It’s happening again: another WMATA fare hike and further cuts to services. According to WMATA’s public records, there have been 7 fare hikes in the past ten years. During that time, the peak hour base fare for the Metrorail has increased by 36%. As fares continue to go up, subsidies from local governments has remained flat. By now DC Metro is the one of the most expensive transit systems in the US and its safety record continues to be quite poor. It seems that the only way to get more money for a system that’s woefully underfunded is to continually squeeze the riders. Those who can afford it are finding other options. As a result, Metro ridership is in decline.
From an historic high of 750,000 per day in 2009, the number of riders per day fell to around 600,000 by 2016. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, Metro’s ridership fell by 14 percent. This decline was so great that, according to a report published by TransitCenter, it actually brought down the national average of subway and light rail riders that year by .3 percent. A former WMATA board of director called this most recent iteration of fare hikes and service cuts in face of declining ridership “unsustainable” and “accelerates the downward spiral in regional transit service.” DC Metro has a looming “death spiral” where decline in service and increase in fares reduce ridership and a reduction in ridership decreases revenue necessitating further cuts. So those who are left riding the Metro rail and buses are those who don’t have any alternatives: transit dependent low income, historically marginalized communities. Thus those who can least afford it are forced to foot the bill and burdened with increasingly inadequate service. It hampers their mobility and access to employment, services, and housing. WMATA’s plan for dealing with budget shortages and widespread maintenance is inherently ineffective, regressive, and unfair. By perpetually increasing fares and cutting services, WMATA is creating a vicious cycle that will ultimately harm the Metro system’s long term viability and those who depend on public transit the most.
What we really need is an alternative solution. Increasing metrorail and bus investment and maintenance cannot come at the expense of the working people who depend on it and the system’s workforce. Obviously the most pressing issue is getting a steady independent source of revenue for the DC metro system so that it’s not so dependent on fares and the inadequate subsidies of local and state governments. DC Council has favored a regional sales tax that could be used for the metro system but that is also an inherently regressive form of taxation dependent on the vagaries of the economy. There are more equitable forms of taxation. The DC metro is a major engine for economic growth and development. Metro stations drive up property value, boost local tax bases, and attract private investment. The prime beneficiaries of DC metro-fueled growth, major businesses and real estate developers, should pay their fair share to DC metro through taxation. This is just one solution for reforming WMATA put forth by the grassroots organization Americans for Transit. Summed up in the slogan: fund it, fix it, make it fair, Americans For Transit envisions a more equitable, effective, and transparent DC Metro system. Instead of accepting WMATA’s “bitter pill” of immediate pain for supposed long term benefit, the organization and its supporters demand a more systematic, just overhaul of DC Metro that benefits riders and metro employees. In addition to a more equitable, steady funding for DC metro, this means creating a flat fare, free transfer between bus and rail, and extended hours of operation as well as make workers and rider safety a priority.