Three stories in the Washington Post show why compliance with federal information quality guidelines ought to be mandatory.
Washington DC operates the third busiest subway system in the US, according to Reuben Fischer-Baum of FiveThirtyEight. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (awkwardly acronymed WMATA) operates six color-coded subway lines. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) seeks a seventh line–the so-called Purple Line–which would connect suburban stations on the Red and Orange Lines in Montgomery and Prince George Counties, respectively.
The Purple Line is controversial mostly because every interested actor wants someone else to pay for it. Fare revenue isn’t nearly enough, and public and political support for governmental funding depends on favorable ridership forecasts.
HOW MANY RIDERS WILL THE PURPLE LINE SERVE?
The Post’s Katherine Shaver reports that the projected number of Purple Line riders recently increased a lot, but how the figures were calculated appears to be a mystery:
The state’s predictions have grown over the years — at one point, the number jumped by 45 percent — as Maryland transit planners refined regional computer models in the quest for nearly $1 billion in highly competitive federal construction funds.
But how those numbers were calculated, and how realistic they are, remains a mystery to the taxpayers who will pay for the 16-mile line linking Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. The predictions stem from highly technical and complex computer models that few transit experts say they truly understand.
Some of the only scrutiny of the ridership models beyond state and federal transit agencies came from the town of Chevy Chase, which has long fought the rail project because trains would run along its border and a popular wooded recreation trail. The town hired an engineering firm to review the state’s forecasts. However, the data files that the Maryland Transit Administration provided were indecipherable without software that the town said it couldn’t afford.
“We looked at it and couldn’t figure out what was changing to make the numbers go up,” said Harris Schechtman, a New York-based transit planner for the town’s consulting firm, Sam Schwartz Engineering. “It was a mystery to us. . . . But we had no access to the model. It raised a lot of questions that we couldn’t find answers to.”
Federal information quality guidelines require federal agencies to disseminate influential information transparently. That standard was not met in this case, but Maryland agencies are not required to comply.
There may be an exception to Maryland’s exemption, however. The Federal Transit Administration oversees the analysis of proposed federally funded mass transit projects. If the FTA relied on the MTA’s ridership analysis to make any decision (such as to produce a rating), then the FTA is required to ensure that the MTA’s ridership analysis (and all other technical information submitted by MTA on which it relies) complies with federal information quality guidelines.
ARE RIDERSHIP ANALYSES ACCURATE?
Ridership analyses are notoriously susceptible to bias. Advocates have incentives to overstate ridership; opponents to understate it. Sorting through competing estimates cannot even be attempted without full disclosure of data and methods.
One area of particular interest to metropolitan Washington is the effect on ridership of system breakdowns and maintenance. The Post’s Paul Duggan reports that, “because of massive fire damage to a subway power station,” three of the six existing Metro lines are expected to run fewer trains and operate them more slowly, both for at least six months. Inevitably, these performance decrements will lead some people to drive instead. Some will return to Metro when the repairs are complete, but others will not. Consumer demand for Metrorail is not infinitely inelastic; time is money; and people are creatures of habit, especially with respect to daily commutes.
One of the Metrorail lines affected is the new Silver Line, which serves the Dulles corridor (but not yet Dulles International Airport). To obtain federal funding, WMATA had to conduct a ridership analysis.
Martin Di Caro of WAMU reports that ridership after the first year is way below what the ridership analysis predicted:
“Based on what we know about all other stations, and the current land use and connectivity of the new Silver Line stations in Tysons [Corner], this model suggests we should be seeing nearly twice the current entries…at the four stations,” according to the study produced earlier this year when ridership had been hovering around 6,500 per weekday. That figure has improved since to … 8,000.
Granted, the substation fire that triggered the sudden delays and emergency maintenance might have been impossible to predict. But what could be predicted with certainty is that something would go wrong sometime–especially with Metro. Did WMATA’s ridership analysis take account of this?
WHO IS PAYING FOR THE PURPLE LINE?
The Post’s Josh Hicks reports that Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski has written a letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan complaining that “Republicans in Congress risk derailing plans for Maryland’s light-rail Purple Line if they don’t lift spending caps that could limit the federal money available for the project.” The spending caps she refers to are those enshrined in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (S. 365), which was enacted by an unusual coalition. The bill passed the Republican-led House 269-161 with 95 Democratic votes; it passed the Democratic-led Senate 74-26 with 28 Republican votes, and of course President Obama signed it into law.
Hicks says Hogan has not responded to Mikulski, but given Mikulski partisan framing of the question it should be no surprise that “his staff suggested that Maryland’s members of the U.S. House and Senate — nine Democrats and one Republican — need to secure the federal contribution themselves.”
“Marylanders are weary of the dysfunction in Washington and are eager to see their representatives put aside partisanship and get things done,” Hogan spokesman Matt Clark said.
Ridership forecasts matter in the battle over funding because when actual ridership comes in below predictions, others have to foot a larger bill. Accurately estimating ridership is thus key to reducing uncertainty about the likely governmental funding burden. Complying with federal information quality guidelines is the best way to ensure that ridership is estimated accurately.