Photo by camera_obscura on Flickr.

WMATA Board members, including federal representatives and new members from DC and Arlington, expressed a willingness to explore cutting back late-night weekend transit service at their meeting today. The tenor of the debate differed greatly from that of previous years, when Board members pushed hard against even the suggestion of such cuts.

This move would save substantial money, but also would impair people’s ability to go out in DC, Arlington, and other walkable communities without a car with confidence they can get home affordably.

Such a move risks shifting the DC region away from the “transit culture” that has been developed. On the other hand, if jurisdictions can’t contribute more money and WMATA can’t find other savings, other cuts could similarly cripple transit and take away vital access for riders.

Maryland’s Peter Benjamin asked about providing bus, taxi, or other service as an alternative to rail service, to avoid completely cutting off riders from having transit options. Such a program could blunt the pain of such a cut.

Rail operations head Dave Kubicek said the late-night Friday and Saturday service forces WMATA to pay the equivalent “adding an eighth day of work” each week. Cutting back the hours to midnight from 3 am would effectively give them 45 more days per year to perform track work.

The Board also discussed plans to hold hearings and give the public a chance to weigh in on these issues.

New Board member Mary Hynes from Arlington suggested presenting the idea of earlier closings juxtaposed with whatever can be accomplished in the extra time. “Our goal is Metro 2.0,” said Hynes. She argued that if riders knew what could be fixed and how much faster, it could help them decide whether to support late-night cuts.

Unfortunately, this also risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don’t live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool. Federal member Mort Downey already started down that road by talking about how Metro is a “demand-driven” service, organized primarily around the times of peak usage, which also happens to be what matters most to the federal government.

Tom Downs, DC’s voting member from the Gray administration, also expressed an interest in exploring this, though he also made very clear that rider input is vital. As Kytja Weir noted on Twitter, cutting late-night service is something Jim Graham constantly fought, often tenaciously and to the irritation of some of his colleagues or the Board of Trade.

We’re seeing the effect in this meeting of the new Board. Gone are two of the more vociferous defenders of transit service, and the new members either won’t be fighting as hard or haven’t yet found their footing to do so. While the Board hasn’t necessarily decided to make these cuts and members haven’t committed to supporting or opposing them, in the old Board, we’d have heard members making impassioned speeches against this idea the moment it came up.

Or, perhaps members will just be more subtle about it. Another item on the list of potential cuts is Yellow Line service to Fort Totten off-peak, which keeps riders between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten from facing very long midday and evening headways. Tommy Wells asked staff to also add Red Line turnbacks at Grosvenor to the list, which represent a potential Montgomery County-only cut to parallel this DC-only cut.

About half of Red Line trains stop at Grosvenor rush hours instead of continuing to Shady Grove. Years past, this happened off-peak as well, but Maryland secured service sending all off-peak trains to Shady Grove and only turning any back during the peak.

If one is on the table, it’s fair to put the other on as well, and perhaps a comparable service pattern in Virginia. All would be terrible, however, and the Board needs to look hard at alternatives before jumping to this option.

Update: Tommy Wells criticized this option when talking to reporters after the meeting.