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Transit


How much could you save with a Metro SelectPass? Use our calculator to find out!

SelectPass, Metro's new monthly pass program, currently has two versions: one that charges $2.25 per trip, and one that charges $3.75. Those whose regular fares are usually less than $2.25 or more than $3.75 may be unsure of whether the program would save them money, so we've created a calculator to show whether it would.


Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

The program works by allowing riders to pay upfront for 18 days' worth of round-trip commutes, at costs of either $2.25 or $3.75 per trip. Any extra trips of the same or lesser value are free, and longer ones just cost the difference between that trip and the single-trip charge.

Would getting a SelectPass save you money?

Because the pilot only offers passes at two price points, WMATA has suggested that it only offers savings to those whose one-way commute costs between $2.25 and $3.75. But since the SelectPass allows you to take more expensive trips for a reduced price, it also offers savings to anyone who regularly takes longer trips. Other riders, like those with less regular commutes but quite a few short trips each month, could also save.

To find out what your savings could be, use the calculator below, which Greater Greater Washington contributor Chris Slatt developed and I adapted and expanded.

We've filled it in with an example representing someone who commutes 20 days a month at rush hour between East Falls Church and Farragut West (40 trips at $3.30 each), and does a round trip in the afternoon between Farragut West and Capitol South once a week (eight trips at $1.75 each). If you don't know how much your trips cost, go to the Metrorail stations page and click on the station where you're starting your trip.

WMATA SelectPass Savings Calculator

In a typical month, how many one-way trips do you take and how much do they cost?

Trips per Month Fare per Trip
$3.30
$1.75

Monthly Fares Paid and Savings

Normal Fare: $
$2.25 SelectPass Fare: $
$3.75 SelectPass Fare: $

It's worth repeating that the program is only a pilot right now, meaning WMATA could add more versions (i.e., more options for what price you buy your pass at) as it develops.

Transit


Have you gotten your Metro SelectPass yet?

Do you take Metro four or more days a week? Is your usual trip around $2.25 to $3.75? If so, get Metro's new SelectPass right now!

Metro SelectPass is a new unlimited pass that's a far better deal than passes WMATA previously offered. It's had rail passes for years, but they weren't a good deal for most riders. This is.

Here's how it works: You select the level of fare you usually spend (for most people, that's the rush hour fare for your regular commute). You buy a pass that costs 36 times that fare, of the equivalent of 18 round trips. You then get unlimited rides costing that amount or less.

If you take a trip that costs more, you just pay the difference between your set fare level and the trip you took. You can also add an unlimited bus pass for $45, which is also a great deal since the main bus pass is $17.50 for a week; this gives you a month for the price of 2½ weeks.

If you use SmartBenefits, you can also get the pass. According to Shyam Kannan, WMATA's planning head, you have to ask your employer to "allocate your funds to transit pass benefits" (a phrase which should make sense to whomever manages SmartBenefits in your organization). Basically, they just mark the money as being designated for a pass, rather than ride-by-ride fares, but they don't have to say which pass; you can do that from the SmarTrip site.

Greater Greater Washington pushed for this pass

The initials for Metro SelectPass are "MSP," which are the same as those for Michael S. Perkins, the Greater Greater Washington contributor who championed a flexible, unlimited pass which looks a lot like the SelectPass.

Kannan said the initials weren't intentional, but Perkins' articles did inform and persuade the planners who worked on the pass. He said, "This reflects the value of the Greater Greater Washington community, the ability to take ideas, percolate them, work them through a collaborative dialogue, and make them actually happen."

"It also reflects the ability of the agency to innovate," he added. "[For] anyone who is a semi-regular to regular Metrorail user, it should save them money—20-22% off your regular trips, plus you get to travel as much as you want nights and weekends. For anyone that's wanted to really lead a transit lifestyle but felt that the cost of that incremental trip was a barrier, we've now given you all the reasons in the world to say I can now live car-free, purchase the pass, and take transit all I want."

Help the pilot succeed

Right now, the program is a pilot. If a lot of people use the pass and it leads to more trips on Metro or hits other benchmarks, and if the board of directors doesn't meddle too much, WMATA officials hope to make it permanent.

They will also add more tiers. Right now, there are just the two, $2.25 and $3.75. That covers a lot of commuters, but not all. The ultimate plan is to offer a pass that's 36 times the daily one-way cost for any rider. Seattle's PugetPass, which was the inspiration for this pass, lets people do just that—they can pick any fare level and buy a corresponding pass.

