Democracy Dies in Darkness

Gridlock

Small businesses launch SOS for Metro

By Faiz Siddiqui

October 24, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Nearly three dozen small business leaders have joined a group pushing for Metro to expand service, lower fares and implement free bus-to-rail transfers to win back riders. The group also is urging the region’s leaders to come up with a long-term funding solution for the transit agency.

The Save Our System campaign of the nonprofit Americans for Transit announced Tuesday it has formed a 35-member roundtable of business leaders who say urgent changes are needed, arguing the service cuts — and Metro’s lack of dedicated funding –are “harming the local economy.”

In an era of unprecedented economic growth in the D.C. region, it is unacceptable for our local businesses to be forced into a position where we must choose between laying off employees, reducing our offerings, or closing our doors simply because our transit infrastructure is not properly maintained or funded,” reads the letter. “Unfortunately, the budgeting decisions made by [Metro] this past June are doing just that.”

Rail fares increased a dime and bus fares increased a quarter this summer. In addition, dozens of bus routes were slashed or modified, and train frequencies were reduced on five of six Metro lines. The system also closes earlier.

“Parking is a challenge in the U Street neighborhood, therefore we encourage Metro ridership to our patrons,” Will Eastman, founder of U Street Music Hall said in a statement. “But that’s a difficult thing to do when the nearest Metrorail station is closing hours before we do.”

The roundtable issued an open letter to the Metro board asking the panel to restore the old service levels and reverse the fare hike in the agency’s upcoming budget, which Metro General Manager is set to propose this fall. Organization leaders are also asking local officials to back dedicated funding for Metro to make service expansion feasible.

Related: [As reform ideas swirl, board chairman fears another year of scrambling to pay for Metro]

The group said it understands the board has a tough job and hard choices to make.

“The struggle to balance a budget, provide high quality service, and compensate your workforce well is one we as business owners and managers know well. We sympathize with it,” the group says in its letter. However, they say, “holding riders, small businesses, and no less than the nation’s capital hostage to the demands of one jurisdiction, or engaging in financial brinksmanship to yield partisan gains, is unnecessary. It is beneath us.”

Americans for Transit is primarily funded by Amalgamated Transit Union International, the group said. ATU International President Larry Hanley sits on the nonprofit’s board of directors. The union’s local chapter, ATU Local 689, is Metro’s largest workers’ union, representing more than 9,000 employees.

In September, Save Our System delivered petitions with more than 11,000 signatures to the Metro board, pushing for flat fares, free transfers and expanded service.

Now, local business leaders from popular restaurants, retail stores and bars have joined in the pleas. A sampling of the businesses on the list includes, Busboys and Poets, Dacha Beer Garden, Miss Pixie’s, The Bike Rack and MOM’s Organic Market. (The full list is available here.)

“We should be talking about fare-free bus service in the District of Columbia,”  Andy Shallal, founder of Busboys and Poets, said in a statement. “Instead we are quarreling over whether we can afford the buses and trains we have. Of course we can. It’s time for the region to put our people first and fund Metro.”

It’s unclear what — if any — impact the group’s pleas will have on budget discussions and the larger issue of securing dedicated funding for Metro. Wiedefeld has said the system needs $15.5 billion over 10 years — including $500 million in annual, dedicated funding — to support Metro’s safety and reliability needs. Metro’s falling ridership contributed to a $290 million budget shortfall that led to the fare hikes and service cuts, and the ridership slide has shown few signs of subsiding.

Related: [Metro GM proposes ‘new business model’ and $500 million a year in extra funding to save D.C.-area transit agency]

Sigute Meilus, executive director of Americans for Transit, said local leaders must unite to find an “equitable, regional, dedicated” funding source for Metro.

“[Metro] can’t restore or expand service for the long haul if it doesn’t know what its budget will look like in year two, year three,” Meilus said.

The group opposes a regionwide sales tax, the mechanism favored by D.C. officials, on grounds it would have a disproportionate impact on lower-income residents. With a GOP-controlled legislature, Virginia is unlikely to support a tax increase. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) has said his state would contribute $500 million to Metro over four years if D.C., Virginia and the federal government each agreed to do the same — representing a total of $2 billion. Critics contend, however, that Hogan’s proposal falls short of dedicated funding.

Related: [In reversal, Hogan offers $500 million extra for Metro if Virginia, D.C. and feds match it]

“If this system is going to serve the region, everyone needs to kick in,” Meilus said. “If Virginia and Maryland want to starve their residents of transit, then maybe it is time for D.C. to take the leadership role.”

Some have said that Metro’s quandary represents a transit death spiral: wherein poor reliability drives away riders, choking off revenue and prompting further service cuts likely to keep customers away for good.

Meilus said the Save Our System proposal is one approach to staving off the free fall — though the group could not immediately point to data to show the feasibility of its proposal.

“We think one of the best ways to restore ridership is to give riders something worth returning to,” Meilus said.


Faiz Siddiqui is a metro reporter covering transportation and local issues. He has previously contributed to NPR, The Boston Globe and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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