WMATA is considering combining or cutting dozens of buses. What's next?

WMATA is considering combining or cutting dozens of buses. What's next?

Last month, WMATA released their FY2021 budget. The transit authority is proposing consolidating or eliminating bus lines, in an effort to cut expenses. Dozens of bus lines across the region are in jeopardy of being cut or merged due to low ridership. Although these plans are not finalized, riders are protesting the cuts.

People are worried about their commute to work and wonder how they will get by with reduced bus hours, consolidated bus lines or no bus running at all. Advisory Neighborhood Committees and elected officials across the region penned letters to WMATA expressing disapproval for the proposal and asking for reconsideration. The proposed cuts were the focus of much debate at WMATA’s recent public hearings. Riders have even started Facebook groups to save their local bus lines.

What happens next? And how do these proposed changes affect the people who rely on bus transportation on a daily basis?

Produced by Richard Cunningham

Guests

  • Margaret Barthel WAMU Transportation Reporter; @margaretbarthel
  • Rob Puentes Chair of ENO Transportation, Board Member of The Bus Transformation Project; @rpuentes
  • Brian Turmail ANC 3B Chair; @ANC3B

Transcript

  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll meet the organizations that are stepping in to fill music education gaps in D.C. But first the 2021 budget proposed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, WMATA, calls for the elimination or combining of dozens of bus lines throughout the region. This sparked quick backlash from riders all across the area. Politicians all over the region wrote to WMATA board members expressing their disapproval. Riders shared their testimonies about how the proposal would affect them at public hearings. Some riders even created Facebook groups to save their local bus line.

  • 12:00:43

    KOJO NNAMDIWhat happens next? And how do these proposed changes affect the people who rely on bus transportation on a daily basis? Joining us now is Margaret Barthel. She is a Reporter in the WAMU newsroom covering transportation. Margaret Barthel, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:57

    MARGARET BARTHELThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:00:59

    NNAMDIWe did reach out to WMATA to join us for this conversation, but WMATA said that due to the increased work load caused by dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic they would be unable to join us. That leaves it up to you, Margaret Barthel. What is the latest on Metro and the Coronavirus?

  • 12:01:15

    BARTHELYeah. It's a great question, Kojo. So today is the first day that they have actually implemented service cuts on both bus and rail. So rail is running on a Saturday schedule, so trains running every 12 minutes, and they tell me that they are all eight car trains. So hopefully that allows people to spread out a bit and keep their distance from each other. On buses they're running on Saturday supplemental schedules, which is basically a Saturday plus schedule. And riders can check out what that actually means on the individual fare schedules if they need that information for their commutes. The other thing is that we don't actually know if these services changes will continue or they'll get even more drastic as the situation develops here in the region.

  • 12:02:17

    BARTHELYou know, Metro has seen ridership plummet and that is actually a word that a Metro spokesperson used with me on the phone yesterday. So they are, you know, they're monitoring this pretty closely. They have a pandemic response task force that is kind of making the internal calls on how to manage the system and, you know, get people who need to travel where they need to go. But otherwise they're really begging people to not take the system. You know, they wrote a tweet yesterday that said really essential travel only please. You know, only take Metro if you really need to get to work or, you know, you're one of these -- a frontline medical person, something like that. So the story is still developing and I think we'll know more after today and once they get the ridership numbers back from how the commute goes.

  • 12:03:26

    NNAMDIWell, there were some sarcastic responses to the notion that there should be essential travel only. People saying, "Are they suggesting that some people ride Metro just for fun?" Well, that's another story. Let's talk about the consolidations and cuts to bus routes. Why is Metro proposing them?

  • 12:03:42

    BARTHELYeah. So this is part -- just to give you some context. This is all part of the 2021 budget process. So they're basically looking at kind of all of these different areas where they want to make some changes to service. They're considering increases in the base peak fares, things like that. And all of this is kind of a balancing act, because there are limits essentially on how much the Metro budget can grow from year to year. And so they're kind of trying to figure out how to, you know, make service available that they want to make available within those budgetary constraints. So the changes to bus routes are part of that.

  • 12:04:36

    BARTHELI should note that there are some bus routes that they're actually increasing service on. So this is not entirely a story about eliminations to routes, but there are more than 50 routes that they're considering either eliminating or combining with others or reducing service on.

