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WMATA will try out flexible "name your own price" passes

Metro can help riders, make its revenue more predictable, and encourage people to ride transit with a system of flexible passes. The WMATA Board is expected to authorize WMATA to move ahead with a pilot program at its meeting Thursday.


Flexible image from Shutterstock.

Michael Perkins, one of our resident transit experts, has been advocating for such a system for a long time. There aren't yet many public details of what WMATA leaders have in mind, but so far, it looks very close to what I like to call the "Perkins Pass."

A resolution for Thursday's board meeting would authorize the agency to try a pass for six months, after which the board would decide whether to make it permanent.

Below is an updated version of a recent article on passes, with new information about what WMATA has revealed so far.

What would passes do? Why are they a good idea?

The basic idea of a pass is that a rider pays for a ticket whose price is close to the cost of taking one round-trip ride each weekday. That covers basic commuting, but then riders also get additional transit trips for free.

This is great for riders because extra mid-day trips on top of basic commuting don't cost more. But it's also good for the transit agency. Off-peak, the trains and buses aren't full, so it's not really costing more to transport someone at those times. While the agency loses out on revenue from those trips, it's likely to make up the difference through attracting riders overall.

Mary Hynes, Arlington's representative on the WMATA Board (and who will attend her last meeting as a board member on Thursday), thinks this could help encourage riders who've started abandoning Metro to give it another try. "We need to find a way to give riders a way to come back," she said. "The flex pass has that built into it, since you're buying a certain amount of service and then can ride for free.

Another big advantage to flex passes is that they would make the revenue more predictable, as the costs of running transit wouldn't change based on how many people are riding. This problem comes up some years and causes a sudden loss of revenue. For example, when the government shut down in 2011, Metro lost about $250,000 a day.

That would be far less if most federal workers were using a pass. The same goes for snowstorms and other unexpected disruptions. Riders might save a little money on normal months and pay a little extra (or, if they work for the government, the government might pay a little extra) in shutdowns and snowstorms, but this evens out everyone's costs.

Mobile phones, streaming video like Netflix, and many other services work the same way. You pay for your voice and data plan, not per minute. On average, it works out, but what you pay and what the phone company receives are more predictable.

Hynes said, "It's a win for the region because passes actually begin to maximize the use of the existing routes, and a win for the agency because it adds revenue predictability."

How would a pass system work on Metro?

Metro has some passes today. As Michael Perkins explained in 2010, when passes first started integrating with SmarTrip cards, the bus pass is fairly popular but the rail passes are less so.

A big reason is Metro's fares, which vary by distance. That means one pass at one price would either be a huge steal for long-distance riders or outrageously expensive for short-distance ones. Metro has two passes now, a full pass that gives unlimited rides anywhere, and a "short rail" pass that's only good for short trips. But most people don't use either of these.

Fortunately, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. In the Seattle area, they have many transit agencies with many fares, but one single pass, the Puget Pass.

The way this pass works is actually quite simple. Riders say what their regular commute is, and the system computes the regular fare. Then, it calculates a monthly pass based on that fare which costs 36 times the one-way fare. With that pass, the rider can then take all trips of that price or less for free for one month. If the rider takes a longer trip, he or she just pays the extra out of the cash balance on their ORCA card, the equivalent of our SmarTrip.

(If you thought to yourself, "Why not just have a flat fare?" you're asking something many new board members also ask. Here's a detailed explanation of why a flat fare is a bad idea. While some cities, like New York, do have a flat fare, Metro is very different; many trips on Metro would use commuter railroads in New York, which don't have a flat fare either. And we handle transfers differently too.)

Michael Perkins computed a detailed proposal for how to implement passes on Metro based on a few simple principles. He suggested a system like Puget Pass, plus a special "Just Add Bus" rate to add a bus pass onto a flexible rail pass.

What's next?

The board resolution doesn't go into many details, but says:

Metro staff have been exploring a new monthly transit pass that would allow riders
to purchase an unlimited amount of transit usage at a personalized price point in exchange for transitioning from a "pay as you go" structure to a "monthly subscription" structure.
That sounds a lot like the "Perkins Pass." Assuming the resolution passes, staff will bring more details to the board in January, start a test in the spring, and present results in the summer or fall.

