Metro train arriving at the Brookland station by StreetsofWashington licensed under Creative Commons.

A Metro press release issued early Monday morning offers something that Metrorail riders haven’t had very much of recently: potential good news. The agency’s General Manager is proposing to extend rush hour service and reduce weekend fares, among several other rider-friendly proposals.

What is the press release?

Metro staff and its Board of Directors are beginning discussions to finalize the agency’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget which starts July 1, 2019. This press release and subsequent budget presentation are essentially the opening salvo from the agency and highlight some of what WMATA wants riders and the media to focus on.

General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and the agency’s Chief Financial Officer, Dennis Anosike, are set to brief the Board of Directors on Thursday at the regularly-scheduled monthly board meetings.

What’s in it for rail riders?

Metro highlighted seven changes that the FY2020 budget could bring:

  • Extended frequent service. Trains would run at rush hour frequencies (every eight minutes) until 10 am instead of 9:30 am. In the evening, trains would run rush hour service until 8:30 pm instead of stopping at 7. Riders would not be charged peak fare prices during those new higher-frequency times.
  • Flat fares on the weekend. All Metrorail weekend fares would be $2, no matter the distance. Metro will still use weekends to do significant trackwork, so trains would still continue the “rebuilding” service and single-tracking which we’ve become accustomed to over the past few years.
  • Yellow Line rush hour service would be restored to Greenbelt. A version of this service called ‘Yellow Plus,’ which was eliminated in 2017, allowed every other Yellow Line train to run all the way up to the northern terminus.
  • All Red Line trains will run the full length of the line. Metro made a fuss about eliminating the Grosvenor turnback and having all trains run to Shady Grove. This budget would not only include that, but would also eliminate the Silver Spring turnback. Trains would run on the entire Red Line every four minutes.
  • All trains would run as 8-car trains, with no more 6-car trains. Metro has wanted to do this for years and years, but costly system-wide power upgrades were deferred and are still (slowly) underway. The press release doesn’t say how this would happen, or when.
  • All Metro SelectPasses would include unlimited bus trips in addition to rail. One, three, and seven-day rail and bus passes would also drop in price.
  • Decrease the Rush Hour Promise threshold from 15 to 10 minutes. A trip delayed more than 10 minutes over Metro’s “on time” metric would cause a credit to be issued to that rider. Credits for trips taken with the Metro SelectPass are limited to $3.

Several of the initiatives suggested were recommendations of an internal Metro ridership report which was given to the Washington Post last month.

What does it do for bus riders?

Riders with a SelectPass would be able to take Metro buses for “free” (not including regional bus providers like RideOn or DASH), which would be one positive change.

In addition, the 1-day bus+rail pass (currently $14.75) would be reduced to $13, and the 7-day bus+rail pass would decrease in price from $60 to $58. A new 3-day rail+bus pass would also be added for riders to buy for $28. The unlimited 7-day bus-only pass would drop in price from $17.50 to $15.

The press release does not otherwise appear to increase bus service.

What does the press release not do?

The press release doesn’t fix Metro’s off-peak service during later weeknights and weekends. The $2 flat weekend fare noted in the press release is there “in recognition of the necessary maintenance and rebuilding work that often affects weekend schedules,” meaning the agency has no plan to reduce the impact of that trackwork.

Metro’s GM spoke to this previously, suggesting ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft were better options for riders during those off-peak times.

Trains would not return to their six-minute headways during rush hour like they had just two years ago. With the impending return to Automated Train Operation later in 2019, this could be a possibility; something to look for in the FY21 or FY22 budgets, perhaps.

The costs of the rail service increases is $30 million, according to the budget documents released by Metro on Monday. WMATA is legally required to limit the how much its operating costs increase to no more than 3% per year, and it's not clear how these changes will factor into that calculation.

The agency expects they would generate $10 million in revenue during the year, meaning local jurisdictions would need to pay the remaining $20 million above what they already give to Metro. That extra funding isn’t set in stone, so there could still be additional changes to the budget.

So, what’s next?

Metro will present this initial budget proposal to the Board of Directors this coming Thursday. The agency will hold public hearings likely early next year. Combined with feedback from the Board, they could trigger some tweaks—positive and/or negative in nature.

Assuming the budget then gets approved, it would go into effect next July.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.