Posts about Budget
Metro is planning to raise bus, rail, and paratransit fares this year, and last week Michael Perkins talked about the transfer discount. In the comments, some talked about the difference between bus and rail farebox recovery. But those numbers aren't really comparable.
"Farebox recovery" is the amount of operating expenses that fares cover. For example, if a system costs $1 million to operate every year and takes in $500,000 dollars in fares, it would have a farebox recovery of 50%. A profitable system would have a number above 100%.
In the WMATA system, Metrorail has a farebox recovery ratio of 67.5%. Metrobus has a farebox recovery of 24.3%. Both on Michael's post and on Twitter, readers asked whether rail passengers were subsidizing bus passengers. Why should rail passengers pay 67% of the cost of riding, but bus passengers pay only 24%? Unfortunately, that's not the whole story.
Not every rail rider pays 67% of the cost of his or her trip. Not every bus rider pays only 24%. The farebox recovery varies from route to route. At any rate, the Metrorail and Metrobus farebox recovery rates aren't directly comparable because each service has different goals and measures success differently.
Ridership versus coverage
Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit, divides transit service into two broad categories: ridership service and coverage service.
These two types of service come from the conflicting goals transit providers face. On the one hand, they're supposed to cover all of their service area. On the other hand, they're supposed to have as many riders as possible for as little subsidy.
Generally, agencies solve these competing goals by providing both types of service. In the WMATA service area, there are clear examples of ridership service. The overcrowded 16th Street Line is a perfect example. The busy H Street Line is another.
While some lines are clearly ridership lines, much of the Metrobus network (and especially the jurisdiction-operated bus services) are coverage lines. These are lines that are never going to compete with car trips, but they serve areas that WMATA and local governments feel should be covered. If the agency was only concerned with profitability, these areas wouldn't have any service.
Lower-performing coverage routes include the 2T in Virginia and the R3 in Maryland, each with about 14.8% recovery. But even in the District, some lines are coverage lines. The 64 is a borderline case. It runs down 11th Street NW between frequent service lines on Georgia Avenue and 14th Street, and is within walking distance of both. But for those who aren't willing to walk further, it's a coverage service, though it has a decent farebox recovery of 37.9%.
Apples and oranges
And this is where the problem with comparing rail and bus comes in. In this region, and in most regions, most rail service is ridership service. This is for several reasons. At least in modern systems, Federal Transit Administration rules only allow rail lines to be built if they'll have good ridership. And transit agencies themselves don't make large capital investments in rail unless they're going to have good ridership.
Buses, on the other hand, fall into both ridership and coverage categories in almost every region. So when we compare rail, which is almost entirely composed of ridership lines, to bus, which is a mixture, we are comparing apples to oranges.
Farebox recovery is not a good metric for coverage lines, because their goal is not to generate ridership, but rather to provide service to areas the agency thinks need to be served, regardless of productivity.
Since the Metro rail lines are all ridership lines, they have a very high farebox recovery ratio. Some bus lines in DC have good farebox recovery. But much of the network has worse farebox recovery because by design it's supposed to.
Several of WMATA's bus lines cover more than half their cost through fares, including the X2 bus on H Street and the 70 bus on Georgia Avenue. One bus line, the 5A to Dulles Airport, actually has a farebox recovery ratio better than the rail average.
What does this say about WMATA bus fares?
Really, this doesn't say anything about WMATA's bus fares.
The farebox recovery ratio measures how much rider fares cover the cost of service, and that's it. In the WMATA budgeting process, the agency figures out the cost of providing the service, and then they determine how much money they'll get from the jurisdictions. The remainder has to come from fares. Essentially, the agency (and the funding jurisdictions) determines what the farebox recovery ratio is going to be.
On individual lines, farebox recovery gives us a sense of the productivity of the route. But just because a route is performing poorly in farebox recovery doesn't mean it shouldn't exist or that the fare is too low. Sure, if it's below a certain threshold, the agency can look to determine how to make it more productive or whether to keep it. And WMATA does do this. But they track a whole set of performance measures, not just farebox recovery.
Some people say that we should strive to make the bus and rail farebox recovery ratios the same, or at least closer to each other. But that's not a goal that works. At least not as long as we have coverage-type services in one set, but not in the other. If anything, we shouldn't try to make bus have a higher farebox recovery ratio; we should try to make rail have a lower one.
