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Topic of the week: Is the Metro fare hike fair?

The WMATA Board yesterday approved a fare increase, which will be effective July 1. Are the fare hikes fair?

Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

Metrorail fares will increase 3%, on average, and most Metrobus routes will now cost $1.75, no matter if you pay with cash or SmarTrip. Today, the buses cost $1.60 with SmarTrip, $1.80 cash. Parking rates at Metro lots will go up 10¢, except at some Prince George's County lots, which will cost 60¢ more.

Are the fare increases too great? Did WMATA make the right call with the specifics of the fare hike? Our contributors weigh in below. What do you think? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Michael Perkins: WMATA missed another opportunity to make their parking pricing make sense. They raise the rates universally by only 10¢, and put an additional 50¢ on most lots in Prince George's County, even though there's already a large east/west divide in ridership, and the PG County lots are less crowded than other parking lots.

For the 2016 fare update, WMATA staff should do their homework and get ready to implement something similar to BART. BART staff are allowed to periodically review and adjust the parking rates in their parking lots based on demand.

For the cash fare on bus business, I think WMATA made the right call. The cash discount was causing a lot of people to load one trip's worth on a SmarTrip card and then use it immediately just to get the SmarTrip discount.

Dan Malouff: Just to keep up with inflation since WMATA's last fare hike in 2012, fares should rise between 2-3%. The Metrobus hike is a lot, but the Metrorail hike of 3% is not much more than inflation. But even buses are matching inflation over the long term. A DC Metrobus fare in 1975 was 40¢. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $1.75 today.

Ben Ross: I find it very disappointing that WMATA has paid for lesser fare increases by cutting funding for bus priority corridors. It is very hard to take long-range plans for expensive "bus rapid transit" seriously if the area isn't willing to make modest investments in making its buses move more rapidly now.

Malcolm Johnstone: People are being priced out of using the subway and, now, the bus. Metro is too expensivenowhere else in North America can you pay $10 round trip just for subway ride.

Malcolm Kenton: WMATA still needs to institute some form of daily, weekly and monthly pass that covers both bus and Metrorail. Nearly every other big city transit agency that operates both bus and rail offers passes that cover both. If a 7-day "short trip" rail pass is $36 and a 7-day bus pass is $17.50, perhaps a 7-day "short-trip" rail pass that also includes unlimited bus travel could be $50.00. Similarly, a 28-day rail-plus-bus pass could be $260.00.

It's interesting to note that the deal remains in place that allows those with current weekly or monthly MARC train tickets to ride local buses in both the DC and Baltimore regions, as well as the Baltimore subway and light rail, at no additional cost. At $175.00, a MARC monthly ticket between Baltimore and DC is a great bargain for those who also travel extensively within either metro area: the only other form of transit it doesn't cover is Metrorail.

Can WMATA's rationale for these hikes be tied directly to any change in federal funding, or to a change in any particular jurisdiction's share of funding? Or simply to declining ridership and/or increasing costs?

Michael Perkins: Even better than that, the MTA sells a zone 1 bus pass that's good on all WMATA services as well as service in Baltimore. The Transit Link Card is just a hair under $200 and is good for everything. It covers rail and bus. Unlimited everything, including zone one MTA commuter bus and all the MTA service in Baltimore too. I don't know that there are any restrictions. Someone should try it.

The thing is on autopilot. I don't think Metro staff or the board really look at it so it just goes up with inflation every year, even though the peak long distance rail fare has outpaced inflation for a decade.

Metro has some of the highest fares in North America. I think only the London Tube has higher fares in the world. On the other hand, the trains are bursting with people. The London Tube also has reasonable passes, unlike Metro, and a congestion charge.

Myles Smith: I was surprised how close Metrorail was to the actual per-rider cost, with taxpayers subsidizing the fares by only about 20%, was it? Metrobus was more heavily subsidized, something like 60% by taxpayers. And any discussion of it should compare these subsidies to those of public streets for private vehicles (a 100% subsidy).

Jim Titus: We should not have to revisit every policy question related to equitable burden sharing, simply to make annual adjustments to account for inflation. And for the most part, they didn't.


WMATA riders' council can be influential; once, it was

A new WMATA rider advocacy group, Metro TAG, has been arguing that the official rider voice, the Riders' Advisory Council, is "completely ineffective" and has "failed" riders. Has it, and can it be effective?

