The good, the bad and the unexplained: what you need to know about the WMATA budget

Train made of money stock photo from Jiri Markalous/Shutterstock.

Soon, WMATA will formally be asking riders and other members of the public to weigh in on its next budget. There's a lot riders should understand, and weigh in on, in addition to proposed cuts or changes to bus service which have rightly attracted a lot of attention — some of which transit advocates have been requesting for years, and other items which are worrisome.

Most exciting are free transfers between bus and rail (a top request from the Bus Transformation Project and the second highest request in a survey, after bus lanes) and added late-night rail service, as well as some increases on bus lines, especially on weekends and to some MetroExtra limited stop routes.

Most concerning are cuts to bus service, especially because there isn’t great information about what they will mean for riders, and a suggestion to charge cash riders an extra 25¢. Maryland and Virginia board members had some proposals, some of which raise alarm, especially a suggestion to charge an extra $1 for MetroExtra limited-stop buses.

Here is a quick list of are the key changes:

On rail service:

  • Restore some of the late night hours eliminated in 2016, staying open until midnight Monday through Thursday (up from 11:30) and until 2 am on Fridays and Saturdays (instead of 1 am). That’s a total of four hours a week.
  • Increase Sunday service on all lines from 15 to 12 minutes at the edges and 8 to 6 minutes in the core.
  • Reduce early morning service on weekdays between 5 and 6 am, running trains every 12 minutes instead of every 8.
  • Virginia’s board members also asked WMATA to study extending all trains to 8 cars.

On bus service:

  • Increase Sunday service to match Saturday levels on the A12, E4, F4, P12, S2, S9, 7A, 7F, and 28A), and an increase from today on the 23B and 23T.
  • Increase weekend service (both days) on the 80, 83, 86, C29, E4, F4, Y2, and Y8.
  • Increase MetroExtra service on the 79, X9, K9, and 16Y.
  • Make cuts or “restructurings” on 68 lines. Materials available so far say that bus planners believe riders will still have good alternatives (or at least tolerable) if these changes happen, and some could be even an improvement for many riders, but there’s not a lot of detail and it’s clear some riders will be hurt.

On rail fares:

  • Increase all fares by 10¢ (from $2.25 to $2.35) and the maximum fare, for the longest trips, by $1 (from $6 to $7). Also, make fewer “tiers” of fares so there aren’t so many different numbers on the chart.
  • Charge a flat fare of $2 on weekends to stimulate more ridership when the system is empty.
  • Maryland board members asked for a different structure which is less favorable to short-distance riders and better for long-distance: a 25¢ base fare increase and only a 50¢ higher max fare.
  • Maryland also suggested a higher weekend flat fare of $2.50 or $2.75 and a $1 surcharge to board at Dulles Airport.
  • Virginia suggested charging peak fares after midnight and weekend-only passes.

On bus fares:

  • Lower the 7-day pass to $12 (from $15).
  • Charge an extra 25¢ to use cash on the bus (either paying with cash or loading it onto a SmarTrip on the bus).
  • Virginia would like to look at making the unlimited passes include local buses (like ART, Fairfax Connector, DC Circulator, Ride On, etc.)
  • Maryland suggested increasing the MetroExtra fare by $1.

On rail and bus fares:

  • Don’t raise prices for the Monthly Unlimited Pass (previously SelectPass), where you pick a fare level and get all trips of that or lower for free. So riders wouldn’t be hit with a fare increase if they use or switch to passes.
  • Offer free transfers between bus and rail, which currently are available to pass users but not people who pay for each ride.

Yes, this is a lot. (And if you want a lot more numbers, there’s a table at the end with a lot of details.)

It’s really important for riders to get to understand all of this, at least conceptually. That’s because in approximately the next week, WMATA will formally open up a public comment period, followed by public hearings. Most of all, these comments will inform how board members from DC, Maryland, and Virginia negotiate over the budget, such as what they push for and what they’re willing to give away.

Free transfers are a big step

In last year’s budget, the agency expanded passes to include bus rides as well as rail. This allowed people who purchased the monthly pass to circumvent the bus-to-rail transfer penalty by simply tacking bus rides to their pass option at no extra cost. This year’s budget would do away with the transfer penalty altogether, making a transfer between rail and bus cost only as much as the rail trip does.

