Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Where WMATA's money comes from and what transit needs subsidies

February 2, 2012 - 11:36 AM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This morning the WMATA board is yet again discussing issues of budget and HR and training and all the multitude of issues that occupy their minds. But among their presentations is a chart I'd like to share with you. The chart breaks down the amount of revenue WMATA receives from the different transportation services the transit agency offers, the operating costs, and then, subsequently, how much of a subsidy each service requires. The numbers are illuminating for many people who might not know precisely how expensive and how subsidized their public transportation is.

See the 2013 fiscal budget breakdown here:

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: WMATA)

What stands out to me is how the Metrorail is the only form of transportation that comes at all close to covering its operating expense — and even then, the rail operations require nearly $200 million in subsidies. The rail system costs $897 million to operate and earns back $713 million in revenue.

Metrobus is far less sustainable than many might imagine. Operating D.C.'s bus system costs about $565 million but its revenue only comes to $154 million. So of course the subsidy required is huge ... $411 million. MetroAccess is by far the least self-sustaining service, with an operating cost of $110 million and revenue of a mere $8 million. Its existence is virtually all subsidy. These subsidies, which come from state and local sources, cover 45% of the overall WMATA costs.

The size of these different transportation services also differs dramatically. Metrorail: 217 million trips a year. Metrobus: 124 million trips a year. MetroAccess: 2 million trips a year.

The subsidy is growing, by the way. I looked back at the 2011 budget to see that the total subsidy was $572 million, $132 million less than what's proposed for 2013. It's become more expensive to operate Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess since then, by tens of millions of dollars in the case of buses and trains. That presentation also breaks down how subsidies have grown in recent years: in 2008, the subsidy was just $487.6 million, up to 563.2 million in 2010, and now proposed at $704 for fiscal year 2013. WMATA's total cost was also significantly lower in 2008 — $1.17 billion compared to $1.6 billion or so now, although even then, the subsidies accounted for more than 40% of operating costs. To see transit subsidies increase by more than $200 million in half a decade is concerning, although perhaps we can chalk that up to some of the neglected maintenance of earlier years. If these subsidies make us genuinely safer and create truly better transit, then fantastic.

WMATA's current system improvements, funded by local jurisdictions as well as federal sources, amount to a $5 billion investment over the next six years that has already had serious impacts on service. Today WMATA reported that it hasn't been properly attending to its rail ties for years, and the agency now has a backlog of 75,000 to check. 75,000! To address the backlog as well as maintain annual maintenance, WMATA predicts it'll have to check 20,000 ties a year for the next half decade.

And that's just the ties. Then there's the fasteners. And the escalators. And the...

See the rest of today's presentation here.

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