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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.


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

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


Death spiral or budget chicken? WMATA floats drastic cuts

Waits for a Metro train could get longer or trains could not run at all after midnight on weekends, if the WMATA Board adopts a budget proposal released yesterday. Fares would also rise by 10¢. Many bus lines could also come less often or stop running earlier, and Metro buses to the airports would stop completely.

Photo by cranneyanthony on Flickr.

Is this for real? It's likely that fares might rise, but doing so could just drive more riders away from Metro, giving it a bigger budget gap next year and starting a "death spiral." Or, local governments could come up with the money WMATA needs, but until and unless that happens, riders will be caught in the middle of a high-stakes game of "budget chicken."

WMATA's costs have increased four percent while ridership is down, a change WMATA attributes mostly to cuts in federal transit benefits that force more federal workers to pay out of pocket for transit or switch to driving.

What WMATA might cut, and why

The agency therefore says it needs $140 million more from DC, Maryland, and Virginia ($919 million versus $779 million) to keep service running. If they don't get it, then fare hikes and/or service cuts are the only option, and yesterday, WMATA officials released a proposal for how that might work.

They are proposing a 10¢ hike in both bus and rail fares (and, once again, a double increase for bus and rail riders).

For rail service, there are two options. In one, trains would only come every eight minutes (up from six today, at least when Metro keeps to its schedule) during rush hour, except the Blue Line which is already less frequent and wouldn't change. Off-peak weekdays and Saturdays there would be 15 minutes instead of 12 between trains, and on Sundays trains would come every 20 minutes instead of 15 (when not further disrupted by track work).

The second option is to end rail service at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays instead of at 3 am. That's the same closing time Metro had until 1999, when it started getting later as our urban areas started seeing more late-night activity. The agency floated the same possible cut in 2011.

As for the buses, the B30 to BWI, 5A to Dulles, and 13Y to National Airport would end completely, and there would be a plethora of other, smaller cuts (the 30th page of the PDF, numbered page 63).

Event organizers who want to open Metro early would have to pay $50,000 an hour instead of the current $29,500, and the TransitLink card that offers rides on Metro along with MARC, VRE, or Maryland MTA commuter buses would go away.

There are a few seemingly sensible changes to parking fees: the Minnesota Avenue garage costs $1 less than other garages, but more people are parking there, so it no longer makes sense to offer a discount at that one garage. Parkimg becomes free after midnight Monday to Thursday and 3 am Friday, but some parkers wait until after that time to leave and get free parking.

Our contributors react

How should riders feel about this? We posed the question to our contributors.

Kelli Raboy said,

The proposed rail service cuts are definitely the biggest punch to the gut. 25 minute headways (weeknights and weekend evenings/nights) would make any trips requiring transfers more or less impossible. And I can't imagine how much worse crowding would get with increased headways during peak (from 6 to 8 minutes).

The option for rail service cuts is presented as 1) increase headways overall OR 2) cut all weekend late night service (12pm to 3am); I'm pretty sure all the jurisdictions would pick option 2.

I think the proposed bus service cuts could also have a big impact, but it's (obviously) harder to see on a regional scale. They also snuck in a proposal to defer the Priority Corridor Networks program for buses, which is the main means for improvements like transit signal priority and bus-only lanes.

Matt Johnson added, writing on his phone on his way home last night, "Incidentally, I'm currently waiting 16 minutes for a Green Line train. And this is before the service cuts."

Gray Kimbrough pointed out that the service cuts actually don't save that much money:

What I find most shocking is how little those proposed rail service changes would actually save. In particular, cutting all weekend rail service after midnight would have projected gross savings of $8 million, which would fall to a net savings of $4 million after reduced revenue.

Increasing headways at all times by from 2 minutes (peak service) to 5 minutes (most other times) would have a projected yearly gross savings of $24 million. Offsetting this by the projected revenue loss of $11 million, it would only save $13 million.

So I guess my main takeaway from this is how little it would cost to reduce most headways and provide better service if we actually had the political will and rail cars to do so.

All of the changes that harm riders (the fare hike and all of the service cuts) would save DC, Maryland, and Virginia governments a total of $46 million, out of $140 million total WMATA wants to add to the jurisdictions' bill.

Death spiral of budget chicken?

Kelli Raboy added, "This is my first round of the WMATA budget game of chicken so I'm not sure how nervous I should actually be about all these proposed changes, but as someone who relies on Metro, it's pretty tough to see on paper." Nick Keenan agreed, saying, "I had to wonder if this was indeed 'budget chicken.'"

WMATA officials know that riders will hate this and protest loudly. And they should. Service cuts like these threaten to send Metro into a "death spiral" where lower service and higher costs drive people away from transit, further decreasing ridership and creating new budget problems.

Each year, the agency does manage to squeeze down its budget a little bit, and so there is indeed a game of "budget chicken" where the jurisdictions might hold out to pressure WMATA to save a little money here and there elsewhere before either going for a fare hike, service cuts, or ponying up more for the bulk of it. Unfortunately, riders are caught in the crossfire.

