It’s like the old saying of city government goes: if at first you don’t succeed, tax something that is succeeding.
Members of the Washington, D.C. government have suggested a way to prop up its failing Metro system while hamstringing its competitor. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently proposed a nearly 400 percent tax increase on ridesharing services, increasing the fee that users pay from 1 percent to 4.75 percent. This would increase the tax on a $10 trip from ten cents to forty-seven cents.
Local officials are proposing to use this tax increase to prop up the D.C. Metro system, run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). According to D.C. Council Member Jack Evans, “Uber and Lyft are part of the transit system here, and so they should help pay to fix Metro because they’re benefiting from Metro’s demise.”
Make no mistake: Metro is a disaster. Residents of the D.C. area have developed a sense of camaraderie around being subjected to the same delays, “single-tracking,” and fare increases for years. Chronicling WMATA’s failures has become a city tradition, with the most dedicated hashtag being known, fittingly, as “Unsuck DC Metro.” There is even a website dedicated to informing visitors whether or not the Metro is on fire — too often, visitors are met with a morose “I’m afraid so” or “unfortunately.”
The statistics bear out D.C. residents’ anti-Metro sentiment. In 2016, just 70 percent of rail trips arrived on time. After nearly two years of “SafeTrack,” WMATA’s effort to catch up on badly needed track maintenance through fare increases and track section shutdowns, D.C. residents are still waiting for improvement. A review of a 16-day shutdown of a critical juncture where three lines meet in 2016 found that the stretch still fell below acceptable conditions. For years, the tale from those responsible for its failures has been the same: WMATA claims it needs more tax and fare revenue, then fails to solve the systematic issues plaguing the transit system when it receives the funding.
As WMATA’s problems have gotten worse, D.C. residents have begun to find other ways to get around the city. Lyft and Uber filled voids when SafeTrack maintenance shut down rail service, and each business now has an important footprint on the city. Uber has nearly 2 million active riders in the D.C. area, and Lyft has begun to take a larger role in the aftermath of Uber’s recent scandals. Metro trips can cost about the same as an Uber or Lyft trip using carpool options. Local officials have legitimate fears that ridesharing could displace Metro’s ridership.
There are several problems with trying to fix Metro by taxing new transportation services. First of all, Uber and Lyft will not pay to fix Metro, Uber and Lyft riders will. According to Lyft, nearly 40 percent of Lyft rides begin or end in low-income areas. A tax increase on ridership will hit these customers especially hard. These customers will be punished for choosing to take their business elsewhere.
Yet even if the tax targeted Uber and Lyft corporate profits rather than riders, why should they pay to fix Metro? The decline of WMATA is due to its failure to provide a reliable, low-cost, non-combustible method of transportation. Uber and Lyft are successful because WMATA has failed so spectacularly in providing reliable transportation to D.C. Rather than fixing the systemic issues that have led past funding increases to fail to salvage WMATA, D.C. is planning to hit WMATA’s competitors with taxes. Would Evans feel the same way if WMATA was reducing Uber and Lyft ridership?
Rather than attempting to bring Uber and Lyft down to the level of WMATA, D.C. should seek to make the Metro a competitive alternative to Uber and Lyft. Competition is exactly what the D.C. Metro needs after years of floundering as the only transit show in town. D.C. should take the challenge, rather than trying to avoid it with yet another round of taxes on D.C. residents.