The changes represent Metro’s most aggressive efforts to lure riders back after a historic drop in ridership and fare revenue that has forced it to rely on federal aid. Although riders are returning, the slow pace of growth — with projections showing it could take years for ridership to hit pre-pandemic levels — is prompting Metro to reconsider how it operates before more downtown workers resume their dormant commutes this fall.
In his fare plan proposal, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said it would “better meet the needs of existing riders, reflect new travel patterns and lifestyle changes, as well as attract returning and new customers.” Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg called Thursday’s vote a first step toward crafting a fare plan that would accomplish goals of attracting riders and helping low-income customers.
“These incentives on the table will hopefully welcome people back,” he said. “It will give them an incentive to get on the Metro, hopefully resume their commuting patterns, because I think there’s one thing that we can all agree on. … We don’t want people getting back to their cars.”
The changes approved Thursday include decreasing wait times to 12 minutes or less most of the day on all six rail lines. Waits during peak commuting hours will be 10 minutes or less, while trains would run every 15 minutes later at night.
Metro also will extend rail hours from 11 p.m. to midnight beginning this summer, then expand hours until 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights by fall. A $1.50 transfer fee between rail and bus will be lifted, while the price of a seven-day regional bus pass will drop by $3 to $12.
The plan also calls for wait times on 20 of Metrobus’s busiest lines to decrease to 12 minutes or less, while 16 routes will see wait times cut to no more than 20 minutes. Service will be restored or increased on an additional 64 routes after Metro throttled back service last year.
The agency will temporarily offer short-term rail and bus passes at half price and reduce the price of monthly passes by about 40 percent. Weekend rides on Metrorail will be a flat $2 regardless of the destination, with the goal of encouraging more families to ride.
Most changes will go into effect on Labor Day, with the extended rail hours in place during the summer.
Metro officials say a trend amid the pandemic is steadier ridership throughout the day, rather than peaks dominated by rush-hour commuters. The transit agency has responded by providing more standard wait times, rather than service levels that jump during the traditional morning and afternoon commutes.
Despite the changes, the agency’s operating budget is expected to hold steady next year, at just over $2 billion, budget planners said. Excluding what Metro has allocated for operating expenses through early 2023, the transit agency has $865 million in federal aid remaining from three stimulus packages that Congress passed over the past 14 months.
Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland, said Thursday that the surplus money should go toward offering passengers a bigger cost break. He said Metro’s fare plan “didn’t go far enough” and urged the agency to waive parking costs at garages, among other reductions.
Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), a Loudoun County supervisor and member of the board, said waiving parking fees is complicated because some parking areas operate under an agreement with municipalities that count on the revenue.
The transit agency has seen ridership tick upward in recent weeks, Wiedefeld said, but passenger counts on buses and trains remain far below pre-pandemic levels. Metrorail recorded 134,000 daily trips last Friday, the most recent weekday count available, down from 630,000 on an average weekday in January 2020. Metrobus recorded 205,000 daily trips on the same day last week, down from 339,000 daily trips during weekdays before the pandemic.
Nationwide, transit usage is about half of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Many transit agencies, including in Boston, Richmond, Tucson, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have cut fares or are considering price reductions to help lower-income passengers and boost ridership.
“Many, many systems are, in fact, moving forward pretty aggressively, looking to modify fares where they can, and certainly also doing things on the service side to make [transit] more appealing to riders,” said Paul P. Skoutelas, the transit trade group’s chief executive.
Metro’s projections anticipate that telecommuting will hurt ridership for years. The agency predicts ridership will rise to 34 percent of pre-pandemic levels this summer, 55 percent in July 2023 and 75 percent in July 2024. Metro officials have said they might need to rely on federal aid to provide a buffer before numbers rebound.
According to a report sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, a reduction in transit fares will usually generate more ridership, coming at the expense of less revenue. Fare decreases also are more likely to attract bus riders than rail riders, the report said.
Metro’s research shows rail riders are typically wealthier than bus riders, with fare prices not greatly influencing their decision on whether to ride the subway. According to Metro, three out of four rail riders receive an employer travel subsidy or earn more than $100,000 a year.
The fare plan approved Thursday is also geared toward better integrating Metrorail and Metrobus. For decades, both systems have offered different rates — rail trips cost more — a factor that has contributed to different customer bases. Metrorail customers are often office and federal workers, while Metrobus customers are predominantly lower-income and Black.
“When I first joined the board, one of the things that I talked about as a rider was what felt like, at times, a separate and unequal system,” said Metro Board Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Gidigbi. “I’m encouraged by the [new] service levels that will ensure that you don’t have to wait that long to actually get to where you need to go.”
Advocates for lower-income residents welcomed the fare cuts. Paula Thompson, founder and co-chair of the D.C. Reentry Action Network, which works with people coming out of prison, said transportation is critical to helping people get housing, jobs and health care.
“Any reduction in the cost of transportation would contribute greatly to reducing the already tremendous hurdles one faces when returning home,” she said.
Board members also heard an update Thursday on construction issues that have held up the long-delayed Silver Line extension. Laura Mason, Metro’s vice president for capital delivery, said construction issues are being resolved and the project, overseen by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, is on schedule for Metro to take ownership in the fall. The extension could open to passengers in March 2022.
Metro chief operating officer Joe Leader said the agency has hired 37 employees to staff the extension, which includes six stations and nearly 11 miles through Reston and Herndon to Dulles International Airport, ending in Loudoun County. More than 50 other positions are waiting to be filled, he said.
Board members also heard a plan to transform Metro’s fleet into all-electric buses. The agency is proposing to replace worn-out buses with electric vehicles until the entire fleet is electric in 2045.
The fleet includes about 1,500 buses, each lasting about 15 years. Most operate on compressed natural gas, diesel and a combination of diesel and electricity in hybrids.
Metro purchases about 100 new buses each year. Under the proposal, it would slowly phase out purchases of hybrid, natural-gas and diesel-powered buses in favor of electric buses. While the electric buses are more expensive, environmental advocates argue that the cost savings on fuel and maintenance will make up for the upfront costs.
Board members voiced interest in the plan while noting the cost of charging stations and increased energy usage. Others said electric buses have shown to underperform but acknowledged that technology is improving.
The Sierra Club has been among groups pressuring Metro to make the switch, saying the agency is a holdout among the nation’s largest public transportation agencies in not committing to a date when its fleet would be considered “zero emissions.”
Lucas Godshalk, co-chair of the Clean Transportation Committee at the Sierra Club’s Washington chapter, said in a statement Thursday that Metro’s proposal is an important “first step.” Converting half of its fleet to electric by 2030 also coincides with the Biden administration’s goal of cutting carbon emissions in half, he said.