Washington Metro should raise bus fares and cut service as a part of a plan to restore its rail system to its former greatness, recommends a report by former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. The report hasn’t been released yet–in fact, it has apparently been sitting on the Virginia governor’s desk for several weeks–but the Washington Post obtained a copy just in time for the report to have no influence on Virginia’s recent election.
Parts of the report are predictable, such as a recommendation that Metro obtain a source of “dedicated funds,” meaning a tax dedicated to it so it won’t have to be responsive to local politicians. However, LaHood’s mandate was to come up with a specific funding source acceptable to regional political interests, and he failed to do so.
What was not predicted was a finding that Metro “offers more [vehicle-hours of] service per rider than other large transit agencies.” Based on this finding, LaHood recommended cutting back service. The report notes that service levels were “average when compared to peers” until the opening of the Silver Line led to increased service hours coinciding with a decline in ridership.
So as the Silver Line has not only hurt the rail system, LaHood now recommends that Metro fix the problem by cutting back on service. But he does not recommend cutting back on Silver Line service. Instead, LaHood wants Metro to cut back on bus service (which he says is also above average) and raise bus fares. Ironically, this echoes my recent commentary noting that transit agencies often pay for the high cost of rail by cutting bus service.
Another of LaHood’s findings is that Metro’s costs are “average” compared with its peers. But, as former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith once noted, you can’t find out whether a public agency’s costs are reasonable by comparing it with other public agencies; you need to compare it with private operators. For example, Denver’s RTD contracts out half its buses to private operators that consistently charge RTD about 52 to 53 percent of the amount RTD spends running its own buses.
LaHood could have recommended that Metro contract out its bus service. In 2016, it spent $15 per vehicle-revenue mile operating its buses. Denver’s RTD spent $11 per vehicle-revenue mile on its buses, but paid private contractors less than $6 per vehicle-revenue mile on the buses they operated. Based on this, Metro’s costs may be “average” but are not reasonable.
Rather than save money by contracting out service, LaHood wants bus riders, who are disproportionately black, to pay more for less service in order to make up for Metro’s incompetence in managing its rail system. Meanwhile, he did not propose to raise fares for rail riders, who are disproportionately white.
In short, LaHood’s long-awaited report not only does not come up with a magic formula for a sales tax or another tax to help pay for rehabilitating Metro rail, the proposals he makes would actually do more harm than good for Metro’s transit-dependent population. Raising bus fares and cutting service is likely to accelerate declining ridership, which is exactly the opposite of what Metro wants to do.
Meanwhile, LaHood’s proposals to change Metro’s board could be considered a way of tinkering with the deck chairs as the ship is sinking–except that it is in line with Metro’s larger objective of becoming less dependent on and less responsive to local elected officials. Metro wants to be its own taxing district with its own board that will do whatever Metro’s staff tells it. Yet there is no evidence that this model works particularly well in other regions; instead, it merely takes the agency one more step away from the users it is supposed to serve.
LaHood apparently never considered asking Metro riders to actually pay for the service they use. But if users can’t be expected to cover the costs, maybe we don’t really need to provide the service. Unfortunately, if anyone in the DC area was looking for creative solutions to Metro’s problems, LaHood was the wrong person to ask.