This is also a more public process than most budget issues. Staffing and other costs rise inside the DC budget and other local jurisdictions' budget, but outside of a recession, so do tax revenues. Maybe there's a surplus or a gap, but the money coming in often balances out the money going out and you don't see the higher costs in the same way you do for Metro.

In the long run, the region ought to dedicate some sort of funding stream to Metro which can predictably grow about as fast as Metro costs. However, to get public support for this, WMATA is also going to have to more directly confront its constantly-rising costs and the things that frustrate riders, like surly employees, eternally broken escalators and elevators, and constant track work without trustworthy information about if and when the rebuilding will end.

A lot of change has to also come from the executives and legislatures of DC, Maryland, and Virginia. As a multi-state agency, WMATA is just doing the bidding of its constituent governments, but because it's not under a single chief executive, no elected official really takes responsibility.

If DC Public Schools proposed big cuts or needed more money, Muriel Bowser would have to address the problem, for example. She should take responsibility for addressing Metro's short-term and long-term problems too. So should Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and Larry Hogan in Maryland.

Ben Ross wrote, "Anger should be directed at the overlords in Annapolis, the District building, and the Virginia counties whose emissaries comprise the WMATA board, not at WMATA." The WMATA Board can only ask for more money or make cuts; the governments of the region can fix the real structural issues here.

Having a transit system scraping along year after year on the verge of ruin is not good for the people of our region. Our leaders need to get WMATA onto a sustainable footing at the same time the agency admits to its problems, fixes them, and gets long-term costs under control. So far, there's no sign that's about to happen, and instead, we face the threat of a death spiral and a game of budget chicken.


Metro savvy: There's a free ride in them thar trash cans

Finding discarded farecards that still have money on them: It's one of the oldest tricks in any late night Metro rider's handbook, and for me, it's been a go-to Metro secret since my undergrad days. I estimate that I've foraged over a thousand dollars worth of fares over the last decade.

Photos by the author.

A friend and I once collected about $100 in discarded paper farecards every day while clipboard canvassing at the Smithsonian Metro station. An average of $100 per year bump to my SmarTrip just for picking up scraps out of the trash? Not bad.

Don't believe me? Neither did a co-worker when I told him about my little trick of the trade. But as we walked into a station earlier this week, I showed him how it's done.

A how-to guide

Start by giving a slight glance into the trashcan, like you're looking for the day's newspaper. If you spot a farecard resting on top, quickly grab it. To excavate fully, lightly shake the edge of the trash bag to jostle any remaining cards. If liquid appears at any point during either step, immediately cease, since wet farecards are no good.

In this particular case, the bag on the trashcan we approached had just been changed, which is always helpful for spying clean farecards. While we didn't see any on the surface, I told my co-worker to watch and learn before cautiously pinching the left side of the bag and giving it a gentle tug.

"No luck," he said, not seeing anything.

"Spoke too soon," I said as I snatched a farecard that had been crumpled into a small ball.

"No way," he deadpanned.

I proceeded to flatten the balled-up card by placing it against the fare machine and running the edge of my SmarTrip over it a few times. I then tapped my SmarTrip, pressed "Add Value," and slid my find into the machine.

"Slink!" $0.55 value added. I tapped my SmarTrip and turned to my friend as we headed toward the faregates.

"The Metro Jedi Force is now with you, my son."

A dying art

Next year, this trick of the trade will come to a sad but largely unknown and unceremonious end. The elimination of the paper farecard will make it a bit harder for people to throw their money away, meaning that some of Metro's savviest riders will no longer get their trips subsidized by the trash.

For now, though, those paper farecards are still out there, waiting to be found and traded in.

Later, I received an email from my co-worker with the subject line, "WOW!"

Along with a picture of himself holding three cards, each with values of $1.30, he wrote, "$3.90 pulled out of the SS Metro trash can and added to my SmarTrip card. Thank you teacher."

If you keep your eyes open, you too could add a few free bucks to your SmarTrip card.


Streetcar "simulated service" could begin on H Street in October

The streetcars have been running on H Street for testing and training. Soon, "simulated service" will start, where the operators will drive trains up and down the street just as if they're really carrying passengers. When the line opens, possibly by the end of 2014, fares might be free.

Photo by DC Streetcar on Flickr.

Streetcar program manager Thomas Perry from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) briefed Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6C's transportation and public space committee last week about progress toward opening the long-awaited streetcar starter segment from Oklahoma Avenue to Union Station.

Streetcars will operate up to every 10 minutes from 5 am to midnight, seven days a week, without passengers during this phase, also called "pre-revenue service." Operator training along the 2.4-mile line began in August and should wrap up in the "next several weeks," Perry said.

Simulated service is the last planned phase of testing before the line can open to the public. Passenger service could begin before the end of the year, but officials are not making any promises. Perry says that pre-revenue service will take 30 days, after which the agency can seek safety approval to open the line to passengers.

