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D.C.‘s Metro Has No Idea How to Fix Ridership Slide

A consultant's report found that the factors "best correlated" with ridership were improvements to service.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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Washington, D.C.’s rail system, once the second-busiest subway in the nation, is foundering, the Washington Post reports.

Over the last decade, average daily trips have fallen by 125,000. But, as the Post reports, even as a consultant has advised the agency to increase service, Metro board members and the agency’s chief executive have been unwilling to commit.

“Not a single board member would commit to supporting a service increase in the fiscal year that begins July 1,” the Post’s Faiz Siddiqui reported.

Over a year ago, Metro cut its operating hours, closing the system earlier and opening later. It has reduced rush-hour service by 25 percent, leading to eight-minute headways during rush hour, and reduced service during off-peak hours so that waits at night can be 20 minutes or longer. Maintenance on the aging system has become a near constant, with track work shutting down or delaying parts of the system nearly every weekend and often during off-peak hours too. Yet Paul Wiedefeld, the agency’s general manager, said at a news conference that the problem was out of his hands.

“At the end of the day, there are certain things in the market that you cannot control, in terms of ridership,” Wiedefeld said. “Ridership clearly is important, but we also have to recognize that what we should be judged on, first and foremost, is how we’re performing in what we do every day. I can’t control the [ride-hailing companies], I can’t control the price of gas, I can’t control that.”

As the Metro board debates how to control the uncontrollable (the consulting firm, VHB, found that the factors “best correlated” to ridership are train frequency, the number of trains in service and the proportion of delayed trains), it’s also making other changes: it announced it plans to disband its rider’s advisory council, a group meant to offer riders’ perspectives directly to WMATA. The board must vote formally Oct. 25 to dissolve the council but has announced it plans to do so.

Advisory council members are upset.

“WMATA is undoubtedly doing better, operationally speaking, than it has in previous years — there are fewer fires, fewer off-loadings, better trains, all of that is definitely positive,” Rebecca Kortum, chair of the Rider’s Advisory Council, told Metro officials at a board meeting in late September. “But you have a serious credibility gap with the public, and you have not yet begun to fix the image of a secretive agency that is opposed to transparent.”

“Eliminating the only direct rider connection that you have, instead of trying to fix that connection, is shortsighted and only reinforces this public perception that you’re not to be trusted,” Kortum added.

Metro board members say that every option is on the table as it looks to the 2020 budget, including restoring late-night service, adding service, or reducing disruptions. But ultimately board members told the Post that they had to “explore all of our options” (Corbett A. Price, who represents the District) or “wait and see” (Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland). Jack Evans, chairman of Metro’s board, said the problem is reliability, not too few trains.

“We’re going to make it more reliable and people are going to come back to the system. But is it going to happen overnight if I change the headways?” Evans asked. “No, it’s not going to happen,” the Post said.

Board member David Horner, who represents the federal government, suggested that Metro compete with the ride-hailing companies that are siphoning off ridership by offering subsidies. “I expect the last thing ride-hailing companies want is to engage in a subsidy shootout with a competitor whose members have the power to tax,” he said.

The board meets next on October 25.

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Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.

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Tags: washington dctransportation spendingtransit agencies

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