The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poll: Metro’s reputation is improving, but that doesn’t mean more are riding

(J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Metro’s reputation in the region has improved dramatically in the past two years and has almost reached the positive levels it enjoyed before a fatal smoke incident in 2015, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll.

The results suggest that the transit agency’s intensive efforts to upgrade the system’s performance, begun in 2016, have restored much of the public confidence lost in earlier years amid chronic problems with safety and reliability, a view echoed in follow-up interviews with several poll respondents.

A 68 percent majority of Washington-area residents rate Metrorail positively, up from 42 percent in 2017. In 2013, 71 percent had positive ratings of the subway system.

The survey also finds that Washington-area residents strongly support building a second Metro tunnel between Virginia and the District to ease a major system choke point, and a smaller majority favors raising fares to fund major improvements to the subway.

[Read the full poll results ]

“It’s a vote of confidence in the system,” said Stephen S. Fuller, professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, which co-sponsored the poll with The Washington Post.

“I would attribute it to the new [7000-series rail] cars, which are bright and clean. The on-time service is better. The repair work has been professionally accomplished,” Fuller said.

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

But the news isn’t all good. The survey finds that 40 percent of residents say they ride Metro less than they did five years ago, while 16 percent say they ride it more often, a finding that corresponds with transit agency figures showing a substantial drop in ridership.

That raises questions about whether the system’s improved reputation will lead to a comparable increase in ridership. People are slow to change their habits, analysts said, and they have more transportation options today than they did even a few years ago, with ride-share, bike-share and scooters.

Among those who say they are using Metrorail less, more than half cite either a specific criticism of the subway or their preference for driving or another form of transportation. Just over 1 in 3 say they ride less because of a change in a work or living situation.

Despite the ridership concerns, the substantial jump in the public’s ratings of the system offers evidence that Metro’s rehabilitation efforts are having their desired effect.

Beginning in spring 2016, the agency undertook an accelerated repair program known as SafeTrack, aimed at packing three years of maintenance into a single year. That was followed by Back2Good, which focused on reducing delays caused by track and rail car problems.

General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who took over the agency in November 2015, ordered the projects after Carol I. Glover, 61, of Alexandria, died and scores of passengers were injured when their Yellow Line train became stranded outside L’Enfant Plaza station as the tunnel filled with smoke on Jan. 12, 2015.

Metro approves budget with rail service expansions, no fare hikes.

The transit agency also is close to completing the introduction of its newest rail cars, the 7000-series, and will soon accept bids for its next-generation cars.

The Post-Schar School poll finds Washingtonians’ ratings of Metro are positive but not glowing, with 57 percent of area residents calling the system “good” while 11 percent call it “excellent.” Negative reviews include 16 percent who called it “not so good” and 6 percent who called it “poor.” (Others never use Metro or had no opinion.)

Metro’s ratings are up substantially from surveys in 2017, when the results were: 5 percent rated it “excellent,” 37 percent “good,” 27 percent “not so good” and 22 percent “poor.”

The latest survey finds at least two-thirds of residents in the District, Maryland and Virginia suburbs rate Metro positively. In the District and Maryland suburbs, ratings recovered to be as favorable as they were in 2013. In suburban Virginia, impressions have improved but are still slightly below those of 2013.

Among people who have ever ridden Metro, 26 percent say the system has improved in the past two years, while 18 percent say it has gotten worse. The largest share — 47 percent — say it has remained the same.

Regular riders are most likely to report positive changes. Among those who take Metro a few times a week or more often, 44 percent say the system has gotten better in the past two years, while 37 percent say it’s stayed the same, and 18 percent think it has gotten worse.

D.C. resident Frederic Schwartz, a lawyer who lives in Foggy Bottom and regularly uses all six rail lines, praised the transit agency for acting to fix an aged system.

“The general service has been improving. The new cars are excellent,” Schwartz said. “The head of the Metro is realistic about the problems and is attempting to solve them.”

Darrin Smrchek, a biotech company employee who lives in Olney, Md., agrees that the system is better today, although he uses it less because he doesn’t go downtown as often as he did when he was single.

“The overall cleanliness of the trains had been declining,” said Smrchek, who typically rides the Red Line. “I think the service itself has improved. I haven’t had any delays or problems whenever I’ve used it.”

But Coleia Grimes of Damascus, Md., has been disappointed since she started riding Metro two years ago — mostly on the Red Line — to attend Catholic University in the District, where she is studying social work.

