General Manager John Catoe

Transcript: March 6, 2009

General Manager John Catoe photo

Metro General Manager John Catoe will respond directly to questions about Metro-related issues during an online chat this Friday, March 6, when he hosts "Metro LunchTalk Online" — a live hour-long chat from noon to 1 p.m. Catoe welcomes questions about Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAccess during his chats. Mr. Catoe welcomes questions about Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAccess during his chats. Visitors may post questions before and during the chat.

General Manager John Catoe: There has been a lot of talk lately about Next Bus, which is a good thing because we expect Next Bus to be back up and running this July.

The return of NextBus is highly anticipated by many bus riders, and by many who were able to gain access to an internal test site over the last few months. We have restricted access to that test site, which has disappointed a number of people. Those people who were using the system have reported in blogs that the system was working well for them, and I’m pleased to hear that.

However, I have to take a much wider view of NextBus and the accuracy of its predictions. Launching a “beta” version may make sense for software developers, it doesn’t make sense for Metro. Before NextBus is fielded again, I have to be sure that it will work well for all of our bus riders. If we allow access to a test site, then we are in effect launching that site and service. That means we need to be ready to give anyone and everyone using that site our full attention if they have problems and complaints. All the disclaimers in the world won’t make any practical difference. If we were to allow access to the site, then, potentially, there would be hundreds of thousands trying to use something that just isn’t ready for prime time, yet. That means a flood of complaints, and we take every complaint seriously. If we allow the system to be used before we’re confident that its ready, then, although, it may be convenient for some, it just won’t work for everyone the way we envision it should.  I would also take more resources, both financially and in terms of manpower that we aren't ready to commit yet.  

When the system went off-line on October 31, 2007, we estimated that it would take up to 18 months to bring it back. That estimate was fairly accurate. Just be patient a few more months, and the service will be back up. There’s a saying “measure twice and cut once.” That’s what we are doing with NextBus to make sure we have everything in place to meet our goal of 95% accuracy on bus arrival times. This will be a significant improvement, and worth the wait.

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Lawrenceville, GA: Atlanta's subway system, MARTA, has turnstiles that are almost like doors! They are designed so that you can't climb over or go under them. Metro ever consider getting turnstiles like that? It would be a good way to insure that everyone rides Metro rightly so.

Reply: Thanks. It’s good to have people across the nation taking interest in us. I guess we truly are the Nation’s transit system. I don’t see a change in our fare gates happening in the near future. The one’s we have do an adequate job. That’s not to say we aren’t interested in ensuring everyone pays their fare share for service. This year we eliminated paper transfers, which could bring in an estimated $5-10 million each year.

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Alexandria, VA: Mr. Catoe, This is more of a comment than a question. Over the last several months metro has had several record days, and ridership seems to be increasing all the time. How is it then possible that the budget is still in deficit? It seems to me that metro has a basic philosophy to provide the service to those that choose to ride, instead of a basic philosophy of "How can we get the most riders?" Talk to any business owner and they don't just respond to current customers their mission is to get more. That said, problems like crowded trains and especially on time arrivals far outweigh station lighting, or other similar improvements. If in your meetings the first thing you asked your managers was how you can get more people to ride, the other budgeting problems would be eliminated.

Reply: One thing that it is important to understand though is that the fares only pay a portion of the operating budget. This year, about 53%. If you add the money we earn from advertising and other sources, we cover about 60% of the cost. In fact no transit agency in the country makes a profit or breaks even. The rest comes from the local governments that partner with Metro. Of course, this year times are hard for everybody, and we put forward a budget that didn’t assume an overall increase in the money we get from those governments. We also presumed that there would be no fare increase, even though our costs go up every year, just like anybody else’s. So that’s why there is a budget gap. Now, you are right, our ridership is growing and we want that to continue. We especially want it to grow in the off-peak periods. But even that growth is limited by the fact that not as many people need to travel at those times. So, if we were to run rush hour service all day long, it wouldn’t entice enough riders to break even.

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Arlington, VA: Most major metropolitan subway systems I've used have much more advertising in their trains and stations than Metro does. I understand it's nice to have uncluttered stations, but I'd rather stare at more ads than have another fare increase. Why doesn't Metro consider pursuing more advertisers as a source of revenue?

Reply: Over the last year we've expanded the opportunities for advertisers in the Metro system. Right now, though the money coming in is limited by the demand by advertisers. We are also looking for other ways to earn money.

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Arlington, VA: What is Metro's policy on extending rush hour service when the federal government or area school systems have a delayed opening? On Monday, I would imagine that many people shifted their commutes later. Did Metro offer expanded service after the normal 9:30 end of rush hour?

