David Alpert is founder and president of Greater Greater Washington. Neil O. Albert is executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District.
Since 2007, Metro has stayed open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and midnight on Sundays. This important service helps workers at late-night businesses return home, brings tax revenue to the District and jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia, and keeps people out of cars who aren’t in a condition to drive.
Many peer public-transit systems operate late hours or even 24/7 service. But Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld wants to close Metro at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays and 10 p.m. on Sundays. That is not in the best interest of the District and our region.
Wiedefeld argues this is necessary to provide time for vital repairs. We absolutely believe Metro needs to replace and repair its aging systems, and we want to be open-minded about any plan to do this. However, riders, businesses, local governments and others deserve to hear the logic and data behind this proposal and possible alternatives, such as closing only one line at a time. (There are only so many tracks workers can be fixing at once.)
If any rollback is necessary, Metro should study alternatives (for example, closing at 2 a.m. on weekends and delaying openings from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. on weekends and possibly from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. on Mondays) and thoroughly plan alternative service to ensure that workers and patrons can get where they need to go quickly, affordably and safely.
Late-night service has been a boon to the District and other jurisdictions in the region. The District’s restaurant and bar employment grew by 24,300 jobs between January 2000 and this July (from 27,900 to 52,200), and its annual tax revenue from restaurant and alcohol sales has grown by $261 million between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2015 (from $176 million per year to $437 million per year), according to calculations by the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District. The proposed cuts could reduce employment in the District by 2,000 to 4,000 jobs and reduce sales tax revenue by $8 million to $12 million per year. There would be a similar effect in Silver Spring, Bethesda, North Bethesda, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Crystal City and Alexandria.
If WMATA is responsible for lowering each jurisdiction’s tax revenue, then it is less likely that those jurisdictions will be enthusiastic in providing the new annual funding that WMATA clearly needs. Several downtown restaurants already report that their business has been negatively affected by Metro’s decision to temporarily end late-night service during the SafeTrack repair program. WMATA should conduct independent economic research to examine all of these issues.
One of our region’s greatest challenges is ensuring that everyone who wishes to live here can afford to do so. Metro, with its longer hours, makes it possible for many lower-income workers to commute from more affordable neighborhoods to nightlife economy jobs.
Running Metro is a tough task. The general manager must balance rush-hour, midday, evening and late-night services; the needs of suburbs and the center city; Democratic and Republican administrations; fares, payments from local governments, labor costs, capital needs and operating costs; and much more. We are excited to have Wiedefeld at the helm and believe he can restore the confidence and trust that have been lacking at Metro.
But rebuilding public trust requires transparency. We don’t want to see Metro repeat the patterns we saw in the recent past, when Metro seemed to say “just trust us,” inconvenienced riders for seemingly endless repairs and then turned out to be in even worse shape than before. Stakeholders need to understand the reasons this plan — and not another — is necessary.
So far, we’re not convinced. Metro’s two-track system has long been cited as the reason the system must close to do necessary maintenance. But Chicago’s Blue Line, Philadelphia’s PATCO transit, New Jersey and New York’s PATH, several New York City subway lines and many in other nations operate on two-track systems and offer around-the-clock service. And London is planning to expand its service to 24 hours. These systems perform maintenance by closing some segments of track while keeping others open.
If they can do it, why can’t we? We hope Metro can devise a clear, transparent and compelling plan to get out of its maintenance hole, develop a long-term sustainable budget, figure out a dedicated source of funding and maintain the best possible service. If it can, riders, businesses, advocates, elected officials and others will eagerly help Metro reach this goal.