Column: U-Pass is great, and a working Metro system would make it even better

If you’re excited to use U-Pass to commute to Capitol Hill, party all night in Adams Morgan or root for the Nationals at Navy Yard, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority can take you there – if you’re lucky. Metro is in a transitional phase, and things are going to feel worse before they get better. With upcoming construction work on the Yellow Line and the slow return of the 7000-series cars, riders can expect infrequent and unreliable service for the foreseeable future. You can’t use your U-Pass to take the Metro when there’s no bus or train, so what needs to happen for Metro to get back on track – and for you to get the most out of U-Pass?

Students’ multi-year advocacy for U-Pass finally paid off when officials announced a “free trial” for students last fall. Officials enrolled all undergraduate students in U-Pass last spring for a $100 semesterly fee that has continued into the current school year while allowing graduate students to opt out of the program. With fares ranging from $2 to $6 depending on where and when you travel, paying $100 upfront for unlimited trips each semester is a fantastic deal. Basically, you’d have to take between eight and 25 round trips on Metrorail or Metrobus to make back the $100 U-Pass fee in a semester. Metro’s unlimited monthly passes, which cost between $64 and $192, give riders the equivalent of 32 pre-paid trips for a specific fare.

Free transit may get you into the station, but it won’t get you aboard a bus or train. U-Pass is a success story, but its success depends on Metro’s ability to take you where you want to go. In October 2021, one month before GW joined the U-Pass system, Metro pulled its 7000-series cars from operation after a train derailed outside the Arlington Cemetery station. The model accounts for about 60 percent of Metro’s fleet, so its removal scaled back operations back to double-digit wait times on every line. Metro owns 748 7000-series cars but only eight 7000-series trains are operating across the network as of Aug. 1. There are plans to run 27 additional 7000-series trains, but that depends on the agency’s ability to inspect their wheels for defects and re-certify them for service.

And starting Sept. 10 through Fall 2022, Metro will lose service in Virginia south of Reagan National Airport to destinations like Alexandria. The Yellow Line will also close completely until May 2023 as the agency prepares to build a new station and overhaul the tunnel and bridge that connects the line across the Potomac River. While the Blue and Green lines will pick up some of the slack, local and express bus services will make up for the lack of trains in Virginia. But that’s a far cry from taking a train with its own dedicated right-of-way – getting stuck in traffic or multiple transfers can discourage riders with other means of travel. And with the interconnected Blue, Orange and Silver Lines now the only way into Virginia on Metrorail, a single incident – like a trespasser last Saturday – could strand riders on either side of the river.

These projects could make riding the Metro an unattractive option, but they’re absolutely necessary to ensure operations are safe today and ideally more efficient tomorrow. Just as we ground certain planes after accidents, it would be unconscionable to allow the 7000-series cars to remain in service in the wake of their derailments. Longer headways and outdated rolling stock are far from ideal, but wait times have dropped from 20 to 30 minutes closer to 10 to 15 minutes on most lines. And it’d be nearly impossible to repair half a century’s worth of damage to the bridge and tunnel on the Yellow Line overnight – it’ll take time, but who wants to go for an unplanned swim in the Potomac River when you can just take the train?

While these improvements will make Metro better in the future, they’re sabotaging its effectiveness in the present. It’s hard to practice delayed gratification when you’re stuck in a tunnel or rush-hour traffic. If you’re willing to put up with sporadic service, delays and temporary bus transfers, you can get your money’s worth from Metro. But not everyone can, let alone should, patronize a transit network that simply isn’t the best option for every journey right now. For relatively short trips, walking, rolling, biking or scootering might be faster than a bus or train. U-Pass is a great way to get students interested in taking public transportation, but it’s up to Metro to keep them coming back.

As General Manager Randy Clarke and WMATA’s employees do their best to pull the ailing transit service back from the brink, it’s also worth exploring how you can make Metro – and U-Pass – work for you. If you commute to campus from outside Foggy Bottom or outside D.C. entirely, you’re almost guaranteed to make your $100 fee back by the end of the semester. A quick trip once or twice a week within the District will also put you on track to recoup your costs. If it’s use-it-or-lose-it when it comes to U-Pass, then it makes sense to maximize the amount of times you travel and how far you go. You can also use WMATA’s trip planner and next arrivals tools to see the best way to get where you’re going and when your train or bus will arrive or use apps like MetroHero to gain even more insights about your trip.

It’s a tricky tradeoff for GW students when it comes to U-Pass – taking Metro will save you money, but delays, transfers and ongoing maintenance will cost you your time. It’s up to you to decide which is more important.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor

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