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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.

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.

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

What it will take to get Metro out of crisis

I spoke on a panel this morning at the National Press Club about the future of WMATA. Pat Host hosted WMATA board member Tom Bulger, union president Jackie Jeter, @lowheadways' Graham Jenkins, and me. We were all asked to prepare statements about the "challenges facing Metro and its riders." Here is an edited version of my statement.

Here we are, again. Someone reading the headlines about WMATA could easily think we were back in 2009.

Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The agency faces a budget shortfall. Service cuts are on the table. Trains and buses are breaking down. Riders are frustrated. And then, a fatal crash exposed safety failures that they knew about but didn't address.

The riding public sees WMATA as perpetually in crisis. Yes, this year's particular budget gap is largely a result of the cutbacks in federal transit benefits, but we've been here in past years and will be again. Can WMATA get out of this cycle, reach a sound financial footing, fix broken systems, and regain the public's trust?

Picking the right general manager

Everyone agrees WMATA needs fixing, but not on how to fix it. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser wants as the next General Manager a "turnaround specialist" from outside the transit industry while recent board chairman Tom Downs thinks another experienced transit executive, just like the last few GMs, is the right pick.

I worry about both possibilities. Another career transit operator for whom this is the last job before retirement would not shake up deeply entrenched problems within the agency, like an insular culture impervious to outside information, a hierarchical structure where people do not question higher-ups, and poor customer service from a few employees whose actions reflect badly on the whole but go unchecked.

But a pure cost-cutter could sacrifice service at the altar of the bottom line. Our region's residents depend on transit service. Far more people live car-free in walkable urban places than when Metro was new. It would be deeply wrong to retrench Metro as merely a suburban commuter system designed to move workers downtown at rush hours.

There are those who say Metro's problem is that it has too much service. Late night and weekend service makes track work more difficult. It would be easier to shut the whole system down to make repairs. Sometimes that is appropriate, but it must be as minimal as possible, not just expansive for convenience's sake.

I believe WMATA does need an outsider, not another member of the transit executive club who thinks the way it's always been done is just fine. But to ensure an outsider changes the right things, riders need to be involved.

The current debate over a turnaround expert versus a transit operating expert has been happening almost entirely behind the scenes. Scant information can lead officials to make bad decisions. Muriel Bowser, Terry McAuliffe, and Larry Hogan need to reach out more to riders about what they'd want from an outsider, and riders need to make their views heard.

Fix the mismanagement and the funding stream

Metro has twin challenges of disinvestment and mismanagement, and both feed on one another. The agency's failures make people understandably more reluctant to throw money at what seems like a black hole, but underfunding and unusually high expenses have put the system on a knife's edge where a small mistake has big consequences.

WMATA needs a reliable and dedicated funding stream to insulate against the vagaries of the political winds in Annapolis, Richmond, and Pennsylvania Avenue, but riders and local governments will need better guarantees of what will happen next.

A plan to stabilize WMATA must go beyond dollars and give riders a much clearer understanding of how long they must endure this level of weekend track work, when Metro can reach a state of good repair, and then what level of maintenance to expect beyond.

People need to know not only how WMATA will make it through the next year's budget, but also how this stretches into the long term. They need to know whether WMATA can live within its means with only inflationary fare increases while boosting rather than cutting service. And riders will expect customer service to become a higher priority.

Without change, Metro will probably muddle through. It muddles through, year after year. We'll be back in a few years discussing how to close a budget gap or deal with decrepit systems. When ridership grows again we still won't have 8-car trains or a second Rosslyn station to allow more Blue Line service. Most buses will still be too infrequent and too slow, or end too early, to really offer an alternative to car ownership.

We can't afford the status quo

But the region can't afford a transit system that is just going to squeak by from one challenge to the next. Whoever the next general manager is, he or she needs to be able to right the ship.

WMATA faces management challenges that need resolutions. And the agency's program of rebuilding after decades of deferred maintenance still has years' worth of work left. Rising costs are driving an annual budget battle with no end in sight.

But WMATA's next leader will also have to deal with a deficit of public confidence. Riders are tired of constant work, frequent delays, and surly employees. And that is afflicting the political will to solve the funding situation.

I hope that the region can mobilize to do better, to make Metro again a jewel of our national capital that can be proud of. Can we do it?

Virginia takes the politics out of transportation spending

A newly-passed General Assembly bill will make transportation spending in Virginia more practical and less political, by replacing ad-hoc funding decisions with more transparent performance measures.

Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.

HB1887, the "omnibus transportation bill" which the General Assembly passed this session, makes dozens of changes to the complicated web of formulas and regulations that govern Virginia's transportation budget.

The biggest change completely replaces the state's system for deciding which local road projects to build. Other changes set aside more money to maintain existing roads and bridges, and add more money to transit.

