WMATA/Metro Board Is Utterly Clueless About Riders. Stupidity Or Ideology?

While the doings of one transportation board (albeit of one of the largest systems in the U.S.) might seem esoteric, it really does highlight the consequences of elections and the role of ideology. Stephen Repetski was the first to break this, but the Washington Post provides us with a staggering quote from one of WMATA’s board members:

“This is not a business where every customer represents more profit for the organization. It’s the opposite,” said board member Steve McMillin, an appointee of the federal government. “It would be crazy for this authority to simply run more trains in off-peak times chasing additional passengers.”

Internal and external analyses have determined that service is the best predictor of ridership changes — outside of factors beyond Metro’s control such as population and jobs. A recent report from Metro staff recommended several proposals ranging from all-day peak service, to all eight-car trains, to extending Yellow Line service to Greenbelt and overhauling the Metrobus system.

McMillin’s comments, therefore, raised questions about what the agency’s mission should be.

We’ll return to that last sentence. According Metro’s own figures, extending the Yellow would likely break even or maybe even turn a profit. Operating trains more frequently might lose money, at most 1-2% of Metro’s annual budget*. These are not budget busters at all. But we shouldn’t discount the role ideology is playing here: McMillin belongs to a think tank headed by former Senator and arch conservative Phil “I own more shotguns than I need, but not as many as I want” Gramm. He has promoted and worked on public-private partnerships, which is to say, a kinder, gentler privatization. Which brings us back to the article, and, unfortunately, to this utterance by another allied board member:

Board member Michael Goldman concurred with McMillin that the agency should not look at significantly increasing service.

Metro should instead accept the ground that ride-hailing companies have gained, and he proposed a marketing program that would provide first-mile, last-mile access to Metro through a partnership with Uber and Lyft.

“I’d much rather spend money trying to encourage people to use Uber and Lyft to get to the trains,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland. “I think that’s a better use of money than to try and spend a lot of money just to run trains empty throughout the day.”

If you think there’s more to mass transit than just getting there–you know, crazy shit like cleaner air, less traffic, and so on–then the ‘last mile’ stuff is awful. To have a reasonable price for customers (i.e., not $5/ride just to get to the train), this would require a massive subsidy. If you’re a privatization fan, I suppose that’s awesome. For the rest of us, we call that looting.

Underlying all of this, these two board members (and possibly others) have a very different vision for public transit, one grounded in right wing ideology (as one would expect for appointees of either Trump administration Transportation Secretary Chao or Republican Governor Hogan of Maryland), from many of the actual users of mass transit**. It is definitely not urban and not thinking about reducing miles traveled. And it is grounded, not in ‘common sense’, but in ideology.

Elections do have consequences, even for Metro.

*According to the article, all-day peak service would increase ridership by 10,000-20,000 per weekday at a cost of ten to thirty million dollars. Even the worst case scenario is a small portion of Metro’s budget.

**The lack of attention to the bus system also speaks to a different vision.

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