Greater Greater Washington

Board debates 3 am, $4 flat fare, parking charges and more

At yesterday's meeting, WMATA Board members finally got down to the brass tacks of negotiating over individual fare increases and service cuts. Various members spoke up about late night service and fares, parking fares, and bus-rail transfers.


Photo by thisisbossi.

Jim Graham focused his advocacy on the late night service. He argued for preserving the current 3 am closing time, instead of 2 am as proposed by the General Manager.

He also criticized the suggested $4 flat fare for late night, saying that short-distance passengers would just take taxis instead. (And who said Graham is in the pocket of the taxi drivers?) The MRO/GGW/CSG letter also recommended dropping the $4 charge and replacing it with "regular" (peak) fares at those times.

To offset the cost, Graham suggested raising the peak-of-the-peak from 10¢ to 20¢, which then triggered the longer peak-of-the-peak discussion. He also suggested raising the maximum fare the same amount as other fares (15%), though CFO Carol Kissal replied that just the 10¢ peak-of-the-peak increase would raise enough to cover Graham's requests.

The Fairfax members, Jeff McKay and Cathy Hudgins, both spoke up for removing the parking fee increases. The General Manager has proposed 50¢ per day and $5/month for reserved parking. I sympathize with this impulse, since many lots are not full. However, some are. Also, many trains and buses are not full, yet those fares will rise.

The MRO/GGW/CSG letter called for raising prices only on those stations with heavy demand. Some staff comments suggested this would be too complex to analyze in time for this fare increase. However, we've been asking for this for six months now if not since last year. If it's too late now, how about the Board ask staff to lower parking rates, but also ask them to start analyzing possibilities for more station-targeted parking?

McKay suggested paying for this change by lowering the bus-rail transfer to 25¢ instead of 50¢. That's the wrong approach. As it is, bus-rail transfer passengers are paying even more in this fare hike, with both bus and rail fares rising substantially. The Riders' Advisory Council strongly recommended increasing the transfer, not decreasing it. The hearing docket included a proposal to raise it to 75¢.

As Matt Johnson tweeted, "WMATA should be encouraging riders to come by bus." He also suggested thinking of parking as a "car to rail" transfer. The way McKay was talking about it, he was suggesting eliminating "discounts," as if the bus-rail discount was a sort of favor to bus passengers. In many cities, like New York, bus to rail transfers are completely free. Here, Orange Line to Green Line transfers are free. We actually charge extra to switch modes, and shouldn't be making it even more expensive.

The Board also debated widening the peak-of-the-peak time period to 2 hours instead of 1½ hours. Kissal said that would raise about $3 million more. However, Interim GM Sarles said it wasn't feasible for a reason that I couldn't make out listening to the (often too-quiet) audio stream.

But such a proposal misses the point of the peak-of-the-peak: to both raise revenue and also provide an economic incentive for people to ride at less busy times. 1½-hour is already a bit too large. The rail system is really particularly crowded for about an hour. Advocates didn't push for narrowing this because we didn't want to cut out too much revenue, but if it might get raised to 50¢, we should look at that.

Staff should evaluate the revenue impact of the 50¢ core-only peak-of-the-peak for only one hour. If that's enough to raise the money proposed, WMATA should confine it to the busiest hour.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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A rather depressing day when I am in agreement with Mr. Alpert on peak of peak. Yes, cut it down to when the stations are busy. Should only be an hour, not an hour and a half. I'd even say, 50 cents for 1/2, 10 cents for an hour, and nothing after that.

Academic questions, but what is the marginal cost of a bus passenger? Has to be higher than rail, with fuel and a driver. Yet make buses cheaper as a historical accident (buses are in dc and serve a lower-income population). There is opportunity to run more buses in Arlington and decrease some of the pressures on the orange line.

by charlie on Apr 30, 2010 1:46 pm • linkreport

@charlie

I like the idea of running more buses in Arlington to ease the Orange crush. It seems strange that more buses run on Columbia Pike than on the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor, although that might be because Columbia Pike doesn't have any other form of mass transit. Perhaps this would be an opportunity to have an "express" bus that only stops at the Metro stops running from East Falls Church to Rosslyn, similar to Columbia Pike's 16F route that only stops at the large intersections.

by Teo on Apr 30, 2010 2:06 pm • linkreport

@ charlie The marginal cost of a passenger on either mode is effectively 0. Adding one passenger to a train or bus doesn't measuably change the operating cost. I think what you're actual interested in is the cost per revenue mile or the cost per trip. Here's that data:

