What’s the Point of the Authority?: A WMATA Panel recap

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of participating in the National Press Club’s panel on the future of WMATA. Many thanks to Pat Host for, well, hosting, and to my fellow panelists: David Alpert, of Greater Greater Washington; ATU 689’s Jackie Jeter, and WMATA Board member Tom Bulger. Audio is available, as you can see above.

David’s written a recap of his own, available here. While he presented his thoughts initially as a statement, I had come up with a bunch of talking points which to some extent got thrown by the wayside. I wanted to prose-ify at least my introduction and present it here for you.

But first, the long and short of the event is that I came away with more respect for the union than I had before, and even less for the board. “We’re only as good as our last rush hour,” emphasized Tom Bulger, “and I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

This kind of captive, passive mindset is perfectly indicative of the lack of initiative the board has shown in addressing the actual day-to-day needs of riders and users of rail and bus alike. The Washington area is no longer composed of white 9-5ers coming into the core by 9am and departing at 5pm sharp (with buses, of course, reserved for the predominantly black locals). It’s a multicultural, multi-industry, diverse region with varying wants and needs. The better-suited WMATA is to move people between the hours of 10am and 4pm, and after 7pm, and on weekends, the more people will flock to the system. But there’s a serious lack of urgency or will to hold WMATA to any kind of improved standard.

With that said, here’s the general thrust of what I was trying to convey at the beginning:

The core mission of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is to provide transit service and move people. And when we start shifting the mission to that of some sort of solely fiscal entity – e.g., the job of WMATA is to pay back its bonds and not spend too much money – we lose of sight of the whole point of running a transit system. A public authority’s duty is to the citizens it serves, not financial stakeholders. Thus, to see Muriel Bowser appointing a “fiscal guy” like Corbett Price to the board – a board where few members have any real transit experience – is yet another step in the wrong direction. Focusing on financial management will, no mistake about it, come at the expense of operations, and to further impoverish the latter is both wrongheaded and an all-too-recognizable continuation of what’s gotten WMATA into its current situation.

If I had to sum up both the single greatest immediate concern with WMATA, as well as what it means in a larger sense, it would have to be frequency. Put simply, there aren’t enough trains or buses running. Frequency is what enables us to live without cars; to take a train or bus to dinner or work or an event without worrying about waiting half an hour for one to get back. It replicates the ability of the car to begin your journey when you wish, rather than being forced into a rigid timetable. And frankly speaking, running 3 trains per hour on weekends is a tremendous waste of the infrastructure we already have.

Frequency is the best predictor – and motivator – of transit ridership. If you run it, they will come. And it is WMATA’s refusal to consider frequency and headways outside of peak, “rush hour” service that is most concerning, as the board and executive management seem not to understand that people have a need for mobility at all hours of the day. Whether through boredom or ignorance or misplaced priorities, the actual experience of riding Metrorail and Metrobus bears little relation to what WMATA’s stakeholders seem to imagine. And if they cannot grasp WMATA’s current inadequacies on this single front – frequency, a basic tenet of good transit service – then what hopes can we have of addressing the rest?

Upcoming Event: Future of WMATA Panel

I’ve been asked to participate in a panel that Pat Host and the National Press Club are putting together for later this month. I’ll be there in my capacity is a “mass transit enthusiast” and erstwhile commentator here and on Twitter. Our favorite local transit agency is definitely at a crossroads, and in serious need of both reinvestment and reform. How best to get there?

It’s a pretty exciting chance to ask and answer some questions in-person, without the usual filters in place. I’ll do my best to represent the riding public – we all seem to share a number of concerns that are rarely, if ever, addressed by Metro’s leadership or local elected officials.

It’s on-the-record and open to the public on Monday, March 23rd – see you there, maybe?

WASHINGTON, March 13, 2015—Major stakeholders of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, or Metro) will discuss the future of the system in a panel discussion at the National Press Club in downtown Washington on Monday, March 23, from 10-11:30 a.m. EST.

The United States’ second busiest system by daily passengers is at a critical point in its history as it faces growing safety concerns and fares, declining ridership and a budget squeeze. In an on-the-record, moderated Q&A format, stakeholders will discuss operational, budgetary, governance and management issues.

Participants are:

  • Pat Host, moderator
    National Press Club member and reporter for Defense Daily and Rotor & Wing.
  • Tom Bulger
    WMATA Board Member, Alternate Director for the District of Columbia; board member since July 2011.
  • Jackie Jeter
    President of WMATA union Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689.
  • David Alpert
    Editor and Founder of transit news source Greater Greater Washington, available at greatergreaterwashington.org.
  • Graham Jenkins
    WMATA rider, District resident, and mass transit enthusiast blogging at lowheadways.wordpress.com.
The event will start promptly at 10 am EST and will take place in the Zenger Room, located adjacent to the Fourth Estate Restaurant. The National Press Club is located at 529 14th St. NW (at F St.), on the 13th floor, and is accessible from Metrorail via McPherson Square (OR/BL/SV) and Metro Center (OR/BL/SV/RD) and multiple bus routes including the 52, 54 and 30s line.

Setting Priorities; Fixing Blame

It’s no secret that WMATA is in serious trouble. We’ve become a cautionary tale for cities across the country:

And Ben Kabak writes:

Passengers are not comforted by statistics. Metro needs to realize a new culture without enough fiscal or political support. Here, in New York, the MTA is working to do something similar, but they don’t have nearly the same track record of mistakes to overcome. If we aren’t careful, though, DC serves as a lesson. It’s New York’s dystopian transit future if no one takes care of the system.

There is no doubt that Metro is facing something of a perfect storm right now: chronic underinvestment couple with endemic mismanagement have led to a region-wide shortage of confidence in all transit whatsoever (fairly or unfairly). DC’s streetcar network is in serious jeopardy, the Purple Line in Maryland is on the chopping block, and there’s little political appetite, it seems, to think big.

Which, of course, puts off actually solving the many problems with WMATA, in particular. These boil down to two key points, both of which are inescapable, and yet which have somehow pitted the region’s heartiest transit advocates and loudest critics against each other. WMATA receives inadequate funding. WMATA needs wholesale organizational reform. These are both entirely true. Continue reading