Metro can’t, and shouldn’t even try, to increase off-peak service to attract more customers. That’s the consensus of WMATA’s Board of Directors, shared during last week’s meeting. During discussion of next year’s budget, the transit leaders in turns blamed new mobility services for reduced ridership and advocated for those alternatives as a rationale for their plan to continue reduced frequency during non-rush hours.
WMATA leadership say improving service is too expensive, but maybe we can have farmers markets. Also, enjoy this Uber discount code. The evidence suggests that approach is penny wise, pound foolish.
WMATA’s Struggling to Balance Next Year’s Budget
Metro secured $500 million in dedicated, annual funding this year from Maryland, DC, and Virginia. That’s an improvement from the previous budget condition: yearly fights with the jurisdictions contributing to uncertainty over long-term planning. However, that dedicated funding comes with a three percent cap on annual increases. For several reasons, Metro is already exceeding that growth cap for FY 2019.
From the Post, “Metro predicts it will exceed the 3 percent cap ... just through inflation and revenue losses from planned service outages, such as next spring’s 98-day shutdown on the Blue and Yellow lines south of Reagan National Airport for platform rebuilding. … Metro officials said Thursday they believe costs associated with phase two of the Silver Line and obligations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Americans With Disabilities Act requirements are exempt from the cap, though they add up to $90 million in additional spending. The same goes for arbitrator-mandated increases in labor costs of $27 million.”
These annual changes are in the context of an almost $2 billion budget where fare and parking revenue account for less than half of the budget. The federal government does not contribute to Metro’s operating budget.
WMATA Board Members Say Service Increases Cost Too Much
Metro has $32 million extra to spend July 2019 - June 2020, but they have at least $27 million more obligated already, though they may have to account for up to $90 million more. As Faiz from the Post writes, “it was unclear how Metro planned to accommodate those costs — estimated at $40 million — without raising fares.”
WMATA GM Paul Wiedefeld mentioned Metro’s public service mission during his budget proposal. “We have a public mission, which is to provide service for lots of other reasons: whether it’s congestion relief, whether it’s environmental, whether it’s for dealing with people that don’t have [other] opportunities — that’s also our mission, so it can’t just be a dollars-and-cents equation.” However, comments from several of the other Board members point to budget concerns as their primary concerns. “”
Board member Steve McMillin: “At a certain point, some level of new service we would add would cause us to exceed that 3 percent cap because the marginal cost of running the additional service exceeds the marginal revenue of the new people we’re getting.”
McMillin, who seems to miss how miserly he comes across here, added that ridership levels and farebox return are important metrics, but “Right now the only binding metric we have is growth of the net subsidy. And there’s lots of other ways we should measure how well we’re doing, but that’s the one that dedicated funding was conditioned on.”
Board member Michael Goldman: “I’d much rather spend money trying to encourage people to use Uber and Lyft to get to the trains,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland. “I think that’s a better use of money than to try and spend a lot of money just to run trains empty throughout the day.”
Metro Board Chair Jack Evans, who usually lines up to defend every square inch of on-street parking and opposes every bike lane he ever did see, actually voiced what transit commuters believe in their bones: this isn’t about the budget for a business, this is a core public utility that is failing its commitments.
“I think all the studies prove that if you have more trains, you can have more customers,” he said. “Steve [McMillin] was talking about when you add trains and riders, doesn’t mean necessarily we’re going to make more money. . . . That’s not the point. The point is you want to move people. This isn’t a business. This is a necessity for public transportation.”
WMATA Leadership Wants to Maximize Revenue, Not Ridership
The basic argument here is whether Metro *has* to hold itself to the limited funding streams it already secured. If so, Metro can’t increase service levels without finding other funding. The line of logic in GM Wiedefeld’s budget proposal is a bang-for-your-buck effort that “prioritize[s] customer service and workplace culture to win back riders.”
That thinking produced efforts like the $400,000 Back2Good marketing effort and the merchandise shop and may lead to farmers markets or food courts in Metrorail stations. In the environment of constraints WMATA leadership assumes, the marginal efforts are all they can afford. For a relatively small check to Uber and Lyft, Metro can offer discount codes for riders to get to and from stations.
For comparison: “Staff analysis found that all-day peak service would cost $10 million to $30 million and add 10,000 to 20,000 additional trips every weekday. Extending Yellow Line service to Greenbelt would add an average 3,000 daily trips at a cost of $1.5 million to $3 million. The report recommended running all eight-car trains, but Metro would not be ready to do so on the Red Line, for example, until at least 2025, according to a staff presentation Thursday.”
Metro is Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish with their Budget
Consider the penny-pinching projects likely to make it into Metro’s official budget proposal against their analysis. That internal report says marketing and amenities are much less critical to winning riders back than significant service improvements.
The dark humor in this story is that Metro officials have—in the same handful of smartphone-dependant, venture capital-dependent mobility solutions— a perfect villain when explaining reduced ridership and a perfect excuse to continue reductions in non-rush hour services. The riders won’t come back unless the system applies defibrillator pads in the form of tens of millions of dollars in service increases.
Metro’s leaders offer creativity in the form of food court rental revenue. If they don’t brainstorm on revenue raisers and clockwork-like service at the scale and scope they’ve screwed up in the minds of riders, Metro is extremely unlikely to win back commuters.