The line might not cost anything to ride at first

DDOT officials are pondering whether or not to make the streetcar be free initially, Perry also said. While the benefits and drawbacks of free transit service have been thoroughly discussed here, the possibility would be an exciting enticement to H Street residents and visitors to try the new service when it does open.

Will special streetcar signal phases cause a safety problem?

While DDOT is dealing with the controversy over proposed rules that would ban bikes between the streetcar tracks, officials are also focused on promoting bike and pedestrian safety along the corridor.

Concerns have been raised about four intersections along the corridor—H and 3rd Streets; the "Starburst" intersection whrere H Street crosses Bladensburg Rd and becomes Benning Road; Benning Road and 24th Street; and Benning Road and Oklahoma Ave.

At each of these intersections, the streetcar has its own signal cycle separate from those for cars and pedestrians. Some worry that cyclists and pedestrians will cross the street when they see that traffic has stopped for an opposing red signal, not realizing that the streetcar is going to then start moving.

Officials recommend that cyclists and pedestrians always wait for a green signal and not preemptively try to cross H Street. They have posted staff at the intersections to educate pedestrians and passing out fliers outlining the dangers with safety tips.

A striped crosswalk and pedestrian signal at the streetcar terminus atop the Hopscotch Bridge will come within the next couple of weeks, says Perry. This was another spot of concern for the committee members.

On the proposed ban to bikes within the streetcar tracks, Perry said anyone concerned should submit comments on the proposed rules by September 27.


A $1.50 fare isn't holding back the Tide

Norfolk's Tide Light Rail opened in 2011, and has exceeded its initial ridership projections. But the Virginian-Pilot newspaper recently called for Hampton Roads Transit to slash Tide fares to increase ridership. Are fares holding back ridership, or are other factors at play here?

Photo by VDOT.

Local media jumped on the news trying to
figure out
whether the arguments in Norfolk for free fares apply in the DC area for projects like the Columbia Pike Streetcar.

Do free fares encourage new ridership?

Simply put, yes. The editorial notes that for a 10% decrease in fares, ridership generally increases about 3%. The real question is whether the additional subsidy required to operate a free (or cheap) transit service is worth the cost.

But for all of its problems, it's probably not the fares that are keeping people from riding the Tide.

The Virginian-Pilot argues that the Tide's problem is low demand, and points to falling ridership on the line. This ignores that ridership has fallen on the area's bus routes as well, and in Hampton Roads a bus fare is the same as the fare on the Tide. Maybe the whole system should be free. That would probably increase transit ridership.

Other cities either have (or have experimented with) free fares but there's not a lot of evidence that the prospect of a free ride leads to a big increase in ridership. Besides, there may be better ways to increase ridership.

What does the Tide actually need?

The editorial does make some suggestions that would also benefit the Tide. The first is an acknowledgement that the system needs to grow. Norfolk wants to expand the system within its own borders to the Naval Base and the Airport. Meanwhile Virginia Beach wants to take advantage of the existing railroad right of way and extend the line all the way to the Atlantic waterfront.

This would automatically put the system closer to a great number of people and jobs, and could even have state-wide benefits with the ability to take Amtrak to Norfolk and then light rail to the beach.

The editorial also notes that the Tide was meant to jumpstart a wave of transit-oriented development (TOD) that hasn't happened yet. In the DC area we know how long it can take TOD to arrive even for an extensive system like Metro. The Pilot does seem to get that TOD will increase ridership. But instead of arguing for zoning and policy changes, it assumes the free fare itself will be enough to generate the TOD.

Development centered around transit will very likely increase ridership, though those land use changes will take decades. And people will not decide just to locate next to a transit line because it's free or cheap. They'll only move there if they find the line useful. If it doesn't go where they're going, they won't ride it, even if it is free.

That's why it's important for Hampton Roads Transit to build a larger transit network and why it's important for the local governments to encourage development (the places people want to go) near transit.

The city of Norfolk's goal (building TOD and reducing traffic) is notably different from Hampton Roads Transit's, whose goal is to make sure it can provide service without running into any large budget problems. If Norfolk ends up agreeing with the newspaper and makes the Tide free, maybe the city can pay the difference so the additional subsidy requirement won't harm other transit services in the region.

It's good that the Virginian-Pilot wants the Tide to be successful and recognizes that transit is an effective way to reduce or mitigate the effects of traffic congestion and how it can be a tool that allows lifestyle and urban form changes. But just focusing on fares is a narrow solution that will have less impact than a more balanced approach.

The same can be said for transit in the DC region. Free fares may be a good thing to consider, but we should be considering many factors when discussing how to increase ridership.

Projects like the Columbia Pike Streetcar will have ridership whether or not the cost to ride is free. The proposed line will connect dense, diverse neighborhoods along the Pike to the Pentagon and the Metro system. It will also likely encourage more development in the corridor over time, which will have a positive impact on ridership. Making fares cheaper may increase ridership, but transit-oriented development and service improvements (faster trips, more frequent trains) will make the line more useful, and that will have a much larger impact on ridership.

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