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.
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.
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.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).
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.
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.