WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld will not propose fare increases or service reductions at a meeting of the System’s Board of Directors on Thursday. Historically, Metro has considered fare increases and reviewed service levels in odd years. Wiedefeld’s presentation for next fiscal year’s budget beginning July 2019, will focus on generating revenue “by focusing on ridership and the ridership experience.”
Metro’s New Funding Sources Limit Spending Growth
Metro secured dedicated funding sources from DC, Maryland, and Virginia this year, delivering $500 million in annual operating subsidies. That puts the system in more secure footing long-term. WMATA won’t be subject to unpredictable swings in support as each jurisdiction decided on an appropriations package. That money gets thrown in with approximately $150 million from the federal government to balance Metro’s budget each year.
Along with the stability of direct funding, Metro is now constrained by the jurisdictions to 3% annual growth in subsidy. For 2019, Metro has a $32 million cap due to “projected revenue losses from capital projects and $27 million in added labor costs stemming from a recent arbitration-ordered wage increase, among other factors.” DC Commute Times reported on the latter issue when Metro workers almost went on strike in August. The revenue loss from capital projects comes from riders abandoning the system when stations close or routes change for long periods, as they did this summer on the Red Line in NE DC.
Revenue Grows Despite Reduced Ridership
In an interview with the Washington Post, Wiedefeld said revenue growth was the key to expanding Metro’s capabilities. He did not say fare increases and service cuts hurt that cause. According to WaPost, Metro “has however indicated in recent financial reports that its 10-cent rail and 25-cent bus fare increase that went into effect in July 2017 helped stabilize revenue.”
To grow revenue, Metro will have to attract riders despite another significant rail disruption planned for next year and more to come in years after that. From Memorial Day to Labor Day 2019, Metro will close all stations South of Reagan National Airport on the Blue and Yellow Lines. The work is necessary to repair outdoor Metrorail facilities but involves SafeTrack-levels of inconvenience. In the past, especially outside rush hours, this has lead to significant ridership loss.
Metro Officials Aren’t Racing to Bring Riders Back
Whether Metro can squeeze more revenue out of fewer customers, as they seem to have done since 2017, is up for debate. However, the system is hemorrhaging customers at a rate which should raise the alarm. Ridership has “fallen more than 10 percent since 2015. Metro has lost 125,000 average daily trips over the past decade — and ridership has fallen from 712,000 average daily trips to 626,000 since 2015. Off-peak service has driven two-thirds of the declines since 2016, the agency says.”
But, “budget guidelines prepared for the board presentation do not lay out any specific plans to grow ridership.” Wiedefeld’s plans for the future focus on soft goals that he claims will attract riders. “ The agency says it wants to prioritize the development and accountability of its workers through some avenues: improving labor relations, providing newer employee facilities, better recruiting and performance management programs, and focusing on its front-line workers who interact with customers.”
No doubt better user experience would improve Metro’s value to a commuter, but that kind of goal has been rated lower on the impact scale by transit experts than other changes that focus on the nuts and bolts of commuting: cost, reliability, affordability, and convenience. “Metro’s own internal ridership rescue plan … growing ridership included service increases, among them: running peak service all day, implementing all eight-car trains and extending the Yellow Line to Greenbelt.”
Perhaps thinking of his budget constraints without saying so directly Wiedefeld was hesitant to endorse bold service level increases. It’s notable the GM mentioned Rush Hour Promise and similar commuter benefit programs. The jury is out on how much of a difference these small ball programs improve ridership or customer morale.
As a public policy person who’s concentrated on public finance, I can tell you these programs are what you can afford with the loose change you find or save in a budget. Rush Hour Promise is a pilot program, a small study-level approach that salves symptoms of the core problem without preventing you from balancing your budget.
Metro’s Future: Commuter Rail Service?
The subdued response to rider loss from Wiedefeld and other officials telegraphs reduced ambitions for the system, heading toward reduced commuter rail service away from all-hours, multi-point transportation utility. All signs, and the way Metro officials talk about Uber/Lyft, bikeshare, and scooters, point to Metro handing off non-rush hour mobility services to for-profit companies.
“We [Metro] can move thousands and thousands of people in a very short period of time through very congested roadways — that’s what we can do. But maybe Uber, Lyft is a better solution for late-night service.” ~ Paul Wiedefeld, General Manager, WMATA