What the heck is going on with the WMATA budget?

Fight over money stock photo from ANDRANIK HAKOBYAN/Shutterstock.

Up to 68 Washington-area bus routes could face cuts in 2020 (and some could see increases), under a draft budget document presented to the WMATA board Thursday. At the meeting, various board members then proposed numerous of amendments, and the board ultimately put off any action for a month. What's going on, and what should riders take from this?

It's important to understand a few key things here, which relate to the fairly complex and arcane process by which WMATA determines its budget.

There are many proposals in the budget.

The bus cut proposals revealed last week come on top of a longer list of possible changes we heard about in early November. Here are some of the things that could change under the proposals so far from General Manager Paul Wiedefeld:

  • Restore some late-night rail hours, staying open a half hour later Sunday-Thursday and an hour later Friday and Saturday (but...)
  • Run trains less often in the early mornings
  • Offer free transfers between trains and buses (a long-time issue of mine)
  • Raise the base rail fare (for all trips) 10¢ to 15¢
  • Raise the maximum fare (for the longest trips) $1
  • Offer a flat $2 rail fare on weekends
  • No change to bus fares
  • Increase weekend frequencies on rail and a number of bus lines
  • Charge people more for using cash on the bus (we're pretty skeptical of the wisdom of this)

This will be a fight between DC, Maryland, and Virginia — it's less about WMATA.

To reach a budget, Virginia, Maryland, and DC have to come to an agreement. It's board members from those jurisdictions who ultimately decide. To get there, they will argue vociferiously, and in fact did just that last week. After all, it's those three jurisdictions who pay the bills and their board members who have the final say.

This isn't just a political game. There are real differences of opinion.

The maximum fare is rising more than the base fare under Wiedefeld's proposal. Lower base fares are good for people who live in walkable places where they ride transit not just to commute but for many other everyday trips. That's most common in the central jurisdictions like DC, Arlington, and Alexandria. Lower max fares are best for people who commute the longest distances from the ends of the lines, which are much more suburban areas.

DC was pushing hardest to restore late-night hours. Virginia jurisdictions raised concerns about free transfers because the transfers between their own local bus systems wouldn't become free, or to do so would cost more. Some jurisdictions' governments, honestly, are more worried about equity for low-income bus riders than others.

All of this means a big fight. We started to see this with some of the proposals at the board meeting, such as a proposal from Maryland's Michael Goldman to add a $1 surcharge for rides at the Dulles Silver Line station and to push more of the fare increase onto short-distance riders (less common in Maryland). Virginia members suggested a higher bus pass cost which would then include free rides on local non-Metro buses.

The "3% cap" is constraining choices.

This year, DC, Maryland, and Virginia approved a historic funding deal to provide money for Metro's capital needs, like repairs and more eight-car trains. As part of that, Virginia in particular required, and Maryland echoed, that the amount the jurisdictions pay for WMATA's operating budget can never grow by more than 3% (excepting big new expansions like the Silver Line opening).

In many years, even the cost of doing everything the same has risen by more than 3%, so sometimes WMATA will have to cut just to stand still. Or even if not, doing one thing like restoring late-night service can force cuts or fare hikes elsewhere. (Ironically, had Metro never cut late-night service in the first place the higher level of service would have been baked into the baseline.)

This means that, like it or not, this budget will be a sort of puzzle where various pieces that cost money (late-night service, free transfers, more frequent weekend service) will be battling against the various cuts or fare hikes. In past years' budget fights, convincing jurisdictions to come up with more money has often been a part of the solution, and something riders organized around. Now, that's mostly not possible. (Individual jurisdictions can choose to pay for "non-regional" buses outside the cap, if they want.)

There's a lot we still don't know.

A massive list of 68 "Efficiencies and Restructuring," 12 "Bus Life Line Service Adjustments," four "MetroExtra Improvements," and 18 "Weekend Service Improvements" is a little hard to get one's head around. The bus cuts proposal claimed that for some of the trips at least, there are or would be alternate bus lines.

There can be times when simplifying bus service, like turning two infrequent bus lines a block apart into one single more frequent line, could be a positive. On the other hand, actually reducing total service (as this budget draft proposed) is not an improvement. But it is important to better understand what exactly is in the proposal.

Transportation staff at the various local governments have asked Metro to explain more about the possible cuts. To really understand and evaluate them, we'll need maps, more explanation of alternatives, and more.

Because of the way the WMATA budget process works, if anything might be cut, it has to be approved for public hearing by the board, then go to formal hearings. That means, in a sense, that before the agency develops clearer materials to explain the proposals (assuming it does at all), it has to present things to the board. And to present to the board, it has to go on the agenda, which means it suddenly appears on a website the Monday before the Thursday meeting, where the press naturally sees it and writes about it.

It's a weird system, but there doesn't seem to be an obvious alternative; certainly having the board hear about things in secret would not be better!

People should pay attention and get involved

The budget could ultimately yield a lot of cuts to buses and fare hikes, or maybe less so. The ideas of restoring late-night service or offering free bus-rail transfers are still not for sure. Whether low-income riders will have to pay an extra quarter to ride the bus is not decided.

Virginia board members will be arguing for what they think is in Virginia's best interest; Maryland members for Maryland; and DC for DC. But not all riders or taxpayers in those places are the same, and so which people's interests the board members listen to is not set.

Already, riders have been speaking up about the proposed bus cuts, and that and board members' concerns led the board to hold off approving public hearings at Thursday's meeting. A revised proposal will come back to the board in January, followed by hearings and then adoption in March.

There are sure to be a lot more fireworks at the hearings and, especially, at upcoming board meetings.