Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Can WMATA's death spiral be staunched?

GGW reports ("WMATA is up against a budget deficit. Today, it floated ideas for some very big, very difficult changes") on WMATA initial discussion of how to deal with a projected $275 million budget shortfall for FY2018 which will be on the agenda of Thursday's Finance and Administration Committee meeting.
WMATA farecard, The Future Is Riding On Metro
Is it the case that the Washington area's sustainable mobility future is no longer constructed with Metrorail and Metrobus as the foundation?

Options include fare increases of as much as 35%, shutting as many as 20 stations during non-commuting periods, eliminating poorly performing bus routes, personnel reductions, more appropriations from the local jurisdictions, and using FTA funds, among others.
Concept map for closing Metrorail stations outside of commuting periods
Concept map for closing Metrorail stations outside of commuting periods.

Lately, Metrorail operations resemble the train wreck that is the Trump presidential campaign.

Both seemingly have daily reports of new failures each more incredible than the day before.

I wrote over the weekend about WMATA's desire for permanent cutbacks in Metrorail's hours of operation and the contrast with London's roll out of 24-hour weekend service ("Plans for Metrorail contraction in the face of London Underground's service expansion"), and mentioned both FTA's report about failures in execution by Metrorail in their maintenance repair program and the decline in trust in WMATA's capacity to operate the system and how they communicate to riders.

That followed two pieces last week about Metrorail's falling ridership ("Why Metrorail ridership is down" and "Re: why Metrorail ridership is declining").  The latter piece reported on a study of the effects of a two-day work stoppage with the London Underground, which found that as a result of the forced change, 5% of riders changed their commuting routine.

Then, on Monday Metrorail had to go to single tracking on the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines on Monday because of defects in fasteners used to tie down tracks meant that one track had to be taken out of service--during rush hour.

And now the proposals to deal with next year's projected deficit call for making much of the system unusable outside of commuting hours and even more expensive--when Metrorail is the second most expensive "subway" system in the US (after BART in the San Francisco Bay, but that system, even more than Metrorail, functions like a commuter railroad).

In the GGW comments, many people write about how they chose to live in the DC area because of the once functioning transit system and how it enabled mobility without having to be dependent on automobility.

Those days are behind us, unless you are fortunate enough to live in the core, where transit service and other sustainable mobility choices (walking, biking, car share) are supported by density and tight connections between residential areas and employment centers.

This is especially poignant because I argue that DC's success as a place to live and locate business is dependent on the city's transit network and is a primary source of the city's competitive advantage vis a vis other locations in the metropolitan area.

Metrorail's failures create an economic development crisis for DC, one that it is difficult to dig out from, especially because the States of Virginia and Maryland aren't inclined to go out of their way "to help DC." (For example, it can be argued that plans to toll I-66 are in part designed to encourage businesses to relocate from DC to Northern Virginia, and Maryland's current mobility agenda isn't particularly inclined in favor of transit.)

Can a crisis be an opportunity for improvement?  Frankly, while I agree with Rahm Emanuel that opportunities present in crisis shouldn't be wasted, the reality is that exigency and crises are terrible times to bring about positive change.  Much of the time, elected officials especially, when faced with bad choices, make worse choices.  Rather than rise to the occasion, they stoop towards it and often stumble.

Reconstructing the region's consensus about the value of transit and sustainable mobility.  I still argue as I did in 2009 ("St. Louis regional transit planning process as a model for what needs to be done in the DC Metropolitan region") and 2014 ("WMATA 40th anniversary in 2016 as an opportunity for assessment") that it is necessary to update and reconstruct the metropolitan-regional consensus about what transit and sustainable mobility are supposed to look like, today and in the future, and somehow to communicate that today's constant and repetitive failures don't have to be routine and expected outcomes.