Nationwide, heavy rail systems like Metro have an average cost recovery of 47.2%, much lower than WMATA's 67.5%. On the other hand, the US agencies that operate both heavy rail and bus systems have an average bus farebox recovery of 28.0%, barely higher than WMATA's 24.3%.
Over the past few years, Metro has kept bus fares lower as a conscious decision because many people who rely on buses have limited incomes. That's a perfectly valid policy decision. And the result, of course, is a low farebox recovery ratio.
Starting this fall, students in DC will get to ride Metrobus for free, thanks to a budget surplus. It's good news for kids who take the bus to school. WMATA could take advantage of this opportunity and simplify its system for student fares as well.
Metro already offers a discounted fare for students, but it's hard to take advantage of it. In order to make our family eligible for student fares, my husband had to obtain the proper forms from our children's schools. One school had no idea what we were talking about.
Then, he had to take them in person to one of 4 Metro sales offices or WMATA headquarters, which are inconvenient to reach and only open on weekdays during business hours. Each form allowed us to purchase a bag of 10 tokens for $7.50. We have to transfer buses to get to school, so we would save 10¢ per trip, not accounting for the initial ride to the sales office.
Students can also get a monthly SmartStudent pass for $30, but only after they obtain a Student Travel Card from the District Department of Transportation. You can get it at the sales office or 8 DCPS schools, if a student goes there. But unless you use it roundtrip nearly every school day, it's more expensive than tokens.
We don't yet know how Metro or the DC Council will implement the fare change. I vote for simply allowing younger students to board the bus for free, while letting those who are older use their student ID. Of course, it probably won't be that easy.
A good option won't involve schlepping down to WMATA headquarters every month with new forms. The current system is not easy or convenient for parents who have 9-to-5 jobs or students who are in school all day. And if your school doesn't have the proper forms, you are out of luck. These hoops likely exist to avoid fraud, but there's got to be a better way.
Neighboring jurisdictions already provide student discounts in different ways. Students in Montgomery County can ride the bus for free on weekday afternoons with a student ID or buy a discounted Youth Cruiser Pass, though like DC, you can only buy them in a few places. In Arlington, students can use a student ID or tokens to ride for 75¢.
Giving students free bus fare is a great idea, but parents and students also need an easy and convenient way to take advantage.
Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.
In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.
If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.
When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.
At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.
Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.
But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.
This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.
If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.
Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.
There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.
And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.
Parents from around DC who throng Dupont Circle's Stead Park can rejoice: Yesterday, after months of community advocacy, a DC Council committee voted to fund upgrades that will expand play space, install a jogging track, and better utilize the large playing field.
Stead Park has an endowment from the Stead Family, which will help maintain the transformational renovations, but the project requires city funds. Mayor Gray originally included $1.6 million in capital funds in his budget, but not until Fiscal Year 2015, which starts in October of 2014.
Residents asked the Council to approve the funding and move it up to FY 2014. Marion Barry (ward 8), the chairman of the Committee on Workforce and Community Affairs, was very supportive; yesterday, his committee voted 5-0 to put the funding in FY 2014, which will allow the construction happen over the next year.
The committee report says,
While the Committee applauds the Mayor for funding this initiative, the community and advocates of Stead Park are ready now for the much needed project... In order to not slow down the major progress of advocates, the committee recommends that 1.6 million of funding be moved into the FY14 budget so that the project can begin in the next fiscal year.While playground is packed, field often goes unused
Stead Park, on P Street between 16th and 17th, has some playgrounds for children, a basketball court, and a large playing field. A few wonderful sports teams and after-school programs use the field loyally and lovingly, and know how rare such space is in this part of the city.
However, the field currently doesn't get much use during the rest of the day. It's also in bad shape. Holes and dirt patches mar the surface, and large puddles make it unusable after heavy rain.
Meanwhile, Stead's extremely popular playground draws parents from Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, U Street, Shaw, Logan, and Dupont. Friends of Stead Park, whose board I serve on, has been gathering community input since last year. Because the playing field is so underused, many residents without children that we've spoken to didn't even know the acre of greenspace exists behind the playground.
On Sunday, the field hosted a rare community event: a Jewish Music Festival organized by the nearby JCC. But even though the field was bustling, the playground was still very crowded with visitors from all over. Over 20 strollers and dozens of kids and parents were trying not to bump into each other as they crammed among the jungle gyms.
