Ever waited 20 minutes for an on-time Metrorail train? If you regularly ride after 9pm, you have. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If the Metrorail subsidy had increased with the rate of inflation over the past 10 years, there would be enough money to just about eliminate all 20-minute headways before midnight.
As Metrorail continues to rack up ridership gains, especially during off-peak periods, WMATA has continued to operate off-peak headways more appropriate for a sleepy, commuter-only city. Increases in passenger demand since 1999 have been managed by running longer trains, which is less expensive than running more frequent trains.
The Metro budget is divided into three operating modes. As I discussed in an earlier article, changes in fare policy have been very different between Metrorail, Metrobus and Metroaccess. The fare increases, which have been primarily aimed at rush-hour rail commuters and parking, have kept the subsidy needed to support rail from increasing, staying flat in nominal dollars over a 10-year period, which is actually a decline when you take into account inflation.
But what if the regions’ support of rail had been kept at least even with inflation? According to my calculations, there would be an extra $20M per year available, which is enough to run trains more frequently in the late evening (every 15 minutes instead of every 20).
Of course, that’s not the only thing WMATA could do to improve service. Instead, they could reverse some of the budget gimmicks used to balance this year’s budget, and perform capital maintenance under the capital budget. There’s about $10M of that. That would free up some of the capital budget to purchase more farecard machines, more faregates, or even make some station improvements.
This would mean that the local jurisdictions would be asked to chip in more, but I think it’s a reasonable request that our successful Metrorail system not suffer from a long-term decline in spending. A lot of people made the choice to live near metrorail, and many jurisdictions are building new housing near stations so that people can live car-free. Why not reward these decisions by improving Metrorail service during off-peak?
Longer headways off-peak is a big reason not to ride Metrorail for a lot of people, especially when the headways get really long. A 20-minute wait added to another 20-minute wait, combined with relatively low traffic congestion at night and on weekends, and the trip gets very long compared to driving. As I argued earlier, once people make the decision that they need or want a car for at least some of their trips, it becomes easier for them to decide they want a car for all of their trips, because once you own a car, additional trips are relatively cheap.
So longer headways contribute at the margin to increased car ownership, which contributes to peak hour congestion. WMATA should use some of the increased fare revenues from the past 10 years to eliminate the 20 minute headway from the Metrorail vocabulary.