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Tax benefit changes and better options are hurting transit ridership

While Americans took a record number of trips on public transportation last year, ridership numbers in our region are down.

Photo by Bill Couch on Flickr.

There are several potential reasons for the region's dip, but two in particular warrant consideration: changes to commuter tax benefits, and better alternatives to traditional transit.

Nationwide, Americans made 10.75 billion trips by transit in 2014, according to annual ridership statistics released this month by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

That's up from 10.65 billion trips in 2013, with the number of trips outpacing population growth. In a year of low gasoline prices, the increase is welcome news for the transit industry.

But CityLab's Eric Jaffe has advised caution about reading too much into these numbers, pointing out that New York City's transit ridership skews the data, and that overall, bus ridership is down.

Moreover, the Washington metro region's ridership numbers have declined. Apart from the ART Bus in Arlington, our region's use of public transportation declined between 2013 and 2014. The decreases are not dramatic, but they are still worrisome.

Commuter tax benefit changes are hurting ridership

The commuter pre-tax benefit allows participating employees to deduct the cost of their commuting expenses, tax-free, from their paychecks. The transit benefit was reduced, effective January 1, 2014, to a level for transit ($130 maximum per month) that's roughly half that of parking ($250). This made news back in November when TransitCenter released a report pointing out that the federal government is basically subsidizing congestion.

Transit advocates and transportation planners fear the transit reduction because of the potential incentives it creates. Because the transit benefit is so much less than the parking benefit, driving appears to be considerably more attractive in comparison.

In case anyone still doubts that federal tax policy can influence commuting behavior, the news from WMATA isn't good. PlanItMetro has released data showing that the reduction of the transit benefit is at least partially responsible for a decline in Metro ridership in 2014.

WMATA estimates that the lower transit benefit results in 25 percent of its riders running out of SmarTrip benefits before the end of each month. This is 40 percent more than the year prior.

Graph from PlanItMetro.

While some riders replenish the amounts on their SmarTrip cards when their monthly benefits run out, many do not. This explains why Metro ridership in 2014 was higher at the beginning of each month than the end, and why ridership on Metro was down for the year overall.

With its large number of federal workers, our region certainly feels the impact of the reduced transit benefit more than other areas. Organizations such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) have called for immediate action by Congress to restore the transit benefit to a level equal to the parking benefit.

Kelley Coyner, executive director of NVTC, said "Restoring parity for the commuter tax benefit will keep transit riders on Metro, ART, and other transit systems all month long. Now ridership goes down when the benefit runs out. Lower ridership means more congestion and lost revenue to transit."

Two bills in Congress right now, the Transit Tax Parity Act of 2015 (HR 1043, Rep. Holmes-Norton) and the Commuter Parity Act of 2015 (HR 990, Rep. King) would restore parity between the transit and parking benefit permanently.

Some transit riders now have better options

Another potential reason for Washington's lower transit ridership numbers is that our region has more options, notably Capital Bikeshare. As bikesharing stations have proliferated, commuters have another transportation option that's not only being utilized as a connection to bus and rail, but often as a commute mode in its own right.

Public transportation agencies like WMATA, meanwhile, have an improved, holistic, view of transportation these days. Capital Bikeshare, the largest and most successful bikeshare systyem in the US, is no longer considered a competitor to public transit so much as a complement to it.

And although proponents of bikesharing services like to refer to them as "bike transit," ridership numbers are not included in the APTA public transportation data. With 2.8 million trips taken on Capital Bikeshare in 2014 (and increasing), bikeshare trips aren't insubstantial.

According to Paul DeMaio, an Arlington County consultant largely responsible for the creation of Capital Bikeshare, the system has "both pulled trips from Metrorail and Metrobus and helped folks get to rail and bus. With CaBi trips mainly taken in the urban core of the region, bikeshare has assisted slightly in lowering the peak-period crush on Metrorail and Metrobus." In other words, yes DC, your lower transit trips might be for a good reason.

Chris Hamilton, bureau chief of Arlington County Commuter Services, downplays the significance of any regional trends. He said something that's "happening on the ground in that individual place" isn't indicative of what a long-term trend might be. Localities, he added, should only be worried about lower transit ridership if drive-alone rates are increasing.

In DC and Arlington, that trend has not been seen yet. Arlington County prides itself, in fact, on moving more people without increasing traffic on its arterial roads, largely through employment of transportation demand management techniques that inform and educate citizens about their options.

