Metro is abet­ting its own down­ward spi­ral

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY NEIL O. AL­BERT The writer is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Down­townDC BID, for­mer deputy mayor and for­mer city ad­min­is­tra­tor. He pre­vi­ously served on WMATA’s board of di­rec­tors.

The Wash­ing­ton Metropoli­tan Area Tran­sit Au­thor­ity’s board of di­rec­tors’ vote Thurs­day to raise Metro­rail fares and cut ser­vice ac­cel­er­ates the down­ward spi­ral in re­gional tran­sit ser­vice.

WMATA has char­ac­ter­ized its fis­cal 2018 bud­get as one of “shared sac­ri­fice” among the agency, WMATA’s fund­ing ju­ris­dic­tions and riders. I com­mend the board’s ef­forts in se­cur­ing ad­di­tional sub­si­dies from WMATA’s mem­ber ju­ris­dic­tions but re­main con­cerned about fare in­creases fur­ther dam­ag­ing WMATA’s frag­ile rid­er­ship. Any fare in­crease or cut to ser­vice will drive away riders.

Av­er­age daily rail rid­er­ship has fallen from a peak of 750,000 daily trips in 2009 to just 624,000 trips in Oc­to­ber and is pro­jected to fall even fur­ther. Riders have lost late-night ser­vice for at least two more years, and un­der the fis­cal 2018 bud­get, they will face a fare in­crease.

In­stead of re­ac­tive an­nual fare in­creases to close bud­get gaps, WMATA must of­fer at­trac­tive ser­vices for reg­u­lar riders and demon­strate the value of those ser­vices.

WMATA should ex­pand and im­prove the ex­ist­ing un­lim­ited-ride Selec­tPass pro­gram by elim­i­nat­ing bar­ri­ers to pur­chas­ing an un­lim­ited-ride Selec­tPass with SmartBen­e­fits and al­low free trans­fers be­tween bus and rail.

WMATA should con­tinue part­ner­ing with agen­cies that con­trol lo­cal streets to im­ple­ment bus pri­or­ity projects, in­clud­ing bus-only lanes, queue jumps, tran­sit sig­nal pri­or­ity and other projects that help pub­lic tran­sit op­er­ate more ef­fi­ciently.

New York City rolled out two key fare pol­icy changes: un­lim­ited-ride passes in 1998 and free bus-to-rail trans­fers in 1997. Com­bined, th­ese poli­cies dra­mat­i­cally in­creased sub­way and bus rid­er­ship. Be­tween 1996 and 2005, sub­way rid­er­ship in New York in­creased 31 per­cent, and bus rid­er­ship in­creased 53 per­cent.

Un­lim­ited-ride passes would make Metro an in­dis­pens­able part of city life, not just a com­mut­ing op­tion.

Bet­ter bus ser­vice also doesn’t have to mean big­ger bud­gets.

Hous­ton re­cently re­designed its bus net­work to em­pha­size fre­quent ser­vices along key cor­ri­dors. It ex­pe­ri­enced a 6.8 per­cent in­crease in tran­sit rid­er­ship, in­clud­ing big gains dur­ing off-peak hours, all with­out in­creas­ing ser­vice.

San Fran­cisco changed its fare pol­icy to al­low all-door board­ing and proof-of-pay­ment for all Muni buses. Th­ese small changes short­ened the time ve­hi­cles are stopped as pas­sen­gers board and dis­em­bark, in­creased bus speeds and re­duced fare eva­sion.

Ini­tia­tives such as th­ese would help WMATA ad­dress fall­ing rid­er­ship and en­able “right-siz­ing” of ser­vice head on. In­stead of par­tially ad­dress­ing th­ese is­sues in an at­tempt to close a bud­get gap, WMATA can eval­u­ate them on merit and work to­ward meet­ing the sys­tem’s po­ten­tial and ful­fill­ing its role as the back­bone of our trans­porta­tion sys­tem.

WMATA has two key tasks that must be com­pleted be­fore the next bud­get is ap­proved: WMATA must ar­tic­u­late a plan to ad­dress sys­temic fi­nan­cial chal­lenges, and it must ag­gres­sively com­pete to win riders back. An­nual crises dis­tract the re­gion from ad­dress­ing the sys­tem’s core chal­lenges.

The agency’s sys­temic fi­nan­cial is­sues mean the board will likely face large bud­get deficits ev­ery year go­ing for­ward. This chal­lenge is com­pounded by es­ca­lat­ing costs and de­creased rev­enue from SafeTrack.

Solv­ing WMATA’s long-term fi­nan­cial prob­lems will re­quire a com­bi­na­tion of a ded­i­cated fund­ing source and a re­struc­tur­ing of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

I un­der­stand the im­me­di­ate chal­lenge of bal­anc­ing WMATA’s bud­get, but rais­ing fares and cut­ting ser­vice when rid­er­ship is fall­ing isn’t sus­tain­able.

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