Photo by Kenoir on Flickr.

Yesterday, the WMATA board discussed eliminating late-night Friday and Saturday service to help close a large budget gap and provide more hours for system maintenance.

The proposal has generated more than 100 comments on our website and a rebuke from new WMATA board member Tommy Wells. Today, GGW contributors debate the merits of this proposal, from its impact on system maintenance and service industry employees to the potential for replacement bus service.

Substitute bus service

Stephen Miller: This whole debate makes me think of Boston’s short-lived attempt at running “Night Owl” bus service that paralleled the MBTA subway lines until after the bars closed. Despite its popularity, the T ended up cutting Night Owl service during a budget crunch in 2005.

Eric Hallstrom: London had a night bus schedule that was infrequent and limited. It solved some transportation problems when the Tube wasn’t running, but I recall that it was very confusing.

Vincent Flament: Although London’s night buses are confusing at first, they actually work very well once you get used to them. Brussels, a city much more akin to Washington than London, launched night bus services in 2007. I support night buses in DC.

It will be slower than the Metro, but the area has a lot of avenues that enable buses to run quite efficiently, such as Wilson Boulevard, Georgia Avenue, Connecticut Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue. It’s not convenient but it gets the job done. Although I’d hate seeing Metro night service gone, on a pure cost argument it may make sense to introduce night buses. They might discourage some from travelling, but they are better than nothing.

Michael Perkins: The trains take about an hour to travel the length of a line, and that’s with no track traffic and more or less direct routing. Buses would have about half the travel speed of trains. Plus, you have to build in slack for operator breaks and recovery time.

Metrobuses cost about $130 per hour to operate, so let’s do a back-of-the-napkin calculation. A Night Owl bus, operating five bi-directional routes with four buses each direction for three hours per weekend night, would cost WMATA approximately $2 million each year. Cost recovery for the Night Owl bus would be on the low end

about 15-20%

meaning that the service would end up costing about $1.7 million each year.

According to Metro, the cost of running the late-night rail service is $5.0 million annually. So for about $1.7 million you can have a relatively slow, low-capacity bus every half hour, or for $5.0 million you can have a relatively fast train about every 20 minutes that has a far greater capacity and runs on well-known routes more likely to attract riders.

Erik Weber: Remember that WMATA already has a shortage of bus drivers and running late night services is only likely to exacerbate that and the overtime crisis. Of course they would need fewer rail operators so perhaps some of them could get bumped back to bus operation. But a bus service that could handle the crush loads that some trains have on Friday and Saturday nights would be so expensive to run that this whole argument would become a moot point.

Also, some people simply will not ride a bus from White Flint or Dunn Loring into DC, especially if it has to detour to stop at each subsequent Metro station. While a night bus system could enhance connectivity within DC, it could never replicate the functionality of the full Metro system.

Veronica Davis: Interestingly enough, a few of us East of the River were talking about how it would be great to have a night bus system that loops from nightlife areas west of the river to areas over here. Another option would to be to have a night bus that circulates people from the Metro stations to the interior neighborhoods East of the River. Despite my utopian vision, I agree that Night Owl bus service is not a substitute for the Metro.

Catching a cab instead

Erik Weber: The only people who win in this situation are the taxi drivers.

Cavan Wilk: It might be cheap to take a cab from Dupont to Court House. However, it’s over $30 to take a cab to Silver Spring. It’s $50 to take a cab to Wheaton. A taxi is not how most of us get home

most of us take the Metro or carpool.

You only take a cab if you miss the last Metro train. Now, in addition to the cost, try to find a DC cab that will take you outside the L’Enfant City, much less to Fort Totten, Friendship Heights, Takoma Park, or Silver Spring

never mind Glenmont or Shady Grove.

Veronica Davis: You think it’s hard getting a cab to Maryland? I’ve had cabs tell me they don’t go East of the River. I now have the passenger Bill of Rights memorized. Nothing’s quite as effective as threatening to register a complaint with DCTC! Needless to say taxis are not a viable alternative.

David Alpert: Cab drivers refusing to drive you? You’re telling me!

Impact on businesses and nightlife

Eric Fidler: I can imagine DC’s bar and club owners will be fuming and rightly so. Convincing suburbanites to take a bus into DC for nightlife will be a tough sell for all the same reasons that choice riders dislike buses during daylight hours. I’m sure some might be willing, but good luck.

DC has a lot to lose from this proposal since it is more dependent on transit and many nightlife businesses rely on customers who arrive by transit. We need to encourage more people who don’t live here to come spend their money, not fewer.

Erik Weber: There is a serious issue at stake with a loss of economic vitality for late-night businesses as well as lost tax revenue for jurisdictions with late-night economies. Though DC has the most to lose, all three jurisdictions have transit-oriented late-night districts: for example, Bethesda, Silver Spring, and the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

Topher Mathews: I suspect the vast majority of bar-goers will end up taking cabs instead of Metro. It’s not cheap to take a cab back to the suburbs, but it’s better if you’re splitting the cost with a group. Plus, it’s a lot faster than the bus or train.

Bottom line: people won’t stay home and hurt late-night businesses. There are other arguments to be made for keeping the service.

Impact on service industry employees

Craig Simpson: Don’t neglect the many service workers of those restaurants and bars as well as building cleaning workers who depend on late night service for access to jobs.

WMATA Board Chair Peter Benjamin has also suggested cutting existing late night bus service, which would affect the ability of those making bus/rail transfers to get to their destinations.

Matt Johnson: Service industry employees are an important reason to be concerned about this proposed cut. I’d hate to see mobility cut back, especially for those who need it most.

It wouldn’t be the end of the world to cut back the late-night closing times by an hour, but I certainly oppose any move to completely eliminate the late closing on Fridays and Saturdays.

Impact on track maintenance

Michael Perkins: I would be against the night service cuts, except for the fact that Metro has also said that this would improve the ability to perform maintenance. It seems like Metro is barely holding its own on this front. Providing more maintenance time would be a good thing.

Eric Fidler: It’s important first to vet the premise that closing early is necessary in order to provide needed upgrades. It might in fact be necessary, but given this is the same agency that takes months to repair escalators, I prefer to trust but verify.

Matt Johnson: Metro already has far more downtime than its peers. Only Baltimore’s Metro is closed more. Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco’s BART all have significantly less night downtime, and these systems survive.

Now, it’s true that Metro is open 3 hours later on Fridays and Saturdays, but it also opens 2 hours later on the following days. In fact, I think that a later closing throughout the week would be helpful.

During the week, Metro begins to shut down earlier than any other heavy rail system in the nation. At 11:24 pm, the last train leaves Branch Avenue. Compare this to Atlanta. During the week, the last northbound train leaves the Airport at 1:00 am. It makes it downtown at around 1:20 and doesn’t reach the other end of the line until 1:43. When I lived in Atlanta, I never once worried about missing the last train like I do here.

What else should we shut down?

Eric Fidler: While we’re at it, what other transportation infrastructure should we close at midnight? The 14th Street Bridge, maybe? I-66?

Eric Hallstrom: I find this argument to be the least persuasive of all. The cost differential between running Metro and keeping a road open are so massive that there is no comparison. Even if you could demonstrate that there are some comparable cost savings over time, there is no comparable short term cost savings, which is the exact reason Metro is thinking about cutting service.

Matt Johnson: Metro’s budget shortfall is a concern. Something has got to give. Eliminating late-night weekend service is a bitter pill but it would certainly be preferable to reducing mid-day headways, or eliminating the Yellow Line to Fort Totten.