Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Frustrated Metro riders challenge Metro's vision of rebuilding

March 8, 2012 - 09:45 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

Tuesday, March 6 marked the fifth of out six hearings WMATA has been holding to hear from the public on its potential fare hikes to raise an additional $66 million from rail, bus, and MetroAccess riders to help balance the transit system's $1.6 billion operating budget. The hearings, which concluded last night, revealed the D.C. ridership's powerful resistance to paying more. One man, a Metro rider of two and a half years, conveyed impassioned displeasure with the service.

"There's so much wrong with Metro right now," Brian Morris said Tuesday evening, his voice smooth and his pace deliberate. "Almost every day, there's some kind of problem ... There's terrible management going on right now."

At this line, Metro's General Manager and CEO, Richard Sarles, blinked very visibly for a second. Perhaps a wince? The white-haired leader of WMATA for just over a year sat at the front of St. Columbia's Episcopal Church in Tenleytown along with Board Chair Catherine Hudgins, members Tom Downs and Marcel Acosta, and CFO Carol Kissal. Tuesday's was the second meeting this week that Sarles attended. He visited all three this week. In the Tenleytown church, he listened to one person after another point out their transit problems. He never spoke a word and never smiled but was simply present, there in his dark suit jacket and tie.

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Sarles. (Photo: John Hendel)

Sarles has presented a distinct, polished vision of Metro — we're rebuilding, he says. We're bringing new technology, SmarTrip innovation, social media ("a two-way conversation," the classic line has gone), and perhaps most importantly, a set of rail and safety improvements that the aging 36-year-old transit system sorely needs. Kissal touted the advances, from a 64% increase in safety staff to the improvement of 37 escalators and three elevators, that happened under Sarles' watch in her initial 7 p.m. presentation to the gathering of 30 or 40 people. Six years and $5 billion of Metro Forward, starting last year. Her positive assessment matched the one Sarles gave the D.C. Council last month. "From top down to bottom up, we are changing the safety culture," Sarles told the Council.

But the perception of the riders in Tenleytown couldn't have been more different, and virtually all present and testifying objected to the idea that Metro deserved any sort of fare increase.

Consider how riders talked about the fares  — one painful theme suggested WMATA may end up balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and those with disabilities. WMATA explained the possible fare increases in a docket.

"It seems unfair," Shirley Adams testified. "I feel we're still in the Great Recession." What about those on a fixed income and what about students? Howard University professor David Schwartzman opposes the fare hikes as a "regressive tax" on low-income residents. Amanda Formica of the Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations echoed these points and observed that low-income riders may have trouble affording SmarTrip cards — the proposed hikes are particularly punishing for those without them. Pat Spray continued his marathon visits to WMATA hearings this week as he sought to better distinguish how a MetroAccess fare hike would play out for a paratransit service with dropping riders and with many who fought to make do with a $1,000 monthly Social Security check. One woman asked for a flat MetroAccess fee of $3 (it's $7 now and may rise to $7.40). Regina Lee presented a petition of 250 names representing disabled riders concerned about the MetroAccess fare hike.

Others questioned whether Metro spent its money properly.

"There hasn't been any rehabilitation at the White Flint Metro," said Paula Bienenfeld. She doesn't buy Metro's line that the system falters due to 30 years of deferred maintenance. A Metro escalator tech told her that once, but months later, another explained his presence to her because the others "did not what they were doing." She pointed to the ceilings at Farragut North. She pointed to trash in the transit. "Why don't the arrival times listed on the platform match when the trains arrive?" Bienenfeld asked. "That to me is much more important than social media."

Sharon Brown, a woman in charge of procurement for the federal government, lent compelling testimony to the idea WMATA is not contracting out its services wisely. "Our contracts are not like this," she said, and listed several of the wonders of the world that come to $50 million and compared them to one of Metro's contracts. A close examination of WMATA's records suggests "possibly poor spending" to her.

Throughout all the proceedings, Sarles continued to watch his customers testify as he sat back, silent and drinking from a bottle of water. More than 700,000 people ride his rails every weekday, more than 400,000 ride the buses. The general manager has four decades of transit experience, from Amtrak to NJ Transit, and has learned how emotional transportation can be. He makes $350,000 a year in his current role and recently turned down a bonus. Sarles, Metro board members, transit police, the CFO, and other WMATA employees like chief spokesperson Dan Stessel and social media manager Brian Anderson watched these arguments play out. What thoughts filled their heads? Perhaps, they reason, these complaints represent a vocal minority upset with the service? With so many riders, surely a Silent Majority quietly approves of the benefits their transit has brought to the region? No system is perfect. To their credit, they also freely acknowledge failings that need to be fixed.

But these hearings underscore the divide between the frustrated public and the strained, aging transit agency. These six meetings have brought out the public's anger over a myriad set of problems, some very deep-rooted. Rebuilding is easier said than done.

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Signs guided riders from the Tenleytown Metro. (Photo: John Hendel)
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WMATA presented pamphlets, videos, and a chance to chat. (Photo: John Hendel)
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The formal hearing lasted an hour and a half. (Photo: John Hendel)
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