Metro riders struggle with severe service interruptions at McPherson Square after a train derails during the early morning commute near the Smithsonian Metro station in August. (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

After a year of chronic service disruptions and plummeting customer satisfaction, Metro wants to make amends with a new budget that includes a series of initiatives aimed at appeasing riders and attracting new ones.

The transit agency’s proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 tackles the dwindling approval ratings and declining ridership with investments in faster Metrobus service, fare policy changes, and the creation of “better” fare passes that could potentially draw new ridership.

The proposed budget has no fare hikes, maintains existing service levels and keeps local subsidies flat, according to documents to be presented to its board of directors Thursday.

Although Metro ridership has been dropping in recent years due to growth in telecommuting, reductions in federal transit benefits, and competition in transportation options in the region, Metro officials admit the recent declines are linked to customer dissatisfaction, particularly with unreliable service. In the past five years, average weekday rail ridership has declined by about five percent

The Washington Post's transportation reporter Dana Hedgpeth gives us the backstory to the much-maligned mass transit system. The bad news? The long waits in the tunnel aren't going away anytime soon. The good news? Metro is faster than you thought. (Brad Horn/The Washington Post)

Under one of the initiatives included in the budget,  morning peak fares would begin at 6 a.m. instead of at the system’s 5 a.m. opening. Metro also would create a “same station entry/exit grace period” to end its policy of charging riders who enter a station and exit it within minutes.

By introducing a 15-minute grace period, Metro would lose revenue of close to $200,000 monthly or about $2 million annually, according to the staff presentation.  But it could also do away with growing complaints from angry riders who decide to exit a packed station during a breakdown only to find out they have been charged the base rail fare. Currently, riders are charged $1.75 in off-peak hours and $2.15 in peak times when they enter and exit at the same station within minutes.  Riders tend to do this when there is a breakdown, platforms are crowded, and the system is experiencing a meltdown.

[Metro rider approval plunges]

The Riders’ Advisory Council, a group that advises Metro on riders’ concerns, recommended that Metro credit the fare back to customers who make a same-station entry/exit within a short period of time. According to Metro, on most weekdays there are a few thousand such transactions, and same-station entry/exit transactions are about 0.5 percent of all rail transactions in a month. But “on a day with severely impacted service the figure may rise to 10,000 or more,” the agency said.

In an effort to increase ridership, Metro is proposing to create two fare passes: one targeting university students and another that could be used in its bus and rail systems. Both would help attract new riders and encourage existing riders to take more trips, Metro said. The University Pass would offer unlimited rides on Metrobus and Metrorail at discounted rates to full-time students at accredited colleges. Metro estimates it could grow its customer base and revenue by providing a product targeting the region’s estimated 225,000 students.  The agency says it has been working with American University ahead of a pilot. Under the program, Metro would issue students a semester or annual UPass with unlimited rides.

The other option under consideration is a 7-day pass good for use on bus and rail.

 

Metro says the proposed budget also invests in a signal prioritization program to bring faster Metrobus service in the agency’s six primary corridors– Leesburg Pike, Georgia Avenue, 14th Street, 16th Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Wisconsin Avenue.  The agency says it plans to have 8 percent of its bus fleet– or 126 buses– activated for signal priority. Metro has been working with transportation agencies across the region to set up a signal priority program that will give priority to buses at some intersections, making it easier for them to stay on schedule.

In addition, Metro says it plans to boost enforcement of fare payment by dedicating a team of six Metro Transit Police officers to a 60-day assignment to reduce fare evasion on buses and trains. The initiative follows findings by federal authorities that fare evasion is a problem that contributes to assaults on bus drivers.

The officers will ride on buses where fare evaders are a problem and will focus on 12 Metro stations where fare evasion is a problem. The 12 targeted stations are: Naylor Road, Anacostia, Navy Yard, Gallery Place, Pentagon, Brookland, Congress Heights, Minnesota Avenue, Deanwood, Tenleytown, Takoma Station and Judiciary Square.

The proposed budget will be introduced Thursday during the first board meeting of the agency’s new general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, who took the helm of the struggling agency on Monday.

[Metro chief’s first day included a field trip, briefings, employee orientation]

Just months ago, Metro’s financial managers had talked about the possibility of fare hikes, but the proposed budget focuses on cutting administrative expenses instead. According to the budget presentation, there will be no budgeted wage increases and Metro will identify 20 positions or vacancies that could be cut for a savings of $2 million. “These will include only nonsafety sensitive positions or vacancies over 12 months,” according to the documents.

The spending plan includes $1.7 billion for day-to-day operations, which represents a 3 percent decrease over this year. Metro is expected to continue debate over how to fill the gap between rising expenses and flat revenue because of stagnant ridership. Public hearings and board discussion about the proposal will take place during the winter and spring, before the budget is approved.