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Transit


Watch live as Paul Wiedefeld and other experts answer questions about WMATA tonight at 6 pm

During his tenure at WMATA, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has opened more dialog with advocates and the public than many past General Managers. Tonight at 6 pm, he'll join a panel discussion and answer questions from the public at a livestreamed forum.

Once the event starts, the player above will livestream the event. After the event, we'll swap out the livestream player for a recording once it's available. (Update: the totally unedited recording is now available above; the program starts at 16:15.)

40 minutes will go toward audience questions, meaning attendees will have a chance to ask about pressing issues like late night service, rider safety, and anything else they want to know about.

The two-hour discussion will include a public update from Wiedefeld, a moderated panel discussion, and audience Q&A. The panel will also include WAMU's Martin Di Caro, DowntownDC BID's Neil Albert, Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter.

The forum is taking place at Georgetown University's Urban and Regional Planning program, hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and several partner groups. Uwe Brandes, Executive Director of Georgetown's planning program will moderate.

If you have questions during or before the event, you can tweet them to @betterDCregion using the hashtag #WMATAchat. During the Q&A portion of the program, organizers will pose as many of them as possible.

On October 26, a livestreamed followup forum will tackle Metro funding specifically. RSVP is now open, with more program details coming soon.

Transit


Why can't Metro label escalators "walk left, stand right" or label where doors will stop on the platform?

Over 1,000 Metro riders submitted ideas for our recent MetroGreater contest. Two came up most often, but are sadly not possible: Signs or markings to encourage people to stand to the right on the escalators, and decals to show where the doors will stop on the platforms. Here's why they couldn't be winners.


Photo by Benjamin KRAFT on Flickr.

In New York, for instance, markings like the ones above show where the doors will stop and urge riders not to stand right in front of the doors.

The obstacle is simple: On the new 7000 Series trains, the doors are not in the same place as on the older trains. Metro plans to run 7000s on all lines and gradually replace all trains with them, but it will be a long time before any line has no older cars. Therefore, markers wouldn't be in the right spot for all trains.

Here's a comparison between the 7000 series (top) and older cars (bottom) by Sand Box John:


Image by Sand Box John. Note that the exterior design of the 7000 ended up somewhat different than in this sketch made from early plans.

It's too bad the markings aren't possible, but moving the doors closer to the center on the 7000 series does make some sense, as they could better distribute crowding between the middles and ends of the cars. It would have been even better to build them with four doors per side, but perhaps in the future. (If so, however, that will push off the day even further when these markings might be an option.)

Walk left, stand right?

Most of us stand on the right side of an escalator, if we're not walking up or down it, and walk on the left side. Thirty-three separate people submitted variations on the idea of educating people about this custom. It could be a sign, like this one that entrant Kristoffer Wright mocked up:


Image by Kristoffer Wright.

Or, what about footprints, as in this idea by London designer Yoni Alter:


Photo by Yoni Alter.

There's one straightforward problem with the footprints in DC: Many Metro escalators sometimes run up and sometimes down (though many do not). On those, at least, the footprints would make no sense with the escalator reversed. Not only would the feet be facing the wrong way, but the "walk" footprints would then be on the right side, giving people the wrong suggestions. ("You should walk backwards down the wrong side of this escalator"?)

As for signs, reversibility isn't the issue, but safety is. According to WMATA Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox, people walking on escalators "is the single biggest point of customer injury, and Metro does not want to endorse that." They know people walk on the escalator as an "informal commuter practice, but it is a safety concern and we do not want to encourage walking or running on moving conveyances."

Transit agencies around the globe have a wide range of views on whether this is a safety issue. Ryan Young, one of the people who submitted the idea, pointed out a few worldwide examples. Chicago, for instance, officially recommends "walk left, stand right":


Image from Chicago CTA.

Toronto, on the other hand, ended the practice in 2007 for safety reasons. Young also found this Polish article showing a "walk left, stand right" sign in a Warsaw department store and advocating for similar ones in the subway.

We could quibble with Metro's decision, but the fact (right or wrong) right now is that Metro's safety is under a microscope. We have people like US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx insisting that safety is the only priority and that he'd sooner shut down the Metro than have any safety problem whatever. In that climate, doing something on escalators that could be a little less safe, even if the change is slight, is probably not wise.

Personally, I still will be walking on the escalator and politely saying "excuse me" to people who stand on the left.

Transit


AskGGWash: Why are Yellow Line trains terminating at U Street?