  • 12:04:57

    NNAMDIOne of the routes, it's my understanding, is 29 West or 29W I should say from Fairfax County into the Pentagon?

  • 12:05:05

    BARTHELYeah, yeah. That's one of the routes that I have been interested in talking to riders on because it was actually one of the routes that was off line for three months beginning in October of last year because of a strike by workers who were disputing their contract with the contractor that runs -- yes, yes. It was a really long kind of arduous process for many of them to try to get to work and to commute. The 29W runs from pretty far out in Fairfax County all the way to the Pentagon. And a lot of people were using it to, you know -- it's an express bus. It just goes right on the highway. And people were using it to get to the Pentagon and then get elsewhere in the city from there taking Metro or others, and so they were delighted when the line came back.

  • 12:06:03

    BARTHELAnd now they've just learned sort of immediately after that there was a possibility that it would be entirely eliminated due to low ridership. So, you know, this is one of many bus routes that is kind of -- could be drastically changed if not completely eliminated. Like I said there are more than 50 routes that end and I think about 12 of those that are specifically, because of low ridership.

  • 12:06:41

    NNAMDIHow did Metro choose which lines would be cut? I guess those because of low ridership would be pretty obvious. What was the process?

  • 12:06:49

    BARTHELYeah. So we don't know a whole lot about the actual sort of behind the scenes, the planning process that they took to arrive at some of these proposals. And I do want to underline that they are proposals. But, you know, what we do know is that there are a couple of different -- they have published the rational on each route for why they've decided to make some changes. I mentioned low ridership. That applies to some routes. And other routes it's more of a question -- or what they say is a question of sort of combining different routes together that are going to similar places trying to figure out essentially sort of prune back the system to make a little bit less complicated. And so that sort of consolidation process is also something at work here.

  • 12:07:49

    NNAMDIMargaret Barthel is a Reporter in the WAMU newsroom covering transportation. We're talking about the plans by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to end or combine dozens of bus routes. Also joining us by phone is Brian Turmail, who is in the District of Columbia, the ANC for 3B. He is the Chair of that ANC. Brian, what kind of impact would these changes have on the community you serve? What have you heard from your constituents?

  • 12:08:17

    BRIAN TURMAILYeah. No, I think that we have a very worried community. I'm in Glover Park and we also represent sort of southern half of Cathedral Heights. We're a part of northwest Washington that doesn't have any Metrorail service. The nearest stations are all at least two miles away from us. And so the vast majority of the folks who work at downtown or access Metro do it off Metro bus. We also have a large number of students in our community that take some of the buses that service us to get up to Wilson to get down to School Without Walls to head over to Basis Public Charter School. And we've even got a lot who make the bus hop down to Hardy Middle School. And we've got five different lines that serve our community that are either proposed to be changed or outright canceled under this proposal.

  • 12:09:16

    BRIAN TURMAILIn particular the one that runs from our neighborhood down to the Metro is the D2 and then there's the rush hour service, the D1, that goes down to Dupont Circle Metro and then takes folks down all the way to Farragut Square. And it's a one ride trip down to the good chunk of downtown. And the D1 is proposed for cancellation. And the D2 is proposed to be merged with a line called the G2, which is the line that currently connects Georgetown University with Howard University. And, you know, this isn't unfortunately the first time that the folks in our community have seen Metro proposing to cut bus service in the area.

  • 12:09:59

    BRIAN TURMAILAnd I think there's a lot of frustration in part as you guys were just discussing, because most folks don't really understand the reasoning behind the proposed cuts. And there's not really a good alternative. And then when we've asked Metro to share their reasoning unfortunately they had committed to coming to a number of community meetings. And at the last minute decided that they weren't worth their time and didn't come. So there's frustration and there's concern. And there's also frankly a lot of mistrust between the folks in our community and Metro.

  • 12:10:30

    NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Robert Puentes, Chair of ENO Transportation and a Board Member of the Bus Transformation Project. Robert Puentes, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:10:40

    ROBERT PUENTESThanks for having me.

  • 12:10:41

    NNAMDITell us about your organization? Is it ENO Transportation?

