Monday, February 16, 2009

Last Stop: Service Cuts

Little Jimmy made 5-cent lemonade that his neighbors just couldn't do without. The only problem was that the more he sold, the more money he lost. In fact, on the hottest day in recent memory, he sold sold much that he had to ask his parents for extra allowance to cover the costs. Finally, Jimmy came up with a simple solution... if he sold less lemonade, he'd lose less money.

While of course an oversimplification, this is the philosophy now being employed by current policymakers at Metro. The system continues to see increases in ridership, shattering its record this inauguration day, yet is seeking funds from Congress to help cover the surge in fare-paying but not cost-covering customers. Now metro officials are considering ridiculous service cuts in order to cut the growing revenue-cost gap, to see what might stick.

Stop service on weeknights at 10pm? Cut off the Yellow Line at 9:30pm or eliminate a portion of the Yellow Line? Make us wait longer for less trains? Open later on weekday mornings? Shut down some metro entrances that have multiple ways in and out? Get rid of bus routes?

What's off the table, according to WMATA officials, is increasing fares.

Currently, Metro's base fare is $1.65 in weekdays during the morning and evening rush (up to $4.50 based on distance), and $1.35 at all other times (up to $2.35). Metro, the second largest metro system in the country after New York City, is also one of a few that charges variable fares. Its base fare, however, is still considerable lower than most other systems, including New York, Chicago, and Boston, which charge a flat $2 or $2.25 per ride. In fact, when I moved from Brooklyn in 1993, the subway charged just 10 cents less that what DC's metro charges off peak 16 years later.

Off-peak fares may be a significant part of the problem. As The Examiner found, while metrorail ridership continues to increase (up 3.8% in 2008), "Metrorail riders are riding more during non-rush hour times and traveling shorter distances." The result: Metro is getting short changed.

Service cuts hurt DC's economy, hurt the environment, hurt tourism, and hurt DC's reputation as a world-class city. Tell the lawyer lives in Bethesda and works downtown that the Metro will stop running at 10pm and he'll buy a parking space and start driving. Tell the resident of Cleveland Park or Northern Virginia who is thinking of coming in for a night on the town that Metro service will be slower and close earlier and she'll opt to either stay where she is or drive. Visitors to the city will stick with cabs or tour buses. Convenience and reliability, as well as affordability, are the hallmarks of a mass transit system. Lose them and the system falls apart.

Metro can't keep operating at a loss. Nor can it reduce service and turn the Metro system of the nation's capital into a joke.

Substantially relying on federal funds is also not the answer. Such requests should be reserved for major infrastructure improvements, such as the Dulles line, the Purple Line, and the need to expand the Blue Line and metro capacity generally.

Policymakers and number crunchers need to closely look at the revenue side, and stop focusing on drastic ways of cutting service. That means re-examining Metro's fare structure.

Times are hard and no one wants to hear about a fare increase. Yet, continued viability of the system may require increasing the base fare to $2.00 in line with other cities. Any such hike might be accompanied by substantial discounts to those with SmarTrip cards or an all-you-can-ride 30-day unlimited ride card to keep it as affordable as possible for those who depend on Metro to get to work each day. Maybe Metro should consider eliminating off-peak price breaks that would seem to primarily benefit leisure riders?

All options need to be on the table.

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