January 2011 bag search forum. Photo by Thomas Nephew on Flickr.

There is definitely room for more than one rider voice, and it's great to see riders speaking up through Metro TAG. Meanwhile, the RAC does have the ability to also be an effective force. When it started, in 2006, it did assume this mantle of a strong advocate for riders.

Unfortunately, the RAC hasn't seized the opportunity in recent years. Whether the RAC is effective or not is up to the RAC's members and whether they take a narrow or expansive view of their role. Members must be willing to use the RAC's stature and authority to draw public attention to issues, rather than being content to simply pass resolutions and reports that few will read.

In a WUSA story, RAC chair Ben Ball told reporter Debra Alfarone, "We do a pretty good job of representing the riders in the narrow circumstance in which we are allowed to advocate for riders."

But who isn't allowing the RAC to advocate? The WMATA Board could change the RAC's bylaws or refuse to reappoint members who do things that board doesn't like, but it very rarely refuses to reappoint members, and only changed bylaws once, at the RAC's request and not related to reining in the RAC.

Instead, almost any shackles upon the RAC come from its own members' recalcitrance, not from actual limitations from the WMATA Board. The RAC spends a lot of time mired in internal debates about whether they are "allowed" to do something, or not.

The RAC started out as a strong and independent voice

The RAC spoke up loudly for riders in its early days. In its first year, there were articles in the press about problems with MetroAccess and its contractor, MV Transportation. Member Mary Williams, a MetroAccess rider, suggested a public forum, and the RAC unanimously passed a motion to convene one.

According to Dennis Jaffe, the RAC's first chair, they ultimately convened two, mid-afternoon and in the evening on the same day. He says, "In between, we arranged for one-on-one and one-on-three meetings between riders and representatives of MV Transportation and Metro's MetroAccess agency staff, for the purpose of resolving individual complaints."

The RAC's advocacy wasn't popular with the WMATA Board. Jaffe says that board chair Gladys Mack tried to prevent the RAC from holding the forum at all. "I had 8 phone conversations with Gladys Mack, at her initiation," he wrote. "At one point she said, 'The Board forbids you to hold a public forum on MetroAccess.'"

But Jaffe told Mack he wanted to respect the RAC's decision. Before the forum, Mack convened an ad hoc committee on MetroAccess issues, and appointed Jaffe and WMATA Board member Dana Kauffman to chair. Jaffe says that Mack again tried to persuade him to not hold the forum; when he refused, Mack then pledged to send out flyers to 16,000 MetroAccess passengers encouraging them to make their voices heard at the forum.

The ad hoc committee, with the help of transportation experts among its membership, made several recommendations to fix MetroAccess problems, and the WMATA Board ultimately approved the recommendations.

Today's RAC and WMATA Board take a different view

I served on the RAC from 2009 to 2012 and was DC vice-chair in 2010 and 2011. During that time, I saw the RAC make a difference at numerous opportunities. I also saw RAC members limit their own influence in other ways.

In January 2011 (while I was vice-chair), the RAC asked Metro Transit Police top brass to a meeting to explain their controversial bag search program. Dr. Gridlock and other media outlets covered it. We weren't successful at halting the program, but were able to shine more light on what's going on, and bring more criticism to bear, than without the RAC's involvement.

However, while a few board members agreed with us, the board did not engage with the RAC's process to anywhere near the level that Gladys Mack did. They didn't ask us not to hold the forum, but neither did they appoint a committee of both board members and riders.

Maybe that issue wouldn't have been the right one, but I'm not aware of any joint committees of board members and riders at any time I was on the RAC. Board members would show up at RAC meetings when invited, and speak about their thoughts, and would very occasionally meet individually with members, but that was the end of it.

While the RAC during my tenure held a few public forums to push WMATA on key issues, more often the members would spend long stretches of meetings debating whether it was appropriate to take any kind of action. They would fret about the group staying within its own lane.

That problem seems to have only worsened since. When I was on the RAC, I wrote on Greater Greater Washington about what we'd learned in meetings, about the 7000 series rail cars, bus stop design, track work schedules, and NextBus performance. But earlier this year, when chair Ben Ball drafted a few articles for Greater Greater Washington summarizing a report the RAC created on airport bus service, members raised questions about whether it's even appropriate to have articles in blogs. Months later, they passed a resolution to form a committee to develop a policy on the issue; I haven't heard anything back about this.

