In a unanimous decision on Thursday, March 28, the Metro Board of Directors approved a $3.5 billion budget for Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess for the next fiscal year starting July 1, 2019. The budget includes some perks for riders like re-extending the Yellow Line all the way to Greenbelt, but it doesn’t go as far as DC officials hoped in restoring late-night service hours.
The newly-passed Metro budget governs the agency’s spending through June 30 of 2020. The agency plans to spend $2 billion on its day-to-day operating budget, and approximately $1.5 billion on its capital budget, which includes buying railcars, fixing station platforms, and more.
While the budget has some changes from earlier iterations produced late last year, most things are staying the same. The agency is not planning to increase fares this year, nor did it attempt to reduce service. Two ‘initiatives’ to increase service were added to the approved budget—something which hadn’t been guaranteed, given Metro’s new need to stay within the 3% budget cap set by Maryland and Virginia.
Here's a list of the big changes, with more detail on each below.
- More Yellow Line service
- No more "Silver Spring turnback" on the Red Line
- No plans to restore late-night service
- Decided against a $2 flat fare on weekends
- Fare prices stay the same, but there are updates to passes
- Money for new cars, platform repairs, and a new Potomac Yard station
Few changes to hours and cost, but more Yellow and Red service
Metro’s budget does not include plans to restore 3 am weekend service or midnight weekday hours. General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and the agency’s Acting Assistant General Manager of Rail Services Laura Mason were able to make their case for keeping the current shortened service hours to allow for more time to do maintenance. DC officials fought unsuccessfully to restore the later hours to help service workers and restaurant patrons.
Metro initially floated the option to reduce weekend fares to $2, but that didn't make it into the budget. Board members, including Arlington representative Christian Dorsey, were skeptical that reducing the fare would encourage significant ridership since weekends are still plagued with trackwork.
However, there are several changes that offer increased service for two areas of the rail system. First, the agency is set to re-extend the Yellow Line back up to Greenbelt during all times of the day. Before it was cut in 2017 when train frequencies were decreased from six to eight minutes, Yellow Line trains ran from Huntington to Mt. Vernon. Some extra trains, through the “Rush Plus” program, ran additionally from Franconia-Springfield to Greenbelt.
Yellow Line trains will continue to run no more frequently than every eight minutes, but beginning July 1 they’ll all run up to Greenbelt instead of stopping at Mt. Vernon Square or Fort Totten. This ends up doubling rail service at the nine stations north of Mt. Vernon Square during rush hour periods and the four north of Fort Totten during off-peak periods. Metro estimates the additional service will cost $8.2 million, but will benefit a significant number of riders and generate more trips so that the actual cost is more like $3.2 million.
Second, the agency is eliminating the Silver Spring turnback. As it stands today, every other Red Line train offloads and ends service at Silver Spring, and then heads back in the opposite direction to Shady Grove. With this change, riders at Forest Glen, Wheaton, and Glenmont will see trains come every four minutes instead of every eight like they do today. Metro estimates this change adds about $1.1 million in costs to its operating budget, but will generate 600,000 additional trips annually.
Pass changes make for better deals for riders
Riders with Metro’s monthly pass, the SelectPass, will be able to take unlimited Metrobus rides no matter which pass level they have. The pass change makes it easier for its users to hop from rail to bus and back without adding additional costs. Riders without the SelectPass or other unlimited rail+bus pass don’t receive a free transfer, and have to pay again when transferring.
If you commute on Metro more than 18 days during the month, the SelectPass could be a great money saver. This author has saved $620 over the past year on the $4 SelectPass, for example.
Other Metro passes are getting updates too: The seven-day unlimited bus pass is decreasing in price from $17.50 to $15; the one-day unlimited Metrobus/Metrorail pass is decreasing from $14.75 to $13; the seven-day bus+rail pass which includes trips up to $3.85 (the off-peak max rail fare) is decreasing from $38.50 to $38 and the peak fare rail+bus pass is decreasing from $60 to $58; and finally, a new three-day pass is being added for $28.
The capital budget includes big-ticket items
Metro is nearing the end of deliveries of new 7000-series railcars, and the agency expects to wrap that up during this upcoming fiscal year. Nearly 650 of the 748 cars ordered are in service, and Metro expects the rest would be delivered within the year.
The upcoming platform reconstruction projects are included in this capital budget, which the agency expects will be a $500 million or more effort. The project, broken down over three years, aims to replace the platforms at 20 rail stations to fix safety and structural defects. The first phase of the project kicks off this upcoming May with a 100-day closure of the six Yellow and Blue Line stations south of National Airport.
Construction of the new Potomac Yard station is included in the budget as well. The system’s second infill station will fit in between the Braddock Road and National Airport stations and provide new access to the Potomac Yard community in that area of Alexandria. The station is expected to cost around $320 million. Alexandria is paying for it, though Metro is managing construction. The second entrance to the station, cut late last year due to budget overruns and higher construction costs than estimated, was restored as part of the deal that Virginia, Arlington, and Alexandria made to attract Amazon’s HQ2 and its 25,000 jobs to the Northern Virginia area.
WMATA also expects to begin buying new railcars within this six-year capital budget beginning around 2023. Procurement of the 8000-series railcars is already underway, and several companies, including CRRC, Alstom, and Hyundai, appear to be interested in bidding. The new cars would replace the 2000- and 3000-series railcars, which are almost four decades old.
Can Metro count on federal dollars?
All this spending assumes federal money keeps flowing. A 10-year $150 million annual allocation to Metro is set to expire this year unless new money is approved by Congress. “Federal legislation is needed to authorize funding for use in FY2021 and beyond,” according to Metro.
The agency’s budget assumes this happens, so if it weren’t, WMATA would have to figure out which $150 million to cut from each of the six years of the capital program budget.
Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.