Metro says customers who experience delays of 30 minutes or more are significantly more likely to abandon the system or ride less frequently. They say the program, which could be launched as early as Jan. 26, is an expression of their confidence in the reliability of the system and will provide a measure of accountability for management.
"We want to show our customers that we're accountable for delivering reliable service," said Lynn Bowersox, assistant general manager for customer service.
While commending the aim of the proposal, board members expressed concerns at a meeting of the Safety and Service Delivery Committee, including the potential for fraud, the financial impact and the differing mechanisms for providing refunds to rail and bus riders.
Board member Keturah D. Harley asked why bus riders would have to fill out an online form to receive their refunds while rail riders would be reimbursed automatically. Bowersox said it was a matter of technology: Rail riders tap in and out of the system, making it easy to identify the length of their trips and whether they were subject to delays. Bus riders tap their SmarTrip cards only upon boarding.
Bowersox said bus riders would be able to fill out the online refund requests on their smartphones. Metro would cross-check the claims to determine whether they're consistent with bus disruptions — from mechanical failures to late dispatches.
Board member Christian Dorsey criticized Metro for proposing an initiative that could cost the agency $2 million to $3.5 million without subjecting it to scrutiny from the board's Finance Committee. Wiedefeld said that the staff estimates were based on the agency's data and that the program costs could be covered by Metro's existing budget.
And board member Tom Bulger said he was worried about riders trying to game the system.
"I'm concerned with fraud and abuse," he said, asking how Metro would prevent customers from abusing the program to gain refunds — by, say, camping out in a station for an extra 15 minutes.
Bowersox said Metro will seek to impose a monthly cap on how many refunds customers can receive.
She said the agency's MyTripTime program allows Metro to monitor customers' paths of travel.
"The data protects you from the false claims that might come in," she said.
If the program is approved at the board's Jan. 25 meeting, it would launch Jan. 26, staff said, and last through the calendar year. After that, it would be evaluated for renewal.
Bowersox responded to concerns that Metro might risk safety to meet service goals by effectively imposing a financial penalty on poor performance.
"Let me be absolutely clear," she said. "It has been true since the day the general manager first said it that safety trumps service here at Metro."
Metro officials said the proposal makes sense financially: The gesture of goodwill could win back enough riders to make up for revenue lost through reimbursed fares. But they did not have data on how many extra trips would need to be taken over the course of the year to make the refund program a financial net positive.
The Rush Hour Promise was one of several strategies floated at Thursday's board meeting to help engender confidence in the system — among riders and employees.
A group of transit experts convened by the American Public Transportation Association offered several solutions on how to cut the number of assaults against Metrobus operators, a growing problem. According to new Metro data, from last January to early December, there were 90 assaults on bus operators, up from 70 during the same period in 2016.
The APTA panel recommended that Metro lobby for higher legal penalties for people who attack or assault transit operators and said the agency should consider instituting "expectorant collection" — using DNA from saliva to identify someone who spits on a bus driver.
Metro recently started using transit police officers in training exercises with drivers. The officers use role-playing to teach drivers how to de-escalate conflicts and calm agitated or threatening passengers. The APTA panel praised the training and also urged Metro to establish formal procedures for suspending repeat offenders from its trains and buses.
"This is a tangible action that could mitigate risk immediately. It also has a deterrent effect," said panel member Ken Rotter, deputy general manager for bus administration at New Jersey Transit.
In other business, Metro officials expressed optimism about progress on one of Wiedefeld's major goals: securing dedicated funding for the agency.
There are separate proposals before the D.C. Council and Maryland and Virginia legislatures aimed at providing Metro with the $500 million a year in dedicated funding Wiedefeld says he needs. Metro is alone among big-city transit systems in its lack of a significant source of dedicated funding.
"I'm optimistic for the first time we may actually get this thing done," Metro board Chairman Jack Evans said.
Wiedefeld, typically more restrained, shared the board chairman's view.
"I think we're in a fairly good position, probably the best we've ever been in decades to try to deal with this issue," he said.