As Paul Wiedefeld officially takes over Monday as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s new general manager, one of his first—and constant—challenges will be to repair Metro’s shoddy reputation among its disaffected customers. And the order is quite tall: In the first nine months of 2015, Metro’s customer satisfaction rate from its rail passengers dropped from 82 percent to 67 percent, according to a report that will be presented Thursday to the transit agency’s board of directors.
Just as worrying a figure is a 300 percent increase in the rate of rail passengers reporting problematic experiences over the past two years. With frequent breakdowns, lagging service, and an unpredictable repair schedule sending would-be Metro riders scrambling for other transportation options, it’s not terribly shocking that Metro proposes to answer a frequent customer complaint on Thursday.
The bone Metro plans to toss might not be the smartest play, though. During that Thursday meeting, the Metro board’s finance committee will consider adding to its fiscal 2017 budget language stating that people who enter a rail station but exit before boarding a train within 15 minutes will not be charged a fare. On the surface, that seems encouraging: people won’t have to pay for trains they don’t ride.
But there’s a cost to this sudden act of generosity. Metro estimates that “same-station entry/exit transactions” account for 0.5 percent of all rail transactions per month, with as many as 10,000 incidents on the weekdays with the most service interruptions. As those who have bailed on Metro know, the service collects $2.15 from people who double back through the fare gates during rush hours and $1.75 during off-peak times, accounting for $2 million of its annual revenue.
If the proposal goes through, Metro plans to offset the lost revenue by eliminating 20 positions, which the finance committee’s report states will be non-safety-related jobs or vacancies. Still, it would put another chip in Metro’s finances, which are already shaky enough thanks to reduced ridership from federal workers and potential cuts to the support it receives from the federal government. Meanwhile, the finance committee’s draft budget keeps fares at their current levels.
Getting rid of entry-exit fares within a cushy grace period might raise Metro’s public image a bit. For one, it satisfies a core demand of the recently formed WMATA Riders’ Union, a public-interest group that has been hobbled by in-fighting.
But the proposed move also smacks of piecemeal coddling. If it’s adopted, it might cheer up enough grumpy riders in time for Metro’s next customer survey, but little else. The $2 million offset WMATA plans to pay for the grace period is microscopic in its overall budget, which topped $1.8 billion for the current fiscal year.
Rewarding people who bail because they don’t want to wait for the train is not much of a fix, and it would make WMATA rare among metropolitan transit agencies to offer an effective refund for reasons other than a service disruption. (Metro has offered such refunds after particularly aggravating delays.) New Yorkers who enter then exit a subway station without boarding a train do not get their MetroCards replenished, for instance. As WMATA’s rail service charges upon exiting, though, a better comparision would be San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, which also takes exit fares. BART riders who enter and exit at the same station within a three-hour window get hit with a $5.55 “excursion fare.” Compared to that, $1.75 or even $2.15 isn’t so bad.
Metro might now be in the habit of offering refunds for epically terrible service. But it shouldn’t start down the road of offering refunds simply because people are dissatisfied with advertised wait times or the size of crowds standing on the platforms, especially when every station has at least one display outside the fare gates alerting people of the station’s conditions. If anything, it could encourage that 0.5 percent of customers who bail to expand, turning that projected $2 million line item into a significant number that can’t be offset by a few administrative staff cuts.
Wiedefeld has a big job ahead of him. Metro’s first move since his hiring shouldn’t be to shoot its new boss in the foot.