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Metro Continues To Lose Riders, With No Quick Turnaround In Sight

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Metro's overall ridership figures have dipped to levels not seen since 2004.
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Metro's overall ridership figures have dipped to levels not seen since 2004.

Metro is bleeding paying customers so severely that its overall ridership figures have dipped to levels not seen since 2004, with Saturday ridership down a staggering 17 percent, according to documents that will be presented to the transit authority's board of directors on Thursday.

While multiple factors are contributing to the downward trend, most troubling is the fact that some people simply have quit Metro because service is poor, and a quick turnaround from chronic breakdowns and delays is not in the offing. The full complement of new railcars to replace the oldest, least reliable in the fleet will take several more years to arrive.

"In the last 12 months, all of the following have been increasing for morning [rail] commuters... median travel times, the unpredictability of travel times... and the frequency of severe delays," according to Metro's second-quarter fiscal 2016 financial report prepared for Thursday's board meeting.

From October through December 2015, total ridership (rail, bus, paratransit) dropped 5.4 percent compared to the same period in 2014.

"Weekday rail ridership declined 6.1 percent through December compared to the previous year. Rail ridership in the first six months of FY2016 dropped to levels not seen since 2004. The drop was pervasive and not linked to any particular event or weather," the report said. "But the Blue and Orange lines were particularly impacted by service disruptions due to the substation [transformer] fire and subsequent recovery efforts at Stadium-Armory."

In 2004, Metrorail averaged 667,000 trips per weekday. Ridership peaked in 2008 at 750,000 per weekday. Customers are revolting even more on weekends; the usual service disruptions caused by track work continued to have an impact.

"Excluding the one-time ridership bump associated with the Million Man March anniversary event in October, average Saturday ridership was down 17 percent," the report said.

'It was the worst part of my day'

Patrick McMahon would appear to be the kind of person who would use Metro: He's 25, doesn't own a car and used to live close to the Virginia Square station on the Orange Line.

McMahon used to ride the Orange Line to Rosslyn, then transfer to the Blue Line to Braddock Road near his office in Alexandria. The commute would take about 25 minutes.

But then the Silver Line opened, and his train started getting delayed more frequently in the resulting bottleneck at the Rosslyn tunnel. Then last fall, around the time of the pope's visit to D.C., a transformer fire wrecked a substation at Stadium-Armory, and his commute started taking an hour, even 90 minutes.

"It was the worst part of my day," said the Chevy Chase native. So he quit Metrorail in December, and moved to Alexandria so he could walk or ride a bike to work instead.

"The act of going from Point A to Point B was so bad, I said, 'I don't have to deal with this anymore,'" McMahon says. "For a lot of people, Metro can't be a reliable part of their everyday lives."

Precise figures on how many riders have quit Metro because of bad service are not available, but even the transit authority for the first time last summer conceded that it's losing riders for this reason.

Budget blues

The hemorrhaging of customers comes at a time when Metro cannot afford it. Fares revenues cover about half of the transit system's $1.8 billion operating budget. Those day-to-day operating expenses are forecast to grow considerably faster than revenues producing potential budget deficits for years to come.

However, the financial report contains some positive developments.

Labor expenses, which account for about 70 percent of the operating budget, came in lower than expected in the last quarter of 2015, and overtime expenses — a chronic problem — were only slightly over budget. Moreover, the operating budget is being kept in balance for the time being because of transfers from the capital budget to cover preventive maintenance costs.

But the overall picture is grim. Rail and bus ridership and revenue totals all missed budget projections.

Both Metro's general manager Paul Wiedefeld and board chair Jack Evans have pledged not to raise fares next fiscal year (as of July 1) to make up lost revenues.

"Raising fares just to cover budget deficits is tough to do. People generally feel they are paying too much already," said Rob Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

"It is not clear whether Metro has bottomed out yet. I think they still have some improvements to make. Once they stabilize the system, ridership will stabilize as well," said Puentes, who said Metro's problems will require regional cooperation to solve.

However, the unusual governance structure of three competing geographic jurisdictions (D.C., Virginia and Maryland) plus the federal government is an obstacle to cooperation, he said.

Metro's financial managers are recommending a hiring freeze, overtime reduction and deferral of work not related to safety initiatives. Those measures may help in the short term, but coming labor negotiations could determine if Metro will rein in long-term expenses.

The contracts for three unions — Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, Local 2 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 922 — expire June 30.

Already ATU Local 689 president Jackie Jeter has indicated that she will ask for another wage increase commensurate with the expiring contract's 11 percent increase over the past three years, and she will push back against any demands that ATU workers increase their contributions to their benefits package. Local 689 represents about 8,000 of Metro's 13,000 employees.

New Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld has declined to comment on upcoming labor negotiations.

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