Getting better Metrorail and Metrobus service starts with showing up to ask for it


Commuters take Metro to get home late at night. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Robert Thomson
Columnist April 5

Metro board members just finished a season of listening to riders talk about the transit system. What did that get riders?

Well, it’s getting them a fare increase, but then, the transit authority’s revenue plan was the peg for listening in the first place. Were the fare hikes any different because of what riders said?

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

A little bit: The hearings were dominated by witnesses who use the MetroAccess paratransit system because they have disabilities.

Woody Allen said 80 percent of success is showing up. The riders with disabilities showed up and got at least part of what they wanted. The board voted to cut the maximum fare for MetroAccess rides from $7 to $6.50.

The Accessibility Advisory Committee, a citizens panel that works with the transit staff and board, was another important part of this win. But the committee’s case was strengthened by the willingness of riders with disabilities to come out on cold nights and testify for the fare break.

This letter considers the role of riders in setting transit policies:

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I believe that Metro board members should ride the Metro from time to time. They should listen, observe and make notes on ideas and suggestions for improvements.

Before I moved to this area, I was a resident of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) in Pennsylvania. I utilized the Port Authority of Allegheny County bus and subway system.

I was involved in two citizens mass transit advocacy organizations. One was called the Allegheny County Transit Council; the other was called Save Our Transit.

The thing that I learned in all of this is that the mass transit user is critical to the success of a mass transit system. Their voices need to be heard.

— Robert H. Wright Jr., Warrenton

Riders often say board members should use trains and buses more, but the board’s travel habits made no difference in the outcome for MetroAccess riders.

Still, when Wright writes that the transit user is critical to the success of the transit system, he couldn’t be more right. But to be successful, riders can’t wait to be asked, and they’ve got to show up time after time.

The fare hearings provide one venue for public engagement. Riders have to hope this outlet is an infrequent one, since it’s going to be accompanied by a fare hike of some sort.

During my online discussion Monday, one rider asked if such public hearings are a sham. “It seems like the fare hikes were essentially everything Metro was asking for,” the commenter wrote.

Sure, board members go into the hearings knowing they’ve got to wind up with a balanced budget, but depending on what part of the region they represent, they may be inclined to protect certain types of fares and fees.

When Metrobus and Metrorail riders show up for the hearings — as they sometimes have in years past — they give board members ammunition in the battle to defend their interests. But during this winter’s hearings, the public outcry over bus and rail fare increases was so muted that it didn’t become a factor in the board’s final decision-making.

Instead, the board was left with its traditional considerations, which include the basic math of revenue and expenses, how much of an extra subsidy the region’s jurisdictions would be willing to pay the transit authority, the interests of long-distance riders vs. people who take shorter trips and the interests of bus riders vs. rail riders.

Before the board takes a fare plan to public hearings, it builds in some maneuvering room for itself. While that’s financially prudent, it also means the final outcome looks better than what riders might have anticipated.

That’s merely a coincidence, like your property value going up over a few years without you having to lift a paint brush.

If the D.C. region’s riders are going to get the kind of transit service they say they want, more energy and more sustained effort are required. They need to do the sorts of things that Wright did when he lived in Pennsylvania.

We have citizen committees that advise Metro, and they need rider support and participation. There’s the accessibility committee and the Riders’ Advisory Council. The volunteers on these panels serve as your go-betweens with the board and the transit staff. Sometimes they win: Board members have given credit to the accessibility committee for advocating better lighting in Metrorail stations.

Sometimes they don’t: The Riders’ Advisory Council recommended Metro keep the surcharge for bus riders who pay with cash. (Boardings go faster when riders tap their SmarTrip card.) But the board chose instead to eliminate the surcharge, a break to lower income riders who tend to pay with cash.

What we lack, however, is a strong, regional consumer group — independent of Metro — that lobbies both the transit authority and local governments for improvements in current transit service.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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