While it was frustrating to spend a lot of time with Ball on articles which then never ran, this isn't about Greater Greater Washington. The RAC can only be effective in advocating for riders if it speaks out, loudly. That should include posting on Greater Greater Washington but also contacting reporters about stories and placing op-eds in many other media outlets.

The RAC needs to be more visible and less fearful

It should also use social media. I've heard that WMATA board staff told the RAC it couldn't have a Twitter account of its own. It's a ridiculous limitation. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the RAC simply went ahead and created one anyway, as Jaffe might have done.

The same goes for the RAC website, which does a very poor job of communicating anything about issues or rider concerns. When I was vice-chair, the officers asked staff coordinator John Pasek, who maintains the website, to make a few very small improvements that would help people find reports, letters, and resolutions. He did this for a few months, but then reverted back to the old and more opaque format.

But it's not just, or even primarily, a staff issue. Members themselves were reluctant to even list bios and photos about themselves on the site, as some said they hadn't expected to have any public exposure when they were appointed. Pasek, who primarily screens applications for membership, clearly isn't mainly looking for members who will be visible public advocates for riders. Maybe this practice arose in response to Jaffe's outspoken advocacy.

The RAC has long struggled with a question of whether it is just a focus group, where staff show up, present on a plan, hear from a representative cross-section of 21 riders, and "check a box" where they can tell the board they consulted riders. In its earliest days, members didn't see it that way, but as a strong and fairly independent voice for riders.

It can be that again, if members are willing to be such and if board members ensure that they appoint people with that interest. So far, that's not happening, and Chris Barnes and Kurt Raschke are probably right when they say the RAC has failed riders. But RAC members, without the staff's or board's help, could turn that around tomorrow, if they want to.


WMATA wants longer trains, more tunnels, better service

WMATA hopes to lengthen all its trains to 8 cars, add pedestrian connections at downtown stations, and maybe build new rail tunnels for the Blue and Yellow Lines in the region's core. That's part of a strategic plan which its media relations team showed only to the Washington Post this week, and which board members will see at a meeting today.

The potential for new downtown tunnels (left) and connections between existing lines (right).

More broadly, the agency will focus on safety, service quality, better regional mobility, and its own financial stability in the strategic plan. Besides a set of still somewhat amorphous connections and service improvements, the plan calls for building a system where riders can more easily "plan, pay, and ride" in a smoother customer experience.

The big money, up to $20 billion, in the plan would be for tunnels to separate the Blue Line at Rosslyn and the Yellow Line at L'Enfant Plaza, the two major chokepoints, as part of a vision for Metro by 2040. Silver Line trains from Dulles Airport could also turn at Rosslyn to go toward Arlington Cemetery, then stop at Pentagon before crossing the Yellow Line bridge into DC.

Map by the author, from 2009.

By 2025, Metro wants to have the railcars and power stations to run all trains with the full 8 cars. It would like to build pedestrian tunnels to link Farragut North with West and Metro Center with Gallery Place, and a train tunnel so that some Dulles trains can go down to Franconia-Springfield, which would relieve some of the immediate Blue Line problems of Rush Plus, which will only get worse once the Silver Line opens.

Potential connections between existing lines (left) and stations (right).

WMATA Media Relations team makes transit supporters' task harder

This plan covers a lot of ground, and is at times very detailed yet at others quite vague. I wasn't able to get all of the details, because WMATA decided to give an exclusive look at the plan to the Washington Post.

This has been the agency's practice every since Barbara Richardson, Lyn Bowersox, and Dan Stessel took over at WMATA communications and media relations. This isn't a matter of blogs versus traditional media, though that's been an ongoing problem as well; WMATA also does not tell the Washington Examiner about its major initiatives.

This seems inappropriate, and really disrespects the journalists and bloggers who care about transit in the region. It's also pretty foolish, because it forces others to write about the plan in a more hurried way than they otherwise would.

WMATA planning head Shyam Kannan spent an hour talking to me after midnight last night, and this post was still not done by 4:30 am as a result. Still, there are plenty of questions I did not have time get answered.

What will happen with Union Station and commuter rail?

