Greater Greater Washington

Posts about WMATA

Transit


Ask GGWash: Why do Metro signs now show trains that are farther away?

It used to be that Metro's "next train" arrival signs only displayed trains that were coming within the next 20 minutes. Now, the signs list trains up to 40 minutes away. Reader Tom F. wrote in to ask why.


Arrival screens at Union Station. Photo by the author.

"On the weekend," Tom wrote, "You might see trains spaced at 5 minutes, 35 minutes, and 40 minutes on the PIDS. Is this a quiet admission by WMATA that while weekend service is awful, people still have the right to know that the next train won't be arriving for 38 minutes?"

Resident GGWash WMATA expert Stephen Repetski said that Tom is basically right:

"WMATA recently updated the software for reasons including weekend single-tracking whose headways were longer than that PIDS could show and would thus be blank when there really were trains coming (eventually). They now go out to 40 minutes, up from 20."

According to a recent WMATA Board of Directors document, WMATA undertook the update for customer service reasons:

"We undertook this improvement after hearing from riders that it is helpful for late-night and weekend travelers who may experience longer waits because of service changes around rebuilding. We continue to develop solutions to more difficult challenges such as predicting trains in a single tracking area, or when a train is departing an end-of-line station, but hope this enhancement provides more detail when choosing to travel Metrorail."

Stephen added that Brian Anderson, WMATA's social media manager, told him the following:

"In regards to PIDS, the software that is behind PIDS is actually incredibly complex, taking data from thousands of sources and distilling it into the predictions you see on the platforms across 91 stations. Any change in code has implications that must be carefully considered to ensure that the system continues to work reliably.

"In building the case for an extended look at predictions on PIDS, some of us on the Digital team took note of negative rider feedback upon encountering blank PIDS, not because the PIDS were malfunctioning, but because the headway was winder than the 20-minute threshold. We took this feedback to the group responsible for PIDS with a suggestion that we try a 40-minute threshold instead. That kicked off the process of internal meetings to get everyone on-board with the idea, begin development, and a few months of testing to make sure that we weren't causing unforeseen effects."

Have you noticed this software update? What do you think of it? Tell us in the comments!

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Transit


Metro student passes may be on the way

Five years ago, WMATA and American University teamed up to provide student SmarTrip cards, the goal being to eventually offer discounted student fares. But the program never expanded past its pilot. Will rekindling the effort mean more students on Metro?


Image by the author.

During the pilot, American student ID information went on top of a blank SmarTrip card, allowing students to use the card on campus and on Metro. American and WMATA use the same companies to load money onto their cards, so combining wasn't difficult.

Metro stations near colleges have higher off-peak ridership, an area where WMATA would be happy to boost numbers. Also, special college student passes have been successful in other public transportation systems, most notably in Chicago, where the Ventra UPass gives full-time students at over 40 schools in the area unlimited rides on CTA buses and trains.

The first effort ran into budget problems

The program started in 2010 with 20 of the combined cards going from the American student government to students and faculty. Eventually, the school distributed 300 cards. Combining the cards let AU students simplify their transit use by only having to load money onto one account, as well as see transit data and how much they were spending on fares.

The program's goal was to eventually provide discounted student fares, and with the initial partnership working well, the student government started looking to make it happen.

Talks about discounted student fares and who would fund them began, but they didn't go far. At the time, WMATA couldn't give discounts to particular groups of customers due to its budget rules, meaning the AU student government would need to find a private source of funding for the discounts. Using the data gleaned from the pilot, the student government estimated the cost of the discounted fares to be around $300,000 a year. No one was willing to foot the bill, so the program never moved past the pilot phase.

WMATA and AU are giving it another try

The idea of special college passes has come up again in WMATA's proposed FY 2017 budget, with AU once again working to pilot the program. If combined with some simple steps from universities, like putting bus route maps in freshman orientation packets, the move could greatly boost WMATA's college student ridership.

College student passes with discounted fares would be an excellent way to incentivize public transit use for the estimated 225,000 college students in the DC region. WMATA needs more riders, even if they pay a discounted rate, to boost the bottom line. Colleges are a great place to find them.

Also, a renewed partnership will lead to fewer barriers to using Metro and Metrobus, which will benefit everyone. WMATA is even looking at providing combined SmarTrip and ID's for MetroAccess patrons.

The new program might want to consider old ways

What's on the table now is similar to the 2010 pilot program, but without the combined SmarTrip/ID aspect that made the 2010 program so useful. Instead, students will pay a monthly fee for unlimited rides rather than be able to add to their card as they go.

A college ID is a student's key to their university, and a SmartTrip is a student's key to the city—putting them together made a lot of sense. Having student Metro passes run through American ID's would let students keep all their money in one place, and combining the two into one card would mean students would always have their SmarTrip on hand.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Transit


2015's greatest hits: Will the Purple Line appear on the Metro map?

To close out 2015, we're reposting some of the most popular and still-relevant articles from the year. This post originally ran on July 17. Enjoy and happy New Year!

