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Metro’s new general manager is optimistic riders will return

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Metro and transit systems across the country are facing a number of challenges in the coming years.

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, a shift toward telework has dented the number of passengers using transit. Fewer commuters means fewer fares, equating to a revenue drop of hundreds of millions of dollars for the Washington-area transit agency.

The pandemic, meanwhile, shows no signs of ending as looser return-to-office policies continue to limit in-person work, especially in downtown D.C. Meanwhile, Metrorail has operated a reduced schedule since October, when nearly 60 percent of its rail cars were pulled from service after a federal safety investigation uncovered a defect in 7000-series cars that causes wheels to move outward.

The agency’s funding stream for annual repairs, upgrades and vehicle replacements is also projected to max out in the coming years.

Metro ridership rises, but not enough to alter financial projections

That’s the situation that Randy Clarke, Metro’s next general manager, will walk into this summer. After a nationwide search, Metro’s board this week appointed Clarke, the chief executive of the Austin-based Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as its next general manager. He will replace Paul J. Wiedefeld, who is retiring June 30 after six years leading the agency.

Clarke, 45, who has served in various transportation-related roles over more than two decades — including at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston and the American Public Transportation Association — spoke to The Washington Post about his reasons for taking the job and his plans for getting Metro back on track. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Metro hires new general manager amid pandemic, safety challenges

Q: Metro, overall, has recently experienced an uptick in riders, but Metrorail continues to lag, running 35 percent of the daily passenger trips it was before the pandemic. How do you get people back on Metro, or should the transit agency focus on what’s working with Metrobus, which has recovered 88 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership?

A: All modes are critical, and all customers are critical. I care about the bus customer like I care about the rail customer. They’re all really important and they all bring different types of value to the community at different parts of the day or different days of the week. I am bullish on transit long term. Are we clearly having a downward trend right now? Of course, we’re coming out of a pandemic. The economy is up and down more than we all like, lately. There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Another wave of covid is potentially coming.

Metro says ridership is outpacing transit agency projections

This is all going to work its way out. We have to come together as a region, and think through the long term, [review] the business model for Metro. There is maybe an opportunity to gain more transit users at night. As an activity center, D.C. is special. Think of millions of people that come here every year. There shouldn’t be a visitor that comes here, that stays in the core, that ever rents a car. They should be on the [transit] service doing all of their activities. You have major development in places like Tysons and along the whole Silver Line alignment and in that area. You have Nats Park and the Caps.

There are all these opportunities across the day to have people using transit, and to do that we need safe, reliable, frequent service. I look forward to working with the partners and stakeholders and hear from customers on how we can maybe rebalance the network. This whole thing doesn’t need to be rethought. Transit is the opportunity connector, and nothing is the workhorse of a good city like transit.

Q: With telework becoming so pervasive, what’s a selling point for Metro? How do you get people back on Metrorail, specifically?

A: First of all, I think there’s a lot of people on Metro. I think the bigger question is how do we get more people back on Metro. Most people, I’m convinced, want to know it’s safe and reliable and frequent. If the 7000 series were back today, I’m personally convinced — and I’m not under the hood here — but ridership would be significantly higher than it even is today because the frequency would be so much higher. If the Silver Line Phase Two was already in service, there’d be more people taking that.

You go out to [Interstate] 66 at like 4 in the afternoon, and it’s just a line of cabs and Ubers. My understanding is traffic back in the D.C. area is pretty horrible again. Gas prices are at the highest level they’ve ever been, and I don’t think that’s going to change for a while. There’s obviously major environmental impacts to driving. People want to take the rail line.

I think Metro is doing a lot of things right, and we’ve got to get in and see where we can focus to improve things. A state of good repair leads to good reliability and safety and that’s going to get more and more people back. People want frequency and they want to know they’re safe. We’ve got to get people back on the transit system, because when the system’s performing well, the whole region’s performing well.

Metro’s prospects rise as omicron fades, but looming financial shortfall will shape service

Q: How do you capitalize on growing bus ridership and improve reliability and frequency of bus service?

A: One of the key things that I really look forward to working with our partners on is on right of way. The jurisdictional partners own the right of way, and I give [the D.C. Department of Transportation] a lot of credit right now. I’m not in the mix, but it’s clear they’re doing a lot of stuff.

[Bus priority lanes] are the types of improvements that we need to work with all the jurisdictions to think: How do we move those buses safely and quickly to get as many people onboard and give those customers the best possible service? And if we can do that, well, then your bus-rail connections at stations are better. The whole system improves.

After showing its worth during pandemic, momentum builds for free or reduced-fare transit

Q: Many government leaders say transit is a public service and should be fully funded or made free for users. Several cities, including Kansas City and Alexandria, have gone fare-free. What do you think of those ideas?

A: Transit is a public good. You cannot have a great city, a great region, without a great public transit system. It’s just impossible. Every great city of the world has a great functioning public transit system. So, fares is a complicated element.

We’ve funded transit in a unique way in America, and that conversation is kind of evolving in America about the right way to fund transit. Ultimately, someone has to pay for a public good, whether it’s a fire department, a school or a transit authority. Those services have to be funded. So the community has to come together and decide how to use their money to fund the services they care about.

In Austin, we were able to do a referendum and people actually passed a property tax on themselves during a pandemic because they cared so much about building a much larger transit system for the future of their community — the fastest-growing city in the country. In this community, we have to come together as a region and think through kind of the puts-and-takes of how we want this region to function — both not just mobility-wise, but social justice-wise, public safety-wise, traffic, environment, you name it. And transit is going to have to be a key player in all those discussions.

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