The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was pleased to announce last week that it would not be delaying any rush-hour trains due to maintenance work for a few days. However, starting this week, rush-hour frequencies on the Yellow Green Lines would be reduced by 20 to 50 percent, and part of the Green Line will be completely shut down for two weeks.
All of which has just become business as usual in Washington. The real news is that WMATA plans to raise fares and cut service by up to 25 percent on July 1. Rush-hour fares will go up a dime, non-rush-hour by a quarter, and trains will stop running at 11:30 pm most days, instead of the current 12:30 am.
The big cut, however, will be to rush-hour service. Trains that now operate 10 times an hour will be cut back to 7.5 times an hour, effectively a 25 percent cut in service. Passengers can therefore expect a 33 percent increasing in crowding. Or, more likely, the system will lose even more riders.
In addition to raising fares, WMATA wants to ask voters in its service area to agree to a new tax, probably a sales tax, to keep the system running. Until that happens, the system is taking on new debt, even though it already owes the banks about half a billion dollars.
All of the maintenance work and the resulting delays of the last year barely scratch the surface of the system’s problems. Mainly, they have been replacing the ties that hold the rails together, and even after a year, they’ve only replaced 20 percent of those. They still haven’t fixed the computerized signal system that once drove the trains automatically, and instead they are relying on human drivers, who are much less gentle.
More people are adjusting their schedules so they don’t have to take Metro Rail, whose ridership declined more than 10 percent last year. When I visit DC, I usually stay in Arlington and take the Metro to Cato’s downtown office. On my visit last week, I stayed at an AirBnB within walking distance of the office. That meant I only rode Metro a couple of times during my visit, and never during rush hour.
Speaking of rush hour, why are they raising rush-hour fares by just a dime when they are raising off-peak fares by a quarter? They obviously don’t understand the point of congestion pricing. People’s schedules are less flexible during rush hour, so transportation fees can be higher, thus both earning more revenues and mitigating crowding. On the other hand, off-peak ridership is more elastic, meaning that the higher increase in off-peak fares is going to have a bigger impact on ridership at times when the system actually has room for more riders. This seems to be just one more example of poor decision making.