These proposals, among others included in the plan to be presented to the Metro board this week, are aimed at winning back riders who fled the system because of unreliable service and attracting new ones — such as families who might find the flat weekend fare appealing.
The budget also seeks to keep up with maintenance costs after expensive station overhauls, and appease D.C. leaders and the city’s growing ranks of young adults who have been clamoring for longer service hours.
To help pay for the changes, Wiedefeld, who outlined the plan in an interview with The Washington Post, has proposed a 10-cent increase in the base peak rail fare and increases based on trip length that will make an average trip about 22 cents more expensive. Metrobus fares would not increase for those using a SmarTrip card. Bus service would be more frequent on weekends — with more MetroExtra service weekdays. However, nine low-use Metrobus routes — which have not been disclosed — would be discontinued.
About 56 percent of Metro customers who use bus and rail would experience a fare increase under Wiedefeld’s plan; more than 70 percent of all rail-only riders would pay more, the agency said.
While safety continues to trump service among Wiedefeld’s priorities, his budget proposal emphasizes addressing the greatest desires and complaints of customers.
“The number one priority is further improvement of our service and winning back riders,” Wiedefeld said.
The $1.98 billion operating budget represents a 2 percent increase over the current fiscal year. Spending would grow despite a projected $3.6 million revenue loss because of the proposed flat fare and later closing hours. Subsidies from the jurisdictions that fund the transit agency would increase 3 percent — the maximum allowed by law — leaving an $8.4 million funding gap that needs to be filled through cost savings, Wiedefeld said.
It’s unclear where those savings would come from.
Metro leaders see fiscal 2021 as a turning point. After a turbulent decade marked by tragic accidents and costly mishaps, ridership losses and chronic service disruptions, things are showing signs of stabilizing. Ridership is up 1.6 percent so far this year compared with last year — weekday ridership in September was up 7 percent — while track-related delays have decreased by 78 percent, the transit agency reported.
Restoring some late-night service is viewed as a next step. Late hours were curtailed in 2016 so more time could be devoted to after-hours track work and maintenance.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council members have repeatedly called for restoring the hours. In September, Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sent Metro a letter timed specifically to catch Wiedefeld’s attention before he drafted his budget, and they reminded him that the agency’s board had set a goal of restoring late-night service. They said the shortened service hours hurt late-night and early-morning service workers who are among D.C. residents who can least afford other transportation options. They also noted the longer operating hours of other big city subway systems across the United States.
While Wiedefeld’s proposal does not fully restore service hours to pre-2016 levels, he said work crews have become efficient enough that they can give back some of the time. But they cannot afford to expand service hours any more without jeopardizing safety, he said.
“It’s going to be based on physically what we’re going to be able to do,” Wiedefeld said.
The proposed changes to the fare structure include a mix of increases and cuts to encourage more ridership. The dime increase in the base fare would hit commuters, charged only during the “peak” hours of 5 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays.
Since Metro fares are tied to distance traveled, riders traveling more than six miles would be hit hardest. Those passengers account for 46 percent of peak-period riders.
The maximum peak fare would increase $1 to $7.
Wiedefeld said a flat $2 weekend fare, as well as an increase in the number of trains operating on Sundays, would lead to more riders. On average, 71 percent of weekend riders pay more than $2 a trip now, Metro officials said.
Metrobus fares would not increase because Wiedefeld said he acknowledges that the transit system is losing customers because of slow or delayed service. The transit agency said growing traffic congestion in the Washington region is mostly to blame, and it is studying ways to configure routes to shorten trips.
But to keep fares flat, Metro would require all bus passengers to use preloaded SmarTrip cards. Onboard cash loading would come at a surcharge of 25 cents. The reason: Cash loading is the No. 1 reason buses hold at a stop longer, Metro officials said.
Metro is aggressively pushing customers to use SmarTrip cards, and Wiedefeld’s plan reduces the cost of a seven-day unlimited Metrobus pass to $12 from $15.
For the first time, the proposed budget also includes a $3 million contingency fund for special events. Metro for years has depended on sporting franchises, event promoters or business sponsors to pay the cost of any additional service for special events such as the Marine Corps Marathon or postseason play by the city’s professional sports teams. In cases where no sponsor can be found, or big events such as a presidential inauguration, Metro eats the cost and hopes to make it up through fare revenue or cost savings elsewhere.
It didn’t become an issue until the Washington Nationals’ recent playoffs and World Series run. Many of the nationally televised games ended after Metro’s normal closing time, and the transit system stayed open on a limited basis after the games to get fans home. Metro officials said the Nationals were asked to contribute to the expense but did not do so. During the World Series, Pepco stepped in as a sponsor, while Xfinity sponsored extra service for the crowds that attended Saturday’s national championship parade.
Metro has estimated that it costs about $100,000 an hour to operate the system outside of regular service hours. Extra service for the entire Nationals championship chase up to the World Series cost Metro about $500,000, not including the revenue made from fares, he said.
Wiedefeld’s budget will be presented to the board’s finance committee Thursday. It will undergo weeks of discussion and public hearings before it is finalized.