During rush hour, Yellow Line trains usually run between Huntington and Mount Vernon Square. But beginning in August, I noticed that many went all the way to U Street, two stops north of their usual ending point. The reason is a mechanical malfunction with a track at Mount Vernon Square that lets trains change direction, and the issue highlights just how important that track is to the entire system.


Photo by the author.

In technical lingo, the problem is called a "bobbing track circuit." The issue is typically considered more of a nuisance than an actual danger, but it's been preventing rush hour Yellow Line trains from accessing their usual turnaround point (the Mount Vernon pocket) for several weeks.

According to WMATA operations guru Stephen Repetski, a track circuit is described as "bobbing" when it erroneously flips back and forth between registering that a train is occupying its block when it might not actually be. This may occur because the circuit is too sensitive, or it may be due to old equipment that needs to be replaced.

A bobbing track circuit can cause trains to lose their speed commands. This forces the operator to stop and wait for permission from the Rail Operations Control Center to proceed to the next signal block, which they must do at a reduced speed. This significantly delays train operations.


WMATA signaling infrastructure. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Usually, rush hour Yellow Line trains reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there's a pocket track there-- a short third track located between the two main tracks, which allows trains to reverse direction without blocking trains on the mainline. In normal rush hour operation, Yellow Line trains use this pocket track to short turn, e.g. to turn around without running all the way to the end of the line at Greenbelt.

Since Yellow Line trains currently have to turn around using the crossover at U Street* (or run all the way out to Greenbelt), fewer trains are operating on the Green/Yellow Lines every rush hour. This is due to the fact that when trains have to short turn without the use of a pocket track, they cause delays by blocking trains in both directions, as Matt Johnson detailed in a 2010 post on the issue.

*There are crossovers that allow trains to turn around between every station from Gallery Place to Fort Totten, but Metro seems to have chosen U Street as the temporary turnaround point.


Trains that have to short turn without the use of a pocket impede through trains in both directions. Graphic by the author.

However, a pocket between the mainline tracks allows short-turning trains to be taken off the mainline while reversing direction, thus allowing through trains to proceed unobstructed. Thus, when rush hour Yellow Line trains turn back toward Huntington using the pocket track at Mount Vernon Square, they are allowing through trains (e.g. Green Line trains) to pass unimpeded on the mainline while the reversal procedure is carried out.


A pocket allows trains to reverse direction without blocking the mainline tracks. Graphic by the author.

This temporary "extension" of Yellow Line service did get a few Greater Greater Washington contributors thinking: could Metro ever permanently extend the Yellow Line past Mount Vernon Square during rush hour? Doing so would provide booming stations like Shaw, U Street, and Columbia Heights with increased service and a direct connection to Virginia at all hours.

There are, however, several financial and logistical problems standing in the way.

The obstacles: lack of a pocket track, railcars, and funding

After 15 years of short-turning Yellow Line trains at Mount Vernon Square at all hours, Metro began running off-peak Yellow Line trains all the way to Fort Totten in December 2006. The service started as a pilot program, but was quickly made permanent due to high demand.

However, there are three major obstacles preventing Yellow Line trains from running to Fort Totten during peak hours: there's no a pocket track at Fort Totten, Metro only has so many trains, and Metro doesn't have the money (Matt explored these factors in depth in his 2010 post).


An above-ground pocket track north of Silver Spring. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Turning some trains around at pocket tracks (like the one at Mount Vernon Square) rather than running them all the way to the end of the line allows more trains to run on the given section of the Metro system because it keeps terminal stations like Greenbelt from getting overwhelmed.

For example, 50% of rush hour Red Line trains only run between Grosvenor-Strathmore and Silver Spring (rather than all the way from Shady Grove to Glenmont), using the pocket tracks at these stations to reverse and head back in the other direction. This means that Shady Grove and Glenmont only have to handle turning around 13 trains per hour, rather than the maximum of 26.

There is excess rush hour capacity on the Green/Yellow Line tracks north of Mount Vernon Square, as you can see in Matt Johnson's graphic below, and extending the Yellow Line to Fort Totten would take advantage of it (as the four hourly Rush+ Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt already do).


Metro service vs. capacity. Graphic by Matt Johnson.

But without building a pocket track somewhere between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt (such as at Fort Totten), it is impossible to take full advantage of this capacity without overwhelming operations at the busy Green Line terminal. Unfortunately, there are significant obstacles standing in the way of this.

