Let’s say you have some opinions about what Metro should do, but you actually know almost nothing about Metro’s actual policies. You might talk to your friends about it or comment on blogs, but it’s unlikely the Washington Post will put your ideas on its Sunday local opinion page.
Unless, that is, you work for the Reason Foundation. The Post published an op-ed from Reason’s Sam Staley, who shows he knows little about Metro by suggesting a policy that’s already in place today: peak-of-the-peak fares.
Nobody must have checked with the Post’s own transportation writers, like Bob “Dr. Gridlock” Thomson, who know plenty about transportation. Thomson showed his thorough comprehension of the complex issues around transportation with a very thoughtful analysis of the 2030 Group transportation priorities report.
In his op-ed, Staley writes,
Metro must set fares based on consumer demand by applying market-based pricing. Metro is leaving tens of millions of dollars on the rails simply because its fares don’t capture the full higher value that riders are willing to pay at premium travel times.
Staley apparently didn’t bother to look up Metro’s fare structure before writing the piece. Because it already includes almost exactly what he suggests.
Peak of the peak pricing was a part of last year’s fare increase, adding a 20¢ surcharge for trips in the busiest 1½ hour in the morning and evening. It’s proven fairly unpopular, but revolved around the very ideas Staley is promoting, that people are willing to pay more at peak times (or if they’re not, can ride the system earlier or later).
The specific peak-of-the-peak fare could probably use some tweaking to work better. It doesn’t really quite match demand, either in terms of time or geography, but it’s a close approximation. Many riders, though, would rather just remove the policy entirely, arguing that it’s too confusing.
Still, the general concept is a sound one. It does make sense for Metro to capture the value it provides to riders. It’s already doing that to a greater extent than almost any other system: according to statistics published in April, Metrorail is recovering 81% of its operating costs just from fares alone. Even when mixing in the lower cost recovery bus system, WMATA has one of the highest farebox recovery ratios in North America.
If it’s good policy to have transit make back most of its costs from its users, what about other modes of transportation, like roads? Everything Staley says about Metro makes equal sense for driving. It’s busiest at one time of day, to the point of being too crowded. Just as pricing the busiest lines at the busiest times of day has some economic logic to it, so does pricing the busiest roads at their most crowded.
Staley also suggests a “value capture” mechanism for WMATA to keep some of the tax revenue that comes from greater development around Metro stations. That would let the economic growth that transit brings help pay for transit. Again, it’s a sound idea, though Staley seems not to understand the dynamics of the DC region in his explanation. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at this in more detail.
There are a lot of people in the Washington region who have very thoughtful and thoroughly informed recommendations about Metro. There are many transit advocates like the Action Committee for Transit, Coalition for Smarter Growth, MetroRiders.Org, Sierra Club Sustainable Metro DC campaign, and many more. There are the people from the Board of Trade, whose opinions I sometimes strongly disagree with but who are never just ignorant.
There’s also the transportation team at the Post, led by the very knowledgeable and always thoughtful Bob Thomson and recently made stronger with the addition of Dana Hedgpeth covering Metro. Coming down at the opposite end of the ignorance-knowledge spectrum is Thomson’s article today about the terrible 2030 Group report. I was very nervous about what the Post would write about this story, since 2030 employs a high-powered PR firm which promoted the study far and wide.
A few recent Post traffic articles (by other reporters) have unquestioningly bought into whatever spin comes in a press release, like Ashley Halsey III’s coverage of a Governors Highway Safety Association report on traffic fatalities which blamed pedestrians or the flawed TTI report that mis-measured traffic congestion.
Thomson, on the other hand, penned a paragon of what a traffic study analysis article should be. He looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the report, and not just by quoting one person in favor and one opposed, but by actually understanding the intricacies of the issue.
Thomson notes that the study looked at “what transportation programs are most needed to ease congestion, [but] this is not how governments and commuters think.” Instead, congestion relief is one priority along with “the creation of new travel options, economic development and neighborhood revitalization.”
He notes how it’s tough to assign credibility to a study which relies on anonymous “experts” and ends up suggesting many of the same projects the authors already were promoting, but also argues that these problems “[don’t] mean the ideas are bad or unworthy of discussion.”
While giving most of the article’s space to explaining specifically what the study advocates, he also cautions about drawing too many conclusions from “experts”:
Still, there’s a problem with asking transportation professionals for solutions, and it’s the same type of problem that was defined by a psychology professor named Abraham Maslow: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
In the case of the transportation engineers, designers and planners, their main solutions are expensive transportation projects. There are many serious obstacles to those solutions, and plenty of alternative ideas coming from outside the ranks of transportation professionals.
Thomson is far less skeptical of an Outer Beltway crossing of the Potomac than I’d like him to be. He writes, “Drivers stuck on the Dulles Toll Road before the Beltway each morning have said they would love to see a new bridge farther west on the Potomac River to draw off traffic.”
But this illustrates exactly the problem with this proposal: these drivers he’s citing don’t actually want the crossing, they just want other people off the road to ease traffic. Building a new road doesn’t actually relieve traffic, as even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges. So these commuters Thomson hears from might think they’d benefit from a new crossing, but they really won’t.
Every reporter should read Thomson’s story as an example of how to thoughtfully analyze, rather than regurgitate, a report that comes out from a group with an agenda and a well-funded PR operation. And every editor should look at Staley’s piece as a cautionary tale to beware op-eds on local issues from national organizations with an agenda, a well-funded PR operation, and little actual knowledge of local circumstances.