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Metro floats cutting service for the Green, Yellow, Orange, and Silver Lines

Since the debut of "Rush Plus" in 2012, Metro's Blue Line riders have faced longer waits for trains. Now WMATA wants to fix that, but to do it, would cut service to all the other lines (except the Red Line).

View peak service levels: Today   Proposed change

Staff from the agency are proposing the service reduction to the Riders Advisory Council this week. WAMU's Martin di Caro broke the news of the proposal this morning.

Under the plan, the time between trains would increase from six to eight minutes on the Orange, Silver, Green, and Yellow Lines. On the Blue Line, trains would come more frequently, up from every 12 minutes to every eight. The plan would also eliminate Rush Plus Yellow Line service between Franconia and Greenbelt.

Metro spokesperson Sherry Ly told di Caro the proposed changes are an effort to rebalance trains to better meet demand. The issue is that the service cuts to the Blue Line, which Metro did to make room for the Silver Line, drastically lowered capacity on the line, and crowding has been very bad.

But the Blue/Orange/Silver subway between Rosslyn and Stadium/Armory is at capacity. The only way to add more Blue Line trains is to cut service on the Orange or Silver Lines.

WMATA is proposing to do just that. But their proposed cuts are actually deeper than necessary. Each physical track segment can carry 26 trains per hour (TPH). Currently, the east-west subway is divided at rush hour between 11 Orange TPH, 10 Silver, and 5 Blue. Metro's proposal to change all of those lines to 8 minute headways (7.5 TPH each) only adds up to 22.5 TPH.

The cuts to the Green and Yellow Lines make little sense at all. The shared section of the Blue and Yellow Lines in Virginia currently carries 20 TPH, so an increase in Blue Line service is possible without reducing service on Yellow. And, of course, with no change required to the Yellow Line, there's no need to reduce service on the Green Line.

One of the steepest cuts is the elimination of Rush Plus Yellow Line trains. Right now, the section of the Green/Yellow Line between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt hosts 15 TPH (roughly every 4 minutes). Under the proposal, that would decline to 7.5 TPH (every 8 minutes). In the growing Mid-City area, especially south of Columbia Heights, that could create crowding. Between Mount Vernon Square and L'Enfant Plaza, service levels would fall from 26 TPH to 15 TPH.

So, the service cuts are not entirely necessary to support increased Blue Line service. But Metro's proposal will also shift railcars around. Some will go toward lengthening trains on the Blue, Silver, and Green lines until 75% of the trains are eight cars.

Overall, the change would reduce the number of cars Metro needs to run rush hour service by approximately 100. Metro's fleet is stretched thin at the moment. The opening of the Silver Line last July increased the number of cars needed by 64. But because of delays in the production of the 7000 series, Metro had to reduce the time cars could spend getting preventative maintenance in order to operate the line.

That was never meant to be permanent, and it's taken a toll. Cars are breaking down more frequently, and Metro recently had to drastically cut the number of eight-car trains.

If WMATA officials move forward, they would then reach out to the public, survey riders, and hold legally required public hearings. The proposal could go to the agency's board by the fall.

Residents push for stop signs, not a wider road, at one Petworth intersection

In April, two cars collided at Kansas Avenue and Quincy Street NW. Crashes at the intersection aren't uncommon, and residents and ANC commissioners are asking for a four-way stop.

Kansas and Quincy NE. There are stop signs for people driving east and west on Quincy, but there are none on Kansas. Base image from Google Maps.

The two-block section of Kansas that meets Quincy is a wide, tree-lined street. Aside from at Quincy, there's an all-way stop at each street Kansas meets between Georgia Avenue and 13th Street. Quincy, by contrast, is a narrow street that connects the 14th Street corridor to the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro station.

There are stop signs for drivers traveling east and west along Quincy, but Kansas is only marked by two crosswalks and a couple of battered "Yield to Pedestrian" signs.

Poor visibility and speeds make crossing difficult

Kansas Avenue intersects Quincy at an angle, and people park cars along both streets, and traffic on Kansas moves quickly in both directions. Southbound drivers take advantage of the wide straightaway to drive downhill quickly and pass through a convoluted series of nine intersections. Northbound traffic cruises through the long green light on 13th Avenue and keep going fast as they make a wide right turn onto Quincy.