In addition to the cost of the pocket track itself, Metro would have to pay for additional rolling stock in order to operate the extended Yellow Line service full time. As Matt explains, the increased service would require 30 additional railcars at a cost of approximately $100 million, plus $3 million per year in operating costs. The new railcars would have to come from Metro's order for the 8000 series, which aren't expected to begin delivery until at least 2023.

Is it possible to build an extra pocket track between Mount Vernon Square and Greenbelt? And how come one didn't go in in the first place? I'll take a look at that in a post next week.

Correction: This post initially said there are crossovers at every station between Gallery Place and Fort Totten. That isn't the case, and given where the crossovers are, U Street makes sense for the current Yellow Line issue.

Transit


Public reaction to Metro's proposed cuts proves the need to be vastly more transparent about rebuilding

Metro has a trust problem that's impeding the agency's ability to fix its decaying rail system. Riders and city officials don't believe the agency's proposed permanent cuts are necessary. To solve this one way or another, Metro must regain rider trust by precisely reporting exactly what its rebuilding needs are, and whether efforts thus far have been successful.


To gain public trust, Metro needs to be much more specific about the kinds of track work it needs to do, and why. Photo by brownpau on Flickr.

This series of seven tweets explains why this problem persists, and how being legitimately transparent can only help WMATA achieve its goals.

WMATA has tried to explain its maintenance plans, and has occasionally reported on progress, but there's no single resource available to riders all the time that compiles all Metro's needs, both SafeTrack and non-SafeTrack, and reports on progress in detail.

For example, how many feet of track must be rebuilt before Metro reaches a state of good repair? Out of that, how many feet has WMATA successfully rebuilt to date? How many feet were fixed in July?

That's the kind of information that will help decision makers and the public understand what WMATA needs, and thus support informed decision-making.

If possible, still more detail would be even better. How many rail ties have been fixed, out of how many that need to be? How many insulators? How many escalators and elevators? That level of detail may not always be possible to report (WMATA may not know the full needs until they start doing work), but after so many years of frustration, this is the kind of information the public requires to feel comfortable with Metro's progress. The data should be specific and be listed for each station or between stations, if possible, so passengers can know exactly where work still needs to be done

In Chicago, 'L' riders can see a detailed map of slow zones in the system, and New York's MTA runs video explainers about system problems. These are good examples worth emulating, but WMATA must go further.

If Metro officials hope to get buy-in for extreme measures like permanently cutting late night service, it's reasonable for the public to demand extreme explanations, and reassurance that sacrifice will result in improvements. Without more frequent and more candid communication about progress, trust in WMATA will continue to erode, political support for sacrifices will be hard to obtain, and the spiral of decaying service will likely deepen.

Transit


These maps show who the region's non-English speakers are, and where they live

About 11% of the region's population has a limited understanding of English, and there are at least 26 language groups with more than 1,000 people. This map shows where the most populous groups live:


On the map, each dot represents a Limited English Proficient household. Click for a larger version of the map, and a key that explains which colors correspond to which language (there are 13). All images from WMATA.

The map comes from WMATA's PlanItMetro blog, where planners used Census data to report that 11.4% of the population within its service area (the cities and counties with Metro rail and bus service) is classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP). Aside from English, the languages spoken most commonly in our region are Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Arabic, and Amharic (in that order).

As you can see, places outside of DC are very diverse. Looking at the Census data geographically also reveals some interesting trends in the distribution of the region's different languages. The Chinese population in DC's Chinatown is shrinking, while in Rockville, it is growing. In addition, there is a growing population of African language speakers in Silver Spring and NW DC along Georgia Avenue (they're most likely Ethiopians).

This map, which was part of the same WMATA report, shows which language is most common among the LEP population near each of the region's Metro stations:


Click for the full version.

As well as a list of the languages with the most speakers, how many people speak each, and how many of them are LEP:


These visuals are part of an internal effort at Metro to better understand the makeup of the region's population. WMATA's efforts come together in a document called the "Language Assistance Plan," which helps the agency determine its public outreach to LEP populations. WMATA updates this plan every three years and the next update is due to be released in 2017.

Considerations for LEP are mandated by the federal government under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The FTA provides guidelines that require transit agencies to identify LEPs within their service areas and produce an outreach plan accordingly. This outreach can include fairly basic things like translated signs and pamphlets at transit stations to more comprehensive actions like public meetings or even personal interviews. The goal of all these efforts are to make sure different population groups aren't excluded or negatively discriminated against.