With the Purple Line's future looking brighter, it is finally becoming easier to envision the embattled light rail line becoming a reality. But if the line does become a part of our region's transit network, will it also be a part of the iconic Metro map?


Base map by Peter Dovak, cartoony additions by David Alpert.

While it's called the "Purple Line," WMATA would not be building this line, nor was it planned as a part of the Metrorail system. It's still unclear how well the line would integrate with other lines. There hasn't ever been a decision made about whether, for example, you'll pay a separate fare to ride the Purple Line, as with a bus, or whether it will be part of the same fare structure as all of the rail lines.

Advocates and planners have long shown images of the Purple Line on Metro map to help cement the idea that this new line will become a critical component of the region's rail transit. But it isn't trivial to fit the line into the existing Metro map.


An older diagram of the Purple Line atop the base WMATA Map via Coalition for Smarter Growth.

How can the Purple Line fit?

If it appears on the map, the Purple Line would be the just the second line color to go on the map since the system's inception, besides the Silver Line. Unlike the Silver, though, the Purple Line and its winding route among the branches of the Metro system will force significant changes to fit with the map's chunky, iconic style.

The map's diagrammatic nature distorts the system heavily as the lines spread outside the core. Simply adding the line itself in and making minor modifications to label placement actually works fairly well, but it's tough to squeeze 10 Purple Line stations into the space between Silver Spring and College Park, while there are only three between Silver Spring and Bethesda.

People might assume, from the above map, that the stations east of Silver Spring are very close together, and very far apart to the west. But that's not true. Instead, the two branches of the Red Line are much closer together than the map suggests.

One solution is to shift the Green/Rush Yellow segment north of Fort Totten to the east. While this more accurately reflects the route through Prince George's County, the change would be one of the most significant to the map since its creation in the 1970s, and may perhaps be a controversial one.

Should the Purple Line get equal billing to heavy rail lines?

The Purple Line is not a Metrorail line. It is a light rail line. And WMATA will not even operate it. Arguably, therefore, the Purple Line should appear less important than the six Metrorail lines.

Today's map doesn't even show other rail services like Amtrak, MARC and VRE. They only get logos next to their respective transfer points. But far more people will likely transfer to and from the Purple Line, and it will run much more frequently than commuter rail or Amtrak. Just using icons would not make the Purple Line very visible. On smaller printed or web versions of the map, they may be difficult to spot at all.

The map could display the Purple Line but in a different style. A thinner line, using smaller station labels, or only showing the line itself and not the stations are all possible solutions.


See the Purple Line with: Icons only   Thin line   Small labels   No stations

Most other American cities with multimodal rail transit do not bother to make this distinction, however. Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston all operate light and heavy rail (though under the same agency) and display them no differently.

What about other services?

If and how to show the Purple Line will likely depend on its ridership, differences in fares or operating hours, and many other factors. After decades of campaigning, though, many would agree that the Purple Line deserves a spot on the Metro map, but it is still a topic that raises an interesting discussion.

And if the Purple Line is deserving, what about MetroWay, DC Streetcar, or the multitude of planned BRT lines? Should it show commuter rail, akin to Philadelphia and Boston's transit maps? What makes a service deserving? These are questions Metro leaders and the region will have to grapple with if the Purple Line becomes a reality.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Budget


Congress gives Metro riders an early Christmas present

If you're a federal government worker, you'll soon get up to $255 a month to pay for transit under a tax bill Congress agreed on last night. Or, if your employer allows setting aside pre-tax earnings for transit, you will also be able to reserve more. This will translate into badly needed fare revenue for Metro—perhaps as much as $15 million a year.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The federal transit benefit lets employees at many organizations put pre-tax earnings aside to cover transit or parking (and sometimes also bicycling). In addition, some employers, in our region most notably the federal government, pays for employee transit up to the allowed transit benefit amount.

For the last two years, the transit benefit has been capped at $130, but $250 for parking The new law—which is expected to pass both houses and be signed within the week—will set both limits at $255, with increases to match future inflation.

Under an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton, the benefit to federal employees automatically increases to match the tax-free maximum. So federal employees whose commutes cost more than $130 a month (the benefit cannot exceed your actual fare) will soon see more money on their Metro farecards.

Lowering the cost of transit for long-distance commuters will attract more riders and bring in more fare revenue. A study by Metro estimated that the system lost 6,000 daily round trips as a result of the January 2014 cut in the transit benefit from $230 to $130. If these riders return at an average fare of $5 each way (only high-fare commuters are affected), the agency would gain $15 million a year in revenues.

MARC and VRE commuter trains can also expect more riders, as can express buses from outer suburbs.

Congress made the new limit retroactive, but few riders will benefit from this provision. Employers will not be able to make payments for past months (although it is still possible to make a payment for December). However, anyone who has been getting a transit benefit of over $130 a month and paying taxes on it will be able to deduct the entire amount (up to $255 a month) for the whole year.

Details of how the new limit will be implemented vary among federal agencies. It's probably best, however, to apply quickly for the full amount of your commute expenses so that the added benefit will start as soon as possible.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Transit


Live chat with WMATA's Paul Wiedefeld

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld answered your questions in a Greater Greater Washington chat today. Below is a transcript of our conversation.


