- (Photo: John Hendel)
Metro's Office of Long Range Planning recently released a Regional Benefits of Transit study, outlining the various ways WMATA helps jumpstart the social and economic life of Washington, D.C. and pegged to the coming 35th anniversary of the transit system. You probably know the study as "Metro's study imagining there's no Metro." You also probably heard the report's price tag — $200,000, or 16 cents a rider, as the City Paper's Shani Hilton reported yesterday. She calls the report's premise "silly."
The price tag has since inspired a healthy amount of anger and dismissal from our local Metro riders, starting with Hilton's tone as she delivered the cost: "...the price tag still seems hefty. That's almost enough money to maintain four escalators!" Then came the Twitter rage. Then came the follow-up posts from such entities as D.C. Shitlist (headline: "You Won't Believe What The D.C. Metro Just Spent $200,000 On...") and Unsuck D.C. Metro ("It's like Metro is a surly, abusive husband in a spaghetti stained tank top slouching in the glow of a TV set in some dingy apartment drinking too much beer and telling his downtrodden wife how lucky she is to have him"). There was Metro-shaming as far as the eye could see.
But that reaction's a little extreme, isn't it?
I agree that $200,000 sounds high, especially if you see the report as nothing more than a "PR stunt," as anonymous blogger at Unsuck calls it. But I've followed Metro's Office of Long Range Planning, which released the report, for awhile now and enjoyed their more in-depth, thoughtful analyses of the system. You could even mistake their reports for Greater Greater Washington essays at times. So I asked Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel, who Hilton says initially defended the cost to her, for more details on just why the report cost $200,000. Let's have, I thought, a breakdown here before laying on the derision. Too often the gut reaction is to slam Metro — it's an easy target.
"Rest assured, the $200,000 bought much more than a narrative imagining a world without Metro — that was just one component," Stessel told me by e-mail.
As I glance through the few pages available to us, the November report doesn't strike me as complete PR. Naturally, I take the data with a grain of salt given its source but the report's goals have some significant value and represent something Metro should spend time and money assembling. As Stessel emphasized to me, the report's focus was to quantify Metro's benefits. We're not talking about some little essay with made-up numbers here. Any quantification of data involves research, testing, time, and significantly for any business, money. I've spent enough time working with SPSS in the past to know the headaches such research can bring.
Here, for instance, are good things that Metro now knows thanks to its report:
• Metro's presence is "adding 6.8% more value to residential, 9.4% to multi-family, and 8.9% to commercial office properties within a half-mile of a rail station."
• "The demand for locations near Metrorail stations produces approximately $133M (¼ mile) to $224M (½ mile) in additional revenues from property taxes due to the premium associated with properties located near rail stations."
• "Annual savings from lower car operation costs to families living near Metrorail stations and/or bus corridors is $342 million ($2010) annually."
These are good numbers to know, and contrary to certain criticisms, WMATA has acknowledged they don't amount to a full cost-benefit analysis. "This does not mean that Metro caused all of this development," writes Justin Antos at PlanItMetro, "but it does show that Metro serves the value-creating parts of our region." I agree with Unsuck that it would have been nicer to see more than the executive summary of the report. But to throw around numbers like this, Metro needed to conduct serious research.
"There was a major exercise that involved assembling and analyzing a giant data set of property taxes and property values," Stessel told me. "There were 1.2 million parcels analyzed across all jurisdictions. The parcels then had to be matched to their spatial location in GIS so that we could determine the distance of each parcel to Metrorail. The final step involved running a series of hedonic analyses on the data by the type of property with a number of variables (square footage, class of office space, leased rates, etc.)."
Hedonic analyses, people. Ethisphere has ranked AECOM, the support services company that helped prepare the report, one of the most ethical companies of 2011, for whatever that's worth. I tend to accept the $200,000 price tag report for three big reasons.
First, WMATA is an enormous transit system coordinating an extreme amount of money. Its total budget for fiscal year 2012 is $2.6 billion, of which this study amounts to less than one in ten thousandth. To analyze and execute anything in this system does cost money, and $200,000 is — as foreign as it seems to us — pennies in the greater finances of the system. WMATA has budgeted more money to prevent Metro suicides, which affects less than a dozen riders a year, than on this new research. It's entirely sensible for Metro to conduct such research, especially as it rounds its 35th anniversary.
Second, these numbers are precisely how Metro gets more money. Despite these high numbers I just alluded to, Metro is straining for more cash. Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert observed the following in August: "Metro has been drastically underfunded for years and treated as a political football." That reality is, I understand, part of the reason people are angry over what they consider bullshit PR stunts. They don't want Metro to waste money, and they don't want their fares to rise. But to convince people to fund transit and transit-oriented development, WMATA needs to show they've exercised real scrutiny of its rail system and present incentives to businesses, government entities, and others to help fund and support the agency. If Metro receives $1 million extra dollars from any source thanks to this research, then the value of the report has come back to them fourfold.
Stessel acknowledged this reality: "It's important to remember that decisions about funding often come from Annapolis, Richmond and Capitol Hill, where it is helpful to have empirical data to make the case."
Third, the D.C. metro region has, in various ways, asked Metro to do just this. The Metro Board benefits from the context this report provides, Stessel argued. In the Governance Work Group's new Metro recommendations, it "encourages the Board to continue to take a stronger role in strategic management." A summer GAO report blasted WMATA because its operations "do not clearly establish a long-term, multiyear outlook and do not include a schedule for updating or revising the agency’s strategic goals, objectives, and strategies," among other strategic faults. To develop a strategy, you need to quantify your system. You need data.
I hear your anger, Metro riders, and agree that we should make WMATA accountable for its finances to ensure it's not wasting our money. I neither apologize for Metro's many faults over the years nor do I blame you for your frustration. The track work alone has greatly reduced Metro's current usefulness on the weekends and frankly, most times when it's not rush hour.
But I'm not convinced, at least yet, that this report represents the egregious crime and waste certain people want it to be.