Metro hours, fares, ethics scandal focus of Capitol Hill hearing

A potential return of at least some of the hours Metro cut a few years ago and possible fare increases or naming rights sales were among issues that came up Tuesday at a congressional oversight hearing on the transit agency.

Members also questioned Metro’s General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, Board Chairman Paul Smedberg, Inspector General Geoff Cherrington and Washington Metrorail Safety Commission CEO David Mayer about safety and security issues, the need for additional customer service improvements, Silver Line concrete concerns and the botched handling of an ethics probe into then-Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans.

Wiedefeld suggested he does plan to address the hours issues in the budget proposal he is due to release in early November.

“That was put in place to deal with preventive maintenance that we never did, so that was very important. We’re making great progress,” Wiedefeld said. “I’m hoping to bring certain things to the table in our budget to start to bring back those hours. Because again, that’s what we want to do as quickly as we can, as quickly as it’s safe to do it.”

The budget proposal for July 2020 through June 2021 is also expected to address Metro fares, including possible fare hikes.

“The board does have a policy of revisiting fare increases every two years. We have not done one for more than that period. So obviously, every year when we prepare the budget, we look at that,” Wiedefeld said.

It is not clear whether any rail fare increase would also increase or change the cap on fares for the longest trips. The lengthy extension of the Silver Line into Loudoun County is expected to open next year, and Metro’s distance-based rail fares are currently capped at $6 at rush hour or $3.85 at other times. Bus fares are $2.

“The board will consider fare policy that addresses the needs of the agency and maintains affordable fares,” Smedberg said.

Wiedefeld suggested that an expansion of unlimited trip passes or possibly automatic enrollment in passes could be a way to draw more riders. “So it doesn’t penalize people for using the system. The more you use the system, the more of a discount in effect that you get,” he said.

Metro is also looking to find more money in other ways.

“It’s advertising, quite a bit there — potential naming rights, things of that sort,” Wiedefeld said.

A naming rights consultant has been working on a report, and Metro expects to have a new advertising deal in place by next summer.

The agency is also trying to fast-track development deals on Metro property. The Metro Board is set to advance development around the Huntington Station in a vote Thursday.

“All those things are the things that we have in the works, and I believe you will see more of that in the very near future,” Wiedefeld said.

The board hopes those things go hand-in-hand with increased ridership and other improvements.

“There are a lot of hopeful signs … but there’s a long way to go in the area of customer service,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat who represents Virginia’s 11th District.

Wiedefeld acknowledged that Metro is still working on its internal culture but said the focus is ultimately on serving riders. “We have to constantly remind ourselves that the customers have a certain view, and that’s what we should be focusing on. … They want it safe, and they want it reliable,” he said.

Rep. John Sarbanes praised Wiedefeld for improved perceptions of Metro through both actual rush hour service improvements and more straightforward explanations of major shutdowns and track work.

“Just the way a dog can smell fear, a commuter can smell when they feel like they’re not being leveled with in terms of safety issues, in terms of how long something’s going to take to get done, etc.,” said Sarbanes, a Democrat representing Maryland’s 3rd District.

A failure of the Metro Board to level with the public drove many of the questions Tuesday about the Evans ethics probe, but the new board chairman and the inspector general assured the panel that future investigations would be handled properly under newly revised policies.

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