While the plan goes into a fair amount of detail about how there could be a second Pentagon station for the trains making the new track connection, the plan does not talk about whether the new lines would serve Union Station, the system's biggest point of overcrowding. It seems obvious for any separated Blue Line to go there.

One of the biggest opportunities to improve regional travel would be to let MARC trains reach L'Enfant Plaza, where riders can transfer to all four lines that don't serve Union Station, and onward to Virginia. Unfortunately, perhaps bowing to political realities, the plan just calls for WMATA to play a role of supporter and advocate.

Finally, the plan shows some diagrams with vague arrows depicting potential extensions to the ends of lines, regional transit in the suburbs, and streetcars crossing the river:

Vague arrows showing possible line extensions (left) and surface transit connections (right).

All of these ideas and more were part of a study WMATA has been working on for a few years, called the Regional Transit System Plan. That also included proposals to send the Yellow Line through the rapidly-growing Capitol Riverfront and up to Union Station.

According to Kannan, the RTSP study is still going on, and even many decisions about which routes WMATA wants to pursue in the future are not fully set.

Customer service, trip planning are even more central to the plan

Kannan emphasized that the rail expansions and connections are not the "real meat" of the plan, despite what was in the Post article; instead, it really focuses on "an improved customer service experience today" that will let riders plan, pay, and take transit more smoothly than today. The vision for 2025, which is not far away, is fundamentally about "the completion of a journey to a self-service system. He explained:

Imagine, for a moment, walking into a Metrorail station or a Metrobus platform and not needing to ask for assistance in either route planning, fare payment, and even walking to or from your bus or train. There would be improved lighting so you can read your book, mobile payment options so you can use your smartphone to pay your fare.
With these added services, Kannan said, station agents will not need to sit in their booths all day to handle everyday needs. Instead, Metro could dedicate its staff to "customer-facing ambassadors" who could roam around and help people, and choose people for those jobs best suited to a customer service role, which as we all know is not always the case with today's station agents.

Another big element of this self-service world is better trip planning. Kannan talked about having a "unified regional trip planning technology" so a rider can use a desktop computer, smartphone, or other device, pick where he or she wants to go, and get transit suggestions that could use Metro, commuter rail like VRE or MARC, or regional buses like Ride On and DASH.

The plan describes that as "Provide transit riders with a regional trip planning system that is mobile-device friendly." Hopefully this language does not lead the agency to decide it should issue a procurement for a big IT project to build one single integrated trip planner that works on today's mobile devices, and that's all. WMATA is not in a position to be a good customer-facing software company, and a big contracted software project will build something that will likely be obsolete as soon as it launches.

Rather, the agency needs to offer open data and support open source projects to create the building blocks of trip planning. VDOT funded a grant, which I wrote for Arlington County, to make progress on some open source technology for trip planning. If WMATA can support the efforts of the people who are going to do this work, and other developers who contribute and create other tools of their own, it will do far more to "provide" this kind of "unified regional trip planning technology."

The plan is not very detailed about how to reach this or most other goals, from "Educate the customer about transit coverage and usage in regional emergencies" to "Work with partners to ensure seamless connections between Metro and other transit systems in the region." Those are fodder for future plans. Meanwhile, though, if top management buys in and directs the organization to follow this plan, it can get the 13,000-person organization moving all together in some important directions.

The WMATA board will discuss the document at a meeting today. As usual with WMATA's process, since staff don't release anything until the very last minute before a board meeting, that means board members won't have the opportunity to hear any considered feedback from riders, to the extent they are interested in riders' views, as some are, while others are not.

Matt Johnson and I have also been working on some posts about the core capacity Metrorail proposals, and will try to better illuminate what kinds of tradeoffs Metro faces as it tries to deal with its bottlenecks and overcrowded segments.


WMATA Board still shuts out riders on policy issues

A WMATA board committee yesterday approved minimum service standards for Metrorail of 15 minutes peak and 30 minutes off-peak. Spokespeople have been irritated that bloggers and the press wrote about this before hearing all of the facts at the presentation. But because the board's public input process is so broken, there's no other way for riders to have any say in important policies.

Photo by Tancread on Flickr.

Michael Perkins, Unsuck DC Metro, and some others noticed this proposal when it appears in the board agenda online earlier in the week. Michael posted about his fear that even though this didn't mean Metro wasn't about to cut service, it could make it easier to cut it in the future.