But despite the honesty in the assessment of Metrorail's problems in the documents prepared for tomorrow's meeting:
After 15 years of consistent growth, total rail ridership peaked in 2009. It held relatively strong in the aftermath of the recession (2010-2012), and then declined in 2013-2015 due to combination of external factors (federal spending pullback, telework, alternative modes, transit benefit instability, lower gasoline prices) and internal factors (weekend trackwork, relatively high rail fares, service quality). Ridership then declined further in FY2016 as a result of poor service quality and high profile disruptions and safety incidents, as riders turned to increasingly available alternatives. Ridership so far in FY2017 is down even further, primarily as a result of closures and service interruptions due to the SafeTrack initiative.

The variability in bus ridership has been different. Bus declined more during and immediately after the recession but had fully recovered by FY2014, with strong ridership on the major Priority Corridor Network routes (especially mid-city and along Columbia Pike, etc.) and relatively weak ridership on lower frequency routes. Ridership was flat in FY2015 but then dropped in FY2016. Some of the decline appears to be a 'spillover' from the rail reliability challenges, as many riders use Metrobus to access rail. Declines in ridership on other local bus providers (e.g., Fairfax Connector, Montgomery County
Ride-On, etc.) are also occurring, indicating broader, region-wide challenges.
I am not confident that the capacity to bring this about is present within WMATA or the region's elected officials and stakeholders ("Getting WMATA out of crisis: a continuation of a multi-year problem that keeps getting worse, not better" and "What it will take to get WMATA out of crisis continued and 2016's 40th anniversary of WMATA as an opportunity to rebuild," 2015).

NYC's transit system was once in similar straits.  Today's decline is reversible.  The NYC subway system came back after being pushed to a similar level of failure in the 1970s, but the NYC region has more capacity for leadership than is typical of the DMV.

Although the polycentric nature of the system here doesn't help ("Redundancy, engineered resilience, and subway systems: Metrorail failures will increase without adding capacity in the core") but the Purple Line, ironically, seems as if it can strengthen the core subway system by providing east-west connections that don't exist currently and reducing the need to travel to the core to transfer between lines.

Can WMATA be fixed?  It needs world class leaders.  Right now, the only way I can see change maybe happening is having WMATA hire multiple people from the world's best transit systems: London Underground; Paris Metro; HVV in Hamburg; Tokyo; etc., and rebuilding the organization from top to bottom.

While normally NYC Transit would be a good place to hire from, and we should, the situation is so dire that maybe "foreigners" are the only way to bring about a reset (although note, London Underground's reset came about by hiring from NYC Transit).

A better structure.  It'd help to create an HVV-like set up here, with a strong transit planning regime separate from the transit agency.

A transit withholding tax for funding.  And a transit withholding employment tax like in France (versement transport), Tri-Met and the Lane Transit District in Oregon, and in New York State.

Also paid by the Federal Government.  With an agreement by the Federal Government to pay this tax on the part of federal employees

Service is too bad to justify raising fares. Finally, as long as service and reliability is so bad, the system has no business raising fares, at least for Metrorail.

Will Virginia and Maryland invest more in Metrorail when they see DC benefiting disproportionately?  Whether or not Virginia and Maryland will join in with DC and increase "subsidy-appropriations" to the system so that it can get through its current crisis and budget gap is an open question.

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At 10:06 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I'd object to the term death spiral.

It is an insurance term.

WMATA isn't in a death spiral, and to call it that misunderstands the problems it is facing.

MetroRail desperately just want to be a commuter rail.

There are subway like-tendencies but the institutional bent is "to have a good rush hour".

As as long as 75% of riders on rush hour don't pay for their rides, there is going to be increased pressure on that front.

I had to take metro rush hour across town yesterday. K st was a mess, the Circulator was running at 40 minute headways. I know I beat it to chinatown by a combination of walking and metro.

For $3 it was bargain. they could easily charge $10-12 for the trip - which is what an uberx would have been.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Metrorail wants to be commuter only, but that is not what DC or Arlington want it to be.