Image from WMATA.
David Alpert: Welcome to our live chat with Paul Wiedefeld, who started as General Manager and CEO of WMATA about two weeks ago. Paul has been speaking with riders in stations and at forums and will be joining us shortly to take your questions.

David Alpert: Meanwhile, please submit your questions by typing them into the box below this chat or tweeting them with hashtag #ggwchat. I'll try to ask as many as I can.

David Alpert: Here's how the chat will work: I am in WMATA headquarters with our crack team of Jonathan Neeley, Sarah Guidi, Greg Sanders, and Canaan Merchant. I will ask Paul questions, and he will reply verbally. Jonathan, Sarah, Greg, and/or Canaan will then type in what he says.

David Alpert: If you see typos or grammatical errors, those are our fault and not Paul's. We'll go back and correct the transcript when we post it after the chat.

David Alpert: Paul Wiedefeld has now joined us. Welcome and thanks for doing this!

Paul Wiedefeld: Thank you David. Nice to be here.

David Alpert: To start out, can you tell me what are the main things you've learned since you started the job that you didn't know before?

Paul Wiedefeld: I'll come at it both from some of the things I've learned internally and externally.

Paul Wiedefeld: I've been here two weeks. Internally some of the things I'm learning, I'm surprised, given history and the general view in industry that certain areas were not as far along as I had anticipated.

Paul Wiedefeld: I'm finding internally we have some very dedicated people. We have some people that maybe have not been brought to the forefront and given the opportunity to grow and run, so that's an issue for me to make sure we're tapping into that resource. I notice that we tend to delegate up and not delegate down.

Paul Wiedefeld: Other internal issues I see: There's not a real clear connection with front line personnel and that feeds some of our issues. I think a lack of respect comes across with that, a lack of respect for what they do and what they provide to the organization.

Paul Wiedefeld: There's lots of positive things I'm seeing as well internally. There is a tremendous desire to do better, they want the opportunity to do better. They are a little beaten down, and I've got to turn that around. I'm focusing on recreating the pride to be a Metro employee. We want that as a region. Lots of things I haven't gotten down to yet. I'll be doing that more over the next few weeks and months as I spend more time here.

Paul Wiedefeld: The other half of my time is focusing on the external side—understanding some of the stakeholders, meeting the stakeholders, and understanding their concerns and issues. I started that before I started the job. I had a nice meeting with the Riders' Union last night at the MLK library. So I'm hearing rider's pleas and other things. Clearly reliability is a big frustration.

Paul Wiedefeld: The basic need for a safe system as well. It has to be a safe system, people should never have to worry about it. I come across customers that still have that in their minds, and that's a terrible place to be to have customers that feel that way. So I've heard that really clearly, and the the host of real issues and perceptions. Real issues, some are the communication system. The physical communication at our stations and our trains. And communications to riders. Riders want to know what we are doing, why we are doing it and what the impact is. Including real-time information.

Paul Wiedefeld: I think there are some things that I'm hearing that I do understand what they say, but I don't quite agree. I do here a bit that all of our station managers are bears and disconnected from the system. That is not what I see on the system. I see a lot of station managers that are personable and know the customers. I was talking to the station manager at Suitland and he knew every other person at the station. I think that is a mix but a few people can set the tone. So that is what I have heard from customers and users. I have heard a lot from people that are users but are focused on what the system means to the region.

Paul Wiedefeld: I've heard a lot from users that are at a different level. What this means for the region and how important it is. This region does not grow and survive without this system. So, yes, you've got to get the day to day down. We need the system to support all these other things, development, environment, traffic, we need the system to perform. And there is this other discussion about the future for the region and if all the projections I see are correct then they are strong, but the system today can't support that.

Paul Wiedefeld: So that's some of the external factors. It's been a busy too weeks learning htat and understanding this. I have a very long to do list. I'm still in the process, I'm using the month of December, to really get out of the headquarters as much as possible, to make those relationships, to get a better understanding from people outside of the building.

Paul Wiedefeld: I'm also doing that internally, but again, at a different level. I'm meeting with the managers, senior team, but where I want to start to focus shortly, I've been dealing with front line people through town halls, but I want to get to supervisory and management level because I feel that the improvements needed at those levels are huge. Because I think those are the ones that are running the system day to day, not me. I have to understand what their needs are and what we are and are not doing well. How do we improve the system, take advantage of their skills to improve the overall agency.

Paul Wiedefeld: I've been trying to get some sleep as well.


[Comment From Jasper] Your predecessor, Richard Sarles, came in under pretty much the same circumstances as you: big accident, lots of overdue maintenance, strained relation with the unions, ridership wavering, budget issues. He was a competent man, but did not significantly improve WMATA. How *can* you do better, considering politicians are not willing to provide significantly more funding and employees are not suddenly going to change that much? What tools do you have to do better?

