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.
Third-quarter 2016 ridership on the DC Metro rail system was 13.5 percent less than in 2015, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s recently released ridership report. Of course, the Metro had frequent delays due to the “surge” maintenance work, but many of the riders lost may never come back.
More immediately, lower ridership means lower revenues, and that means Metro is forced to consider cuts to both rail and bus service. To fill in the gaps, Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has proposed to apply some of the federal dollars that are supposed to be dedicated to capital improvements to operating costs instead.
Worse, the agency’s inability to fix its poor safety record has led the Federal Transit Administration to punish it by reducing federal support by 5 percent. Five percent doesn’t sound like much, but when you are in a deep financial hole with a $6.7 billion maintenance backlog, every dollar counts.
The Washington Post is publishing a series of opinion pieces on what housing policies the next president should adopt. The first, by Urban Institute fellow Erika Poethig, argues that federal rental assistance should target the most vulnerable populations instead of, as is done today, simply anyone who makes a certain percentage below median incomes. The second, by University of Virginia economist Edgar Olsen, goes further and argues that all low-income housing subsidies should be in the form of rental assistance, not construction of low-income housing, which he says is not cost effective.
The most recent article is by the Antiplanner, and readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that it focuses on land-use regulation. One point that I didn’t make in the article for lack of room (I was given a 500-word limit) was that land-use restrictions that make housing more expensive impose higher costs on taxpayers who are expected to provide low-income housing.
On the same day, Oregon’s Cascade Policy Institute published a paper arguing that Oregon land-use regulation violates the Fair Housing Act just as much as if Oregon put up a sign saying, “No blacks allowed.” This is similar to a paper previously published by Hawaii’s Grassroot Institute, but of course with more of a focus on Oregon law.
Washington Metro Rail ridership in the second quarter of 2016 (the fourth quarter of Metro’s fiscal year) declined a whopping 11 percent. The drop in ridership started before major service disruptions in order to do track maintenance began in June: ridership in May, for example, was 9 percent lower on weekdays and 20 percent lower on weekends than in 2015.
Bus ridership for the quarter was 6 percent lower than in 2015. For all of F.Y. 2016, rail ridership was 7 percent lower and bus ridership 4 percent lower than in F.Y. 2015.
Metro officials offered several explanations for the decline, including lower gas prices, loss of public confidence in the system’s reliability and safety, and the early blooming of cherry blossoms that normally attracts many tourists. But ridership has declined in every year since 2012, suggesting that at least some of the decline is irreversible.
Judge Richard Leon apparently invalidated Maryland’s Purple Line project just in time to prevent the Federal Transit Administration from giving the Maryland Transit Authority nearly a billion dollars for construction. Naturally, rail supporters are outraged by his decision.
The Washingtonian, for example, calls the decision “ridiculous” because it was based on declining Metro rail ridership and “the Purple Line will not be part of Metro.” But the article admits that 27 percent of the projected Purple Line riders will be transfers to or from Metro, so if Metro ridership declines, the Purple Line’s will as well.
The National Environmental Policy Act is supposed to be a procedural law, the Washingtonian complains, so why is Judge Leon allowing substantive issues such as ridership influence his decision? The author of this piece is obviously not an attorney and probably didn’t even read Judge Leon’s decision, or he would understand that getting the numbers right, as the judge demands, is procedural. He might also be able to read between the lines of the decision and see that Leon realizes this project is a turkey, and is using ridership as just the most obvious reason to overturn the decision to build the low-capacity rail line.
A federal judge has vacated the decision to build the Purple light-rail line in suburban Washington, DC, effectively delaying and possibly halting the project. Judge Richard Leon’s decision said that “recent revelations regarding the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s ridership and safety concerns” had persuaded him that projected ridership numbers for the Purple Line were overly optimistic.
Some Purple Line stations were planned next to Metro Rail stations and projections for light-rail ridership depended partly on the continued growth of Metro Rail ridership. But, largely due to safety issues, Metro Rail ridership has declined every year since 2009, noted Judge Leon, and this meant that the Purple Line ridership numbers, which were calculated in 2009, would probably be lower as well.
“WMATA and the FTA’s cavalier attitude toward these recent developments raises troubling concerns about their competence as stewards of nearly a billion dollars of the federal taxpayers’ funds,” wrote the judge. The Purple Line would be built and operated by the Maryland Transit Authority, not WMATA, but, the Judge Leon noted, this doesn’t mean that declining Metro ridership wouldn’t have an impact on Purple Line ridership.
Washington, DC has started a $221,000 advertising campaign to promote the H Street streetcar, which began operation earlier this year. This includes a radio jingle, “Streetcar, streetcar, cruising along/streetcar, streetcar, singing a song.”
The definition of cruising includes, “To travel at a constant speed,” which hardly applies to streetcars. Cruising is also innuendo for “looking for a sexual partner,” but somehow I doubt DC singles will be attracted to someone because they are riding a free (but expensive) 7-mph streetcar.
Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating.
Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.
A rail advocate named Joe responds in the Seattle Weekly by calling self-driving cars “snake oil” similar to predictions in the 1950s that supposedly said everyone would be flying around in helicopters. Joe betrays ignorance about traffic, suggesting that a freeway that is congested with stop-and-go traffic could not possibly support any more cars even if they were self-driving. In fact, a road with stop-and-go traffic can move only half as many cars per hour as one with free-flowing traffic, and free-flowing traffic spaces cars six or seven car-lengths apart. Self-driving cars could easily beat that.