City on a Hill: Late-night Metro is a must

February 24, 2011

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is in tough straits. It is facing a projected $72 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2012—and that’s without the House Republicans’ proposal to strip an additional $150 million in federal funding from WMATA over the next eight months. It’s hard to envy the Metro Board of Directors, the group in charge of closing that gap, but one of the proposals they have floated—eliminating late-night rail service on Fridays and Saturdays—would have a major adverse effect on the local economy and public safety and needs to be scrapped.

With a projected annual savings of $5 million, it’s easy to see why ending weekend rail service at midnight as opposed to 3 a.m. is appealing to the board. In fact, this isn’t the first time such a plan has been suggested—cuts to late-night weekend service were also proposed during Metro’s past two budget cycles. In the past, D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) vociferously opposed such cuts, but Graham was recently replaced on the Metro Board by Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a D.C. councilmember with solid urbanist bona fides but a less vocal stance on late-night rail service.

In addition to the financial incentives, cutting late night service is attractive from a maintenance perspective. Metro’s Deputy General Manager Dave Kubicek says cutting the weekend shift  from midnight to 3 a.m. could provide Metro with an additional 45 days worth of repair and maintenance time each year. In light of the fatal 2009 Red Line crash and the myriad other safety issues plaguing Metro, these additional maintenance opportunities are attractive—but it’s unclear whether they are necessary. In an analysis of 13 major American metrorail systems, the blog Track Twenty-Nine found that only Baltimore’s system required more daily downtime than WMATA. There is plenty of maintenance work to be done to improve Metro safety, but there’s no compelling reason why the system needs to shut down early every Friday and Saturday to do that work.

While cutting late-night service would offer short-term fiscal benefits for WMATA, it would also have a negative financial impact on local businesses and, by extension, the overall economic health of the region. Although there’s no neat figure to counterbalance the $5 million price tag, making it harder to travel to and from D.C. on weekend nights would definitely put a significant damper on the city’s nightlife industry—so much so that the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington told the Washington Examiner that the change would “seriously harm, if not kill, established and emerging entertainment districts.” The city has done a great job over the past decade of reviving underdeveloped neighborhoods, such as U Street and Columbia Heights, and has reaped the benefits by collecting taxes from more lucrative businesses—it would be a pity to see that progress squandered because of shortsighted decisions by WMATA.

Beyond that negative economic impact, early closures are also a bad idea from a public safety standpoint. While late-night weekend service is essential for many service workers, it is also extremely important for local residents who spent the night out on the town, are potentially intoxicated, and want to go home in an affordable and safe way. Late-night weekend rail service allows these people to patronize D.C.’s nightlife destinations without having to choose between the unattractive options of driving drunk, taking an exorbitantly expensive taxi ride, or depending on highly unreliable nighttime buses.

These people contribute to the region’s economy and should be applauded for choosing a safe and environmentally friendly transportation option. But instead, as one of the least vocal and least appreciated Metro-riding constituencies, they’re picked on. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles declared on the Feb. 17 Kojo Nnamdi Show that he “would hope that anyone even getting on our train should not be drunk.” While it’s reasonable to ask that riders not be disorderly or disrespectful of WMATA property, ignoring the fact that many area residents use the Metro while intoxicated is naïve and unrealistic.

By maligning those who benefit from weekend late-night service, Sarles distracts from the more important point that the proposed cuts would constitute a major step back for the region’s overall development into a vibrant urban center. Since instituting late-night weekend service in 1999, the Metro system has become less exclusively geared toward commuters and more of a holistic transportation network. Because of this shift, the city has been able to encourage very successful development near Metro stations. It’s understandable if the system needs to tweak late-night service by charging slightly higher fares or reducing train frequency to offset the cost. But taking a sledgehammer to the progress that has been made toward creating a safe, fun and profitable urban environment is the wrong way to go.

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