To cross, drivers must inch their way into the intersection so they can see enough to account for all these factors. It is no surprise local drivers avoid using this intersection.

People looking to walk along Quincy to get to the Metro, however, have no choice but to cross Kansas. Despite pedestrian crossing signs, drivers often don't yield to people waiting to cross, and even when the road looks empty, that can change quickly when drivers turn off 13th and fly up the hill.

The sister intersection, Quincy and 13th, couldn't feel more different. People driving cars obey the all-way stop signs and cross Quincy quickly and easily, and people on foot step out towards the Metro or 14th Street shops feeling safe.

Neighbors want a four-way stop sign

Following the most recent crash, the neighborhood renewed its push for a stop sign. Residents started requesting all-way stop signs more than ten years ago, according to ANC 4C06 Commissioner Vann-Di Galloway.

In an email exchange on April 1, 2015, a neighbor who observed the immediate aftermath of the collision wrote,

I just don't believe that this intersection is somehow the only one in 4C06 that manages to elude that designation, but that's what they keep telling us. For years now we've been pushing them to make it a 4-way stop, like EVERY other intersection is, but they keep trying other traffic tools, and frankly none of them do enough. That intersection won't be safe for drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians until it is a 4-way stop.

In a May 21st meeting with city officials, neighbors reiterated their longstanding concerns regarding pedestrian and vehicle right-of-way conflicts. Residents at that meeting also expressed serious doubts that DDOT's proposed solutions, which stop short of an all-way stop, would address the central safety concerns.

All-way stops have not ruined traffic patterns along Kansas Avenue or 13th Street. Why would this intersection be any different? Either the street is busy, so drivers and pedestrians attempting to cross need traffic controls, or the street is not that busy, so stop signs wouldn't cause a problem.

DDOT doesn't want to add a stop sign, but that could be for lack of information

In recent years, DDOT conducted studies where Quincy Street intersects both 13th Street and Kansas Ave NW. The agency helped create a four-way stop at Quincy and 13th, which is just 50 feet away from Quincy and Kansas and used to have similar troubles.

Gregg Steverson, from DDOT's Transportation Operations Administration, stated in a March, 2014 email to local residents that "based on standard volume and roadway classification" neither of the Quincy Street NW intersections met the warrants for all-way stop.

Additionally, Mr. Steverson expressed DDOT's concern that if an all-way stop went in, drivers may miss or ignore the stop sign in their rush toward visible green lights at the intersections at at Kansas, 13th, Spring, and Quebec.

DDOT never followed through on a commitment to examine the effect of the new 13th and Quincy stop signs. In meetings, residents expressed confusion as to why DDOT considers hypothetical non-compliance by some drivers as a criteria that weighs against traffic control devices.

Residents also noted that DDOT's studies of Kansas and Quincy have looked at the intersection between 10 am and 2 pm, a time window that might not accurately represent just how many people cross Kansas on foot. Finally, vehicle and pedestrian traffic volumes may be lower—particularly on Quincy—precisely because this intersection is so difficult to cross.

Residents don't want wider roads

One solution Mr. Steverson proposed was to remove parking spaces from along Kansas Avenue to improve lines of sight. Commissioner Galloway has responded to DDOT that this proposal would further tighten parking in a growing neighborhood and also widen the roads, which could increase the untenable speed of traffic.

Neighbors have pledged to continue their push for an all-way stop as long as necessary. They are hopeful that Brandon Todd's office will help make progress on this neighborhood priority before more people get hurt or property ends up damaged.

The five most frustrating things about Metro's problems

For a few years after the 2009 Fort Totten Red Line crash, public confidence in Metro's safety was growing. But a smoke fatality in January, a scathing federal report, and hearings last week have put safety back into the spotlight.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

I talked about Metro's safety on the Kojo Nnamdi Show last Monday, with guest host Jen Golbeck and Greater Washington Board of Trade head Jim Dinegar. Wednesday, I talked with Mike Coneen on NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt after the first day of hearings.

During the first day, details emerged that the operator of the train in the smoky tunnel wanted to pull the train back out, but was told to wait.

A train behind it had already come into the station, and police decided to evacuate that train, which made it impossible to move it out of the way to make room for the train in the tunnel. There didn't seem to be a clear response plan for this kind of situation or someone in charge who could coordinate all of the first responders.

