There also are questions about how to make up an $8 million shortfall in the operating budget, how to balance disparities in a fare increase that would affect long-distance riders hardest and what to do about a projected $40 million in lost revenue this year from fare evasion.
“This is again managing lots of variables, and it’s one of the things we are doing to increase ridership,” Wiedefeld said. “It meets the demand out there.”
The budget proposal, presented to the board for the first time Thursday, would keep the system open until midnight Mondays through Thursdays and 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, extending service for the first time since hours were curtailed in 2016.
The hours were cut to give workers more time to catch up on decades of neglected maintenance following chronic safety lapses, service disruptions and federal scrutiny. Now, after hundreds of millions of dollars in track repairs, a massive station platform rebuilding project and the replacement of half of Metro’s aging fleet with new state-of-the-art rail cars, officials say the agency has turned a corner. Wiedefeld said weekendridership in September was up 15 percent over the same month last year.
The plan would increase the base peak fare a dime, hitting riders traveling more than six miles the hardest, and would cost the average rider about 22 cents more per trip. Weekend fares would be a flat $2 — less than what more than 70 percent of weekend travelers pay now. Wiedefeld also has proposed eliminating the $1.50 bus-to-rail transfer fee, a change riders have long requested.
While Metrobus fares would not increase, riders without a preloaded SmarTrip card would pay a quarter surcharge to load cash on their cards aboard buses. In addition, nine yet-to-be-named bus routes that are among the least used, according to Metro, would be eliminated from the 325-route Metrobus system.
The later service hours, however, remained the most talked-about of the changes, a shift that was especially welcome in the District. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council members have repeatedly pushed for the later hours, saying the reduced late-night service has hurt service workers who have limited transportation options. Wiedefeld’s proposal meets them halfway, restoring four of the eight hours that had been cut.
“We are all hopeful that Metro will continue to progress on safety, reliability, and capacity,” Deputy Mayor Lucinda Babers said in a statement. “By partially returning late-night rail service in the new budget proposal, Metro is acknowledging that our system must stay open as late as our region does.”
Laura Mason, Metro’s maintenance and engineering chief, said that the plan will require more track work during service hours and that riders should brace for more single-tracking after 10 p.m. weekdays. Entire stations may need to close down for brief work, too. In such cases, Metro would provide shuttle service.
“Overall, though, we believe this is a significant benefit to our riders as the majority of the stations most nights will still have this increase in service, even if some face single-tracking,” she said.
Katherine Kortum, a member of the Riders’ Advisory Council and a senior program officer at the Transportation Research Board, said she found Wiedefeld’s proposal largely positive. She favors the later hours and said the waiver of the transfer fee was especially welcome because transit systems should not “compete” against one another.
“I have some minor quibbles, but as a whole,” she said, “I hope it goes through.”
Restoring some late-night service will cost the transit authority about $6 million, and board member Pete K. Rahn, who also is Maryland’s secretary of transportation, questioned why his state should pay more than a third of the cost if the later hours will mainly benefit the District’s hospitality industry.
Board Chairman Paul Smedberg disputed Rahn’s assessment, saying the benefits of later service go “clearly beyond the borders of the District of Columbia.”
Missing from Wiedefeld’s plan is where the $8 million to fill the budget shortfall will come from. Wiedefeld said an expected surge in riders would bring in more revenue to help close the gap. But Rahn questioned relying on such a “tenuous” outcome.
Amid the budget discussion, board members also learned that fare evasion is projected to cost the agency at least $40 million in lost revenue this year. Fare-jumping on Metrobus has steadily risen since late 2017 and accounts for $29 million.
Metro said nine of the top 10 Metrobus routes for fare evasion are in the District and represent nearly 40 percent of all incidents.
Virginia and Maryland continue to categorize fare evasion as a crime, while the District has made it a civil offense punishable by fine. Metro’s report said that in the District there are no consequences if people choose not to pay, and no consequences for people who refuse to provide their true names or addresses when cited.
That did not sit well with Rahn, who said Metro should hold the District responsible for revenue lost because of fare evasion within its boundaries.
“It is inherently unfair to all of the customers who use the [Metro] system that do pay, that we allow this many people to evade the fares that should be paid,” Rahn said. “It’s clearly a conscious decision of the jurisdiction of D.C. to have no enforcement of fare evasion, and to me it is also only fair that the actual amount that is calculated to be evaded — which $40 million is likely to be low — should be allocated to the jurisdiction” where these are to occur.
“If the District of Columbia wants to have a system that encourages people to ride without paying a fare, the District of Columbia should be covering their share of those costs and vice versa,” Rahn said.
Metrobus is also losing revenue from having 15 routes in Northern Virginia shut down for more than two weeks because of a strike. More than 120 mechanics, utility workers and bus operators at the Cinder Bed Road bus garage went on strike Oct. 24, protesting their wages, benefits and work conditions. Metro has outsourced operations of the garage and 18 bus routes to Transdev, a multinational transit contractor.
Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and Transdev remain deadlocked with no sign of progress, according to union representatives. Still, Wiedefeld said Metro has no plans to intervene in the labor dispute, affecting the 8,500 Metrobus riders the transit authority estimates use the routes daily.
“It is very frustrating,” he said. “They need to get to an agreement.”
He said that because it is a contract disagreement, Metro will not enter discussions. As part of that, Transdev was required to provide a contingency plan that would keep service running in cases of a strike, but it has been unable to on the shutdown routes.
While Metro can fine Transdev, Wiedefeld said he did not think that the company had violated its contingency plan.