Lessons from a Metro Review: Can HRT Seize an Opportunity?

An independent review of the finances, management and operations of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has sparked conversation about how its recommendations could apply to Hampton Roads Transit.

The report from former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, with support from WSP, a global engineering firm, explored areas of performance that are hindering Metro from reclaiming its status as the nation’s leading transit agency.

While it praised the leadership of WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld as “the right person for the job at hand”, it also addressed the problem of Metro having no dedicated funding and a lack of capital funds that inhibit its ability to deliver appropriate transit services.

“WMATA’s infrastructure is aging and needs renewal, and the funding it receives today it not enough to get this done. Not even close,” LaHood wrote in a letter summarizing the draft report. “Mr. Wiedefeld has estimated a need for $500 million per year in new capital funds, WSP’s analysis produced a slightly higher estimate, $540 million per year…I think $500 million per year should be our target. WMATA’s problems will never be solved without this new money.”

Hampton Roads Transit is a far smaller version of its big cousin up north, but it also suffers from a similar problem: a lack of dedicated funding.

With 291 buses, a small fleet of ferries and a starter light rail line, HRT has yet to evolve into a truly regional transit system. Instead, it currently operates more like a transit contractor. It does so through annual service agreements each with six regional cities who all pay varying amounts of service using their general funds.

This results in a different level of transit service for each city and connections that are not as efficient and effective as they could be. These separate agreements with each city are referred to as Transit Service Plans. They are cobbled together to form what resembles a regional system, but it results in local bus service that is often on a one-hour service frequency – too infrequent to be truly reliable for many regional commuters.

In total, about sixty-seven percent of HRT’s local routes have 60-minute base frequency.

“I thought a lot of the issues they raised in the LaHood report were common to HRT,’’ said Ron Jordan, of Advantus Strategies. “Certainly, the dedicated funding portion. Also, because of a lack of dedicated funding, an agency like HRT is unable to leverage debt and not able to build up reserves. That business model is a real problem.”

Local funding contributions at HRT have been kept artificially low because the agency flexes federal capital grant money into its operating budget to cover preventative maintenance costs. It’s a permissible federal practice but not a great one.

HRT also operates on a zero-balance basis, resulting in annual “true-ups” with local municipalities which may cause unexpected funding demands from local governments. HRT also uses a significant line of credit to cover cash flow shortfalls, resulting in additional interest expenses.

Finally, HRT’s capital funding does not meet its asset acquisition needs. This leads to less money available to support the agency’s need for a State of Good Repair such as bus replacement. The agency’s average bus is nearly 10 years old; the Federal Transit Administration recommends an average fleet age of no more than 6.5 to 7.5 years.

Whether HRT will benefit from any expected reform at Metro is not known, but Jordan thinks there may be room for it.

“Yes, I think the conversation will extend to Hampton Roads,” Jordan said.

Critical for the agency, he added, is providing political leaders a vision of what a true regional system would look like.

“I think the Core 20 shows what it could look like, but it only gets you two thirds of the way,” Jordan said. “The added piece would be optimizing the local routes so they can also be more efficient and connect well to the core twenty.”

Kate Mattice, Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, echoed the need for dedicated funding throughout the Commonwealth.

“If you want to be successful, you have to provide the investment,” she said. “The argument for a state of good repair is that an agency cannot go for a long time and not make appropriate investments. It’s sort of like having a house and never bothering to fix the roof.’’

HRT has proposed a vision of for better regional bus service that would be built around a core set of routes that offer 15-minute during rush hours and reduced frequencies at other times of day. While still in development, this plan would need dedicated funding to execute.

To read the draft LaHood report, click here.