The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Metro plan would subsidize Uber and Lyft fares to fill late-night service gap

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Metro would subsidize Uber, Lyft or other on-demand trips for late-night workers under a plan the agency is proposing to the ride-hail services.

The subsidized trips — up to $3 per ride — are meant to make up for the loss of late-night service but would be available only to workers, not to people out enjoying entertainment or events.

Metro, which has been criticized by riders and D.C. officials for wanting to extend its moratorium on late-night service another year and use the extra time to catch up on maintenance, is expected to issue a request for proposals soon that will outline its goals for the estimated $1 million program.

Metro would subsidize the fare for an Uber, Lyft or other ­on-demand trip within the transit agency’s service area, provided it took place between midnight and 4 a.m. and the passenger was traveling home or to work. The transit agency would subsidize up to 10 trips per person per week.

Metro says it doesn’t know what to do about falling ridership. An internal report lays out exactly what to do.

The program, Metro says, would target late-night workers in fields such as hospitality and health care. Riders would register for the program; the ride-hailing companies would bill Metro for the subsidized costs, and data would be used to validate the riders’ travel.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said the request for proposals “is currently being drafted” and is expected to be issued next month, though it could be released earlier.

More information on the program was captured in a slide prepared as part of a presentation for local officials and obtained by The Washington Post. The program, however, is still in the planning stages, and details have not been finalized.

The deal would be unusual for Metro because Uber and Lyft are widely believed to be siphoning customers from the struggling transit system with their ­investor-subsidized fares — pooled rides can cost as little as $3 in the District. Such an arrangement would be viewed by many as Metro’s ceding a portion of its traditional service, and its customers, to its competitors.

Though other transit agencies across the country have entered into partnerships with ride-hailing services, Metro, the country’s second-busiest subway, would be the highest-profile among them.

Metro argues that the number of late-night trips taken, particularly during the 2-to-3 a.m. window, do not justify keeping the 117-mile, 91-station system open. Using past ridership data, the agency projects that fewer than 1,000 trips would be taken systemwide in that period on weekends.

The transit agency declined to comment further on the proposal, pointing to past statements by General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld. Wiedefeld told The Post in October that while Metro riders take more than 600,000 daily trips, those rides are largely concentrated during the morning and evening rush hours, so the agency could take the loss of allowing ride-hailing companies to step in on late-night service.

“We can move thousands and thousands of people in a very short period of time through very congested roadways — that’s what we can do,” Wiedefeld said then. “But maybe Uber, Lyft is a better solution for late-night service.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) strongly opposes the idea, however, preferring that the system resume closing at 3 a.m. on weekends and at midnight on weekdays.

“While we always welcome these types of fresh ideas and others like jet packs to replace bus bridges and cryptocurrency to replace SmarTrip cards, let’s keep the focus where it ought to be: Metro fulfilling its commitment to restoring late-night hours,” John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff, said in a statement.

Metro declined to respond to the remark.

Details of the registration system, including the method for limiting the program to late-night workers in the industries Metro is targeting, have not been worked out. But the transit agency said that taxi services would be eligible to bid on the contract, and that further, it does not view Uber and Lyft as its rivals.

“We don’t consider them competitors, for one — and this is about our customers, who would pay less for a trip,” Ly said. “The provider would receive the same amount they otherwise would.”

However, there are concerns about the precedent being set by a public transit agency as big as Metro turning customers over to a private competitor — particularly if the arrangement turns out to be long term.

“If this program is intended to be limited to the time until the previous late-night hours are reinstated, and there is a clear plan for when those hours will be reinstated, it can work as a partial stopgap,” said Katherine Kortum, chair of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council. “It doesn’t seem like a viable long-term solution.” She added that the $3 pledged subsidy would be unlikely to bring costs down to the level of typical train or bus fares.

But Metro based its concept at least partially on programs elsewhere that provide subsidies for first-mile, last-mile connections or replacement transit service.

