Ridership Losses, But Few Traffic Headaches, From SafeTrack So Far

Metro’s chronic train breakdowns and track problems on top of the scheduled disruptions of the SafeTrack reconstruction program may have alienated riders over the last half of 2016, but the poor service did not result in a traffic nightmare on already congested streets and highways, according to new data compiled by the region’s top transportation planners.

Over the course of 10 “maintenance surges” from June 4 through Dec. 20, 2016, Metrorail lost 16,350 riders per weekday, according to a new study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) on the first six months of SafeTrack. The number amounts to only 2.6 percent of daily boardings, but millions of total trips nonetheless.

The big picture

Eric Randall, a principal transportation planner at COG, said that overall traffic in the region “was not strongly affected,” by SafeTrack. “We saw traffic effects most strongly in the immediate vicinity to the SafeTrack surge areas,” Randall said.

The localized impacts were felt most during the first surge in June — 13 days of around-the-clock single tracking on the Orange and Silver Lines in Northern Virginia. Average vehicle trip times during morning rush hour climbed 20 percent, and traffic counts performed along Lee Highway (U.S. 29) near the East Falls Church Metro station showed a 5.5 percent increase in cars over the week prior to the surge.

The COG study also found that traffic on I-66, further along the corridor served by the Orange and Silver Lines, actually decreased slightly during SafeTrack surges 1 through 5.

Considering all the variables that can affect traffic on any given day, Randall said the results, while unexpected, were not entirely surprising.

“When a relatively small section of the Metrorail system has no service or reduced service but the rest of the system is by and large operating normally, there’s a ripple effect in that local area, but the overall system doesn’t see much variation,” he said.

Traffic impacts from SafeTrack appeared negligible on most days during surges two through 10, with average travel times actually decreasing during morning rush hour during five of the surges. Data from the study showed that many commuters didn’t trade rail for cars. Across the first 10 SafeTrack surges, five percent of travelers switched to Metrobus, and four percent to other local transit systems, including commuter rail, according to the COG data. The Capital Bikeshare system also saw trip increases during nine of the 10 surges compared to the week before each surge.

Benjamin Navarro,  Falls Church City to Farragut West
“I switched from Metro to car about a year ago. Even though I have guilt about the ecological impact of my decision, the improvement in my quality of life has been positive.”

During the ninth SafeTrack project, a 25-day shutdown of the Red Line from Fort Totten to NoMa, casual and registered users logged 350,000 bikeshare trips, a significant jump from the previous week (50,000 trips).

In all, the region’s transportation system proved resilient as Metrorail riders sought alternatives to squeezing into a train. Demand was intense, as “an average 32 percent of regular Metrorail riders decided to not make a trip” during each surge, according to COG’s report.

Giving up Metro for good

If SafeTrack was a temporary disruption for most riders, some saw a chance to make a permanent break with the subway.

“It’s kind of nice to just have your own car and listen to the radio and be in your own little bubble,” said Matthew Stuart as he steered his new Volkswagen Jetta in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Georgetown.

The 24-year-old is typical of many newcomers to Washington: young, single, living in a studio apartment, and car-free – at least until last September when his tolerance for rail delays expired.

What was supposed to be a one-hour train ride from Northwest Washington to his new job in Alexandria often lasted much longer. He was repeatedly late, irritating his new boss. And the final straw came one morning when his train was offloaded for a mechanical problem just two stops away from his destination, leaving him waiting 20 minutes for the next train to arrive.

“My commute is far more predictable with my car than with Metro, and it’s more comfortable. So how can you blame me?” said Stuart, who said he realizes his choice does not square with the region’s goal of reducing dependency on single-occupant vehicles.

Stuart said SafeTrack, far from assuaging his concerns about Metro’s safety and performance, was producing the opposite effect, by revealing more problems than general manager Paul Wiedefeld believed existed. Stuart said browsing #WMATA Twitter further undermined his confidence in Metro, citing @unsuckdcmetro as one source of consistently negative developments.