Paul Wiedefeld: I'm sure Mr. Sarles did everything to his ability; he's a well qualified professional and his heart was in it 110% as mine is. I have a certain skill set that is unique to me. I have a clear understanding of the region have worked in this region, I've worked with business, environment, politics. I have been involved with MWCOG, the Board of Trade, and the airports. I think i can tap into some of that experience to deal with those issues. I have a relationship with political leaders in the region. I have a relationship with different elected officials that I've had for years. There are a number of people that work for the Washington city government that have been going for decades.

Paul Wiedefeld: There's an understanding of the people so we can break through communication barriers quickly. I think, I won't compare myself to anyone else, but what I focus on is a lot of organizational issues and creating the cultures around what I"m trying to achieve and it's two major areas I'm trying to impact:

Paul Wiedefeld: One is a culture of customer service. That we approach things from that perspective. Our business is customer service. Yes we provide rides and mobility but customers are our focus. We're not moving bags or boxes. I come at it from that perspective. The other is that I have a different safety culture because of my aviation background. The way I look at safety and security is a little different because it's so integral to the aviation business.

Paul Wiedefeld: The other thing is my overall management philosophy is such that I'm looking for people that are innovative, strategic in thinking, that are challenging both to me and organization. That is another thing that I think can help the organization grow.

Paul Wiedefeld: And I think I am also very interested in not doing what has been done in the past but not trying something that didn't work in the past. I am open to both ways, if you can follow that. I'm not afraid to listen to someone who said "we tried that and we're not doing it." Start each day with a fresh approach. I will continue that. One of the things I want to make sure people are clear. The way I've been managing in the last few weeks is not anything I do because I'm new, it's how I manage. I am a walk around manager, I am an "in your face" manager.

Paul Wiedefeld:At the end of the day, I'm a salesperson; I've got to sell to all different kinds of clients. Whether it is the need for an understanding of what we are up against so people can appreciate, or whether its about the resources we have. To do that, I've got to get out there and work with our people and have them explain to me, challenge them, on what the issue is so that I can articulate it other quarters. I don't know how other people are doing it but that's how I'm doing it.

Paul Wiedefeld: My experience has been, at other places, that has moved the ball down the court. To be frank, I would never have taken this job if I didn't think I could move the ball down the court. My vision is that we will get to all that but I understand how this business works but as we continue to improve things will happen that we will have to respond to as well. We will always have issues with a complex organization like this with so many moving parts, mechanical, technical human. There will be issues. Moving down the road, I think we'll get somewhere.


[Comment From Flavia] Do you ride the bus or train regularly? If not, could you commit to increasing that use, and personally experiencing day-to-day transit service?

David Alpert: And another commenter asked if you can commit to riding all parts of every line.

Paul Wiedefeld: I do ride the system. Right now I am riding rail primarily. I do it for my personal needs but also for business purposes as well.

Paul Wiedefeld: I am meeting today for instance with the [Business Improvement Districts] group right out at Metro Center. I just do it, that to me is a non-issue in that I've already started to experience some of the same frustrations.

Paul Wiedefeld: It's amazing when I look at... I live by Union Station, when I take the stairwell down to the train there, the urgency and the rush that people have. If you walk down the stairwell, you gain ten seconds. It's interesting the perspective people have. As soon as people get to our stations, their expectations change. It is interesting how that happens. My wife always accuses me of walking too fast because at the airport I had to walk fast. At the airport, people are generally rushing to get to a plane and you see that here. I see how people act and react in the stations and some of the frustrations they get when things don't go smoothly. When that escalator doesn't work, you can see almost immediately that the blood pressure goes up a bit. Like in Union Station, it's a ten second thing. In other stations that's a huge deal.

Paul Wiedefeld: I've heard issues with PA systems on trains, but I've also heard it work well. Some announcers are clear and articulate. But I've also heard ones where I couldn't hear anything. I have experienced when a train pulls up and I can't board the car and the frustration of people who have lined up but have to move quickly. So I've seen all those things and will continue to see those. So what I do is take this back and say this is what I expereinced, this is not unique, this is what I'm doing about it.

Paul Wiedefeld: I will also take MetroAccess. I grew up riding the bus in Baltimore. I have a lot of exposure to the bus and experience. I have a clear understanding of some of the issues there. I don't hear as much of those, but people who are just as frustrated with bus as rail.


David Alpert: One question that has been the subject of a lot of discussion, both among riders and transit professionals, is the tradeoff between maintenance and amount of service, especially late night service. A lot of readers asked about that.

[Comment From Peter] Have you considered the fast but painful solution of shutting down entire lines for several months to complete rebuilding and safety improvements faster? Other systems have done this with success. You can even shut down only half of each line at a time and rebuild it over a 6-month period. Within a year the entire system will be brand new. Having no Metro or limited for a few months is better than Metro being unreliable for years straight. As painful as it would be, I think its faster than the current "rebuilding" that seems to have been going on for a decade with no improvement in safety or reliability in sight.

David Alpert: Other possibilities that have been discussed include shorter but week-long or just weekend-long full closures instead of the single tracking that is going on now.

