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New WMATA Budget Cuts Service and Raises Fares

If you spend 15 minutes waiting for the Metro this summer, blame the new WMATA budget.

By Jenna Fortunati | 3/4/17 10:36pm | Updated 3/4/17 10:36pm
Kitty Kouwenhoven / American Word Magazine

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – otherwise known as Metrorail and Metrobus – has a new budget proposal.

Here’s why you should care: the new budget raises fares and cuts service. If approved by the Board of Directors this March, the changes will become effective on July 1 – and UPasses do not work during the summer!

The new budget would raise Metrorail fares by 10-25 cents and Metrobus by 25 cents (from $1.75 to $2.00), while reducing rail and bus service and completely eliminating nearly three-dozen bus routes. These bus routes in particular have low subsidy-per-rider ratios, according to WAMU reporter Martin Di Caro. This means that the routes’ frequent riders do not receive transit subsidies from their place of employment.

Why is this happening? The service cuts and fare hikes in the proposed $3.1 billion budget attempt to pay down the $290 million shortfall from the 2017 fiscal year – a deficit struggle WMATA’s budget report blames on declining ridership. The report estimates that the new budget will further decline ridership by approximately 15 million trips in the 2018 fiscal year.

But bus operators at a January 30th public hearing at WMATA’s headquarters argued that ridership is “at an all time high,” according to bus operator Linda Mercer, yet fares cannot be collected for a variety of technical issues, such as broken fare collection boxes on many buses.

In addition to cutting 31 bus routes, the budget proposal would decrease train frequencies, with trains running every six to eight minutes during rush hour and every 12-15 minutes off-peak. It will also eliminate 500 operations and administrative positions at WMATA. The agency hopes that cuts to its operating budget will allow room in its capital budget to pay for SafeTrack repairs and purchase more 7000 Series rail cars (otherwise known as the “New Train” cars).

“Metro has to face reality when it comes to what the region says it can afford and direct those resources to best serve the riders we have today,” WMATA general manager Paul Wiedefeld said in an October press release. “This plan has Metro doing everything in our power to get major expense categories under control while improving safety and making trains run on time.”

However, many riders at the hearing told the Board of Directors that they might lose their jobs if their bus route was eliminated. Some riders calculated how much more money they would have to spend per week riding Metro instead of the bus – a substitute the budget report proposed for riders who would lose their bus route.

When WMATA considered reducing late night Metrorail service permanently, the public transit agency conducted a Civil Rights Act Title VI study to assess the effects of service cuts. According to journalist Maggie Farley at WAMU, “The study did conclude that reduction in late night service and fare increases would affect low-income riders and minorities disproportionately.”

The Brookings Institution found this to be a pronounced trend as low-income jobs move towards suburbs. In a 2015 study, Brookings researchers wrote, “61 percent of high-poverty tracts (with poverty rates above 20 percent) and 55 percent of majority-minority neighborhoods experienced declines in job proximity between 2000 and 2015.”

WMATA currently does not have a fare assistance program to help low-income riders afford public transportation, even though transit agencies such as TriMet in Portland, Oregon and King’s County Transit in Seattle, Washington provide reduced fare programs for low-income people.

Robert Puentes, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan think tank, suggests that WMATA think outside the box to better serve riders. He noted the partnership between the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) and Bridj, an on-demand ride-hailing company similar to Uber or Lyft. Through the partnership, KCATA subsidizes riders to use ride-sharing, saving both riders and the Authority time and money. “There are so many innovations that are happening on the transportation side that there is no reason why this region should not be able to solve a range of different problems,” Puentes said.

The Board of Directors is incorporating feedback from the public to adjust the budget proposal before ultimately deciding to accept or reject the budget in March.