Despite already plummeting ridership, Metro’s board on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a package of fare hikes and rail and bus service cuts. Final approval of the austerity budget, little more than a formality, is expected on March 23. The changes will take effect July 1.
Base rail fares will go up 10 cents for rush hour and 25 cents for off-peak travel times. The maximum rail fare will reach $6. Bus fares are increasing by 25 cents to $2, but the weekly bus-only pass will remain at $17.50, a break for low income commuters.
The wait for rush-hour trains will grow to eight minutes at outlying stations across all six Metro lines; more trains in the system’s core will drop the wait times to three to four minutes closer to the system’s core. At off-peak hours, trains will continue to run at 12-minute intervals.
Supporters of general manager Paul Wiedefeld’s “reality check” budget voted yes reluctantly because riders have been fleeing the system in droves and the remaining loyal customers will now be asked to pay more for fewer trains and buses. Only one board member, Malcolm Augustine of Prince George’s County, voted no, venting his disgust in the process.
“This is basic economics. You’re raising the price. You’ll lose riders,” Augustine said. “It’s just a bad business decision.”
But asking commuters to share the pain is a gamble the transit authority must take, said Christian Dorsey, who represents Arlington.
“This board had to take the responsible step and do what good governance institutions do, which is to make these difficult choices,” Dorsey said. “The process of arriving where we are today has been to try to mitigate the pain in ways that are sensible. No one likes raising fares, but I think overall the fare increases are necessary.”
Through a series of amendments, the board voted to restore bus routes that were on the chopping block in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, but not all will be spared. Metro received thousands of public comments through surveys and other means, many of which pleaded for the restoration of bus service in areas with few, if any, transportation alternatives.
Metro’s average weekday rail ridership is at its lowest level since 2003, in part because the SafeTrack reconstruction effort has severely disrupted the timely arrival of trains. Bus ridership is also dropping, although customer surveys show bus riders are generally more satisfied with service levels than people who take the train.
Even as they approved the $1.8 billion operating budget, board members expressed a sense that Metro is in a danger zone from which it may not emerge.
In remarks to reporters, Wiedefeld said the system is not heading toward the so-called transit death spiral, a term used to describe an irreparable loss of riders fueled by higher prices and less robust service.
“The way that we bring back ridership is through basically more reliable service,” said Wiedefeld, who has launched multiple initiatives to repair aging track infrastructure and railcars.
By running fewer trains, Metro believes it can deliver on timely service that is “right sized” for dwindling riders. But some analysts say this approach is akin to managing the system’s demise, not turning it around.
“I think there is something wrong with the idea that riders have to share in the sacrifice to close the budget gap,” said Steven Higashide, a senior analyst at Transit Center, a New York-based research foundation. In his view, Metro is in a death spiral.“Riders have already been sacrificing for years, and it is now at a point where many are no longer willing to sacrifice and they are fleeing the system,” he said.
The new rush hour headway of eight minutes at outlying rail stations makes Metro an outlier, Higashide said, compared to most major mass transit systems across the nation.
“In cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York it’s not unheard of to wait eight or even ten minutes during the early rush at 5 or 6 in the morning, but most transit customers in those cities aren’t going to be waiting more than five or six minutes for a train at the height of the rush,” he said.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth, a pro-transit group, said Metro’s contributing jurisdictions should have ponied more money — beyond the $130 million they agreed to add to Metro’s budget — to avoid fare hikes and service cuts. The regional governments’ latest additions to Metro bring subsidy to close to $1 billion in a $1.8 billion operating budget.
“The data has shown over and over again that the way to get people riding transit is frequent, reliable service. Fare hikes and service cuts are neither frequent nor reliable service,” said Aimee Custis, the group’s deputy director.
“The money should be coming the local jurisdictions that are part of the WMATA compact,” Custis added.
But Wiedefeld said the jurisdictions could only be asked to cover part of the shortfall.
“The jurisdictions have lots of other financial issues they are dealing with, and I had to take that under consideration,” Wiedefeld said.
Today’s vote comes close to capping one of the most difficult budget seasons in memory, as Metro was forced to close a projected $290 million shortfall. The general manager is in the process of cutting the workforce by 1,000 positions and cracking down on absenteeism, but in the end it proved impossible to completely avoid raising fares for the first time in three years.
Moreover, Metro’s financial problems will not be erased through a single austerity budget. At this time next year, the general manager and board expect to grapple with another massive shortfall because ridership is not expected to rapidly recover.
When asked where he will find the money, Wiedefeld declined to offer a specific solution.
“We are going to work through it with the region to deal with those issues. We have to,” he said.
Establishing dedicated funding through a new, regional sales tax is one of the most commonly discussed solutions to Metro’s structural operating deficit and long-term capital needs – at least when it comes to revenue.
When it comes to Metro’s growing labor expenses, some controversial ideas are gaining traction amid suburban jurisdictions wary of escalating subsides and among lawmakers in Annapolis and Richmond, namely privatizing aspects of WMATA’s maintenance and operations.
But Wiedefeld is not ready to endorse privatization yet.
“I am not there yet, but I think we have to, as we start to look to future of funding this, take a broad look at all aspects of the business,” he said.
Any proposal to privatize Metro would run into ferocious opposition from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents 8,500 front line employees. The union is currently negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with management, and has condemned Wiedefeld’s budget proposal.