Washingtonians have soured on Metro, with chronic delays and shutdowns changing how more than 2 in 5 of them get around town, but they are not giving up on the beleaguered subway.
A slight majority supports a regionwide sales tax to boost funding for the transit system, with big majorities opposing service cuts and fare increases to raise the money it needs, according to a new Washington Post poll.
The survey of District residents finds 53 percent support a regional sales tax to fund Metro, making it the most popular of five proposals that are being weighed by local leaders to stabilize the system’s finances. Attitudes in Washington are similar to those in suburban Virginia and Maryland in separate Post polls this spring, where residents have expressed modest support for a sales tax and mixed or weak support for other options.
The D.C. poll finds the second-highest support — 47 percent — for increasing Metro funding from Maryland, Virginia and the District through tax increases or cutting other programs. Fewer residents, 38 percent, support a new property tax on buildings and homes with proximity to Metro stations, while 34 percent favor increasing fares and 19 percent support reducing the frequency of trains and buses.
The poll illustrates the extent to which Metro’s chronic safety and reliability issues and, more recently, its extensive rebuilding program, have upended riders’ routines and damaged the system’s image. More than half, 52 percent, now rate the subway system as “not so good” or “poor,” up from 20 percent who said so in a Post poll in 2013.
“The survey results are not surprising when you consider all that Metro and its riders have been through over the past few years,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “Where I’m focused is on what’s in front of us, as we advance our Back2Good program, retire bad rail cars, improve the infrastructure, and work to establish dedicated funding for this system.
“By almost every measure, Metro is a safer and more reliable system that it was just a few months ago, and we have every intention of remaining laser-focused on improving service and winning customers back,” Wiedefeld said.
SafeTrack, Metro’s year-long rehabilitation program that concludes Sunday, was geared toward restoring Metro’s track infrastructure to a state of good repair. Initiatives such as this year’s Back2Good program, meanwhile, aim to cut down on the frequency of rail-car-related disruptions, the cause of three in five delays.
More than 4 in 10 District residents — 42 percent — say delays and shutdowns in the past two years have changed the way they regularly get to work and around the city. The disruptions have been felt across different parts of the city and high- and low-income groups, but they are most common among African Americans younger than 40. A 57 percent majority of this group says Metro’s delays and shutdowns have led them to change how they typically get around town.
By the end of 2016, Metro’s average weekday ridership had dropped to 639,000 trips, more than 100,000 below the system’s 2009 peak. More recently, for the period from July 2016 through March, there was a 9 percent slide in rail ridership from the same span the previous fiscal year. Last July, with SafeTrack in full effect, the aggressive maintenance program combined with chronic reliability issues and other factors to deprive the rail system of one in five riders.
Support for a Metro sales tax is uneven across different parts of the city, and also ranges across racial lines and financial circumstances. Sixty-four percent of whites support a regional sales tax, while African American residents are split: 47 percent support a tax and 49 percent are opposed. And while support stands at 64 percent among those who say they are “getting ahead financially,” it dips to 50 percent among those who have just enough to maintain their standard of living and to 43 percent among those who are falling behind.
“When somebody starts talking about taxing me again, no,” said Jacquelyn Couser, 58, a Ward 7 resident who lives in Southeast. “It’s a no — it’s an absolute no. Raise the fares. Let the people who ride the system pay for the system.”
Couser said that as a single mother of four, she is saddled with student loans and finds it hard to keep up financially, even with her job as a psychiatric technician for the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health.
“Taxes kill me every year,” said Couser, who stopped riding Metro in 2009. She pointed to the District’s 5-cent plastic bag fee as an example of the high costs of living in the city.
Jim Pollock, 74, a Ward 3 resident who lives in Upper Northwest, said he understands the regressive nature of a sales tax, meaning those with lower incomes shoulder much of the burden. Still, he said, he favors a sales tax as the most effective way to raise the funds the system needs.
Wiedefeld has said the agency needs $15.5 billion over 10 years to keep the system “safe and reliable.” He has proposed $500 million a year in permanent dedicated funding from the region for equipment and maintenance.
Most elected officials and leaders agree the agency needs more money, but there’s no consensus on how to raise it.
“We’re used to taxes — like it or not,” said Pollock, who is retired and describes Metro as “terrific.” He’s opposed to the idea of a special property tax.
“I think that penalizes those people who live at a place [where they had] no idea there was going to be a Metro station there,” he said. “I don’t think they should bear a burden for the region.”
D.C. residents’ support for a regional sales tax is consistent with feelings in Northern Virginia, where the same share — 53 percent — of residents support such a measure, according to a May Washington Post-Schar School poll . The margin is closer in suburban Maryland, where residents stand 50 to 47 in favor of the tax in a March Washington Post-University of Maryland poll , within the survey’s margin of error .
A sales tax faces steep political hurdles in Virginia, however, with some Republicans decrying the proposal as a non-starter in a state with a GOP-controlled legislature. Some Marylanders, particularly in Prince George’s County, also have reservations about the idea, arguing that the regressive nature of the sales tax more acutely affects lower-income residents.
Fare increases are deeply unpopular as a means to ease financial woes — opposed by margins of 30 percentage points in the District and 40 points in Maryland. Northern Virginians are more receptive to the idea but still reject it by a 10-point margin. Reducing train and bus frequency, meanwhile, is the least popular proposal in the District, with 78 percent of residents opposing it, joining 71 percent of suburban Marylanders and 69 percent of suburban Virginians.
The polls also illustrate dramatic deterioration in Metro’s image across the Washington area. In 2013, about 7 in 10 residents in the District, suburban Maryland and Virginia rated the Metro system as “good” or “excellent.” This year, fewer than half of residents in each give Metro positive marks, with negative ratings of the system more than doubling.
On the sales tax issue, support varies by ward — 70 percent support it in Northwest Wards 1 and 3, as do 59 percent in Wards 2 and 6 from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, and half of residents of Ward 4, positioned at the District’s northern corner. But support falls to 37 percent in Ward 5 in Northeast, and in Wards 7 and 8, 41 percent support a dedicated sales tax while 56 percent oppose it.
Divisions in support for the Metro sales tax across wards track closely with racial and income differences across the city, but the poll finds that race, geography and financial standing each factor in support for the measure.
“We’ve got enough taxes in the District that we don’t have any representation about,” said
Shirley Holliday Estes, 69, a resident of Ward 7. “And you’re going to ask me to pay for a sales tax that’s going to benefit everybody else, but we don’t have representation in Congress? So no, I don’t want no sales tax.”
Pollock, however, said the region that has been so mindful of the decline in service needs to give Metro a chance to heal.
“If you are going to be critical of Metro because of its safety features, then you’re going to have to let Metro one way or another correct those if it is of the mind,” he said. “Its leadership has recently seemed to be of the mind.”
The Washington Post poll was conducted June 15-18 among a random sample of 901 adults living in the District, reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus four percentage points.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.