Paul Wiedefeld: I definitely want to look at that and see what our options are. We have to take a really hard look at it.

Paul Wiedefeld: We have to look at it in a context of a number of things. One is how the world works today. With Uber and Uber-lite services, are there things we could tap into at the lower end of the service. Particularly at low points in the service period, when there aren't many people moving.

Paul Wiedefeld:I hear people say, I won't even use service for a week, I'll drive. But we also have people who don't have access to cars and that would be a big deal because they have to rely on us. I want to think outside the box on that.

Paul Wiedefeld: I think it's not only from the customer experience perspective. We have to look at it from the efficiency standpoint. How efficient can we be if we are ramping up for three hours and ramping down? Whereas long term your production level goes up. It can go better. What are the finances associated with that, have we done the math?

Paul Wiedefeld: So its not just the customer side but is there a smarter way to do that. maybe there will be some pain but not as much as we think there will be. Maybe we can save money and do it quicker. I'm looking at the entire approach we're doing. Is it midday work? Is it evening work? And again, it's probably all of the above. I want to look at all options. Because, to me it makes common sense to look at it and do it on a fairly regular basis.


David Alpert: It's great you are studying this issue and clearly there are many tradeoffs. Once you come to a conclusion or have a set of finalist options, will you communicate the best choices, and your reasons for choosing among them, to riders? In the past, often these kinds of decisions seem to be very opaque and riders then don't have confidence that the decision is right.

Paul Wiedefeld: It just the opposite. The only way you can do some of this stuff is that you have to be totally transparent about what your decision making process was. You lay out some of the options. You're clear that there's pluses and minuses to all of it. If it was easy it would already be done.

Paul Wiedefeld: If we're open with people with what we're up against and what the options are, I want to appease everyone but we're probably not going to get there. But you don't go making decisions in a vacuum or behind closed doors. To me that is just a recipe for disaster. That doesn't strengthen to organization.


David Alpert: Let's talk about the budget for a bit.

David Alpert: The current proposed budget effectively shifts some money away from capital projects to make up a shortfall. Can you explain to riders why this is a good idea?

Paul Wiedefeld: Sure, there's a few things. The quality of service and service reliability issues. It's no the time to ask your customers to pay more or accept less. That's a basic logic that I have. And/or to ask the locals to pay more. We have a completely new relationship that we are forging with FTA and we have changes to the board. To me its a great time to take a pause.

Paul Wiedefeld: So that's just where I start from. Then, the other thing, we have a unique opportunity. I'm brand new. we've got some major initiatives underway to look at organizational issues, supported by board and working with outside consultants. What the budget proposes gives the ability to do that.

Paul Wiedefeld: It's a great time to take a bit of a pause, not in terms of what we're trying to do, but to take a time to look at what we're doing and what to do going forward. If service was running well and I have been here for a while then of course I wouldn't be dipping into the capital funding side. The money we're getting from the capital side is eligible for operating. As a strategy is this something that you want to do? No, the capital needs are huge and big going forward.

Paul Wiedefeld: But we've had a recent history of not burning the dollars when we've said we'd burn them. I'm not stopping a capital project to do this. We weren't going to burn that money anyway.

Paul Wiedefeld: It is an effective stop gap or a pause. It is eventually a board decision but it is my logic. we will see what they say. I think there's a general sense from people, okay, we know where wve been we're hitting the reset button here, without alienating the customer base further by fare increases.


David Alpert: We can all hope that revenues will be up and expenses at least not up so much next year, but what happens if you've made considerable progress, but not enough to make up for all of this shift of funds? Is there a danger this would have to happen again next year?

Paul Wiedefeld: It is possible ,but the other thing that is in there is: What are the things we can do from an effiencincy standpoint? Are there efficiency savings that we just aren't using our dollars well, our resources well? It's that management as well that I want to get into the whole occasion before we ask anyone for additional money.Paul Wiedefeld: Are we using it efficiently? I will do that as part of this. Yes, if you look at any transit system in the world, costs to come up and you have to get there somehow. I think until you show that you are efficient and reliable then it is a tough sell and a lot to ask of people


David Alpert: A number of people wanted to ask about labor costs.

[Comment From Ken Kensington] Can Metro's long term budget problems be resolved without addressing employee labor and benefit costs? If yes will it be necessary to re-open the Metro compact?

Paul Wiedefeld: I think there's two issues, not sure they're the same. Labor, with any transit agency, labor is always an issue. It's something that is part of the business, there's nothing unique here with that. We will work with labor to keep those costs reasonable, but we've got to work on the efficiency side of it and make sure we make efficient use of the labor we do have.

Paul Wiedefeld: In terms of compact, I'm not making the connection he's making with that. But the compact is dealing with broader issues, so that will be something that the principal members of the compact will have to start to wrestle with.


[Comment From Patrick] Dick Ravitch, the great turn-around-artist of New York transit, once said that "politics is complicated." How will you navigate all the competing federal, local and state interests?

