Metro ridership in Washington, D.C., has plummeted over the last decade, and a large portion of defecting riders cite reliably as their primary concern. Now, the embattled agency wants to try something new: refunds. Going forward, a program called the “Rush-Hour Promise” could provide refund credits to peak-period Metrobus and rail riders forced to endure delays of 15 minutes or more.
Those customers are the most likely to reduce their ridership or shift modes entirely, the Washington Post reports. The program (which would run for all of 2018 pending approval of the Metro board) will likely cost between $2 million and $3.5 million, but Metro sees it as a worthy investment.
“These are very big, complex systems and things do happen every day, but from a customer perspective what we’re saying is in effect that we will get you to where you should be within 15 minutes of the schedule,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said, according to the paper. “We’re trying to show you that we can be that predictable in our service.”
As Next City reported in 2016, the Federal Transit Authority in May of that year demanded that Metro make immediate safety upgrades following a track fire, a derailment and a number of other mishaps. That directive spurred a period of accelerated maintenance (dubbed “SafeTrack), during which the agency consolidated three years of repairs into 10 months. Delays during that work, however, drove ridership to a particular low.
According to the Post, reliability had improved by last fall, after Metro retired its oldest cars and cut operating hours, among other tweaks. But in board documents released this week, the agency expressed concern that riders have been slow to return following SafeTrack. And highly publicized delays last summer probably didn’t help (one particular mishap was even satirized by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a biting New York Times op-ed).
The refund, then, is meant to be a carrot for those weary riders — but it doesn’t benefit all delayed passengers equally, according to the Post. Customers must be using registered SmarTrip cards to receive the credit — a provision that cuts the number of eligible customers in half and could easily leave more vulnerable riders (including seniors and low-income riders) behind. And while refund-eligible events will include medical emergencies, police investigations, arcing incidents, smoke and fire (along with “unplanned” disruptions like emergency track work), major capital projects won’t be eligible. Regional emergencies like earthquakes and other weather-related disruptions won’t qualify either — and neither will traffic congestion, a common cause of bus delays.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.