Was this accurate, or not? WMATA staff refused to comment further, saying that the proposal hadn't yet been presented to the board.

At the meeting, performance officer Andrea Burnside insisted that these rules are just setting an absolute lower bound, not a target for everyday service. Michael had talked about that in his article, but it doesn't really change the situation; setting a target that's very low and too easy to meet can drag down expectations in the future. Perhaps responding in part to feedback from riders and blogs, federal member Mort Downey asked that the standards be tighter for regular service, though they'll remain undefined.

Last night, spokesperson Dan Stessel emailed Michael to suggest that it would have been better for us to wait until after the presentation, on Thursday. It doesn't appear that anything was wrong in our initial article, but moreover, this misses the point. If Michael and Unsuck and others had waited, the board committee would have approved the policy and never heard from riders about the issue.

Public input process is broken

WMATA's board procedures put riders in a catch-22. Many board members want to hear about a proposal first; after all, they're the board. But when they hear about the proposal at a committee meeting, they then give feedback to staff, and often approve the policy right then.

Committees comprise the entire board, so all members have had their say and voted; approving it at the official "regular board meeting" is then just a formality. The board recently reorganized committees so they only have a subset of members, but other interested members can always attend a meeting, and the committee meeting remains the most important venue for policy discussions.

When do riders get to speak up? Before the presentation, there are only a few days to review the online board packets, and WMATA actually recently shortened the lead time on most presentations from 6 days to just 2 or 3. Some presentations don't go online beforehand at all.

Plus, it's hard to understand a policy just from the powerpoint. It doesn't have all the information, and isn't packaged around being understandable to the public. Bloggers and the press often write about the proposals anyway, but they don't have all the information, and WMATA staff often refuse to talk about the proposals because they haven't gone to the board.

After the presentation, though, it's largely too late.

There are better ways

Other agencies have better processes. Yesterday, for instance, the National Capital Planning Commission also got a presentation on a plan for the L'Enfant Plaza area. But the purpose of the presentation was to brief the board and then issue the plan for public comment. Board members didn't vote on it or ask staff to make changes, they just got a briefing. They will then discuss the plan in more detail later, after residents have been able to read it and weigh in.

WMATA could easily do something similar. Make the presentation, and don't even necessarily post the powerpoints online, but then have a period for public comments. The board would have to avoid giving guidance or taking a vote at that meeting, and bring the issue back later.

Alternately, staff could issue proposals in a more packaged way for comment, before board members see it, and give riders a chance to speak up before it goes to the board. The board members could get an electronic copy first, but they would have to recognize that this means they will hear about proposals before they get a formal presentation.

The Riders' Advisory Council's 2010 report on WMATA governance (whose committee I chaired) recommended a "clear and accessible public input process," and a task force of DC, Maryland, and Virginia transportation officials echoed this recommendation. So far, the WMATA board has not addressed this issue.

Until they do, riders will feel shut out, and bloggers and reporters will have no choice but to write about policies based on limited information in a way that annoys WMATA staff. That's too bad, because there's an easy fix.


Sustainability can save WMATA money, if it's a priority

Organizations of all types are talking about being "greener," partly because it's the right thing to do, but also because it can save money. Amid regular budget shortfalls, WMATA can benefit from every cost savings, and is considering a number of sustainability projects.

Pilot test of new platform lights. Image from WMATA.

Tomorrow, the WMATA Board will hear about the agency's sustainability initiatives. Sustainability could make a big difference in the budget.

According to a November memo to the Board, more efficient lighting in parking garages could save $1.5 million per year. Doing the same for stations and tunnels could save $5-8 million per year. New lights also generate more light and need less maintenance than the old.

Lighting isn't the only way that being green could help get rid of the red ink and improve operations at the same time.

Many escalators around the world stop when they're not being used, and have more efficient motors than Metro's aging escalators. Solar panels or solar laminates could cover the roofs of Metro railyards, maintenance facilities, and garages.

Other transit agencies have trained operators to accelerate and brake more fuel-efficiently. Many have installed tire pressure gauges that actively and constantly communicate tire air pressure data to the maintenance facilities. That lets them keep buses at optimum tire pressure and fuel efficiency, which saves significant fuel. Fuel is a very large cost item in Metro's budget, especially with fuel prices rising.