The new legislation will "revolutionize the way Virginia invests taxpayer dollars to restore aging roads, build new capacity and increase transit," says Virginia secretary of transportation Aubrey Layne in an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Funding decisions should become less political

Proponents of HB1887 argue it will make transportation planning and budgeting far less political.

Currently, a group called the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) makes decisions about what projects to advance, and where to spend money. But CTB members are appointed by the governor, and it's common for governors to fire and replace any CTB members who don't toe the party line, or who toe the wrong party's.

HB1887 changes that. Not only does it restrict governor's ability to fire CTB members without cause, it also requires the CTB to follow objective performance measures when allocating certain pots of money.

Money for repairs and key projects

Once signed into law, HB1887 will direct a larger percentage of Virginia's transportation budget to maintaining and replacing old bridges and roads, as opposed to building completely new highways. The CTB will develop a priority ranking system to distribute those funds, so the money will go where it can do the most good.

Still, a lot of money will go towards projects to expand interstates, major roadways, and rail lines across Virginia. The CTB is also responsible for distributing these funds, but under new, more mode-agnostic criteria mandated under last year's HB2 legislation.

Improvements to local project funding

Another large pot of money will go to road projects that local jurisdictions request funding for directly, via Virginia's nine road construction districts. Any county, city, or town can apply to its VDOT construction district for a grant. VDOT will analyze each request according to pre-determined performance measures, and fund as many as it can each year.

Northern Virginia's district includes the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, Manassas, and Manassas Park, along with Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties.

"Projects selected will receive full funding for all phases, allowing projects to proceed more quickly from design to construction," wrote Layne. He adds, "this is a significant improvement from the old system" which guaranteed a small amount of money to each jurisdiction every year, and "in which communities often "banked" funds for five to ten years so they had enough money to build the projects they wanted."

$40 million for transit

The bill also moves $40 million statewide from highways, ports, and aviation toward transit projects, such as new buses or railcars, and rehabilitating track. This transfer is key, because without it Virginia's transit capital funding would drop 62% in the coming years.

That's only a partial win. The coming drop in transit funding is close to $100 million, so there will still be less money for transit in the future than there's been in the past. But $40 million is better than nothing.

By comparison, individual highway interchanges frequently cost over $40 million each.

Other good transportation bills also passed

In other good news, legislators amended HB1915/SB1314, which would have forced officials to use highway-favoring "congestion metrics" in choosing transportation projects, to be less damaging to transit, bike, and pedestrian projects. And HB1886 passed, which partially reforms the Public Private Transportation Act, meaning Virginia should see even more accountability and transparency.

The public has a right to know what's going on with the streetcar

Earlier this month, DDOT's director suggested that the streetcar might have too many problems to ever start revenue service. But even after months of delays and several missed opening dates, the public still doesn't know what the actual problems are. We deserve to know.

Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

At a DC Council hearing on March 7th, DDOT director Leif Dormsjo, who started in January, said he's waiting on an external review to decide "whether there's a pathway to passenger service" for the streetcar. That's as far as he went, declining to share specifics about what, exactly, might be so catastrophic as to warrant canceling the H Street line altogether.

The biggest problem with the streetcar is how little we know about it

We do know that there are some unresolved Federal Transit Administration safety recommendations, but they all appear to be easy fixes. We also know that DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (DC FEMS), which is the state safety oversight agency in charge of approving the streetcar's safety program, has concerns, as they still have not approved passenger service. But nobody at DC FEMS has shared their concerns with the public, either.

The issues could be easy to fix, like a need to add more signs or pavement markings. Or they could be more serious. The public has no way of knowing, and nobody at DDOT or DC FEMS is talking. That's unacceptable.

After so many broken promises from Mayor Gray, it makes sense that Dormsjo has resolved not to make rosy promises or predict opening dates. In that vein, taking a couple of months to figure out what's wrong is reasonable. But canceling a massive program for seemingly no reason, and amidst such deafening silence, is an entirely different matter, and one that would not be justifiable.

Other major projects in the region set a precedent for transparency

When the Silver Line was delayed, we knew why. There was a well-circulated list of 33 unfinished items, regular conference calls between WMATA and journalists, and several public hearings on the matter. Similarly, the public knows what the problems are with the long-delayed Silver Spring Transit Center.

Why is the Bowser administration refusing to talk about what's causing the streetcar's delay?

If DDOT continues to keep the public out of the loop and the streetcar does open, how can we have any confidence that never-named problems got the attention they deserved? And if DDOT stays quiet and the line doesn't open, how can we trust this administration to competently follow through on any of its other promises?

Muriel Bowser ran on a campaign of community engagement and support for the H Street line. She pledged to "push for the most open and transparent administration possible." It's time for Bowser and her administration to turn that promise into a reality.

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