Paul Wiedefeld, the new General Manager, says he wants to find ways to improve the customer experience on Metro in the short run. This program won't solve the bigger systemic challenges Metro faces, but it would be a meaningful improvement for riders that the agency can move ahead with now.

Transit


Flexible passes could attract riders back to Metro. Will WMATA try them?

Metro can help riders, make its revenue more predictable, and encourage people to ride transit with a system of flexible passes. At a meeting Thursday, some board members will be pushing the agency give this idea a serious look.


Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

In many cities, frequent transit riders don't pay for every ride; they buy a monthly or weekly ticket and then think of transit as free. It's a good system and one that many people, including Michael Perkins in multiple articles for Greater Greater Washington, have been asking Metro to set up here.

I spoke with Mary Hynes, Arlington's representative on the WMATA Board, about the concept, which she supports.

Why are passes a good idea?

The basic idea of a pass is that a rider pays for a ticket whose price is close to the cost of taking one round-trip ride each weekday. That covers basic commuting, but then riders also get additional transit trips for free.

This is great for riders because extra mid-day trips on top of basic commuting don't cost more. But it's also good for the transit agency. Off-peak, the trains and buses aren't full, so it's not really costing more to transport someone at those times. While the agency loses out on revenue from those trips, it's likely to make some more through attracting riders.

Hynes thinks this could help encourage riders who've started abandoning Metro to give it another try. "We need to find a way to give riders a way to come back," she said. "The flex pass has that built into it, since you're buying a certain amount of service and then can ride for free.

Another big advantage to flex passes is that they would make the revenue more predictable, as the costs of running transit wouldn't change based on how many people are riding. This problem comes up some years and causes a sudden loss of revenue. For example, when the government shut down in 2011, Metro lost about $250,000 a day.

That would be far less if most federal workers were using a pass. The same goes for snowstorms and other unexpected disruptions. Riders might save a little money on normal months and pay a little extra (or, if they work for the government, the government might pay a little extra) in shutdowns and snowstorms, but this evens out everyone's costs.

Mobile phones, streaming video like Netflix, and many other services work the same way. You pay for your voice and data plan, not per minute. On average, it works out, but what you pay and what the phone company receives are more predictable.

Hynes said, "It's a win for the region because passes actually begin to maximize the use of the existing routes, and a win for the agency because it adds revenue predictability."

How would passes work?

Metro has some passes today. As Michael Perkins explained in 2010, when passes first started integrating with SmarTrip cards, the bus pass is fairly popular but the rail passes are less so.

A big reason is Metro's fares, which vary by distance. That means one pass at one price would either be a huge steal for long-distance riders or outrageously expensive for short-distance ones. Metro has two passes now, a full pass that gives unlimited rides anywhere, and a "short rail" pass that's only good for short trips. But most people don't use either of these.

Fortunately, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. In the Seattle area, they have many transit agencies with many fares, but one single pass, the Puget Pass.

The way this pass works is actually quite simple. Riders say what their regular commute is, and the system computes the regular fare. Then, it calculates a pass based on that fare which costs 36 times the one-way fare. With that pass, the rider can then take all trips of that price or less for free. If the rider takes a longer trip, he or she just pays the extra out of the cash balance on their ORCA card, the equivalent of our SmarTrip.

(If you thought to yourself, "Why not just have a flat fare?" you're asking something many new board members also ask. Here's a detailed explanation of why a flat fare is a bad idea. While some cities, like New York, do have a flat fare, Metro is very different; many trips on Metro would use commuter railroads in New York, which don't have a flat fare either. And we handle transfers differently too.)

Michael Perkins computed a detailed proposal for how to implement passes on Metro based on a few simple principles. He suggested a system like Puget Pass, plus a special "Just Add Bus" rate to add a bus pass onto a flexible rail pass.

What's the holdup?

At a recent meeting of the WMATA Board's finance committee, interim General Manager Jack Requa said that the agency was looking at this as part of the current budget cycle, Hynes said. The current budget proposal, however, remains vague on passes.

The agency should study, and pilot, a flexible pass system like what Perkins recommended. If they need the board's encouragement, members ought to ask about and push for this idea at the Thursday meeting where they will discuss the budget.