Reply: We did not extend the rush hour suervice. Since about 40% of our rush hour customers are federal employees, when they have a delayed start time it works to our advantage by spreading the travelers out over time.

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College Park, MD: Dear John: Between 19972000, WMATA offered the "Green Line Commuter Shortcut" which allowed rushhour customers to board a Green Line train (from points north of Ft Totten) and travel all the way to Farragut North without ever having to transfer to the Red Line at Ft Totten. I recall that the Green Line Shortcut was very popular. Will Metro ever resurrect this convenient shortcut? Jason in College Park

Reply: During the late 1990s, Metro did offer a rail service from Greenbelt called the “Green Line Shortcut” which allowed rush hour customers to go from Greenbelt to stops along the red line from Fort Totten. This was done because the inner green line between Fort Totten and Gallery Place was not yet constructed. Now we do have the inner green line for Green Line customers wishing to switch to the Red Line. Theoretically we could reintroduce this service if it was needed but we don't have any plans for that currently.

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Washington, DC: How will the stimulus package affect Metro?

Reply: It is expected that Metro will receive a minimum of $230 million in stimulus money according to the Transportation Planning Board for the Washington region. The first point to be made is that the money has strings attached. This money must be used to pay for projects that are ‘shovel-ready’ and can be implemented within 180 days. Metro will have to place at least half the money it receives on contract in those first 180 days, and the rest has to be committed within a year, or it will be taken away. The projects must also be eligible for federal funding and be projects that would not have taken place in Fiscal Year 2009 without this supplemental funding. Additionally, the law prohibits mixing these stimulus funds with other project money, and each project should be finished within 3 years. While the stimulus bill for transit was being developed, Metro kept a watchful eye on it and was able to proactively prepare and prioritize a list of projects that met the federal stimulus guidelines. As a result Metro’s projects were the first transit ventures submitted. With the approval of the bill, the projects will require a lot of reporting and will be more closely tracked than regular grants.There are many deadlines to be met for FTA and other agencies such as EPA and the Department of Energy. Plus, the bill must still be analyzed for other grant opportunities. Metro grouped its projects into seven asset categories that would allow the following: - Purchase of buses, paratransit vehicles, maintenance vehicles and components for rail cars; - Replacement, repair and expansion of maintenance facilities; - Repair and improvement of passenger facilities such as station platforms, escalator canopies, stairs, elevator access and credit card readers; - Expansion of security systems and purchase of additional emergency tunnel evacuation carts; - Procurement of maintenance and repair equipment for Metrorail track and rail cars; - Replacement of deteriorating operating equipment like fare collection equipment and signage; - Procurement of hardware and software to improve maintenance efficiencies, monitor network traffic and protect WMATA systems for disaster recovery. Metro will also use the money to upgrade the lighting in stations, tunnels and other facilities. This directly relates to the President goal of reducing the nation’s energy use. Currently, most Metro facilities have 1960’s lighting technology that must be updated for use of LED lighting fixtures that provide higher levels of lighting and longer bulb life. Although the stimulus money must be used on capital projects, in the long run, it will improve Metro’s service, and Metro has laid the groundwork to make sure that happens.

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Alexandria, VA: Why does Metro not run 4-car trains on the weekends (excluding major sporting events or holidays, and perhaps peak weekend times such as 9PM-2AM on Saturdays)? It seems that since weekend ridership is generally lower that running 4 cars per train would be more effective and help to lower energy costs for Metro. I frequently find myself riding into the city on a car with no more than 25 people. Matthew Thomas (Huntington, YL)

Reply: We tried that my first year in Metro, and it was highly unpopular. In fact I still have some of those bruises.

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Beltsville, MD: Literally, there is NEVER a Metro Police Officer on the traincar when you need one! I have suggested this several times to Metro, but I've never heard back. It's a bit ridiculous to think that in the case of a fight or even a verbal assault (or, heaven forbid, terrorists on a train) that someone is gonna get out of their seat, walk all the way to one end of a car and push the button to talk to the driver. It's just not gonna happen. BUT, if Metro posted a very conspicuous text message number on all cars, and included the car numbers very close by, then riders could very discreetly send messages to Metro security, include the car number and a brief description of the situation or perpetrators, and then the authorities could take it from there. You could notify users that Metro only accepts messages from nonblocked cell phones. That way you could identifytrack abusers.What do you think, Mr. Catoe?

Reply: This suggestion has been raised before and we (MTPD) have actively been looking into the possibility. But ultimately it is a resource issue. There are several things that have to be investigated before we can talk about bringing it on-line.