Hamilton echoed DeMaio's sentiment, saying, "Perhaps in those cases when transit is down a little bit, people are taking advantage of biking, walking, and shared rides more. As long as people continue to use options, like they are in Arlington, that's good for cities."

Cross-posted from Mobility Lab.

Here are some original answers to whichWMATA week 44

On Tuesday, we posted our forty-fourth photo challenge to see how well you know Metro. I took five photos in the Metro system. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 37 guesses. Twenty-five of you got all five right. Only twelve of those, though, figured out the theme. Those twelve are: JamesDCane, Mike B, Andrew, Peter K, mklkmkwk, coneyraven, endash, Maris, JPJ, RyanS, Julian, and MDL. Great work!

Image 1: Metro Center

A lot of you guessed the theme to be that all five stations were on the Red Line. It's correct that they are, but that wasn't the theme. These five stations were the first five Metro stations in the system to open. When Metro opened its doors to passengers on March 27, 1976, the Red Line ran from Rhode Island Avenue to Farragut North. Tomorrow is the 39th birthday of these five stations!

In case you're confused, the reason two stations in this stretch are absent is because they didn't open with the rest of the system. NoMa didn't come along until 2004, when it became Metro's first infill station. And Gallery Place didn't open until December 15th of 1976 because a court injunction prevented the station from opening without a working elevator.

The first image shows the crossvault at Metro Center. You can tell this is Metro Center rather than L'Enfant Plaza because the triangular coffers go all the way to the center of the vault rather than stopping short. We taught you how to tell the difference between transfer stations in week 5. All 37 of you knew this was Metro Center.

Image 2: Farragut North

The second image shows the mezzanine at Farragut North. It should have been very obvious that this was a Red Line station since you can read "Shady Grove" and "Grsvnr" on signs. This has to be Farragut North because of the configuration of the mezzanine, which is above the tracks but open above the platform. This is the inverse of the arrangement at all the other underground stations, where the mezzanine stays above the platform, leaving the tracks open to above. Thirty-four of you got this one right.

Image 3: Judiciary Square

This image shows the station entrance pylon for the eastern entrance to Judiciary Square station. In addition to the red stripe telling you this was a Red Line station, the main clue is the building in the background, One Judiciary Square. The same fašade was featured in week 34. Thirty-four of you guessed correctly.

Image 4: Rhode Island Avenue

The fourth image shows the path leading to the pedestrian bridge over Rhode Island Avenue, taken from the north end of the eponymous station. This path is distinctive because it's nearly perfectly circular and is easily visible from trains on the Red Line. Thirty-one of you recognized it.

Image 5: Union Station

The final image shows a sign at Union Station. While there aren't many other clues here, the sign and its orientation should have been enough. The only "waffle" stations on the Red Line are the six in the stretch from Union Station to Dupont Circle. Of those stations, only two have island platforms, which you can tell must be the case here given the direction of the arrow and the vantage point near the center of the vault.

It can't be Farragut North because that station has an almost full-length mezzanine (see image 2). Thirty-two of you figured this one out.

Thanks to everyone for playing! Great work. Stay tuned. We'll have five more images for you next week.

Get your March Madness on with two games that test your city smarts

In the mood for yet another bracket? Or maybe after filling one out, you're looking for a guessing game where you've at least got some idea of what you're doing? These two games are fun ways to test what you know about cities.

Census bracketology

The first is the Census Bureau's Population Bracketology. You can play using either state or metropolitan area populations, choosing which of the paired "contestants" has the greater population.

Many of the choices are intuitive, but it's often surprising to see how large many younger, Sunbelt cities have grown. The difference would have been much more obvious if the Census pitted city populations head-to-head—municipalities in the east are usually much smaller than those in the west.

Jonathan Neeley, our staff editor, said "when cities I don't have a great gauge of came up, it got me thinking about density versus sprawl. I obviously know New York beats Jacksonville. But does Baltimore beat Riverside? Does Portland beat Orlando?"

You may know populations, but how about transit lines?