WMATA already has set a standard to make new facilities LEED Silver, like the Shepherd's Parkway bus garage under construction. Its new buses are cleaner and more efficient than the old, and the 7000 series railcars use LED lights, regenerative braking to get energy back like hybrid cars do, better HVAC systems and a design that reduces the need for some polluting processes to clean them.

Sustainability faces obstacles

It's often difficult for transit agencies to energetically adopt sustainability programs. Some agency staff think of transit as intrinsically pro-sustainable, compared to other modes of travel, so they might not feel that sustainability is the higest priority. There can be resistance from the rank and file to newfangled, ivory tower ideas that don't recognize the rough reality of engineering and operations.

Transit agencies also, perhaps understandably, end up prioritizing the day-to-day crisis management over strategic programs. At the moment, WMATA's the overwhelming emphasis is on system safety and renewal capital projects. That means that "soft," "green" projects can find it hard to compete for the capital funds available, even when there's a powerful economic business case behind them.

Another obstacle is the relationship between labor and management. Many sustainability programs might involve changes to people's job responsibilities, which means that management has to negotiate for a change rather than simply establishing and implementing the program.

For example, if WMATA monitored the fuel efficiency performance of each bus driver to help them save fuel, would the union oppose this as another form of management breathing down workers' necks? Would WMATA be able to reward employees that saved the most fuel and money?

Even for non-union workers, transit agencies lack many of the tools private sector companies have to reward individual initiative. A private sector employee responsible for annual cost savings might get a bonus as a result, in a transit agency that same employee might simply get an employee appreciation mention in a weekly newsletter. Weighed against the possibility that any given sustainability initiative might "rock the boat" for bosses or colleagues, a public pat on the back doesn't offer enough to outweigh the possible headaches.

Sustainability initiatives that come from one department might create savings in another department. But the department that initiated the program might not benefit from the savings, reducing the incentive. Also, divisions within public or private sector organizations often covet the size of their respective budgets and the control that spending authority gives.

A department which saves money might view this as reducing "their budget" instead of looking at the benefit to the agency's bottom line. The affected department could well resent the sustainability initiative and the employees elsewhere in the organization who pushed the idea through.

Making sustainability happen takes leadership from the top

Despite all these barriers, it's more important than ever that WMATA take a strong leadership role in sustainability, backed up by strong management policy and action. In a budget season when the agency is asking for substantial fare and subsidy increases, the public needs to hear that WMATA is taking every possible action to provide transit services more cost-effectively (not to mention more safely and reliably).

WMATA is also entering negotiations with its labor unions for the next round of labor contracts. It's critical that the issues of efficiency and productivity be on the table in a central, pivotal way. It's not unreasonable for labor to ask for wage increases; it's completely unreasonable to ask for such increases without also committing to improving productivity and efficiency in quantifiable ways.

WMATA management could start most sustainability initiatives without any Board action. Richard Sarles and his management team could unilaterally adopt many measures and communicate the values described here. But, perhaps for many of the reasons listed above, Metro's management has not yet made sustainability the visible issue it could and should be. That means they need support, and pressure, from the region and the board.

To date, only 2 WMATA Board members have expressed much interest in sustainability: Tom Downs and Mary Hynes. They should both be commended for trying to make this issue a priority for the agency, and hopefully they will continue to do so. Their colleagues should join them in pressing for more sustainability, productivity, and efficiency.


WMATA would cut last commuter discount, has no pass plan

Tomorrow, the WMATA Board will approve a docket for public hearings with potential fare increases, which does not include a monthly pass proposal as the finance committee requested.

Only fare increases have to go to the public for comment, and a monthly pass could be considered a fare reduction. That means it's still possible for the board to work out the details of a pass option during meetings between now and June, when they must approve the budget.

The docket also eliminates the last discount available for riders that only take 10 trips per week, a normal commute for some people. Metro proposes raising the price of the rail fast pass to exactly 10 times the maximum rail fare.

Previously, Metro offered a few discounts for frequent riders: a 10% bonus fare for people who bought farecards of $20 or more, a weekly bus pass that cost about 8.5 trips, and the rail fast pass.

The 10% bonus fare was eliminated in 2003. The weekly bus pass discount was eliminated in 2010. Metro now charges 10 times the Smartrip fare for a pass.

For a regular commuter taking 10 trips per week which are long enough to hit the maximum fare, the rail fast pass currently offers about a 10% discount compared to 10 individual trips, as well as free trips after that. This proposal will eliminate the 10% discount and almost certainly drive customers away from using the rail fast pass.