For instance, for a parent living in Bellevue with a at Achievement Prep Elementary in Washington Highlands, a ride on the W1 costs $2.00. If that parent works near Navy Yard, they could hop back on the W1 and get on the train at Congress Heights, but they would pay an additional $1.75, even though the cost of a trip from Congress Heights to Navy Yard is just $0.25 more than a regular bus fare. The current transfer scheme penalizes people for transferring from the bus to train (and vice versa) even if that is the most cost-efficient trip.

The transfer penalty creates a class structure with the bus – and the lower income riders in particular who rely on it – even though they should act as complementary parts of a system.

Maryland and Virginia members are saying they have concerns about this because of riders who use their local jurisdictional buses, and who wouldn’t get free transfers under this plan. Though, it’s worth noting, MARC and VRE riders have long had the privilege of not paying a transfer penalty when going from commuter rail to bus!

WMATA has also proposed lowering the cost of the weekly regional bus pass from $15 to $12. The free transfer and cheaper bus passes do require riders to have a Smartrip, which raises questions about accessibility, but overall the agency has made clear that it wants to make it more affordable and easier for people to move throughout the entire system.

Proposed bus service changes are still too much of a mystery

Much of the energy so far has involved opposing bus cuts, and riders are right to worry about many of those. The way WMATA rolled them out caused a lot of problems; first, in November, the agency announced a budget with the free transfers, new late night service, and only a small handful of bus changes which seemed to be not aimed at cutting funding but simply simplifying some service, along with most of the other changes including the good ones.

Then, in December, the agenda for the board meeting suddenly had a new version with over 60 bus line cuts, which was a huge surprise to everyone and lacked detail about why. One reason this is a particular issue is that while we believe equity needs to be front and center in transportation decisions, WMATA hasn’t committed to any principles about how it weighs various trade-offs and these changes didn’t come from any kind of transparent process.

Besides the service increases, WMATA has classified the bus changes in three buckets: “service restructuring for efficiency and effectiveness,” “service elimination of redundancy,” and “service elimination for low ridership.”

Taking a look solely at what the agency has provided the public, we don’t know why exactly routes are being changed or cut, or whether or how they might worse. The W4, which runs from Deanwood to Anacostia, would now serve DC Village but not the Anacostia Metro station, and the partly overlapping A4 and W5 buses would go away.

On the 30s, the 30N and 30S which travel all the way from the far southeast to upper northwest would go away, and people would transfer between the 32, 36, and 39 which go from downtown to the east, and the 31 and 33 which go to the west.

None of these proposals include very clear details of why the agency thinks they are a good idea. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and At-large Councilmember Robert White penned a letter to General Manager Paul Wiedefeld asking that the agency reconsider cuts to service in the District. ANC 1A unanimously signed a letter to Wiedefeld asking that the agency reconsider eliminating the 54 bus which runs along 14th Street. An online petition started by ANC 5D05 commissioner Sydelle Moore in support of the X1 and X3 has garnered over 300 signatures.

Some Maryland and Virginia actions are making the process harder

WMATA may be forced to make some of these cuts because of a law first passed in Virginia and then in Maryland in 2018 along with new dedicated funding. That law limits WMATA to only ask for 3% increases each year in its subsidy from jurisdictions.

While ostensibly this aims to push WMATA to live within its means, when ridership declines (as it has been), that means the agency has little choice but to propose cuts, possibly threatening to lose riders and create a “death spiral” where budget gaps appear, the agency cuts service, ridership goes down, revenue goes down, creating new budget gaps.

There are bills in the Virginia and Maryland legislatures to loosen the 3% cap rule. Of course, WMATA couldn’t force either state to put in more money if it didn’t want to, so removing the cap doesn’t mean unlimited cost increases.

Also, some of the proposals from Maryland and Virginia, particularly Maryland, make little sense. A $1 surcharge for MetroExtra would push in the opposite direction from what everyone wants. Riders taking limited-stop MetroExtra routes benefit themselves, sure, but so does WMATA and the region, by moving people more quickly and at less cost. The agency has been evolving toward more MetroExtra, not less, and making it a high premium product would only push all low-income bus riders back onto the slowest (and most costly, for WMATA) buses.

Here are tables from the budget presentation showing how much WMATA estimates each proposal would cost or save, and how many riders it would bring in or drive away:

Image by WMATA.

This shows that increasing the base fare pushes away many more riders than increasing the maximum fare does, while bringing in much less per rider than the max fare. A base fare increase also harms low-income riders more in general, and also is worse for inner jurisdictions like DC and Arlington than outer ones (which is why Maryland is pushing it, most likely).

WMATA will soon open up a formal coment period and schedule public hearings, but people can send messages even now to and/or their local elected officials.

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