WUSA9 Probe: Metro claims wrong on WMATA performance

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA9) -- A WUSA9 investigation contradicts Metrobus claims of on-time performance and identifies a data glitch making six month's of service impossible to evaluate.

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In its third-quarter summary on 2013 performance, the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) reported that the reliability of scheduled bus arrival times "improved 6%" from the same time period in the previous year.

On-time performance was miscalculation

Turns out, Metro now says that 6 percent improvement was a miscalculation.

A WUSA9 investigation shows that WMATA could not report any improvement in its bus on-time rates during that three-month period -- in fact, they can't account for bus reliability for the second half of 2013.

Whether a bus is seven minutes late or two minutes early, WMATA classifies it as not on time – something that daily riders say they deal with on a regular basis, and something that WMATA is supposed to track throughout each calendar year.

So what happened? WMATA officials declined to comment on camera, and WMATA Board Member, D.C. Councilmember and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser was unresponsive to our requests for an interview. But WMATA documents reviewed by WUSA9 show a computer glitch.

Calculations discarded

In the 2013 year-end summary that WMATA published on February 27, 2014 -- the same date it was presented to the WMATA Board of Directors -- the agency reported, "a technical issue has temporarily disabled the ability to report current on-time performance." WMATA installed new hardware and software, the documents explain, that "inadvertently discarded the calculations of trips running early, thus compromising the performance results for the latter portion of [calendar year] 2013."

But an accompanying Power Point presentation, complete with a recorded voice-over track, failed to mention this problem. Rather, board members were shown a graph that seems to indicate that WMATA's buses ran on schedule at an ever-increasing rate, all the way through 2013.

Did Councilmember Bowser and other board members pay attention?

No mention was made, or question raised, about the technical error in that board meeting. Did the board members -- like Councilmember Bowser -- even read the annual report that described the mistake? We left messages with every board member, but the only one who returned our calls was Alternate Director Tom Bulger. He said he attended the meeting but had to leave before the annual report came up on the agenda, and was unaware of the data problem until informed of it by WUSA9.

We contacted Councilmember Bowser's D.C. office repeatedly via phone calls and emails starting back in February. Bowser's Council staff told us they were trying to coordinate an interview with her campaign staff, but Bowser was never available. We tried to track her down in person, visiting her downtown office and her campaign headquarters on Tuesday, April 22, but Bowser wasn't there and never returned calls or answered emails.

Today, a spokesperson for WMATA emailed the following statement:

It is not that the earlier data is "missing," but rather that it cannot be used to accurately calculate on-time performance during the latter half of 2013.

2013 on-time performance not recoverable

The WMATA spokesperson stressed that the unusable data had no impact on NextBus, the service riders use to predict bus arrival times. They can't use NextBus data to recalculate the 2013 figures, either:

NextBus...is not the system for tracking on-time performance. We put nearly 1,000 buses on the street every day, and they each make hundreds of stops each day. So we are talking about millions and millions of data points.

When WMATA learned that we were calling board members, they issued this response from Board Chair Tom Downs on behalf of the Board.

"We are aware that staff identified a problem with data collection, has corrected it, and we look forward to getting updated data, " Downs said in the WMATA issued statement.

After that statement, Metro issued another comment clarifying that although they corrected it, the 2013 data can't be fixed.

"The software problem has been fixed and WMATA is now tracking on-time bus performance as intended, the spokesperson says, but the numbers that were "inadvertently discarded" are not recoverable.

Did bus service get better or worse at the end of last year? Metro bus riders will never know -- and neither will WMATA.


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