  • 12:10:45

    PUENTESYeah. The ENO Center for Transportation is a 100 year old public policy think tank based here in Washington focused on all aspects of transportation everything from aviation down to electrical scooters and everything in between. We work with cities, metros all across the country, but I was happy to be chairing this bus transformation project over the last few years, which was designed to conduct independent assessment about the critical role that bus plays in the Washington region. And as we've seen from the virus related service productions, from the proposed cuts that the bus really is very critical for the entire region. It moves as about as many people as rail does, which apparently people don't realize that.

  • 12:11:27

    PUENTESAnd the plan for the bus transformation project was to transform then the bus so that it really does have maximum impact over the next generation and meet this very bold vision which we set out was for bus to be the mode of choice on the region's roads by 2030. Now we know that that's bold. We also know that it's not going to happen if we just continue to do business as usual.

  • 12:11:49

    PUENTESSo the executive steering committee, which is what I chaired laid out a strategy document with four key recommendations. Some of the stuff is pretty much no brainers really fixing the basics. Frequent reliable predictable service, and it laid out an action plan for actually how this is going to get done. Again, it won't be easy, but we recognize how important bus is and we needed true transformation to make it realize its full potential.

  • 12:12:12

    NNAMDIWell, Rob, WMATA has been publically supportive of your initiative. Does this proposal that WMATA is coming up with in its 2021 budget seem contradictory to their support for what you're doing?

  • 12:12:26

    PUENTESYeah. It's certainly unfortunate that there are these -- that this is happening at the same time. The bus transformation project started in September of 2018 as an 18 month project. It's certainly unfortunate timing given the fiscal year '21 budget discussions, but that's really happenstance. So the recommendations that we have in the project isn't something that's going to be achieved within an annual budget process, right. Some of this is multiyear. Some of this is -- you know, big bold things that go off into the future.

  • 12:12:57

    PUENTESSo there are some things that we can do today establishing regional standards for bus, working with employers to do tax benefits and then there's longer term things like bus rapid transit and big kind of major investments. So all of this is designed to be -- to roll out over a generation, but if we're going to have that transformation, this is the kind of stuff that we need to do.

  • 12:13:21

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls after the break. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. What do you like about Metro's proposed budget? Are there bus lines that could be more efficient? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:13:54

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Metro's plans to cut some bus lines and combine others with Margaret Barthel. She is a Reporter in the WAMU newsroom covering transportation. Robert Puentes is Chair of ENO Transportation and a Board Member of the Bus Transformation Project. And Brian Turmail is the Chair of ANC 3B in the District. Let's go to the phones. We'll start with Ulea in Cabin John, Maryland. Ulea, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:19

    ULEAGood afternoon, Kojo. Love your program. Thank you for this opportunity. I call on my own behalf and on behalf of about 2,000 people, who are riding daily D5 bus from Cabin John, Maryland from Glencoe, Maryland from Palisades, Washington D.C. and D5 bus is slotted to end its service. And we signed a petition where we ask the transportation authorities to rethink their decision, because every day we ride it to work. Our communities are far away from Metro. It's about 20-25 minute bus ride to the Metro stations, which is Bethesda and Friendship Heights. It's why D5 bus is the only way we can get ourselves to downtown D.C.

  • 12:15:22

    ULEAAnd another initiative is going in the State of Maryland. Our well respected Governor Hogan proposed and there is an imminent widening of the Beltway and American Legion Bridge, which borders our communities and goes through communities. It's why we're very worried about the extinction of D5 bus service, because on the one hand we are not going to have any means of getting to downtown Washington D.C. where we all work. On the other hand, it will be increased traffic from the Beltway, which will be added two lanes in each way. That's why if any possible to save D5 bus.

  • 12:16:11

    NNAMDIOkay, allow me to bring Margaret Barthel back into this conversation. Margaret, what provisions is WMATA making to accommodate people who use these lines like D5 right now?

  • 12:16:20

    BARTHELYeah. So they do have on the budget website, wmata.com/budget. Riders can go and, you know, see sort of individual information about the proposed serve changes on each line that could be affected. And the agency has added in alternatives that they think could work. I will say I've talked to some riders, who say that some of the alternatives just are not feasible for them and for their commutes. And really feel that that part of the information that they are being given is just not sort of fully thought through. But there is that piece of information that folks can seek out if WMATA has identified an alternative route.