At least a few members of the board, including Hynes, have expressed interest in doing just that. She said, "I've been talking to other board members about it. I feel very strongly that is the fair way to do something equitably across the region. I want to see if [WMATA] can do a trial."

"If it's revenue positive, or even a tiny bit negative, we ought to do it," she added. "We ought to say to the riding public, 'We get it.'"

This is a good idea. This year's budget is an ideal time to set up this system, when Metro needs to find ways to bring riders back. This would be a terrific initiative for new General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, who's looking for quick ways, just like this, where he can make the experience better for riders and entice them to give Metro another try.

Transit


WMATA picks a new General Manager from outside the transit world

The WMATA Board has chosen a candidate for General Manager. His name is Neal Cohen and he comes from the airline and aerospace industry, mostly on the finance side. Is he what WMATA needs?


Image from Orbital ATK.

We don't know a whole lot yet. He hasn't even gotten the job; the board is currently negotiating with him over his compensation package. If he takes the job, he'll be stepping into one of the region's highest-profile positions to run an agency in desperate need of an executive who can turn things around.

There's a biography of Cohen from a news release when he was appointed CEO of Orbital ATK, "an aerospace, defense, and commercial products company." It says:

Mr. Cohen has 16 years of experience with Northwest Airlines, Inc. and US Airways, including serving as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, where he led merger and acquisition activities, restructuring, and profitability and growth initiatives. He also held a number of operating and marketing positions at Northwest Airlines. He started his career and spent seven years at the General Motors New York Treasurer's Office.
So, he has financial and operational experience, but outside of the transit industry. Is that a good thing for WMATA?

The skills the General Manager really needs

Transit experience could be helpful, but is not the most important characteristic. Any transit veteran can at best have deep experience in one or two areas, like rail operations, bus, paratransit, safety, service planning, finance, maintenance, and so forth.

We can't expect WMATA to find one person who knows how to do everyone's jobs; instead, WMATA needs someone who can hire top people who can do their own jobs. And he needs the aptitude to get information from these top people and make good judgments based on it.

WMATA has problems. The General Manager needs to identify those problems by meeting with and listening to employees, managers, riders, transit advocates (including the Riders' Advisory Council and the new Riders' Union), local leaders, and others. Then, he needs to be able to candidly talk about the problems internally and externally, as well as how he's going to fix them.

The local and federal governments will also have to invest funds in WMATA. The GM needs to confidently and credibly make the case to the public, elected leaders, and regulators at the Federal Transit Administration that the agency can be a good steward of public funds.

WMATA may have some people who need to stop being a part of the organization, and needs to better emulate successful businesses by being more efficient and effective. However, a business sometimes closes down unprofitable products; WMATA should not be cutting service. This is an agency with a vital public mission, and we can hope any executive from outside the industry would hold that public mission close to his heart.

The next General Manager has to understand that riders are very, very frustrated. They want Metro to work, but many are close to the point of wanting to burn down the neighborhood out of powerlessness. If Cohen gets and takes the job, he'll have a big task ahead of him to rebuild trust through both effective management and open communication. From what we know so far, he could be the guy to do it.

Correction: The initial version of this post identified Cohen's current company as ATK. It has been called Orbital ATK since a merger in February 2015.

Transit


WMATA admits there's a problem with the culture

The WMATA Board of Directors has finally agreed publicly that the agency needs to reform its internal culture. This is an argument riders and advocates have been making for a long time, and it's good to see the board reach the same conclusion.

The board decided to hire a "restructuring specialist" to help turn WMATA around, the Washington Post reported.

It's long been clear to many that internal communication at Metro is a big problem. Many middle managers and others bury potential problems rather than discussing them openly with senior managers, and top management has not really pushed to fix this culture.

The revelation that a Track Geometry Vehicle operator mistakenly deleted a warning about problems near the Smithsonian station, problems that later derailed a train, made this issue too large to ignore, even for some board members who believed, or at least claimed, that the agency is running well.

This fiasco also cracked the attitude, which ran from many board members to senior management and down, that the agency should only publicly speak about good news and not admit to issues that might be minor now but could turn into larger ones down the line.

For example, Metro knew the Silver Line would demand more railcars, but railcar maintenance hasn't been able to keep cars in service as much as forecast. Coupled with delays in the 7000 series arriving partly because of the Japan earthquake, the agency has faced a railcar crunch. But we've only found out about this problem in bits and pieces, from riders collecting data manually and oblique mentions in Metro's scorecard.

DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, who has not been shy about calling openly for reform, pushed for a change. Dormsjo said he thinks transparency is part of the solution to the organizational culture problems.

"I think we have an organization that needs to improve it's health, and sunlight is the best disinfectant," he said. "We need to continue to be more transparent and forthcoming, even if it's troubling news." He asked managers to identify more information the could release to the public on an ongoing basis.

Dormsjo has also added some sunlight of his own by being forthright about the problems he sees. On the safety office, for instance, he said, "I am very concerned that Mr. Dougherty's office is a paper tiger in this organization." The safety office was not involved in reviewing standard operating procedures, such as for the Track Geometry Vehicle. Flaws in the procedure was part of the reason the flaw escaped attention.

In the past, some board members have suggested WMATA is better off if they keep strong opinions to themselves lest they scare off a good top candidate. But keeping problems "inside the family" just makes the public trust the organization less when problems grow and become visible.

It's sad that it took a derailment to make this happen, but Dormsjo's philosophy of openness, and the arguments that the organization really needs internal cultural reform, seem finally to be winning out.

Transit


The WMATA Board blames employees for the derailed train instead of looking at its own leadership failures

Following stunning revelations that some people at WMATA knew the tracks were out of alignment near Smithsonian Metro a month before a train derailed at the same spot, the WMATA Board released a statement of outrage. But the board only focused on blaming the people immediately responsible and not the culture and leadership that led to the situation.


Covering eyes image from Shutterstock.

The statement says,

The Board is outraged and dismayed that anyone working at Metro would have critical safety information and not act on it immediately. It is totally unacceptable that the wide gauge track problem reported yesterday by the General Manager could go unaddressed and unrepaired for four weeks. ...

However, Jack Requa's transparent release of information, as well as his actions to order immediate track inspections and gather information to hold people accountable at every level, is what the Board expects and what the circumstances demand. ...

The Board looks forward to learning how the chain of command broke down and where the responsibility lies. This is an unforgivable breach of safety that needs to be dealt with firmly and swiftly.

This statement implies that there is some problem deep within the chain of command, some bad apples or a process failure that must be rooted out and dealt with, but little more than that. That's not the case.

The problems at Metro are endemic and far-reaching. They don't stop at any one person at the agency. WMATA's deficiencies stem from its management structure, organizational culture, funding woes, deferred maintenance, and its own Board of Directors, which squabbled for months in a way that stopped the agency from hiring a new general manager.

Yes, not acting on information that tracks were dangerously out of alignment for four weeks is an egregious failure of the "safety culture" the agency seems to think it has. And that particular instance might fall on the shoulders of one or two people.

But the larger set of lapses, from poorly installed insulation on electric cables, to not hiring and training workers in the rail control center, to nonfunctioning radios and track gauge problems, proves that the problems are more widespread than that. These aren't personal failings. They're institutional failures.

Even if the agency identifies a few employees who were negligent and fires them, it doesn't solve the underlying problem: WMATA is reactionary, not proactive.

Yes, this incident was a derailment that should have been prevented. But what other safety lapses are lurking under the surface just waiting to erupt?

If this were the only safety lapse at WMATA in a decade, maybe we wouldn't worry. But this is just the latest (and probably not the last) event in a chain stretching back beyond the fatal 2009 crash at Fort Totten.

Where does the responsibility lie? It lies squarely at the feet of those who've sat on the board for years now, many of whom came in after the Fort Totten crash to turn things around, who hired Rich Sarles, and who've left the agency arguably even worse off than they found it.

But rather than step up to that responsibility, the board's statement did not even include an apology and shows no understanding that they haven't done their jobs or that the agency needs deeper change.

Rebuilding WMATA isn't just about welding rail and replacing ties. It's also about fixing the problems with the institutional culture. That's a far harder task.

The region needs a board that will fight for change at WMATA. Not just because we need a functioning transit system. But because lives literally depend on it.

WMATA has many hard-working and dedicated staff members. Many of them want the agency to do better. But they can't do it without leadership from the top. The board has a role to play in fixing the agency. Sadly, this message instead conveys that the board doesn't recognize the problem and isn't ready to take responsibility.

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