The playground was renovated 6 years ago and is very popular, while the field has sadly been neglected. Many of the parents we spoke to said that while they want to stay in the city and raise their kids here, they worry that there currently is not enough multi-use space or outdoors options for recreation and community building located nearby.
Project will provide fitness, recreation, and entertainment for all ages
With the city assistance, Friends of Stead Park plans to renovate the field with a smoother surface, better drainage, and artificial turf that will hold up better with use. A jogging track with trees and benches around the edge will give people another way to use the field during the day, while it will remain large enough for the organized sports leagues that use it in the evening.
A small part of the field space will become a kiddie splash park. A performance stage behind the existing building will allow the field to host more concerts, films, and cultural programming.
Parents and community members are excited to let their kids run around the field safely and reduce congestion on the playground. They are happy that more concerts, films, and cultural programming will come to the performance stage. They were relieved that there will finally be trees, shade, and seating, and places for children to splash on hot days. They are excited to be able to go for a jog without having to battle with street traffic.
Friends of Stead Park told the committee that we are glad the city is upgrading playgrounds, including the Harrison playground on V Street. That is necessary since the number of adults and children is growing so rapidly. Stead's playground is already quite nice and doesn't have much room to expand, but this great piece of green space is crying out for better and more use.
Starting the project this year will go a long way toward encouraging families to stay in the city and to be actively engaged, as community members said recently and during public meetings last year.
We would like to thank Councilmember Barry and the other members of the committee for voting to accelerate the funding. We ask that the full Council retain this relatively low-cost, high-value project in the FY2014 budget when it votes on May 22, so we can move forward this year to start improving the field and provide some much-needed space and options for our families and our community.
Mayor Gray's budget puts serious money behind building the streetcar, but makes little mention of bus service. The mayor has demonstrated a clear and very welcome commitment to transit; to truly achieve his goals of boosting transit ridership, DC needs to improve its bus service as well.
The streetcar is not for every neighborhood
Streetcars have advantages over buses. They also have costs, including financial ones: streetcars cost more than buses. Streetcars also can't deviate around double-parked delivery vans or reroute to another road because of construction.
Other cities' experiences have shown that streetcars do attract more "choice riders," people who might not otherwise take transit, and also attract people and businesses to a corridor in a way that buses don't. Because of their economic development power, we should be able to pay much of the cost out of the extra taxes from the development we get from streetcars, and/or through direct "value capture" programs that make those who benefit economically pay some of the cost.
Still, streetcars aren't going to be especially fast. They will often be slower than buses. And in many parts of DC, where economic development isn't the goal and capacity isn't the problem, building a streetcar isn't always the answer. What we can, and must, do is make buses a more appealing mode of transit.
We need a great "frequent bus network" as well
Imagine if you could walk to certain spots in any neighborhood, wait in a comfortable location with real-time screens, and know that within a short time, a vehicle would come take you along one of several high-capacity routes that lead to other adjacent neighborhoods and across the city.
Metrorail does that now. Some of the limited-stop Circulators and Metrobus Express routes do as well. We can gain a lot of mobility for residents by adding to the number of high-frequency routes, making them even more frequent, and helping residents know about the routes by publishing "frequent network" maps that cover both the Circulator and certain Metrobus routes.
These routes all would come often enough, including nights and weekends, and run late enough that people who live nearby could choose not to own cars, use the routes (or bike or walk) for most trips, and have backup options like Zipcar, car2go, Uber, and taxis when necessary.
Where should DC invest in bus?
DC can expand and improve its frequent bus network in two ways: create new frequent routes, and make existing frequent routes faster.
New routes can be Metrobus routes or Circulator as long as they run frequently, 7 days a week, and late into the evening. Last year, a panel of residents, business leaders, and officials created a Circulator plan which lays out places for several of these routes.
Most immediately, the plan suggests extending the Dupont-Rosslyn Circulator to U Street. There's no good, direct transit right now between U Street and Dupont, and it also would create a direct link between U Street and Georgetown.
Beyond adding routes, DC can speed up existing routes. There are many spots where buses spend a lot of time in traffic. In places, buses are frequent enough that they could get their own lane, at least at peak times. WMATA and DDOT have been collaborating on a study of bus lanes on H and I Streets past the White House.
Buses using H and I (and K), plus traffic counts. Image from WMATA.