Paul Wiedefeld: It is complicated? [Chuckles.] Again, this is something that I am familiar with both at a regional level and nationally. When you think of running an airport then my boss was the governor, the budget committee in Annapolis, the FAA and the federal government. My boss was TSA, my boss was FAA, my boss was the airline. All of them have different agendas, all of them have different pressures. That's what these jobs entail, there's nothing unique about the Washington Metro from that perspective.

Paul Wiedefeld: I think it gets tot same issues we've been talking around customers. If you perform, your capital in the political side goes way up. If you don't perform, it goes way down. We have to focus on performance then we can work in the political sphere much better when we perform well. But if we aren't performing then the conversation isn't where we want it to be.

Paul Wiedefeld: By the way, I have done extensive outreach to elected officials of all three jurisdictions. To a person, they are behind the organization. They want to see it managed tightly and they want to see it succeed. They have offered to do anything in their power to help that. We have tapped into that for some issues and will continue to do that both at the local and national level.

Paul Wiedefeld: The same way with FTA. I met with Therese, the acting administrator, a number of times already. We met on Sunday evening to talk through some issues. They have a regulatory role, that's their job, but I think there's a partnership working through some of these issues.

Paul Wiedefeld: I'm meeting with [USDOT] Secretary [Anthony] Foxx at the end of this week to make sure that I understand his needs and he understands our issues, particularly as new board members come on. I have met with chairman of the NTSB to make sure that we understand their view of WMATA and that I can respond to those issues. I will continue that and I am doing that with the business and the riders and the environment as well.


[Comment From Ken Kensington] Paul - the issue with the Compact is that an arbitrator is essentially the ultimate authority on all labor agreements with WMATA's unions and that has left WMATA saddled with unsustainable labor and benefit increases. Other large transit agencies negotiate these issues directly with the threat of a strike and the associated lost wages looming over the negotiations.

Paul Wiedefeld: Yeah, I guess that's where I misunderstood. In Baltimore it's the exact same situation, it goes to binding arbitration. My experience has been exactly the same it has been here.


David Alpert: A number of readers have put in questions about specific service issues, like why ceiling tiles have been open at L'Enfant Plaza for a long time or why "next train" information is poor. How deep have you gotten into these kinds of details so far?

Paul Wiedefeld: I'm asking the exact same questions. Why? I don't see much action here. There's no information to the customer - it may be there, but as a customer, I could walk out of there and not be able to tell you what it was. And then we ask how and why we are doing it and what is our schedule? Those things should be out there and maybe they are. Maybe they are, but if I'm not picking up on it, and I'm looking for it. I can't imagine the person who flew in from Iowa and looks up and sees grids on the ceiling and thinks "that's how this thing looks like."

Paul Wiedefeld: I will be getting into those things. If you've ever used BWI airport, you get a sense of how we do that up there. We are constantly impacting customers with construction, but we have signage, messaging, explaining what's going on and what's to come. I don't see that as much here. And that isn't unique to WMATA—I've seen it at other systems as well. It doesn't make it right.

Paul Wiedefeld: When you think of aviation, we're doing the same thing. In fact, in the aviation world, those aren't my customers, those are the airline's customers. Whereas here those are our customers. But in effect you're doing the same thing, you're moving up and down, you're getting to different places. Vertical circulation to get to different places and then you take a car to get somewhere else.

Paul Wiedefeld: I'll take that back. Not all airports. But I think that is a culture that we have to create in order to do better.


David Alpert: Once you do become an expert on many of these specific service questions, I'm guessing you also might not be the person who personally talks to every rider about what's going on with each frustration, open and accessible as you have been. Do you have thoughts about how riders can have the ability to get answers to these kinds of questions in the long term?

Paul Wiedefeld: Yeah, I'm looking at some ways to create more direct ownership from our people to different aspects of the systems. There's things that have been done in other places, they own lines, they own system, they're responsible for it. They'll take pride in what they do, be held accountable, and be the point person to deal with specific issues. That's the person you go to for that answer.

Paul Wiedefeld: That doesn't mean I won't be there. but there is no way I can be at all 91 stations or all the bus lines. But we've got to get other people that come with that same philosophy and that same sense of pride and passion about the parts that they own and to make sure that they do own it, that it is their baby. That gets to that issues I raised earlier, about delegating up. I'd like to get that closer to the customer.


[Comment From Kevin] How much of the problem is lack of funding and how much of the problem is lack of appropriate spending of money provided. A few years ago, riders were told there was a $5 billion overhaul going on and that it would cure the system's woes. Now, there are reports that another $5 billion is needed just to make the system safe and reliable.

Paul Wiedefeld: I think with any big organization, you will come up with capital needs that is well beyond the resources you have. So to me that is pretty much a given. Every place I've been, you go anywhere, they have those issues. What that means is that we have to spend it wisely because we'll never have enough. That's just how it has to be. The issue is when people don't think you're spending it wisely.

Paul Wiedefeld: But at least when you start to chip away at those needs then people view it as a wise investment. That is what I want to get to.

Paul Wiedefeld: And it changes, it's going to change. There's going to be different safety standards. Think of the airlines, think of all the things they had to do to add security screening and everything. That's billions of dollars. That money wasn't just sitting there.