Melanie De Cola, McLean to Georgetown
“I opted out of taking Metro for the month of December to avoid SafeTrack surge #11. I found that it was much faster to drive…the Silver Line usually takes 1 hour (on a really good day) to an hour and a half, but two hours is not unheard of and one time it even took me three. I’ve been a loyal Metro rider since I moved back to the area in 2012 but my nerves are frayed and my patience with Metro is gone.”

“It seems to only be getting worse. I was reading an article yesterday about how they had to offload a train because there was a speedometer issue. And as they do the track work, more issues get uncovered,” said Stuart, whose 12-mile drive takes about an hour.

His monthly car payment is $260, more than he would pay for an entire month riding Metro, but he says it is worth it.

“There’s a long road ahead for Metro until it becomes consistent,” he said.

Toll lanes pay off

The commuters who reached for their car keys to avoid the repeated SafeTrack disruptions in Northern Virginia, were well served by the 495 Express Lanes, the high-speed toll lanes that upwardly adjust toll prices as congestion builds.

Nineteen of the toll lanes’ 21 busiest days in their four-year history were recorded between September and December. Four of the 10 busiest days took place during SafeTrack Surge 11, which ran from Nov. 28 to Dec. 20 on the Orange and Silver Lines.  Dec. 15 was the busiest day in the 495 Express Lanes’ existence.

The toll lanes’ operator suspects the Metrorail disruptions played a role.

“It is absolutely critical that we have a strong transit network, and what we’ve seen over the past several months really points to that,” said Michael McGurk, a spokesman for Transurban, a multinational toll lane operator behind the 495 and 95 Express Lanes.

The extra traffic drove up toll prices. The average toll of $4.59 surpassed $6.00 during the busiest days in December, when more than 60,000 cars passed under the electronic toll gantries, a third more than usual.

What’s next?

Transportation planners and transit advocates agree that the region’s ability to handle SafeTrack does not mean Washington and its suburbs can do without a functioning subway system. Working around short-term disruptions does not minimize Metrorail’s long-term importance; job and population forecasts foresee major growth and, with it, a lot more congestion.

Traffic congestion will increase by 60 percent over the next two decades, according to COG, as the influx of drivers outstripping local governments’ capacity to expand the transportation system.

“People will come back to Metro eventually, once the service rebounds. The question is, what will they do in the meantime? Certainly, some people will drive,” said Aimee Custis, deputy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Custis pointed to surveys that show transit riders are not impressed with frills like on-board wi-fi; they want frequent and reliable service, period.

“I think [Paul Wiedefeld] has been really honest that SafeTrack is just the first step in bringing us Back2Good,” said Custis, referring to Metro’s latest customer service campaign. “But the general manager himself has said it is going to be a long time, and SafeTrack alone won’t get us there.”

On Wednesday Metro released new statistics designed to show progress: railcar-related offloads were down 17 percent last year, railcar-related delays fell by 13 percent, and 31 new 7000-series trains were in service, replacing many of the oldest railcars in the fleet. Track delays also fell by seven percent in 2016, according to Metro.

Kevin Edward Flynn, Vienna to Navy Yard
“I typically commute by Metrorail, but switched to driving from July through December due to SafeTrack impacts. In theory, I’m an ideal customer for WMATA: my home and work are very convenient for a rail trip and I pay the maximum fare due to the distance covered. When I switched to driving, I learned that driving in the District during rush hour isn’t as bad as I had previously thought, and the price of driving and parking is actually cheaper than riding Metro.

These improvements may not be enough to stem the severe loss in ridership, especially with five more months of SafeTrack disruptions on tap.

Total rail ridership from July to September dropped “nearly 13 percent or 6.5 million trips compared to the same quarter last year. Ridership was down broadly across all time periods, days of the week, and individual stations. Consequently, rail revenue was down 15 percent versus prior year and was 17 percent under budget through the first quarter,” according to documents presented to Metro’s board of directors.

The hemorrhaging that occurred from October through December will be detailed at a public board meeting on Feb. 23, but it is expected to be severe, further undermining Metro’s bleak financial situation.

SafeTrack is scheduled to resume on Saturday with track work in Northern Virginia shutting down the Blue Line for 18 days, the first of five projects set for completion in June.

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