Washington DC

Washington Metro Getting Ready for Bankruptcy?

As I noted last week, Los Angeles is not the only region experiencing declining transit ridership. Another is Washington, DC, where a recent report from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA aka Metro) revealed that ridership has fallen to the lowest level since 2004. Ominously, the agency’s financial situation is so bad that it has hired a bankruptcy attorney to help it deal with its problems and is reshuffling its top management, forcing at least one executive to retire.

As detailed in the actual report to the agency’s board, rail revenues and ridership in the first half of F.Y. 2016 are both down by 7 percent from the same period in F.Y. 2015. Metrorail ridership peaked in 2009, and if the second half of F.Y. 2016 is as bad as the first, annual ridership will be down as much as 30 percent from that peak despite a 15 percent increase in the region’s population. Bus ridership and revenue in 2016 is also down but by only about 3 percent below 2015.

Move DC or Move Out of DC?

Washington DC has proposed an anti-auto transportation plan that is ironically called “MoveDC” when its real goal is to reduce the mobility of DC residents. The plan calls for reducing auto commuting from 54 percent to no more than 25 percent of all workers in the district, while favoring transit, cycling, and walking.


Click image to download the plan’s executive summary. Click here to download other parts of the plan.

The plan would discourage auto driving by tolling roads entering the district and cordon-pricing. Tolls aren’t necessarily a bad idea: as I explained in this paper, properly designed tolls can relieve congestion and actually increase roadway capacities. But you can count on DC to design them wrong, using them more as a punitive and fundraising tool than as a way to relieve congestion. Cordon pricing is invariably a bad idea, much more of a way for cities to capture dollars from suburban commuters than to influence travel habits.

The plan assumes that the district’s population will increase by 170,000 people over the next 25 years, which is supposed to have some kind of apocalyptic result if all of those people drive as much as people drive today. The district’s official population in 2010 was 602,000 people, a 155,000-person drop from 1970. While Census Bureau estimates say the district’s population is once again growing, it doesn’t seem all that apocalyptic if the population returns to 1970 levels.

The Census Bureau estimates that 54 percent of people employed in the district drove to work, while only 37 percent took transit in 2012. Since part of the MoveDC plan calls for discouraging people outside the district from driving to work in the district, it appears the goal is to cut that 54 percent by more than half. DC’s plan to discourage driving by taxing commuters through cordon pricing is more likely to push jobs into the suburbs than to reach this goal.

Congestion isn’t a serious problem in the district, mainly because the legal height limit prevents Manhattan-like job concentrations. Instead, the main congestion problems are on the highways entering the district. These problems can be solved through congestion tolls, which would encourage some travelers to shift the time they drive. Because road capacities dramatically decline when they become congested, keeping the roads uncongested would effectively double their capacity during rush hour, which ironically could allow even more people to drive to work. DC’s anti-auto planners won’t want to do that, which is why they are likely to focus more on cordon pricing than congestion tolling.

If reducing congestion isn’t the issue, then what is the goal of the anti-auto emphasis? MoveDC says it is “rapidly rising travel costs, and concerns about rising carbon emissions.” People deal with rising travel costs by replacing their cars less frequently and buying more fuel-efficient cars when they do replace them. MoveDC’s solution is to substitute high-cost urban transit for low-cost driving, even though transit actually emits more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than driving.

Happy New Year, Washington

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat representing the federal workforce, frets over the impact of sequestration or any alternative on his Fairfax County district: “Undoubtedly, we will take a hit….It’s going to result in a steady retrenchment in government investment in both the civilian and defense sectors. That’s going to affect employment and the robustness of our economic growth in this region.”

Of course, this is a “hit” – or more likely a nick – that comes after a doubling of the federal budget in a decade. And in the past weeks, the Washington Post has done a good job of reporting the impact of all that taxed and borrowed money on the Washington area. For instance:

The Washington region has emerged from the recession looking even more affluent compared with the rest of the country, boasting seven of the 10 counties with the highest household incomes in the nation, new census numbers show.

With a median household income surpassing $119,000, Loudoun County heads the list. Fairfax County, at nearly $106,000, is second. Both have held the same positions for several years running….

The rankings in the 2011 American Community Survey released Thursday expand Washington’s dominance among high-income households, reflecting a regional economy that was largely cushioned as the recession yanked down income levels elsewhere. Household incomes rose in most counties around Washington last year, even as they continued to sink around the country.

The stability of an economy built on the pillars of the federal government, its legions of contractors and a flourishing high-tech sector is evident in the income rankings.

In 2007, before the recession began, five counties in suburban Washington made it into the top 10. By 2010, there were six. The seven in the latest ranking is an all-time high.

And where does that money go? To housing, certainly (thanks, America!), as the Post noted in an article on the “red-hot real estate market”:

It didn’t look like a house anyone would pay $400,000 extra for.

Several walls inside the gray townhouse with blue trim were streaked with water stains. The first floor was noticeably uneven. And termites had dined in front.

The big pluses: It was 2,850 square feet, had off-street parking, and was in walking distance of Union Station [and thus of Capitol Hill]….

Two weeks and 168 bids later, the house — in the 800 block of Fourth Street NE — was sold this month for $760,951 to an unidentified buyer….

While much of the nation is still struggling to emerge from a historic housing-market meltdown, the District is reliving its boom days. High rents, low interest rates, low inventory, and a flood of new residents in their 20s and 30s are making parts of the city feel like it’s 2005 again.

The median home sale price in the District is up 14 percent from last year, according to RealEstate Business Intelligence (RBI)….

Bullish real estate agents say it is only a matter of time until those areas catch up as well. There is no talk of “bubbles” or fallout from a dive off the “fiscal cliff.” People are still moving to the Washington area, where the population grew by 122,000 from 2010 to 2011, Census Bureau data show.

And for those with money left over after paying Washington real estate prices, there are the finer things in life, the things that used to be for hedge fund managers in New York and tech innovators in Silicon Valley:

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