  • 12:17:23

    NNAMDIA listener tweeted, "No. WMATA did not explain it's rational for cutting the routes. That's one of Metro's many problems, opacity on dealing with the public." Here now is Judy in Ashton, Maryland. Judy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:36

    JUDYHi, Kojo. Love this show. I've been listening for years. I live out here in Ashton, Maryland in Montgomery County. When we first moved out here 48 years ago, the Z2 went right by my door every half hour. It continues to go past my door, but it now runs only during rush hour. So that was inconvenient. When we moved out here I thought the Ashton, Sandy Spring and all the areas were being built up and there would be more bus service. But no, they've cut the route. And now they propose to eliminate it completely. And now that my husband and I are senior citizens we need to have that bus as a backup more and more both to get to Olney for the shopping and to go to Silver Spring to get downtown for the Metro.

  • 12:18:27

    JUDYThey proposed to totally eliminate all the bus service out here. And I don't know what I'm going to do, because my husband is immune comprised, has terminal cancer, can't drive at all right at the moment, and I have a heart condition, which precludes driving. So I'm relying on friends and family and neighbors to drive us to Olney for doctors' appointments and for shopping and then to get downtown. So if you eliminate the Z2 we will be totally high and dry here.

  • 12:19:03

    NNAMDIIn terms of what you can do about it, let me turn to Brian Turmail. Brian, what efforts have you made to save the routes that your community will be losing and maybe Judy can learn something from them.

  • 12:19:16

    TURMAILSure. And like I said before, unfortunately this isn't our first rodeo when it comes to dealing with Metro and proposing route cuts. This happens on a regular basis. You know, Metro has an established process for providing comments on their proposal. And, you know, what we have been telling the folks who live in our neighborhood and really anyone who will listen is, you know, there are a lot of Facebook pages. There are a lot of petitions circulating. Those are great for getting the public excited and educated, but Metro only listens to the comments they receive through their website portal or through their in person listening sessions.

  • 12:19:55

    TURMAILAnd so we've done everything we can to make sure that all of our constituents are sending Metro information. And not just, you know, passionate comments like, "Save our bus route," but explanations to why. You know, the mobility, the connectivity, the fact that if this bus service is unavailable I will not be able to take the competing service, you know, or observations on the reliability.

  • 12:20:23

    TURMAILYou know, one example is the D2 that they want to merge in our neighborhood with the G2. All of a sudden you've got a bus that goes from our neighborhood down to Dupont Circle and back. It's kind of one of these ideal bus to Metro shuttle services almost. They want to add in another eight blocks on P Street to take it over to Howard. And anyone, who has tried to go across town on P Street knows that that's a pretty difficult stretch to navigate and stay on schedule. So it will have impacts on the reliability. So the more detail you can add to your comments to really make your case, the more Metro tends to listen and react.

  • 12:20:57

    TURMAILAnd some of our -- sort of offline conversations with the Metro staff we're working on these proposals we almost had the impression that -- it's a shame they are no on the call, but Metro staff were helping they would get good anecdotes and good data that would allow them to save certain routes or senses that, you know, they've got tight budget constraints, but the staff appreciates that they need to have good reliable bus service.

  • 12:21:23

    TURMAILBut more broadly and you hear this from both comments that there's this kind of downward spiral service that's going in the wrong direction of where Robert and his group want to go, which is the more Metro just kind of counts numbers and cuts service the more people are going to embrace the many options that are now available for getting to and from work the fewer people are going to take service. And if these cuts go through I can guarantee you five years from now they're going to say, geez, no one is riding our new and unreliable D2/G2 route. We're going to cancel that as well. And we'll be in the same situation that your last callers' is in.

  • 12:21:54

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Kishan Putta, who is an ANC Commissioner in Ward 2 and a candidate for the Ward 2 Council seat. He tweets, "Public transportation is vital to our city's progress. My neighbors of all ages are deeply concerned about Metro's proposed cuts to our neighborhood. My constituents tell me they will likely drive more adding to congestion and pollution." Rob Puentes, what recommendations have you received about changing the bus system?

