One cost-saving scenario Metro staff presented last week in discussions about how the agency might balance its budget includes closing 20 low-ridership stations during off-peak hours; Maryland and Virginia have seven stations each and six are in the District.
But it didn’t take long before people began to notice a more troubling pattern: Many of the stations are clustered on the eastern ends of the Silver, Blue, Orange and Green lines, in Prince George’s County and east of the Anacostia River in the District.
In short, the stations appear to be clustered in communities of color.
Metro board member Malcolm Augustine, who represents Prince George’s was livid when the map of possible closures was presented at last week’s board meeting and asked staff for more information on the potential impact and savings.
“You’re making these kinds of proposals — they have a real chilling impact on people, without a doubt,” Augustine said after the meeting. “I mean, they’re going to make decisions about how they’re going to ride. I mean this is serious — you can’t just put information out there, something as serious as that, and not have some real numbers behind that that says this is what the impact is going to be. That’s what I’m deeply concerned with.”
Augustine said that he isn’t opposed to making tough decisions in budget season, but he needs more data and information than a map.
“Listen, I know it’s going to be some shared pain. We’re going to have to deal with that,” he said. “All I’m suggesting is, we be really clear and very cautious with what we’re doing because this is serious. This is very serious to people. You can’t just put things out there, talking about you’re going to close stations, and not have something to back it up.”
Other news outlets noted the unsavory optics. “D.C. Metro’s Latest Fix: Disinvest in the City’s Poor, Black Neighborhoods,” wrote CityLab, pointing out that “Metro’s own data show that Metrorail passengers who make less than $30,000 a year are more likely to ride during off hours.”
D.C. resident Justin Lini argued in Greater Greater Washington that even if the talk of the draconian cuts was meant to scare local politicians into providing more operating funds to Metro, the part-time closure proposal “sends a message to an entire portion of the region that’s already disadvantaged”:
But then WMATA publishes a document that says “We’ll just have to stop providing service to the black folks east of the Anacostia.” How am I supposed to support them when they’re using all of east of the river as a bargaining chip? At best this is a tone deaf distraction, but I can guarantee you most people east of the river aren’t going to see it that way.
— Justin Lini (@NE_DC_11) October 11, 2016
But Metro could have a worse problem than optics if it tries to implement the off-peak station closures.
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, transit agencies enacting such significant changes in service must prepare an “equity analysis” — a report that outlines the way that proposed changes would affect riders, and what types of riders would bear the greatest costs.
And there’s a long history of civil rights lawsuits and federal complaints aimed at transit agencies that disproportionately impacted poor communities or black communities with their service cuts. It happened in Los Angeles, five years ago. From the Los Angeles Times:
A federal agency has ordered Los Angeles County transportation officials to review whether cutting hundreds of thousands of hours in bus service over the last few years was unjust to riders.
The demand came in a scathing letter Monday from Federal Transit Administration chief Peter Rogoff that discusses “disturbing findings” of a civil rights investigation into policies and practices at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Those include Metro’s failure to conduct the proper analyses when implementing service changes over the last several years. In the letter, Rogoff chides Metro officials, saying they “should be well familiar with the requirements” because of many years of litigation and a previous consent decree over civil rights issues.
Of course, Metro officials are hoping they can solve their financial problems without such drastic measures– namely more money from the District, Maryland and Virginia to help cover the projected $275-million budget shortfall.
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.