Image by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

On Thursday, the WMATA board will vote on whether or not to extend the current suspension of late night Metro hours, which is set to expire next summer. Chair and DC Councilmember Jack Evans has threatened to veto any move that will push back the return of late night Metro service.

This whole situation puts many urbanists in a tough spot. We fought hard to not end late night Metro in the first place in 2016, but swallowed that pill so Metro could make the necessary repairs to make it a safe and reliable system. So, is it time now to get back to full hours? Is the system safe? We don’t really know, and that is the problem.

Why late night Metro ended in the first place

In the summer of 2016, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld made his case for a number of changes to Metro service, all so that repairs could be made to a system that had long been neglected and was increasingly dangerous.

In July, Metro announced it was considering permanently ending late night Metro service, and urbanists in the region organized hard against that terrible idea. Late night service not only supports an active nightlife in our region and keeps people out of cars who aren’t in a condition to drive, but it is a social justice issue. Some of the primary users of late night Metro service are workers at restaurants, hotels, and other service industries. Ending service for them puts a larger transportation cost burden on those who often make the least.

Ultimately, the board passed a temporary end to late night Metro service, which is set to expire on July 1, 2019. Metro leadership said this was necessary, and that there was such a backlog of needed repairs that late night cuts would allow maintenance to catch up and make the system safe.

Unfortunately, we had to take them at their word on this. Urbanists were quick to point out that without more publicly available data on the state of repairs and the timelines for those repairs, it was impossible to track progress and understand what was going on.

We need late night Metro ASAP. When is that?

Metro says it needs to extend the late night Metro service suspension so it can continue to make those repairs. The DC contingent of the board, led by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, is threatening to veto this move.

So where does this leave urbanists, who want both late night hours AND a repaired, safe, and reliable system? On Twitter, Aimee Custis explained that if WMATA would communicate how long it will take to clear the system's maintenance backlog, it could be worth some temporary pain to cut late-night service. She continued,

The late night cuts moved forward, but we never got a straight, clear answer from the GM or anyone else at #WMATA *how long* (even a range of how long) it would take. I've been asking for that ever since, publicly and privately.

This year I was part of the team of advocates and some other unlikely bedfellows who came together, and said publicly Metro couldn't be good again without more money. So I helped pass dedicated funding. I've taken a lot of heat for that, which I don't mind. But you know what I do mind? What I do mind is that dedicated money is only part of it. We also need consistent, frank transparency from @wmata about how long it's going to take to clear the maintenance backlog, and then what “normal” looks like after that. My personal best-guess? 10 years.

Who ultimately has to be accountable for #WMATA? The board. Even though you're appointed, not elected, providing our region with the best possible transit system is your MISSION. And being honest about what that looks like. So let me just tell you how MORTIFIED I am to see this news of you planning to use your veto, @JackEvansWard2, to bring back late-night service.

I DO want late night service back but even more, I want what we asked for back in 2016: a straight best-guess public answer on how long until the system stabilizes. I want to understand the WHY. I want to understand that you're making choices based on what's best for the SYSTEM.

Until we get that straight-talk best guess from #WMATA leadership on when the system will be in stable shape, moves like this one back to late-night service are business-as-usual and playing politics, not taking a hard look and communicating what's best for the system and why.

Maybe we *are* at a point where returning late-night service is in the best interests of the system. Even if it's not maintenance-stabilized, maybe the tradeoffs of rebuilding ridership outweigh that right now. But we, advocates and the public CANNOT tell, because WMATA leadership is not in the habit of clearly and consistently laying out your thought processes. If things were going well, we could maybe “just trust you”. But you haven't rebuilt that trust yet. So if you're bringing back late night service, TELL US WHY. PLEASE.

Custis has been beating this drum since at least 2016. Without more information, many advocates are left awkwardly in the middle of this debate.

The vision is clear: we want a Metro that runs late, and that is safe. We need Metro leaders to show us exactly what it’s going to take to make that happen, and when. If we are going to have a black box Metro that is not transparent, then let's have one with late night hours. If we really need these cuts to make the system safe, show us why.

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.