In a similar program, the Detroit Department of Transportation last year entered into a late-night pilot with Lyft to fill gaps in the city’s bus system, offering $7 credits to riders on certain routes. (The city does not have a subway.) And the Transportation Authority of Marin in California has seen some success offering $5 discounts on Lyft Line rides to and from commuter rail stations in that region, which is in the San Francisco Bay area. (The passenger pays the first $2 of the fare so that the program does not compete directly with transit fares.)

Derek McGill, planning manager with TAM, said the program, with an initial budget of $70,000, has provided more than 6,000 rides in its first year. It is available to the general population and is available during the commuter rail system’s service hours. But unlike the plan proposed by Metro, it aims to generate ridership and link users to rail and transit connections, not replace trips.

“The people who are using transit — if they need a quicker way or something goes wrong, this is sort of a stopgap that can fill in,” he said. “We’re not trying to replace or supplement the exact transit services that some areas are providing.”

Beyond connecting travelers to transit service, McGill said, the program allows the agency to better understand trip patterns and travel to and from stations so that it can provide improved connections to transit.

UNITE HERE Local 25, a hospitality union representing about 7,500 workers in the D.C. region, seized on the Metro plan as a “PR stunt.”

“Local 25 is deeply skeptical of [Metro’s] reported plan to subsidize ride-sharing instead of re­instating extended service hours,” the union said in a statement. “That [Metro’s] plan essentially proposes to privatize a part of our public transportation infrastructure in the process only adds insult to injury.”

The union argues that the plan would do little to ease the burden on workers who have to make long and expensive trips to localities around the region, often commuting to and from job centers in the District and elsewhere.

The Metro board’s safety committee is set to take a preliminary vote Thursday on keeping its early closing hours for another year.

D.C.’s Metro board members will move to restore late-night service beginning July 1

The agency contends that it needs at least another year of the early closings that began with its year-long SafeTrack maintenance program and were extended by two years. Metro leaders say the additional time is critical for a program of preventive maintenance, which has an estimated five-year timetable, according to board documents.

The Metro board chairman, Jack Evans, who is also a D.C. Council member, said he will oppose the extension in Thursday’s committee vote, though he is expected to be the lone no vote. Board members representing Maryland, Virginia and the federal government have expressed support for extending the moratorium, citing Metro’s ongoing need to perform preventive maintenance to avert a return to habits that prompted its safety crisis in 2015.

“I think the District’s position is very clear: We want the late-night service back,” said Evans (D), whose Ward 2 council constituency has more of the city’s hotels and restaurants than any other. “So there’s no need to do Uber and Lyft and all that stuff. . . . Even if it’s paid for by Metro, people want to leave their job, get on the subway and get home. And so it’s really a matter of that, or not that.”

The debate is a rare instance of discord between the Metro board chairman and the transit agency’s chief executive.

FTA: Metro to suffer financial hardship if it restores late-night service

Metro has proposed several alternative scenarios aimed at fulfilling the District’s request for more service, while allowing added “track time” to catch up on maintenance.

The scenarios, which have not risen to the level of formal proposals, are:

Reverting to 2016 operating hours: Monday-Thursday: 5 a.m.-midnight; Friday: 5 a.m.-3 a.m.; Saturday: 7 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sunday: 7 a.m.-midnight.

Scenario A: Monday-Thursday: 5:30 a.m.-midnight; Friday: 5:30 a.m.-3 a.m.; Saturday: 9 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sunday: 10:30 a.m.-midnight

Scenario B: Monday-Thursday: 5 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Friday: 5 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday: 7 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday: 7 a.m.-11:30 p.m.

Maintaining current operating hours: Monday-Thursday: 5 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Friday: 5 a.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday: 7 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sunday: 8 a.m.-11 p.m.

Metro has estimated that a return to 2016 operating hours would result in a 5 percent drop-off in on-time performance — a signal that the agency does not think it can handle that level of service.

Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration and incoming Metrorail Safety Commission have both warned the agency that if it returns to late-night service before its maintenance backlog has been taken care of, it will face consequences.

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