Development


It's time to build housing at the Takoma Metro station

Metro has been trying for over a decade to spur development around the Takoma station in DC, but in the past, opposing neighbors and their elected officials have created years of delay. The project is ready to move forward again, and hopefully the cycle won't repeat itself this time.


The parking lot at the Takoma station, where WMATA and EYA plan to move forward with plans to build townhouses. Image from Google Maps.

What's the problem?

Since before the turn of the millennium, Metro has planned to redevelop an underused parking lot next to the Takoma station, where parking usage is less than 50% most days. Housing developments on top of or adjacent to Metro stations is hardly controversial; it's a logical idea and part of Metro's development policy to promote them at or near Metro stations in order to make it easy for residents to get around.

In 2000, Metro selected EYA to develop the Takoma station's parking lot, and the first plan developed in 2006 called for the construction of 90 townhouses. Some local neighbors in Takoma, DC, as well as elected representatives of Takoma Park, MD, opposed the first plan, with groups like Historic Takoma saying the proposal was "too dense." They also argued that the two-car garages in each townhouse would bring too much traffic.


The Takoma Metro station today. Image from Google Earth.

Some smart growth supporters didn't think townhouses were unreasonable for an area right by a Metro station, but many did feel such large garages were unnecessary. EYA's original plan got sidelined by a combination of opposition and the recession, but in 2013 the company drew up a new plan to build a medium-density apartment building between five and seven stories high (but scaling down to four stories at Eastern Avenue) instead, with about 200 units and with fewer parking spaces per unit.


EYA's revised plan to build apartments by the Takoma station. Image from EYA.

Many neighbors again opposed EYA's plans, but this time, they had a much more effective online campaign, building and maintaining two separate opposition websites as well as both a Facebook page and Yahoo group. The neighbors also managed to garner support from elected officials this time around.

Complaints about EYA's proposal are varied, but the theme is evident: "it's too big and has too much parking."

The neighbors' petition cites their concerns over the size of EYA's proposed building, the loss of green space, and EYA's use of an above-ground parking garage with the building wrapping around it (rather than underground parking). ANC4B also raised concerns about traffic and said the size of the proposed building violates DC zoning rules for being higher than 50 feet.

Meanwhile, elected officials of Takoma Park also raised concerns about the size of the proposed building, the location of a loading dock for apartment residents, too much parking and that the plan steals public parking spots for the benefit of apartment residents.

Don't let perfect be the enemy of good

The latest development isn't perfect, but it's not terrible either. Looking first at the size, even if the neighbors are technically correct that the proposed building is greater than the underlying zoning, a four-story apartment building abutting Eastern Avenue and adjacent to a Metro station is hardly out of character for the neighborhood. DC law does allow projects (like this one) to go through a process called a Planned Unit Development, which can give a project some latitude, such as to increase density near a Metro station or for affordable housing. That seems like good policy.

The argument that this development will increase parking and traffic is wrong-headed. This development is adjacent to the Takoma station, where people will have to drive less, not more. It does shift a significant number of parking spaces from public to private use, but will retain the number of Metro parking spaces for riders and expands the number of bus bays serving Metro and Montgomery County's RideOn.

Former Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes represented Takoma Parkers, who border the site and led the charge opposing EYA's proposal. He told me that Metro and EYA's motives are good with this project, as he fully supports development around the Takoma station, but he echoed what other neighbors have said: that EYA's plan is still too focused on parking and encourages car ownership and driving. However, the number of parking spaces has dropped from two per unit in the original plan to 0.7 per unit, and at the same time, the housing that would be available would increase from 90 to 200 homes.

Grimes opined that the size issues could be remedied by either building the parking below ground or by greatly reducing it. "EYA designed a building for 10 years ago as opposed to 10 years in the future," he remarked.

You can't always get what you want

The irony to all of this is that the neighborhood is struggling to attract businesses to its commercial street where the Takoma station is located. There is some good news in that Starbucks is opening a store in Takoma; even if it does upset some anti-corporate locals, many see it as a positive sign for the neighborhood's business climate. Heck, despite the announcement by Starbucks to open a store in Takoma, a new local coffee shop announced plans to open nearby too.

But if you walk around Takoma's main street (i.e. Carroll and 4th Streets, DC and Carroll Avenue, MD) you'll find plenty of empty space for lease, including the old Takoma theater, a grand property ripe for reuse. Given Takoma's reluctance to supporting chain businesses, such a result is not unforeseeable. Additionally, Takoma's historic districts may dissuade developers and businesses from wanting to build and invest here.