If you've got a sharper memory for geography than for facts and figures, you might prefer Chicago-based CNT's "Guess the City," featuring transit stops color-coded by service frequency (drawn from GTFS data):

CNT guess the city

Not all of the choices are so obvious, though, especially in suburbs with sparse transit networks:

CNT guess the city

One hint: keep in mind that many eastern cities have radial street networks, whereas western cities almost always have gridded streets. Also, bigger cities almost always have denser transit networks. CNT's site also lets users generate a color-coded "Transit Access Score" that measures how accessible any given location is via transit.

WMATA needs to do better, says DC transportation head

DC's new transportation director Leif Dormsjo says the region's transit authority needs to change. This might not sound like shocking news to most riders, but it's a sentiment many top WMATA officials don't share or seem reluctant to admit if they do.

Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr.

Dormsjo and Corbett Price, both appointed to the WMATA Board by Mayor Muriel Bowser, recently spent a day at WMATA learning all about the inner workings of the agency. That experience, he said, gave him a clear understanding about problems at the agency.

"WMATA needs to hire and fire better, manage its capital projects better, follow accounting principles better, and communicate with the public better," he said.

Not everyone in positions of authority feels this way. Current board chairman and federal appointee Mort Downey, as well as the Gray administration's board pick Tom Downs, had strongly praised Richard Sarles' tenure and were looking for a similar transit veteran to succeed him.

Dormsjo thinks WMATA instead needs an outsider who will shake up the culture at the agency. "WMATA needs a CEO," he said.

Is Metro service good enough?

Bowser has sometimes described her idea for a new WMATA General Manager as a "turnaround specialist." At a panel discussion Monday, I said I thought the agency does need an outsider, as long as that person understands that change means doing better, not just doing less to cut costs at the expense of riders.

Here's the audio recording from the panel:

Graham Jenkins, who tweets about transit @LowHeadways, agreed that we need more service, not less. He said,

Put simply, there aren't enough trains and there aren't enough buses. Frequency is freedom. If you're in a car it's very easy to say, "I'm going to begin my trip now," and get into your car to begin that journey. Transit can only run that way when it runs frequently enough.

The British have a term for it, "turn up and go service." It means that you can leave and ... be relatively assured that within a pretty short amount of time something will come and you'll be on your way. But ... our level of weekend service is considered adequate when even without trackwork the headways on Sundays are 15 minutes. It's commuter rail level of service.

There are certainly many people who work at Metro who don't like that level of service, but the agency doesn't have the financial resources to run more. Later, Tom Bulger, a member of the board appointed by the DC Council, seemed to say that rush hour is what mattered to the agency: "We're only as good as our last rush hour. Sorry Graham, sorry David, that's how the system operates."

Jenkins replied,

That's also the problem with the system. The board seems to have abdicated oversight responsibility. The board needn't be passive. ... This is the same mentality that Muriel Bowser had when she was on the board and decried that, if this were my railroad, I would change certain things. ... It is her railroad, it is your railroad. You have the power to change things and to accept the status quo passively is why these problems will not go away.
Has WMATA management not been honest?

Bowser indeed did not exercise vigorous oversight of WMATA while she was on the board from 2011 to 2014, but has seemingly moved decisively to appoint people who will now that she is mayor.

Procurement errors under former CFO Carol Kissal led to a scathing report from the Federal Transit Administration and punitive steps where FTA has withheld federal funds and put WMATA in a short-term cash flow crunch. Board members including Bowser and Bulger did not know the extent of this problem until it was too late.

Moderator Pat Host noted that Bowser has said top management was not "honest and forthright with the board about the financial situation of the agency," as Host described it. But Bulger feels that the board has "enough CFO experience with our current CFO Dennis [Anosike] and the current chairman of the Metro board, Mort Downey."

He did not seem very concerned with the agency's current direction. Nor did Jackie Jeter, the president of the union representing most WMATA employees. She said that she worries a "turnaround specialist" would create too much whiplash.

WMATA never gets a chance to run its plan. A couple of years ago Metro came up with a 25-year plan for what it needed to do ... but now that this has happened we abandon that and move to something else. At some point we have to stop this ADHD approach to transportation and actually come up with a program, run the program, and do what is needed.
But as Metro was running its program, its culture of secrecy persisted. Besides not telling even some of their own board members about the financial situation, the message from the agency too often was "just trust us" while anyone who did later felt betrayed. Dormsjo is right that one of the most-needed changes is for WMATA to communicate better—and that's not just to utter talking points more persuasively, but actually be more open with customers.