007 Actual 2008 Estimated 2009 Estimated

Metrorail
Passengers Per Revenue Mile
3.11 2.79 2.76
Operating Cost Per Revenue Mile
$9.01 $9.10 $9.53
Operating Cost Per Passenger Trip
$2.90 $3.34 $3.46
Metrobus
Passengers Per Revenue Mile
2.78 2.72 2.65
Operating Cost Per Revenue Mile
$8.89 $9.45 $10.19
Operating Cost Per Passenger Trip
$3.20 $3.49 $3.84

So the bus is more expensive to operate. The difference, of course, is that the startup cost for rail is several orders of magnitude higher than that of bus.

by jcm on Apr 30, 2010 2:18 pm • linkreport

Grr. Sorry about the crap formatting. Hopefully it's somewhat legible. The numbers are in order 2007 Actual, 2008 Estimated, 2009 Estimated. They came from the FY2010 MD budget, so they're slightly out of date, but still illustrative.

by jcm on Apr 30, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

@Teo

A bus can carry 75 (articulated 100) people, around 10% of a 6-car train. So even if you were able to match service with the metro (unlikely) you're going to reduce congestion by 10% IF you have those buses filled to crush capacity.

by MLD on Apr 30, 2010 2:32 pm • linkreport

I see no problem with an hour-and-a-half peak-of-the-peak, especially during the evening rush...

by Froggie on Apr 30, 2010 2:39 pm • linkreport

Part of the point of peak-of-the-peak is to spread out ridership. If you make the period so long that it's impossible for people to avoid it, then they will just continue to ride at the same times they always have.

by MLD on Apr 30, 2010 2:41 pm • linkreport

Not everyone has the luxury of choosing when they arrive at work. In fact, I'd bet that the chances of being able to choose when you get to work are inversely proportional to your income. Executives can largely choose their own hours, while cashiers have to clock in and out exactly when their shifts begin and end.

by Tim on Apr 30, 2010 2:48 pm • linkreport

Just piping in to say that MLD and Tim right above are both correct. It's part of the reason I'm not 100% sold on peak-of-peak increases for any other reason than revenue.

by Poplicola on Apr 30, 2010 3:15 pm • linkreport

@Poplicola; it's not a bug, it is a feature. WMATA knows people have to go to work, and they know that 40% of rush hour rail riders don't pay for their own fares.

A very narrow peak-of-peak could just hit the feds. Say 5 to 5:30.

Larger windows will bring in more revenue but also spread the pain to a much larger group.

N.B. Only applies in the PM rush hour. AM rush hour is very different.

by charlie on Apr 30, 2010 3:26 pm • linkreport

@ David, MLD: FYI, I believe MLD's comment on the point of peak of the peak is akin to what Sarles said when the sound was inaudible. You start to lose the operational benefits of peak of the peak when the time window is too large.

50 cents makes me nervous for the reasons mentioned in Tim's comment.

by Penny Everline on Apr 30, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

has there ever been _serious_ consideration of trying to go driverless, or at least moving in that direction? maybe start with one line?

[going driverless, of course, saves mad money. and provide much better service -- including, perhaps, 24-hr service! the holy grail!]

it seems like other cities are doing it -- at least overseas, and it's not like it's going to happen quickly -- we can just lose employees through attrition while providing _much_ better service to public transiters.

and the system is going to continue to grow, so we can always use the employees for other, new parts of the system.

i mean, basically, the entire WMATA rail system is grade-separated, right? if that's the case, is there any reason we need to work so hard to keep service human-operated instead of relying on, you know, technology?

by Peter Smith on Apr 30, 2010 3:43 pm • linkreport

It hasn't been mentioned here much, but reverse commuters need to be excluded from peak-of-peak charges, given that the surcharge makes little sense for these people.

I also have no problem with having additional rush hour trains terminate just past downtown. Does anybody really ride from Fairfax to New Carrolton in during the morning rush?

by andrew on Apr 30, 2010 3:49 pm • linkreport

@andrew

Rush hour trains can only really terminate and turn around where there are pocket tracks - otherwise, the process is too slow for peak hour headways.