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Arlington, VA: Is there any chance of actually seeing the fabled 8car trains on the Orange Line in the morning? By the time the trains get as far as Ballston and Virginia Square they're pretty much full, and MANY'S the morning I, at Clarendon, have had to let 24 trains go by without me on them.

Reply: During the A.M. rush hour service there are approximately eight 8- car trains operating from West Falls Church and two 8-car trains out of New Carrollton. Of course, we do want and need more trains. The ultimate goal is to have 100% 8-car trains during rush hour. We really do need the public’s support on budget issues like this.

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New Carrollton, MD: Why are so many of the Maryland operators reluctant to use the keel or lower ability on the buses? When the bus is not at the curb, elderly or short passengers, especially those with packages or canes, have difficulty boarding. Yet the drivers will not voluntarily lower the bus and get upset when requested to do so. With the ice and snow it is especially dangerous, exiting the bus at the stations in the middle of the driveway.

Reply: This feature was designed to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The drivers aren't instructed to lower the bus as a matter of course, and we rely on our their discretion when using this feature.

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Crystal City, VA: Hello SirRegarding the monthly passes, you said "not likely because fares are distanced based". However you have weekly passes that are short trip and long trip. Why not offer monthly or biweekly passes that use the same principle? With technology as it is today even reloadable or programmable hard cards? For instance if riders could touch their hard cards to the screen and select 2,3,4 wks or 1 month unlim say $39 week or $160 month, I think they would. And if they had the option of adding the bus or parking?

Reply: Metro is working on upgrading the technology system so that customers can put passes on their SmarTrip cards. We will also have an autoload feature for when the pass ends. With a credit card number we will automatically reissue another pass. We hope to have this technology in place by the end of the year.

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Chantilly, VA: Where will the planned silver line from dulles airport end, at East Falls Church station or does join the orange line and continue on to DC? If it ends at East Falls Church will people have to transfer to an already full orange line cars? If it shares the track with orange line cars to DC, won't the track be more crowded by the time the cars reach Roslyn where the blue line cars comes to share the track also to DC?

Reply: The plans for the Dulles Rail Project are that the trains will join the Orange Line before East Falls Church, and then proceed to Stadium-Armory. Once the Dulles trains are operating we can reduce the number of trains going through the Rosslyn portal by re-routing some Blue Line trains straight to the system’s core via the Yellow Line bridge.

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Washington, DC: How does one join the Riders Advisory Council?

Reply: Metro's Board of Directors appoints members annually - in December of each year. Members who apply are selected to ensure that the Council is representative of the riders who use Metro's services. Metro generally does outreach each fall to solicit applications. If interested, you may fill out and application and it will be kept on file until the next appointment period. Please call the telephone number listed on the Council's website (202-962-2891) to request that an application be sent to you. Interest in joining the Council is always very high - this past fall, Metro received almost 200 applications for the nine positions that were available for appointment by Metro's Board of Directors. With such interest in joining, not everyone who applies can be appointed. However, one doesn't need to be a member of the Riders' Advisory Council to make suggestions - all of its meetings are open to the public and have a period set aside for comments from members of the public. Meeting information and materials are available through Metro's website at: http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/riders_advisory_council/ You can also email the Council at: raccomments@wmata.com.

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Vienna, VA: Dear Mr. Catoe: Im a fan of Metro, but what is going on with these maintenance car derailments?! As frustrating as other Metro delays can be, these really seem to be the toppers. Why the rash of accidents? What do they say about overall system safety? Are revenue service derailments now more likely? What are you doing to make sure such things dont happen again? Thank you.

Reply: Metro is a very safe system. Each of these incidents involved different pieces of equipment on different sections of track, so there is no trend at work here. These were unrelated, and they are being thoroughly investigated. The results of our investigations will be used to help ensure these type of incidents don’t recur. In fact, the track where the derailment occurred at the Mt Vernon Station had been already scheduled for replacement and that was done last weekend. I would point out though, that as our system gets older, we need money to maintain it, that’s why the $11.3 billion in funding for our capital improvement program through 2020 will be so important.

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washington, dc: I have two Metro checks left worth $5 each. I also have a partially used metro check. Do all of these metro checks need to be brought to the metro office and be exchanged? If so, what is given in return? Can the amounts be added to a Smart Trip card or is a metro pass being given for the total amount?

Reply: I believe you should be able to load those directly onto your SmarTrip card.

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General Manager John Catoe: That's all I have time for today.  Thanks for participating.  I know many of you are looking forward to Next Bus and that will happen in July.


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