In the panel, Bulger said, "It's hard being on this board when you don't have partners." Many riders and advocates want to be partners, but can only do that if the agency treats them like partners instead of children. When it's even treating its own board members like children, it's clear something has to change.

Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 44

It's time for the forty-fourth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Washington Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

This is a themed week. For bonus points, identify the theme when you answer.

The answers will appear on Thursday. We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun for the rest of you.

Update: The answers are here.

Northern Virginia has $350 million to spend on transportation. Here's what officials want to build

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) controls a vast budget for transportation projects all over Northern Virginia. Now they're gearing up to build 34 new projects, including new Metro stations, more buses, and wider highways.

Map of project locations from NVTA.

What's NVTA?

NVTA may be the most important infrastructure agency in the Washington area that few people know much about. "The authority," as officials call it (to distinguish it from the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a lobbying organization that favors aggressive highway-building), gives Northern Virginia the ability to raise and spend its own money on its own priorities.

That's the theory, anyway. But the Virginia General Assembly requires NVTA to prioritize projects that reduce road congestion. Before NVTA can fund any projects, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has to run each proposal through a computer model that rates its ability to reduce congestion.

"Congestion reduction" sounds great, but it doesn't work

VDOT's rating system for NVTA projects rewards expansions of the busiest highways, on the assumption that more road capacity will reduce congestion. It's a flawed 20th century metric that ignores decades of real world experience that bigger roads actually make congestion worse.

The VDOT system does not measure things like how a project might benefit safety, or increase accessibility, and doesn't take into consideration how land use changes are driven by infrastructure.

The biggest problem is simply that VDOT's model doesn't know what to do with short distance trips, which are the exact type of trip that transit-oriented development produces more of. So when a transit or pedestrian project makes it possible for thousands of people to walk two blocks instead of drive five miles, the VDOT model doesn't always show that as reducing congestion.

Thus, road expansion projects end up looking good, and other things have trouble competing. Transit does OK if it relieves traffic on a major road, but pedestrian or bike projects are almost impossible.

Many other regions are using broader metrics for measuring transportation performance and congestion mitigation, but Northern Virginia can't because the General Assembly won't let it.

NVTA's proposed project list

NVTA has announced a draft list of 34 projects the agency recommends for funding over the next two years. The list includes 18 road projects and 16 transit projects, totaling about $350 million.

Road projects include widening Route 1, Route 7, Route 28, and Loudoun County Parkway, as well as intersection expansions along Route 50 in the City of Fairfax, new interchanges in Leesburg, and more.

Transit projects include money for the Innovation Center and Potomac Yard Metro stations, a new entrance at Ballston station, VRE platform expansions at Franconia-Springfield, Rippon, and Crystal City, Metrorail power upgrades, and new buses for WMATA, Loudoun, Fairfax, and Fairfax City.

Here's the complete list. Projects that NVTA staff is recommending for construction are highlighted in yellow.

Over the next week NVTA is holding a series of town hall meetings on its project list, and a public hearing in Merrifield on Wednesday, March 25 (tomorrow!), beginning at 6:00 pm.

It doesn't end with this list

NVTA is also developing a long-term regional plan to guide decisions from 2018 on.

NVTA's last long-term plan, TransAction 2040, is an aspirational list of projects that was developed before the agency had any funding. Now that it has money, NVTA is developing a more structured framework to determine how to prioritize funds.

Building the new regional plan will take two years, and there should be many opportunities for citizens to engage in it. A critical issue will be how NVTA and VDOT choose to measure "congestion reduction" and the cost-effectiveness of projects, and to what extent they will take into account the benefits of shifting more single-occupant car trips to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit ones.

Watch for news on the next TransAction plan later in 2015.

Here's where Metro railcars go after they die

Last week, reddit user redfrobro spotted something unusual. Aboard an oversized flatbed truck sat one of the Metro's distinctive brown-striped railcars, boarded up and without wheels. The truck was towing it down a wide avenue... in Lawrence, Kansas.

Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by reddit user redfrobro.

With hundreds of 7000 series railcars on their way this year and not enough space to store them all, WMATA has been parting with its old, damaged, and otherwise unusable railcars.

The car redfrobro saw, number 3216, was one of 12 damaged in a 2009 collision at the Falls Church yard. You can see some of the breakage next to the door on the driver's cab. While its final destination remains a mystery for now, it's likely car 3216 won't just be scrapped given how far it's traveled.