[Comment From Andrew] What's up with the 7000 series? Why aren't we seeing more of them on the rails yet?

Paul Wiedefeld: Again, we have had an issue getting the product to where we think it is acceptable. As maddening as that it is, it would be more maddening to accept it as is. Because once we accept it, it's our issue for the next 40-50 years. So that would be a huge mistake and that is not using our dollars wisely. It's our job to keep the fire under the feet of the contractor to deliver what we expected.

Paul Wiedefeld: We will get there. I met with the president of Kawasaki. They have made a commitment to start to produce 8 vehicles per month starting in February. My feeling is that I'll believe it when I see it. And what I'm talking about there is making sure what's coming off the line meets what we want. Because when those things get shipped to Greenbelt, all we want to look at is what happened in transit. We don't want to be looking at, "this isn't what we ordered." So I've made it clear that as soon as they're there, then we'll be meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska together and toast to the success together.

Paul Wiedefeld: I will keep the pressure up to get those vehicles here, ASAP. Its not a panacea, but its a place to start to see what the future looks like. It starts to deal with the communication issues, the signage. It's six sets out there today, we've got the first 64 in. We're holding some for training, but basically we'll get those out as quickly as we can.


David Alpert: And can you explain what was wrong specifically? Problems with the seats and doors, you've said?

Paul Wiedefeld: The seat issue that the body of the seat where the plastic was slipping off. And there was leakage where we had to take cars out of service to fix them. Very fixable things, not a major reengineering issues.

Paul Wiedefeld: So that's the good news. The bad news is that we are dealing with those minor issues that are holding up the delivery.


David Alpert: Why does this kind of thing seem to happen so much? Kawasaki is not some fly-by-night outfit that hasn't ever built something before. Anytime there's a big somewhat custom manufacturing process, are companies just not able to keep quality up? This is far from the first time WMATA (and other agencies) have had railcar orders with technical problems.

Paul Wiedefeld: I don't think it is unique to the business. Look at aviation. Big jets can take a long time to get to where they need to be. They are complex pieces of equipment.

Paul Wiedefeld: One thing I am looking at, this also plays in on the bus side. We also have to make sure that what we spec is thought out well, that we don't change in the middle of it, that we aren't holding the to beyond reasonable measures. I also look at the perspective of: what are we asking for? Are we being overboard on some of this stuff? In this case, I don't think we're doing that.

Paul Wiedefeld: It can happen when you have to build complex equipment. Sometimes even our iPhones don't work right.


David Alpert: Let's talk about buses as well. Tell me what you're thinking Metro can do to improve the bus experience.

Paul Wiedefeld: First, you know, the bus system has been performing well, both in terms of the product that is out on the street and the customer responding to that. The numbers back that up. That's a good thing.

Paul Wiedefeld: I want to work with Washington for ways we can move buses through corridors. Prioritization is always good. Things we can do at bus stops to improve conditions while they wait. There's issues at different times of the day that impact all customers.

Paul Wiedefeld: We want to improve next bus information that you get on your phone. With my experience with bus I want to look at what operators go through. I want to work with operators. They know what the issues are. So we have to make sure we can respond to those operator issues.


[Comment From Zeus] Is 24 hour bus service in the cards, even if that's not going to happen with rail anytime soon?

Paul Wiedefeld: It's another thing that I think we should strive towards as the city grows. As the city continues to grow as a global city. That is something that major international cities have. That's something we should continue to look at. Should we become a 24-7 city, thinking about that. Just the nature of the economics of the region. The price of real estate. Some people cannot afford them and have to move further out. Some of them have evening jobs and need to get into the city.


David Alpert: We all hope there are no more derailments, smoke incidents, train or bus crashes, or worker injuries or fatalities. However, before you came on board many felt there was a real danger of such things happening again, and nobody can expect you to have been able to change that yet. So, my question is: What will happen if some crisis does happen? How will you respond, and what do you hope will be the reaction from riders and local leaders?

Paul Wiedefeld: A few things. One is we will be transparent as to what occurred, what led to it, and what our response will be. I know how I do things, that's how we will behave as an organization.

Paul Wiedefeld: I do know that there's been quite of bit effort on where we've been in the past. I attended a drill at Forest Glen. We worked with Montgomery County police and fire around how we would respond to a tunnel with smoke. We have to keep drilling that. There are things there, I have fresh eyes and different background. Some things we do in aviation, I'd like to see us do here. So I will be basically bringing some of that to the table.

Paul Wiedefeld: That is what I will do immediately. As we focus more on culture safety will have to be up front. We are looking at a number of things, to make sure that people can report anything they feel is unsafe. It's similar to what air traffic controllers can do, where it's not a threat for them to report things even if it will make them look bad. It's more important that we get the safety right. The goal is not to bang anyone over the head. The goal is safety. I'll focus on that here.


[Comment From Marrisa] Is the agency developing contingency plans to deal with the mechanical and other issues the system will likely continue to experience? For example, a back-up plan to continue moving riders who depend on public transportation during a major rush-hour metro incident-- like the smoke closure of the Rosslyn tunnel that caused huge problems last spring?

