The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has blamed much of the rail system’s ridership declines on the system’s reliability problems and all of the track work it did in 2016 and early 2017 to fix those problems. Now, the system has become more reliable, but riders don’t seem to be returning.
The Federal Transit Administration has published month-by-month ridership data for all transit systems through June, 2017. The numbers show that Metro rail ridership in February, March, and April of this year were all about 10 percent less than in the same months last year. In May, however, it was only 1.5 percent less, while June 2017 ridership was actually more than in June 2016–though only by 0.6 percent.
While that’s grounds for a bit of optimism, Metro rail ridership still has a long way to go before it returns to its 2009 peak, which was 28 percent higher than the year ending June 2017. I don’t like making predictions because there are too many unknown variables, but I suspect ridership will never return to those levels partly because many former riders have lost faith in the system and partly because the band-aid work done on the system in the last year won’t solve its long-term reliability problems. Time will tell.
Washington DC’s Metro system has a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, declining ridership, and serious problems with labor unions. The systems problems are so bad that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood, one of the least credible people ever to hold that office, to lead a search for new funds for the agency.
Now LaHood has come out with his proposal. Has he found a billion dollars stuck in the seat cushions of Metro trains? Nope. Has he discovered a treasure map at the White House that leads to a city of gold? Nope. Has he found any money at all? None.
Instead, he proposes to replace Metro’s current sixteen-member board of directors with a “reform board” consisting of “five members who are solely responsible to the transit system, not the parochial interests of the local officials who would appoint them.” Continue reading
Travelers and taxpayers both lose as Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao caved in to Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan and Democratic Congressional delegation by approving federal funding for the Purple Line. As Antiplanner readers know, the state’s own transportation analysis found that the Purple Line will dramatically increase congestion in Montgomery County suburbs of Washington DC, while the $5.6 billion cost represents exactly $5.6 billion that could have been spent to better effect on just about anything else: buses, roads, schools, or health care, to name a few things.
Administration officials justified the decision by saying that the project was too far along to cancel and the planned public-private partnership was something that President Trump wants to encourage. But, in this case at least, the public-private partnership does not save any money or produce any better service; it is merely a way of avoiding debt limits because the debt from the project will be on the books of the private partner, not the public agency.
As for being too far along to stop, every project on FTA’s New Starts and Small Starts list has already received some federal money for engineering and design work. The Department of Transportation recently told Durham to go ahead with engineering work on its light-rail project, so it too will presumably reach the point where it is “too far along” to stop. Continue reading
The bus versus streetcar debate became personal in Washington DC when a Megabus rammed a platform for the H Street streetcar. The crash put the streetcar out of service for several hours, and that particular platform for many days.
As if in retaliation, a streetcar rear ended a DC bus, injuring ten transit riders. There were only eight passengers on the bus, so the other two must have been on the streetcar and the Antiplanner wouldn’t be surprised if they were the only passengers on board.
Of course, the entire streetcar system was put out of commission while the messes were cleaned from each of the accidents. If only they had a vehicle that could pass one that was stationary because of an accident or breakdown. Maybe someday someone will invent one.
To help “close a budget gap,” Washington Metro is scheduled to raise fares and cut service later this month. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents 88 percent of Metro’s employees, calls this the “pay more, get less” plan.
In response, the union issued its own plan to cut fares and increase service. It could have called this the “pay less, get more” plan, but instead it called it “fund it, fix it, make it fair.” The union didn’t originate this slogan; instead, it seems to be a mantra for the “transit justice” community, which seems to believe that, because a few low-income people ride transit, everyone should be subsidized.
For the “fund it” part of the plan, the union calls for the creation of assessment districts that would pay fees–not taxes–to help run the system. The union plan tries to imply that only the wealthy owners of properties whose values are enhanced by the transit system would have to pay, but when an assessment district was created to fund construction of the Silver Line, owners of properties miles away from any transit station were forced to pay as much as those next door to a station. Continue reading
The governor of Virginia has asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood to figure out how to fix the Washington Metro rail system. That’s a little like asking someone who blew up your house to figure out how to rebuild it.