As an aside here, it's richly ironic that Takoma was founded by B.F. Gilbert, a "New York venture capitalist" who is beloved by many of the same neighbors that are leading the charge against EYA. Meanwhile, people in Takoma are clamoring for more shops, restaurants and services. Look here to see how excited the community was for the startup of a local food truck! Gilbert would have probably supported an even larger mixed-use development than what EYA has proposed.

Personally, I think Metro could do even more development at this site by rerouting the buses to the Silver Spring transit center and developing the entire parcel into a larger mixed-use space, but I doubt that the community would support the loss of neighborhood bus service or the loss of the greenspace, even if it is never used. Still, there is a housing crisis in DC and Takoma has a lot of crime that could be decreased with more "eyes on the street." If only Metro was more ambitious.

More development is coming to Takoma, so let's stop fighting already

With the recent opening of two new apartment buildings on Willow and Maple Streets, Takoma, like the rest of DC, is growing. Does this mean that we should start building skyscrapers adjacent to the Takoma station? Of course not, but Takoma residents cannot claim to be "progressive" and concerned about gentrification while simultaneously opposing new housing developments around a Metro station on the basis of zoning technicalities.

The effects of such diametrically opposed views results in pushing new development outside DC, which increases traffic and sprawl, and only isolates lower-income people from the jobs they need to make a living. While opposing activists may have slowed this development, with the support of other neighbors, the WMATA board approved it so it is now a question of when, not if. I spoke with Jack Lester from EYA and he confirmed that the project is still moving forward as EYA and WMATA work out some of the finer details.

But how do we thread the needle so that Takomans get more shops, restaurants and services while retaining the small-town feel (i.e. no significant traffic increase)? It's not rocket science and a lesson for all business districts: increased density = more people living in the area = more demand for more local shops and services = more supply of local shops and services.

What is most perplexing to me is that much of the opposition to this development appears to be coming from Takoma Park even though the development sits in Takoma, which, again, is in DC. Takoma Park is an extremely progressive community that has laws protecting trees and bans on styrofoam containers and is the only rent control municipality in Maryland.

How can a community that cares so much about the environment and those who are less fortunate be so opposed to increasing the amount of available housing (some of which will be reserved for people who are at or below the poverty line), increasing the number of people who live close to public transportation (which supports Metro's future) and are thereby unlikely to drive very much (which is better for the environment)?

In a Washington City Paper article about this whole ordeal, there was an interesting comment that may provide some insight. It reads:

There's an in increasingly common NIMBY strategy to pretend that what you're really fighting is evil developers. Complaining about the future residents can come off too classist or racist, but complain about the developers who enable those "others" to move in is supposedly going to convince us that the NIMBYs are pure hearted.

Developers wouldn't be interested if they couldn't find a buyer. They are merely agents for the future residents. There is no isolating your objections against "developers' greed" and your objections to the people that simply want a place to live near where you have found a place to live.

What do you think? Does this sounds like what is happening in Takoma or does the opposition raise some valid concerns?

Cross posted at Takoma Talk.

Budget


WMATA wants a private company to run its parking facilities. That's a risky move.

WMATA recently announced that it's looking to have a private concessionaire take over operations and maintenance of all of its parking facilities, including garages and parking meters on its property. In exchange for a big up-front payment equal to 50 years of parking fees, the concessionaire would have to operate and maintain almost 60,000 parking spaces. It'd also get to collect all the parking fees.


Right now, Metro runs its parking lots. WMATA is looking for a company to take over, though. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

For the base proposal, WMATA allows up to a 3% increase in parking rates every year, and expects the estimated payout to be based on similar hours of operation. However, as an alternate proposal, each potential operator can propose changes to rates and hours of operation, which would be subject to board approval.

This idea looks disturbingly similar to a disastrous proposal which locked the city of Chicago into giving away most of the value of their on-street parking for 75 years. In exchange for $1.2 billion up-front, mostly used to close budget gaps and now long gone, Chicago no longer has any control of how on-street parking is priced, and has to pay the concessionaire when people use the streets for festivals, for disabled placard use, and for allowing construction of parking garages.

Why WMATA might want this deal

The benefits to WMATA are fairly obvious: they get out of the business of operating parking garages and lots, similar to how they have contracted out paratransit service. WMATA gets a big up-front payment of what I'd estimate to be about 1 billion dollars depending on the discount rate, the cost of operating and maintaining the parking spaces, and how much profit the private concessionaire prices into its bid.