“In the course of that two years, we’ve had to empty the train on multiple occasions and wait for another one,” Grimes said. “It’s just too expensive. I’m paying $6 one way. . . . We’re always waiting at a station. It’s just too much.”

Grimes keeps riding, she said, because otherwise she has “to sit in an hour, hour-and-a-half worth of traffic.”

The transit agency says that last year, on-time performance for the rail system reached the highest level in seven years. This year, in an effort to show that it stands by its service, the agency began offering fare refunds for rush-hour trips delayed by 10 minutes or more.

The D.C. region enacts a permanent funding system for Metro.

Nevertheless, in March the agency reported that in the second quarter of fiscal 2019, ridership hit a new low, sinking to fewer than 600,000 average weekday trips for the first time since 2000.

The poll asked respondents who ride Metro less often than they did five years ago to say in their own words what led to the change. The 36 percent who volunteered a specific criticism of Metro itself included 8 percent saying the system was inconvenient, too far away or a hassle. Another 6 percent volunteered that it’s too expensive, while the same share said it takes too long or is often delayed; another 6 percent said it is unreliable or inconsistent.

The 21 percent of area residents who say they ride Metro less because they changed to other types of transportation include 16 percent who have switched to driving.

Even with the recovery in the subway’s image, it may be difficult to lure back riders.

“People’s habits are pretty sticky,” said Jeannette Chapman, deputy director of the Schar School’s Stephen S. Fuller Institute, which studies the region’s economy and is headed by Fuller. “It takes time to change your behavior . . . to catch up with your attitudes.”

When asked what Metro could do to get them to ride more often, majorities say they would probably use the system more if there were fewer breakdowns (61 percent), more-frequent trains (58 percent) and lower parking prices at Metro stations (53 percent). (The top response at 69 percent — having more convenient station locations — is impractical.)

D.C. resident Carolyn McCollum, a former government attorney and retired flight attendant who lives in Fort Lincoln, said Metro has improved but she rides it less because she now commutes to work in Elkridge, Md., which isn’t served by the subway.

A consultant told Metro what many riders already know: It’s the service that’s driving them away,

“They allowed it to go down and not keep up regular maintenance. Now that they have put a focus on improving it, it has gotten better,” McCollum said.

Johnny DiPasquale, a retired law enforcement officer who lives in Leesburg in Loudoun County, Va., said he has ridden Metro only once since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — mainly because of concern over safety.

In case of an emergency, he said, “I don’t want to be on the tube in darkness in D.C. and I can’t get out.” He also isn’t happy that the Metro system will soon be extended to his county.

Phase 2 of the Silver Line will extend Metro to Dulles International Airport and into eastern Loudoun.

“When I heard trains are coming to Loudoun, I said, ‘Oh boy, the crime rate is going to go through the roof,’ ” DiPasquale said, anticipating that criminals would use the subway to travel to the suburb.

He also said it’s often faster for him to drive to see relatives in Silver Spring, Md., than to take Metro — a trip that would require driving to Wiehle-Reston East Station on the Silver Line, taking the Silver Line downtown to Metro Center and transferring to the Red Line for the trip to Montgomery County.

“You can’t go from Leesburg to Silver Spring in under two hours by Metro,” DiPasquale said. “At eight o’clock at night, I can do it [by car] in 40 minutes.”

The poll finds that roughly three-quarters of area residents, 76 percent, favor “a major local government investment” to build a second Metro tunnel connecting Virginia and the District.

Metro has a long-term desire to add a tunnel alongside the existing one between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom stations carrying Orange, Blue and Silver Line trains. But the project would be costly, and no funding source has been identified.

The survey also finds that residents support “increasing fares to fund major improvements to the Metrorail system,” with 55 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed.

Support was strongest among those who commute by public transit and those under age 30.

“You’ve got to pay for what you get,” said Michael Gross, who uses Metro to commute most days from the District to his job at a homeless shelter in Reston, Va. When he used to drive, he said, “I had to pay tolls every day to go into Reston. It’s not out of the ordinary. It’s what has to happen in this area and other areas to get services done.”

Fuller said the willingness to pay more “is a reflection that the system is better now, and people are willing to pay more for better service, and the realization that the alternative to Metro is getting worse — more congestion, more time delay, higher parking costs, concern about gasoline prices.”

The Post-Schar School poll was conducted by telephone April 25 to May 2 among a random sample of 1,507 adult residents of the Washington area, with 75 percent of interviews conducted on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. Results from the full sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.