Elsewhere, maybe a short "queue jumper" lane would help buses bypass a tough spot. Or retiming signals could help buses spend less time waiting for a turn. Or buses could get signal priority to hold yellow lights long enough for them to pass.
When the Circulator turns left from Connecticut onto Calvert after leaving the Woodley Park Metro, it has to make a tough left turn, and WMATA bus planners have said this is a reason they don't send the 90s buses to Woodley Park. Could this intersection give buses a short, special phase to go right from the curb to Calvert?
We don't have a lot of studies or analyses of where the buses get most delayed. This hasn't received a lot of attention from DDOT in recent years. Mary Cheh tried to put money in the budget for DDOT to work on bus projects or have staff focusing on bus priority, but nothing has really happened yet.
It's long past time to get moving on buses. Mayor Gray has set an ambitious goal that 50% of trips take transit by 2032. Building streetcars will help DC get there, but streetcars are one piece of the transit puzzle. Buses are the other biggest piece. For many neighborhoods and many corridors, they are the right piece, as long as we work hard to make them desirable options, as they can be.
A DC official says that "white liberals" don't care about social services, while black folks "aren't as passionate" about services like recreation centers. Is that right? More importantly, does it matter? Can't we have both?
Former DC resident Matt Bevilacqua talks about DC's black-white divide in a post for Next City. It's leading up to an in-depth Forefront story on DC gentrification that could either penetrate difficult subjects or rehash old, cliché tropes. We'll see!
That story includes a quotation by a "black city official who has worked on economic development policy":
On a national political level, we've always been and always will be Democratic," [the city official] told me. "But when you go down into the local landscape or subscribe to the policy of all politics are local, that liberalism has a divide. White liberals in D.C. don't give a shit about social services because they're not of that element. White liberals in D.C. are more about quality-of-life issues as it relates to the lifestyle they want to have.
It is bike lanes. It is dog parks. It is about state-of-the-art swimming facilities. It is about recreation centers. Capital Bikeshare. Car2Go. Streetcars. It's about a way of life. Black folks want this stuff, they're just not as passionate about it."
"Liberals" may not be the right word here, as it's not just liberals who want quality of life services. It's true, though, that a lot of newer white residents do want bike lanes, dog parks, swimming facilities, and rec centers. There's no reason black folks shouldn't want these too, since black folks own dogs, play sports, and have children who could benefit from pools just like folks of any other color.
But even if this official is right that black folks care about them less and white folks care more, why must these conflict? The city has not cut social services to fund dog parks; it cut both in bad times and is increasing both in good times. It does benefit certain politicians or columnists to play groups off each other, but they're not inherently at opposition.
Look at the debate on the 2011 budget, when DC faced a gap thanks to the recession and Mayor Gray proposed a small tax increase amid many cuts (cuts to things both black and white people like). Who opposed it? We had Jack Evans (white), Mary Cheh (white), and Muriel Bowser (black). The main crusader against the idea was Chairman Kwame Brown (black). Supporters included white members like Jim Graham, Phil Mendelson, and Tommy Wells, and black members like Michael Brown and Marion Barry as well as Mayor Gray.
On issues like growth, Michael Brown (black) and Phil Mendelson (white) have more in common in their voting, as do Tommy Wells (white) and Kenyan McDuffie (black). (And all are liberals, at least on national left-right issues.)
Elissa Silverman, a white liberal running for DC Council, has been one of the strongest advocates for social services in the entire city. Anita Bonds, the black interim councilmember, put out a press release about yesterday's budget which first praised its lack of tax and fee increases and the proposed bond tax cut.
We can group officials in different ways. There are black and white folks. There are also liberals and conservatives, and more urban-minded members and more suburban-minded ones. One of these divisions is easy to divine by looking at people; the others require paying attention to officials' actions.
Many voters do vote on the basis of race, but it does the city a disservice when people lump all white folks and black folks to be the same. It's not just white liberals and black liberals, but there's also white conservatives and black conservatives, or white supporters and opponents of a growing city and black supporters and opponents. We can't ignore race, but we can avoid looking only at it and ignoring every other more substantive difference between various groups of residents.
And we can absolutely have a budget that supports both social services and quality of life. Moreover, we have a mayor who won mainly with votes from black folks (and myself) who just proposed a budget that puts strong emphasis on quality of life while also growing social services.
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