Red Line riders may have felt left out in recent discussions about how to ease Metro’s problems on the other five lines. But a forum in Montgomery County on Wednesday swung the spotlight onto their troubled travels, and at the same time, illuminated some of the difficulties for all riders.
First, the Red Line: Here’s what these battered riders represent collectively.
“The Red Line is the artery that runs through the heart of our county. It simply must function well,” said Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who chairs the panel’s transportation committee.
The committee sponsored the forum in Rockville in part because, as Berliner said, “almost every day, including today, we read about or experience a problem with Metro.”
Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) described what she called the “Montgomery conversation”: Is Metro running? Can I get to my appointment on time? Do I have to take a car?
Kevin Reigrut, an assistant secretary of transportation in Maryland, was at the forum to represent the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). The administration, Reigrut said, is “looking for a system that is safe, a system that is reliable and a system that is accountable.”
A key problem: “We are losing the faith of riders on Metro.” If a rider decides not to board, that’s one more car on the road.
“The state of Maryland cannot afford to see Metro fail,” Reigrut said.
If you’ve been following transit news for a while, you’re probably waiting to hear the pitch that Metro needs more money. And there was some of that from officials and transit advocates at the forum.
“There isn’t a transit agency in this country that thinks it has enough money,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a research organization based in the District.
But there was also concern about commuters who need to keep more of their money. Metro’s “farebox recovery rate” is one of the highest in the country, meaning that riders cover most of the cost of their train trips while taxpayers pick up the rest.
“Keeping the fare rates at the level they are now should be a goal,” said Maryland Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery). “I think that’s part of the issue with ridership.”
It costs $5.90 to ride from Shady Grove to Metro Center at rush hour. Many of those Shady Grove riders need to add in $5.10 for all-day parking.
Here’s where we get to an underlying issue involving how Metro perceives Metro’s problems and the tasks ahead.
Metro officials tend to describe a rail system that is recovering after years of inadequate investment in equipment and safety.
“The goal is that by 2017, we will have caught up with the backlog” interim general manager Jack Requa said of Metro’s $5.5 billion rebuilding program.
Many Metro riders describe a system that is broken, after years of official statements about new programs meant to ensure safety and reliable service.
“Something is not right,” said Korman, who described himself as a daily Metro rider. “Anecdotally, there’s a problem on an almost daily basis.”
Statistically, things don’t look any better to Korman. Pointing to Metro’s quarterly reports on performance, he said, “WMATA’s own numbers show a system that is not improving. This treading water is occurring after years of investment.”
A similar gulf appears when the discussion turns to the decline in ridership during recent years. Transit managers and Metro board members often explain the decline by pointing to lingering effects of the recession and the cut in the transit benefit that subsidizes Metrorail commutes for federal employees.
When they look forward to a rebound in ridership, they often point to residential development close to stations.
Schank said Metro needs to change its way of thinking “to compete for passengers.”
Look at how they see the system, he said. “They don’t feel safe. They don’t feel they are being treated well. The service is unreliable. They can’t get to places they want to go.”
Metro, he said, needs new sets of statistics able to measure and highlight the broader range of daily service issues that riders care about and have the potential to “make the system more attractive to customers.”
Want to exchange views on what should matter to Metro? Join me at noon Monday for our weekly online discussion of local travel issues. Follow this link to the chat: live.washingtonpost.com/gridlock0727.html.
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