Were the separated blue (Silver) line to be built within DC, and maybe other separations as well, at least at the core it would function more like "Paris" in terms of access to a large number of stations close by and hopefully reliable service.

At 11:19 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

When you say "DC" I'm not sure what you mean.

Evans wants MetroRaIl to fix the commuter side. Downtown depends on that. Bowser?

I'd say a lack of critical will+thinking on how to turn WMATA into a subway.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I guess I am going to have to concede to your point on the primacy of commuting as Metrorail's mission and vision, which has always been the case, but for a long time they were able to accomplish both.

While there is no question that a majority of DC neighborhoods improved-revitalized concomitant with Metrorail, this was more of a happy accident rather than the intention of the planners who developed the Metro system.

Evans, being the CM of the CBD more than of W2 as you point out, is likely to be primarily concerned about the primacy of transit in terms of the needs of the CBD.

But to his credit, over the years he has been interested in Metrorail as it relates to DC's overall success, not just of the CBD. But he never was out front on transit and placemaking issues, never, unlike say Chris Zimmerman or other people in Arlington (until the recent ACBs, you could listen to any Board member speak about these issues, and they were awesome, and that was something I credited to Zimmerman's leadership--that inextricable understanding of transit as intertwined with Arlington's success is no longer felt to the same degree by many of Arlington's Councilmembers now).

The challenge then as you say is how to make WMATA do both.

I don't have the answer, because Arlington and DC are in the minority, and Arlington has been crushed both by the change in political leadership there and the Silver Line extension which has allowed Fairfax County to "offer Metrorail service" (nothing like a sustainable mobility platform, but access at the very least) at much cheaper rents.

Plus, while the local jurisdictions might be okay with developing the subway side, the State of Maryland and the State of Virginia, separate from the localities, have different agendas which are competitive to DC.

... and even if Rushern Baker is to become the Gov. in 2018 (not an easy task to defeat a popular Gov.) it's not like he really gets TOD/urban design/placemaking etc., despite his talk and commitment to TOD I don't think he really understands the difference between transit adjacency and place enhanced by transit (and other forms of sustainable mobility).

I don't think Maryland and Virginia are up to the challenge of creating a multi-state equivalent of Hamburg's HVV or the VBB for Berlin and Brandenburg states. While it's true that all of the major German cities have created similar kinds of transportation planning and operations organizations linking all modes,

Other than Berlin, I don't think that others have the multi-state relationships that Hamburg does, where planning and service is provided not just within the Hamburg state, but also parts of two adjoining German states.

Somehow the transit authority would have to be somewhat insulated from the state politics, something that neither MTA in New York nor the Port Authority have been able to be successful at doing.

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous charlie said...


I'd agree that is a challenge -- in terms of the politics of getting MD/VA and DC on the same page.

And the "remove from local politics" and "free the funding".

2. Zimmerman

As I have said before I have a very different view of Zimmerman; one that shows that he stayed too long in Arlington and was trying to make power plays that upset most of the ACDC.

Not to mention that while a good cheerleader he was ineffective in dealing with the real issues that a WMATA board needs to face.

But let's take your point at face value -- that we need to have politicians that believe and want to invest in transit.

I don't think that is an impossible goal.

Certainly it makes more sense that the highly stupid on of tolling over freeway in the region , which is what the COG signed up for.

And this is where "DC" needs to be a leader. As I suggested neither Bowser nor Evans are up to that job.

3. WMATA -

As I've said before, I think the other option is to shut down WMATA.

Spin on metro rail into a private concession, and then keep the bus.

Clearly about 45% of Metro's problem is lack of leadership and stupid lazy employees.

In this scenario, Williams turning away from WMATA expansion is a gift.

DC has a money to fund and build streetcars and subways on it own. But you are going to have to move the budget from social services to infrastructure spending.

Also a commitment to raze EOTR and replace it with something like Arlington.

