Does WMATA Have Enough Credibility to Avoid Doomsday Service Cuts?

A proposal from Washington's WMATA suggests closing 20 Metro stations, outside of rush hour, cutting bus service and raising fares to close a $275 million budget gap. Image: WMATA via Greater Greater Washington
WMATA says that without new revenue it will have to close 20 Metro stations outside of rush hour and cut bus service. Image: WMATA via Greater Greater Washington

WMATA, the DC region’s transit agency, is in crisis.

DC is a rarity among major American cities, with transit mode share declining over the last decade. In the past year, the federal government took over WMATA’s safety oversight authority after a number of embarrassing failures, culminating in the whole Metro being temporarily shut down. Confidence in the agency is in short supply.

On top of everything, WMATA now faces a $275 million budget shortfall. Jonathan Neeley at Greater Greater Washington reports that the agency just outlined an alarming doomsday scenario, including cutting service on high-profile recent expansion projects:

On Thursday, WMATA’s staff will give a presentation to the Board of Directors on potential ways to close a $275 million budget gap. Or, put another way, staff warn the board that without more money, some drastic measures may be inevitable.

The draft presentation that came out on Tuesday lists options like closing 20 stations during off-peak hours (nine of them on the east end of the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines, along with three on the west end of the Silver Line) and shutting down a number of bus lines, including the brand new Potomac Yard Metroway.

The first thing to remember is that this isn’t an official proposal; it’s a cry for help. It’s WMATA saying that it needs more money to operate the entire rail system, and if that money doesn’t come in, these are possible options for cutting costs to a level commensurate with current funding.

“These sorts of things are usually setting the doom and gloom in hopes that the jurisdictions up their contribution or become more amenable to higher fares,” said Steven Yates.

WMATA has certainly done that before, like in 2011 and in 2015. Payton Chung also pointed out that Chicago’s CTA spent much of the mid-2000s preparing and releasing two budgets per year: “a ‘doomsday’ budget that assumed no emergency funding, and included savage service cuts, and a business-as-usual budget that could be implemented if additional operating subsidy were granted.”

How might doomsday be averted? A 1-cent sales tax hike to cover the shortfall was teed up at a meeting among regional officials yesterday. The problem is WMATA isn’t particularly well positioned to be requesting more money from the public right now, GGW contributor Travis Maiers told Neeley:

No one wants to stand up and vouch for Metro, and frankly, it’s very difficult to do that even if you want to. In many ways Metro is its own worst enemy, with the subpar service it provides, the constant breakdowns, and its poor accountability and maintenance record. And I feel this kind of proposal only makes it more difficult in persuading people to contribute more money.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Mobility Lab says the way to market BRT is to emphasize service reliability, not gimmicky features. And Urban Milwaukee gives an update on the Milwaukee Streetcar, which just received a federal planning grant to explore a second phase.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Will D.C. Metro Fall Into a Transit Death Spiral?

|
The situation unfolding for transit riders in Washington, DC, is scary. Few American cities rely on transit more than DC, but the system seems to be caught in a spiral of deteriorating service and declining ridership. With fewer people paying fares, WMATA has less revenue to pay for service, and the cycle continues. WMATA is now planning for […]

Is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell Pulling a Scott Walker?

|
Just yesterday Virginia was receiving accolades for its successful, bipartisan rail expansion efforts. But the praise is giving way to criticism today. There are some weird politics going on in the commonwealth, which appear to be part of a grudge match between Republican Governor Bob McDonnell and public officials in transit-friendly northern Virginia. David Alpert […]

Trading a Park-and-Ride for a Public Plaza and Bike Parking

|
More cities should copy this idea for their park-and-ride transit stations: At DC Metro’s King Street station in Old Town Alexandria, plans are underway to turn parking spots into a pedestrian plaza. This goes against the grain of typical transit agency practice. Despite the fact that park-and-rides are an inefficient use of scarce land, a recent survey by researchers […]

Great Cities Don’t Take Late-Night Transit Service Away From Workers

|
What a sad state of affairs for transit in the nation’s capital. As WMATA, the agency that runs the DC Metro, temporarily disrupts service to take care of necessary system repairs, it’s also considering a permanent end to late-night service. That is entirely unacceptable, especially in a city where so many people work outside the typical 9-to-5 shift, says Kristen […]