LaHood is proud of the role he played in getting the Silver Line built. Yet that line caused many of the problems Metro is facing today, all of which were known when the decision was made to build it. Most important, long before LaHood was secretary, Metro knew it needed billions of dollars to rehabilitate its system. Instead of finding the money to do that, LaHood insisted they build a new rail line. In addition, because the Silver Line merges with the Blue Line, which was running at capacity, they had to reduce service on the Blue Line and may have lost more Blue Line riders than they gained on the Silver Line.
Now Metro is on the hunt for funds to reduce some of its $25 billion maintenance backlog. LaHood thinks he’s going to find a consensus for how to do that, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that someone else should pay for it. With Republicans in control of Congress and fiscal conservatives in control of the Republican Party, the federal government isn’t going to pay for it, but neither Maryland nor Virginia want to pay for it either. Continue reading
After more than a year of shut-downs, slow-downs, and break-downs, the Washington Metro rail system still faces a huge maintenance backlog. Meanwhile, rail opponents in Hawaii placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post begging President Trump to cancel funding for that city’s increasingly expensive rail project.
Click image to download a PDF of this ad.
The 20-mile Honolulu line was originally projected to cost $2.8 billion. Then it rose to $3.0 billion. By the time construction began, the projected cost rose to $5.1 billion. Now, the Federal Transit Administration says the final cost may be more than $10 billion. Although the agency denies the cost will be that high, it admits it doesn’t have enough money to finish the project. The federal government agreed to cover $1.5 billion and has paid half of that. The ad implores Trump not to pay the other half.
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.
The Antiplanner has been writing about Washington Metro’s downward spiral for nearly two years, but the end may be in sight. According to Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, after 2018, “the game’s over.” Or, as Metro board chair Jack Evans says, if the problems aren’t solved by then, “the only option I see is to cut back on service enormously.”
That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Census data indicate that, in 1970 before any Metro lines were built, 17.61 percent of DC-area commuters took transit to work–virtually all on buses. In 2015, between buses, Metro rail, and Maryland and Virginia commuter rail lines, transit’s share was 17.58 percent. In the years since 1970 in which the census has surveyed people (every decennial census and every year since 2005), the highest it has ever been was 17.70 percent in 2005. So going back to buses wouldn’t need to reduce transit ridership. Since bus riders don’t have to worry about broken rails or smoke in the tunnels, replacing trains with buses might even increase ridership.
All of the delays suffered by passengers so Metro can do maintenance hasn’t seemed to improve reliability. Just a few days ago, trains on three lines were delayed so much that one rider tweeted, “An hour and 45 min into my @wmata commute, I’m finally BACK WHERE I STARTED! Gave up and went home.”
Washington DC’s H Street streetcar has failed in just about every way possible. The 2.2-mile line cost $200 million, which is enough to build ten to twenty miles of four-lane freeway; it opened years behind schedule; and–despite being free “for a limited time”–it carries a paltry 2,400 people per weekday, which in a sane world wouldn’t be enough to sustain a bus line, much less a more-expensive streetcar. Now, the city has decided to extend that “limited time” for four more years out of a fear that charging a fare would turn away the few riders they now have. Officials were acutely aware that Atlanta’s streetcar patronage fell by nearly 50 percent when it started charging a dollar fare.
Despite these problems, the city is still considering extending the streetcar line. One of the arguments for doing so, in fact, is that if the line is long enough, they might actually attract enough patrons to charge a fare.
But isn’t the streetcar stimulating economic development? Hardly. H Street was revitalizing itself long before the streetcar opened. No doubt streetcar advocates will pat themselves on the back because a Whole Foods is opening on the streetcar line next month. But the company signed the lease to move in back in 2013, well before the streetcar opened. Some will say this was in anticipation of the streetcar, but I suspect the company, all of whose urban stores are located next to parking garages, was more motivated by the fact that its customers would have 199 underground parking spaces available for their use. As any commercial realtor knows, parking, not transit, drives retail.