However, WMATA and the funding jurisdictions would lose almost $50 million in current parking revenues per year, which is approximately half of the annual estimated budget shortfall WMATA has had at the beginning of the typical budget season for the past 12 years. So in addition to the usual $100 million in budget savings, fare increases, and juridictional subsidy increases to close the typical budget gap, WMATA would have to find an additional $50 million a year to make up for the loss in parking revenue.

The deal could limit Metro's freedom to boost ridership or redevelop stations

But that's not all. Since WMATA is requesting potential concessionaires to be creative with their bids, they could potentially increase the amount of the up-front payment by offering to charge for parking during nights and weekends.

Currently, WMATA offers parking for free evenings during the week, and all weekend. This helps improve WMATA's bottom line, because the parking is not scarce, and the people parking typically ride Metrorail and pay substantial off-peak fares (increased over the past decade from about 50% of peak fares to about 75% of peak fares under the guidance of former general manager Richard Sarles).

A savvy concessionaire could offer WMATA a much larger payout by charging for evening and weekend parking. But by discouraging weekend/evening riders, it could be taking revenue away from Metrorail—revenue that WMATA may have been counting on, but which wasn't on the parking concessionaire's balance sheet. Without a solid analysis of how much fare revenue could be lost, WMATA risks further damaging the annual budget in exchange for a one-time payout.


Parking here during nights and weekends is currently free, which encourages more people to ride Metro. But a private company could change that. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

It's even worse if WMATA decides in the future that parking isn't the best use of some land near a station. If office, residential, or retail would be better around a station, or if Metro needs some of the metered spaces for buses or another use, WMATA would either have to pay the concessionaire a large penalty or, depending how the contract is structured, be unable to make the change at all.

Even if a redevelopment replaces parking, would the concessionaire be able to veto designs it didn't like? Would WMATA have to pay it back for all of the revenue while the garage is being rebuilt, and what would the cost be? WMATA's request for proposals doesn't specify, but if a final contract is anything like Chicago's, this deal could significantly hamstring Metro's choices in the future.

Do we trust Metro to negotiate well?

All of this aside, for this plan to succeed, we would have to trust WMATA to correctly evaluate the future value of their parking assets so as not to get taken advantage of financially. According to an independent inspector general report, Chicago's deal could have been worth almost $900 milllion more than the city actually received. In response to a press inquiry, WMATA only stated that "outside resources" would be used to help evaluate bids.

We also have to trust that WMATA will appropriately spend the money it gets up front in a way that is worth giving up all the future revenue from parking we currently count on to pay WMATA's bills. Without parking revenue to help increase the cost recovery ratio of the system, it is possible that state and local governments will put pressure on fares to make sure more of the operating costs are being covered. Finally, WMATA risks losing the ability to control prices or usage of the parking lots without financial penalties.

This looks like an extremely risky potential deal. WMATA should proceed with caution.

Budget


Metro ridership is dropping. Here's what some experts think is the cause.

Ridership on both Metrorail and Metrobus dropped off in a big way over the past year. Possible reasons include cheaper gas and a struggling economy, but those probably aren't substitutes for two staples: safety and reliability issues.


Photo by Kevin Harber on Flickr.

According to WAMU's Martin Di Caro, overall Metro ridership (both rail and bus) fell by to 321 million trips, or about six percent, during the 2015 fiscal year (WMATA's fiscal year runs from July-June). Rail ridership declined even more steeply than the system as a whole, falling seven percent.


All images from WMATA unless otherwise noted.

With bus ridership dropping too, it's apparent that commuters displaced by SafeTrack did not turn to Metrobus as an alternative. These declines compound other factors that have affected ridership, says DiCaro:

Demographic changes, the rise of telework, the proliferation of transport alternatives such as Uber or Capital Bikeshare, the economic downturn and reductions in federal spending, constant weekend track work over the past five years—all have combined with consistently poor rush hour service to drain Metrorail ridership.
Experts disagree about the main factors affecting transit ridership

Last week, a George Mason professor who focuses on policy and transit, a top official at the American Public Transportation Association, and planners from within Metro briefed Metro's board of directors, which is preparing for budget discussions, on the reasons for the decline.

Their explanations for the drop varied.