After the Fort Totten crash, it became clear that the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), a group of safety officials from DC, Maryland, and Virginia tasked with monitoring safety, wasn't functioning well. Reforms supposedly set it up to succeed.

Apparently not, though. We discovered that the TOC wasn't able to issue many recommendations because it had to wait for higher-ups in DC, Maryland, and Virginia to agree, and then when it did, WMATA often didn't follow up.

WMATA and regional governments need to quickly address not only the specific failures of the L'Enfant incident, but also deal with the bigger picture issues. A few things stick out as frustrating for riders.

Smoke in a Metro car during the L'Enfant incident. Photo by Jonathan Rogers on Twitter.

1. Reforms around safety haven't fixed safety.

After the crash, some people argued that the WMATA Board had focused too much on service and neglected safety. Under political pressure, many long-serving board members resigned or were replaced. Instead of elected officials, who'd been more focused on what was frustrating riders, the board got a new crop of transit experts like current chairman Mort Downey and last year's chairman Tom Downs.

They brought in an old friend and old grizzled transit veteran, Rich Sarles, to be general manager. They said his experience should help get WMATA on a solid footing of safety and otherwise maintain a firm hand on the wheel. But it doesn't really look like the safety culture is so solid after all.

WMATA has other issues to deal with, too. Customer service is often pretty poor, and the agency is secretive not just with safety information but a lot more as well. It was pretty clear that Sarles was not the man to reform these aspects of the agency, but arguably getting a rock-solid safety foundation first was most important, and then Sarles' successor could tackle other needs. That's not possible now.

General Manager Richard Sarles testifies on safety in 2010. Image from WMATA.

2. Replacing the board didn't fix financial oversight, either.

WMATA also didn't follow procurement laws properly, which led the Federal Transit Administration to put WMATA in a "penalty box." WMATA now can't get its federal money until after it's spent it, creating a cash crunch.

Transit experts disagree on how much of an immediate crisis this represents—Downey and other insiders say it's just a short-term cash flow problem, while some, like DC CEO Jeffrey DeWitt, warn about WMATA being unable to repay its bonds.

Either way, however, it's maddening that this situation arose at all. As with safety, there was a whole push to get "experts" on the board of directors. Where were they?

Surprise image from Shutterstock.

3. All of these problems came as a surprise.

There were people who knew that these safety issues and financial issues created risks, but the public didn't, and neither apparently did many board members. The Inspector General was sounding the alarm on some of these problems, but IG reports tend to be opaque if they're even public.

This is just like what happened with the Fort Totten crash, where there were people aware the track circuits weren't working, but they didn't share that information widely enough. It's not okay to have a culture of hiding problems from superiors. It's not okay to hide this kind of information from policy-makers and the public, either.

Riders aren't so stupid that they can't be trusted to know about the various safety efforts underway. People know about the risks of roads and still drive. It's worse for the agency's reputation to have kept safety and financial pitfalls a secret and more disturbing when they then come to light.

4. Underfunding is a problem, but it's hard to fix now.

These management problems are infurating, but mismananagement is only half of the problem. Underfunding is the other half. WMATA didn't get enough money over decades to keep up with repairs, and now has to contend with a huge backlog.

The radios weren't working during the L'Enfant incident, which is inexcusable, but it would be a lot easier to criticize the agency for not fixing its radio systems if it hadn't been trying to fix the track circuits and a zillion other pieces, all of which work well enough day-to-day but might contribute to a safety problem at some point.

Unfortunately, it's even harder to get that funding when the news is so bad. Congress is planning to cut in half the money it promised for repairs after the 2009 crash. A lot of this might just be ideological opposition to transit from conservative members, but all of these problems, and the lack of honesty in the past, sure don't help.

A crowded train. Photo by philliefan99 on Flickr.

5. We need Metro to not only thrive, but grow.

Metro ridership has stopped growing, but it'll pick up again, and we need to be planning now to deal with the capacity crunches. Metro needs 8-car trains, but now the region won't buy enough railcars to make it possible, let alone upgrade power systems and add yard space.

Metro needs to solve the bottleneck at Rosslyn which now limits the number of Blue Line trains and will only get worse in the future.

