Neil O. Albert is executive director of DowntownDC BID, former deputy mayor and former city administrator. He previously served on WMATA’s board of directors.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s board of directors’ vote Thursday to raise Metrorail fares and cut service accelerates the downward spiral in regional transit service.
WMATA has characterized its fiscal 2018 budget as one of “shared sacrifice” among the agency, WMATA’s funding jurisdictions and riders. I commend the board’s efforts in securing additional subsidies from WMATA’s member jurisdictions but remain concerned about fare increases further damaging WMATA’s fragile ridership. Any fare increase or cut to service will drive away riders.
Average daily rail ridership has fallen from a peak of 750,000 daily trips in 2009 to just 624,000 trips in October and is projected to fall even further. Riders have lost late-night service for at least two more years, and under the fiscal 2018 budget, they will face a fare increase.
Instead of reactive annual fare increases to close budget gaps, WMATA must offer attractive services for regular riders and demonstrate the value of those services.
WMATA should expand and improve the existing unlimited-ride SelectPass program by eliminating barriers to purchasing an unlimited-ride SelectPass with SmartBenefits and allow free transfers between bus and rail.
WMATA should continue partnering with agencies that control local streets to implement bus priority projects, including bus-only lanes, queue jumps, transit signal priority and other projects that help public transit operate more efficiently.
New York City rolled out two key fare policy changes: unlimited-ride passes in 1998 and free bus-to-rail transfers in 1997. Combined, these policies dramatically increased subway and bus ridership. Between 1996 and 2005, subway ridership in New York increased 31 percent, and bus ridership increased 53 percent.
Unlimited-ride passes would make Metro an indispensable part of city life, not just a commuting option.
Better bus service also doesn’t have to mean bigger budgets.
Houston recently redesigned its bus network to emphasize frequent services along key corridors. It experienced a 6.8 percent increase in transit ridership, including big gains during off-peak hours, all without increasing service.
San Francisco changed its fare policy to allow all-door boarding and proof-of-payment for all Muni buses. These small changes shortened the time vehicles are stopped as passengers board and disembark, increased bus speeds and reduced fare evasion.
Initiatives such as these would help WMATA address falling ridership and enable “right-sizing” of service head on. Instead of partially addressing these issues in an attempt to close a budget gap, WMATA can evaluate them on merit and work toward meeting the system’s potential and fulfilling its role as the backbone of our transportation system.
WMATA has two key tasks that must be completed before the next budget is approved: WMATA must articulate a plan to address systemic financial challenges, and it must aggressively compete to win riders back. Annual crises distract the region from addressing the system’s core challenges.
The agency’s systemic financial issues mean the board will likely face large budget deficits every year going forward. This challenge is compounded by escalating costs and decreased revenue from SafeTrack.
Solving WMATA’s long-term financial problems will require a combination of a dedicated funding source and a restructuring of the organization.
I understand the immediate challenge of balancing WMATA’s budget, but raising fares and cutting service when ridership is falling isn’t sustainable.
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