  • 12:22:21

    PUENTESYeah. I think that that echoes a lot of the comments that we've heard already that transparency really is key here. And so what we proposed in this bus transformation project is to have some kind of a publically appointed task force or an annual progress report so that we can actually understand what is the performance of the system, who is it serving, how well is it serving? So that when we have these kinds of conversations that are unfortunate realities with lots of different public agencies that we actually have some data and some information that we can make these decisions with, because they do have impacts on people.

  • 12:22:53

    PUENTESAnd there are budget realities we have to deal with. And so a key part of what we recommended is not to have -- we don't want a report that just sits on the shelf, right? So you want to develop an action plan and then continually monitor how well we're doing to meeting that. And then a big piece of that is the data and information that people in the riding public can understand, so that they can understand where these decisions are coming from.

  • 12:23:16

    NNAMDIRob, what aspects of WMATA's bus service are already under adjustment currently?

  • 12:23:21

    PUENTESI mean, I think some of the -- the good thing that's happening is that this isn't -- what we're calling for here is not something that's a pie in the sky or this unattainable wish list. So there's already real time information that WMATA is putting together so that we can make the system more predictable. They know when buses are coming. Not just buses, but trains as well. There's an autonomy shuttle that is going to be operating in Fairfax County connecting up some growing parts of that county to some of the Metro systems there. There is the red bus lanes that are already operating on H and I Streets northwest. We have now made those permanent. I'm working with DDOT on that.

  • 12:24:00

    PUENTESMontgomery County is working on micro transit projects, bus on demand services. So there's an awful lot that's going on in this region. And calling for a transformation might sound like a radical big bold vision. But in a lot of ways it's really just aggregating up a lot of things that are happening throughout the region. And it's important to understand that when you think about bus, it's not just WMATA, right? There's nine service providers in this region, the counties and the municipalities. So all this has to work together, because as we've heard from the callers the regional network is truly that. It is regional. And it requires the region to come together not just for WMATA.

  • 12:24:38

    NNAMDIHere is Chris in Washington D.C. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:24:41

    CHRISYeah. Hi, thank you. These cuts to bus services seem to fly in the face of any logic that me and my neighbors can comprehend. I mean, we're talking about global climate change. Bus services are key to that. You know, we're talking about livable, walkable neighborhoods. Bus services are key to that. So what I don't understand is how is this happening in light of all this talk about, we need more housing. We need more housing. And for all these new people moving in, and yet you're going to cut bus services, doesn't make any sense.

  • 12:25:17

    CHRISAlso how -- was there any consideration of doing things like, you know, smaller buses maybe electric smaller buses for the routes that aren't having as much traffic, because obviously there's cost to all this. But if you cut the bus sizes down and you make them electric you can cut costs and still serve the people that you're serving now. If anything we should be having more bus services. This is insane.

  • 12:25:42

    NNAMDIWell, I have to interrupt because we don't have a great deal of time left. Margaret Barthel, it's not over yet for people who have all kinds of innovative ideas. So what are the next steps?

  • 12:25:52

    BARTHELYeah. As Brian was saying earlier, so the public comment period has now passed. WMATA did a number of public hearings and they took comments on their website. So at this point it's up to the board, the Executive Board of WMATA to go through kind of all of the sources of information and digest and figure out what the final budget proposal will look like and then vote on it. That is expected to happen sometime this spring. And then the changes that are implemented, you know, and approved by that vote would go into effect this July. So, you know, that's kind of where we are at this point. And from my understanding none of that has changed. The timeline hasn't changed due to the pandemic.

  • 12:26:50

    NNAMDIWell, I'm afraid we're almost out of time. But to end on a positive note, Susan emails, "I had to laugh at your response to people riding the Metro for fun. My daughter and I have used Metro since she was little. She's now 36. We love it. And we do ride it for fun." So there. Margaret Barthel is a Reporter in the WAMU newsroom covering transportation. Margaret, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:11

    BARTHELThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:27:12

    NNAMDIRobert Puentes is Chair of ENO Transportation and a Board Member of the Bus Transformation Project. Robert, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:18

    PUENTESThank you very much.

  • 12:27:20

    NNAMDIAnd Brian Turmail is the Chair of ANC 3B in the District of Columbia. Brian Turmail, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:27

    TURMAILPleasure. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

  • 12:27:29

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll meet the organizations that are stepping in to fill music education gaps in this region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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