Out of respect to those lost and their families, WMATA quietly dismantles railcars involved in fatal accidents. Those involved in less significant incidents typically get stripped for parts, repurposed for other uses, or sold to somewhere outside of the Metrorail system.

By and large, that new use is for emergency training. In 2012, a number of problematic 1000 series cars arrived at the Guardian Centers, a facility in Perry, Georgia, which includes a 1600-foot mock subway tunnel and station (complete with Foggy Bottom signage).

Many of these cars are used for first response training, but some have undergone simulations of more damaging scenarios, like this explosion designed to simulate the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

Emergency training car. Photo by Guardian Centers.

The Department of Defense also uses at least two Metro railcars at its Asymmetric Warfare Training Center, a mock city used for terrorism training in Fort A.P Hill, Virginia. Those cars were declared unfit for carrying passengers after they derailed at the Brentwood yard in 2013.

DOD railcar. Photo from Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS).

Metro itself uses two damaged railcars at its own emergency training center in Landover, Maryland. The press recently got access to this facility after January's fatal smoke incident outside L'Enfant Plaza.

Landover facility. Photo by Martin Di Caro on Twitter.

Metro still uses some damaged cars in its rail system, just not for revenue service. After an 1982 accident outside Federal Triangle station, vehicle 1028 was orphaned from its married pair and repurposed as a "feeler car" for testing clearances around tracks and tunnels. Four 1000 series cars also got new numbers and now serve as "money trains," which collect fares from stations around the system.

Money train. Photo by reddit user iamfriedsushi.

Dozens of Metro cars have met an early end over the years, and a lot more are about to join them as the 1000 series begins its mass retirement. Metro will store 50 of these tired workhorses as a contingency fleet, but hundreds more will need to find new homes.

Assuming they don't simply get scrapped, it's going to be fun to see them pop up in more unexpected places around the country.

Events roundup: Outside and inside the beltway

Outside the beltway, learn about big plans for I-66 and buses in Loudoun County, and weigh in on transportation funding in northern Virginia. Inside the beltway, learn about Metro safety and hear some progressive takes today's transit challenges.

Photo by Adam Fagen

Changes to I-66: VDOT has big plans for HOT lanes on I-66 outside of the Beltway. Join Coalition for Smarter Growth and its partners to learn about their plans and voice your concerns on Wednesday, March 25, from 7 to 9 pm at the Oakton High School cafeteria at 2900 Sutton Road, Vienna. There will be a panel and extended open forum. RSVP is requested.

After the jump: Metro safety, buses in Loudoun, budgeting in northern Virginia, and crossing transit boundaries.

Metro safety: Safety is a growing concern on the Metro after several recent incidents. David Alpert will join an upcoming panel hosted by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) on Metro safety. ATU's public hearing is on Wednesday, March 25, from 6 to 8 pm at 1313 H St NE.

Buses in Loudoun County: Are you a commuter in Loudoun County? Loudoun has begun work on a six-year plan for countywide bus operations. It's focused on improvements to current service as well as expanding around the Silver Line. There will be two open houses on Wednesday, March 25, at the Loudoun County Government Center at 1 Harrison Street SE in Leesburg. The first will be from 12 to 3 pm and the second will be from 3 to 7 pm. Stop in and share your thoughts.

Virginia transportation projects: Have an opinion on which northern Virginia transportation projects deserve funding, and which don't? The place to speak up is at Wednesday's Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) public input meeting. Learn about and comment on the proposed projects, before NVTA makes decisions on which projects to fund. The open house begins at 6:00 with a presentation and public hearing to follow. Shuttle to the meeting from Dunn Loring Metro provided.

Pushing transit boundaries: If you are frustrated with the current state of regional transit, join GGW contributors Dan Reed and Stewart Schwartz at the League of Women Voters' transportation forum on finding modern solutions to today's problems. The forum is this Saturday, March 28, from 9:30 am to 3:15 pm at 4301 Wilson Blvd in Arlington.

Pressure for bus lanes: After advocates' campaign for a bus lane on 16th Street last year, next Tuesday 3/31 DDOT is kicking off the year-long study that is the next required step to see real change in the corridor. But public involvement is key to keeping it from becoming just another dusty study on a self. The Coalition for Smarter Growth is organizing supporters to attend the kickoff at the Mt. Pleasant Library (2160 16th St NW).

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at

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