Addendum: Some readers have asked if this is going to cost WMATA money. This article discusses that question in more depth. Basically, while a pass could save an individual rider money, it can attract people to ride more and encourage people to use off-peak capacity that's already going empty.

Also, a pass can smooth out revenue ups and downs. WMATA lost about $2 million by shutting down for one day. If most people were on passes, that wouldn't have happened, nor would it hurt the budget during snowstorms or federal government shutdowns, which are outside WMATA's control.

If the $2.25 and $3.75 levels don't work for you, just sit tight. If they do, help make the pilot a success, and save yourself some money, by getting your pass now.

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.

Transit


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

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


Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

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

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

Why are passes a good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would passes work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's the holdup?

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

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

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

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

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

Budget


Bad Metro reliability is driving riders away. WMATA has a few ideas to get them back.

The long season of debate about WMATA budgets, fares, and service has begun, and like too many years in the last decade, the agency faces a budget crunch. Today, the agency released its first budget proposal which includes some proposals that will interest riders.


Photo by Joe Flood on Flickr.

The agency is now agreeing with something riders have been saying for some time: Poor maintenance and other bad customer experiences are hurting ridership and, thus, revenue. WMATA is not planning to raise fares or cut service. It will do a few things riders have been asking for, like letting people exit without paying if they don't get on a train, and expanding all-you-can-ride passes.

Here are a few of the key highlights:

Bad experiences are driving customers away

Riders have consistently been about 80% happy with both rail and bus service for years, but that recently changed, according to a presentation about customer satisfaction. This year, "bus satisfaction trended better while a precipitous drop in satisfaction began among rail customers, in the first three quarters of 2015—from 82% to 67%."

According to the survey results, about 30% of the time a customer is dissatisfied, it's because of reliability problems. And those problems are increasing.

"Two years ago, the average customer reported less than one problematic experience during their trip (i.e. broken fare machine, non-operating gate, escalator out of service, unavailable employee). These experiences have increased nearly 300%—and now are reported by customers as two problems during an average trip."

The presentation lists some initiatives the agency is taking to improve satisfaction. Top among them is an effort (though with few details in this document) to improve the actual reliability. In addition, WMATA is revamping the website, adding some "customer meet-and-greet events," and modified the screens on the platforms to show trains more than 20 minutes away. (Though, honestly, if trains are more than 20 minutes away, telling riders is helpful, but it's still too long a wait.)

While there's no hard data yet, WMATA's budgeters believe it's likely this dissatisfaction is contributing to lower ridership and fare revenues. Other past trends, like the federal government cutting transit benefits or a rise in telecommuting, are likely still playing a part as well, officials say.

No fare increase or service cuts

WMATA is not planning to increase fares or cut service in the coming year, according to the budget presentation. Nor will the payments from jurisdictions rise.

It's a smart move to not raise fares or cut service. With riders already fleeing the Metrorail system and the costs of transit for many riders exceeding what they can get from their employers as a transit benefit, higher costs aren't a good idea. Nor is cutting service, which would just compel more people to look for other ways to travel.

If there won't be more money coming in or less going out, what will change? This budget proposes using more federal money, which WMATA gets according to a formula, for necessary preventive maintenance. The catch is that means other capital improvements won't have money unless local governments pay more.

There will still be enough capital money to pay for fixing track signals, bringing trains into good shape, repairing elevators and escalators, and some signal priority for buses on major corridors. However, it means WMATA won't be able to afford to set up a more modern payment system, repair or replace deteriorating bus garages, build a new railcar maintenance facility (which might be helpful given that railcars aren't being maintained as well as they need to be), or plan for ways to reduce crowding in the core.

These are all projects which can wait, but they can't wait forever. Local governments ought to look for ways to help pay for these. If WMATA has to only do the minimum level of safety maintenance for long, the danger is that other, less decrepit parts of the system start falling behind, and in a few years, we're dealing with other problems. Or, if riders come back to Metro, overcrowded trains with no relief in sight.

You'll be able to bail out from delays

Today, if you go into a station and your train never comes or it sits on the tracks without moving while a disabled train is jamming up the works, you might decide to leave the station and take Bikeshare or a taxi. Unfortunately, Metro will also charge you for a ride. That's immensely frustrating to riders.

The budget proposes letting riders leave for free within a certain amount of time. That's a smart move. The budget presentation estimates WMATA could lose up to $2 million a year in fare revenue because of the change, though arguably it's all somewhat unfairly taken today. I wonder if better goodwill could erase much of that loss.

