Con­tin­ued late-night ser­vice cuts save Metro money, but it can’t af­ford short­sighted moves.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY NEIL O. AL­BERT

The re­gion’s late-night econ­omy be­came of­fi­cially stymied on Mon­day when Paul J. Wiede­feld, the gen­eral man­ager of the Wash­ing­ton Metropoli­tan Area Tran­sit Au­thor­ity, did not rec­om­mend restor­ing late-night ser­vice for Metro­rail as part of his fis­cal 2020 bud­get pro­posal.

The news comes more than two years af­ter WMATA cut late-night ser­vice, leav­ing many in the late-night ser­vice in­dus­try scram­bling for al­ter­na­tive com­mut­ing op­tions (or sleep­ing at their places of em­ploy­ment), and leav­ing con­sumers and busi­nesses ad­just­ing their en­ter­tain­ment sched­ules, and busi­nesses cut­ting their op­er­at­ing hours.

The ef­fect of late-night ser­vice cuts con­tin­ues to ham­per down­town D.C. and the re­gion and re­mains one of the many rea­sons Metro con­tin­ues to strug­gle to sup­port the area’s econ­omy de­spite great strides this past year.

Lead­ers in the re­gion in March united to sup­port fund­ing for Metro’s cap­i­tal needs, giv­ing WMATA the ded­i­cated cap­i­tal fund­ing source it has long des­per­ately re­quired. But off-peak and week­end ser­vice on the re­gion’s largest pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem con­tin­ues to suf­fer and rider­ship has de­clined, mainly re­lated to seem­ingly per­pet­ual main­te­nance.

Over the past 21/2 years, ex­ten­sive main­te­nance work has eroded Metro’s use­ful­ness to rid­ers. SafeTrack dis­rupted com­mutes for an en­tire year (June 2016 to July 2017). Then, Red Line rid­ers had to en­dure a 45-day shut­down this past sum­mer for a “Ma­jor Im­prove­ment Project.” Ma­jor dis­rup­tions to the Blue and Yel­low lines are sched­uled for next sum­mer in Virginia, in­clud­ing a months-long shut­down. In ad­di­tion, on­go­ing main­te­nance projects con­tinue to reg­u­larly dis­rupt week­end and off-peak com­mutes with sin­gle-track­ing, with trains run­ning ev­ery 24 min­utes. In­fre­quent ser­vice is in­her­ently un­re­li­able for rid­ers. The never-end­ing track work con­tin­ues to make Metro vir­tu­ally un­us­able on week­ends.

Metro now serves about 125,000 fewer daily trips, on av­er­age, than it did a decade ago.

This isn’t a sur­prise to Metro’s lead­er­ship. Last month, The Post ob­tained an in­ter­nal Metro re­port de­tail­ing strate­gies to in­crease rider­ship and im­prove ser­vice. The doc­u­ment called for Metro to “pro­vide qual­ity ser­vice in an era of per­pet­ual main­te­nance” by im­prov­ing off-peak ser­vice and lim­it­ing the im­pact of track work. “We must strive to ex­e­cute work ef­fi­ciently” and “con­tinue to learn from best prac­tices used by peers to stage and ex­e­cute cap­i­tal work,” the re­port stated.

The rec­om­men­da­tions from the re­port were clear: Metro must be­come more ef­fi­cient at ex­e­cut­ing nec­es­sary main­te­nance while also im­prov­ing late-night and off-peak ser­vice. Metro can­not af­ford to be solely a peak-hour com­mut­ing sys­tem; it must com­pete for rid­ers at all times of the day.

The re­gion hasn’t in­vested bil­lions in the Metro sys­tem as a van­ity project; we built this tran­sit sys­tem so we could use it. The re­gion built cities around Metro sta­tions to serve as the cen­ter­piece of our trans­porta­tion sys­tem.

WMATA al­ready of­fers the fewest ser­vice hours of any U.S. rapid tran­sit sys­tem — only 127 hours a week. Metro also has the short­est week­day span of ser­vice — open­ing later and clos­ing ear­lier — than any rapid tran­sit sys­tem in the coun­try. New York’s sub­way runs 24 hours — all day, ev­ery day. Philadel­phia’s sub­way lines run all night on Fri­days and Satur­days, plus it has all-night bus ser­vice when the sub­ways are closed the rest of the week.

In re­marks to the Mont­gomery County Coun­cil on Oct. 23, Wiede­feld sug­gested that Uber and Lyft could pro­vide late-night trans­porta­tion ser­vice for the re­gion. Those ser­vices are flex­i­ble, but they are no sub­sti­tute for pub­lic mass tran­sit. Ride-hail­ing apps may be a po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tive for some late-night pa­trons, but what about the restau­rant and hos­pi­tal­ity work­ers who power down­town’s late-night econ­omy? Those work­ers can’t af­ford to com­mute via ride-hail­ing ser­vices ev­ery day.

How can WMATA sup­port pub­lic tran­sit and the late-night econ­omy and the re­gion? First, WMATA must re­store late-night ser­vice.

In the ab­sence of restor­ing late-night train ser­vice, WMATA first should cre­ate a “night owl” bus net­work to of­fer late-night ser­vice. Sec­ond, WMATA’s board of di­rec­tors can fund the rec­om­men­da­tions from WMATA’s staff to sta­bi­lize and in­crease rider­ship — Wiede­feld’s bud­get pro­posal does in­clude bet­ter evening ser­vice, more Yel­low and Red line trains and lower week­end fares — all pos­si­ble with an ex­tra $20 mil­lion. Third, the board can also set a dual man­date for the gen­eral man­ager to safely op­er­ate and main­tain the sys­tem while si­mul­ta­ne­ously grow­ing the sys­tem’s rider­ship.

At some point, WMATA must de­cide to meet or ex­ceed the per­for­mance of peer pub­lic tran­sit sys­tems or risk putting our re­gion’s eco­nomic growth in jeop­ardy. The writer is pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Down­townDC Busi­ness Im­prove­ment Dis­trict.

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