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?

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