Two years ago, we were talking about the Momentum plan to deal with Metro's needs first for 2025 and then beyond. Today, sadly, there isn't much momentum at all.

Which is sad, because Metro still is a very valuable transportation system. Our region depends on it—there isn't enough road space, or parking space, for all of the commuters otherwise. And it's actually quite a speedy way to get around, when it works and when you're going somewhere near a station.

We can't afford to let Metro stagnate or decay. Sadly, it turns out we didn't make nearly as much progress over the last six years as we thought.

You can listen to the Kojo segment here and watch the NewsTalk video below:

MARC fares may go up more than they have to

Candidate, now Governor, Larry Hogan said he opposed higher fees and taxes. Yet the Maryland Transit Administration is increasing MARC fares by more than the state law seems to require. This coincides with large cuts to tolls for drivers, raising more questions about the Hogan administration's support for transportation that runs on rails.

Photo by Austin Cross on Flickr.

The fare increase raises the one-way fare for each zone by $1, for a percent increase for Maryland riders ranging from 9% to 25%. For example, the fare for a one-zone trip, such as Union Station-Seabrook, Union Station-College Park, or Union Station-Kensington, will go up from $4 to $5 (+25%).

The fares for weekly (seven-day) tickets will increase by 45-67% for Maryland riders. For example, one-zone weekly fares will increase from $30 to $50. And the fares for monthly (good for the whole month) tickets will increase by 17-35% for Maryland riders, with one-zone monthlies increasing from $100 to $135.

These increases reflect both the one-way fare increase and a change in the formula for calculating weekly/monthly fares, from 7.5 times to 10 times the one-way fare for weeklies and 25 times to 27 times the one-way fare for monthlies.

Fares have to go up, but not this much

The Transportation Infrastructure Investment Act of 2013 requires MTA to increase MARC one-way zone fares and weekly/monthly passes in fiscal year 2015 by at least the same percentage as the 2009-2013 increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all urban consumers, to the nearest dollar. The CPI increase was about 10%.

But there is nothing in the language of the law about changing the formula for calculating the weekly/monthly fares. And the change in formula accounts for a meaningful part of the fare increase.

For example, the statutory increase in one-way fares alone would raise the price of a one-zone monthly ticket from $100 to $125 (+25%). But under MARC's fare increase, thanks to the change in formula, the ticket will cost $135, or $10 per month (8%) more.

Also, while MTA does not have to hold public hearings for fare increases required by the 2013 act, state law does require MTA to hold public hearings for other MARC fare increases.

The MARC Riders Advisory Council (MRAC) has called on Governor Hogan to delay the fare increases and hold public hearings about them because it believes that the increases are greater than state law requires. (Disclosure: I am a member of the MRAC.)

Maryland says the law requires the fare increase

MTA maintains that the fare increase is mandated by law. MTA and Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) officials at last week's MRAC meeting gave two reasons for changing the formulas.

The first was that people with weekly/monthly passes can now use them seven days a week. This thinking doesn't account for the whole picture, though, because only the Penn Line offers the weekend service. Trains on the Camden and Brunswick Lines continue to run Monday-Friday only.

The second was that the average number of trips on a weekly/monthly ticket has gone up and that the law requires MTA to adjust the formula based on current ridership data. The ridership data here consists of MARC conductors' daily tallies of monthly, weekly, and one-way tickets. However, MTA officials agreed with MARC riders that these data are unreliable. Also, the data say nothing about the average number of trips an average rider makes on a weekly/monthly pass. Most importantly, the text of the act says nothing about adjusting the formula for weekly/monthly tickets based on ridership data.

Responding to the MRAC's objections, MTA Administrator Paul Comfort announced a new five-day pass, with a price calculated according to the original formula (7.5 times the one-way zone fare). This is welcome news for regular MARC riders. But he also said that MTA will keep the increased new formula for monthly passes and will not hold public hearings on the resulting fare increase.

After the meeting, the MRAC again called for public hearings, specifically citing the questionable data MTA used to calculate the new formula for monthly passes.

Cut tolls, increase MARC fares

As several MRAC members pointed out at the meeting, the greater-than-minimum fare increase for monthly passes looks bad for MTA and the Hogan administration. Hogan opposed taxes, fees, and tolls as a major part of his campaign. A campaign ad from the Republican Governors Association, showing a picture of a MARC train, blamed then-governor Martin O'Malley and lieutenant governor Anthony Brown for a transit fare increase.

