Neil O. Albert is president and chief executive of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District.
The region’s late-night economy became officially stymied on Monday when Paul J. Wiedefeld, the general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, did not recommend restoring late-night service for Metrorail as part of his fiscal 2020 budget proposal.
The news comes more than two years after WMATA cut late-night service, leaving many in the late-night service industry scrambling for alternative commuting options (or sleeping at their places of employment), and leaving consumers and businesses adjusting their entertainment schedules, and businesses cutting their operating hours.
The effect of late-night service cuts continues to hamper downtown D.C. and the region and remains one of the many reasons Metro continues to struggle to support the area’s economy despite great strides this past year.
Leaders in the region in March united to support funding for Metro’s capital needs, giving WMATA the dedicated capital funding source it has long desperately required. But off-peak and weekend service on the region’s largest public transportation system continues to suffer and ridership has declined, mainly related to seemingly perpetual maintenance.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, extensive maintenance work has eroded Metro’s usefulness to riders. SafeTrack disrupted commutes for an entire year (June 2016 to July 2017). Then, Red Line riders had to endure a 45-day shutdown this past summer for a “Major Improvement Project.” Major disruptions to the Blue and Yellow lines are scheduled for next summer in Virginia, including a months-long shutdown. In addition, ongoing maintenance projects continue to regularly disrupt weekend and off-peak commutes with single-tracking, with trains running every 24 minutes. Infrequent service is inherently unreliable for riders. The never-ending track work continues to make Metro virtually unusable on weekends.
This isn’t a surprise to Metro’s leadership. Last month, The Post obtained an internal Metro report detailing strategies to increase ridership and improve service. The document called for Metro to “provide quality service in an era of perpetual maintenance” by improving off-peak service and limiting the impact of track work. “We must strive to execute work efficiently” and “continue to learn from best practices used by peers to stage and execute capital work,” the report stated.
The recommendations from the report were clear: Metro must become more efficient at executing necessary maintenance while also improving late-night and off-peak service. Metro cannot afford to be solely a peak-hour commuting system; it must compete for riders at all times of the day.
The region hasn’t invested billions in the Metro system as a vanity project; we built this transit system so we could use it. The region built cities around Metro stations to serve as the centerpiece of our transportation system.
WMATA already offers the fewest service hours of any U.S. rapid transit system — only 127 hours a week. Metro also has the shortest weekday span of service — opening later and closing earlier — than any rapid transit system in the country. New York’s subway runs 24 hours — all day, every day. Philadelphia’s subway lines run all night on Fridays and Saturdays, plus it has all-night bus service when the subways are closed the rest of the week.
In remarks to the Montgomery County Council on Oct. 23, Wiedefeld suggested that Uber and Lyft could provide late-night transportation service for the region. Those services are flexible, but they are no substitute for public mass transit. Ride-hailing apps may be a potential alternative for some late-night patrons, but what about the restaurant and hospitality workers who power downtown’s late-night economy? Those workers can’t afford to commute via ride-hailing services every day.
How can WMATA support public transit and the late-night economy and the region? First, WMATA must restore late-night service.
In the absence of restoring late-night train service, WMATA first should create a “night owl” bus network to offer late-night service. Second, WMATA’s board of directors can fund the recommendations from WMATA’s staff to stabilize and increase ridership — Wiedefeld’s budget proposal does include better evening service, more Yellow and Red line trains and lower weekend fares — all possible with an extra $20 million. Third, the board can also set a dual mandate for the general manager to safely operate and maintain the system while simultaneously growing the system’s ridership.
At some point, WMATA must decide to meet or exceed the performance of peer public transit systems or risk putting our region’s economic growth in jeopardy.