WMATA is on track for a budget compromise that achieves some key rider asks (but not all)

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Most but not all of Metro's proposed cuts to bus service are off the table, under a draft budget proposal the WMATA Board will vote on Thursday. So is an extra charge for riders using cash on buses, which advocates had opposed.

Unfortunately, a plan to make transfers between buses and trains free was a casualty of the budget process, though transferring will get cheaper than it is today.

The agency released details of the latest budget proposal in a release Monday. This follows a proposal unveiled in January and public feedback from hearings and a survey in February. The budget would take effect in July.

Riders and advocates had weighed in strongly on budget proposals, particularly in opposition to planned bus cuts. Greater Greater Washington participated in two advocacy letters about the budget, one through the DC Sustainable Transportation coalition of advocates and business organizations and one from community organizations including social service providers, advocacy organizations, and the region's hospitality workers union.

Here are the key elements of the budget:

Rail fares still rise, though still not with passes and a bit less for long-distance riders

  • Rail fares will increase by 10¢ for the shortest fares and 50¢ for the longest. That's a decrease for maximum fares (which mostly affect people riding from the farthest ends of lines) from $1 in the previous proposal. There will also be fewer "tiers" of fares for simplicity.
  • Unlimited passes won't increase, so riders can keep their current rates (or save money over what they're paying now) if they buy unlimited passes. Of course, few people are buying passes right now, but this budget won't be in effect until July in any case.
  • Bus fares won't increase, and the maximum MetroAccess fare will also stay the same. The weekly bus pass gets cheaper, from $15 to $12.
  • There would be a weekend flat rail fare of $2, an attempt to encourage higher ridership by non-commuters, including families who are choosing between multiple Metro fares and driving.

Riders without SmarTrips won't face a penalty

WMATA had proposed charging 25¢ extra to pay on a bus with cash or load their SmarTrips with cash. While using cash on buses does take longer than paying with SmarTrip, many of the lowest income riders don't have a choice, because they can't afford to load SmarTrips with a lot money at once, don't have credit cards to auto-load, don't live near a rail station or CVS where they can load them, and/or may not be able to keep a SmarTrip safe. This plan is out of the latest budget proposal.

Riders who transfer get a bit of help but not so much

A top recommendation from the Bus Transformation Project was free bus-rail transfers, as is the practice in almost all other US cities with rail transit. WMATA included this in the original budget, but has now removed the plan.

Instead, riders will get about one-third the benefit, by having the "transfer discount," the amount riders pay less than the rail fare plus bus fare combined, rise from 50¢ to $1. That move would get back to around the level of (un)fairness that existed in the early 2000s; for instance, in 2003 the bus fare rose from $1.10 to $1.20 and the "discount" was 50¢.

This step doesn't end the imperative, as described in the Bus Transformation Project, to get the rest of the way in the future and truly integrate bus and rail. Los Angeles, for instance, made transfers free in 2014.

Late-night and Sunday rail service will grow, early morning will shrink

  • A top request from businesses and worker groups was to add back some of the late-night hours cut in 2016. Metro said it needed the time for maintenance, but now has determined it could add a little bit back. The proposal, unchanged from before, adds four hours per week; Metrorail would stay open 30 additional minutes Monday through Thursday (until midnight), and one additional hour on Fridays and Saturdays (until 2 am)
  • Sunday rail service will increase to match Saturday levels.
  • One-third of the trains between 5 and 6 am weekdays would be cut, going from a train every 8 minutes per line to one every 12.

Bus service gets cut less

  • There are still some cuts to bus service, but only $7.6 million worth instead of $26 million. The now-affected lines are the 92, D4, D6, E2, B29, B30, C4, J2, K6, L8, NH2, T2, Y2, Z6, Z8, Z11, 3T, 5A, and S80/91.
  • Some late-night or early morning trips on buses which provided an alternative to unavailable trains outside service hours will go away during hours the trains are now running. That's on the 30N/S, 80, 96, G8, H4, P6, W4, 2A, 10A/N, and 16E.
  • Sunday bus service would increase to match Saturday (as on rail) on the A12, P12, S2, S9, 7A/F, and 28A.
  • Seven high-ridership lines or line families would get higher levels of weekend service (80, 83/86, C29, E4, F4, P6, Y2/8, 23B/T).
  • Four MetroExtra lines would add service (79, X9, K9, and 16Y). The original budget added service on 8 lines.
  • All of the bus service changes start on page 92 of this PDF.

Silly proposals by some board members don't advance

At the January meeting, a number of board members asked to add proposals to the budget. Maryland's Michael Goldman, in particular, suggested a few ideas like a $1 Dulles surcharge that seemed geared more than anything to try to stick it to Virginia and DC; or a surcharge for MetroExtra limited-stop buses, which might betray a lack of understanding about these buses' role or value. Virginia members had some of their own suggestions, some more reasonable than others.

Ultimately, none of the proposals are part of the plan except for the 50¢ max fare increase instead of $1.

What all this means

The board seems to have reached a middle ground which removes the worst proposals and keeps most of the best ones, though there are some disappointments too. The free transfers won't be free, but would at least be cheaper. Some late night service will come back and the cash surchange will not happen.

It's frustrating to have seen a budget in November which had the good parts of this budget but not all of the bus cuts, only to get a new proposal in January, without explanation, adding massive bus cuts. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of public attention and feedback then switched to being about the cuts.

A big remaining question is whether WMATA will still be able to afford this budget. It's faced massive revenue losses due to the coronavirus almost completely wiping out ridership. Will federal aid fill the gap? When will the immediate emergency pass, and when it does, will people return to transit?

Perhaps reflecting this financial uncertainty, WMATA's proposal includes a clause suggesting the Board has the right to "revise fare and service changes approved in this Resolution prior to July 1, 2020 based on the expected budgetary impacts relating to the Coronavirus pandemic."