George Mason Professor of Public Policy and Regional Transit Stephen Fuller presented a handful of factors affecting Metro's ridership. "Levels and quality of service" topped his list:


APTA Vice President of Policy Art Guzzetti listed lower gas prices and fare prices as the top two factors potentially affecting ridership:

Metro's Managing Director of Planning Shyam Kannan laid out the agency's analysis of ridership. Among the largest factors in Metro's own theories about declining ridership are the economy and the rise of Uber and bicycling as alternate commuting methods. Those, however, are outside of WMATA's control.

What WMATA can control are service levels and reliability. That is what WMATA believes will bring back ridership.

Quicker, more frequent, and more reliable service would encourage people to ride more often:

Correction: The original version of this post overlooked a few of Metro's slides. While Kannan did discuss a number of factors that explain lower ridership, his presentation centered on safety and reliability as the top drivers of ridership. The original also said that Metro ridership has dropped by 321 million trips, when in fact it has dropped to 321 million trips.

Transit


How to give Metro's safety commission real teeth

Erek Barron and Marc Korman are members of Maryland's House of Delegates, representing Prince George's County and Montgomery County, respectively.


Photo by Kurt Raschke on Flickr.

A 2012 federal statute requires the jurisdictions that make up WMATA to establish a safety oversight commission to oversee Metrorail safety. This will succeed the discredited Tri-State Oversight Committee, a partnership between Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia that was supposed to oversee safety but has been blamed for many of Metro's safety-related woes.

Recently, the federal government has increased its pressure on the jurisdictions to create the new safety oversight commission by having the Federal Transit Agency take over Metro safety oversight and threatening federal funding should the commission not be stood up by early 2017.

As state legislators that would have to vote on establishing the commission and funding it, we support meeting the federal requirement but would like to go even further in bringing real improved oversight to Metro by merging Metro's Inspector General (IG) into the commission.

The Federal government is rightfully concerned about Metrorail safety. Unfortunately, we know that Metro's issues go far beyond safety and include significant issues related to fiscal management, operations, communications, and more. We support creating the safety commission as required, but why just check that box for the feds when a relatively simple, structural move may succeed where other oversight efforts have failed?

Metro oversight is complicated by the multi-jurisdictional nature of the system: the Federal officials, Maryland, DC, and Virginia each have a role to play—and we have worked from our perch at Maryland's WMATA-Metro Work Group to improve oversight—but with so many players the buck stops with no one. In theory, Metro's Board is charged with oversight, but how is that working out?

The Metro IG was established in 2007 out of the old Auditor General's office. It was created by WMATA's Board and then passed into law by the jurisdictions as part of the WMATA compact. But it has never lived up to its potential and many of its recommendations, including those related to safety, have been left unheeded. Moving the IG from WMATA to the new commission will place more oversight power in the hands of the new independent agency and help the IG grow from its historical background as just an auditor.

Congress passed the federal IG Act in 1978 amid historically low public confidence in government. Since then, IGs have been watchdogs, annually saving billions in public funds and providing an $18 return on every dollar invested.

But Metro's IG is chained to an institutionally ineffective board, unable to harness its potential. Its limited powers are vague and subject to change by board resolution. And, its budget and resources are weak, especially its short-staffed investigatory arm.

Several factors prove critical to an effective IG, including independence, jurisdiction, investigatory and enforcement powers, and complainant incentives and protections. We have a lot of thoughts on how to shape the IG position under the commission in a way that positions it to do the best job possible with regard to each of these factors, and they boil down to allowing the IG to operate as it truly sees fit, having it oversee all of Metro, including the board, and giving it the ability to actually take action if it finds a problem.

We have heard a few criticisms of the proposal to move and empower the IG, all of which are unavailing.

First, we are told that the IG is responsible for supervising Metro's annual independent audit of financial reporting and is one of just three Metro employees that reports directly to the Board. But Metro has a Chief Financial Officer and Audits and Investigations Committee that can provide those functions and, if necessary, the IG could continue to do so as well from its new position. Moreover, the Board functions no better institutionally now than it did before it had an IG reporting to it.

Second, some observe that the safety commission will only have oversight of Metrorail, not the entire Metro enterprise. But so what? The Metro IG does not have regulatory power now. Reports unrelated to safety can still be transmitted to the Metro Board—and hopefully more robust reports will be acted upon in a more transparent and effective matter—but at least those related to safety will be implemented and enforced through the new power of the oversight commission.

Third, critics note that this does not solve every problem Metro has like the lack of a dedicated funding source or an insufficient quantity of track inspectors. Fair enough, but Metro is in a significant hole and no one reform is going to solve every issue.

