeld, who quickly began a disruptive year of shutdowns to fix some of the worst track conditions throughout the system. Late night service was cut to midnight, and the board made the cuts permanent the next year. The major trackwork, necessary as it is, has continued through 2018, with advisories to “only use Metrorail if you have no other option.”
Rush hour trains were cut from running every six minutes to every eight in 2017 in a bid to make trains more reliable, even though schedules are routinely ignored in the evenings. Wiedefeld proposed cutting train service in the middle of the day to run only every 15 minutes instead of every 12 as one way to “right-size” service to better match the ridership at those hours, and of course, to save money.
WMATA leadership seems to have forgotten — or are abdicating — the agency’s role in our transportation network. Why? Because WMATA board members answer to the local elected officials who appointed them — and their interests can differ from what’s good for Metro.
Increasing mid-day service slightly costs a few million dollars, but a board member appointed by Virginia officials is working to limit new service to save the state's budget. A board member from Maryland works to further Maryland interests, thus the elimination of the Grosvenor turnback. Those from DC work to get more money from the jurisdictions (while driving to Metro board meetings). The federal appointees have a political interest in allowing the private sector to take over.
Wiedefeld himself, as well as his Chief Financial Officer, Dennis Anosike, say they can't focus on winning riders back with more service because the budget is tight. WMATA expects to go over the 3% operating budget cap set by Virginia and Maryland this past year as a condition for giving the agency $500 million in yearly dedicated funding. Metro says its $1.85 billion dollar budget from 2018 isn’t enough for 2019, so it has no room to re-add service it has cut in recent years.
Money that taxpayers put forward last year for Metro is being threatened by leaders who would limit the system’s effectiveness for their own interests. We’re paying for a better product and planning on a better product — it’s now Metro’s responsibility to deliver a better product.
Riders won’t stick around to see the ship sink
The ridership losses Metrorail has sustained over the past decade are staggering, but also not surprising. Metro riders took 751,000 daily trips just 10 years ago in 2008 at the height of the housing bubble. Today, it's just 626,000 daily trips.
Metro leaders like to blame anything other than their own agency. Board documents only admitted that lousy service was a reason for part of the decline in 2017, years after it was obvious to others. Recently Wiedefeld said that younger riders want their commute and stations to be an "experience" akin to shopping Whole Foods versus a normal grocery store, and confoundingly wants to add phone charging stations, photo booths, DVD rental boxes, and package pick up lockers to reach them.
Rush hour service cuts are just the tip of the iceberg. The agency’s unreliable night and weekend service is also driving riders away in droves. Week after week, the majority of Metro’s rail lines operate less frequently than every 20 minutes, and it’s not uncommon to find multiple lines running even less often — sometimes only a train nearly every half hour.
The board’s answer? Focus on peak ridership hours, and let Uber and Lyft take those late-night or weekend riders! If the Metro board won’t advocate for running more frequent buses and trains for the localities they’re supposed to represent, then why bother even pretend trying to encourage use of the system?
It’s no wonder that Metro has lost riders over the past several years. Agency leaders were pressured to run longer hours of service, officials failed to maintain the system, and no politicians were there to ask questions and double-check the agency’s homework. Now with unrelenting trackwork to try and get the system “back 2 good,” riders are finding ways to move around in quicker, more reliable ways, while Metro’s leaders are fumbling about.
The region planned around Metro. Leaders can’t backtrack on that now.
Metro is vital to our region, and it would be disastrous to limit its availability to just morning and evening rush hours. The region spent billions to build an urban subway system through DC, Maryland, and Virginia, and billions more to expand and maintain it. Telling riders “you’re better off calling a cab” because the trains don’t run frequently enough in the evenings is frankly ridiculous.
“You don't go to the expense of building an urban subway if rush hour commuter rail is an acceptable outcome,” Editorial Board member Dan Malouff points out.
Besides, the thousands of people Fairfax County hopes will take the Silver Line into Tysons have lives outside of work. Many people around the region work outside of 9-5 hours — often, these are the workers who most need access to reliable transit.
The positive effect of a reliable public transportation system on the health of the planet can’t be understated. A well-publicized report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presents dire consequences that will occur if the planet’s temperature continues to rise, and shows that transportation accounted for 28% of global energy demand and 23% of CO2 emissions in 2014. “It is primarily the switching of passengers and freight from less- to more-efficient travel modes (e.g., cars, trucks, and airplanes to buses and trains) that is the main strategy” to reduce the use of oil products and decrease carbon emissions, which drive climate change.
Work on small portions of the Red Line lead to cuts on the entire thing. Trackwork on a small part of the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines inevitably leads to reduced service on all three, and sometimes the Yellow too. Any trackwork that sneezes in the direction of the Yellow Line causes it to be cut back to Mount Vernon Square instead of running up to Fort Totten by default. Running trains so infrequently over such a large area is unsustainable, and solidifies the message to riders that they shouldn’t use Metro.
The litany of issues facing the transit agency are real: perception, finances, increasing costs, political pressure, and fewer riders, just to name some of them. The elected officials who appoint the Metro board can’t be allowed to sit around and let the system fail. Metro's leadership needs to step up or step down.