More to follow after the Thursday board meeting.


Metro doesn't need just any "monthly pass"

At a finance committee meeting on Thursday, WMATA board members approved putting "a monthly pass" on the docket, without providing much detail. Metro now has an opportunity to provide a needed and valuable monthly pass, or they can hinder the process by creating a pass nobody wants.

Photo by aaron13251 on Flickr.

During the meeting, discussion about various passes showed differences of opinion about what a monthly pass would be good for. Metro has proposed getting rid of the all-day rail pass, stating that the pass is not popular. Similarly, Metro cited lack of interest when they proposed discontinuing the short rail pass.

Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal pointed to the SmarTrip card as one reason that riders wouldn't need a pass. She stated that since SmarTrip holders don't typically know the balance on the card, and don't always know what trips will cost them, customers wouldn't benefit from a monthly pass where additional trips are free.

Kissal also compared Metro to London's Tube, which has passes available in daily, weekly, monthly, and annual time periods. According to Kissal, the Tube gets a lot of tourists, while Metro has a larger proportion of commuters. She stated that there might be a place for passes but it might not be for the majority of riders.

As we have advocated before on Greater Greater Washington, the best "audience" for passes in the Metro fare system is front and center: daily peak commuters.

In our view, customers who pay for their regular, daily commute should get the rest of their trips included on a monthly pass. This is similar to many transit agencies around the country, including Portland's TriMet, Philadelphia's SEPTA, Chicago's CTA, and San Francisco's MUNI. Metro's time and distance based fares complicate the issue, but an innovation in Puget Sound makes monthly passes possible even with a variable fare system.

For most transit agencies, a monthly pass is typically a multiple of the single ride price. This multiple is usually around 3840, which is the number of trips people typically take in a month to commute to a regular office job. Since most transit systems have only one adult fare, there is often only one monthly pass.

Metro's system has many possible fares. If Metro sold only one monthly pass that was valid for any trip, the price of the pass must be high enough to prevent a lot of revenue lost when people switch to passes from per-ride payment.

With Metro's proposed maximum fare of $5.75, this would make a monthly unlimited pass about $230 per month. However, most people spend far less than this per month and take much shorter trips, so a $230 pass would not be a sensible option for them. If Metro sold a monthly unlimited pass for only $150, a lot of revenue would be lost from commuters who are normally paying more than that today.

Puget Sound's innovative solution was to sell passes at varying prices via the PugetPass (Minneapolis/St. Paul's Metro Transit also has a flexible pass option). Logically, more expensive passes would be valid for more expensive trips, and less expensive passes would be valid for less expensive trips. Customers could choose a pass based on their typical trip and pay a reasonable amount for a month's worth of transit.

WMATA's finance committee has requested that the proposed public docket for board approval include a monthly pass. What kind of pass Metro offers will have a huge impact on how popular the pass is. If Metro only offers a $230 unlimited pass, few people outside of long-distance commuters will be interested. The unpopular pass will be discontinued, and the idea of monthly passes will be branded a failure.

Instead, Metro should offer a monthly pass good for unlimited short trips. For $120 a month, Metro could offer unlimited trips of $3 or less. Trips that cost more than $3 would be discounted so that you only pay the difference automatically from your SmarTrip balance.

When they requested a monthly pass option, board members cited various reasons for the request. Many pointed out that off-peak rail service has become full of delays and disruptions, and asking customers to pay more for poorer service didn't appeal to them.

Some pointed out that customers would like to chain their trips, performing errands such as shopping or picking up dry cleaning along the way. Others stated that customers might go out to eat at night or on weekends, and having a pass might entice them to take transit instead of drive. All of these uses would be met with a pass where the additional free trips are significantly cheaper than the maximum distance peak fare.

This pass would be an excellent start to a monthly pass system which offers a pass at every fare level. After a medium-value pass proves its worth to customers, Metro could start offering short trip passes for customers that live near the center of the city, and longer passes for customers that live further away and therefore take longer trips on average.

Eventually, a range of passes would be available, and all regular Metro riders could choose the pass that best suits them without being a big revenue loss for Metro.

Metro should take this opportunity to introduce a monthly pass that makes sense and prove that it's a good idea for our region.

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