Even with poorly lit stations, chronically broken escalators, frequently late buses and near daily train delays, a large majority of Washington area residents continue to have favorable views of Metro, according to a new Washington Post poll.
But riders have growing doubts about the value and reliability of the 37-year-old system, and transit advocates say such concerns could undermine Metro’s efforts to rally support for its plan to modernize the transit system.
An increasing number of people say the subway is becoming too pricey to ride. More people say they are not using Metro because trains are too crowded and more people report that rides take too long. And the system overall is viewed as less reliable than several years ago, as disruptions on Metro’s five rail lines have become routine.
“I think under the circumstances — it’s old and a lot of people use it — it is a pretty good system,” said Ruth Kling of Falls Church, who was a daily rider for 15 years on the Red Line from Union Station to Dupont Circle until she retired. “It’s pretty clean and it seems to run on time. Except for the escalators — that’s a perennial problem.”
Kling’s measured approval was typical among the roughly 1,100 people in the District and close-in suburbs who participated in the survey, which was conducted between June 19 and 23.
Roughly seven in 10 residents, or 71 percent, give Metrorail positive ratings. A 56 percent majority rate Metrorail as good, and 15 percent call it excellent. Few see the system in a negative light, with 16 percent rating the rail system as not so good or poor.
The sampling of public sentiment toward Metro comes at a critical juncture for the subway system, which records about 750,000 trips on a typical weekday. Even as they carry out a massive rehabilitation of the aging rail lines, Metro’s leaders have been rolling out ambitious proposals to expand and modernize the transit system, with plans for redesigned rail stations, simpler fare collection technology and a new tunnel under the Potomac.
But if the riders’ mounting concerns about Metro start to eat into their modest overall satisfaction with the system, it could make it even harder to line up the political and financial support Metro’s leaders will need to carry out their plans, experts say.
“The more you build support by doing a good job every day of carrying passengers, then the more you will have the political support,” said Ben Ross, a local transit advocate.
The Post survey, conducted on cellular and land-line phones, asked a range of questions about Metro and transportation. The Post did a similar survey three years ago and another in 2005.
The overall perception of Metro hasn’t dropped significantly even after several difficult years for the system, including a deadly crash four years ago that killed nine people and injured dozens on the Red Line. More than six in 10 riders continue to give Metro approving ratings in a variety of areas, including value, comfort, safety, operating hours, reliability and general convenience. Convenience to work is where Metro scores lowest, with half of workers saying the system is “excellent” or “good” on this point.
“People are generally much more critical on a day-to-day basis than if they think about their commutes over the long haul,” said Joshua Schank, president of the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation in the District. “They recognize that most of the time they get to work on Metro on time and safely.”
But the positive marks could turn, Schank said, if Metro doesn’t tend to the concerns that are increasing among riders.
“If the system starts breaking down at a faster rate and if they waste money and don’t keep up a state of good repair, then people will turn,” Schank said. “They’ll say, ‘The system is no longer reliable and I’ll have to change my commuting patterns.’ ”
Increasingly people say they avoid Metrorail because it is too expensive. In a 2005 Washington Post survey, 75 percent of riders gave the subway positive ratings for offering a “good value,” but that has dropped to 67 percent. Metro has had three fare increases in the past five years, and the base rush-hour fare is now $2.10.
Cathy Bernard, who lives in Chevy Chase and mainly takes Metro’s Red and Green lines a few times a week to go to events at Verizon Center or Nationals Park, said she’s seen a decline in Metro as the fares have risen.
“It’s gotten kind of high,” she said of the cost, “and it’s been a steady decline. It’s not as reliable as it used to be and the cars aren’t as clean as they used to be.”
Metro’s reliability ranking has not recovered from a big decline. In the poll, 73 percent gave Metro positive ratings for reliability, similar to the 75 percent in 2010 but down from the 87 percent who expressed this view in 2005.
Kristofer Harrison, 37, who lives in Alexandria, used to ride Metrorail to go downtown a few times a week to meetings but stopped because he became so frustrated.
“It was unbelievable how unreliable Metro was,” he said. “Every time it rained there was a problem.” Now he drives to his meetings.
With more track work and station shutdowns, riders say delays are a factor in whether they use Metro. Fifty-three percent of people who don’t ride regularly say the long travel time is a reason they don’t ride. That is compared to the 46 percent who felt that way in 2010 — before Metro had started its major rebuilding effort.
Mike Miller, 26, of Fairfax said he has been a longtime Metro rider but gave up using the subway on weekends to go into the District because he had to allow up to 45 minutes extra to make sure he was on time.
“With all these delays it is more convenient to drive,” Miller said. “I think service is going down. I’ve lived here my whole life and it hasn’t improved. For a major metropolitan area the service is below average.”
At Metro, General Manager Richard Sarles repeatedly says the agency has worked more aggressively under his three-year-tenure as part of a $5 billion rebuilding effort to repair and upgrade the aging tracks and equipment that have been poorly maintained over the past few decades. But he acknowledges that more needs to be done.
“I don’t want to rest on our laurels,” Sarles said. “The last thing I want to do is say, ‘We’ve done good enough.’ We have to continue to make these improvements or we will slide back in providing reliable service. It will get worse.”
Nicole Chavez and Mark Berman contributed to this report. Clement is a survey research analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Jon Cohen and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.