At those density levels you could put close to 300K people EOTR. Feds would have to give up the waterfront.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

a lot here.

wrt WMATA-, I'd say that if 45% of the problem is incompetence, it doesn't justify separating, etc.

OTOH, sure spin off the rail. But it doesn't change anything in terms of having to deal with the three jurisdictions and very different needs.

OTOH/2, sure spin off the rail. But have DC buy it. But DC has never demonstrated that it has the capacity to think and act really big.

There is plenty of precedent for this kind of step in the old days. For example, the City of Detroit (DSR, Detroit Street Railways) ended up owning most of the surface transit systems in the metropolitan area, because the sub-jurisdictions didn't have the scale or the commitment, and for Detroit to function, it needed good transit.

Similarly, in the 1920s?/1930s local governments got involved in funding railroad passenger vehicles etc., because the railroads said otherwise they weren't making money providing passenger service, and couldn't afford to reinvest. That set the stage for later government take over of failing commuter rail operations in many such communities (Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City especially).

There is a column in Governing Mag. that WMATA's problems are an ad for the value of P3.

I just don't know. The problems with WMATA are the outcomes of a lot of structural issues that wouldn't go away if the operations were contracted out. It's not like Keolis has magically fixed MBTA commuter rail.

Today's Guardian has an article about Mayor Khan's specific proposal to UK Govt. to take over more rail franchises and convert them to the London Overground system. The govt. had tacitly agreed back when Johnson was Mayor. It's hard to know how they will act now with a Labour Mayor.

It could even get pulled into the Brexit discussion, and allowing such a change would show continued commitment to London's success.

I was hoping to get a job with a company that had bid to do the Purple Line but they didn't get the contract. They've since bowed out of that field (similar to why passenger trains aren't really manufactured in the US). They said that there was too much uncertainty, low likelihood of winning, and because of the competition, very low profit margin, and not that many deals in the great scheme of things to go after.

e.g., the Purple Line concession was won by the company that's doing Denver, and those are the only two such concessions in the US.

At 10:34 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... OTOH, wrt WMATA+/WMATA-, irrespective of the lack of leadership within DC, and there is no question that is the case (although your mentioning of Mayor Williams made me think, maybe he could take it on...), ironically I've been meaning to write about the transit system in Raleigh/Durham as it is a model for what you are talking about.

They have a regional provider, Triangle Transit which provides cross-jurisdictional service, and local services. they have two different MPOs and cover all or parts of three counties, and do some integration with other transit providers outside of their area which provide service (e.g., from Greensboro to Chapel Hill).

But over the past 20 years they've been tightening a strong model for collaboration and integration while still being separate services.

3 years ago they committed to the creation of an overall brand and identity scheme, GoTransit, with sub=branding through different colors of each service.

Right now it's all bus but they are exploring some light rail.

But over the course of the decade they integrated schedules, created a master call center, have a fare system where the pass structure covers all the services, share procurement.

We aren't really at that point here. Schedules are coordinated but there is no master information call center, and no regional fare system.

So far, only the Chapel Hill system hasn't gone in on the new brand. Cary just inaugurated the change this month, which is how I got clued into the need to look at it.

plus they brand their TDM and other services under the system. Triangle Transit is the lead, but the other services are equal partners and all have the planning and management capacity within their respective govts.

And they have a transit sales tax initiative on the ballot in next month's election. Each agency has elements, as part of the overall business plan, within the tax.

Anyway, in that kind of system you could hive off rail from bus. Triangle as a contractor eventually came to run the Durham bus service as operator only (not planner, overall decision maker).

I see no problem in dumping bus on the jurisdictions, and changing how its branded and organized.

Right now it's cacophony anyway (e.g., my post about how the 3-4 different BRT initiatives in the area communicate in spades our lack of metropolitan scale transportation planning).

But OTOH, what WMATA is supposed to be but isn't, it what is done in other regions, e.g., Valley Metro provides cross jurisdictional bus and LR in Greater Phoenix. Sound Transit contracts out their bus services to the respective jurisdictions but runs the light rail.