On May 7, the Hogan administration claimed to deliver on his "promise to...put money back in the pockets of hard-working Maryland families" with a cut in tolls for drivers. Less than three weeks later, the administration announced a MARC fare increase that is bigger than the law seems to require.

What is the Hogan administration trying to tell us? Aren't MARC riders hard-working Marylanders too?

Annapolis gets on board with open transit data

Many transit agencies around the Washington region and the nation have published their routes and schedules online in formats that apps and web tools, including Google Maps, can use. Now, Annapolis is joining the club.

Photo by Frida Archibold.

The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) is a format for computer-readable files that list all of a transit agency's routes and schedules. Google and Portland's TriMet created the format so Google Maps could include transit directions, but it's open and public, so anyone can write software that uses the data, and many other people have developed their own apps.

For example, the Car-Free A to Z tool, which lets people compare various options like driving, driving to transit, biking to transit, transit to Capital Bikeshare, and so forth, uses GTFS files for the transit portion of its data.

Image from Car-Free A to Z.

WMATA released GTFS files for its services in 2009, and became part of Google Maps in 2011, Since then, most regional transit agencies have followed suit.

A new feed for Annapolis Transit will let users of Google Maps and the other tools that use GTFS files plan trips on Annapolis' eight bus lines.

New tools help small transit agencies use GTFS

Small agencies, like Annapolis', don't have big IT departments. Some transit agencies even plan bus service with spreadsheets instead of dedicated transit planning software. They may not have the resources to make GTFS files and keep them up to date as schedules and routes change.

Luckily, tools are emerging to help small agencies. One such tool is GTFS Builder, a product of the FTA's National Rural Transit Assistance Program.

GTFS Builder is a simple set of Excel workbooks that compiles information like schedules, routes, and fares, and processes them into GTFS files. These workbooks allow transit agencies to digitize their data using Excel that agency staff are already familiar with.

Maryland gets a statewide program to make GTFS files

One of Maryland's Transportation Demand Management agencies, called TRIP, is taking open data one step further, running a program to help Maryland's transit agencies publish data to GTFS.

All data created through the TRIP program is open to software developers and available on the TRIP website.

So far, Annapolis Transit and the Regional Transportation Agency of Central Maryland have published data via TRIP. Others are sure to follow.

Having interactive transit information that includes schedules, fares, and bus stops available online is a prerequisite for many potential transit riders to learn how and when they can ride. GTFS files, and participation in tools like Google Maps that result, can encourage new people to try transit.

The more agencies join, the better.

Meet Ride-On Plus, the every-10-minute bus that may run on Route 355

Montgomery County is hoping a federal grant will jump-start its proposed BRT network with a new bus line on the county's biggest main street, Route 355. If the grant comes through, the new "Ride-On Plus" won't be full BRT, but will rather be a limited-stop route akin to WMATA's MetroExtra.

Ride-On Plus route map. Image from Montgomery County.

Last month, Montgomery County submitted a grant request to the federal government for approximately $20 million to add a new bus line along busy Route 355. The line would run from Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg south to downtown Bethesda, making stops at key locations along the way in Gaithersburg, Rockville, and North Bethesda.

Buses would come every ten minutes at peak times, and would only make a total of nine stops over the course of the 11-mile route. By stopping so infrequently, buses would travel the route significantly faster than existing Ride-On buses.

Although Ride-On Plus will not qualify as bus rapid transit—it won't have dedicated lanes—it will include some BRT-like upgrades: Traffic signals will stay green a few seconds longer if a bus is about to pass, and bus stops will have premium features like real-time arrival screens.

The grant is a long shot

Unfortunately, Ride-On Plus may never happen. County officials hope a federal TIGER grant will cover $18.5 million out of the project's total $23 million price tag. But TIGER grants are extremely hard to come by; the federal TIGER budget is $500 million nationwide, and there are usually tens of billions of dollars in requests. Most grant requests never get money.

But if this grant comes through, Ride-On Plus could provide a nice first-step towards an eventual bona fide BRT line, helping to build ridership and make the case that there's a market for better transit in Montgomery County.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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