More passes

In many cities, such as New York, most regular riders buy monthly or weekly passes for their transit. They get unlimited rides, and the main effect is to encourage people to ride more off-peak, when the transit agency has extra unused capacity anyway.

Besides the general value of encouraging people to use more transit when there's room and providing value to residents, if people are on a sort of subscription plan for transit, it can smooth out the effects of changes. WMATA wouldn't lose so much money if there's a disruption and people "bail out" if they're on a pass. Nor if there's a big snowstorm or federal shutdown. Right now, those can blow a hole in the WMATA budget.

Passes are a little more complicated for WMATA because rail fares vary with distance. That's not insurmountable—the Seattle area has the ORCA pass, where people can buy different levels of fares. Each person picks a fare level, buys a pass, and gets all transit of that level and below for free (and can take longer trips for an added fee). Michael Perkins has long advocated for WMATA to do something similar.

This budget doesn't do that. But it does propose adding a pass for shorter rail trips and bus trips, so people can more interchangeably switch between the two.

More significantly, WMATA is working on a "university pass" plan where universities would pay a flat rate for every student (maybe coming out of a student activity fee of some kind) and get unlimited passes for the whole student body. The rate should be much lower than a regular pass, since all students would get them but not all students will use them often and most won't commute daily during rush hour. The presentation said WMATA is currently working on this with American University, and hopes to expand it to more universities.

And more

WMATA also plans to add more police officers to catch fare evaders at twelve stations: Anacostia, Brookland, Congress Heights, Deanwood, Gallery Place, Judiciary Square, Minnesota Avenue, Navy Yard, Naylor Road, Pentagon, Takoma, and Tenleytown.

The agency will cut 20 positions (which, the presentation emphasizes, are definitely not safety-related), though there are no more details yet.

Finally, this is far from a minor item, but a topic for another post: The agency is pursuing signal priority, where traffic lights modify their cycles to let buses through more quickly, along Leesburg Pike (the 28 series of bus lines), Georgia Avenue (70s), 14th Street (50s), 16th Street (S lines), and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin avenues (30s).

The WMATA Board will discuss the proposals on Thursday.

Transit


Events roundup: Fare hikes and transit updates

Fares may rise on Virginia rail, and changes are coming to the Blue Line corridor in Prince George's County and the GW Parkway. Learn about federal transit funding and make sure to save the date for the Greater Greater Washington birthday party!


Photo by Jim Larrison on Flickr

Virginia railway fare hike: The Virginia Railroad Express, Virginia's only commuter railroad, plans to raise its fares. If you didn't have a chance to weigh in last week, you have three more chances this week:

  • Tuesday, February 24, 7-8 pm at the Burke Centre Conservancy, 9837 Burke Pond Lane
  • Wednesday, February 25, 12-1 pm at the Crystal City Marriott, 1999 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington
  • Thursday, February 25, 7-8 pm at Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street in Manassas
After the jump: Blue line corridor, GGW birthday bash, the GW Parkway and more.

Blue Line corridor: Do you live along the Blue Line in Maryland? Prince George's County is planning to improve pedestrian safety, foster transit-oriented development, and more along its Blue Line corridor. Join the planning department for an update on the project this Thursday, February 26, 6:30-8:30 pm at the Omega Room of St Margaret's Catholic Church at 410 Addison Road South in Seat Pleasant.

GGW birthday bash: Greater Greater Washington is turning seven and we want you to help us celebrate! Join us for cake and merriment on Wednesday, March 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Lost and Found at 1240 9th Street NW. See you there!

GW Parkway transit assessment: Do you frequently drive, bike, or walk on the George Washington Parkway? The National Park Service is studying ways to make Memorial Circle, the circle beween Arlington Cemetery and the Memorial Bridge, safer for people driving, walking, and biking. NPS is holding an open house to present rough proposed sketches of the area on Tuesday, March 3, from 5 to 8 pm at 1100 Ohio Drive SW. Public comment will be open online until March 10.

Federal transit funding: Nathaniel Loewentheil, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House National Economic Council, will discuss components of the Obama administration's Build America Investment Initiative at a talk on Tuesday, March 3. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) will host Lowentheil at 1666 K Street NW. A wine a cheese reception starts at 5 pm and the presentation and discussion will go from 5:30 to 6:30 pm. RSVP to cowens@apta.com.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers that should go on our events calendar? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

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