In Pinellas County, outside St. Petersburg, Fla., Dannette Williams used to run into the same problem that thousands of people in the Washington area face every day if they start work before dawn or get off after midnight.
By the time she left the late shift at a door manufacturing plant in Clearwater, the buses had stopped running.
And before the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority began offering subsidized Lyft and Uber rides in 2016, she couldn’t pick up early shifts, though she was trying to earn as much as she could to support her two teens. The buses didn’t run early enough to get her to work by 5:45 a.m.
There were times when she needed the cash badly enough that she’d work a late shift anyway. On those nights, Williams recalled, she’d clock out at 11 and trudge two hours to get home.
Men would pull up at times and try to get her to get into their cars. Once, a homeless woman told her to be careful. The woman must have thought she looked like a target, Williams realized.
As Metro’s board finds itself torn over restoring late-night train service, one solution being discussed is what the Florida transit agency chose when it wanted to operate for more hours without spending a lot of money.
Instead of running buses for earlier and later hours, PSTA started offering low-income workers the option of paying $9 on top of the $11 fee for a monthly bus pass.
In return, workers like Williams get 25 free ride-sharing trips a month through Uber, Lyft or three other companies — enough for Williams to take Uber or Lyft to pre-dawn shifts and the regular bus home. PSTA subsidizes $5 of every ride-sharing trip to and from a bus stop for people who live far from bus routes, said Brad Miller, the agency’s CEO.
In December, 158 people were signed up, said PSTA senior planner Bonnie Epstein.
Miller can tell what’s at stake from seeing who has signed up for the program this year, he said: “The people signed up aren’t the same ones who were signed up last year.” He’s heard from riders who say the program allowed them to stay in their jobs — and they’ve been promoted to better shifts where they can take regular buses.
In Washington, Metro board members are at an impasse over resuming later service hours for trains: midnight Monday through Thursday, 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and midnight on Sunday.
Metro in 2016 shortened the hours to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday; and 11 p.m. on Sunday, too early for a lot of people who work late.
At a Metro public forum on Feb. 5, some riders complained that trains also don’t run early enough.
David Vanek said he’s supposed to be work serving breakfast at downtown D.C. hotel at 5 a.m. — but Metro stations open at 5 on weekdays. So he has to drive from his home in Silver Spring and spend “hundreds of dollars a month” on parking.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city’s representatives on Metro’s board are pushing for longer hours.
Virginia’s delegates on the Metro board oppose the later service, saying they worry about the price tag — up to $45 million. They, as well as the Federal Transit Administration, also warn that later hours will cut into time to repair Metro’s tracks as the system plays catch-up after years of neglect.
Board member Christian Dorsey, a Virginia representative, says he wants to find a cheaper way to handle the additional 600,000 rides Metro says it would gain by fully restoring service. Even if Metro were to give people a $10 ride-sharing subsidy, those 600,000 trips would cost Metro only $6 million, a fraction of the cost of restoring the later hours, he said.
It’s unclear, though, exactly how much a program similar to the one in Pinellas County would cost in the Washington area and whether Metro’s board would be willing to pay for it. Though much smaller in scale than Metro, PSTA has subsidized 89,811 rides since the program started in 2016, using $1.45 million in state grants and $161,000 in matching funds.
Metro’s board has asked agency staff to research partnerships with ride-sharing companies, and under a proposed plan reported Wednesday by The Washington Post, Metro would subsidize up to $3 per ride on Uber, Lyft or other on-demand trips for late-night workers.
Nationally, several transit agencies are deciding to work with the companies, despite fears that ride-sharing companies are siphoning riders from public transportation. Transit agencies are increasingly seeing ride-sharing as a way to deal with issues like what’s known as the first-and-last-mile problem of getting people who live far from bus or train routes to stops and stations, said Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research.
Meanwhile, the idea is working for Williams. She recently took an Uber to work before the sun rose. She’s able to pick up more shifts now, she said.
“It’s just helped being able to get my bills paid,” she said. “I mean, I’m still behind because of the pay scale, but I’m not behind as much.”
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