Paul Wiedefeld: Again that is an area where I don't have all the information yet but I am concerned about it. I sense that there is a separation between bus and rail and other parts of the organization. It's not thought of as "we're all in this together"and obviously the customers feel that. In my mind, that's not where we are. I mean obviously we put in bus bridges when those things occur. But do we drill to that?

Paul Wiedefeld: For the major stations, do we have a plan that we all kick right into? I haven't seen that yet. It may be here but those are things I will be looking into. Because the reality is that some of these things will occur and maybe even occur at the same time. it may occur in multpile places at a time. We need to make sure we've done our best to think that through.

Paul Wiedefeld: That said, I will caution that at peak periods, all the resources are being used. We do have standbys and things like that. But not to the level that we could replicate throughout the system. It's not there. Whatever we do, we won't be there. We don't have the resources. If that happens at non-peak times then you can apply those resources but there is only so much in the bucket.


[Comment From Elnigma] Will you fire those longtime ROCC [Rail Operations Control Center] personnel who sabotage new hires and do harm to operators, placing passengers at risk?

David Alpert: (This is the issue that was exposed in the recent Washingtonian article.)

Paul Wiedefeld: Literally my first day on the job I did go to the ROCC. I don't know the individuals and what is being done on that yet. Obviously, I'm looking into it. I'm assuming its been dealt with from a personnel standpoint, if not, we'll look into it.

Paul Wiedefeld: To me, that is the easy part. The bigger issue is a culture that accepts that. We have individuals that are doing things that is part of the culture and it is the culture we need to fix. Anyone that does anything that puts riders at risk or undermines the operation is not acceptable. We will do everything in our power to deal with that. That's across the board, that's not just at the ROCC, that's anywhere.


David Alpert: Riders and the general public are very eager to see you succeed in actually fixing what ails WMATA. How can we all help you in this process?

Paul Wiedefeld: Recognize that I can't do it myself. I need the support of the riders, the business community, elected officials. When I say "I," I mean the agency needs it.

Paul Wiedefeld: I was at the meeting last night with the Riders' Union. Be vocal. I don't see that as a minus. It is a plus. We need to know.

Paul Wiedefeld: We can step back and recognize progress when we see progress. That would be appricated for everyone to project that image. If we all wake up every day thinking that the Redskins are terrible, they'll never get to a championship—that's how we think about it. But lo and behold, they're in the running. There are a lot of good things this agency does and can do in the future.

Paul Wiedefeld: The thing that I am trying to get from employees is a focus on pride and so that people will look at us and when they ask, "where do you work?" they are proud to say, "I work at WMATA." That it's kind of a cool place. That's where we want to get to. It's going to take a lot of people to get to that level.

David Alpert: Thank you so much for joining us today!

Paul Wiedefeld: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you.

David Alpert: I'm sorry we couldn't get to more of the many, many questions you all submitted. Thanks to all of the people who were reading, tweeting, and posting questions, and huge thanks to Jonathan, Canaan, Sarah, and Greg for all their hard work typing and tweeting during this chat, and Sherri and the other Metro staff who helped make this possible. Please continue the discussion in the comments, and we'll hope to have more chats to come!

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Transit


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.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Transit


The new WMATA head is meeting with riders. Here's why that matters

Paul Wiedefeld, WMATA's new general manager, recently met with riders at L'Enfant Plaza, will talk with the new WMATA Riders' Union Monday, and will field Greater Greater Washington readers' questions Tuesday. All this could signal the start of a positive new chapter for an agency that has received a lot of criticism for poor communication.


New WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld speaks with riders at L'Enfant Plaza. Photo by the author.

These meetings are the first of their kind by a WMATA GM in recent years. Many riders are meeting Wiedefeld for the first time, and good impressions may be a small shot in the arm that the agency's customer relations side needs. If everything goes well, Wiedefeld can lay a foundation for communication with riders, allowing everyone some leeway to talk a bit more openly than what riders are used to in the recent past.

A trio of WMATA's previous general managers held bi-weekly/monthly online chats from 2004 to 2010, where they and other high-level executives would spend an hour or two answering riders' questions. Canceled around January 2010, the chats were a direct line to the GM; some assistant general managers occasionally contributed as well.

Since then, there have been few similar opportunities for direct communication with the higher-ups. For example, when Jack Requa was the agency's interim general manager, he turned down multiple requests to appear on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi show, which would have required him to take calls from riders.

Wiedefeld's chat with us and his meeting with WMATARU, which has over 1600 members are part of a bigger chance for WMATA to turn over a new leaf with its riders.

A report from WAMU likened the type of meeting to one that the Straphangers Campaign, a similar type of riders' association from New York, held in the early 1980's with the MTA's then-chief Dick Ravitch. In WMATA's case, Wiedefeld will be brand new on the job—he's even still in temporary housing while getting settled into the DC area.

What are your thoughts on what you've seen from Wiedefeld so far? What are you hoping comes out of next week?

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Support Us