I’ve written quite a bit about our Metro system over the past year. On everything from finances to safety to just running the trains on time, we’re working to dig out of the hole the agency got into after 15 years of mismanagement and underinvestment.
Now, the conversation about Metro is looking to the future. But it’s not the visionary future of building new lines or undertaking some great infrastructure project. People are starting to talk about cutting hours and raising fares to address the backlog of work and the serious financial shortfall Metro is facing. I don’t like either idea, but these issues get to the central question the entire region needs to answer.
What’s the purpose of Metro? I believe that public transit only works when it’s three things: cheap, convenient and reliable. Unfortunately, Metro isn’t really any of those things right now.
In my opinion, fares are already too high. If you’re coming into the District from the outer suburbs, you may be paying $5 to park your car at a station, $5.90 to come into the city and another $5.90 to commute back at the end of the day. All totaled, it’s nearly as expensive as driving in and parking.
While this is the extreme cost level, for most points of origin, there is an alternate travel option that’s nearly as cheap or even cheaper than public transit.
In the current environment of declining ridership, raising fares could put Metro in a spiral of dwindling revenue that will be difficult to reverse.
With regard to closing the system earlier on weekends, at midnight instead of 3 a.m., we need to decide if Metrorail is simply a weekday/daytime commuter system or, alternatively, a critical service to mitigate drunk driving, spur economic activity and provide transportation to people who work late nights on weekends (such as in the restaurant and hospitality industries). Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has proposed reducing service hours to gain more time on the track for maintenance work. I certainly agree that we need to increase the level of maintenance, but that has to be balanced against serving as a convenient regional transit system. If we want to compete as a global city with New York and London (which just instituted 24-hour service for part of its subway), among others, we need to figure out a way to run our system more hours, not fewer.
With low gas prices, new bike lanes, increasingly prevalent telework and the rise of companies like Uber and Lyft, people have more options than ever not to use Metro. Unless the local and state governments of the region and the federal government (an equal partner in Metro) provide sufficient funds to make Metro cheap, convenient and reliable, those who can switch to other modes will — and those who can’t will be left with an ever-declining system.