That means you can only turn trains at Mt. Vernon Sq (the Yellow line already does this), Stadium-Armory (a few Orange line trains do this during morning peak), Grosvenor, Silver Spring (both already used to turn trains during peak hours), and West Falls Church.

by Alex B. on Apr 30, 2010 4:13 pm • linkreport

@charlie: You can never JUST hit the feds. Every minute the Metro's open, I'm about 99.9% sure that someone's riding it who isn't a federal employee going to or from work.

Furthermore, when you talk about targeting the feds, what you're really doing is asking the federal government for a subsidy. The employees don't pay it, the government does. So why not just cut to the chase and ask for an addition federal government subsidy?

by Tim on Apr 30, 2010 5:08 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.: Don't forget Farragut North (remember the derailment?). And I'm willing to bet there are more pocket tracks in the system. Remember that a lot of the times that a line remained only partially built for a period of a few years, Metro built a pocket train at the temporary end of it.

by Tim on Apr 30, 2010 5:16 pm • linkreport

@Tim:
Unfortunately, the pocket track at Farragut North is on the wrong side of Downtown from the popular side of the Red Line. Unless you think packed trains from Shady Grove should terminate at Dupont Circle?

As my analysis noted, the Red Line is more balanced than the other lines in terms of bi-directional ridership, although Arlington's Orange Line does a pretty good job, too.

Pocket tracks are located:

  • Red: Outbound side of Grosvenor
  • Red: Outbound side of Farragut North
  • Red: Outbound side of Silver Spring
  • Orange/Blue: Outbound side of Stadium-Armory
  • Orange: At West Falls Church
  • Blue/Yellow: At National Airport*
  • Yellow/Green: Outbound side of Mount Vernon Square

*National Airport's pocket track has had two connectors removed, so it can't operate without trains wrong railing for some distance on approach.

by Matt Johnson on Apr 30, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

Oh, right - I did forget Farragut North. Thanks, Tim.

However, I think that's all of them. If you look at the track schematic that Sand Box John put together, you can see them:

http://mysite.verizon.net/cambronj/wmata/sys_schematic_ars-2008.gif

It's worth noting that National Airport is no longer a true pocket track, as they've removed half of the switches.

by Alex B. on Apr 30, 2010 5:24 pm • linkreport

@Tim
I think that's whole clever point of it. The Feds aren't going to give Metro an additional subsidy because their constituents don't want the 'Beltway fat-cats' or some other lame stereotype of people who live in DC additional funds. If you hit them like this, it's more subtle and more politically easy.

by Mony on Apr 30, 2010 5:29 pm • linkreport

The idea of raising the peak fare or the peak of the peak fare as Mr. Graham has suggested is absurd. Sure tax 60,000 of your daily riders to subsidize 3000 occasional weak-end revelers. WMATA needs to additional time to perform track maintenance.

by Interested on Apr 30, 2010 5:46 pm • linkreport

@Interested

Those 3000 occasional weekend revelers likely ride the Metro during the week too, so it's not as clear cut as you make it.

People won't start taking cabs if the fares go up to $4 either. Even if you fill a cab (let's say 3 or 4 people), that comes out to 12 or 16 dollars for a ride. Assuming most people take the cab more than a few blocks, that's still more than it would cost to take Metro from Chinatown to Arlington or from Clarendon to Woodley Park, for example.

by Teo on Apr 30, 2010 6:28 pm • linkreport

Just one comment about the federal employee subsidy. It is true that at a maximum of $230 a month. This is due to a provision of the Recovery Act. This provision EXPIRES at the end of this calendar year. Barring action by Congress the cap of tax free transit benefits (the level at which the benefit for federal employees is also set) reverts back to what it would have been under the formula that has been used for many years. I believe that would be around $120 to $125. So many feds, will be paying some of their own Metrorail fares come January 1, 2011.

by Dharm on Apr 30, 2010 11:55 pm • linkreport

I like this idea of keeping the late hours -- even if it means running fewer trains or even it means adding a reasonable surcharge. I'm sure I'm not alone in being out in the middle of nowhere (Alexandria) at 2 am on a weekend.

As for the rest of the mess -- DC is way to car friendly. Your average NYC dweller does not even consider owning a car. We need tolls, commuter taxes, bike lanes, parking enforcement, suburb taxes -- anything that will discourage driving.

by aaa on May 2, 2010 11:40 am • linkreport

The period between 2am and 3am on weekends is the LOWEST period of ridership when the system is open. It isn't even close. If something has to be cut, this should be the time period in which service is cut. Don't cut frequencies at other times (when more people ride) to keep this service going.

by Dharm on May 2, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

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