Fourth, we have heard some fret that this threatens a federal mandate to establish a safety commission. But the federal government should embrace efforts by the jurisdictions not to just meet the bare minimum requirements but actually put forward a reform that could significantly improve Metro oversight and performance. Indeed, many elected officials in Maryland and Virginia do not appreciate Metro and this reform would be an important step in demonstrating that the region is getting serious about fixing Metro, not just careening from one crisis to the next.

We are both supporters and users of Metro. This proposal is not designed to make the work of the General Manager or Metro staff more difficult. Our vision is for a truly useful oversight agency. We are committed to doing the right thing for Metro, not the most expedient thing.

We must do something—both the federal government and the region demand it, so why not make it meaningful. For a better Metro, unleash the IG.

Transit


Metro is proposing the most limited hours of any large rail transit system in the US

At Thursday's WMATA board meeting, Metro leaders proposed making SafeTrack's cuts to late-night service permanent as well as deepening them even further, offering several proposals that would only have the system be open 127 hours per week. These proposals would turn a system that already had some of the most limited opening hours in the US into the least-available large rail transit system in the country.


Image by Craig on Flickr.

The table below compares Metrorail's hours and to those of the other nine largest rail transit systems in the US, by ridership. To get an idea of earlier evening frequency, I looked at the time between scheduled trains on the line that ran trains most often between the hours of 8 and 12 pm on Friday evening (the choice of Friday was arbitrary, but I wanted to compare nighttime frequency before the really late hours.)

Rail systemMinimum hours openMaximum hours openFriday evening frequency
New York City Subway168168every 5 minutes
Metro pre-Safetrack135135every 15 minutes
Metro Safetrack129129every 15 minutes
Metro proposed127127every 15 minutes
Chicago 'L'125168every 10 minutes
Boston MBTA Subway124135every 10 minutes
Bay Area Rapid Transit134134every 20 minutes
Philadelphia SEPTA147148every 10-12 minutes
NY/NJ PATH168168every 10 minutes
Atlanta MARTA139139every 20 minutes
Los Angeles Metro Rail136146every 20 minutes
Miami-Dade Metrorail133133every 15 minutes

In ridership terms, Metro ranks second in the nation, though way behind the New York City subway. It's closest to the Chicago 'L' in ridership.

Three of the ten largest systems run all (NYC subway and PATH) or some (Chicago) lines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Keep in mind that only one of these, the NYC subway, has extensive portions of four-tracked line that allow it to both run express tracks and perform maintenance on one set while using the other. Chicago has some portions of four-tracked lines where two lines run alongside each other, but the Red and Blue lines (which provide 24 hour service) use only two tracks each. Similarly, PATH does not have extensive stretches with more than two tracks.

Chicago, Boston and LA run more limited service on some lines. In Chicago's case, the spur Yellow line is open far less than the other lines. In systems, hours are generally uniform across lines.

Frequency is the other major characteristic of evening service compared here. I examine the time between scheduled trains on the line with the highest frequency between the hours of 8 and 12 PM on Friday evening. On this metric, Metro lags New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and PATH. Only BART, MARTA, and LA have worst nighttime frequencies, though two of these systems (BART and LA) rely on significant interlining to yield much better frequencies in the downtown core.

What do these other systems tell us?

First, and most obviously, the cuts Metro is proposing would give it more limited operating hours than any large US rail transit system.

Second, even before these cuts, many other systems were running for much longer hours while performing inspections and routine maintenance.

And finally, before and after the cuts, Metro would run trains in the early evening at lower frequency than many major systems. In addition to limited hours, limited frequencies make Metro a less dependable option for travel outside of peak hours.

Metro should learn from how these other systems perform inspections and routine maintenance without shutting down the entire system. Clearly, other systems have figured this out, but WMATA has not. Additionally, when major work is needed, Metro should adopt the approach of other major systems by shutting down lines for extended periods of time, as Chicago, New York City, and PATH have all done. These shutdowns are painful, but as we have seen with Safetrack, temporary reductions in service are much easier for riders to plan around than long-term low-quality service.

Area stakeholders need to decide if Metro should be one of the better rail transit operators in the country, or if it is acceptable as one of the worst. The proposed cuts in hours, along with already low frequencies in the early evening hours, would unquestionably resign Metro to being one of the worst systems for riders outside of peak hours.

Even before these cuts, other US systems have managed significantly longer service hours and much better off-peak frequency. Why can't WMATA adopt the strategies these systems have used to get maintenance work done?

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