Our foundational service isn't working.

... I don't like to tout "exceptionalism" but clearly the Compact isn't working.

I think it's because of how the states and the jurisdictions are at cross purposes often politically at one level, and the tension within that is always present over (1) the difference between the system as a solution for commuting, (2) as a social service for poor people "who can't afford to own cars, (3) as a placemaking and economic development priming device, and (4) as the enabler of a sustainable mobility platform/product-service-system.

At least in New York State, you have two different services, subway and railroad, which are better patterned to serve distinctly different mobility segments (although partly the railroads can be better configured, like London Overground, to do even more in the city).

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt the Triangle, to be clear there are five brands. Triangle and one each for Chapel Hill, Cary, Durham, and Raleigh. Raleigh also runs a separate circulator bus called R Line (interestingly, the buses all have perimeter bench seating only, like NYC subway cars).

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt CZ, I don't have enough granular knowledge to argue with you. I do think it's true that the talk and the walk weren't congruent. The same is true of Jim Graham and his leadership time in WMATA.

And there is no question that Arlington's talk/elected official commitment to transit, sustainable mobility, placemaking didn't transcend to the area as a whole (similarly my complaint that then CM Wells' "walkable-livable" agenda never moved beyond W6 in a systematic way to the rest of the city).

At 10:43 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt spinning off Metrorail, you could have the same problems with the Unions that is present in the UK with the RMT.

Some argue, likely correctly, that their strike actions are a way to get the operators changed, to ones they believe would be more favorable.

another example, one of the strike actions in Phoenix was over the contract between the agency and the operator (First Transit or some such) which was too onerous with service guarantees, and the operator argued they had to pay so much in penalties, they couldn't afford to raise wages. The agency changed the contract...

At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Charlie said...


Spin off metro rail and have DC but it

Cheap asking price , comes with liabilities

Tie that into debt ceiling.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I forgot to mention increasing the height limit. Tie the two together. Plan for internal city expansion of Metro too. Can still do the crazy ass extensions in the suburbs, but make them pay for the impact on the core.

TALK ABOUT THE BENEFITS TO RESIDENTS from more development, better transit, placemaking.

OP/HT never laid out a good "personal" business case for why changing the height limit would be advantageous for residents, now and in the future.

Maybe too it's a way to get everyone to agree to a versement transport to support transportation.

You'd break it up into two segments, regional and local. Some would support Metrorail and the passenger rail systems, the others would be used by the jurisdictions.

Probably should add a commitment to the Purple Line and building the whole thing, not just the current segment.

A separated Silver Line that before it comes to DC goes down to Rte. 50 and east to DC would help get the Virginians on board.

Sep. Yellow Line benefits DC and Maryland and maybe Virginia on the south (Ft. Belvoir). Sep. Green Line benefits DC and Maryland on the north (a leg out New Hampshire Ave. from Ft. Totten).

Also move to a "GoTransit"/HVV type scenario.

Shared call center, marketing, regional fare system (not just the common fare media card and accounting system).

It comes back to rebuilding the consensus as I have been writing about for years, but also recognizing that to achieve it, the current planning and operating and funding framework isn't working and needs to be changed.

the debt ceiling is an issue. We've discussed this, I argue, but it's a fine line, that as a growing city, DC can afford, some, to up the limit.

But at the same time, as you point out, if we get a handle on all the social spending we'd have a lot more money to work with.

At 2:36 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

A DC buyout option (WMATA/DC) doesn't solve the contract/pension issue, although it does give a chance to open it up.

IN fact just having that discussion might be enough for a budget to crack the contract open inside current framework.

Again, yes, putting Tony Williams in as CEO might inspire confidence in the new entity. Might.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Williams + a super duper operator from somewhere, don't know where.

But yes, were "DC" or a similar entity to "take it over" the contracts would remain intact, and that is a problem.


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